June 6, 2008
3 Sivan 5768
There is something powerful about final exam week. Our students enter a different mode of learning that is intense and at times anxiety provoking, yet pushes them to stretch themselves as they review, recover, and discover all they have learned this year. Walking through the school I see students studying diligently in every corner of the building, working alone and often collaboratively, to quiz, teach and challenge themselves and each other to explain, interpret, and apply the skills and knowledge they have acquired. I can vividly recall the phenomenon I experienced in high school and college when, for a semester or even a whole year, I had simply “plugged through” a course, doing homework, taking tests, and writing papers. Only when I stepped back from the year – when I collected and structured all the material, looked at the various units in context and in relation to one another, and reviewed what I had learned (or had not really learned) over and over again – did I experience the incredible feeling of: it’s all coming together. This feeling, this realization – the moment or the string of “a-ha moments” when we make connections, apply the tools and knowledge we have acquired, and gain deeper understandings of what we have learned all year and why – is the experience of real learning.
While the rest of our school is taking exams this week, our seniors are reflecting and reviewing what they have learned in a different way. At their senior retreat on Monday and again last night at Senior Night, they shared highs, lows, what they have learned both during their last trimester, and throughout their last four years. This ceremonial process is a different kind of “final;” not a test with grades, but very much a summative assessment, as they appreciate and make connections between what they have learned and how they have grown; the people who have shaped their minds and touched their hearts; transformative encounters and experiences; and, their four years of evolution and coming of age as Jews and human beings, as scholars, athletes, artists, and mensches. As I listen to our seniors share their reflections and experiences, I realize that this process is really our final exam, our assessment, as educators and as a school. Our graduates are the ultimate test of what we do here, of the blood, sweat and tears, the dedication and love that our students and teachers bring to Gann every day, and of the impact that the mission and vision of Gann make on our students and ultimately, through them, on the world.
How appropriate that our final exam period and graduation coincide so closely with the holiday of Shavuot, on which, according to our tradition, we recreate the experience of revelation at Mount Sinai and each of us receives Torah anew. In preparation for renewing and reaffirming our relationship with Torah, there is a custom to study Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), one chapter each week, for the six weeks between Pesach and Shavuot. As I think about this time of the school year and the Jewish calendar, and about the spirit of an intellectual and spiritual review process, I am reminded of Ben Bag Bag’s famous comment in Pirkei Avot 5:22: “Hafoch bah, hafoch bah, d’kulah bah – Turn it (or turn in it), turn it, for everything is in it.” Referring to the study of Torah, Ben Bag Bag charges us to review and revisit, to explore and pull apart, to immerse ourselves, to expand, to go deeper and deeper, until we discover the boundless meaning and wisdom contained within what we learn.
This week, whether reviewing chemistry, writing final Tanach papers, or reflecting on their four years at Gann, our students are fulfilling Ben Bag Bag’s mandate.
As our school year comes to a close, both the spirit of “hafoch ba” and the joy of our students’ discoveries, in so many different ways, that “kulah ba”, are palpable, contagious, and extremely rewarding. On a personal note, this has been perhaps the most tremendous year of learning of my life. I have learned Torah, education, and leadership; I have learned about the challenges and joys of running a school and of running a business; I have learned about things that our school does extremely well, and areas in which we need to improve; I have learned about the complexity and the beauty of the web of human interactions that make up our pluralistic community; and, I have learned that what defines the character and culture of a school is the passion, creativity, dedication and energy of its teachers, students, parents, administrators, staff, lay leaders, and of a Jewish community that believes in Jewish education and is deeply invested in the future of the Jewish People.
I will continue to turn and turn the experience of this school year and of my first year as Head of School, and I feel blessed to have already discovered the invaluable support of this entire community and the profound sense of shared purpose that we share for the education of our children and the mission of our school. I am deeply grateful to be part of the Gann community and to be on this journey with all of you. Thank you.
May our summer be relaxing and restorative; and may it charge us up for another amazing year as we continue to lead this school together into the future.
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach,
Rabbi Marc Baker