July 16, 2009

Yaakov Blumenthal, Head of School
Jewish Community Day School of Baltimore
510 Park Street, Baltimore, MD 03445

Dear Principal Blumenthal,
Another school year has gone by! When I started as a new teacher eight years ago, I never imagined that I would be so involved in the community here at JCDSB. I feel that we are particularly challenged at our school to foster that sense of community when our families are spread so far apart in the area. We should feel truly blessed that parents have prioritized providing their children with a Jewish education.

As you know, I have been continuing my professional development as an educator in order to enrich my practice. I hope that you don't mind if I share with you some of the ideas I have been contemplating, especially in terms of how we might bring some new practices to our own school. These ideas are primarily the result of studying two texts with fellow educators: Vision at Work by Daniel Pekarsky and The Power of Their Ideas by Deborah Meier. It's interesting to note that while Vision is about an innovative Jewish day school in New York, it was from The Power, which outlines the forces at work behind an alternative public school in the historically disadvantaged East Harlem, that I drew most of my ideas. I know that you have been adamant about creating a school culture that is led by its teachers, so I thought I might contribute some thoughts, both from these texts and thoughts that have been swimming around in my head lately.

The most blaring feature of our school is its smallness. As an elementary and middle school, 250 children is on the small end. We only have 50 kindergarteners, and around 25 students in each grade. Most of these children have been with us or will be with us for several consecutive years. Some would say that this is a challenge, but I feel like it is a blessing. There are so many advantages to having a small student body, yet I feel that we are not taking full advantage of what this could mean for our school and our greater school community.

I would like to outline a few steps we can take in order to use our small size to our advantage:
Collaboration: The teachers and staff can all fit in the same room. This means we can work together in ways that larger schools cannot. This smallness allows for open communication and collaboration. As it stands, teachers do work collaboratively and talk with one another, but they do not, for the most part, share their work for feedback and shared use to the extent that they could. Collaboration at this school manifests as talking about Leah or Isaiah in terms of the quality of their work, sharing information about their external conditions (family, events, moods), but this is only one aspect of collaboration.

Here's what I envision: teachers can talk to one another about what they are doing in their own classes, and teachers can look for opportunities to integrate across subjects. This might manifest as themes running throughout school, which will create an excited atmosphere, and also teach the children to talk to one another across grade levels about what they are doing in their classes. It also provides opportunities for students from older classes to work with younger children.

On a professional level, this allows for teacher-to-teacher observation and feedback. When two teachers work together, they might take turns in observing one another in order to provide feedback (I will elaborate on this).

I believe that every teacher should have some knowledge of one another's subject matter. This can be accomplished by holding meetings weekly or biweekly. This meeting would look something like a discussion meets show-and-tell. It is our responsibility as educators to embody the learning that we want to instill in the students. This can be modeled by learning from our own talented staff! We should be learning from one another—learning the subject matter, learning the craft of teaching, learning about one another's passions and talents. We might prioritize time—specific days/meetings/seminars—where teachers can set aside time to learn from one another (for example, the science teacher can give a mini-lesson on science to the other teachers). We should be proficient across subjects; we do, after all, expect this from our students!

Some ideas I had about collaboration are as follows: teaming up—allows for integration and observation/feedback. This would play out in a scenario where the fifth math teacher could come into a history lesson, for example, and give a lesson on the type of math and tools being used during Medieval Times. Or students from different grade levels, say fourth and kindergarten, can work together on a literacy lesson. One teacher would serve in the capacity of the observer, and the other in the capacity of the observed. The two would then set aside an hour to discuss and give feedback and suggestions.

Choice and Community: Aside from our smallness, we should take advantage of the fact that parents choose to send their children here! Because our school is one that parents choose, we already have an advantage of having a somewhat cohesive community. We can assume that parents care about their children's Jewish education and have some level of investment (or willingness to invest) in the school community. Let's take advantage of that and try to expand our activities and enrich our curriculum. One of the disadvantages of being a small school is that we don't always have the human resources to offer specialized programs. Let's draw parents in! I know of a day school in California that asked a parent to come in and start a tzedakah project—which expanded to a volunteer after-school leadership development program in which students raise $14,000 in money to give away to charities that the whole school decided upon. This is an example of the enrichment made possible by parent involvement.

On the same note, I believe that our school should be open and accessible to our stakeholders. Too often have I seen parents asked not to hang around outside of the classroom. Let's make the classroom
and curricula publicly available to our stakeholders.

We might expand our parent and community outreach in the following ways: let's push for more parents to join the children in Kabbalat Shabbat services on Fridays. Currently
, only three or four mothers show up regularly. Perhaps if the service were student-led and personalized by the students and their families, we could expand this into a rich tradition. Parents, however, are not the only stakeholders. The larger community cares about our school and the children. Let's invite members of the community to join us for certain events and celebrations. Let's be more open and collaborative to and with the members of the community that care about the children's success.

Vision-guided: Lastly, I would like to propose that we carefully construct a guiding vision that would be the underlying drive for what we teach and do. This vision, to be effective, would be strong and selective. This might run the risk of alienating some of our families, but this can be addressed with a big push to rally the community around our vision. If we can stand by it, the community would see the merit of having a strong and finite vision. Having such a vision allows for us to more clearly define what drives our curriculum, and allows us a vantage point from which to assess what we teach and how we teach it.

You may have heard of Jewish schools in New York creating this type of guiding vision, and you may assume that they have luxuries that we don't in our small Jewish community (because of the plethora of Jewish schools there, parents can be selective in which school to send their children to). Even though we are the “only game in town” as far as Jewish community day schools, we can still hope to create a strong vision to power our school. I'll talk about the challenges of this task first, and then I will detail the advantages of creating and implementing a guiding vision. First of all, parents send their children here for a Jewish education, not necessarily
our brand of Jewish education. They do not send their children here for exploratory learning, or democratic processes. We can agree, however, that there are some common threads in the reasons they do consider in sending their children here: Torah study, good deeds, and good work.

I think the advantages of having a strong guiding vision outweigh the challenges of creating one. Our greatest challenge will be to rally parents around our guiding vision and get them on board. Because our students come from a variety of religious and socio-economic backgrounds, I think we should avoid trying to incorporate every opinion and every voice in the vision. A strong and effective vision is the work of educators (taking the parents' ideas into account, of course). The activity of creating a vision might look like this: we could hold a series of brainstorming activities based on answering the following question: What matters most to us? This can be answered in a parent's voice, or a community member's voice, or an educator's voice. I think it is important to piece together a guiding vision. I suspect I can already speculate some of the pieces of this vision: (a) encouraging inquiry-based learning (in which students generate their own questions and curiosities within the specific subjects), (b) relating Torah and text study to areas of science, literacy, math, nature, etc., especially in the arenas of tradition, family, human connections, fairness, ethics, and
tikkun olam, (c) a strong social agenda: active involvement in the community, giving tzedakah, based on what the students determine matters most to them; and (d) creating standards and methods of evaluation that make sense to our school community.

I think we might be surprised what our guiding vision turns out to be, but keep in mind that this should be an evolving piece, with the awareness that trying to reach wide consensus may turn into a vague, unimplementable vision. Implementation takes hard work. It would like require teacher reflection and collaboration, and meetings between you and the teachers (if you choose to take on this task) to ensure that we are teaching with clear and distinct purpose. Executing a guiding vision with require evaluation and reevaluation, but we are lucky in this respect: as a small school we have the ability to make quick decisions and experiment without a cumbersome bureaucracy to slow up down.

Thank you for taking the time to consider these recommendations. I hope that you will find them useful. I am available to discuss these further with you, and I look forward to our continued work together.