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Insights from the Intersection of Childhood and Education

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Meet the Purple Room Maccabees

Every year for Chanukah, the three-year-olds in the Purple Room become Maccabees.

It begins with tracing the kids to create their life-size likenesses. Projects like this build self awareness and help the kids in acquiring a sense of scale. How big are they?

Even a baby sibling got traced!

After the tracing comes the paint. And, you might notice, each Maccabee has a descriptor that begins with the same letter as the child's name. Often the parents helped to come up with those. Example: Kind Kazuki Macabee, see below.

The baby made the display, too, along with big sister Strong Sasha Maccabee.

So, currently, the Purple Room is full of radiant, awesome and happy Maccabees!

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

A 6th Grader Publishes Poetry

6th grader Joseph Vadnai shows off the anthology that published his poem.

How did 6th grader Joseph Vadnai (Jo-Jo) end up writing poetry, especially poetry that is good enough to get published? Particularly when he has struggled with reading? He says he was inspired by classical music. "Music is wordless; poetry lets me use my own words, but it's linked to music.," he explains. He has written reams of poems and, after doing that for a while, he wanted to "let people see my poems," so he began looking for outlets. He's been, of course, published in our school newspaper, The Globe, but, encouraged by his English teacher Ms. Levine, he found the American Library of Poetry. "I submitted to their contest because they said they would publish you even if you didn't win." And published he was!

How does he write his poems? "I just let myself think of a subject, and then I find the basic words to describe it and string them together." Jo-Jo plays the piano and lists Beethoven, Mozart and Haydn as his favorite composers. He doesn't read poetry per se, unless he's looking for ideas, but he does read a lot. He read Josephus's The Jewish War in 5th grade after he asked our library to buy it, and he says he learned a lot of words from reading it. Now that is not your standard text for a 5th grader! 

He usually writes poetry about animals and nature, he says, but "The Reading Trouble" beautifully captures his own struggles with learning how to read. "I didn't really read until 2nd grade. Reading over and over again with Mrs. Schiller and Debbie is what helped me in the end. All of a sudden, I could read in a flash." And now he not only reads, he not only writes, he gets published! He is also, mind you, the manager of our basketball team, and helps out in the library as one of our media interns.

The Reading Trouble
by Joseph Vadnai (6th grade)

As I tried to escape from the uproar of sound
I tried to read however letters flit and float before my eye
Though when my mind engulfs the book
Gradually the letters come to a halt.
However as the letters come to a halt what it says comes to life in my head.
In spite of that I love to read.
Though why does this happen?
This happens because I am disleksick.

Published in Treasured, an anthology by the American Library of Poetry

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Rainbow City

A chain story is a story created by several participants. One child begins, chooses when to stop and points to the next child to continue. The following story was created by one of our 1st/2nd grade classes:

Rainbow City

There were tall buildings in a mystical city. It had rained and a wonderful rainbow had covered just one of the buildings. It was a magical rainbow. There were magical sea creatures on some of the seven floors. The two middle floors were covered with rainbow colored water that flowed to the sea. This building was so much of a problem that it was decided that the building needed to be torn down. But something strange happened when the new building was complete. The rainbow was still there! But now the rainbow was everywhere! It was all over the grass and the streets. It now covered the whole city. It was decided to rename the city. It was now going to be known as Rainbow City. 

As a nice wrap up to writing their own story, the kids then gathered with our librarian to read Harold and the Purple Crayon, a story about a small boy who creates his own path.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

If I Were a Tree...

Our 3- and 4-year-old Afternoon Explorers class has been doing an in-depth study of trees. 

We're lucky to have Washington Park across from the school where the children visited various trees and collected leaves. It is, after all, that time of year when you can get a close look at those leaves that are usually up on high!

The children then looked closely at the leaves of the white oak tree; here are some of their findings:

"It's like a rectangle but also like a big square." - Natalie

"The veins go on each side." - Sam

"It's like a starfish." - Noa

"The underside is a darker shade of white." - Aelwen

"The hole is the shape of my thumb." - Yoka

Upon reading the book If I Were a Tree, the kids were inspired to act out being a tree and subsequently took that idea even further: deciding what kind of tree they would be and actually creating a picture of their tree by making a monoprint.

First, the shape of a tree (really a branch) was projected onto the wall so the kids could trace the shadow for their tree's trunk.

Based on their earlier experience of making rubbings of bark, they created monoprints featuring patterns that they felt matched the bark they had observed.

Once dry, the prints were cut to the tree trunk shapes they had traced, and there it was: the bare shape of the tree. The kids then decorated it and recorded why they chose to be the following kinds of trees:

It's a deep thing to think about, isn't it: What kind of tree would you be?

Thursday, November 9, 2017

A Different Kind of Book Report

We're all familiar with the book report--a standard tool in Language Arts classes to learn how to analyze text. But how about not doing that in standard essay format?

Our 5th/6th graders got to mix it up recently. They were allowed to self-select a novel and choose from 24 different "not-so-typical" book report templates. Some examples:

  • Create Your Own Cereal Box: Come up with a cereal name and design a cereal box that tells all about the characters, plot, and setting of the story. In addition, create a brief commercial to advertise your cereal; 

  • Design a Game: Use various aspects of your novel to design a game involving cards, spinners, and/or dice, as well as a playing board and game directions;

  • Interview a Character: Impersonate one of the main characters in your book and come up with questions and detailed responses for an interview.
  • Create a Travel Brochure: Highlight the various attractions and reasons to visit one of the settings of your novel. 

  • Diary Entries: Write a diary from the perspective of a character as if you were writing a biography or autobiography.  
Overall, the students enjoyed the opportunity to have the freedom to both select their book, but also the projects they wanted to complete in order to show their comprehension and appreciation for the novel they chose.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Q&A with Judaics Teacher Alise Gold, Winner of the Hartman Family Educator of the Year Award

Alise Gold with her students

Alise Gold is the third Akiba-Schechter teacher to win the Annual Hartman Family Foundation Educator of the Year Award, celebrated at the ATT (Associated Talmud Torahs) Annual Gala in November. She has been at Akiba-Schechter since 2011 and teaches 7th/8th grade Jewish Thought as well as Tanach (Bible & Prophets) to 5th/6th graders. She lives in West Rogers Park with her husband and four children, the youngest of which was just born this summer.

Tell us about the process of winning this award. 
Alise Gold: I was nominated in the spring (probably by parents but I don't know that for sure). By May I heard that I was a finalist, which meant I had to put together a teaching portfolio of all the work I had done the previous years. I had already been a finalist last year, so I didn't have to do this from scratch this time around. While creating this portfolio is a lot of work, it is also a great reflection process for me as a teacher and I ended up with a body of work I am really proud of. The last step is an observation by Rabbi Moller from the ATT and a video taping of me teaching that is then reviewed by the judges to determine the winners.

Pictures of Mrs. Gold's "Mishkan" unit

When you look back at your teaching career so far, what are you most proud of?
AG: I'm proud of most of my curriculum, and I am grateful to Akiba-Schechter for giving me the opportunity to create the Jewish Thought curriculum, and also for giving me and Baila a lot of freedom to try different techniques and ideas. I'm particularly proud of the Mishkan unit that we now run every other year. The Mishkan is traditionally not something that much time is spent on in Judaics classes, and yet the Torah is so specific in describing all its different parts, their manufacturing and the way to deal with them. I feel that our unit shows that if something is in the Torah, then we should learn something from it because it's there for a reason. So, in the “Mishkan” unit, students build models of the ancient Israelites’ portable tabernacle and contemplate the meaning of its parts. For example, the Aron (chest) is golden inside and out, but no one ever sees the inside. What a beautiful way to show us humans that it is also important to be golden, i.e. a good person, on the inside, and not only mind what's visible on the outside.

Why did you decide to become a teacher?
AG: I was inspired by my high school teachers, especially Mrs. Wainkrantz at Ida Crown. In her class, I saw that Tanach could be fun and could be important to me in my life, and ever since, it's been my goal to bring that to the next generation.

Why do you make the effort to host Shabbatonim in your home?
AG: I want students to see me in my life beyond school, and so I make an effort to host at least one Shabbaton in my house. I experienced this in high school when teachers would invite us into their homes and I think this is such an important part in my approach to teaching: I want what I teach them to matter in their lives, and so I want students to experience how Judaism matters in my life, in my home, and in my family.

Alise Gold (second from right) with co-teacher Baila Brackman (third from left)
with the 8th graders on their graduation trip to Israel in May 2017

You went on the Israel trip in May when you were eight months pregnant with your fourth child--how did that go for you?
AG: Actually, it was the perfect time for my family and me to go on this trip. It was wonderful to do the trip with Baila Brackman, with whom I teach many classes together, and it was such a privilege to experience Israel with the 8th graders, many of whom had been my students. It was another way to connect with them outside the classroom, a different way to spend time with them away from my own family. I am very grateful that I had that opportunity.

How has winning the prize affected you so far?
AG: It's a great validation that I did the right thing in becoming a teacher!

The Total Eclipse and a Lesson from Abraham

Bar Mitzvah Speech by 8th grader David Eskilson

A few months ago on August 21 I was at sailing camp. At 1:18 PM, sitting on our dock about to embark on a sailing trip, I, along with millions of others witnessed the solar eclipse. Wearing the special glasses given to us by the instructor, I managed to see the ball of the sun get shadowed by the moon.

With all the hype leading up to that moment, I couldn’t help but realize that about an hour after the eclipse, the hype seemed to fade immensely without a meaningful lasting message that would be befitting such a marvelous event.

As I was contemplating, it brought me back approximately 3,800 years ago to a moment our ancestor experienced, our first patriarch Abraham (Avraham Avinu). As a young boy Avraham was seeking an entity capable of creating and controlling the world as a whole. He started by worshiping the sun. It is huge, powerful, and immensely influential.

But the sun has its limits; the moon rules the night. If the moon can act where the sun cannot, it shows a certain greatness above and beyond the sun itself. So Avraham worshipped the moon.
The sun and the moon have a special relationship. First, they are exactly the same apparent size, even though the sun is huge and far away, and the moon is small and closer. Secondly, their paths intersect every once in a while, resulting in spectacular eclipses. It was obvious to Abraham that the coordination of the sun and the moon was not an event that merely happened by chance.

Avraham addressed his quest by first using the pagan beliefs that were his heritage. However, he thought, if it were the case that some divine plurality created the system, what was coordinating the parts of that higher plurality? And if nothing was coordinating the higher plurality, then how did their coordination come to be? Avraham concluded that there had to be ultimately one factor unifying the sun-moon system. But what was it?

One possibility was that the factor was within the system. That would mean, in effect, that the sun and the moon were coordinating themselves. But that did not seem likely because seeing their individual orbits and properties, it was clear that the sun was not controlling the moon, and the moon was not controlling the sun. Therefore, the control must be some factor which is not the sun and not the moon.

Clearly, whatever that force or being was, it had to be external to the parts of the system, and it had to be more powerful than them to keep all the parts in systemic order. Avraham was then absolutely convinced that the prevailing pagan beliefs (avoda zara) were wrong.

This moment that Avraham experienced in his youth did not stop there. He set about sharing his findings with everyone he met and successfully persuaded others to drop paganism in favor of his "heretical" views. Avraham was spurned by both family and the ruling class for bucking the system. After narrowly escaping death for refusing to deify the emperor, Avraham was forced to flee the country.

As I sat there on the dock gazing at the sky and pondering on all of this, it occurred to me that this is how I can make this moment meaningful. It struck me that if it were I that discovered that the sun and moon aren't the ultimate answer to life's questions, would I desert my family, wage war on the government, and risk death? So what if the sun and moon don't run the world? Is that a reason to go fanatic?

The answer to this lies in what Avraham, at the start of his mission, was told by Hashem in the first words of this week’s Parasha:

“לך לך מארצך וממלדתך ומבית אביך” “to leave his land, his birthplace and his father’s house,” to free himself from the pressure to conform. Leaders must be prepared not to follow the consensus. I want you, says Hashem to Avraham, to be different. Not for the sake of being different, but for the sake of starting something new.

Leaders lead. They follow an inner voice, a call. That is the strength of Avraham Avinu.

On this day of my Bar Mitzvah I realize that it is a time to lead. As one of the great writers on leadership, Warren Bennis, writes: “By the time we reach puberty, the world has shaped us to a greater extent than we realize. Our family, friends, and society in general have told us—by word and example—how to be. But people begin to become leaders at that moment when they decide for themselves how to be.”

I realize on this day that as a Bar Mitzvah I have the power to be a strong leader in my community.
My lesson for myself from this day and that I would like to share with you, is that regardless of the climate and influences that might make it hard to stand up for values and beliefs that are dear to you, we have the power of Avraham Avinu who paved the way for us to stand strong.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Diving into Mishna

We recently hosted a Mishna Fair, namely an evening for 5th/6th graders and their parents to delve into Torah learning. Mishna is part of the oral tradition that explains the Torah, passed down in the Talmud. Our Mishna Fair served as an introduction to a deeper level of learning that involves more questioning and critical thinking than you usually find in the elementary grades. 

We began the evening with dinner; afterwards parents and children learned together from prepared source sheets that were color coded according to level of difficulty. Those new to the idea of studying Torah could choose the easier yellow sheets; the pink sheets offered a medium level of difficulty, and the blue sheets were for those looking for a challenge. One parent was even observed picking up all three colors!

Participants addressed issues of legal definitions of acquisition, ritual details of the Sukkah, the parameters of damaging speech, and the history and structure of the Talmud. It was a joy to see the overwhelming enthusiasm as families engaged in meaningful discussions. Soon their conversations took on a life of their own and moved in many different directions.  

The Mishna-learning part of the evening wrapped up with parents and students gathering according to their study sheet's color and learning with one of our Mishna teachers. Parents actually got a taste of the Mishna classroom!

A wall display showed the "chain of tradition," beginning with the giving of the Torah at Sinai, moving on through various generations that made significant contributions to Jewish tradition, until the chain reached the generation labeled "The Akiba Kids!" Thus the display mirrored the inter-generational learning, that was taking place at that very moment.  

After the parent-child learning session, the students moved on to present the various topics they had researched in class. One function of the Mishna (and Talmud in general) is to give us a deeper understanding of the Torah so that we can understand the reasoning and apply it in everyday life. Students had been tasked with showing how Torah law can be applied to modern legal situations, highlighting the timelessness of Torah throughout the generations. 

In the Torah we read of an agricultural society where court cases involved oxen and sheep, water cisterns and wheat fields. Nevertheless the outcomes of those cases can be applied to modern-day litigation involving corporations, cars, sky-scrapers and tickets to the World Series.  

Display board on how Torah law can be applied
to the Wrigley Field rooftop case in Chicago

Studying Mishna brings with it a broadening of perspectives that also serves to expand our understanding of Judaism in general. When students were asked what they thought of when they heard the word "Judaism," they mentioned prayer, Shabbat, holidays and rabbis. But Judaism involves so much more, and the Mishna helps us see that it can bring deeper meaning and enrichment to all aspects of our lives. An evening devoted to the riches of Mishna can be eye opening.