Leveling the Playing Field: Building Forts and Building Friendships

by Sylvia Miller, Director of Greenfield Lower School, Atlanta Jewish Academy

Play is universal. Play is natural. It is spontaneous, exploratory, and intrinsically motivated. Play for children and adults can alleviate anxieties, inhibition, and fear.

"I wait all day for recess," says one student, zipping up her jacket in a circle of friends.

Students rush out the door. Some flock to the soccer fields with white and black spotted balls. Others race to see who will be first down the slides.

At the other end of the playground, a dozen or so of the third and fourth graders dart in and out of the woods surrounding the playground. The area is dotted with structures built of teepee-like formations of sticks or stacks of thicker limbs and branches of pine piled one on top of the other. These forts have been built with love and creativity. Occasionally, a group knocks down a structure—just for the fun of it—and the woods echo with the enlongated cry of “tiiimmmmmber…”

Fort play emerges here at AJA naturally, without adult promotion, usually between late second through fourth grade—sometimes even into the fifth grade.

Forts are terrific opportunities for kids to have unstructured playtime. Fort play has also leveled the playing field when it comes to the natural social hierarchy created in the classroom.

The hard truth is that social stratification is a real thing. The research states that social stratification starts early, somewhere around age four, and happens everywhere…regardless of class, race, culture, or geography. In fact, researchers have found this same social hierarchy emerges in groups of children living not only in developed media-rich countries, but also in remote villages in third world countries around the globe.

Social relationship formation is also related to some aspects of playground design. In playgrounds dominated by fixed play structures, children tend to establish social hierarchy based on physical prowess, while in playgrounds with natural features and vegetation, social hierarchy is based more on communication skills and creativity. (Malone and Trant, 2003.)

One of my favorite books on this subject is Best Friends, Worst Enemies, by Michael Thompson, Ph.D. He breaks down the social hierarchy as follows:

  • For boys, dominance is based largely on physical ability. Who’s the fastest? The strongest? Who can do the most “epic” trick on a skateboard?

  • For girls, dominance is based on social skills. Who is the most persuasive? The funniest? The most confident? Who can draw other girls in, at the expense of their “old” friends?

Each step in the fort-building process reinforces the classroom and life skills we teach at AJA: planning, goal setting, interpersonal skills, hard work, perseverance, and pride in something bigger than oneself.

What I have witnessed is that fort building helps to encourage a greater feeling of healthy power and a sense of belonging in our students. On their own, our children have leveled the playing field by building forts and building friendships.

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Financial Literacy: How Will They Ever Know What to Do?

At this time of year, I am sure that many of you, like myself, are consumed with taxes and financial aid forms; and every year, I wonder how my children will learn and understand what to do when it is their turn. Setting up a budget with a cash flow, emergency savings, and retirement money is hard enough--and then we have to fill out all those obtuse forms for the government. OY!

More and more schools and businesses are recognizing the need for students to learn about finances in a formal way. In fact, President Obama proclaimed April as National Financial Capability Month, acknowledging that young adults must become financially literate in order to survive in the adult world. And in the spirit of early intervention, we must start teaching them at a young age.

In 2013, the Council on Economic Education released the National Standards for Financial Literacy for K-12. Developed by economists and educators, the benchmarks were developed to provide a framework of essential knowledge that will help students learn to be savvy financial consumers.  The standards cover six topics:

  1. Earning and Income;

  2. Buying Goods and Services;

  3. Using Credit;

  4. Saving;

  5. Financial Investing; and

  6. Protecting and Insuring.

We at AJA are joining that effort and declaring April as Financial Literacy Month! This will become an annual event to anticipate at AJA. The teachers have spent many months researching ideas and activities that will help accomplish these goals, and have developed developmentally appropriate programs to reinforce skills on each grade level. Here’s a look at the programs we’ve already implemented or have planned:

  • First Grade:  will design a business to earn money to go to the zoo.  Learning about wants and needs, inventory for a business, supply and demand and profit.

  • Second Grade: will create a restaurant where students order their meals, pay a bill (even calculate a tip) and get change.  They will also talk about food costs, quantity of food sold, and salaries paid to the restaurant workers.

  • Third Grade:  In their study of “Community,” they will learn about the role currency plays with regards to goods and services used in a community.

  • Fourth Grade:  will explore three categories related to money: coins, banks, and budgets. They will learn the history of money, how banks and credit cards work, and how to budget, save, and help those less fortunate along the way.

  • Fifth and Sixth Grades: will conduct an integrated Social Studies and Math unit focused on financial obligations and taxes.  The Judaics teachers will contribute to the unit by teaching about taxes in our Jewish texts and our obligation to give 10% of our income to tzedakah. One sixth-grade class is preparing for a day-long visit to a fully interactive town called Biztown on April 27th.

  • Seventh Grade:  One math class has already completed a project called "shopping spree," where they calculated the amount of money saved on items discounted by  5%,10%,15%, and 25% and computed sales tax while staying within a budget. In addition, they will be doing a project on the stock market. On April 21, they will be visiting the Federal Reserve Bank in downtown Atlanta.

  • Eighth Grade: will learn about the risks and rewards of investing money in the stock market, culminating in a project which will include researching a company in which to invest, using an Excel spreadsheet, and computing the loss or gain of their investment.

I only wish my education included these topics when I was a kid. Maybe then I would be able to balance my checkbook….


Leah Summers

Associate Head, Atlanta Jewish Academy

Greenfield EC-MS


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Sylvia Miller, Director of Greenfield Lower School, Shares "Dear Parent: About THAT Kid..."

Here at Atlanta Jewish Academy, we know that our children walk through our doors carrying more than just books in those backpacks. Sometimes, those extra burdens can affect not only the children who bear them, but everyone around them. We at AJA feel that it is our calling to help all our children carry those backpacks.

I would like to share this essay with you, which I did not write, but which perfectly expresses the dilemma of helping "THAT kid." And please know that no matter what happens, we will continue to look for, and to find, the good, amazing, special, and wonderful things about your child and every child in our care.  

                                                  --Sylvia Miller, Director of Greenfield Lower School, Atlanta Jewish Academy


Dear Parent: About THAT kid…

 ON 10 NOVEMBER, 2014

Dear Parent:

I know. You’re worried. Every day, your child comes home with a story about THAT kid. The one who is always hitting shoving pinching scratching maybe even biting other children. The one who always has to hold my hand in the hallway. The one who has a special spot at the carpet, and sometimes sits on a chair rather than the floor. The one who had to leave the block centre because blocks are not for throwing. The one who climbed over the playground fence right exactly as I was telling her to stop. The one who poured his neighbour’s milk onto the floor in a fit of anger. On purpose. While I was watching.  And then, when I asked him to clean it up, emptied the ENTIRE paper towel dispenser. On purpose. While I was watching. The one who dropped the REAL ACTUAL F-word in gym class.

You’re worried that THAT child is detracting from your child’s learning experience. You’re worried that he takes up too much of my time and energy, and that your child won’t get his fair share. You’re worried that she is really going to hurt someone some day. You’re worried that “someone” might be your child. You’re worried that your child is going to start using aggression to get what she wants. You’re worried your child is going to fall behind academically because I might not notice that he is struggling to hold a pencil. I know.

Your child, this year, in this classroom, at this age, is not THAT child. Your child is not perfect, but she generally follows rules. He is able to share toys peaceably. She does not throw furniture. He raises his hand to speak. She works when it is time to work, and plays when it is time to play. He can be trusted to go straight to the bathroom and straight back again with no shenanigans. She thinks that the S-word is “stupid” and the C-word is “crap.” I know.

I know, and I am worried, too.

You see, I worry all the time. About ALL of them. I worry about your child’s pencil grip, and another child’s letter sounds, and that little tiny one’s shyness, and that other one’s chronically empty lunchbox. I worry that this one’s coat is not warm enough, and that one’s dad yells at her for printing the letter B backwards. Most of my car rides and showers are consumed with the worrying.

But I know, you want to talk about THAT child. Because a kid’s backward Bs are not going to give your child a black eye.

I want to talk about THAT child, too, but there are so many things I can’t tell you.

I can’t tell you that she was adopted from an orphanage at 18 months.

I can’t tell you that he is on an elimination diet for possible food allergies, and that he is therefore hungry ALL. THE. TIME.

I can’t tell you that her parents are in the middle of a horrendous divorce, and she has been staying with her grandma.

I can’t tell you that I’m starting to worry that grandma drinks…

I can’t tell you that his asthma medication makes him agitated.

I can’t tell you that her mom is a single parent, and so she (the child) is at school from the moment before-care opens, until the moment after-care closes, and then the drive between home and school takes 40 minutes, and so she (the child) is getting less sleep than most adults.

I can’t tell you that he has been a witness to domestic violence.

That’s okay, you say. You understand I can’t share personal or family information. You just want to know what I am DOING about That Child’s behaviour.

I would love to tell you. But I can’t.

I can’t tell you that she receives speech-language services, that an assessment showed a severe language delay, and that the therapist feels the aggression is linked to frustration about being unable to communicate.

I can’t tell you that I meet with his parents EVERY week, and that both of them usually cry at those meetings.

I can’t tell you that the child and I have a secret hand signal to tell me when she needs to sit by herself for a while.

I can’t tell you that he spends rest time curled in my lap because “it makes me feel better to hear your heart, Teacher.”

I can’t tell you that I have been meticulously tracking her aggressive incidents for 3 months, and that she has dropped from 5 incidents a day, to 5 incidents a week.

I can’t tell you that the school secretary has agreed that I can send him to the office to “help” when I can tell he needs a change of scenery.

I can’t tell you that I have stood up in a staff meeting and, with tears in my eyes, BEGGED my colleagues to keep an extra close eye on her, to be kind to her even when they are frustrated that she just punched someone AGAIN, and this time, RIGHT IN FRONT OF A TEACHER.

The thing is, there are SO MANY THINGS I can’t tell you about That Child. I can’t even tell you the good stuff.

I can’t tell you that his classroom job is to water the plants, and that he cried with heartbreak when one of the plants died over winter break.

I can’t tell you that she kisses her baby sister goodbye every morning, and whispers “You are my sunshine” before mom pushes the stroller away.

I can’t tell you that he knows more about thunderstorms than most meteorologists.

I can’t tell you that she often asks to help sharpen the pencils during playtime.

I can’t tell you that she strokes her best friend’s hair at rest time.

I can’t tell you that when a classmate is crying, he rushes over with his favourite stuffy from the story corner.


The thing is, dear parent, that I can only talk to you about YOUR child. So, what I can tell you is this:

If ever, at any point, YOUR child, or any of your children, becomes THAT child…

I will not share your personal family business with other parents in the classroom.

I will communicate with you frequently, clearly, and kindly.

I will make sure there are tissues nearby at all our meetings, and if you let me, I will hold your hand when you cry.

I will advocate for your child and family to receive the highest quality of specialist services, and I will cooperate with those professionals to the fullest possible extent.

I will make sure your child gets extra love and affection when she needs it most.

I will be a voice for your child in our school community.

I will, no matter what happens, continue to look for, and to find, the good, amazing, special, and wonderful things about your child.

I will remind him and YOU of those good amazing special wonderful things, over and over again.

And when another parent comes to me, with concerns about YOUR child…

I will tell them all of this, all over again.


With so much love;




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I was thinking...about merging two schools, by Leah Summers

The theme for our Staff Day this past Monday was "Am Echad, Lev Echad, One Nation, One Heart."

It was the first time that the entire AJA Upper School faculty and staff and the entire AJA Lower School faculty and staff had an opportunity to come together as a united group. Our goal was to begin the process of becoming "One Faculty with One Vision." 

The morning was spent in our separate groups, working on division-specific topics that each school needed to address. But the afternoon was spent together.  We spent time getting to know each other through a mix-it-up lunch and a Human Bingo. We also were privileged to study together with consultant Dr. Deena Pargman about how to have "crucial conversations" in order to move the relationship forward in a productive and constructive manner. It was powerful.

And I had an epiphany...I kept thinking about Shabbat. I was reminded that we welcome Shabbat on Friday night with the lighting of individual candles, representing the different experiences that we each lived through during the week.  However, on Saturday night, we then bid farewell to Shabbat by lighting a single Havdalah candle with intertwined wicks, representing our coming together as a community after having enjoyed shared experiences with family and friends.    

Yesterday, I felt that we started off the day as individual schools, with different histories and different stories; but we ended the day coming together as a unified force, with the energy and enthusiasm to create a new story together.   

Leah Summers, Associate Head of School

AJA Greenfield Early Childhood, Lower School, and Middle School 




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Leah's Thinking About…Mascots!

Go, AJA!!!

There is tremendous excitement building about our new Infant through 12th grade school, Atlanta Jewish Academy. With AJA t-shirts, AJA sunglasses, and AJA chocolate, the enthusiasm has just mushroomed.  I can't believe that we have been in school for only two weeks and yet the name AJA is naturally rolling off our tongues.  This is our new identity.

Of course, no school can function without a school mascot.  But what should it be? 

In keeping with our philosophy, which values student input and student engagement, we have begun the process of empowering our Middle School and Upper School students in choosing the mascot. The students in each division were given forms on which to submit their ideas. They were asked to include a suggested name as well as a reason for why that particular mascot would best represent our school.  On Monday, the Middle School students voted on their favorite choices, and I tallied the votes in real time via a Google Doc that the students saw live on the classroom Smartboards.  Our top three choices have been combined with the Upper School's top three choices to form a new ballot of six options.  We will all vote on the six top choices and will be ready to unveil the final decision tomorrow to the whole school.

Stay tuned for the final decision.  Go, AJA!!!

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I was thinking…about integrated learning

Sounds complicated, I know. But it’s a wonderful approach to learning, and we try to incorporate it into every area of the school.

Integrated learning simply means that we try not to learn subjects in isolation. For example, our Judaism and our love for Israel are such vital parts of who we are at GHA that it underlies all our learning. Why not bring it out into the open in art classes, or literature classes, or science, math, or drama?

As I walked down the hallways this week, a beautiful exhibition of the work of our eighth graders caught my eye. Art teacher Anita Stein and Judaics teacher Debbie Bornstein collaborated on a project about the Four Sons of the Passover Haggadah. Mrs. Bornstein analyzed the famous parable with the eighth graders, discussing the lessons learned from studying these four sons and their Passover education; then, Mrs. Stein had students draw themselves as all of the Four Sons, with a short paragraph examining how each of these figures might sometimes represent a quality they find in themselves. Mrs. Stein taught the students how to create the four identical but differently colored prints in the style of artist Andy Warhol.

Not only was the students’ work arresting and beautiful, the content that informed their analysis of the Four Sons—and themselves—was equally lovely, and brought all the different pieces in all of us—wise son, defiant son, simple son, silent son, Jew, artist, student, teacher—into an amazing, integrated whole.

I am so proud to be a part of the remarkable community of learners/teachers at GHA, where everything comes together.



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I was thinking…about testing

Well, the results are in!  We received the ERB scores and found what we already knew—that our students are doing great.  Our sixth, seventh, and eighth graders scored way above the independent school norms, and all those who qualified for untimed testing consistently scored way above national norms.   

However, the question I still have to ask is, "What does this mean?"

Recently, there has been a spate of articles questioning the validity of using standardized tests. Information has surfaced indicating that these norm-referenced tests were never intended to measure quality of learning or teaching. They ignore the fact that there are multiple ways to reach the same outcome. Alfie Kohn, a popular author and lecturer on education, states that the "main objective of these tests is to rank, not to rate; to spread out the scores, not to gauge the quality of a given student or school."  Some maintain that the "one size fits all approach of standardized testing is convenient, but lazy."

As I have remarked in the past, scores on tests should be seen as only one piece of data in a full educational profile.  There are truly gifted students who perform poorly on standardized tests, as well as average students who excel in their testing. 

Yes, we showed well as a school; but the data does not truly tell us about the learning that is taking place for each individual child.  Let us not make the mistake of defining our children by this rigid tool of measurement alone.  The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, just as our children's education profiles are greater than this one small component. 

First Lady Michelle Obama, Princeton and Harvard graduate, once said, "If my future were determined just by my performance on a standardized test, I wouldn't be here.  I guarantee you that."

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I was thinking...about teaching social skills in school

Six years ago, all our teachers were trained in an approach that deliberately teaches emotional and social skills to improve the classroom environment. The two programs we used were called Responsive Classroom technique in the elementary school, and Developmental Designs in the middle school.  Whenever we talked about the teachings of these programs, we fondly referred to the "RCD2 approach." Teachers could be heard saying, "Oh, this is so RCD2!" or "RCD2 is magical."

We knew that these techniques create more harmonious classrooms and better-behaved children, but there were few studies that looked at the academic impact.  

Lo and behold, on March 6 of this year, the Washington Post published an article citing a long-term study that demonstrates how improved social and emotional skills also lead to greater academic achievement.  In a randomized controlled trial, researchers found that children in classrooms where the "RCD2" techniques were fully implemented scored significantly higher in math and reading tests than students in classrooms where they weren’t applied. 

It is so gratifying to know that GHA is on the cutting edge of what is Best Practice in education.  Go GHA!!!

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I was thinking…about the joy of learning

Mishenichnas Adar Marbim b'Simcha… When Adar comes, our joy increases…

Every morning, I arrive at school at 7:00 a.m.  It is always dark and chilly.  I usually enter the building with my eyes half closed, grab my first cup of coffee, and check out my email before I get ready for the day. 

This past Monday morning was different.  It was still dark and chilly, but my eyes widened when I saw a big sign welcoming me to Hogwarts.  Quidditch sticks and owls lined the walkway up to the door. On Monday morning, instead of going straight to the teachers' room to get my coffee, I just had to turn towards the lunchroom, drawn by the figures of Harry Potter and his friends in the hallway, each representing a different character from the Purim story with an accompanying verse from the Megillah. Hagrid pointed me towards the lunchroom, and there they were: four long tables for each of the four Hogwarts houses.  I smiled…I giggled…and started my day as it should be started on the first day of the month of Adar.

I was eager to see what else our talented B’not Sherut had in store for us.  And if I was that excited anticipating what delights might come next, how much more exciting would the experience be for our students? 

It occurred to me that this is what I love about GHA.  Yes, school is about formal learning, but it is also about real and meaningful applications; it's about joyful engagement. 

"Ultimately, we want our kids to love to learn.  A passion for learning is quite different from just studying to earn a grade or to please parents or teachers.  Those who develop a love of learning at an early age continue the process throughout their lives and are generally more successful, interesting, and happier than those who don't."

Let's keep the joy of Adar with us as we move into the final third of our school year.    


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I was thinking…about authentic learning

Picture this:  You walk into a classroom and see a room scattered with desks. Two kids are facing each other across each desk, snacking on pretzels or Israeli chocolate as they chat with each other in Hebrew.  At the sound of a buzzer, they switch to a different desk with a different partner, a new conversation, and more snacks!  Like “speed dating”—without the dating!

Another quick picture: You walk into Pita Grille, the Kosher Israeli restaurant here in Sandy Springs. You see a whole GHA safa class that is out of the school building in the middle of the day! What’s this all about?  Well, as an assessment concluding their unit on food and restaurants, these students were required to introduce themselves at the counter and order their lunch in Hebrew.  They were then allowed to speak only Hebrew as they chatted to each other over an Israeli lunch at the restaurant.

Many of us are proficient at memorizing vocabulary, grammar, math facts, algorithms, and the like.  But how are we able to apply those skills in real-life situations?  At GHA, that is the goal and challenge of teaching; making learning meaningful and relevant.  We want learning to be useful in our lives, and not just empty knowledge that is pushed away to the far recesses of our minds.

This is authentic learning at its best!

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I was thinking…about resilience

The recent weather events that challenged so many of us got me thinking about resilience. So many of our parents and teachers had their patience, comfort, and well-being challenged when they were forced to spend 6-24 hours travelling to get home.  Some of us bunked down at strangers' homes, some of us were stuck at stores or restaurants, and some of us even spent the night in our cars.  But somehow, thank God, we managed to get through all this to see that our hardships could be met and handled with fortitude and dignity.   I was awed by the presence of mind demonstrated by so many in the GHA family, and I couldn't help but think that this would ultimately be a great lesson for all our children.

I remember when my daughter was in middle school and found herself the target of some horrible bullying, both on-line and face to face.  I was so hurt for her, and desperately wanted to fix her problem for her.   At one point, I suggested that maybe she should change schools to get a fresh beginning.   My daughter responded, "No, Ema, I just have to get through this, and I know I will be better off for it."   I was humbled.  My thirteen year old daughter knew intuitively that her success as a human being had more to do with learning how to deal with challenges than having her problems  easily resolved.  She didn't want to be rescued.  She wanted to grow. 

I read a New York Times Magazine issue called, "What if the Secret to Success is Failure?"  The authors of the articles maintained that “our kids' success—and happiness—may depend less on perfect performance than on learning to deal with failure."  One headmaster of a New York private school lamented that the kids "don't put up with a lot of suffering.  When they (the kids) do get uncomfortable, we hear from the parents."  How is that teaching our children to deal with challenge and adversity that is inevitable in our lives?  How is that helping our children develop the resilience to deal with life's trials and tribulations?

I was so worried about our children, parents, and teachers during the recent ice events. But I know that we all learned that we could handle discomfort and difficulty and move on.  This lesson is just as important as math and reading.

"Wouldn't it be cool, if each student graduated from school with not only a G.P.A., but also a C.P.A., for character-point average?"  I wonder…

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I was thinking…learning is everywhere!

One of the tenets of the Reggio Emilia approach that inspires our Early Childhood program is that we must consider "the environment as the third teacher."  In other words, the classrooms and other spaces in the school must be created very deliberately, because the environment provides the tools for the child's discovery of the world. Both outside and inside spaces must be utilized with forethought to allow for exploration and learning.

Here at GHA, we take this idea a step farther, recognizing that learning takes place beyond the traditional four walls of the school—beyond textbooks and worksheets, beyond desks and chairs.  How the environment in school is developed matters, but the way we use the opportunities outside of the school environment matters just as much. I was struck by this thought as I observed the learning that took place in our Middle School last week.   

Last Wednesday, our eighth grade spent the morning at the MLK Center with a number of other middle schools.  They toured the center and met with Dr. King's family, who spoke about the Civil Rights Movement.  We were the only day school in attendance, and learning about the devastating effects of discrimination helped them to appreciate their afternoon visit to the Anne Frank Museum.  (They are now starting to study WWII and the Holocaust, and they will gain firsthand experience with a survivor on Sunday night at the Am Yisrael Chai event here at GHA.) 

Last Thursday, thirty of our Middle School students met with thirty students from St. Jude's Catholic School in an "Acceptance Summit."  They learned about each other's lives and religions, and found that even though we don't have to agree, we can certainly respect each other's right to live differently. 

Finally, last Friday, the entire Middle School participated in Mitzvah Day, volunteering for community service projects both in and out of the Jewish community.  It is crucial that students at this age think beyond themselves and their own needs. 

While I know that reading, writing, and arithmetic are important school subjects, I also believe that the hands-on experiences in authentic situations are ultimately what will stay in our children's memories.   

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I was thinking...

Part of GHA's mission is our commitment to building community.  We have some clear community-builders in place for the children; Morning Meetings and Lunch Bunches in the Lower School and CPR (Circle of Power and Respect) and Kesher, our Advisory Groups, in the Middle School.  But it just occurred to me that we build community among the adults in our family as well with grade events sponsored and orchestrated by our PTSA as well as Melton and Kohelet study groups.  These events have brought GHA parents and friends together in the most interesting and exciting ways. 

The upcoming events in the next month are wonderful opportunities for adults to share, learn, and enjoy some grown-up time together.

  • On Jan. 25, we have a wonderful evening planned for music lovers.  Join us for some smooth jazz, drinks, and snacks in a café environment. We all know Emile Worthy from his wonderful work with our children, but I'll bet you didn't know that he is also a talented performer who has been singing professionally for 40 years! 

  • On Feb. 5, we have our second annual celebration of Black History Month. This year, the musical duo Amandla! will present a trip through African American History via song.

  • Last, but certainly not least, we have the honor of hosting Ron Prosor, Israel's Ambassador to the UN, right here at GHA on Feb. 11.  He'll speak about Israel and how it is perceived by the world. 

I am awed at the variety of activities and presentations that we are promoting.  There really is something for everybody…

GHA is a happening place!   I hope we see you at these events so that we can spend some informal quality time together. 

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