Exemplification of Culture: Part I

While this is most assuredly not the first example of how we embrace every opportunity to reach and meet our students’ needs through highly personalized practices, it is the first time I am documenting them, hence the “part I” moniker in the title.

A few weeks back, we had a a family ask if we would be willing to speak with an outside professional about strategies to support their very bright son’s academic needs to help curb some behaviors that perhaps had manifest themselves out of a lack of engagement. 

Always having our students growth at the center of our daily process, we welcomed the information, which sparked a conversation around the question “what can we do to excite him and others like him in the area of literature studies?”

The question was asked less than 24 after receiving the information from the outside professional, the discussion included multiple creative academic leaders, and a plan was set in place to offer a literacy enrichment experience for a group of uber bright 5th graders who needed and wanted to be stretched with sophisticated literature and the complex strategies to study them. 

Within 2 days, the group, facilitator, schedule and reading selections were created, and one week later a group of 7 students and a guide met at 7:30 am to discuss plot, setting, irony, and culture found in Saki’s The Interlopers.

A rich discussion ensued that engaged, stretched, and excited all of us as we congregated  around the Harkness table we made of the science lab table. 

When the outside professional heard that we had made this happen so quickly, he was shocked. 

For us, it was just what we do. 

Choreography of Writing

Last week as I made my commute from the farm to school on a day that I would be teaching a writing lesson, I thought of a metaphor for teaching strategic, organized writing. 

While we still have remnants of a teaching era that spoke of formulaic writing like it was sour milk on their upper lip, we have evolved from that era all the wiser. 

Our wisdom led me to create a  metaphorical anecdote that has resonated nicely, so I thought I would share. 

Someone who is a gifted, beautiful dancer will look good dancing no matter what.  But put that dance talent to choreography and the results are awe inspiring, professional grade. 

Someone who can’t dance at all repulses the observer with the Elaine Bennis-esque movement.  Yet choreograph that person’s movement, and it can be nice. 

Providing strategies for development does the same for writers.  Beautifully gifted writers transcend their talent with  organizational choreography, while those less talented can still dance on the stage when their phrasing is well organized by the choreography of strategic development.

Further, those who are exposed to expert choreographical strategies can utilize those strategies in creating their own original compositions. Even the less innately talented can take away strategies with which they have become savvy if not expert through practice and be more beautiful in their expression.

Supporting Needs

It is a central part of the human condition to have needs that can only be addressed with outside support.  As educators, we always seek to identify what each child needs and provide that support so that each can achieve, succeed, be happy,  and share their gifts with the world.  

Whether a bright child needs support in making good social choices, or the socially savvy child needs support with handwriting, it is incumbent upon us to support the needs of all our children. 

I am often asked by young students “Mr. Rothstein, what do you do here?”   Or I have children who think I am only there when someone gets in trouble. 

I wouldn’t have left the classroom and athletic environs I loved so much for such a drab existence.  Rather, as I often explain in response, my role
is to make sure all students and teachers feel safe and comfortable so that teachers can teach and students can learn.  

Each day, we look to ensure these integral Maslowian needs.  The actionables in this important endeavor take many forms. The consistent piece is the mindset that what we are doing is what is ultimately best for our students.  

Sometimes, the pursuit of this daily objective requires difficult conversations with students, teachers, and parents.  But we rest assured that as passionate and committed educators, the outcome, the end goal is worth tackling the challenging moments with optimism. 

In doing so, we likewise model for our students the importance of conviction, of having courage to know a challenge faces us, yet we proceed with energy and confidence that fearlessly charging forward offers opportunities for meaningful results for everyone involved. 

Does everything always work out? Not remotely.  Yet the growth minded, positive, student – centered approach always yields feelings of purpose and accomplishment regardless of outcome. 

#Gibush

So the word gibush loosely means “icebreaker”, which ultimately reflects the goal of our beginning of the year 8th grade retreat.

But this group, the Davis class of 2016 (holy shnikies 2016?), needs no ax or pick, nor thoroughly developed icebreaking activities.  They are a galvanized bunch as we confirmed over those 48 hours this week.

Being a chatty crew is both a gift and a curse.  But the gift of it far outweighs the curse.  They are tightknit, friendly, comfortable and fun.  They also know how to be serious in small groups, and how to show archetypal ruach as a whole.

While the whole group dynamic reveals their spirit, fun, and energy, the small group dynamic reveals that this is a group stocked with leadership, wisdom, and passion for Judaism, scholarship, and Davis.

While some were in the lake splashing, on the ropes swinging, or flat out competing in the Gaga pit, others were expressing creativity, discussing tefilla, and brainstorming CLIMB projects.  

The chochma and kavod displayed in the tefilla and CLIMB discussions were of such powerful quality, that the adults in the room talked about capturing the moment in a bottle for later use.  The kids were fabulous. 

When asked to either purposefully or randomly select a passage from the prayer book to discuss, the depth and courage that our 2016ers showed reflected the combination of their personal maturity and the foundational values we teach, practice and celebrate every day at Davis.  When discussing their 8th grade CLIMB project topics, once again, the passion for knowledge, creative verve, and values driven process exemplified what this group, the Davis class of 2016 is all about. 

The highlight for me, beyond the above mentioned moments was the campfire singing and dancing.  58 friends, led by Rabbi Micah and his guitar, accompanied by their teachers, danced, sang, hugged, high fived, fist pumped and laughed around the fire with such blind immersion into the moment that they were not aware of the iconic experience they were creating. Fortunately, I was able to capture a brief one minute video to share with them later.  Again, this is a tight knit group whose energy is infectious. 

When I arrived home after the retreat I found myself both exhausted and invigorated.  This group-their energy, their fun, their curiosity, their wisdom, their love of their kehilla- has our excitement for the year at a high level.

Liberated Integration

Like a seed in a hotbed of tropic intensity, the idea of integrated units of study have been germinating in our building. Last spring we decided that we would dive into a commitment to develop our first iteration of grade level integrated units this winter.

Utilizing what would be identified as design thinking strategies, we began meeting as grade levels to grow these projects.

The evolution from end of the year meetings (with fatigued and perhaps creativity – sapped teachers), to August meetings with rejuvenated creativity – rich teachers was inspiring.

In those August meetings, we explored the next steps of the process with 6-8 grade teams in that order. We framed the meetings with a few important philosophical nuggets:

1. This is the first iteration. It can and will be great because of the people in this room. They will be flawed and have areas for great improvement. Get excited but be okay when it gets messy!

2. All about (growth) mindset! When we roll out with the kids, if the teachers get excited and bring the passion, the kids will respond to that stimulus.

3. Model the collaborative spirit we want our kids to learn.

4. Model the resilience and creativity we want our kids to develop.

5. Have fun.

At that point we talked about length, timing, themes, launch, and integration strategies.

The 6th grade meeting started where the spring meeting left off considering a novel as the basis. But upon deciding on a week long process, that lost steam, so we shifted to the story, Through the Tunnel, that has tremendous potential for integration, and that is likewise grounded in our core values as a school. In an instance the meeting became one of the most passionate, creative, intellectual collaborations in my 20 years in independent school education. Sitting back and listening to the talented group learn and build their vision together had us feeling tremendous optimism.

At the same time, we knew lightning would never strike twice as we moved on to the 7th grade meeting.

We were wrong. With the same framing, we had a different group of people in the room who directed their own process leading to the core being the movie Life is Beautiful. A thematic unit revolving around looking at different disciplines through different lenses and from various perspectives is a perfect fit for this group of deep- thinking, intellectual, learning- journey guides.

Unfortunately, we were certain that 8th grade wouldn’t find the same spark 6th and 7th found. Sparks that had the bunch of us walking around in a stunned euphoria at what had transpired in those gatherings.

Again, we were happily proven wrong as this team went in a different direction entirely, basing their unit on the simple questions What is valuable and what is value?

So while we all agreed on a thematic unit in winter based on some core element with planned launch activities and a liberated mindset, we now stand on the precipice of our first iteration.

There have been other steps in the interim, some lukewarm conversations at times when teachers were too focused on the present to think about a project 3 months away, some logistical tweaks and twiddles to bring vision as close to manifestation as possible, and some hiccups and ahas that will most certainly make the experience more meaningful for students and teachers, alike.

After this first pass, we will do what we always do.

We will celebrate

We will reflect

We will seek feedback

We will revise

We will make it better for the next iteration

In essence, we will be the learners we want our students to be, and model the processes of learning we want them to embrace and emulate.

A Typical Friday

As I walked the halls past our youngest classrooms enroute to get the kids and head home, I briefly started my daily reflection on the days events.  It was a fairly normal Friday for me, but it occurred to me that fairly normal at Davis is likely unique at most schools. 

At most lower schools, having over 500 students, teachers, administrators, and parents all together as a community in a room, singing, sharing spiritual moments, and a guest storyteller with a guitar, would be a unique community event.  While uniquely special every time we gather, we do this every Friday morning.  Our kehilla (community) shares its collective ruach (spirit) with such genuine passion.

I then traveled to our middle school and enjoyed a similar, but adolescent age appropriate gathering where our ensemble led us in song, our teachers performed, and again we shared prayer, stories and anecdotes reflecting our values as a community. 

Following our weekly Kabbalat Shabbat, our Athletic Director took the opportunity to speak with our fall athletic teams to congratulate them on a terrific start to the season (4-1 overall on day one of the season), and to celebrate the importance of  sportsmanship and respect in competition.   This was not a planned assembly, but an opportunity we found to celebrate and teach our students.  The Kavod (respect) we inspire in our student athletes exemplifies our commitment to our values. 

While classes were in session, not all the learning was happening in classrooms.  In the middle school, our 6th graders were on a quest throughout the building using iPads to capture on video or in stills images that exemplify the multitude of prepositions in the English language.  Led by their lead pirate, @SteinatDavis who was attired in full regalia, their learning was authentic and unique.  But our buildings might as well be pirate ships, because this sort of learning happens daily.

Soonafter, I had one of my favorite impromptu conversations with one of our teachers about how he can better share his passion for talmud with his students.  While his energy and love of the content is immeasurable, and the mutual affection between him and his students unwavering- he seeks a deeper connection and experience for himself and his students.  An exemplar of what it means to teach at Davis.

Our teachers and students’ passion for chochma (wisdom) exemplifies who we are as a community of learners.

When I returned to the lower school, I happened past a classroom where a number of teachers were having lunch.  Laughing, sharing, enjoying each others company- surely they planned this meal together.  No- just another example of the beautiful chemistry of our community.  And while plans for the weekend after a week of back to school night events were part of the conversation, these educators spoke as enthusiastically about their love of the students and excitement for the learning that occurred during the week. 

Inarticlable energy in the classroom, fabulous collaboration and cooperation among teachers, administrators, and parents, creative learning experiences in the classroom and out, and a warm community feeling highlighted this day.  Everyone in our community is committed to the important Tzedek (righteous service) that is unifying a community and educating our children.

Today wasn’t the exception, but rather the norm at Davis. Nevertheless, each day feels like a special celebration of who we are as a community. 

Lenses of Discipline

A few years back, I spoke to a new group of middle schoolers on the first day of school and shared with them a message about discipline.

 I remember walking into the room with a seriousness in my gait, and a purpose on my countenance.   I announced to the group of adolescence with great drama that I was there to “Talk about Discipline”. It was my intention to show a theatrical sterness in large part to demystify my perceived role as disciplinarian.

As I garnered their collective attention, I proceeded to talk about the different meanings of the word discipline, depending on purpose.

We started with the one they expected that I was there to discuss- the verb.  The action of disciplining someone for a behavior that is not acceptable.   Of course, I only touched on this one briefly as I was there to inject optimism and excitement for the year, not to lecture on behavior.

Next I defined discipline as a noun- as in the various disciplines they would learn about, study, create for- and hopefully develop a passion for during their year. I allowed for many questions and comments about this form of the word.

Next, we discussed how it takes discipline to become an expert in a discipline. Both a nice epiphany and apropos segue into my central message.

Finally, we made the connection between the first two, and discussed the intangible of personal discipline. That we all have the ability to be disciplined in a way that we can channel energy, passion, and efforts in a focused process for the benefit of learning and growing represented a novel and compelling understanding of this word that had previously primarily conveyed a negative connotation.

Growth requires passion, effort, ability, and opportunity – no doubt. But ultimately, those who can add an unwavering discipline to the list stand the best chance of achieving and exceeding.