Thoughts on Teaching and Learning

One of the many blessings of being the rabbi at The Davis Academy is that I’m afforded daily opportunities to reflect on the most basic components of education: teaching and learning. Here are a few gleanings from my day (in no particular order).

  1. True learning is, by necessity, transformational. If we’re truly learning then our future self will, by necessity, differ from the person we are today.
  2. Classroom learning is most impactful and exciting when students are able to connect their learning to real life.
  3. Two people can look at the exact same thing and see completely different things.
  4. In all great classrooms there are multiple lessons being taught at the same time.
  5. You can’t bake bread without flour.
  6. Growth is wonderful, healthy, necessary, and beautiful. And sometimes it’s also painful.
  7. Teaching in the absence of learning is not an absurdity, but rather an impossibility.
  8. We all connect to passion and do our best when our motivation is sincere and compelling.
  9. It only takes a moment or two to know when you’re in the presence of a master educator.
  10. The sound of deep learning is as glorious as any symphony and in many respects more redemptive.
  11. Thoughtful, respectful, and authentic dialogue and conversation are cornerstones of teaching and learning.
  12. Children have many teachers and are constantly learning.
  13. Reflection is that set of activities, skills, dispositions, and capacities that allows any learner to become his or her own teacher.
  14. Teaching and learning are not only about imparting knowledge, but also about helping one another to encounter the wisdom within.

It was a great day! So was yesterday. And I’ve got a pretty good feeling about tomorrow! Educator friends: what did y’all reflect on about teaching and learning today?

Thou Shalt Create

This week I’ve been making the case to 5th graders that creativity is the one of (if not THE) most important characteristic of the Jewish people. Were it not for remarkable and visionary creativity I truly believe that the Jewish people would’ve ceased to exist long ago. What’s been most inspiring is their response. They have responded to this idea with tremendous enthusiasm and creativity.

Rather than simply lecturing on the creative spark within Judaism, we’ve been working collaboratively to think creatively about challenges and opportunities facing the Jewish world today. In the course of a 50 minute class period they have demonstrated, consistently, the radical creativity necessary to ensure a vibrant Jewish future.

Working in teams, the students have followed a protocol very loosely based on design thinking. They’ve come up with initiatives, organizations, projects, and websites designed to address challenges and opportunities that exist in the Jewish world today. And their ideas have been truly inspiring. So inspiring that I’ll leave you guessing and encourage you to undertake a similar thought experiment with the young people in your community.

I told the 5th graders that there are many individuals in the Jewish community today that have tremendous capacity and desire to support creative projects that will strengthen the Jewish future. I believe it’s only a matter of time before such an individual finds their appetite whetted by one of the creative ideas my students quickly identified today.

Reflections on Robert Hunter

Tonight I saw Robert Hunter perform at a small venue, City Winery, in New York City. If you open the liner notes to any classic Grateful Dead album you’ll see that many tunes were co-written by Robert Hunter and Jerry Garcia. I think it’s fair to say that without Robert Hunter there would be no Grateful Dead. But even more to the point– without Robert Hunter there’d be no Robert Hunter. I, along with countless others, think of Robert Hunter as a poet laureate of the universe and of the soul. Here are some reflections…

1. We are all family. To get to the venue I had to cross through Greenwich Village. Along the way I saw a nanny pushing a stroller. In the stroller was a toddler. The toddler was kicking and screaming, “I want mommy to push me, not you.” Mommy wasn’t there. Outside the venue I met a man who’d brought his daughter, Jubilee, to the show. Jubilee’s name comes from one of Hunter’s most beloved tunes– Sugaree. I went to the venue alone and was seated at a table with another single party. He and I struck up a conversation. It turns out that he’ll be in Atlanta for this first time this weekend. Now he knows where to eat! As we all sang some of Hunter’s most sacred music– Ramble on Rose, Ripple, Brokedown Palace, Ship of Fools, Friend of the Devil and others– we sang not quite “in harmony” but definitely “in family.” On the way uptown after the show I ended up chatting with a group of guys who are doing an American History fellowship program at Columbia. It seemed like they were old friends, but they’d all just met that week. I inserted myself into the conversation. When people boarded the train I’m sure they had no idea that three days ago we were all strangers and that I’d been a stranger only minutes ago.

2. If it’s not broke don’t fix it. Hunter mentioned that he hadn’t changed the strings on his guitar in more than a decade. Truth be told, he’s not much of a guitarist. He forgets chords, loses the rhythm and has other idiosyncrasies. There’s an ongoing debate about human beings. We’re all broken in some way, shape, or form. The debate is about whether we need fixing and who can or cannot be the fixer. Stumbling through his music with him is perhaps the most meaningful part of being in concert with Robert Hunter. After all, if he knew the way, then he’d take us home.

3. It’s not the march, it’s the movement. A Vietnam veteran said this to me recently and, like a good Hunter lyric, it’s stuck with me. Tonight’s concert speaks to a movement. It speaks to a group of people that have met one another in the place where, ideally, pretense ends and humanity soars. Hunter’s words have inspired countless people to think about the poetry of our own hearts. A community based on such a powerful and yet undogmatic legacy is something really special.

4. Great art is timeless. Great art can also be timely. But the great art of Robert Hunter is timeless. Listening to some of his music it’s impossible to determine whether it was written in the 1970’s or the 1770’s. His words inspire hope without being sanguine, they inspire love without being sappy, they inspire belief without being religious, and they are endlessly generous.

If you’re not turned on to Robert Hunter it might be a hard sell at this point. But tonight is a night I’ll never forget and I had to share it here so that I can revisit it in the future.

Here’s Robert Hunter singing most of “Ripple.”

 

 

Why I’m Fasting Today

Today many Jews and Muslims are fasting. We are fasting because our calendars tell us to. But some of us are also fasting so we can think deeply about peace/Shalom/Salaam. For that reason many of us feel that our fasts are linked and many other people of diverse backgrounds are joining us. I don’t usually observe minor fast days but today I am. I want to think about Shalom. And I want to be hungry while I think about it.

A number of years ago I wrote a song that was eventually recorded on The Davis Academy’s first CD of original Jewish music: Be a Blessing. The song is called “Seek Peace.” It’s based on a passage from Psalms that teaches, “Seek peace and pursue it.” It’s a song about the simplicity of peace, about the endless ways we can think about and achieve peace, and the ever flowing river of metaphors we might use to speak about peace.

The song is sung by kids. Their voices remind me that, from the perspective of a child, peace is the simplest thing in the world. If you’re looking for something to do as you fast or as you don’t fast, I invite you to listen to this song. I hope it makes you happy and hopeful.

DISCLAIMER: Everything that follows below is going to feel like a sales pitch. That’s not my intention and I’m sorry if it comes across that way. I simply believe in this song and in the power of music to effect change.

Here’s a YouTube video from The Davis Academy’s 2013 Israel trip. In it you’ll hear kids singing along with the album. It’s shaky but fun, especially if you were there! Unfortunately someone decided to give it a “thumbs down” on YouTube. In the scope of the universe it doesn’t matter much but I generally only exert energy for giving things a “thumbs up.”

 

 

The song, along with the whole album, are available for free download here. I’ve also got lyrics and musical notation for anyone that loves singing about peace and wants to add this song to their repertoire.

 

Fixing a Hole

Rosh Hashanah came two days after Labor Day. On Labor Day we hosted a little get together. Our little get together coincided with a massive plumbing problem. Pregnant wife, potty-training 2 year old, company, holidays, no flushing toilets– unsustainable.

Fortunately I’d already had a few plumbers come give quotes to fix the problem and I called the one that I thought could get the job done. So today, amidst all the Rosh Hashanah preparations that take place in a two-rabbi household we also had a tractor in our front yard along with an 8 foot deep hole. And then there were Darrell and Cody– fixing the hole.

I came home from work to find Darrell and Cody up to their necks in the hole. I was carrying my shofar, it being Erev Rosh Hashanah. First Darrell tried to pull one on me by telling me he was going to have to rip up my entire driveway. Then I asked Cody about his awesome tattoo– a Gibson guitar with a dove. It was an homage to his grandfather who taught him to play on a Gibson– a Gibson Dove. Then Cody asked me about my shofar. I explained and then gave it a blow– rabbis can’t resist teachable moments. At that point Darrell chimed in that his grandmother had a hollowed out bull’s horn that she used to call in the boys from the farm. Between Cody’s Gibson (I’ve got a Gibson as well) and Darrell’s grandmother’s shofar, I know we all were thinking how much we have in common even though our paths would’ve never crossed if they weren’t there to fix my sewer line. I think I made a comment to Darrell along the lines of, “If you go far enough back all that stuff is connected” by which I meant his grandmother, Cody’s grandfather and all our ancestry. All this with Cody and Darrell down in the hole.

Eventually I went inside and greeted my wife, who thought that my shofar demo was just about the funniest thing she’d ever heard. We had a good laugh. Then I accidentally flushed the toilet, flooding the hole in which Cody and Darrell were standing. It’s a good thing Yom Kippur is coming up because I feel pretty bad about that.

Later that evening I made my way to Emory to lead the Reform High Holy Day Services. Before “Shalom Rav,” the evening prayer for peace, I took a moment to reflect on the horrible war in Syria and also told the story of the common humanity I’d found between me, Cody, and Darrell. I also took a moment to dwell on the idea of “roots.” Roots are important– they’re what ground us and make us feel connected to community, faith, tradition and so on. But roots can also cause problems. Cody and Darrell entered my life to remove a root that was clogging my sewer line. Part of the trouble we face as a species has to do with roots. Take Syria– how can we ever get to the root of the conflict there? Short of pulling up the rotting and dangerous roots, how can we ever expect to see meaningful peace, or at least an end to the senseless killing?

Judaism takes roots very seriously. They’re the foundation of our faith and also the building blocks of the Hebrew language. We also take peace very seriously. One of the reasons I’m able to be authentic as a rabbi is because every Jewish communal prayer experience has at least one, if not multiple prayers for peace.

So the image of Cody and Darrell digging up the roots in my front yard, and the little piece of common humanity we found in one another, is an important image for me this High Holy Days. Maybe it’s because I had to deal with a plumbing emergency on Erev Rosh Hashanah. That’s certainly memorable enough.  But maybe it’s because there’s something to the idea of getting to the root of our problems by celebrating the roots of our common humanity.

If you need a plumber let me know. I’ve got a good one I can refer you too…

 

 

Lollipops, Light, and Leadership

I recently had the pleasure of watching this TED Talk by Drew Dudley with a group of 30+ middle school students who both applied to and were accepted for The Davis Academy’s Middle School Leadership Training Institute (MSLTI):

 

 

 

In his talk Dudley emphasizes the often overlooked low- hanging fruit of leadership which, for him, is the simple truth that most of us continually do things great and small that impact people’s lives for the better.

Too many of us unconsciously cling to the false notion that “leader” is a special title granted only to certain individuals like elected officials, captains of sports teams, or school administrators.  We think that in order to truly qualify as a leader our actions have to have some sort of cosmic importance or shape the course of world events. We dare not call ourselves leaders on the basis of such an absurdly limited definition.

At its core leadership is about daring to make the world a better place. The good news is that, when simplified and demystified, we can start to see continual leadership opportunities, often in the smallest of moments. With the recognition of unlimited potential and possibility for leadership comes humbling awareness that we let many, maybe even most, of these opportunities slip through our fingers.  Marianne Williamson (who is quoted in Durley’s TED) names the anxiety that many of us feel:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we’re liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

Our leadership development work with middle school students is geared toward helping them learn to channel their “power beyond measure” toward legitimate ends.

We dare our students to encounter their brilliant light from a place of joy and appreciation rather than a place of fear.

We dare our students to shine in ways that inspire, encourage, and lead their peers, teachers, and others to shine along with them.

How fortunate we are that our work in this area can draw inspiration from Drew Durley and others who have elevated “leadership” to the highest pillar of the “everyday.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Long Walk

Recently The Davis Academy Middle School community had the honor and privilege of hosting MK Shlomo Molla. Molla, an Israeli of Ethiopian descent, is only the second Ethiopian Jew to serve in the Knesset. He visited us as a guest of the Israeli Consulate of the Southeast and the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta.

MK Molla and Davis Academy Students

MK Molla’s remarks focused on his personal journey from a small village in Ethiopia, to a prison and then a refugee camp in Sudan, and finally, to his Jewish homeland: Israel. He described the moment he told his mother that he intended to walk from Ethiopia to Israel, having never seen a map, a car, or an airplane. Eventually he and a small group of Ethiopian Jewish friends would walk more than 700 kilometers in 8 days from Ethiopia to Sudan. In Sudan they were tortured, imprisoned, and a member of their group was killed. After spending time in a refugee camp they were eventually part of an Israeli air force rescue operation that saw them safely to Israel.

After sharing his personal story of faith, courage, and survival, Molla shared about his work in Israel. He emphasized that the focus of his work is to close the gap between rich and poor in Israel, as well as to work on behalf of minorities, like Ethiopian Jews, Reform and Conservative Jews, and Israeli Arabs. He also emphasized that the international community must stand with Israel in opposition to Iranian nuclear weapons, as well as the important relationship between Israel and Diaspora Jewry. He stressed the importance of learning Hebrew, of visiting Israel, and of caring about what happens in Israeli society.

At the outset MK Molla shared that he is the proud father of four children, and that he misses his children tremendously when he is traveling around the world on behalf of Israel. Our hope at Davis is that he felt a connection to our children, future leaders of the Jewish community and passionate supporters of Israel.

There were many lessons our students and faculty could’ve reflected on while listening to MK Molla. A few that endure for me are:

1) The power of an idea, the hold of a dream.

2) That to be proud of your country and critical of your country is not oxy moronic.

3) The conditions of our station in life are arbitrary, but what we do within the context of those conditions should be deliberate.

4) If we can respond to brutality with a renewed commitment to compassion and righteousness then we have triumphed over those who would beat us down.

5) Humanity is logically prior and ethically superior to race and nationality.

Education and Inspiration

            This morning I returned to The Davis Academy after Passover break to find my fellow administrative colleagues smiling and chatting animatedly. What had I missed? A kindergartener, Jacob, had come to school with a book that he’d written (and illustrated) on the topic of “Passover” and told his teacher that he wanted to share his literary creativity with the Head of School. Eager to please, his teacher escorted him to the Head of School’s office so he could proudly share his book. In showcasing his work he was sure to point out a few interesting features:

       1. He was not only the author but the illustrator too.
       2. The book was dedicated– to his teacher. 
 
       3. On the back of the book (14 pages in length he pointed out) it said “PJ Library” because Jacob intends to submit his manuscript for publication to the PJ Library (a Jewish publishing house). 
          Education is about inspiration. It’s about kids being challenged to dream, imagine, and create. It’s about creating the desire and the ability to envision new things and bring them into being. It’s about empowering Jacob to grab some markers and wide-lined paper and write a book. Then it’s about celebrating, publicizing the daily miracles, and believing that the future will be brighter than the present because of our efforts and the children we teach. 
         At least that’s what education is about at The Davis Academy.