Friday, May 30, 2014

Senior Exploration: The SAR Final Frontier

By: Mr. Michael Courtney, Associate Director of College Counseling

How is senior year different from all other years?  Eight years ago, before the first senior class of SAR High School, a committee of faculty members and administrators sat to plan what senior year should look like.  With a desire to make senior year a bridge between high school and post-high school, and a healthy appreciation of how much seniors in May of senior year want to be sitting in classes, doing homework, and taking tests (answer: not very), one of their ideas was Senior Exploration.  Despite many refinements in the ensuing years, the idea of Senior Ex. remains the same: after three and a half years of us telling the students what we think they should learn, this is their opportunity to direct their learning to their own areas of interest.
      For five weeks following Pesach and before graduation, the curriculum is modified and seniors are released for a considerable number of hours to work on Senior Exploration. The majority of students pursue some type of fieldwork, a large number independently generate creative projects, and a select few conduct advanced research.  Regardless of the topic, the seniors incorporate the Grand Conversation within their project.  They spend time learning with Judaic Studies faculty on how to incorporate a piece of Talmud, Tanakh, or other prominent Judaic source within their individual theme.     
      The fieldwork options are limitless as students shadow working adults in professions like medicine, law, advertising, architecture, non-profit management, education, real estate, and many others.  Some of the creative projects that SAR seniors have produced have been quite memorable.  Most of these fulfill the –ing gerund: building, painting, designing, writing, filming, recording, etc.  Last year, two students (Noam Spira and Daniella Herman) embarked upon a novel Senior Exploration concept: raising chickens.  One senior raised his chickens within the SAR High School building, to Nick’s boundless delight, while another in the backyard of her home (we did not ask her parents how they felt about that.)  Gabriel Santoriello created a chainmail armor shirt, meticulously spending hundreds of hours stitching together the medieval garment.  In event of a siege by archers and lance-wielders, he will be well-protected.  Two years ago, Alex Katz decided to film a documentary about Senior Exploration; it ended up being featured in the initial presentation of Senior Exploration to the following year’s 12th grade class.  This year, many members of the Class of 2014 have mesmerized the faculty with their creativity.  Kayla Roisman decided to combine her passion for photography and desire to build community through her Humans of SAR Facebook page.  Arielle Firestone wrote, produced, and sang original songs in Gaelic.  One of her faculty judges, school nurse Russi Bohm, exclaimed, "I didn't understand the words she was saying but I wanted to buy the CD.  The music was beautiful."  Finally, a number of seniors are given the approval to spend their hours in the library where they research and write a paper about a subject that they are passionate about and have not yet had the opportunity to study in depth.  
      One of the highlights of the Senior Exploration program is that it pairs the seniors with many of our faculty members.  The students have the opportunity to work with a mentor throughout the second semester.  The faculty mentor acts as a guiding hand, offering advice and insight while ensuring that the student stays on top of his/her Senior Exploration requirements.  At times, the mentor has connections to a field where the student ends up spending the required hours.  In fact, Zevi Blumenfrucht (class of 2008) parlayed his phenomenal Senior Exploration placement in the business industry, courtesy of a Mr. Alon Krausz contact, into a full-time job offer.     
      In addition to working together with the faculty, many of the 12th graders have the privilege of shadowing SAR parents other than their own during these five weeks.  Over the years, scores of SAR parents have generously opened their offices to our students, educating them on their respective professions, enabling them to sit in on important meetings, and delegating essential tasks.  The students gain a great appreciation for how hard SAR parents work!    
      As the culmination of his or her project, every senior presents her or his Senior Exploration in front of their mentor and two faculty judges.  Family and friends are invited to observe the senior’s final graduation requirement, which becomes not just an evaluation but a celebration of what the senior has achieved.  It is typical to find seniors sitting in on their fellow classmates' presentations throughout the day.  Senior Exploration is a unique capstone to students’ experiences as members of Sting Nation.

Testimonial from Josh Gurin (SAR HS '13):
"Senior Exploration gave me the opportunity to think outside the box and do something memorable and special. I built a basketball court because it was something I could put my heart in and it is only because of the opportunity given to me that my project was successful, and I will have that forever."


Sunday, May 18, 2014

The Call to Reveal: Developing Self-Knowing and Empathy within our Students

By: Dr. Mark Shinar, Director of General Studies

For the past five years, I have taught a twelfth grade English elective called Contemporary American Short Stories. This past year, in addition to the traditional literary analysis that rests at the foundation of the course, I was very interested in studying how the stories that we read and wrote would provide the students with a different type of understanding: an understanding of self. I wanted the stories to teach the students a deeper sense of empathy for others and inspire within them a willingness to share their own personal truths as a way to connect. I have dubbed this notion “The Call to Reveal.” 

As a person who is deeply committed to stories, I have learned that narrative, all narrative, inspires this call to reveal. We make meaning of our lives through the stories that we tell, and when we tell these stories, we also make personal connections. As such, there is not one uniform understanding of any story, and that is how we reach an appreciation for multiple, valid interpretations. By telling stories and revealing pieces of themselves, students learn that they are storied people. They bring their narratives to the table as a way of understanding themselves and their peers, as well as the stories that they have read in class.

To punctuate this point, I added a Performance Poetry unit to the second semester of the course, a time that could easily become less rigorous and demanding for graduating seniors. When I first introduced the unit and its goals to the students, I admit that they reacted with a mixture of incredulity and disdain. There was no way, they almost collectively claimed, that they could write, memorize, and perform a piece of poetry in front of the class. This was not what they had signed up for, and given the fact that it was second semester, the time commitment seemed too high and the task too daunting. 

We persisted, and in doing so, I am proud to say that the students were met with tremendous success. After learning and practicing the skills of performance poetry, which included in-class writing exercises and peer reviews, and watching countless video performances on YouTube, the students received their assignment. 
  • The Topic of the Poem: “You Don’t Know Me”
  • The Assignment: A 2-3 minute performance piece, written and memorized. Students were required to incorporate rich language and poetic devices, pay attention to the elements of performance that they had learned, and most importantly, honor The Call to Reveal.
  • The Promise: Over the week of performances, the class would transform into an audience; all readings were met with gentle snaps instead of raucous applause, and all voices and ideas were honored and supported.
On the whole, the poems, which ranged from charmingly funny to seriously poignant, were extremely moving. The support that the students gave one another throughout the process was also remarkably noteworthy. After the performances, I asked the kids to write self-reflective pieces that also evaluated the effectiveness of the unit itself. Here are a few of the comments that I received from the seniors:
  • By showing us videos of performances, I got very excited about creating my own poem, and I was motivated to do so. At first, I did not think that I could do it because it seemed impossible, but in the end, I learned a lot about myself and what I can do.
  • The performance poetry unit was amazing. I wish it went on for longer. That week was very special for everyone in the class because everyone opened up, and it taught us so much about each person and about ourselves. Public speaking is difficult for me and so was performing the poem, but I am so happy I was able to do it. I really feel like I accomplished something. I think performance poetry is such an amazing art and it really lets the poet open up in a safe space – which is the same goal as short stories, and all literature – the call to reveal. 
  • I was able to uncover more about myself than I would have thought. I also didn’t realize that I could write good stories that meant a lot to me. But, I was really able to know myself when I wrote my slam poem. I was able to show the class something about myself that I really care about.
  • I do not have to tell you, because you already know, but performance poetry was SUCH a hit. I can admit it now, because the assignment is over, but I wrote my poem two days before performing it. The weeks before that I was working on an entirely different poem that I planned on performing. It was not really a call to reveal, it was not so personal, but it was safe. Your class has taught me that “safe” rarely produces a powerful paper. Being risky and vulnerable is what makes a topic endearing.  
  • One of the most surprising units in the course was the poetry unit. Most of the class was appalled by the idea, and I was no exception. I rarely voice my personal opinions or take time to reflect on myself. The poem made me think about certain aspects of my character that I have never given time to think about. The poem may have been intended to educate my classmates on who I am, but it simultaneously educated me on who I am. 
  • Of course, as with most of my classmates, the performance poetry unit was my favorite because it combined writing ability, creativity, and empathy all in one assignment.           

When writing creatively, students tend to place themselves as the heroes in their own stories, but the narratives that help them grow the most are much more grueling and uncomfortable. They are the ones that push them to reveal their shortcomings, as well as their victories; to acknowledge and honor the valleys, not just the peaks. What surprised me most about this unit is not how well the students did with the assignment, but that it showed us, myself included, how the writing of story can reorient students towards a better understanding of themselves and their peers. Stories, whether they are fiction or not, help us make meaning out of our lives. They push us towards a heightened level of awareness of how we listen to others, empathize with them, and understand their perspectives to be as equal and as valid as our own. In the end, the students’ lives became that much more enriched by truly listening and learning from the stories that surround them every day.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Seeking the Right Jewish Fit for My College Experience

By: Ms. Marjorie Jacobs, Director of College Counseling

College choice is a matter of much discussion in the College Counseling Center at SAR High School and tailoring that choice to the religious life of our community is perhaps the greatest challenge confronting observant Jewish students.  While many are enticed by the choice of college as an opportunity to select the ‘best’ (most selective) college, after reflection that broad choice narrows down significantly to focus on colleges that are the ‘best’ fit, ones that offer lifestyle options that more seamlessly match the traditions of our community.  

While each year the options for Jewish life on campus broaden and colleges are adding kosher meal plans one-by-one, the heart and soul of a Jewish community is not merely the dietary requirements of our community; it resides in the day-to-day experiences of our students.  The opportunity to venture beyond the twenty or so colleges that are known to have vibrant Jewish communities is enticing; yet, realistically, our students who select these options often find themselves confronting unsustainable and unacceptable lifestyle choices. Parents look to the college counselors for support in the perplexing, seemingly daunting, process. Students, on the other hand, are more adventurous, more inclined to experiment and more confident that they will ‘make it work’ on diverse campuses.  It is not unusual for students to go to Israel for a year and return deeply concerned about the campus they have selected.  Perhaps the year of maturation, living independently for the first time and/or the religious connections reinforced during that intense experience have transformed their view and tempered their certainty.  

At SAR, our guidelines for college selection include a strong focus on the Jewish community. Students are encouraged to spend a regular Shabbat on campus instead of or in addition to an organized Shabbaton experience.  We suggest that our students connect with other observant students on campus, not merely SAR graduates, but also those who represent a cross section of Jewish students.  Since daily life does involve tefillah and kashrut among other things, dining as well as joining in the daily communal experience sheds light on the life of students.  Given the luxury of a strong Jewish community both at school and at home, it is sometimes difficult for students to imagine life in the secular world of college.  Respecting diversity and seeking to interface meaningfully with those from other communities are values that SAR nurtures, but we do so within a context of a meaningful Jewish communal experience.  We see the Jewish community on campus as both a support and a guide through the college journey, a journey that represents the passage from adolescence into adulthood.

The ‘Right Jewish Fit for My College Experience’ is truly the most serious consideration students have as they seek to match their intellectual, social and ultimately career goals through their college experience.  The SAR college counseling team is acutely aware of the important role we play and are committed to helping our students through this process.

Friday, May 2, 2014

אשר קדשנו במצוותיו וצונו On Teaching Commandedness

By: Ms. Lisa Schlaff, Assistant Principal

              My favorite pasuk in Tanakh to teach is Devarim 5,13:

Here’s why: In Sefer Devarim we are commanded to keep Shabbat in order to let our slaves rest. We are not going to let our slaves rest if we are not resting ourselves; the commandment that everyone must rest is only to ensure that the weak in society are looked after. Shabbat, often thought of as the ultimate mitzvah between man and God, is defined here as a means for fulfilling our mission to create a just society.

This is a powerful concept to teach. The notion that underlying many of the mitzvot we often categorize as between man and God is God’s call for us to better the world gives us a deeper sense of their purpose. Kashrut can be understood as a condemnation of cruelty; the laws of purity can be understood as testifying to the value of life, and even tzizit can be understood as a statement that in the eyes of God all members of society are equal. In fact, I find the categorization of mitzvot into those “between man and God” and those “between man and man,”  which we now take for granted, to be an unhelpful one. It obscures the powerful expressions of justice inherent in the mitzvot. It leaves us to understand certain mitzvot as arbitrary rituals of obedience when in truth they are really about our mission to better the world.

Students love learning this pasuk because it makes sense. They love learning it because it helps redefine something we do blindly as something that has societal value. And they love learning it because it is fascinating to engage in discussion about what it means to keep Shabbat nowadays in order that “our slaves may rest.”

And yet, as much as this approach to mitzvot speaks to all of us, it concerns me. My responsibility as an educator is to convey to students a sense of how mitzvot further our mission in the world, and that at their core, mitzvot are about being good. But it is also my responsibility to convey a sense of commandedness; that God instructs us not only to be good, but that God sets the parameters of what good is, that we are not left to determine for our individual selves what we think good should be. Our understanding must be grounded in the teachings of God’s laws. I am commanded to create a just society. While I may have my own ideas of what a just society would be and how to go about creating it, the society I am commanded to create is the one that embodies justice as defined by God. And I am part of a tradition that for thousands of years has been trying to define the contours of that path.

So I try not to draw a distinction between mitzvot that are God-focused and mitzvot that are more overtly ethical in nature. My starting point is helping students understand that mitzvot are about goodness, and my ending point is that we alone don’t define what goodness is. The beginning is easy and affirms our inherent sense of justice; the second is difficult and rails against our sense of individual autonomy. Especially if you are a teenager.

How do we teach commandedness in a world in which individual autonomy is paramount? I do not pretend to have the answer to this question, but I will offer two suggestions that have been percolating lately.

1. Increase our focus on halakha: We need to teach halakha not only so that students know how to properly observe shabbat or kashrut, but so that they see themselves as insiders to an intricate system the very basis of which is commandedness. The more discourse there is about halakha, the more natural it becomes to feel “commanded.”

2. Say “I don’t know” more often: We need to model the notion that we don’t have all of the answers. There are certain things we do simply out of a sense of obligation and it is important to make that explicit to students. Showing our students that we live our lives with a sense of commandedness resonates powerfully, because it is true.

And so when I teach Devarim 5,13 we discuss what it means to create a just society, but also how different and more powerful that meaning becomes when the creation of a just society is a commandment. We discuss the notion that mitzvot are so much greater than my individual needs, and yet protect my individual needs. And we discuss the fact that while we bless God for the commandments, being commanded is in itself, a blessing.