AVI CHAI concluded its general grant making on December 31, 2019.

Harvard Learnings in Action: Leadership through a STEAM Mindset

Posted by: Guest

January 29, 2019

In 1997, The AVI CHAI Foundation began sponsoring day school leaders to attend one of two week-long summer institutes at The Principals Center, a division of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.  Many of the 566 participants who have attended since then found the institute to be among the most transformative professional development experiences of their careers.
Beginning in 2013, the Foundation built upon the Harvard experience with a specific focus on helping leaders enhance their schools’ Jewish mission.  This involved adding several components to the program, including evening sessions at Harvard, coaching, check-ins throughout the following year, and networking with one’s cohort.  In advance of the application process that begins in early February, we will feature various alumni who will share their own stories and how this program helped them achieve their goals.  Hopefully, this will give those considering applying a taste of what’s possible within the context of this incredibly catalytic program.
This week, we hear from Ilanit Hoory, Lower School Principal, and Yael Buechler, Lower School Rabbi in Residence, both at Solomon Schechter School of Westchester.
Ilanit Hoory (AOL 2015 and LEV 2017) and Yael Buechler (AOL 2017)
Solomon Schechter School of Westchester
Leadership through a STEAM Mindset
Even though the olive oil we made for Chanukah – spun in a centrifuge in our MakerSpace – still remains in test tubes on our office shelves, we at Schechter Westchester’s Lower School are already talking about Passover! Our fifth grade Judaic Studies teachers and engineering teacher are meeting to prepare for a Rube Goldberg machine Passover project, while at the same time a second grade Judaic Studies teacher is debriefing with our technology integrator, after transforming Ozobots into “Avrambots” that journeyed all the way from Ur Kasdim to Canaan. These are just some of the exciting collaborative projects that regularly integrate Judaic Studies and STEAM at our school.
This “maker mindset” (read about it here) has not always been a given at our Lower School. While we did have one of the first state-of-the-art MakerSpaces in a Lower School setting, for many it was just one room in the building.  We set out to transform our entire school culture into a “maker culture.”  How could constructivist learning, part of the maker culture DNA, seep into more areas of our Lower School, especially within Judaics? That is what we proposed to do for our Harvard project, and we were hoping to learn the right leadership tools and strategies to manage this change in our school’s culture.
We write this post together as a Lower School Principal and Lower School Rabbi, who were fortunate enough to be a part of the summer 2017 AVI CHAI-cohorts of LEV and AOL, respectively. We witnessed the success of the “maker” model in other content areas of the school, and wanted to expand this model particularly to Judaic Studies. Ilanit, the Lower School Principal, had attended AOL in 2015 and that experience, together with the support of her day school cohort, helped her cultivate a culture of teachers as learners among the Hebrew and Judaic faculty.  Seeking to develop a team of leaders at the Lower School with unique perspectives to help manage this change, Ilanit encouraged Yael, the Lower School’s rabbi to apply to AOL, so that we could together extend the maker model more extensively into the realm of Judaic Studies.
Upon returning from Cambridge, we built upon the process of using our experiences at Harvard to help the Lower School culture more broadly embrace the maker mindset beyond the MakerSpace itself. Ilanit was inspired by her learning during LEV to take the MakerSpace and let its “warmth” seep into all areas of the school. Ilanit describes the MakerSpace as a “Shemesh Shemechamemet” “a sun that warms” the entire school. At LEV, Ilanit was particularly inspired by a tool she learned from Professor Jal Mehta to make learning deeper for all students. Ilanit wanted to build upon this tool to design the maker style of learning so it could be accessible to all types of learners. After AOL, Yael reflected on learning with Professor Monica Higgins, who explored how to lead through learning using a case study of what occurred at Mt. Everest. Yael utilized this case study to think about the different team members and constituencies involved in the process of expanding this maker culture to the realm of Judaic Studies at the Lower School. As Ilanit and Yael set out to create a change in culture, they identified and collaborated with different leaders at the Lower School who could help implement this change.
We believed that by giving our Judaic Studies teachers opportunities to collaborate as a team and to work with our technology integrator or engineering teacher on different units, this would lead to greater opportunities for constructivist learning for our students. This process of a maker mindset shift has taken several years, by building the trust among a great team of Judaic Studies faculty and by creating opportunities for collaboration with our curriculum coordinators and STEAM specialist.
Not only do we currently have new STEAM/Judaic Studies projects in place for each grade, but Judaic Studies teachers now take the initiative and collaborate with our STEAM specialists on their own! This Maker mindset has also enriched our professional development: for instance, this past summer our leadership team and grade team leaders began their year by building Migdal Bavel (Tower of Babel) in our MakerSpace. They were each given roles and restrictions for how to communicate with one another to mirror the communication challenges that occurred in the story in Bereshit. Our faculty then reflected on this process both as learners and educators. It was incredible to hear their reflections and see them initiate ideas for how this type of activity could be introduced to their students.
We appreciate the learning opportunities at Harvard and from our AVI CHAI cohorts to be able to manage the change we continue to envision at the Lower School. We view this change as part of our school’s overarching shift in emphasis toward a more integrated, constructivist learning. We invite you to come visit us the next time you are in New York!

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