Welcome to the Kehillah Collective!
The important reminder that “It’s not about you!” applies to Judaism as much as it does any one person. At its best, Judaism is about so much more than itself.
As with all other world religions and wisdom traditions, the ‘why?’ of Judaism is the redemption of humanity. This was the message Abraham received when he heard the divine injunction to be a blessing to all people (Gen. 12:3). In contemporary American-Jewish parlance, this has come to be known as Tikkun Olam – repairing the world.
What role can a school play in achieving this lofty goal?
First and foremost, a school must be a place that cultivates a sense of wonder at the mere fact of existence. This can be achieved through a shared encounter with the great sources of human wisdom, whether they are in the humanities, the sciences, the arts, or any other discipline.
Consider this: The average life expectancy of a citizen of the world today is 71 years (in the United States, it is 79 years). If we are fortunate enough to last even that long, we will have but the narrowest of windows through which to peer out onto a universe that has been churning now for 13.7 billion years. Consideration of this fact alone should cause us to offer thanks at each breath, at each step, at each sensory experience of existence with which we are graced.
Moreover, anyone who has taken a moment to look at the night sky, gaze at a flower, watch children as they play, or simply pause to experience an in-breath, has sensed the wonder of existence. At that moment, we are not only enraptured by the miracle of our own being, but by the existence of it all.
Once we feel a sense of gratitude for having the majestic opportunity to linger here, even for a short while, we then recognize our obligation and responsibility to share that gift with others. And to do that, we must do what we can to help create a more just and compassionate society. And schools are uniquely positioned to achieve this goal.
The responsibility that we all share to repair the world – Tikkun Olam – means that we must exert ourselves in the service of others, now and in the future, so that they, too, might sense the wonder of their own existence as we have, and then feel the pull to do the same for others.
Despite the seemingly irreparable divisions among human beings, I remain, as Abraham Joshua Heschel once said, “an optimist against my better judgment.” Kehillah’s Four Commitments create an environment where our students can cultivate the awareness to unite in common cause to bring blessings to all people. As we say in Our Story, Kehillah students “graduate with the knowledge, values, and community that enable them to create extraordinary futures.” For themselves, and for others. This is our obligation. This is our opportunity. Nothing less would be acceptable.
It was in 7th grade history that we learned about World War II. The Holocaust was mentioned as a quick aside somewhere between D-Day and Hiroshima. There was no explanation of who or why or how the Holocaust happened. I had grown up with people who had numbers tattooed on their arms, so the lack of attention was appalling to me. It was then that I determined that I would work in Holocaust education.
Over the past many years, I have written a half-dozen Holocaust class curricula for middle and high school age students. I wrote my undergraduate thesis about Jewish medical ethics during the Holocaust, worked with groups to determine the next steps in Holocaust studies, and represented the Jewish community in work to prevent other genocides. I was honored this past summer to collaborate with the Galicia Jewish Museum in Krakow, Poland to develop an exhibit on Rywka’s Diary. I developed educational essays to explain Jewish practice and belief to mostly non-Jewish museum-goers, provide insight into an adolescent girl’s mind, and offer questions for viewers to seek personal meaning and motivation in Rywka’s writings. In each of these endeavors, it has been critical to me to both teach the past and to address the forces that could prevent other genocides.
Effective Holocaust education confronts the unfathomable enormity of Six Million with individual stories from which we find personal resonance. It is in the modeling and lessons of a single person’s life that we gain inspiration and meaning. It is key to tell the stories of all those who were involved: the targeted peoples, those who allowed Nazism to strangle Germany, and those who perpetrated the crimes. In the early years of Holocaust education, it was argued that the Nazis were evil and their humanity had been lost. Victor Frankl taught, “Man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those chambers upright, with the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips.” A risk in teaching the Holocaust is removing human nature, personal motivations, and individual identity from those we study. Humans created a Final Solution. Humans also can create its remedy.
In teaching the Holocaust today, I encourage my students to place themselves in the circumstances of the era to see what would have challenged, frightened, motivated, and inspired them. We focus on a few concepts in detail: propaganda, resistance, and forgiveness. Propaganda addresses the necessity to think for oneself, avoid social pressures in decision making, and question preconceived notions – all critical elements in avoiding group-think and group-action. Resistance has generally been understood as armed resistance against the German military. It also represents the act of maintaining dignity, creativity, and compassion while under incredible pressure to do otherwise. Students encounter it through diary entries, musical scores, short stories, and countless other civilized acts. Finally, we address what is required to forgive and who it best serves. Students explore what acts of repentance or contrition might matter. It is here that students always raise the roles of personal and societal responsibility to prevent future genocides. We seek to identify how a person can be twisted to no longer see the humanity in another, and we find the human spark that can act against such destruction.
Shining light into darkness
Seasonal changes, especially those related to the decrease in hours of sunlight that are experienced during the winter months, can have a notable impact on one’s mood and energy.
The light that is given off by Chanukah candles during this darkest time of the year has reminded me of the transformative ‘light’ that we are all able to ‘shine’ upon our lives by directing compassionate awareness to areas of our day-to-day experience that we might have previously ignored, or were too busy to attend to at the time. A positive psychologist out of the UK, named Dr. Itai Ivtzan, coined the term “awareness is freedom”, and upon reflection, I have found this concept to be a rather powerful and helpful framework to consider and apply to one’s daily experience.
Without awareness, Dr. Ivtzan asserts that we can become vulnerable to missing many of the rich and transformational connections and moments that life has to offer. Without a mindful connection to the moment, our schedules, commitments, and pressures can dominate our experience of life, forcing us to hustle from one event or crises to the next.
Through the process of bringing compassionate awareness to our daily experiences, can we bring more intention, care, and patience to members of our family or community? Can we develop the insight to act with compassion in our engagement with others even though we are experiencing frustration and anger? During times of intense stress, can we shine the light of awareness onto our direct experience to create a pause in our reactions to our environment, and seek our wellness and self-care practices to regain balance?
With these words, I would encourage you all to find time to reflect upon and consider areas of your day to day lives that can be transformed by the power of awareness and compassionate attention to one’s experience in the world.
When I received the opportunity to travel to Oxford, England and study for three weeks with brilliant minds in an even more brilliant locale through the English Speaking Union’s “Teachers Learning Abroad” program, I clung to it with all of my strength. This would be a renewal, I thought, a chance to rediscover what brought me to love literature in the first place. This would be a chance to walk in the footsteps of the authors I teach– William Golding, Oscar Wilde, Jane Austen, William Shakespeare– and reimmerse myself in the world of study, literary inquiry, and scholarly writing. What ended up happening from this adventure, however, was that my foray into being a wanderer along the terrain of literature emboldened me both as a learner and as a teacher.
I should admit that this was not my first time in Oxford; during my junior year of college, I completed a semester abroad at Hertford College, just down the street from Exeter, our home this summer. Oxford kindled something fierce in me, something that resurfaced as soon as I exited the bus onto the High Street on July 2nd. Retreading Oxford’s cobblestoned streets provided me with the chance to remember the pursuit of literary excavation I once undertook and to satiate needs I did not even know I still had. It also provided me with endless photographs and stories that I intend to bring into the classroom—pictures of an apothecary’s garden, for instance, from the Botanic Gardens, which will help clarify the character of Friar Laurence in Romeo and Juliet, or the experience of viewing Shakespeare’s First Folio and investigating its differences from the plays we read in my classes. (For instance, in the First Folio, the famous Prologue to Romeo and Juliet is nowhere to be found!)
In addition to the place itself, the TLab program engendered in me a chance to collaborate deeply and meaningfully with passionate thinkers from across the globe. My favorite part of the program was the daily lectures from pillars of the Oxford intellectual community. I sat rapt in the audience as Dr. Emma Smith provided me with brilliant answers to my students’ oft-asked questions about Shakespeare’s authorship. I could have wept in gratitude when Dr. David Grylls stayed afterward with a small group of us to answer questions and recite Tennyson’s “In Memoriam A.H.H.” from memory. Toward the end of my time in Oxford, Dr. Sandie Byrne led me through a close-reading of some of the best poetry of the last forty years, reigniting both my love of in-depth text study and the poetry of Seamus Heaney. All teachers know that passion is contagious: our students mimic the energy we present to them, and our interest can make or break theirs. The opportunity to be reminded of this through my own experiences was invaluable. Additionally, I experienced the corollary to this immediate fascination through lectures on metaphysical poetry, the history of literary indeces, or James Joyce’s Ulysses, and Ilearned that sometimes the best experiences are gleaned through deliberate engagement and embracing discomfort rather than simple enjoyment. I have shared these experiences with my students this year, especially my 9th graders: not every book will be something they love, but everything has kernals that they can tease out and appreciate through deeper, more complicated investigation.
My seminar classes provided me with other opportunities to learn from the experts, as well as from my peers. My Jane Austen course was taught by Dr. Freya Johnson, an in-demand Austen scholar who recently edited Austen’s Teenage Writings and was in the midst of a lecture tour but somehow found the time to learn alongside twelve amateur Austenites. It was clear that a love for the woman we affectionately called “Jane” pervaded the room, yet we still challenged each other to contextualize Austen’s language, interrogate her word choice, and synthesize together Austen’s texts in order to observe the evolution of her style. We all had our favorites– mine is Mansfield Park, which I love for its oddness and interiority– but still listened just as readily as others presented their cases one by one. The process of writing an essay for this class, simply put, changed my life. Freya’s faith in my ideas and their expression also served as a much needed vote of confidence for me, and I was reminded once again of how vital a teacher’s encouragement and constructive criticism can be. My contemporary literature seminar yielded many of the same experiences, albeit with a dash of ambiguity and a touch of the postmodern. Both seminars led me to rediscover myself as a writer, and I have challenged myself to share this more vulnerable side of myself with my students as they go through their own writing processes. Writing is complex and messy—and my AP Language and Composition students have now seen my notebooks from this summer, so they have witnessed the deliberate mess at work.
I know that this description of Oxford sounds idealized, and I have not even related in full the friendships I formed, the travels I undertook, the sites I viewed, or the many cups of tea I drank accompanied by a good book or a provocative conversation. Nor have I described the shock at finding out in my final days in Oxford that I had been living in J.R.R. Tolkien’s former dorm room for the entire time. My experience in Oxford sounds ideal because it was ideal, and most importantly, it was exactly what I needed in order to remind myself of everything I love about the worlds of literature and education.
This academic year, the Science and Engineering staff have placed a greater emphasis on experiential and project-based learning across the spectrum of courses. This article provides a brief overview of some events and activities that have been completed and a preview of activities in the near future.
Freshman classes in Biology have gained skills with a range of science equipment including microscopes, as well as following protocols to extract and precipitate DNA. Groups have worked on standard enzyme laboratory exercises and designed their own experiments examining factors that influence enzyme-catalyzed reactions.
Astronomy elective students began the year with viewing the solar eclipse and followed by a search for sunspots using a Folded-Keplerian telescope. In October, Brian Day NASA astronomer, gave an introductory presentation on Astronomy including an overview of future Mars exploration projects. Students have been invited to visit NASA’s research facilities at AMES in Mountain View, where they will learn more about the work done at the center. Our students have been selected by NASA as beta testers for the new online mapping modeling portal for Mars’s moon, Phobos. The portal will be used to support site selection and analysis of the upcoming Moons of Mars Explorer Mission. Our students will be able to use measuring tools to determine the diameter of craters, elevation of hills, use different layers to see images of various orbiters on the landscape. They will explore the moon from different perspectives and will also be able to 3D print a specific region of their interest.
In June 2018, Ms. Maria Vicenty will be certified by NASA in the Apollo Lunar Rock Program, which will allow her to bring moon rocks brought to Earth by the Apollo missions to school for the students to explore.
Biotechnology students have been gaining skills with bacterial cultures and Gel Electrophoresis and will be applying their knowledge early in 2018 with their proposals and submission to the Genes in Space Competition. This program is open to all 7th-12th grade students, to create novel research proposals that would necessitate the use of PCR (a technique that allows researchers to multiply the amount of DNA they extract from a sample) on the international space station. Finalists attend a summer program where they work with MIT professors to fine-tune their proposals. The winning proposal gets performed on the International Space Station and the author(s) get to attend the shuttle launch.
For our AP Biology elective, the group will work with the AMGEN labs collaboration: the students will obtain the materials needed from AMGEN labs to perform the restriction enzymes and bacterial transformation experiments prescribed by the College Board.
The Lab for Engineering and Arts was buzzing with activities this semester. Students from the engineering course worked on their Arduino based projects. The students selected their own projects, which included a line-following robot, Theremin, addressable LED signage, a safe operated by keycard, motors for a vending machine, and a binary clock. The students managed the projects with time-table and milestones. Student gained skills in software, electronics, and mechanical design concepts, as well as the need to make tradeoffs and work collaboratively in a group. A special favorite was the 3D printer, used to print various accessories needed for the projects. All projects were successfully completed and demonstrated to a supporting crowd on Decmeber 6.
In addition to the engineering course, students are welcome to be creative in the lab and implement technological marvels. The lab has also been frequented by students from other classes using 3D printing, repairing the 3D printers, building a Google Voice kit, tinkering, and experimenting.
In AP Computer Science, the students have been challenged with practical problems that introduce them to the fields of Machine Learning and Algorithms development. This included trying to win a battleship game against the computer. For this project, the students were asked to develop and program a winning strategy. The ability to check their progress at any moment is invaluable and gave immediate feedback on the strategy planned.
Students have engaged with Project Euler in an after-school club, solving interesting math problems with code. A number of students have also been active with the Google Code-in competition. This month-long competition let the students contribute to open-source projects. It is a perfect fit for our curriculum, which emphasizes real-world tools that allow for collaboration in the public and professional software world.
In the spring, we have a course from the Jewish Studies department working in the lab to study Jewish law and technology in a hands-on way. Biology students will be engaged in Hydroponics Project Based Learning in collaboration with Mr. Daniel Kelley. Students will be comparing different planting methods hydroponics, indoor seed trays and garden boxes to compare aspects of productivity, using their own data, and creating blogs to share their findings with authentic audiences.
The move from middle school to high school can be especially daunting. Out of a desire to smooth that transition, in summer of 2017, Kehillah launched its first summer high school preparation program for new 9th grade and transfer students. The program’s primary goal was to ease the transition into high school by exposing the students to a sampling of academic and socio-emotional experiences guided by the faculty and staff.
The teaching staff brought a combined 100 years of teaching experience and developed a week-long program that exposed 20 new Kehillah students to critical thinking, reasoning, mathematics, and metacognition. Ms. MacQuinn and Ms. Woodham led the students through a sneak peak of their assigned novel, The Lord of the Flies. The students practiced developing personal narratives, expanding on their thesis statements and using figurative language in various creative writing exercises, as well writing short stories. Dr. Wolf and Ms. Paley led metacognitive and learning strategies modules where students developed their own Thrive Guide, a list of plans for success derived from an inventory of their strengths and challenges. The students learned “How To Make Their Math Teacher Happy,” a lesson about presenting problems in an orderly and logical manner taught by our Director of Engineering, Mr. Daniel Kelley. They also practiced coding using the school’s laptop computers.
Summer Prep was a week focused on creating ease at all levels. Students began new friendships and learned how to listen and communicate with each other in a manner that is true to our Four Commitments. By the end of the week, students felt more comfortable. Jasper Woods remarked, “I was feeling more acquainted with the subject matter and tools I’d be using but even more with the people who would be joining me at Kehillah.” They were introduced to the various resources that are available to them at Kehillah, met with Rabbi Kleinberg, Principal Patti Carbery, and Student Life Director, Ms. Canfield-Dafilou, and learned to advocate for their own needs. While each student had ideas about their talents on Day 1 of the program, by Day 5, every student took risks to uncover hidden talents and shared them with their new community. Isaac Heintz was enthusiastic; “I felt more at home and was eager to start the school year.” The week closed with the Community Web activity.
As the end of the first semester draws near, we’ve observed our pioneer cohort of new students to be engaged, empowered, and resilient. They have faced Kehillah’s academic program with confidence and commitment. The time spent by teachers and students building trust and understanding created a solid foundation that allowed for genuine engagement and overall joyful learning experiences. We look forward to Summer Prep 2018 and encourage members of the class of 2022 to join us for a week of fun and learning.
“Great teachers are not born great, they work at it every day.”–Douglas Fisher
Kehillah is a school that values growth. We have the privilege of watching our students work through challenges and grow into stronger learners from their ninth grade year to graduation. As teachers, we are trained to recognize where each individual student starts, and where they aspire to be. We identify their areas of strength and areas in need of growth throughout the school year and work to provide meaningful feedback that fosters an evolution toward strong skill development and deep, critical thinking. This intention of a constantly evolving learner does not rest solely in the realm of the student at our school. While our teachers are experts in their content and are practiced professionals, as with our students, we value the idea that the work of a learner is never done and we continually seek to improve our practice.
Every year, our teachers participate in the PGP (Professional Growth Plan) process. Every single person who is in a classroom completes this process, even if they only teach one class. The process begins with a self-reflection on “characteristics of excellence” that were created by a committee composed of Kehillah teachers and administration. We complete this self-reflection every year because every year is different. Sometimes we have brand new classes and we always have a new group of students. The self-reflection step is where teachers gauge not only where they are in their teaching but also apply their current context to their goals for the year. After completing the self-reflection, the teacher has a face-to-face meeting with their dean and myself as the Director of Teaching and Learning (DTL) to discuss their thoughts on the self-reflection and to start to formulate a goal. In order to ensure we are making strong goals, we use the SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Timely) protocol. Following the meeting, the teacher is given some processing time in order to formulate their SMART goal and an action plan that will help guide the implementation of their goal in their classes. The action plan also informs the dean and the DTL of the supports the teacher will need when working toward their goal. All teachers receive both formal and informal observations throughout the year, but the timing of these observations and opportunities for feedback can now be tied to specific moments based on the teacher’s action plan. For example, if a teacher is working on the goal of increasing student participation and ownership in class, the dean or the DTL may observe a class where there is a student-led discussion to give feedback to the teacher on how the students are interacting with the structures the teacher put in place in order for the students take the reins. Growth goal topics from this year’s PGPs have included: student self-assessment, teacher feedback on student work, project-based learning, differentiation/individualized learning, mindfulness, and classroom management.
Kehillah’s PGP system aims to empower the teacher to choose an area of growth that is relevant to their current classroom needs, fit their current level of experience as a teacher, and address areas of passion that they want to explore in their pedagogy. As a member of the teacher support team, it has been an absolute honor to be a part of every single PGP meeting. The deans are incredible supports to their faculty and cultivate strong departmental teams. The conversations in my office have been passionate and full of joy as we discussed awesome ideas with each teacher. As a parent, you may hear your student mentioning that they tried something new in class or that there was an observer in the back of the room. When you hear those comments, you can now smile and respond, “that is your teacher learning, and just like you do, they learn every day.”