Head of School Blog
During the Civic Awards Brunch this past weekend, I was moved to see incredible seniors that I was fortunate to teach in both first and fourth grades. I was reminded about the role we play in creating leaders of the future. At HBHA, we are fortunate to watch our students flourish, both in our own classrooms and for the remainder of their years in school. I can’t describe the feeling of seeing the little boy who would only write if I sat next to him become a self-assured leader, or the little girl you could barely hear when she read aloud stand up and deliver her graduation speech loud and proud.
Unless you’re a teacher, it’s difficult to understand the feeling when a new class comes in, those students become ‘your kids.’ They stay your kids forever. Whether they smile and spread joy all day or lash out because they’re overwhelmed, we commit ourselves wholly to every child in our care. I’ve watched students who struggled with their fine motor skills pull into the parking lot after passing their driver’s exams and the painfully shy little girl performing fearlessly on stage. I know that I play a small role in those accomplishments, giving children what they need during the time they’re in my care.
At most other schools, when students walk out for the last time in May, teachers’ future interactions with them are limited. At HBHA, we continue to interact with them in the hallways, at programs, on the basketball court, in our school families, at synagogue, and we can chat with their parents in the Rams Cafe. As an educator, being able to see the fruits of our labor is gold.
My path to HBHA, like that of many teachers here, was unique. I attended Northwestern University, most of the time thinking I would become a lawyer. During my senior year, as I dreamed of changing the world, I began to doubt whether law school was for me. Upon graduation, I worked at Chicago’s Jewish United Fund in their Young Leadership Division. I planned many adult education programs and thought, why should it take until adulthood for people to be excited to learn? I decided to go to school for elementary education and have never regretted it.
Shortly after graduating with my Masters in Teaching, our family moved to Kansas City. We never intended on sending our son to Jewish day school, but we sent him to HBHA for kindergarten with the intention of moving to public school later. But he thrived here, and we were hooked for life. We loved the attention our son received and the community that warmly embraced us.
When a teaching position opened the following year, I applied. I could observe that HBHA was a place that appreciated its teachers’ intellect and allowed its faculty to do far more than read from a scripted curriculum. I have always loved planning lessons and units, and I wanted to be able to use my creativity and passion for Judaism in the classroom. Soon after, our daughter began at HBHA. We loved being an HBHA family.
Sixteen years later, I’m still here. During my three-year absence in Holland, I worked with a wonderful staff, but it was not the family we have at HBHA. I am incredibly grateful to work with dedicated and progressive teachers and administrators, who adapt to the curriculum, explore new technology, and embrace best practices. We are constantly turning out children who are the best versions of themselves, and the methods we use change with each class of children and what is happening in the world around us.
My own children are living their best lives in college and the adult world, and a large part of that is due to their upbringing at HBHA.
Teaching is an incredible opportunity and responsibility. I get to teach children what it means to fight for justice when they learn about the civil rights movement and the Holocaust. I have the privilege of helping them through social interactions and engaging them in learning what it means to be a good and kind friend. I get the thrill of seeing lightbulbs go off in their heads every single day. I’m always proud to have played a small part in helping these little humans grow into amazing adults. I’ve found my way to change the world, and it's the best job in the world.
Dear HBHA families,
Last summer, I became deeply focused on “happiness.” How do we find lasting happiness and meaning? How can we teach the skills, mindsets, values and practices of living a happy life? How might prayer, community, curiosity, success, resilience, exercise, rest, and the richness of our traditions affect happiness?
I had the opportunity to attend the Prizmah (Prizmah is the network for Jewish day schools) conference Sunday through Tuesday, where happiness was a point of discussion. Tal Ben-Shahar, the author of a few books I’ve read on the topic of happiness, was the keynote speaker. Aside from being excited at the opportunity to learn from such a distinguished author and professor, I felt validated that my summer project had legs - and that the work of pursuing happiness in education is essential and urgent.
I am proud to say that one of our faculty Professional Learning Communities or "PLC" groups (which met on Late Start Wednesdays in the fall and will continue to meet in the spring) is focused solely on the social and emotional well-being of students at HBHA. We are focused on meeting our kids’ needs and providing them with the education and childhood experiences that they need to sustain them throughout their lives.
HBHA cares deeply about our students- not just as walking brains needing to be filled, but as people with their own unique souls that need to be nourished and supported as they find their own version of happiness. It’s part of what already makes us so special, and we want to continue to grow to become even better, day after day and year after year.
Thank you for sharing your children with us!
Houston, we have a problem.
Last week, there was a watershed moment in Artificial Intelligence. A new program, called ChatGPT, or GPT-3 was released, free to the public, and is available on every phone, tablet and laptop. And it is a big deal. A game changer.
ChatGPT is capable of understanding plain English prompts and writing back in perfect English just seconds later. For example, I asked it to compare the themes of Hamlet and The Great Gatsby in a four-paragraph essay. Done. I asked it to compare and contrast the lives of Rashi and Rambam. Done. I asked it to write a scathing 100-word critique of Newgrass music. Done. I asked it to write a short story about a bird that falls in love with a whale. Done. I asked it to write a study guide for geometry. Done.
It can create menus and then shopping lists. It speaks every language. It can code and write programs for you based on your explanations in plain English. It can write proposals. It can make up its own jokes. It is shockingly and surprisingly powerful, and it is getting better every day. Artificial Intelligence is here, right now, and it is not going away- and it presents challenges to every facet of our economy and education.
Here are my initial takeaways:
- We as a school need to be very proactive in embracing the future. While for many of us, the thought of such technology is frightening and makes us feel like Luddites- our job is to prepare students for their future, not our past. We, as a community of educators, will start to learn, play, imagine, and dream about AI and what this means for our kids. We will be at the forefront of dealing with these challenges.
- As AI begins to take over more and more of the intellectual challenges of being human, what separates us from being animals or machines will become harder to define. Now, more than ever, being part of a Jewish Day School is critical to our long-term health and well-being. Community, connection, ritual, and a feeling of connection to history and communal destiny will become more, not less important in the future.
- Project Based Learning is more important than ever. PBL helps students make learning into action. It asks them to take on real-world challenges, and build knowledge and skills that are beyond the knowledge and capabilities of AI. It pushes students to work together, building skills of leadership, management, delegation, and planning. We have been, and will continue to build our capacity in high-quality, interdisciplinary PBL over the next several years to ensure that what we ask of our students remains relevant, important, and ‘un-hackable.’
I am reminded of a joke, that God once got fed up with the world and warned all the people that s/he was going to flood the world again in a week's time. People of all faiths retreated to their people, fasting, mourning, and praying. The Jewish people got together and said, “Alright people, we have one week to learn how to breathe underwater!” We have faced more than our share of watershed moments and dealt with the ground shifting under our feet. This is one of those moments for us in education. But there is no group of people, and no school more ready to meet these challenges than the Jewish people and the HBHA faculty, staff, and families.
Dear HBHA Families,
We take our athletics program seriously. This might surprise some people who think of us as “People of the Book” and not the “People of the Court.” But we are so proud of our athletes, our coaches, and what competing as a Jewish Day School means to our identity.
Team sports, such as soccer, volleyball, basketball, and cross country - the team sports HBHA offers, are powerful tools in creating a sense of community and camaraderie amongst our students. They build confidence and create opportunities for leadership. They help our students stay physically fit, mentally disciplined, and spiritually centered. The lessons our kids take from our sports program will last for their entire lives.
But we don't just play for the character effects. We play to win, and our teams are GOOD! Yesterday, our Middle School Boys Basketball Team won against Brookside Charter school, our Upper School Girls Basketball Team won against Frontier STEM 49-5 and our Upper School Boys team lost to Frontier STEM 57-52. Our students are fierce and passionate competitors. But win or lose, we come to play as hard as we can, be supportive to each other, and to be positive to our competitors.
But there is another element at play here.
When we play as a team, we play as Jews. We come representing HBHA and the Jewish people. Sure, Jews can play on any team, but in those cases, their Judaism is incidental. We show up as a team of Jews, ready to compete and represent our people.
It's a wonderful symbol of an HBHA education. We are a people determined to engage the world fully and wholly, but also as wholly committed Jews. We don’t hide or shirk from the world in order to pursue our Judaism. We don’t hide our Judaism in order to engage the world. We engage the world AS JEWS. And in doing so, we make the world a better place and bring pride to ourselves and our people.
As someone who went to public school growing up, and faced some bullying and anti-Semitism, I am often touched and awed by the carefree self confidence and assuredness our students feel– by the effortless way they carry their Jewishness and Americanness together in everything they do. It is so beautiful.
If you don't know what I mean, please come watch a basketball game. You will see what this school is all about in the way our kids hold themselves on the court. And you’ll have a great time cheering as well!
I am excited to share with you information about one of our newest endeavors at HBHA: Project Based Learning. Even better, it's coming straight from the source ... one of our teachers!
Project Based Learning
This fall HBHA teachers spent two days learning about Project Based Learning (PBL). PBL teaches students to learn through investigation and respond to a question. During training I thought to myself “this sounds great ... but how in the world will I do this with first graders?” Fast forward two months and the first graders have finished one PBL experience and are in the midst of two more!
Our first PBL experience was a science unit on sound. Highlights included a trip to the science lab and creating musical instruments out of recycled materials like egg cartons, boxes and beads. The unit culminated with a musical performance at Taste of Shabbat.
This week, first graders began learning about light. We opened with a story about a boy who went spelunking and thought he would be able to see without a headlamp. Spoiler alert, he was wrong! The next day, we decoupaged clear visors with three different types of paper (see photo at right). Options included construction paper, tissue paper and cellophane. Once the visors were dry, students tried them on. Within seconds I heard a chorus of “I can’t see!” “Everything looks pink!” “The paper is too thick to see through!” Mission accomplished!
Next week we will discuss translucent, transparent and opaque materials.
Yesterday the weather was rainy and cold, which meant indoor recess ALL DAY. At morning recess, the first graders pulled out a large box of building blocks. By the end of recess, they had built a city! They were so excited about all the things they had built. Landmarks included a stadium, a movie theater, a parking garage and even street lights to name a few.
I did not have the heart to ask them to put the blocks away, so instead we had an impromptu civics lesson. We talked about building a new community and all the things that our new community would need. After the next recess our city had a hospital, a farm, a restaurant, homes and many more important things. There were even a few natural disasters. At the end of the day, we put the blocks away and next week we will continue learning about building a new community.
I went into PBL training questioning how I would use this teaching method in first grade. Today, I see things through a different set of glasses. Before PBL training, I would have demonstrated how light travels through various materials. With PBL, students learned through investigation how different materials allow light to show through. Next week I will teach them the vocabulary to name their experience. Through my own investigation I was able to answer my original question.
First Grade General Studies & Hebrew Resource Teacher
The holidays are over and we made it through a full week at school! I absolutely love the Jewish holiday season, but it feels good to get back to work with more of a routine, doesn’t it? Now that we are returning to some semblance of normality, I am going to begin sending more weekly updates so you are aware of some of the things happening at HBHA outside of the classrooms.
Sometimes in the midst of a journey it is good to check in and make sure you are still on the right path or you might just end up in the wrong place entirely. But it's a funny thing about being lost. If you are lost on the road, you know where you're going, but you don’t know where you are. If you are lost in life, you might know where you are, but not know where you are going. But to truly find one’s way, one must know where one is AND where they are going!
As Head of School, one of the most important roles I play is ensuring our school knows where it is, and knows where it’s going. We are currently embarking on the journey of developing and writing a new strategic plan. In order to do this work properly, we have hired NoTosh, an internationally recognized Design Thinking firm that specializes in working with schools. They have helped hundreds of schools from around the world find their new strategic visions, from the Nanjing International School, to the American School of Warsaw, to Ottawa Community Jewish School.
Instead of simply setting pie-in-the-sky goals without understanding who we are or what is possible and desirable for our community, Design Thinking starts with empathy.
We all know HBHA is a special place. But what are HBHA’s core values that set it apart from all other schools? What is it that makes this place so unique and dear to so many people? The first stage of our strategic plan is to boil down our shared communal vision of HBHA into 5-6 core value statements... our North Star.
This isn’t redefining our school or giving it a new mission statement; but rather it is taking the time to understand who we are already and articulate it in clear and concise terms. This will help us guide every aspect of our program, from academics to Jewish Studies; how we give assessments to how we manage our classrooms; from marketing to how we raise money. By articulating our core values, we will have inspiring shared language and goals to move our school forward, together, towards our desired result.
Simmering down an entire community's values, passions, hopes and dreams into a set of widely agreed upon value statements is not work that is easy or clear cut, but with the help of No Tosh, we feel we are ready to work and up to the task.
No Tosh has helped us build a diverse Design Team, made up of teachers, parents, students, administrators, and community stakeholders. Each member of that team will be interviewing at least 10 people in their social network to hear the voices of our entire community. Just that interview process will bring together the voices of almost 200 people that love and care about HBHA.
Over the course of the next few months, we will continue to solicit feedback from the community. This is the community's school and we want to continue to support its growth and pursuit of excellence on our own terms. This is our chance to set that path for the next 5-10 years.
This is a year-long process, and more updates are sure to come. I am excited to share this process with you, and I hope you feel some of the same enthusiasm and energy we at HBHA feel about this process!
It has been a wonderful start to the school year! There is a palpable sense of joy and excitement coming from everyone - teachers, students, even (and maybe especially) parents! We are thrilled to have everyone back in person and looking forward to an awesome year!
It takes a lot of work to open the school in a way that looks effortless. The faculty and staff have spent the past two weeks working tirelessly to set up their classrooms and engage in teacher training. Over the past two weeks, our team has:
- engaged in training about safety and security with Chuck Green, the Jewish Community Director of Security;
- reviewed HBHA's COVID safety protocols with Nurse Elisa Pener; and
- done a deep dive into Project Based Learning, which you will hear more about in a future email.
In addition, HBHA School Psychologist Sara Whelan has already brought together Middle and Upper School student leaders for a Sources of Strength training with Sondra Wallace, JFS Mental Health Coalition Coordinator. Sources of Strength is an evidence-based approach to preventing significant mental health needs among youth (including suicide) through harnessing the power of peer social networks to change unhealthy norms and culture. Our student leaders will work together this year to introduce the program, demystify mental health issues among their peers, and spread messages of hope, help, and strength throughout their school and community. We are very proud to introduce this program to HBHA.
I want to take a moment to thank the COVID Task Force for setting clear guidelines to keep our kids safely in school this year. We will be following the Johnson County Department of Health and Environment school guidelines - including universal mask wearing, physical distancing, frequent hand washing, and limiting the number of visitors into the building. Our Task Force will continue to meet periodically to keep abreast of the most current developments and make sure to maintain a safe environment.
There are many other things happening at HBHA this year - far too much for one email. But I wanted to start the year by telling you how excited we are as a whole team to be working with your children again. We love our work of helping your children learn, grow and thrive. And we are grateful for your trust and partnership.
Here’s to a great year!
This week, I want to focus only on Joy!
Sure there is still plenty for us to worry about, but this has been a tremendous week for HBHA and for one glorious week, I think it's OK to block out the world and just feel proud of ourselves and our students.
On Wednesday night we celebrated graduation IN PERSON. And while we were all still physically distanced and wearing masks, it was incredible to see everyone together in one room. Our graduates spoke beautifully about their pride, resilience, camaraderie, and enthusiasm for HBHA and their eager anticipation to get out there and take on the world.
Four of those seniors were the children of HBHA alumni - which give me such a sense of pride in our school. We are an institution whose roots run deep, and will continue to run deeper. Our school is teaching a living, loving Judaism from generation to generation.
Two of our graduates finished a tractate of Gemara and were able to reflect on the wisdom they had gained from the Talmud to the community before reciting a long and joyous Kaddish in honor of the work they had just completed.
This morning, the entire school was able to congregate outside to celebrate the first (in-person) and final Taste of Shabbat of the year. Rabbi Avi led us in a rousing rendition of our favorite niggun that made everyone - even the high school students - giggle.
This afternoon, the Lower School students performed in and watched the annual Talent Show, which we missed last year. I watched these amazing kids get awards from running over a hundred miles in the 100-Mile Club; I giggled as they told jokes and danced; and I was awed by their collective resilience and talents.
All and all, this was an amazing week of school, which highlighted our students' learning, creativity, courage, and joy. We were able to literally see the space between us diminish as our celebrations and rituals began to return to normal.
I wish you all a Shabbat Shalom - one in which you can take a moment to focus only on joy and pride in our children - and one in which you too can feel the distance between us shrink.
This is an unusual message for me, as I have so much to celebrate - and mourn - this week.
From a school perspective, we are able to take a moment, look around us, and celebrate all that we have accomplished at HBHA. From a global perspective, it is difficult to watch what is happening in Israel right now. But first, the joy:
First and foremost, our school made it through the year without any major COVID outbreaks. While both children and adults in our school contracted the virus, thank God no one in our community became seriously ill.
But there is so much more to be proud of: On Tuesday alone, I was able to watch our Upper School students use trebuchets they built themselves in their conceptual physics and honors physics classes. One student team was able to launch a softball up to 44 meters! As tradition holds, the final launch for each team was a water balloon, aimed at Todd Clauer, Upper School Principal and honors physics teacher and Cody Welton, Science Department Chair and conceptual physics teacher. Standing in the middle of the landing field, Todd was thrilled that one of the trebuchets was so accurate, that the water balloon struck him right in the middle of his chest. It was a first in all the years he and physics teacher Cody Welton have worked on trebuchets with their students. Watch the water balloon launch here (Video credit: Shai-El Luger, HBHA 11th grader)
Later in the day, a group of our 12th graders met with city council members from Lenexa to discuss issues of climate change - an ongoing effort through their Social Justice Project. And immediately following that, a tremendous number of people came to cheer on our girls varsity soccer team in the last game of the season (which they won); and the Middle School girls soccer team (which they didn’t win, but who’s counting?).
Again, all of these things happened in just one day at HBHA.
It serves as a reminder that we are finishing this year as we finish every year: with pride in our students, with joyous celebration, and most important, as a community. As the administration begins reflecting on the year and discussing where we are and how far we’ve come, we were able to acknowledge the “class, courage, intelligence, and knowledge” of our students. And we were able to celebrate that there were so many “engaged and happy families” present at the soccer games this week - one of the few events where parents have been able to join us this year.
While it was, at times, a struggle this year, I think we can look back and let go of a sigh of relief that we made it to this moment. There’s even a prayer for moments like this:
Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech haolam, shehecheyanu, v’kiy’manu, v’higiyanu, laz’man hazeh.
Blessed are you God, Sovereign of everything, who has kept us alive, sustained us and brought us to this occasion!
At the same time, I want to take a moment to acknowledge that our brethren in Israel are struggling right now, hunkered down in shelters from relentless rocket fire. It is hard to celebrate and mourn at the same time, but this is what we have to do. Hold two truths, and two emotions at once. So while we have praised God for helping us reach this moment, I would also like to quote the Prophet Isiah:
“No more will violence be heard in your land, devastation nor destruction within your borders. But you will call your walls salvation and your gates praise.”