In a very short week lots has happened. Along with all the amazing teaching and learning that occurred, the drone club has almost completed their quadcopter builds, Sci-Tech students presented their projects in school, the debate team hosted the Spring Jewish Congress (congratulations to Mr. Benji Halprin for placing third in the competition!) and we administered SAT-10’s. However, while my weekly communication is always focused on what happens in our school community, my mind is on another community that I used to call home.
This week Houston, Texas was devastated with torrential downpours causing massive flooding throughout the city. I quickly found out this was occurring as I watched Facebook status updates and pictures of flooding streets and homes from friends and families I used to see daily at school and in the community I lived in for three years. The next morning after a long night of hoping the rain would end pictures appeared of my friends homes with four feet of water in them, furniture floating in living rooms, roads washed out and cars submerged in the street. Pictures of shuls I used to daven in were posted with black water hiding the legs of its chairs and the bima platform submerged. The next day as the water receded the destruction became even more transparent as news of deaths, missing people and millions of dollars of destruction were reported. What also became transparent is why I have always missed the Houston Jewish community. It is a community that is always there for each other.
As light shined the morning after the flooding, I was amazed (but not surprised) by the acts of kindness in the different Houston Jewish communities being reported. First, community members left their safe homes to rescue others. Some on foot and come in canoes.
Then the community focused on those who were left without electricity, food, clothing and more. This “I want to help” form was quickly created for people to sign up to help. I saw one post about a family who needed clothes and within a few minutes they had more clothes than needed. People donated food and hundreds of meals were being made at the local shuls. Emails were sent out to organize the baking of Challahs and meals for Shabbos. People whose homes were dry opened their homes to those whose homes were not. I saw one post that said there are 70 washing machines ready for anyone who needs to wash and dry their clothes. Replacement games for children were made available. One local Jewish school gave students the option to not take finals if they help out flood victims during finals week. I am also sure this only scratches the surface of the chessed that is truly happening.
I had the misfortune of moving to Houston a couple months before Hurricane IKE landed at our doorstep. We had minor flooding, damage to our home and friends homes and loss of power for a couple of weeks. However, I also had the fortune of experiencing first hand how the Houston Jewish community takes care of each other and their non-Jewish neighbors (so many families in the Jewish community gave power and food to their non-Jewish neighbors) in a crisis. I would have preferred to not have experienced the destruction of IKE and would have never wished this recent flooding on anyone, yet, my memories of the hurricane were quickly replaced by the memories of great acts of kindness, strength of a community and warmth of a people. I hope the same will happen to those impacted by this flood.
Our thoughts and tefillos are with our brothers and sisters in Houston. If you would like to help the community needs funds to rebuild. Here is a link to the Jewish Federation if you would like to donate to help those impacted. Click here.
Here is drone flight that shows the flooding on a street I drove almost daily.
Last Thursday a group of VTHS students along with Mr. Joseph and myself headed up to the bay area for a Maker Shabbaton! A Maker Shabbaton you ask? Well, the main reason for our trip was to go to the Maker Faire which “is the Greatest Show (and Tell) on Earth—a family-friendly festival of invention, creativity and resourcefulness, and a celebration of the Maker movement.” The maker movement is one filled with hobbyists, innovators and creative people who produce, create and bring value to the world. So, what better place to showcase to our student the importance of innovation and creativity as well as tap into their own then to go to the faire. However, we did so much more than that.
Our Shabbaton consisted of a fun road trip to the bay area, BBQ, soccer game, tour of Google, lunch with Jewglers (Jewish Googlers), stop at Facebook and Apple, adventure on the Stanford campus, amazing Shabbos in San Jose filled with beautiful davening, D’Vrei Torah, Zemiros, learning, improv games and Seudas as a group and at the homes of Rabbis, Googlers and Tech Marketers, Ice Cream extravaganza and of course, The Maker Faire. Below is a video that captures most of the excitement (minus Shabbos, but I am confident that the students captured memories of Shabbos that will last a lifetime).
I want to thank the students who were amazing on the Shabbton. I want to thank Mr. Joseph who partnered with me to make this happen. I want to thank my wife for her support and helping throughout the Shabbaton. I am forever grateful to Rabbi Shaya Guttenberg and his wife Mrs. Dina Guttenberg who opened their home to all of us and made us feel like family. I want thank my assistant Jessica who made the Google Tour happen and to the Jewglers, Greg, Ezequiel, Dimitri and Shabtzi who took time out of their busy day to show us around and have lunch with us. I would also like to thank those who hosted our students for Shabbos lunch in San Jose and to the Rabbi and the entire San Jose Am Echad Shul community who warmly welcomed our students.
As the Maker Movement Motto states “if you can’t open it, you don’t own it.” Well we opened this Shabbaton wide open and owned it!
For the last two weeks there was a certain atmosphere of intensity, anxiety and mild excitement as we administered the Advanced Placement (AP) tests to our students. AP’s are a set of standardized tests to assess college-level learning of a specific discipline in high school. If a students does well they can receive college credit and at the very least it is a method of standing out academically on college applications. Now I am not going to get into the pros and cons of the AP’s right now or whether the benefit of these tests outweigh very clear problems. It something I have been thinking about seriously for a while and will share in future posts. What I did want to point out was something that was brought to my attention by watching a fantastically insightful clip from Last Week With John Oliver talking about standardized testing.
In an eighteen minute rant against the value of standardized testing, John Oliver mentions the anxiety these exams create in kids and cites the Ohio Department of Education’s Achievement Assessments guide which has a section on what to do if a child vomits on their test. Honestly, I thought he was completely joking as it sounded quite absurd. Well, I did some searching and, nope, it is no joke.
Here is a verbatim excerpt from the guide under the header “Student Who Becomes Sick.”
A student who becomes ill and vomits on his or her test booklet or answer document and is able to continue the test should be given a new test booklet or answer document so that he or she can continue. Later, the student’s responses and demographic information must be transcribed into the new test booklet or answer document, which will be the copy of the test to be scored. The soiled test booklet or answer document should be placed in a zip-lock bag with the barcode written on the zip-lock bag and returned to the DTC with the unused materials. BTCs have been advised to contact the DTC about this situation so the DTC can document the test booklet or answer document barcode on the Material Resolution Form. After the Material Resolution Form is completed and returned to Pearson, the soiled test booklet and/or answer document should be securely destroyed. Do NOT return the soiled test materials to Pearson.
There were two questions that immediately rushed to my mind when I read this. One. Why are we letting this kid continue the test after they have thrown up on it? Two. How much does the DTC employee make who is responsible to receive the soiled test booklet in the zip-lock bag? Also, I found it odd that this was the only thing discussed in the “Student Who Becomes Sick” section. The entire section is devoted to what happens if the kid pukes. Not has the flu, migraine, nosebleed or other illness. Clearly, they know that these tests get kid so anxious that the only thing they need to prepare for is vomiting. Plus, the assumption is that the kid will likely want to continue taking the test after throwing up. What a trouper!
I have a lot more to say on the subject of standardized testing and the AP’s specifically. I certainly see value in our AP courses at VTHS. Mainly, because we have some amazing teachers who work hard to ensure our students truly learn in their AP courses. However, while some anxiety is healthy, I do think we need to look at the overall value of any standardized testing system that prompts a state board of education to write in their assessment guide the protocol for when a student vomits on their test.
VTHS Improv Team attends ComedySportz College Show!
Ok. This did not actually happen this week. It happened last Thursday, but it was awesome and I wanted to share it. I am behind the camera and the gentleman on the right is Tom Clark our ComedySportz High School League coach.
Monday 4/27/15: Staff Development Day!
This monday was a half day for our students as we had another wonderful staff development half-day program. The program began with a great Sushi lunch followed by our continued work on our vision and mission of VTHS. We focused on the development of a new tagline that represents the amazing teaching and learning that happens at VTHS and then focused on the theme of day which was team building. In order to achieve our continued goal of enhancing the cohesion and collaboration among our team we headed to Ventura Blvd for some competitive rounds of Bowling at PINZ. Rabbi Samuels led the way with bowling over 200 and inspired many of us to get those strikes and spares. We had fun, enjoyed each others company, proudly crowned the winning team and left for the day a stronger more connected staff!
Tuesday 4/28/15: WASC Visit!
This Tuesday we had our WASC Mid-Cycle review. The team that came were extremely impressed with our progress towards the action plans developed three year ago. Throughout the report words like “outstanding”, “tremendous growth” and “laudable achievement” set the tone for a an extremely positive report. They gladly confirmed what we already knew. Valley Torah High School continues to shine and grow as a Jewish educational institution dedicated to excellent teaching and learning, while producing future leaders of the Jewish community. To qoute the report, “[T]he passion for education and shared vision of all the staff members at VTHS is magnificant. The ongoing strive for excellence is highly commendable and a reflection of the strength, professionalism and commitment of the school administration and leadership team.” A special thank you to all those who assisted with the visit and, above all, thank you to our entire staff who made it clear to the visiting committee what we stand for.
Wednesday 4/29/15: Aerial Robotics Club
The new VTHS Ariel Robotics Club is in full effect! This week (we meet every Wednesday during lunch) was our third meeting and the students are working on finishing soldering all the electronics to their drones. We hope to complete the drones in the next couple of weeks and begin flight training for the end of the year competition!
Thursday 4/30/15: National College Fair
This Thursday I checked out the National College Fair held in Pasadena with some our Juniors! There were hundreds of colleges and Universities represented from around the world and thousands of students in attendance. I have been promoting the fair for a while in our weekly newsletter and certainly recommend any and all high school students checking it out next time it comes around. You can find out when and where they are held here: http://www.nacacnet.org/college-fairs/
Friday 5/1/15: Celebrating a Student
I recently began celebrating a student each week. This is always a difficult choice, but this week I have chosen Mr. Gavriel Menlo. Gavriel is a young man who is a wonderful student, is a good friend to his peers, kind hearted, respectful of his Rebbeim and teachers and truly emulates what it means to be a VTHS student. This Jones Soda is for you Gavriel!
The final score of their final game against Beth Tfiloh at the annual Red Sarachek Basketball Tournament held at Yeshiva University was 68-61. The Pack lost. In fact, they officially only won their first game. However, after this last game the true score for the pack was a tournament win for VTHS. You see, these two competing teams had something more important in common than the shared court they just played their hearts out on. They share a very special student who Valley Torah came to play for as the hashtag #PLAY4YITZI represented on the back of every players t-shirts. You see Mr. Yitzi Teichman was a student at VTHS from 2012-14, is a senior now at Beth Tfiloh and has a rare type of cancer called a Chordoma that occurs in the bones of the skull and spine.
I had the great pleasure of knowing Yitzi most of his life when he lived in Valley Village and later attended Valley Torah. I was not the principal at the time, but I was friends with his family and Yitzi was an active part of our community. To say Yitzi is an amazing young man is an understatement. Even before showing great bravery in tackling his current situation, Yitzi always had a smile on his face. This was true even if the discussion was about things he was less than pleased with. Yitzi had thoughtful opinions and was alway happy to share them, but never without a warm smile. It is no wonder that now in tackling the most difficult challenge of his young life (or anyones for that matter) he continues to keep that smile. In fact, a facebook group started by his friend is appropriately titled #asmileadaykeepssicknessaway. While I am sure the title was meant to support Yitzi, when I first read it, I understood it to be what Yitzi has done for so many with his positive attitude towards others and life. He has kept the sickness away in anyone he has met. Now it is our turn to do it for him, and it is just what our students did at Sarachek.
I had the privilege of speaking with Yitzi yesterday. I wanted to see how he was doing and let him know we are all supporting him. He told me of the events of the last few weeks, from the symptoms (headaches, double vision) that led to his troubling diagnosis to the roller coaster of emotions prompted by the prognoses and treatment plans he had gotten from various doctors. It was painful to listen to, as Yitzi is a young man with a big heart and the last person worthy of suffering anything let alone this disease. However, as difficult as it was to hear, it was not until he said something shocking that the tears I tried to conceal came out in my voice.
I asked Yitzi how he feels about what he is going through. He said “I am lucky.” He said he was lucky it was not someone else, as it is not something he thinks most people can handle. It is not that he does not have bad days, but as he said “it hurts for a minute, and then five minutes later cancer jokes.” Then he continued to tell me how he has been using the “cancer card” lately and how he recently won the student council election, although he did not expect to lose because “come on, I have cancer.” Throughout the conversation he had a positive attitude, cracked jokes and I could hear that smile I am so familiar with from thousands of miles away. However, I was still stuck on how this amazing young man could feel lucky.
Yitzi told me that he has a choice every day. He can either say “this sucks” or “this is awesome and such a journey.” He has chosen the latter and told me that he is focused on all the great people he has met through this and those he plans on meeting, that he has learned so much about the body through all the medical tests and doctors and the astonishing experience he has had with the facebook group created to support him. The only thing that really concerns him is seeing his parents scared. This is why he feels compelled to keep his spirits up and make jokes. Recently, he told me that he was in so much pain, he got to a point where he said “Why me?” and said “that was so stupid, it just made the pain worse.” So, he plans on keeping his spirits up for himself, his family and his friends, but it was clear that when others come out to support him, whether on facebook or at a basketball tournament it makes a difference.
Yitzi was at the first game VTHS played at Sarachek, and when he saw the #PLAY4YITZI shirts our team wore he was speechless. He was later able to say it was “awesome.” He told me he “can’t describe the feeling the support and everyone rallying around him has meant. It was just awesome and great to see. It lifted my spirits.” Dovid Stock gave him his shirt and he plans on having it framed. At the end of the last game between his two schools, which became dubbed the “Yitzi Bowl,” the teams walked off the court together, shared Yitzi stories, said tehillim for him and took the picture above and sent it to Yitzi. Yitzi thought the picture was “mind blowing. It was crazy. To see both schools on two separate parts of the country coming together – that was the best part.”
Yitzi is clearly loved by many, and it has nothing to do with what he is going through. It is because before, during and after this struggle, he has and will always be that smiling kid who cares about his friends, family and anyone he meets. He said he was lucky to have this over someone else. Well, we are truly the lucky ones for knowing him.
Yitzi will be having surgery on April 1st followed by six weeks of radiation. We are sending all our tefillos, love and smiles his way and wishing him a speedy recovery. To Yitzi we say, keep smiling, but we know that you would prefer we keep smiling as you told me to do when we said goodbye yesterday. So, we will do just that and we will continue to #PLAY4YITZI
As you hopefully know by now, I believe strongly in a student-centered or learner-centered model of education versus the more traditional teacher-centered model. If you are not sure what that is click here for a comparison. However, if there was ever a recent example of a student-centered learning environment at VTHS it would have been the 2015 Purim Chagiga. Let me explain and I hope we all learn from it. The party began on campus at 10pm. It was was wonderfully organized by Rabbi Semmel and the many students and staff who helped. Rabbi Samuels rocked the ivories and the students and staff danced the night away with full costumes, laughter and joyful energy. At the midpoint of the evening something became very clear. This entire night, while a celebration of the miracle of our escaping annihilation at the hands of Haman year ago, was focused on the student experience, as should everything at school. At around 11pm, our very own Junior, Mr. Yishai Anatian, or as he is affectionately known as “The Purim Rav”, took the mike and became the MC for the rest of the evenings festivities. These included a highly clever set of Gramin (funny purim poetry) made up by the students that Yishai performed, a skit put on by a couple of the Rebbeim making fun of themselves for the joy of the students and student produced purim videos that pretty much had me crying with laughter long past the evening ended. Throughout the creative student and staff displays, the response to it all by the students could only be described as deep pride in being a Valley Torah student and an even deeper understanding of what it means to celebrate Purim. The night came to a conclusion with awards for the best videos and costumes followed by a final dance and extremely happy students who experienced the simcha of Purim in the best possible place to learn it; their school. There was nothing about the evening that was not about the students and there was very little that was not produced and created by the students. As one 9th grader told me the next day, it was the best Purim he had ever had. I am convinced that was because it was a student-centered Purim and the more we shift our teaching focus on the individual learners the more it will be the best Purim, davening, science class, elective, english class, gemmar class and so on and so forth that they will remember and apply for years to come.
This has been wonderful week of learning. Not just for the students, but for the staff as well. We began the week with a staff development day focused on Leader In Me. We spent most of our time on our current mission and vision of VTHS and where we are headed in regard to bringing in this framework of leadership for our students and staff. Later in the week, Mr. Joseph, Mr. Rodgers, Rabbi Semmel and I went down to High Tech High in San Diego to see project-based learning in action. This was our second staff trip. Rabbi Felt, Mr. Paradzik, Rabbi Samuels and I went last time. This trip was organized by the I.D.E.A. Schools Network of which Valley Torah is a founding school and is generously funded by a grant from the Joshua Venture Group. We spent time with the C.E.O. Larry Rosenstock, met students and teachers, saw amazing classes and engaged in discussions with representatives from YULA, Shalhevet, Kohelet and Yeshiva Lab who were in attendance. A special thank you to my co-founder of the network, Tikvah Wiener who made this trip happen. In both of these learning experiences culture was a prominent theme. Specifically, a culture that promotes growth, change and innovation is critical to success. However, to support this culture you must focus on, as Dr. Todd Whitaker says, the people not the programs.
A picture of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach holding a guitar at the Kotel hangs on my dining room wall. Why? Because it inspires me that a Rabbi picked up a guitar years ago and combined his immense Torah learning, love for Judaism and passion for music to inspire generations of Jews towards our faith. Known as the “singing Rabbi”, years after his passing his songs and teachings continue to inspire. As the great guitarist Steve Vai one said, “I’ve learned over the years that you’re going to be most successful at the things you’re most excited to do. Every artist has a special set of tools. When you really use those tools, and you make yourself feel really good about the product you create, I think you’ll find an audience for it.” Clearly Rabbi Carlebach found his tool in Torah and song.
Despite decades of pushing the arts out of our schools due to tight budgets, need for “better” test scores, ever growing and crippling state and federal mandates and a “core” curriculum that presented the arts as nice, but unessential, we are finally seeing a reversal of this terrible trend. We are finally seeing more arts integrated inside and outside of the classroom ensuring more “tools” are available to our students in their journey towards lifelong learning and purposeful living. I wanted to share one such example at Valley Torah.
If you come visit my office at the top of the stairs you will notice that I share a wall with classroom number one. In this classroom students learn amazing Torah and general studies throughout the day. I feel fortunate that through our shared wall I can often hear the beautiful sounds of learning. However, once a week, I look forward to a completely different sound of learning. On Wednesday afternoons what I hear from my office is literally music to my ears. Wednesday is when the new Guitar Center Guitar Club meets facilitated by our own Rabbi Moshe Samuels.
At the start of the year, as we believe that music and the arts must be an option for our students learning experience, we offered the Guitar Club. Immediately, there was significant interest and the first club was packed. Sadly though, there was more interest than there were guitars. So, the students shared what was available as Rabbi Samuels taught them the basics and occasionally shredded away on his axe to show them what they could accomplish. We knew we needed to meet the demand so we turned to the only place we could think of that loved guitars as much as our students; Guitar Center!
We are very grateful to Mr. Brian Berman of Guitar Center who shared our desire to give our students the opportunity to play and creatively express themselves through music. He graciously donated ten new acoustic guitars to the club and now each student was able to have their own “tool” to create and jam to their hearts content!
I leave you with this. In the movie Mr. Holland’s Opus, Vice Principal Wolters says to the music teacher Glenn Holland, played by the great Richard Dreyfuss, “I care about these kids just as much as you do. And if I’m forced to choose between Mozart and reading and writing and long division, I choose long division.” Mr. Holland responded, “Well, I guess you can cut the arts as much as you want, Gene. Sooner or later, these kids aren’t going to have anything to read or write about.” The arts may not be the only thing our students should learn, but it must be an integral part of what they do learn. Thank you again to Mr. Berman and Guitar Center for realizing this with us.
In a recent post on a Jewish educators facebook group I belong to called JEDLAB, someone asked this question.
“What do you find to be some of the most over-used, cliched words/terms/phrases in Jewish education today? (you know the ones that you hear over and over again that seem to lose their meaning because everyone uses them over and over and over again).”
The words members posted were ones like “21st century, innovation, engagement, inspiration, student-centered, blended learning, cutting edge, experiential” and many more. I have used many of these words in my career which led to conflicting feelings about the question. You see, I actually dislike the question, yet at the same time completely understand it.
I dislike the question because it minimizes the importance of giving definition to the framework of a school and the models of teaching and learning used. Having a shared understanding of how and why we educate our students is important. It helps ensure families choose the school that is right for them, it enhances student and staff culture as they understand the mission and it helps guide the teaching and learning down a cohesive path. The problem of course is when the shared language becomes a shared set of buzzwords that do not accurately represent the school, but rather they are used as a PR mechanism with little substance to support them. While that is a problem, it does not mean that the “buzzwords” used are always hollow. As someone else posted in the group “can you really use a word over and over again so much that it loses meaning? All these words have meaning. When people misuse them, they misuse them! But they still have meaning. Cliche is itself a cliche.” That is what is comes down to. Are the words used to describe a school being misused? How can you tell? Ask.
Last week we had the VTHS Shabbaton and it was amazing. Before I begin let me give a huge shout out to Rabbi Semmel for organizing such a high quality program and to all the Rebbeim and staff who supported the Shabbaton.
The first night when we arrived we were greeted with many inches of snow, below freezing weather and a wild wolf that we quickly adopted as part of the pack. Did any of this stop the students from tobogganing, snowball fighting, playing football, drinking gallons of hot chocolate and having an all you can eat hot dog campfire? Not at all! It was a great start to an exciting jam packed Shabbaton that ended with what I believe to be the most important aspect, or at least reflection, of any good Shabbaton; the Kumzits!
If you are reading this and it is the first time you have heard the word “Kumzits” let’s turn to our good friend Wikipedia. “Kumzits (קומזיץ) is a compound-word in Hebrew derived from the Yiddish words קום (come) and זיץ (sit). The word is used to describe an evening gathering that Jews partake in. Everyone sits together, be it on the floor or on chairs, and sings spiritually moving songs.” In our case, we sat on snow covered logs and sang beautiful Jewish songs led by our amazing Rabbi Moshe Samuels.
Now, you may be asking yourself why would I highlight the Kumzits when the students also went skiing, snowboarding or tubing, played laser tag outdoors at night in the snowy woods, experienced possibly the greatest mentalist ever known to man, beautiful student D’Vrei Torah, inspiring Zemiros, competitive games, great food and more! Why the Kumzits?
I suppose to answer this question you have to understand my belief in what the goal of any Shabbaton should be. For ten years I had the pleasure of facilitating nearly 100 Shabbatons for West Coast NCSY with a singular goal each and every time; to inspire the attendees through a positive Jewish experience. What is the formula? Unlike Coca-Cola, there is no secret formula. It involves amazing staff, high quality fun and educational programming, exciting activities, good food and opportunities to experience Judaism with your friends. This is a formula VTHS has known for as far as I can remember and I will never forget the VTHS Shabbatonim I attended back in the day. Yet, the Kumzits is how you can tell the formula worked.
At VTHS we hope the students have an amazing time on a Shabbaton. We hope they connect more with their peers, Rebbeim and staff. We hope our students enjoy Shabbos and all the Torah learning that happens. We hope they like the food, entertainment and activities. When all of these elements come together we hope that a student leaves the Shabbaton happy and more inspired for everything VTHS has to offer. We don’t survey the students to know if it all worked. We just take a look at the Kumzits.
At a successful Kumzits students sit or stand, arms around each other, singing, smiling, laughing and even sometimes crying (happy tears of course). It is generally at the end of the Shabbaton and is the culmination of everything wonderful that occurred over the past days. It highlights the increased connection of the students and staff as well as a deeper connection to Judaism. The Kumzits at the most recent Shabbaton was exactly that. Set in the woods, snow on the ground, bonfire in the middle, incandescent lights strung around the trees, students joyfully singing and the talented Rabbi Samuels leading the songs letting us all know that the Shabbaton was clearly a success!
This year for me has come with many firsts and this week was no different. I was a part of my first VTHS roundtable discussion for parents interested in sending their children to our school. Having no experience in such a presentation I did not know what to expect. There was no prep, written speeches or videos to show like at our Open House. I felt like we were going in blind and, I have to tell you, I was a little nervous. As we discussed internally, we were not going to prepare any polished speeches or presentations. We were going to discuss what we know to be true about the school and answer any questions. Simple as that. Well, we did that, and, in my humble opinion, we did very well. That is what I wanted to share with you.
If you are reading this you are either in the school, were at some point, planning or thinking about coming here, are connected in some way or accidently stumbled on this post online. So, for most of you, there is no need to get into all the great things that make up VTHS that we discussed that night. What I wanted to share was how we discussed it and why I believe in our school.
The administration, athletics director and our Director of Recruitment attended the roundtable. We sat among the parent attendees in a large informal circle in our hosts living room. Wonderful things were said by us and wonderful things were said by parents who had students either in the school now or in previous years. However, what struck me, and was pointed out by our host, there was such a strong mutual respect for each other on the VTHS team, clear love for what we do and a focus on the education and students.
As we spoke, there was a constant appreciation stated for each others contributions to the success of Valley Torah. As stated, there was neither a plan or a discussion prior about making sure we look like a team. It just is the way we are and I was so happy to see that it was obvious to those who did not know us. In regard to the school itself, everything we spoke about was focused on what we do to educate, grow and support our students. Yes, we spoke about the many innovative programs we have, are integrating and plan to integrate, but never at the expense of our core mission that the students are our priority. We were not a PR machine. We were ourselves. We were, as we are, a group of educators who love what we do and the students for whom we do it for. In fact, Rabbi Stulberger set this tone at the start of the meeting when he very clearly made the point that each parent must choose the school that is right for their child, regardless of whether it is or is not VTHS. That is the bottom line. We are committed to ensuring each and every student at Valley Torah is successful and is in the right environment for them. This is not always an easy task, but we strive for the continued and growing success that we have. At the end of the night, I walked away a proud member of the VTHS team and realized that we do not require any talking points to make clear what we are doing at VTHS. We live the talking points.
This week was the first official VTHS “Winterim.” What is Winterim you ask? It might be the greatest thing since a student started selling hot churros at the VTHS breakfast cafe. Yet, I was asked many times before the Winterim started why we have school if we are not “learning.” I find this problematic. First let me explain what Winterim is and then I can get into the issue.
Winterim is a term used by many schools to describe a special set of days dedicated to special programming. For those interested in the etymology of the word it is the combining of “Winter” and “Interim” to describe a temporary period during the winter. Will this be on the vocab quiz this week? Maybe. In my experience Winterim is generally at the end of the first semester or at the start of second semester and can last up to a week or even two. This being the first year of Winterim at VTHS, we ran it for two days although special programming this week is not new to VTHS and many Jewish day schools.
Many Jewish day schools have school on December 25th. Why? Well, our students could likely answer that question as they were treated to a shiur by Rabbi Biron on that very topic as part of the Winterim schedule. For those who missed it, in short, Jewish schools do not give off on Christmas as it is a religious non-Jewish holiday and it should not look like we are celebrating a religious holiday of another religion. Rabbi Biron explained this based on a psak (ruling of Jewish law) by Rav Moshe Feinstein and did a wonderful job going into the details, history and philosophical reasons for this decision. Lightheartedly, he did start the shiur with the caveat that he himself did not make the rule for the school, but that he did believe in it. The students seemed satisfied, but the decision still leaves the school with some logistical issues as many of our General Studies staff are not available on the 25th and the afternoon of the 24th. Thus, Winterim was born!
Winterim is an opportunity to focus on special learning opportunities and student bonding activities. This is something we are very good at in general, but these days afford a deeper dive into them. The 24th and 25th of this week began with the usual meaningful davening and amazing Torah classes that lead into the Winterim programming. Each grade had a Principal Project workshop where they were teamed up with partners to explore, depending on which grade they are in, professions, colleges and social entrepreneurship projects they are interested in. They brainstormed about their various projects, developed questions they need to answer and left with a suggested list of further questions to help frame their research for the next phase of the project. The 9th-11th grades had individual college guidance workshops and the 12th grade had an Israel Yeshiva guidance workshop. Students were also treated to special pizza and sushi lunches based on various competitions they had won. The 9th and 10th grade spent time designing a new logo for the school, which led to some very creative ideas. There was a student council led dodgeball tournament and arcade and, finally, the entire school had the opportunity to hear from our guest speaker, Mr. Baruch Cohen, Esq. All in all, it was a wonderful two days filled with enjoyable Torah learning, inspiring presentations, exciting passion based workshops, helpful guidance and fun activities. Yet, there were still some students that questioned the wisdom in having full days if we did not have General Studies classes.
The question is certainly a good one, but illustrates to me a myopic view of learning that many students today have been indoctrinated into years before they reached high school. This view is that learning only happens in a classroom, sitting in rows, listening to a lecture, while ferociously taking notes and taking tests to illustrate retention of what is in those notes. When the educational plan or model shifts even ever so slightly it is common to hear the rebell yell defending the sanctity of “learning.” One, at VTHS we do not believe that learning should or does only happen in this myopic framework. Two, the idea that learning did not occur during these two days is truly without merit.
In these two days, besides the morning Torah classes, our students learned in so many ways.
- Through the Principal Project Workshops our students continued to build their collaborative skills by working in teams. They developed and focused on their personal interests, designed a plan of inquiry into those passions and laid the groundwork for further research.
- Through the College Guidance and Israel Yeshiva Workshops they learned about what they need to think about, research and accomplish in and out of high school to get into the colleges of their choice and had a thoughtful and in-depth discussion about life in Yeshiva in Israel.
- Through the logo design “challenge” our students learned art skills, collaborative creativity and school pride.
- With Rabbi Biron’s shiur our students learned why we have school on Christmas and, possibly more importantly, what it means to be proud as a Jew while respecting others who hold different beliefs.
- With Mr. Cohen’s presentation our students learned how David (of David and Goliath fame) was far from an underdog and that each and every single one at VTHS has unique and powerful talents.
- Finally, through the fun student council activities, our students saw models of leadership in our student council members, had a great time and practiced healthy competition.
Was there “learning” during Winterim? You better believe it. Do I think we should have more learning like this? You better believe it.
This week began the interview process for potential incoming 9th graders. I have been enjoying meeting the future of Valley Torah and it got me thinking about if anyone is preparing these students for the interviews. Not that anyone that I have met has done a poor job. In fact, I have been very impressed. However, as someone who sat on the other side of the interview table many times in my life any and all tips were always welcome. So here are my tips for any 8th grader looking to come to Valley Torah or any high school for that matter. Good luck!
Don’t worry and be yourself:
You have taken your entrance exam, submitted your transcripts, almost finished middle school and are at the last stage of the application process. You have worked really hard to get to this point and should feel good about that. The interview is not a test. It is just a way to get to know you in a way a test can’t. We are interested in knowing what you are interested in and why you are interested in Valley Torah. Just be yourself and you will do great!
Be on time:
Ok. If you are interviewing at a high school the chances are you have little control over punctuality because you are coming with your parents and are not the one driving. However, you can remind your parents that it is important to be on time. Is being late a deal breaker? Of course not, especially if there is a good reason. Yet, being late can mean having to reschedule the interview and it is not best way to start the interview.
Dress for success:
This does not mean you have to come in a suit and tie. However, it also means it would probably not look great to come in shorts and a T-Shirt. Your regular school uniform will be just fine. By dressing nicely you are saying that you are taking the interview seriously and that goes a long way.
I know this sounds like a tall order. I mean come on, you are only thirteen year old! I don’t mean you have to know everything you want to be and everything you are yet. That will come with time and high school will help with that. However, be prepared to talk about some of the things you like, what you are good at and even some of the things you know you need to work on. Why? Because you will be asked to describe yourself either in general or in specific areas like your academics, what you do for fun or what you like or don’t like about school.
We can’t make you like school, but we are looking for students who generally do like school. Valley Torah is a wonderful school to learn in and we hope you are excited about coming here. Does that mean you have had to like every class you ever took? Of course not. What it means is you should come prepared to talk about some of the things that you do like about school. Every student is different and have had different experiences with the schools they are currently in. We understand that. However, there is generally something you liked and we want to hear about it. Of course, if you like many things we would love to hear about that as well.
Know something about the school
It is always good to come to the interview knowing about the school. This should be easy if you came to the open house and heard all about us. Use that information to describe why you want to come to Valley Torah. If you missed the open house, check the website, speak to some friends or ask your parents what they know about the school. If you still have questions, bring them to the interview.
Always have a question
In most interviews in life you will likely be asked if you have any questions for the interviewers. Be prepared with at least one. It should be about the school. Don’t ask what the interviewers favorite color is, but you could ask what clubs the school currently has.
I hope you found these tips helpful. Click here for a clip from Jewlarious.com, a website of Aish.com, from the movie The Internship of an interview gone pretty wrong, but somehow saved at the end. Enjoy!
I am sick of talking about technology. I want to be talking about education. Yet, the current discussion around “21st Century Learning” always seems to revolve around the technology when it needs to be focused on the teaching and learning. Don’t get me wrong. I feel strongly that technology can and should be integrated meaningfully into the classroom. However, for it to be integrated meaningfully it has to be ubiquitous. When it becomes a focal point of the learning experience, the driver of the class or the educational outcome we have failed. We have missed the point of educational technology which is that the word “education” comes first.
I showed this video below during our General Studies staff meeting this week and asked what it meant to them.
The reason I showed this video was to spark a discussion about the fundamental role of the teacher, which has nothing to do with whether you can use a smartboard or an iPad. As the author of the video states, a great teacher guides the social process of learning with an ability to excite, challenge and inspire their student to want to learn. Their goal to is help each student think and to make every student feel that they are important. This can be done without technology and there are times when it must be. That is why I suppose I am sick of talking about technology.
A great teacher should be driven by the above values and know when and what technology can be used to engage students and help them think. In the 21st Century, more than ever we need to be talking about the fundamentals of great teaching and then how to integrate technology to support those fundamentals. When we don’t do that we run the risk of what many teachers often state they are afraid of, which is that technology is being touted as a teacher replacement. I do not share that fear because I believe strongly that technology can never replace a great teacher. However, I put the emphasis on the word “great.” As said in the video, if the goal of a teacher is just to transmit information than we have much more efficient ways to do that with technology.
I am often asked as I travel to various places to present why I would spend so much time talking about technology knowing that with outsourcing and such that I am undermining job security in that computers could replace teachers. To that I respond, If you can be replaced by a computer then you probably should be! The truth is that technology will never replace teachers, however teachers who know how to use technology effectively to help their students connect and collaborate together online will replace those who do not.
She is correct that technology will never replace teachers, but only when teachers understand and are proficient in their fundamental role. I also believe that when they understand that, as do our teachers at Valley Torah, then they will also understand the value of technology in the classroom and are not intimidated or defensive about it. The technology is not the educator, but rather the tool that supports the engagement, inspiration and challenges that help our students to think and connect to the learning. It is a tool. I would add that I think it is “the tool.” As Adam Bellow says “Ed tech is not the icing on the cake; it is the dough.”
On that note, I would like to share Mr. Bellow’s keynote address at the 2013 ISTE conference where I heard that line for the first time and was inspired by his words, his presentation style and the actual presentation slides themselves. Enjoy!
Today is Thanksgiving. While I am grateful for many things like my family and friends, in regard to VTHS, I am grateful to be at a school that means so much to me, to have a boss who I have respected and admired for years, to have such a strong partner in Rabbi Felt, an amazing team of educators, a dedicated board, involved parents and a wonderful student body. However, over the years, I have wondered whether today really is a “kosher” day to be thankful? So, I did some research and here is what I came up with.
Thanksgiving to most is a day of Football games, golf tournaments, family gatherings, cranberry sauce and the coveted basted turkey. It is a day off from work or school, a time to relax and has seemingly nothing to do with Judaism. While Thanksgiving is not a religious holiday, it is certainly a secular American holiday, which raises the question of whether Jews in America should take part in this turkey feast. Is Thanksgiving Kosher? A closer examination of this butterball bonanza give us some insights to properly answer this question. We begin at the beginning.
As the history books report (students can ask Mr. Safi or Mr. Rutschman to confirm), the first thanksgiving was celebrated in 1621 by a group of Colonists from the Plymouth Plantation and about 90 Native Americans. They had gathered for a three day event to give thanks for their first successful harvest. This event of “thanksgiving” was adopted by many in the years that followed. However, it was not until the first President of the United States , George Washington, proclaimed in 1789 that there should be an official day of “thanksgiving and prayer”. It is this proclamation that deserves great attention as caramelized yams and half-time shows do not highlight the true intention of this day. It is also this proclamation and true purpose of the day that could help us with our question. So, without further ado, the first Thanksgiving proclamation:
By THE PRESIDENT of the United States of America .
WHEREAS it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the Providence of Almighty God; to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor; and,
WHEREAS both Houses of Congress have by their joint committee requested me to recommend to the people of the United States a day of public Thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness:
Now, therefore, I do recommend and assign Thursday, the 26th day of November next, to be devoted by The people of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be, that we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection of the people of this country previous to their becoming a nation; for the signal and manifold mercies and favorable interpositions of His Providence, which we experienced in the course and confusion of the late war; for the great degree of tranquility, union and plenty, which we have since enjoyed; for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national one now lately instituted; for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and in general for all the great and various favors which He hath been pleased to confer upon us.
And, also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the Great Lord and Ruler of Nations, and beseech Him to pardon our national and other transgressions, to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually, to render our National Government a blessing to all the people by constantly being a government of wise, just and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed, to protect and guide all sovereigns and nations (especially such as have shown kindness to us) and to bless them with good government peace and concord.
To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the increase of science among them and us, and generally to grant unto all mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as He alone knows to be best.
Given under my hand at the City of New York the third day of October in the year 1789.
(Source: The Massachusetts Centinel, Wednesday, October 14, 1789)
What a highly inspirational proclamation that does not appear to mention cheerleaders or smoked meats. It really seems focused on connecting with G-d, humbling ourselves and, above all, giving thanks to our creator. In fact, the thanksgiving proclamation appears to have much in common with Jewish values and our daily rituals of giving thanks to G-d. It certainly does not appear to promote one religion over another. It just appears to suggest that we put aside a day during the year where we give forth our appreciation for the many freedoms and provisions G-d has afforded us. What would not be Kosher about this? As Jews, we put time aside three times daily to thank G-d and have many blessing of thanks that we recite numerous times throughout the day. This holiday seems right up our alley. However, it takes more than an inspirational proclamation to green light the adoption of a secular holiday into our Jewish homes. It takes great Jewish minds who understand the great depths of Jewish law. So, we turn to the great Rabbis of our time who have been asked this very same question.
Rav Hutner, the late Rosh HaYeshiva of Mesivta Chaim Berlin and Torah luminary argued that we should not celebrate the holiday. He stated that, although its origins may not be religiously based, it has become an annual holiday observed by non-Jews. In turn, we should distance ourselves from such activities as it has become similar to other non-Jewish holidays that are not permissible to celebrate. However, other great Rabbis, such as Rav Moshe Feinstein and Rav Joseph Soloveitchik rule it permissible as it is not in any way a religious holiday. It exists as a gathering of friends and family to show citizenship and appreciation for being Americans. In fact, according to most Jewish authorities, celebrating Thanksgiving is permissible as long as Jewish law is observed and it is not celebrated with people who integrate religious worship into it. Interestingly, it is said that Rabbi Soloveitchik would reschedule his shiur (Torah class) for early in the day on Thanksgiving in order to allow time for the celebration of Thanksgiving.
While the origins of Thanksgiving might slowly be getting lost in today’s turkey fest and football madness, the meaning behind the day still remains whether we acknowledge it or not. As Jews, we are certainly aware of the concept of giving thanks to G-d and might feel no need to participate in an activity once a year that we do daily. However, on the day created for all Americans to stop and acknowledge G-d’s presence, we may consider joining them. We may, as Jewish Americans, consider giving thanks for the fact that we can sit around a table with our Jewish friends and family, eat a kosher Turkey and say Birkat HaMazon (say grace after the meal) without fear of persecution. Nevertheless, whether we celebrate thanksgiving or not, it can certainly be a welcome reminder to, as President Washington proclaimed, give G-d “our sincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection of the people of this country.”