Why Do I Send My Kids to Rashi?

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My name is Cindy Janower.  I am the parent of two Rashi graduates and a Rashi fifth grader.

First of all, the faculty is committed and energized – you feel it in the hallways.  Rashi has probably the best staff culture I’ve seen in any workplace – our faculty love to teach, they are passionate about the school’s mission, they love to work with their colleagues, and they are professionals who deeply respect each and every child.  I learned long ago that a school with happy adults is a school with happy, developing children.  And I’ve seen that now with all three of my kids, two of whom graduated to excel in high school and the third now in 6th grade.  The kids feel supported, cared for, and known; and in that kind of environment, they can really take risks, burnish their emerging identities, and find their voices.

Secondly, everything the staff does at Rashi is aimed at enhancing teaching and learning with a thoughtful eye toward what they want our graduates to know and be able to do.  The school’s goals are laid out in a curriculum map that is systematically revisited. Rashi’s approach to curriculum development is thoughtful, benchmarked and generative. The commitment to growth and forward progress is hard-wired into the culture, mirroring Judaism’s insistence that we annually reevaluate ourselves at Rosh Hashana and at life’s key moments. There’s a recognition that when we don’t continually reassess and progress, we stagnate spiritually. They same is true for institutions.  At Rashi, the staff is committed to setting high standards and growing to reach them.  It’s exciting to witness that constant, thoughtful and creative evolution the classroom – in the curriculum, the school’s use of technology, the staff’s evolving understanding of how to differentiate instruction for individual children, and the faculty’s ability to mentor each other. Our children have been the beneficiaries of that kind of innovation but I also think they’re drinking it all in – learning to be willing to experiment and get out of their comfort zones because of the way it’s been modeled by the adults in the building. Our eldest, for example, is a senior at Noble and Greenough, where she has excelled and for which she was very well prepared.  But what impressed us most was her commitment to challenge herself by sticking with the classes she found most difficult.  She visited her teachers, she integrated feedback, and she fought to do well.  Her teachers there have been really impressed with her commitment.  I’m not sure there’s anything more important to role model to kids than the discipline of having a growth mindset.

IMG_2713Moreover, Rashi’s curricular goals go beyond what they want our kids to know and be able to do; they’re also aimed at who we want our graduates to be – young men and women of characterConfidentQuestioningThoughtfulCaringKnowledgeable and grounded in our 3,500-year heritage.  Steeped in visions of justice.  That matters to me.  Indeed, AJ and I believe that our most important task as parents is to shape our children’s characters. This is our chance to build the foundation of who our children will become as individuals – how they will live in the world, as doers and as learners.  And we don’t feel that we can do that alone – it’s simply too important, especially since kids are exposed younger and younger to a broad array of influences through the media – they need lenses and frameworks with which to interpret and filter all those influences.  Indeed, our children spend more time with their teachers and their peers than they do with us.  Rashi partners with us by breathing life into the values we want transmitted to our children. The school understands that education is about the reading, writing, and arithmetic and it excels at teaching each of those subjects – but it also uniquely understands that school is about more than that – it’s about building character –and to a person, our faculty is passionate about that goal. I can tell you that my 12 year old, Ali, wrote a big sign at the age of 6 that said “The World is a Person, it has feelings” and that my 14 year old happily gave up birthday gifts to collect videos for Children’s Hospital several years back. But I’m also struck by the fact that day to day they make decisions that are menschy – one gave up an afternoon, despite a substantial homework load, to spend time with a friend who just found out she had celiac disease; one got her entire grade to cheer for the child who seemed to struggle more than most to be encouraging and supportive at their class retreat last year; each of them have, at various times, defended a sister against us, her parents, when they think we’re out of line.  They have some self-awareness about right and wrong – themselves and others.  They’re obviously not the only kids who have that self-awareness, but I’m glad to know the school partnered with us to impart that sense of being intentional, compassionate, and acting with integrity.

I think there are enormous advantages to learning in a Jewish school.  Our educational culture has produced some of the greatest minds in history; individuals who were not just knowledgeable in their fields but iconoclasts, willing to challenge the status quo and think differently.  I don’t think that’s an accident.  I think it comes from learning countless stories of our ancestors succeeding against all odds.  It’s a very powerful set of stories to be steeped in at a young age.  Rashi takes this one step further by giving students real, current examples of Tzedakah heroes who’ve made a big difference in the world.  Those stories impart courage and inspire a measure of audacity.  I also think it comes from an age-old educational discipline that encourages robust peer debate and acknowledges the multiple lenses with which to view each phrase, each word -sometimes even individual letters in the Torah.  That teaches students that even a document with so much authority isn’t dogma – it invites one to question, to interpret, to wrestle with the content.  I think that imparts an imperative to engage actively, to expect different perspectives on any issue, and to never understand simple pronouncements as dogma.  Students learn that they have a responsibility to think through different perspectives and to make their own decisions; peer pressure and status quo are a fact of life, but they are never an excuse.  We have the freedom, but also the responsibility, to think and to decide.

And if I can make one final point, I’ve found that Rashi encourages kids’ voices. You hear them in the hallways – it is not the quietest school you’ll visit.  Students’ opinions are solicited – even on such weighty questions like “do you think God should have acted differently?”  You’ll see a lot of camaraderie between student and teacher; and also serious challenge.  My 9th grader told her math teacher at the beginning of her 7th grade year that she was having a hard time with her teaching style.  And they talked about it.  Her teacher took her seriously and they both made some changes to make sure the learning environment worked for both of them.  That’s amazing.  You’ll also see it in the social justice curriculum which, by expressing a belief that individuals, even kids, can make a difference, helps them to realize their power.  And, again, you’ll see that our graduates disproportionately become leaders in their next environments and that they are very comfortable talking to adults; high schools always say that Rashi graduates are creative and “they know how to advocate for themselves”.  When our oldest was interviewing at high schools, my husband used to try to make conversation with the kids in the waiting room and we realized that most teenagers look at their feet and grunt a lot.  High school admissions people will agree with that.  One told us that her job was to torture 13 year olds by trying to draw out more than two-word answers.  But she pointed out that Rashi students were consistently different than that.  They knew themselves, they were confident, and they were very comfortable talking to adults.

So I guess I’d want you to walk away with three points: the school will both exemplify and teach a growth mindset; it will give your kids a grounding in our values and help them become people of character; it; and it will encourage kids’ creative, strong voices.  Personally, in addition to having my children master reading, writing, and arithmetic, those are the things I want them to take away from lower and middle school – character, a zeal for learning and resilience, creativity, self-directedness and the self-confidence to advocate and interface with others.  Those emanate from Jewish values but they’re key 21st century skills.

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How a Committed Public School Family Chose Rashi

My name is Michele Markley. My daughter Mia is a third grader and my son Adam is in first grade. Full disclosure, my husband is a rabbi. So most people might look at me and say, well OBVIOUSLY you were going to send your kids to Rashi. But if you ask anyone in admissions here, you will quickly learn that this was not at all the case.

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We had heard AMAZING things about Rashi and thought it was a terrific school, but we pay taxes in Needham, a wonderful school district. My husband and I both grew up in public schools. His mother was a public school teacher. I am a public school special education teacher. There are so many amazing things about public school so why would we PAY to send our children to Rashi?

I had pretty much decided that we were going to send our children to our local school when we attended Rashi’s annual dinner with friends. The theme of the night was the social justice focus at Rashi. We watched a video and learned all about the different ways that social justice is embodied at Rashi. When we left, my husband Todd and I turned to each other and realized, maybe we needed to give this place another chance. The idea that our children would be going to school each day where social justice, community, and other crucial values in our minds were being taught each and every moment was something we might not having given enough attention to. Of course there are important values taught in public school, TO BE SURE. But the other reality in public school is that we are under different pressures.

By the time children reach third grade in public schools in Massachusetts, they need to take the PARCC or MCAS standardized tests. Therefore, there has become this sense that we need to start teaching certain skills earlier. This leads to a lot of pressure for kids to master certain skills, even if they aren’t quite developmentally ready to do so. This rush to squeeze in everything we need to teach does not leave a lot of room for in-depth exploration much of the time.

At Rashi, my children have been exposed to programming robots, weaving, hearing from a number of different social justice organizations, partnering with NewBridge for multigenerational programs and so much more. And these are not one-shot deals- they are part of an integrated curriculum, being touched upon in a number of the different curricular areas. Even more importantly for me, though, these experiences teach critical thinking skills, problem solving, teamwork, compassion, and perseverance. I hear many stories from both Mia and Adam about needing to work out challenging issues through testing different solutions and working together with peers. These are the skills I want them to be developing.

My daughter’s amazing second grade teacher (just one of the many gifted teachers we have had here thus far) dedicated a significant amount of time teaching about multiple intelligences and the importance of making mistakes and putting forth effort in order to grow our brains. That year, Mia had gotten the idea that she wasn’t good at math. The social emotional learning she was doing in class, paired with the extra reminders from her teacher, allowed Mia to realize that she was in control of her success. She left second grade a much more confident mathematician. Each and every day, there is something new that happens here which reminds me that we could not have made a better decision for our children’s education, for their emotional well-being, and for their development as quality human beings on this earth.

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Enhancing Teaching Through Technology

By Amy Gold, Director of Curriculum and Instruction

Everywhere you look in the media today, we read that schools are working on how to integrate technology in the classroom. Recently, there have been many articles in professional education journals that are focused on teaching “screenagers.”  We are now teaching the Igeneration. The I represents  digital technology (iphones, ipad, itouch) and the highly individualized activities and immediate response that these technologies make possible. The face of education as we know it is changing and at Rashi we are keeping pace with best practice by training our teachers to teach with twenty first century tools and skills.

What is important to understand is that we have not radically changed what we are teaching but rather how we are using technology to convey content more powerfully and efficiently. Teaching and learning at Rashi is still student centered. Technology cannot replace the relational nature of teaching. Rather, the Activboard technology that we have here at school enables teachers to create lessons that are more interactive. Teachers can present information through a variety of modalities which helps students to develop richer, more complex mental representations of content.

Last year, we set professional goals in technology for all our faculty, and within the first year, our teachers met the initial goals. Currently, teachers are working on the next set of challenges which are more complex and technical as they require a deeper understanding of how to create and modify content using ActivBoards.

This year we added a complimentary tool to the ActivBoards, the learning response systems (affectionately called LARRYs). With these devices, teachers are able to ask both planned and unplanned questions for in-the-moment assessment and receive instantaneous feedback – which we refer to as dip-sticking. It provides real time data for making moment-to-moment decisions about how to progress with a lesson.

Do I continue to more advanced content or do I need to review some more and provide additional guided practice? The ability to make these immediate decisions helps to differentiate instruction and wouldn’t be possible without this technology.

It is important to remember that technology isn’t changing what we teach, it is enhancing our ability to teach. Teaching is an art. No matter how innovative and flashy technology seems, teaching at Rashi will always be about learning through relationships with students. We believe that technology helps to enhance our instruction, engage students, provide us with new ways to gauge their learning, and connect with our students. However, it will never replace the bond created by teacher and student as they explore new concepts and tackle new skills. With this new technology and professional development, we have invested in out teachers, we have invested in our students, and are providing an outstanding education amidst an ever changing tide.

Rashi’s “ActivClassrooms”

By Dave Rosenberg, Third Grade Teacher and Assistant to the Head of School

Last year, in my tenth year of teaching, I began using an ActivBoard, and now I don’t know how I was able to teach without it. Rashi is now in its second year of implementing “ActivClassrooms” with the use of Promethean’s ActivBoard and ActivInspire software.

ActivBoards are Promethean’s brand of interactive whiteboards. I am able to write on the board, using the ActivPen, as I would an ordinary whiteboard. However, I’m also able to use the pen to click through websites and open video clips and other multimedia. The true power of the ActivBoard is its interaction with the ActivInspire software. In this program, I am able to create “flipcharts” using text, pictures, embedded multimedia, and digitized worksheets and textbook pages from existing curriculum. It allows me to project and interact with copies any pages that students have in front of them, from the previous night’s math homework, to the weekly Torah portion.

Using an ActivBoard allows for more time spent on learning, and both teachers and students benefit. Whereas I used to have to spend valuable class time in Jewish Studies walking around to individually help students find a specific word or phrase from a page of Hebrew text, now I am able to project a digital copy of the text, the same page that the students are looking at in their Tanakh, and use the highlighter tool to point out the words. Rather than taking a few minutes to furiously copy down notes from the whiteboard before having to thoroughly erase it in preparation for my next class, I can save notes from the board and then clear it for the next subject in two clicks. The following day, the previous day’s notes can be projected for students instantly, as opposed to having to spend transition time reconstructing what had been on the board the day before. Notes can even be printed and given to students who were absent or to those who require copies of the notes as an accommodation for a learning disability.

This fall we implemented Promethean’s Learning Response Systems. In grades K-2, students are using ActiVotes, a handheld voting device that allows students to respond to prepared or spontaneous multiple choice, yes/no, or true false questions. In grades 3-8, students are using ActivExpressions, a more sophisticated handheld device that can sort items in order, respond to likert scales, or text in open responses, both written and numeric.

My students love using the devices.They add a gameshow like element to lessons and allow all students to participate simultaneously. This is especially helpful for those students who do not frequently raise their hands or who are uncomfortable sharing in front of the whole class.

The Learning Response Systems give me immediate feedback from all students and allow me to check frequently for understanding and follow up to assist children who may be having difficulty. For example, as I was using the ActivExpresssions as the introduction to a math concept, I was surprised to note that two of my students, who were new to Rashi this year, were consistently getting the questions wrong. The data let me know I needed to follow up with them individually. I learned that although the students understood the math, they were confused by the formatting of Everyday Math, which they hadn’t seen before. It allowed me to review the format with them so that they were better able to demonstrate their understanding of the mathematical concepts.

ActivExpressions also enable me and other teachers to create self-paced assessments where students answer a series of questions directly on the device. Teachers can track responses during the assessments and export the results to Excel. This technology provides hard data instantly available to help teachers plan and differentiate instruction on the fly.

The possibilities of what we can achieve are very exciting. I can’t wait to see what next year will bring!