Aug 142018

Morah Ziva* has her students working in the iTaLAM digital environment for three periods per week. She feels that—unlike during traditional instruction, when she is aware of everything that happens in class—she doesn’t know exactly what they’re doing. So how can she monitor the students’ learning in this digital environment?

Morah Ziva’s sentiment and question is one shared by many of her colleagues. Yet, there is an answer to the question she poses. In fact, the solution is premised on a basic principle: digital instruction actually offers much more information about what’s happening in the classroom than traditional instruction does. Educators simply need to become comfortable with the different tools that generate precise information about what each student is accomplishing, and what that indicates about the quality of the learning.

Differentiated instruction and teaching toward the needs of each individual student should be the goal of every teacher.  This goal is easy to verbalize but much more difficult to achieve. No two students are exactly alike in their strengths, weaknesses and learning styles. When will the teacher have time to create differentiated and leveled activities for each of the students? Which teacher has time to grade and analyze in depth the work a student does on each assignment and the progress or lack of progress being made?

With these challenges in mind, a digital classroom often plays an integral role in making differentiated instruction a reality. For example, iTaLAM—which is a Hebrew Language and Jewish Heritage curriculum—includes a Learning Management System (LMS) that provide tools to easily and seamlessly differentiate instruction for the individual needs of each and every student in the class. An LMS provides the teacher with quick access to interactive books, songs comprehension activities and games as well as the grading system and automated analysis of student progress.


LMS sample of student progress in 7 different skills compared to class averages.

So, how does this play out in the classroom? First, each student’s progress is tracked in seven different language skill areas. Each learning assignment is available in three different levels and automatically adjusts the level of difficulty that a student encounters based on the student’s ability level in the skills presented in the activity.

Then, at quick glance, a teacher can identify which activities students have completed, how well they performed in each activity and how much time it took to complete. Additionally, they can see which of the seven language skills the student has mastered and which the student still needs to work on.

Morah Shira* works in a rotational model and would like to divide the students into groups according to their learning levels and progress. At the beginning of the year, there is an assessment process to evaluate each student’s level, but by the middle of the year, the students have progressed at different rates and the groups need to be reevaluated and reformulated.

Using the class skill reports and student progress reports a teacher can organize learning groups to work with small groups of students who need additional help with a skill or can tackle enrichment work in a particular area.

Additionally, a new assessment test that was piloted over the past two years for the 2nd and 3rd grade curriculum evaluates a student’s progress over a full year. As with any standardized test, educators and education leaders can use the results to group students by ability for future class placements; to help identify student strengths and weakness, and to evaluate the successes and challenges of the instructional process so that the curriculum and teaching methods in the school can be adjusted to better meet the changing needs of the students.

Digital classrooms equipped with the right programs help teachers and schools identify needs and differentiate the instruction for each individual student. When this interactive and engaging digital environment is combined with adaptive technology and precise reporting, students experience personalized learning that makes for deeper, more meaningful, and more effective educational experiences.

*Generalized, representative examples.

iTaLAM is a new digital blend2ed learning environment based on the successful TaL AM program, a Hebrew language and Jewish heritage curriculum. iTaLAM is re-inventing the world of Hebrew language and Jewish heritage education by transforming the well-established and highly successful TaL AM print program into an engaging, interactive, personalized, and adaptive digital experience.

Aug 072018

By: Lesley Litman

As school leaders and teachers prepare for the new year, many are in the midst of busy planning, of examining their current systems and processes, and of asking big questions. In fact, this is an opportune time for all of us in the field of Jewish education and Israel education to ask some big questions as well: What does it mean to engage in a system-wide process?  How does a school go about doing this kind of work?  What might it look like for Israel to be fully integrated into school life?

iNfuse Infographic August 2018Some answers to the last question above are found within iNfuse, an initiative of The iCenter, which enables Jewish day schools across North America to engage in a system-wide process of “infusing” Israel into all aspects of school life. Over 12 to 18-months, schools seamlessly weave Israel into the experiences of learners, faculty, administration, parents, volunteers and other stakeholders.  As in previous cohorts, the third cohort of iNufse schools engages learners from  Kindergarten through 12th grade.*

Three overarching elements of the initiative help a school chart its path: conceptual (vision and educational outcomes), aspirational (what does the school need to do in order to build on and enhance current strengths to actualize the vision and outcomes for students?) and tachlis (how can the school accomplish this – what resources, personnel and support are required?).  To support their efforts, iNfuse schools have access to a set of online tools, ongoing mentoring from seasoned Israel educators, cutting-edge Israel education resources, professional learning, and a community of schools who care about and engage deeply with Israel.

As one of the leaders of iNfuse, together with my colleagues, I have gleaned many insights from the wisdom of the school leaders with whom we work and from patterns and trends we see across schools.  Over time we have learned, for example, that a system-wide or “systemic” initiative (affecting the entire system) is different from one that is “systematic” (consisting of a serious of linear steps). Whereas in its early stages the iNfuse process consisted of a numbered set of “phases” that schools would go through, as we worked with schools, we discovered that each school engaged in the process in a manner (and order) that worked best for its current conditions and reality.  As a result, we have begun to use the term “elements” instead of “phases” and have removed all references to a specific order.

This past year, for example, as they planned for Israel’s 70th, some schools chose to engage in the more concrete work of school-wide programming.  The tone and texture of this engagement, however, looked different than it might have had the schools not been engaged in an intentional, reflective and systemic Israel education initiative such as iNfuse.  For example, instead of a single school-wide celebration around Yom Ha’atzmaut or a grade-based curriculum, one of the iNfuse schools, the Adelson Educational Campus in Las Vegas, engaged all of the school’s populations and frameworks as part of a year-long process of learning and creativity, punctuated with opportunities for professional learning for the entire staff.  Students and teachers in all grades, school clubs, early childhood teachers and learners, parents, specialists (arts, music, dance) and others engaged in the creation of a set of 70 windows (based on Chagall’s windows at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem) reflecting 70 facets of Israel, one for each year.

Members of the school’s senior administrative team that oversaw the initiative, together with their iCenter mentor, found that nearly all the elements of the iNfuse process were reflected in their work but in unexpected and organic ways.  The team gained insight into the current state of Israel education in the school (in classrooms, the physical plant, after- and all-school programming and more) through engaging with teachers in planning this year-long process.  They also learned about and created powerful Israel-focused professional learning experiences led by faculty based on their interests and strengths and gained important insights into how they can weave Israel more fully into the day-to-day experience of the school.  Because the elements of the process were clearly articulated and readily accessible, we were able to draw on them at the right time, where they were most salient and impactful.

As we look forward to integrating eight new schools into the iNfuse initiative, we do so with an image of overlapping spheres of activity, conceptualization and planning that feed into each other and lead to each other in unique and surprising ways.  Our hope is that this type of systemic work will serve as a model for other areas of learning and school life and that through ongoing learning and reflection we will continue to refine and deepen the work of iNfusing Israel into Jewish day school life.

*iNfuse emerged from a similar initiative of Jewish LearningWorks in the Bay Area which included 11 Jewish day schools.

Lesley Litman, Ed.D. is a consultant to the iCenter overseeing the iNfuse Initiative.  She is the Director of the Executive MA program in Jewish Education at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.


Jul 192018

By: Amy Wasser

According to John Hattie, Professor of Education at the University of Melbourne whose research includes performance indicators and evaluation in education, collective teacher efficacy is the belief that through their collective action, teachers can positively influence student outcomes. Is that not every educator’s goal: to see his or her teaching impacting student growth? Yet, so often teachers are doing this work in a silo, striving to create the best lessons, most inclusive assessments and find methods to reach each learner in their classroom. How much richer our experiences would be if teachers could do this in teams, so that they intentionally reflect, through collective learning, about successes and misses of both their teaching and their student’s grasp of material.

A group of over 40 educators, from ten diverse Jewish Day Schools, spent three days immersed in Research For Better Teaching’s seminar on High Impact Teacher Teams. Research for Better Teaching (RBT) is a professional development organization dedicated to improving classroom teaching and school leadership. Together with educators from Prizmah: The Center for Jewish Day Schools, these teacher teams prepared to bring back solid practices to their schools that will necessitate strong modeling of teamwork among educators while using data to inform student learning. Chanie Geisinsky, Principal of Silverstein Hebrew Academy in Great Neck, Long Island, reflected, “Unfortunately I was only able to participate the first day, but it was definitely fulfilling and productive. I debriefed today with our head of school and we are looking forward to deploying it gradually in our elementary and middle school classes. I think it will make not only a huge difference and bring change but has the potential to be the ultimate game changer in raising the bar of our teaching and learning.”

The RBT model includes:

Using the FAR (Formative Assessment for Results) Cycle

  • Clarify the learning journey
  • Infuse formative assessments
  • Analyze formative assessments
  • Take FIRME action (feedback, investigation, reteach, move on, extension)

In using the RBT method teams of teachers will:

  • Determine what step in the FAR cycle they will focus on
  • Determine the purpose of each team meeting: then learn, take action and reflect
  • Determine activities to use to achieve the goals

The teams will build their expertise in:

  • Clarifying learning goals for students so steps to success are clear
  • Using formative assessment tools throughout instruction
  • Analyzing success based on pre-established criteria and identifying errors in student thinking
  • Taking FIRME action

More details can be found here.

The concluding activity involved each team making a license plate for their next steps. Below find an example of the clear plan for moving forward and bringing RBT into the school.


To sum it up, the teams will use data often to make sure each child succeeds. As the RBT trainer stated, school improvement is a team sport. Nothing is more satisfying to an educator than when they know they have the tools to raise a student’s achievement. This is truly collective teacher efficacy.

Charna Schubert, Principal at Margolin Hebrew Academy in Memphis, TN, attended this conference. She said it was one of the best she have been at in her 20 years of education. Upon return home, the team met and already have a wonderful plan and all the resources they need for implementation. “We have had meetings all morning to plan Readers and Writers workshop alignment and we have been discussing success curriculum all morning!”

Due to the generosity of AVI CHAI, each school team will receive 20 hours of coaching from a Prizmah teaching and learning team member to assist them in implementing the program and honing the practices of RBT. This will also allow for deeper relationships between Prizmah and the schools as we work together to further the strength of our programs and build the pipeline of educational leaders.

Amy Wasser is Director of School Advocacy and Community Day School Advocate at Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools.


RBT Seminar on High Impact Teacher Teams

The Power of FJC’s Cornerstone

 Posted by on June 20, 2017 at 10:05 am  No Responses »  Tagged with:  Categories:
Jun 202017

Cross-posted from eJewishPhilanthropy

By Mark Kachuck

Kol Yisrael Arevim Ze Bazeh,” translates to “all of Israel is responsible for one another.” This spoke to the theme of Foundation for Jewish Camp’s Cornerstone Fellowship 2017: “Get Invested,” which had a big impact on me. It resonated with my feelings towards the global Jewish community; together, we have the power to achieve great strength.

This year was my fourth Cornerstone Seminar, where I’ve had the opportunity of being both a Fellow and Liaison for my camps cohort of attendees. Each year I find myself more inspired by the love and passion for Jewish programming at Jewish camp. I cannot think of another opportunity in which I would get to spend 5 days learning with and from young adults and professionals from all over North America, all with different camping experiences.

Regardless of what movement, affiliation, or ideology we believe in, it is evident that we each share the common goal of promoting the values of Jewish camp.

Cornerstone has provided me with an outlet to experience Jewish education in a different way. It has taught me that Judaism should be an experience, and we – the counselors – have the privilege of being able to facilitate that experience for our campers.

Did you know that you could make a program involving yoga, Kabbalah, ninjas and the Kedusha, which takes place in a pool? Or that something as simple as arts and crafts can allow campers to connect with Judaism through glitter and mason jars?

Year after year, I find myself wanting to come back to Cornerstone because these experiences allow me to make a big impact back at my camp. Each program has a way of making Judaism more than just a prayer before a meal. I learn to challenge my own way of programming and adapt basic themes and values to a greater Jewish experience. The power of camp comes alive during the Cornerstone Seminar. In five short days you connect with others who have a passion for Jewish Camp and Jewish learning from all over North America. And just like camp, in five short days you are able to feel as though you have known them for forever.

Every year I find the messages of Cornerstone to be meaningful. I believe strongly that many Jews from around the world have a strong connection. Whether you speak English, French, Hebrew, or Spanish, we all want to help each other. At Cornerstone, as the collective of Jewish camp counselors and staff members, we have the power to influence more than 10,000 young Jewish minds. As the representatives from more than 60 camps, we have the power to shape these young minds and allow them to grow and benefit the Jewish community at large, but also the world. We carry the responsibility to INVEST in these campers, to positively shape the future, and after Cornerstone Seminar 2017, it is very clear that the future is looking very bright.

Returning counselors are the “cornerstones” of their camp. Over the last 14 years, more than 3,000 fellows have participated in this transformative leadership experience the Cornerstone Fellowship includes attending a 5-day seminar in the spring, and bringing new ideas, programs and initiatives back to camp. At the Cornerstone Seminar, 400 staff members from Jewish camps across North America come together for workshops, song sessions, and campfires, learning from seasoned faculty and from each other.

The Cornerstone Fellowship is run by Foundation for Jewish Camp and is generously funded by The AVI CHAI Foundation, Crown Family Philanthropies, The Marcus Foundation and The Morningstar Foundation.

Mark Kachuck is an active member and madrich of the Canadian Young Judaea movement. This summer he will spend his 15th summer in the movement as one of Camp Solelim’s Program Directors. He will graduate Concordia University next year with a BA Major in History, Minor Film Studies.

Providing Opportunities to Speak in Hebrew

 Posted by on March 28, 2017 at 1:40 pm  No Responses »  Tagged with:  Categories:
Mar 282017

Cross-posted from Jeducation World

By Hadas Heyman

How do I provide more opportunities for my students to speak Hebrew inside and outside the classroom?

Find your partner and find common things to discuss in Hebrew

As a Hebrew language teacher, I’ve always asked myself this question over and over again. My students spend a short amount of time in my class every day, and this time is so precious and valuable. Every second should be planned effectively. My students know that wasting time is a big pet peeve of mine. There is time to write, read, use technology tools to enhance students’ learning, ask questions, discuss, work in a small group or with a partner and also to play games.

As teachers, we want to make sure that our students use the new gained skills outside our classroom. How can I do this in my Hebrew class? What are some good ways to encourage my students to converse in Hebrew and become more proficient in speaking the language?


Pair & Share in Hebrew to discuss various subjects in class

I just came back from an iTaLAM workshop and this topic was discussed during one of the sessions I attended. I was assigned to work collaboratively with 3 other great educators and competed with another team on planning a lesson that was supposed to include opportunities for students to engage in verbal conversation with each other. First, I have to say that acting and role playing is something I despise since I feel that I am terrible at it. But I know that the right thing to do as a teacher is to step out of my comfort zone and take risks, even if my heart was pounding and I was out of breath.

Based on this experience and from listening to other experts in the area, here are a few things to remember:

  • Children make mistakes and learn from them. We need to let them make mistakes and not correct them when they talk and create with the language.
  • We need to help those students that may struggle to create with the language. We can
    provide these students sentence starters, more time to think before they talk and be patience with them.
  • Students love to be “the teacher” and may do a great job “teaching” for a short while and lead a conversation/activity in Hebrew.
  • Prompts are very helpful and can encourage children to speak in a second language.
  • Teachers should use visuals that may stimulate conversation in the classroom.
  • Teachers can observe and let go more often rather than do the talking and “control” the class throughout the lesson.

I am working on following these guidelines myself and I have promised myself to continue doing this for as long as I teach. I would love to share some of the things that took place in and outside my classroom when the students created in Hebrew language.

Feb 022017

By: Valerie Mitrani
Director of Day School Strategy and Initiatives, Center for the Advancement of Jewish Education, Miami

Julie Lambert
Senior Educational Consultant, Center for the Advancement of Jewish Education, Miami

Gary Hartstein
Director, DigitalJLearning Network

Today’s educational system is striving to be student-centered and dynamic, supported by articulated standards, student data, high quality curriculum and instruction, with access to multiple technologies to support student learning. To meet the needs of this generation of learners, we must build capacity for problem-solving, collaboration, effective communication, and critical thinking. JBlend Miami is responding to this challenge by building and leveraging resources, experience, and expertise to support local Jewish day schools in shifting the paradigm of teaching and learning, resulting in increased teacher and student engagement.  JBlend Miami is working to enhance the quality of student learning by increasing school capacity to meet the needs of 21st century learners. This includes personalizing learning through the modality of blended learning.

There are a few essential characteristics of JBlend Miami:


As a result of the Center for Advancement of Jewish Education (CAJE)’s vision and leadership over the last 10 years, the  Miami Jewish day school community has become a professional learning community with a shared commitment to high-quality, standards-based learning for teachers and students. JBlend is the latest community-wide, systemic initiative that brings together day school leaders, teachers, and instructional coaches for shared content learning. Relationships have been developed with local funders to invest in initiatives. Trust is fostered on several levels: within each school, among the schools, between the schools and the central agency, and between the central agency and local funders.

JBlend is a local-national collaboration that builds on this culture of professional learning and a sharing of experiences and expertise. Now in its second full year of implementation, JBlend officially launched in the fall of 2015 after nearly two years of planning. The program was developed and is being implemented by  CAJE-Miami, in partnership with the DigitalJLearning Network (DJLN) of The Jewish Education Project. CAJE’s experience providing professional learning and leadership development to educators and schools, combined with DJLN’s experience helping schools implement learning-driven technology and personalized/blended learning, came together in a “perfect storm.” With support from The AVI CHAI Foundation, the Greater Miami Jewish Federation, and local funders, the two organizations are joining forces to help day schools in Miami bring about sustainable, learning-driven change.

Intentional Program Design

JBlend Miami is comprised of three main phases:

  • Phase I – Community Readiness and Buy-in (January – June 2015)

CAJE first shared plans for the multi-year program with local school leaders, and identified schools that were interested in participating; those schools were invited to formally apply. The application process included a needs assessment to determine school capacity and readiness. Early in Phase 1, teachers completed an online survey instrument designed to measure teachers’ readiness to change practice from traditional, frontal teaching, to blended and personalized learning. Based on the results of this survey, school site visits and a comprehensive application including a school team interview, CAJE and DJLN identified potential schools to invite to JBlend Miami Cohort 1.

  • Phase II – Blended and Online Learning Academy (September 2015 –June 2016)

Each school designated a school leadership team comprised of administrators and teachers to participate in a year-long academy. The monthly sessions were designed around the components necessary for successful implementation. Session topics included:

  • Training for leadership in managing the shift to a blended learning environment
  • Teaching in a blended learning setting
  • Access to online curriculum in general and Judaic studies
  • Communications and stakeholder buy-in

An important component of the academy was a trip to New York (organized by DJLN) to see day schools that were already implementing blended learning.

At the end of Phase 2, schools were guided through the development of implementation plans for the coming academic year. Each school was encouraged to identify a problem of practice and articulate goals and objectives related to that challenge.  Each leadership team then clearly identified the implementation steps needed for teachers to utilize blended/personalized learning to meet those goals.

  • Phase III – Implementation (current school year)

Four JBlend schools each received $40,000 for implementation. Individual schools have varying goals, but overall each school is expected to connect their project with improved student achievement and/or engagement. Expected goals for the next two years include:

  • Implementation of personalized learning initiatives that address identified student learning needs as determined by school teams
  • Development of school-based instructional coaches who will support and strengthen teachers in facilitating blended learning environments
  • Teachers building understanding of personalized learning, and gaining the skills and knowledge to design, facilitate, and evaluate learning in a blended environment
  • Increasing School Leadership Team capacity to support, facilitate, and assess the implementation of their blended learning initiatives
  • Ongoing collaboration and learning among the network of JBlend Miami Schools

Academy sessions continue in this phase, and in between, the school leadership teams gather at each other’s schools to observe the plans in action. This is followed by reflective conversation, providing an opportunity to ask questions and explore how each school is implementing blended and personalized learning.

Building Capacity Throughout the System

Critical to the success of a new pedagogic approach is taking the time to build capacity within the leaders and the students. Personalized learning changes the rules of the game from traditional teaching. It requires the system to allow teachers to learn new skills, experiment, and be deliberate about change. As we like to say in JBlend, “We go slow to go faster.” Student agency over learning changes in this model, and students need to learn how to function with more responsibility and self-determination a concept that is unfamiliar to most of them. JBlend Miami invests in all levels of the system by designing a team academy learning approach that includes teachers, coaches, and administrators who are responsible for setting the vision and the outcomes. Shared language and knowledge allows each school team to design and plan for experimental initiatives, starting small in singular classrooms and building out to the bigger system.


An interim evaluation conducted by Rosov Consulting at the end of Phase II surfaced schools’ positive experience in the Academy and their grasp of core themes covered in the sessions. The teams reported commitment and dedication to deploying new strategies to maximize the students’ learning and have “bought in” to the main mindsets that the Academy sought to create, such as establishing student learning as the driver of instruction.

The evaluation will be continuing throughout Phase III.  All the partners hope to see greater student agency and satisfaction, more intentional use of data to inform instruction, less teacher-driven instruction and increased teacher satisfaction. We will report to the field again as we learn more.

Come learn more about JBlend Miami at the upcoming Prizmah Jewish Day School Conference. The team will be presenting on Tuesday morning at 11:25 in the Clark room.

Chanukah Sparks: Rabbi Ari Leubitz

 Posted by on December 30, 2016 at 10:56 am  No Responses »  Tagged with: ,  Categories:
Dec 302016

This is the last post in our Chanukah Sparks blog series. The series has featured the moments that sparked educators and leaders to pursue careers in Jewish day school education — becoming beacons of light for their schools and communities. We hope that telling these stories has not only helped brighten this Chanukah, but that it will also lead to inspiration that burns strong for the rest of the year. Chanukah Sameach!

Chanukah Sparks from Rabbi Ari Leubitz
Head of School, Atlanta Jewish Academy

Why did I become a Rabbi and what sparked me to head down this path? Here goes. You may want to get comfortable, it’s not a short answer.

I was raised by an Orthodox mother and Conservative father in Cleveland, Ohio, where the options for school were either Orthodox or public. There was nothing in between. Attending the Hebrew Academy of Cleveland gave me a foundation that I cherish to this day. I felt such a connection to Judaism, but still wasn’t sure where my place was. I suppose, in hindsight, that I have always questioned the “why,” even starting from childhood. After my gap year in Israel, I felt a pull to answer my own “why.” I knew I was moving down a path to find my Jewish identity, and wanted to know what that exactly would look like.

When I moved to Riverdale, NY with my wife Florence, the Orthodox community was like nothing I’d seen. It was fused with a spirituality and love of music which, as a son of a chazzan, truly resonated with me. This community was open to questions. They were inclusive of all levels of religious commitment. I felt the the history, tradition and love of Torah, mitzvot and ivrit, and it was intertwined with the intellectual piece I was also drawn to. This was my home. This was the answer to my personal “why.”

I found myself more involved in the shul, studying and teaching. It was my decision to switch to the 12 am – 8 am shift at the call center I managed so that I could spend every morning at the Yeshiva after minyan. I’d study there all day, head home to say a quick hello to my new bride, rest for the blink of an eye, and repeat. It was frenetic. Looking back now, I have no idea how I maintained that pace. Clearly something was fueling me. It was my passion and connection to Judaism.

As part of this journey, my beautiful wife helped pave the way for the type of Rabbi I’d one day choose to be. I was in the midst of the most complicated topics in my studies when she asked me the most simple question: “Ari, what are you learning?” It sounds basic, but I couldn’t answer it simply. At that moment, I made myself a promise. This pact was to always ask myself what the spiritual meaning and message was in anything I learn or teach. This realization empowered me to personally reimagine how my own learning would take place. I ask this of myself, of my children, and of the children at Atlanta Jewish Academy. I believe that we must all ask and answer the “why” in every area of our daily lives.

Hopefully, this has given you a glimpse into my personal journey, and one of the reasons for my inquisitive nature. This background has served to develop my Jewish educational vision. It is my belief that our vision has to start with our precious students. They must understand “why” everything we teach and practice is meaningful and relevant, and to learn not just what they are doing, but to wonder “why” it’s important. We want them to grasp “why” Judaism is relevant to help them grow as human beings, citizens, and as Jews in their service to G-d and family.

May we all continue to ask the “why’s” in our personal and communal lives, so that we can foster deeper, richer and more meaningful connections to our families and each other.

Chanukah Sparks: Mindy Schiller

 Posted by on December 30, 2016 at 10:44 am  No Responses »  Tagged with: ,  Categories:
Dec 302016

This Chanukah blog series is dedicated to sharing about the moments that sparked the careers of educators and leaders in Jewish day school education. Today, we share an educator’s perspective, written by Mindy Schiller, who teaches History and Humanities as well as serving as Marketing Director at Akiba Schechter Jewish Day School.

When I Chose Teaching
By Mindy Schiller
Teacher, Akiba Schechter Jewish Day School, Chicago, IL

One day my best friend declared: “Maybe you don’t have to be passionate about teaching to be good at it.” I looked at her in shock, and all I could think of was the three hours of meetings I had that week trying to find creative solutions for a student in my class. This student made me question my competence in a hundred different ways. Yet, when I watched him the previous week when he sat down next to a 1st grader and read a book with him, I had to leave the room so I wouldn’t cry. How could I explain to my friend that in moments like these—the ones where my ego gets bludgeoned and the ones where I’m tempted to wrap my arms around my student—it’s passion that carries me through to the other end?

It was in a high school English class that I first realized what it meant to bring passion to the classroom.

The teacher was Mrs. Rosenwald (z”l), an amazing, frizzy, white-haired creature with arthritic hands, a screechy voice, and piercing cornflower blue eyes. Sitting in a circle with us in her classroom, she would continuously shock us: “Elana, stop hiding from the discussion by taking notes. If you hide away in that notebook instead of having an opinion, then you’re no better than a turnip!” She was the one who taught me to take students more seriously than they take themselves. In the middle of reading Kafka’s Metamorphosis, for instance, she turned to one boy and asked, “Jon, is your relationship with your Dad different from Gregor Samsa’s with his?” And we found out, painfully, that it wasn’t. It was an admission that could only come because of the complete vulnerability and safety of the cocoon Mrs. Rosenwald had created in her classroom. We left the room transformed each day, eager—and a bit scared—to explore the world and ourselves.

Every day, when I sit down in a circle with my 7th/8th grade Humanities students, I think about Mrs. Rosenwald and wonder if she’s proud of me.

Even as a student in Mrs. Rosenwald’s class, I knew I would be a teacher one day. College seemed pro-forma, something I had to complete before I could enter the classroom. So, naturally, afraid that I had chosen my “beshert” too soon, I detoured for three years at a newspaper to see if I might like that better.

I didn’t. I enjoyed writing, of course, and I loved covering Jewish education. I got to see my name in print and felt the kind of ego-stroking that teachers never feel. But I always knew, at the back of my mind, that even the busiest press day at the newspaper was so much easier—and so much more fleeting—than teaching.

One day, covering a PEJE conference on recruitment and admissions, I listened to the famous Rheau Stakely (a”h) explain how to make people believe in Jewish education. I watched people around me furiously taking notes and thought, suddenly: I’m done “covering” Jewish education. I was stuck on the wrong side of the playing field. I wanted to be in the trenches, not in the bleachers.

A few months later, I started teaching.


Teaching is a blessing and a curse. Even now, having taught for almost 10 years, I still have nightmares every August. The details of the dream are different—the scenery, the building, the students, the context. But the theme is always the same: It’s the first day of school, and I’m not prepared. Because teaching is the kind of profession where if you don’t put in your blood and sweat and tears, it shows. If you don’t love it, if you don’t feel it in your bones and see it in your dreams, then it’s not for you.

I feel teaching in my soul, and I thank God every day that I do. In spite of the fact that it’s harder than any press day, it’s also the most rewarding and soul-nourishing thing I could do. Given the choice, I would choose it again — and again and again.

Chanukah Sparks: Susan Siegel

 Posted by on December 29, 2016 at 10:54 am  No Responses »  Tagged with: ,  Categories:
Dec 292016

Our Chanukah Sparks blog series continues with a post by Susan Siegel, Head of School of the Bnai Shalom Day School. This series explores the moments or series of moments that sparked the day school careers of school leaders and educators. Just as our homes become illuminated by individual sparks that combine to create one glowing chanukiah, the journeys of these individuals are igniting the collective Jewish journeys of countless students, educators, and family members in our communities. In this post, Susan Sigel tells her story and demonstrates how one unique journey can spread the light to others and truly make a difference. Chag Sameach!

Chanukah Sparks by Susan Siegel
Head of School, Bnai Shalom Day School, Greensboro, North Carolina

My journey into the Jewish day school world began in the 1990’s when I was a parent of young children. We lived on the east side of Cleveland and had a plethora of choices for Jewish preschool. I had a background in education and did my homework. We chose to send our girls to the preschool at the Jewish community day school. The school had an excellent reputation and I liked the idea of the preschool being part of a larger school.

The girls loved the school and community. We were impressed by how well the teachers knew our daughters and nurtured their unique learning styles. The girls came home talking about how much they loved their school and teaching us new songs for each Jewish holiday. My husband and I couldn’t help but become engaged in the school and became active volunteers.

When our third child came along, however, we wondered how we could afford a day school education for three children. We had moved to a larger home in an excellent public school system. We knew the girls would go to Jewish camps and religious school at our synagogue. As much as we loved the preschool, we could not bring ourselves to apply for financial aid, and so we moved on. I wept when my youngest daughter transitioned to public school. I knew I would no longer be part of the same kind of school community and that we would have to work extra hard to ensure our children developed a strong Jewish identity.

In 2001, I was ready to step back into the classroom. I had previously taught in public school but took a hiatus while my girls were young, working part-time in Jewish agencies within the community. I missed teaching, however, and after having had a taste of the day school environment decided to apply for an opening at the Schechter school. I was hired part-time to teach first grade general studies. After I spent a year at the school and experienced the full cycle of Jewish learning with my students, I wanted to be there full-time. As the first-grade teacher, I marveled at how my students learned to read Hebrew from their first siddur. A few years later, I moved to fourth grade, where my students learned trope and chanted from the Torah. My last year in the classroom was in fifth grade where my students learned to write Divrei Torah. I joined the parents in celebrating each of these Jewish milestones and beamed with pride each time I sat through an eighth-grade graduation and listened as the students gratefully acknowledged all they had received from their Schechter education.

Eventually, I was encouraged to move to administration. As I honed my leadership skills, I was guided and mentored by many. Being in a leadership role afforded me the opportunity to develop close relationships with young parents. There were some, like me, who had enrolled their children in the preschool, but continuing through the day school was financially daunting. They felt that the public school experience wouldn’t be the same, but would be good enough. When parents confided in me about their concerns, I shared my personal story and encouraged them to stay the course. I suggested they attend the eighth-grade graduation so they could see the final product of a day school education. I wanted them to understand that the investment in a day school education was a gift for their whole family.

After 13 wonderful years at Schechter, I said goodbye and moved to Greensboro, North Carolina where I proudly became the head of B’nai Shalom Day School. I had participated in DSLTI (The Day School Leadership Training Institute) and was ready to take on the headship. I knew the school was the right fit for me the minute that I walked through the door and felt the joyful Jewish environment. Though the Jewish community in this southern town is small, it is vibrant. The school is 47 years old, and was founded by parents with a vision—for their children to grow up with strong Jewish values, and to know who they are and where they came from.

Last week, our school held its annual Chanukah show. A large part of the Jewish community always attends, and it is standing room only. My youngest daughter, who was home from college, came to watch. Afterwards, she told me that she wished she had grown up in a Jewish Day School, and I felt a familiar twinge of regret. I told my daughter that I would love nothing more than to have my grandchildren fully experience a Jewish Day School education.

Until then, I will continue to work towards making Jewish Day School the natural choice for Jewish parents and their families.