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

Harvard Learnings in Action: “I Went in With One Project and Came out With Two”

Posted by: Guest

February 5, 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.  As part of the application process that begins today, we are featuring 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. Applications for Harvard Summer 2019 are now open! See here for more details.
This week, we hear from Dr. Bryn Harari, Principal, Hebrew Academy of Orange County, CA.
Dr. Bryn Harari
Principal, Hebrew Academy of Orange County, CA
LEV 2017
“I Went in With One Project and Came out With Two” – My Harvard LEV Experience
When the announcement came from AVI CHAI offering to sponsor day school leaders at Harvard, I was both excited and conflicted.  To a committed life-long learner and veteran administrator such as myself, the program description sounded so compelling – outstanding faculty presenting on the most current topics that every administrator grapples with.  In my second year as the principal at the Hebrew Academy of Orange County in California, I was eager to advance the learning at my school, and I was confident spending a week in Cambridge with the camaraderie of other day school leaders would help.  On the other hand, it meant giving up a full week in the middle of precious family vacation time, and I wasn’t sure the benefits would be worth the cost, especially since I already had 20+ years of administrative experience.
It was my project that pushed me to apply.  I wanted to implement a new writing program integrating Judaics and General Studies around the weekly Parsha (Torah portion), but I was looking for ways to do so that would garner support and commitment across the entire faculty, even though I was only at the school a short time.  Since the program invited participants to choose a specific project to focus on, I felt this would be an ideal opportunity to both envision and plan this new program, in the company of like-minded educational and day school professional.
Coming to Harvard was one of the best decisions of my career.  Sitting in the lecture halls and break-out groups was nothing short of electrifying.  (I wouldn’t normally admit anything as nerdy as this, but I trust that if you’ve read this far, that you just might relate.)  I couldn’t write fast enough to keep up with my thoughts and ideas – not just the notes and quotes from the lectures, but all of the connections and ideas that came to my mind from the discussion. So many topics were directly relevant to my school and community that I actually began implementation right then and there:  with multiple tabs open on my laptop, I made notes in my student, parent and faculty handbooks, and on the school calendar. I began planning future parent engagement activities and creating agendas to share what I was learning with other administrators and teachers. The discussions with fellow educators, both from around the world and from other day schools, was similarly stimulating and nurturing, inspiring me with confidence that I could in fact make my project a reality.  If I may say it, it was an educational leader’s “embarrassment of riches.”
Upon returning, I spoke to everyone who would listen about what I learned and what inspired me.  I devised a plan to implement the writing program I had dreamed of – a collaborative project between Judaic and General Studies teachers that spans multiple grade levels and draws on the students’ and teachers’ passion for Parsha learning and on GS teachers’ skills and commitment for a strong writing program.  We are now in Year 2 of the Parsha Project, and our teachers’ modifications of its implementation to make it more enduring and effective. Many of them, though not all (let’s keep it real), have embraced it and I foresee it becoming a defining aspect of our unique curriculum, bridging the Judaic and General Studies in a way that highlights the strengths and features of each.
While I went to Harvard with my project in mind, I was obviously introduced to many new ideas throughout the week.  One was “Universal Design for Learning” (UDL), and when I learned about it, it immediately struck a deep chord within me.  While I have promoted individualized and inclusive education for many years, this approach articulated the rationale and strategies in a way that shifted my understanding and perception of it.  I was literally blown away by its potential to shift our school’s entire approach to special education, and I was determined to make that happen.
Having gained tremendous insight into the challenges we experienced meeting the needs of students with learning differences, I felt driven to overhaul our special needs program.  For the first time, our school hired a full-time inclusion specialist last Fall who was skilled in UDL.  We began introducing concepts of UDL at every staff development meeting.  Our teachers now have the opportunity to participate in individual and group consultations every week.  Our Push-in/Pull-out program has shifted in its goals and the way it looks.  We are doing more teacher collaboration than ever before, expanding the capacity of our teachers to support students with different learning styles and needs. Our language about issues relating to special needs has changed, and with it, our shared understanding of what it means to create an inclusive environment.  Slowly we are transforming the landscape of our inclusive classrooms.
So, while I may have entered the program with one idea – to create the Parsha Project – I came back with two.  For that alone I would have said “dayenu” – “it is enough.”  But it wasn’t just the impressive content of the sessions, and the instructors’ passion for their material, that inspired me.  The curriculum, instruction, and the learning environment were all deeply personalized, modeling what they wanted us to take home: to be aware of who our learners are, to acknowledge that each of them brings rich and valuable background experiences to the learning, and to have confidence in their intentions and abilities.  This unique combination created a stimulating, enduring and even visceral learning experience, one which I have tried to recreate for teachers, staff, and other administrators in my school.  Without doubt, this will also transform the students’ learning.
Eighteen months later, not only do I still refer to my planning notes and the goals I set at Harvard, but I still feel that special experience often enough to be reminded of its power, which fuels me to strive for more.  I can honestly say participating in the Harvard LEV program changed the way we do many things at our school: the writing curriculum, student services, family education and engagement, and professional development.  Above all, participating in this very special program changed my leadership.  And that is the greatest gift of all.
To apply to attend Harvard Summer 2019, please see here for more details.

LEV 2017 group photo

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