Weekly Message 9-21-12

21 September 2012  
5 Tishrei 5772  

Shalom Chaverim,   

If you read last week’s edition of our student newspaper, the Shevuon, you found several well-written, articulate articles. The cover article entitled “2,977 Lives Are Worth More Than 15 Minutes” sharply critiqued our all-school commemoration of September 11.  Another story presented a critical but balanced view about a significant change we are making to our internal communication system. A different op-ed challenged the school’s administration and questioned the degree to which students truly are empowered to lead and given a voice in the school, in particular in their academic experience.  

The Shevuon advisor and student editors sent me advance copies of these articles to review, which they occasionally do when stories criticize aspects of the school. I could see why they thought I might have reacted negatively, especially since we strive to start the school year on a positive note. However, as I read the articles, I found myself beaming with pride. From both an educational and moral-spiritual perspective, this was a perfect start to the year. 

Educationally, these articles are models of what in academic jargon is known as constructivist education. Rather than transmitting knowledge, meaning, or values directly to our students, we expose them to ideas and experiences from which they make meaning for themselves. This process refines students’ intellectual skills and shapes their character and identity.  We can gently guide students, but, mostly, we watch with wonder as they independently navigate their world of values and ideas and learn and grow in the process.  

The Shevuon offers this kind of learning experience for the writers, editors, and our community. While I don’t always agree with a student’s perspective and may feel defensive when they are critical of the school or of me, I remind myself that, as long as the students are thoughtful and respectful, the medium is, indeed, the message. The freedom and encouragement to claim their voices, clarify their values, and wrestle with their school and world experiences are what Gann is all about.  

I would like to offer a moral and spiritual perspective on this. During his Rosh Hashanah D’var Torah, my friend Yoni talked about how the most successful organizations are “learning organizations” and that one of the defining features of a learning organization is a culture where people are willing to give honest and hard feedback to themselves and each other. Honest, open, direct, and respectful communication should be part of what it means to be a good family member, friend, and citizen; yet, given our propensity to either avoid conflict or express opinions and frustrations in less than constructive ways, this kind of communication is too rare. Yoni suggested that one of the reasons why we read the “al chet’s,” the long list of ways that “we have sinned,” so many times during Yom Kippur and why these confessions are written in the plural rather than the singular is that we are practicing a culture of open, honest critique, as if to say, “We are a community where it is okay, even morally and spiritually expected, to be honest with ourselves and each other about the ways we are falling short of being the people and the community we want to be.” This interpretation of the “al chet’s” is a beautiful insight into what we are working toward on Yom Kippur and is another reason why our Shevuon and the discourse it can promote are so important to our school. 

As we approach Yom Kippur, may we make the time and find the courage to communicate honestly, respectfully, and lovingly—both about what is going well so we can build upon it and about ways we are falling short so we can improve.  May a culture of loving critique and civil discourse about the character of our community be a defining feature of our school and our lives.   

Shabbat Shalom and G’mar Chatima Tova,  

Rabbi Marc Baker   

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