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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