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?

Life Lessons from the 2013-2014 School Year

Here’s an incomplete list in no particular order…

1) Every moment, every hour, every day, is sacred.

2) As educators we are constantly “on.”

3) Kids notice and learn from everything we do and everything we don’t.

4) The best schools are made up entirely of students. Some of those students are lucky enough to also be teachers.

5) We are all artists. Some of us just don’t have the supplies, the canvas, or the time to make the art.

6) Every school should give kids the aforementioned supplies, canvases, and time. Then we’ll all get to work in museums.

7) The same is true for poetry.

8) Schools that promote teaming function at a higher level than those that don’t. “Team” works better as a verb than as a noun.

9) It’s hard to think 3,5, or 10 years ahead when the present is compelling and both demands and deserves our full attention.

10) Feeling safe and secure (physically, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually) is what allows everything else to happen.

11) If you listen carefully enough you can hear a school’s heart beat.

12) It’s impossible to truly tell a school’s “story.” The best we can do is pull back the curtain and reveal the complexity and wonder that we see and hope that others are able to see it too.

13) Five minutes on the playground will restore almost anyone’s faith in humanity.

14) Diversity isn’t so much a function of race, ethnicity, or class as much as it is an inherent reality of the human experience. When two people meet there is irreducible and undeniable diversity.

15) Sometimes the story doesn’t make sense until the end. One of life’s beautiful tragedies is that we can’t relive it once we’ve discovered this.

16) A school without core values is like a person without a heart.

17) Engaging open and eager minds is an awesome responsibility.

18) It’s impossible to know the impact we’ve had. Whenever we catch a true glimpse of it we should cherish it.

19) The end of education isn’t to create smart kids or even wise men and women. It’s helping people realize their goodness and their potential.

20) We must humbly embrace our power while simultaneously acknowledging that the home will always be the primary source of learning and instruction, for better or worse.

 

Why I Love Graduation and the End of the School Year

While standing in the hallway waving goodbye to Davis Academy students headed off to enjoy their well-deserved summer vacation I observed a group of 5th grade boys joyfully singing the refrain of Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out.” I figured what the heck and joined with them for a chorus or two as they proudly paraded down the hallway. Many educators greet the end of the school year reluctantly, I think it’s a beautiful and important time. It’s a time that I greet with joy. Here are some of the things I love about graduation and the end of the school year.

1. Summer is to the school year what Shabbat is to the work week. It’s a necessary time that allows children, families, and educators to reflect on what has come before. Everyone involved in full time education– students, parents, teachers, and administrators eventually reach a point during the school year when the pace, the demands, the obligations, and everything that comes with a typical Fall or Spring semester is overwhelming. The fact that our work is sacred and that this sense of overwhelm affirms most educators in the importance and value of our work doesn’t change the fact that time to reflect, read up, and rejuvenate can be scarce at times. Though many of us work during the summer, and many kids and families keep very busy, the arrival of summer offers the possibility of meaningful perspective, truly self-directed personal and professional growth, and a chance to be intentional about our aspirations for the upcoming year.

2. Students  teach us a bold and enduring lesson as they look forward to and embrace summer. It’s not that they don’t love school, their teachers, and their classmates. It’s simply that they resiliently and optimistically look toward the future. They embrace growth and change. We might not be ready (or we might be VERY ready) to let them go, but they’re ready to move on (or at least they think they are). As many adults are both consciously and unconsciously afraid of change we can look to children to find an authentic alternative that embraces change and growth. I asked a group of 5th graders if they were nervous about the transition to middle school —  they said they weren’t and I believe them. In chatting with graduating 8th graders many expressed nervousness about leaving Davis– but they’ll all do it and greet the challenge head on.

3. Educators  need to remember that our task is to inspire and empower students during the time that we have them in our care. Though the “school year” is an artificial construct, it’s one that carries with it a certain measure of wisdom. Judaism teaches, “Who is truly wise? Someone who learns from all people.” Each of us is meant to have many different teachers over the course of our lives. The unique “Torah” that each of us has to teach is meant to be shared with many different people. Stated differently, each of us is meant to have many students. Relationships typically don’t die, they change. Our students of today will become our alumni of tomorrow. They will find new teachers who will give them new insights and present them with new challenges. At the same time we will welcome new students and the “Torah” that we teach will evolve and change as we navigate through our lives and our careers.

Graduation and the end of the school year are unavoidable facts that all educators know well. That they cannot be avoided is a blessing to students and teachers alike. It’s humbling to know that we have one another for a finite period of time, that despite our best efforts our work will remain imperfect and incomplete, and our relationships will grow and evolve. These are existential truths that all people experience. As educators we get to experience them head on and try to glean the wisdom that they offer us.

The Child in Room 18

This week I did something I pray that none of us ever have to do. I visited a child who was actively dying and his family. There is no way to express the feeling of dread that welled up as I navigated the corridors of Scottish Rite. No way to express the rush of tears that were summoned by the sobs of those that stood vigil. No way to express the anger and confusion that come with standing beside a family that has been robbed of hopes and dreams. No way to express the sense of holiness and solemnity that comes with watching a grandmother stroking the hair of the child. No way to express the unpredictable decent of laughter into tears and back to laughter. No way to express what it means to speak to a child not knowing if he can hear. Not knowing what to say. Making promises that I must now pray to be able to honor. Promises to remember, to respect, to celebrate. No way to bracket images of my own children. No way to sidestep the theological implications. No way to empathize with the parents, drowning in the grief of anticipation. No way to assess what Amichai called the diameter of the bomb. No way to process the artwork drawn by the older brother with the caption, “Good luck in heaven!” No way to thank the nurses that patiently and attentively made handprints and footprints for loved ones. No way to express what it means to be able to turn around and walk away. No way to know if my counsel is that of a sage or an idiot. No way to hit send on an email that will wound people that I care about.

It’s not about me. It’s about all of us. Together we make order out of chaos. Together we make meaning out of biology. Together we mourn and eventually celebrate. We cry on one another’s shoulders. We stand behind, beside, and among brokenness. We gather shards, patiently, indignantly, courageously, and reluctantly. We stand within the breach and look toward the light. Sometimes in the light we see the face of a dying child. Sometimes the sun/son shines so brightly we can’t help but cry.

A Wedding and A Funeral

In the last week and change I’ve…

…attended a conference in New York

… co-officiated my youngest brother’s wedding in Los Angeles with my wife, also a rabbi

…watched my daughter walk down the aisle as flower girl

… spent quality time with family that I rarely get to see including cousins, aunts, uncles, siblings, parents, and grandparents

…spent time in the recording studio working on an album of original Jewish music

… had the worst case of food poisoning I can remember

… and attended a funeral of a colleague who lost her mother.

Weeks like these have a way of opening our hearts. Conferences remind us how much learning there still is to be done. Food poisoning makes us appreciate health! Creating and recording original music nourishes the soul. Spending time with family helps ground us. And life cycle events bring the past, present, and future into conversation, reminding us how much we all share as human beings.

Most people won’t ever know the feeling of officiating at their youngest brother’s wedding. It’s a profound privilege and deeply moving. To know that he’s found his life partner is really a joy.

I’ve attended a number of funerals in my life but something happened at this funeral that I’ve never experienced. The eulogy was delivered by the deceased’s grandson. And it was delivered entirely in Spanish.

I don’t speak Spanish. But even without speaking the language I felt like I knew exactly what was being said, or at least what emotions were being conveyed. A number of people around me also don’t speak Spanish and many of them were crying along with the bereaved. How can a eulogy in a language I don’t speak for a woman I didn’t know be so powerful and stirring?

On the plane back from Los Angeles I watched “Dallas Buyers Club.” I wasn’t prepared for the power of the narrative– the story of a man, who when faced with death, decided to reject the premise of his diagnosis and live out the rest of his days to the fullest of his being. The lead character was a complicated individual to say the least, but at the end of the day his humanity and his desire to live a meaningful life are the enduring legacy I took from the film. How often do we connect to our purpose(s) as human beings? How often do we look ourselves in the mirror and ask whether we living meaningful, purposeful lives? Do we speak in these terms to others? Do we help others in their quests to live meaningful lives?

In the rabbi’s eulogy he shared a few of the lessons we could all learn from the life and example of the deceased. Honoring tradition, overcoming obstacles and having grit, and others. What are the lessons that others will learn from us?

Who Resurrects the Dead

When I greet a Jewish friend that I haven’t seen in a very long time I typically say, “Mchayei Meitim.” It literally means, “who resurrects the dead.” Weird huh?

It’s less weird if you know that “Mchayei Meitim” is the conclusion of a traditional Jewish blessing that thanks God for, yes, resurrecting the dead. Some Jews take this blessing literally and recite this blessing x3/day as an affirmation of God’s limitless power. When greeting an old friend it’s a way of saying something like, “It’s great to see you” and “Let’s pick up right where we left off.”

I don’t put much stock in the traditional Jewish view that one day the dead will rise and be gathered back together in some sort of “Zion.” But this week the dead literally came back to life for me and my family.

I’m writing this post mid-journey so some of the details are still a bit fuzzy, but here’s as much of the story as I feel I can meaningfully share right now…

A couple of months ago I received an email from an active member of The Davis Academy grandparent community named Carol. She wrote to ask me if I was related to a man named Morris Lapidus who lived in Syracuse, NY. Like most Lapidus’, I’m fairly accustomed to being asked if I’m related to such and such Lapidus from such and such a place. It happens a couple of times a year and I typically respond by saying, “Not that I know of, but I’m sure we’re distant cousins somehow.”

As far as Morris Lapidus from Syracuse is concerned– well he’s my great grandfather. I’m named after him. So you might imagine my surprise and curiosity when out of the blue came an email asking if he was a relative.

Carol, who I have known for many years, was sitting with her friend, Ann, at Shabbat services at their synagogue– B’nai Torah. Coincidentally there was a Davis Academy student who was becoming Bar Mitzvah that morning. At some point during the service the Bar Mitzvah family said something along the lines of “Thank you Davis Academy and thank you Rabbi Micah Lapidus.” Upon hearing my name, Ann, who recently celebrated her 90th birthday, turned to Carol and asked, “Lapidus? I wonder if Rabbi Lapidus is related to Morris Lapidus?” Carol replied, “I don’t know, but why do you ask?” At that point Ann shared that Morris Lapidus rescued her and her husband from the displaced persons camp in Europe after World War II. Morris Lapidus was their sponsor, bringing them to the States, and helping them settle in Syracuse, NY. All this because Morris Lapidus’ first wife, whose name none of us recall at the moment, was Ann’s husband’s aunt.

I can’t speak for the rest of my family, but I can say that I knew none of this and I’m pretty sure that most of my cousins don’t either. What I’m saying is that this week I was reunited with family I never knew I had who live right here in Atlanta.

This week I met Ann and her daughter Hilda. They were kind enough to come and visit me at The Davis Academy. Together we started to unpack the story of our family. Preliminarily I learned a few things….

 

Hilda, Ann, and Micah
Hilda, Ann, and Micah

I learned that when Ann and her husband got off the boat in New York my grandfather Harold met them at the docks and escorted them via train back to Syracuse.

I learned that my great grandfather was an “entrepreneur” who owned various rental properties and was also a very learned man, always reading.

I learned that, at his medical school graduation, my grandfather downplayed the fact that he was at the top of his class saying that he had an unfair advantage because he had served as a medic in the war and was therefore older and more experienced.

I learned that my grandfather wrote a note to Ann when my grandmother, Florence, passed away in 1997. In that note he expressed his anguish and heartbreak.

I learned that my grandparents sent Ann and her second husband Rosh Hashanah cards every year, a few of which Ann still has and was able to share with me.

I learned that thinking about my grandfather, and particularly the fact that I officiated his funeral, isn’t something that I’ve fully processed on an emotional level.

During my visit with Ann and Hilda I learned a bit about their family as well. I heard a few of Ann’s stories from the war. I heard about how Morris Lapidus had helped her husband learn to become a kosher butcher, which became his profession. I learned that Ann and her husband opened a kosher butcher shop when they moved to Atlanta in the 60s.

A few times during our meeting Ann looked at me and told me that, when she looked me in the eyes, she could see my grandfather.

That’s about all I have to report at the moment. Hopefully there’ll be more forthcoming.

But the amazing thing about all this is the coincidence of Ann being at synagogue on the day when the Davis family mentioned my name from the bimah. I don’t attend many Saturday morning services of Davis Academy students but I’m fairly certain that I am only rarely mentioned by name at any of them. That this particular family said my name is the fluke that led to this whole discovery.  I’ve been living in Atlanta for 6 years now and Ann and her family have been here much longer. Who knows if we ever would have found one another if Ann hadn’t been at synagogue that morning and if my name hadn’t been mentioned?

The Gift of Time

Someone recently shared a personal story with me. It was  a simple story of how one of her loved ones gave her a gift and how this gift made her feel.

I was very moved listening to this story. I was moved because of the simplicity and universality of it. Each of us has received and each of us has given. Each of us has known the profound feeling of bringing joy to someone we know and love; each of has felt the profound joy of receiving such love.

The gift in the story wasn’t a physical gift. It was shiny or expensive. It was the gift of time. Time is undoubtedly the most precious and powerful gift any of us has to offer.

I listened to this story as a husband, a father, a son, and a brother. I also listened as a colleague, school administrator, and educator.  The message of the story cuts across personal and professional boundaries and is relevant in all areas.

Time is a gift that each of us can and should give freely, especially to those we value most. Rather than waiting for others to ask for our time, we should be mindful each day to give the gift of time. Rather than piling appointments right on top of one another, we should allow enough time to be present for the person in the room.

Time given to students and colleagues both affirms and strengthens relationships. It helps us recognize what really counts and what really matters. It allows others to express concerns and get at what’s really important, rather than rushing through an agenda or checklist. In many ways it’s the simplest gift we can give; a gift that enriches our lives as well.

Opening the Eyes of the Blind

I started my day praying with 4th graders. Fortunately a colleague stepped outside to gather a rain-measuring device and encouraged me to take the kids outside because there was a beautiful mist resting on our baseball field. Going outside changed everything. The typical prayer routine was tossed aside and the 4th grade and I engaged in a moment of quiet mindfulness and appreciation:

“What did you notice or appreciate?”

“There’s a bird sitting on top of the fence.”

“The grass is sparkling.”

“The concrete is cold.”

“I’m sitting in front of a pole.”

“The sun is powerful.”

We then opened our prayerbooks to a series of prayers that thanks God for some of the daily basics that we often take for granted.

“Which do you think we should recite after taking some time to notice and appreciate?”

“Thank you God for opening the eyes of the blind.”

“I agree. Most people think that our eyesight just gets worse and worse as we grow, but maybe we actually can get better at seeing as we grow and take time to notice and appreciate.”

It’s wonderful when experience and tradition are in harmony. I spent the rest of my day with that prayer in mind: thank you God for opening the eyes of the blind. Then I was blindsided.

——

My day ended in a meeting with a small group of  colleagues. During the course of the meeting one of them shared a concern with me about something I occasionally (or maybe even often) do while leading prayers with our middle school students– calling students out by name, particularly if they’re talking out of turn.

The content of the conversation isn’t as important as the process. I quickly realized that something I considered a benign, even affectionate gesture, was being perceived differently. In calling out students by name I thought I was saying, “I know who you really are. I know that you want to contribute rather than detract from our community during this time.” Regardless of my intentions, rabbis and the rest of us must strive to never shame another person, especially a child or adolescent. Unintentional shaming is even worse because it often goes unnamed and unexpressed possibly causing resentment down the road.

It’s not easy to share a piece of feedback that we know might upset someone. But the strength of our communities, the functionality of our teams, and, ultimately, the spiritual well-being of those we serve demands that we share our perspectives. We have to demand of one another and ourselves that we open our eyes to things we might not see.

One of the greatest ironies of sharing feedback is that relationships sometimes cloud rather than clarify the process. We don’t want to hurt, offend, alienate, turn off, or otherwise damage the precious ties that we share with students, colleagues, and friends. Sharing, like my colleague did today, requires vulnerability and risks hurt. But the truth is that sharing feedback actually strengthens these ties and brings meaning to terms like collegiality and community.

Last week a parent shared with me that he felt naive in discussing God and theology. I suggested that naivety might not be a bad thing. Naivety brings with it the capacity for openness which in turns brings the capacity to see with new eyes and acquire new insights. We can help one another celebrate our naivety, see differently, and deepen our understanding.

I’ll admit that when my colleague mentioned that he had feedback to share I got nervous. As I listened and reflected my nervousness turned to embarrassment that I hadn’t seen this myself. Embarrassment quickly gave way to understanding and appreciation. It all brought to mind the 4th graders I spent the morning “enlightening.” All I can pray is that the more we help one another notice and appreciate, the more compassionate and vibrant our world will be.

The World’s Shortest and Longest Field Trip

Every year Davis Academy 3rd graders go on the world’s shortest and longest field trip. They boarded busses and head to an amazing organization called The Community Assistance Center. It’s the world’s shortest field trip because the CAC is approximately 1 mile away from The Davis Academy. It’s the world’s longest field trip because the realities that the CAC addresses are very different from the life experience of Davis 3rd graders. Here’s a description of the work of the CAC (taken from their website):

CAC programs are designed to help families and individuals facing emergency situations meet the basic needs of food, shelter and clothing. Our goals are to prevent homelessness, alleviate hunger, promote self-sufficiency and enrich the lives of children whose families are struggling to make ends meet. Since CAC was founded 25 years ago the center has touched 16,000 families in our community. In 2011 we served 5,000 individuals and families.

Our 3rd grade partners with the CAC because their curriculum dedicates time to understanding the history of Georgia and the important concept of “community.” Many of the children are surprised to learn that there are families in their zip code and in their community that do not have enough money for rent, fresh food, or other basic necessities. As we tour the CAC the children see the food pantry– sometimes full, sometimes partially full, and sometimes alarmingly spare. They see shelves dedicated to basic school supplies like paper, pencils, notebooks, and backpacks, and they see the clothing processing facilities with everything from underwear to formal wear. As they tour the CAC they begin to understand the importance of the collections they do at Davis in support of the CAC.

cac1

With seeing comes understanding. 3rd graders come to understand that volunteering benefits not only those who receive the toiletries and groceries, but that it also transforms the volunteer into a more loving, more aware, and more thoughtful person. They come to understand that “Thrift Store” isn’t only a song by Macklemore, but a place where people are able to shop with dignity. They come to understand that the world actually is unfair and imbalanced but that it doesn’t have to be.

They come to understand the idea of tzedek— one of The Davis Academy’s menschlichkeit values. At a very young age children are able to understand the idea of tzedakah— charitable giving. Tzedek, meaning “justice” or “righteousness” is a bit harder to understand because it’s much more abstract. Through visits to the CAC and other service learning experiences children understand that tzedakah is one of the ways that Jews strive to create tzedek.

Cac 2

 

The Davis/ CAC partnership is now several years old. The CAC is blessed to have many partners in the Sandy Springs community (though never enough) and Davis students are blessed to have many opportunities to pursue tzedek. It’s a short drive, but a long journey to the CAC and our students see and understand differently once they’ve been there and back.

 

Life Lessons from Rosh Hashanah Services at Emory

It’s my 5th year leading Reform High Holy Day services at Emory. It’s an honor and something that I really look forward to even as there’s always a small part of me that longs to be “just” a congregant during this sacred season. Here are a few life lessons that I offer as a reflection on the Rosh Hashanah services that have just concluded.

1. Whitney Houston got it right: “Children are our future.” When we “teach them well” then they “will lead the way.”

It’s become an annual tradition to invite Davis Academy students to join me in leading a portion of the service including the Shema and the Shofar Blessings. This year Davis students played an extended role helping with a variety of prayers and readings as well as creating a reading of their own (on the spot). Featuring Davis Academy students helps everyone feel a sense of hope, community, and connection.

2. “Silence remains, inescapably, a form of speech.” Either by chance or by fate this quote from Susan Sontag was hanging on a poster directly behind me on the bimah at the beautiful Marcus Hillel Center . As a rabbi I’m favorably disposed to the idea that words carry great power. Yet one of the things I most enjoy about leading services at Emory is that I don’t give a single sermon. Instead, I demand that Emory students give the sermons. My silence elicits their words and their words (invariably) elicit deep reflection for everyone in the congregation. One of the great blessings of my rabbinate is getting to hear the wisdom of Emory students that is vocalized as a result of my silence.

3. Building kehillah is hard. The Davis Academy is a very vibrant kehillah, a true community. On my annual pilgrimage to Emory for the High Holy Days I face a challenge that I don’t face in my role at Davis– the challenge of building kehillah. At Davis, kehillah is evident in all that we do. Kehillah can’t be suppressed and the power of kehillah sustains and strengthens us. During the High Holy Days at Emory we have to build kehillah. We have undergrads, grad students, professors, Davis families, community members, out of town visitors and more. On an annual basis only about 50% of the congregation are “repeat offenders.” Everyone else is new– freshman, new professors, folks who have relocated to Atlanta, and so on. Our task over the course of the High Holy Days is to build a sense of kehillah. It isn’t easy. The amazing staff of Hillels of Georgia does a great job of laying the foundation for this work but it’s still a challenge at the High Holy Days.

4. The fate of Judaism is directly tied to Judaism’s relevance to modern life. If Judaism doesn’t speak to the challenges we face as individuals, as a community, and as the human race in modern times then Judaism should probably just go away. If Judaism can’t help us navigate the horrors of Syria, the complexities of genetic coding, the human rights of gay marriage, and other societal and geopolitical issues than Judaism has no place being a part of our public discourse. I’m convinced that Judaism is more relevant than ever and that Jewish tradition, in its multivocality, does speak to these and other issues. But it’s clear to me that if rabbis aren’t able to make this relevance undeniably manifest than we are doing a disservice to our congregants and our tradition. Similarly, it’s the responsibility of every professing Jew to bring Judaism to bear on the issues that define our world.

There’s much more that could be extrapolated from the last 24 hours at Emory, but one of the highlights of Rosh Hashanah is the unique chance it provides for the ever elusive “nap” that comes with parenting a 2 year old.

Shanah Tovah!