31 August 2012
13 Elul 5772
What an awesome first week back with our entire community! Our ninth grade students returned on Monday for a day of orientation and community building and yesterday had their first day of academic classes. On Tuesday and Wednesday, the whole school was at Camp Yavneh for our annual All-School Retreat, organized by our Jewish and Student Life Department (JSL) in partnership with Student Council and other student leaders, It was a great success thanks to the planning and preparation of our educational team, greater involvement and empowerment of students (many of whom came in over the summer), the participation of so many faculty and staff members (and their families), and the spirit and energy of the entire student body. From the communal shofar blowing to the festive club fair, from conversations about our Jewish journeys to swimming in the lake, from the new tradition of a dress-up “Baker Banquet” to the hilarious, emotional, and thought-provoking one-man performance by Jon Adam Ross of “God of Our Fathers,” the retreat was a combination of intellectual engagement, personal self-reflection, community building, and fun.
Some educators object to starting the school year by creating a camp-like experience. “You should be establishing more formality, boundaries, and discipline to start the school year,” they insist. “Why would you start the year by reinforcing a ‘camp culture?’”
These objections run counter to my educational philosophy and values and miss so many core elements of Gann Academy’s mission and vision. In my opening remarks to the community, I reiterated three essential reasons why we start the year with the All-School Retreat.
First, intellectual learning and the sharpening of our minds happen both in and out of the classroom. Some of our most significant opportunities to think critically and to wrestle with big ideas happen in hallways, during meals, even on the ball field. Pursuit of academic excellence, critical thinking, and challenging intellectual work should not be limited to the four walls of the schoolhouse.
Second, great education is concerned with more than refining our students’ intellects. The high school experience should create opportunities for students to explore, learn, and grow as whole people and as Jews. Living together in a retreat environment creates a laboratory for living what we learn, for clarifying our values, for developing our identities, and for making choices about how we want to act and who we want to be.
Third, education is a fundamentally relational endeavor. We acquire skills and knowledge and apply them; we wrestle with big questions; we learn, grow, and develop in community. Learning is not a solitary act, and it depends on our capacities to communicate and connect with each other and with the subjects we teach and learn. This retreat is an opportunity for students to form and strengthen the relationships with their teachers and with each other that will make it possible for them to face challenges, take risks, and stretch themselves intellectually, morally, and spiritually beyond what even they believe they are capable of. It is the foundation upon which the rest of the school year is built.
Speaking of risks, some of the most powerful moments of the retreat occurred when students whom I did not yet expect to be so courageous stood up to speak in front of the entire school. This included several ninth grade students as well as seniors whom I have not seen speak publicly in this community before. Perhaps, most memorable was at our closing program in the outdoor amphitheater when I asked students to reflect on a highlight, moment, or take-away from the retreat experience. After several students came up to the microphone to share, a girl raised her hand. She walked to the microphone and explained that she is from the Leo Baeck High School in Haifa, Israel, and will be spending the next three months with us as a visiting student. “I have only been in this country for four days,” she said. “And I just want to tell you that your school is amazing. I already feel like it is my family.”
After she spoke, I thanked her for her words and for having the courage to speak. I also emphasized how proud we should be that we have created a space in which this student, new to Gann and to America, felt safe, even encouraged, to make her voice heard. The effort to live out the Jewish value of hachnassat orchim (hospitality) in the deepest sense—not only to guests but also to new ideas, different perspectives, and often unheard voices—makes learning possible and makes this learning community extraordinary.
I am looking forward to being challenged, nurtured, and inspired by all of you this year!