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Chief Academics Officer's Blog

16 Juniors + 3 Chaperones + 5 Colleges = 3 Fabulous days!

Guest Blogger: Vanessa Donaher, Hillel’s Director of the Upper School and Director of College Counseling

 

At 5:30am on Monday, February 4, 2013, I, along with Dana Ponsky and Debbie Abromowitz, began an 800-mile+ trip with 16 Hillel Juniors. The goal of our trip was to visit five colleges over three days in an effort to introduce the students to a wide variety of academic institutions and hopefully spark some individual excitement for a particular school or two. 

After a five and a half hour bus ride, our first stop was in Gainsville, Florida to visit the University of Florida. The University of Florida is ranked 17th overall among all public national universities and consistently ranks within the top 100 universities worldwide. It is the second largest Florida university by student population and is the seventh largest single-campus university in the United States with 49,589 students enrolled for the fall 2011 semester. UF's 2011 freshman class  had an average grade-point average (GPA) of 4.3, a 1963 SAT score, and a 30 ACT score. With over 5000 Jewish undergraduates, UF is home to a Hillel chapter and a Chabad house right on campus. In fact, Chabad is currently building a brand new facility with over 23,000 square feet. We were blessed to be given a "hard hat" tour of the facilities by our own 2011 alumnus Issac Epstein.  After lunch at the Hillel House, we took an official tour and then an "unofficial tour" with our own 2012 alumnus Robbie Levin; he even let us see his dorm room which in hindsight may not have been a great idea :) Our tour was followed by a wonderful dinner at the UF Chabad house with more alumni and great conversation.

Day 2

Our second day began in Orlando to visit the University of Central Florida (UCF). UCF is a member institution of the State University System of Florida, and is the largest university in the United States by enrollment. UCF’s 2011 freshman class averaged a 3.8 GPA and a 1250 on the Critical Reading and Math portions of the SAT. With over 6000 Jewish students in the area, UCF is home to a Hillel chapter and a Chabad house approximately two miles from campus, which offers Friday night dinners. There is no kosher meal plan available, but the Student Union is home to a café, which offers Israeli food and is certified Kosher by Conservative standards. Our visit included a two-hour walking tour around UCF’s 1400+acre campus. For many of our students, this was a first time they had set foot on a college campus. Many loved the feel and diversity found on a large college campus, yet some felt a bit lost. Activity on the campus was palpable with students and organizations abundant. We were fortunate to spend some time with alums Shimmy Hacker and Daniel Mor and Alan Birmaher. Wide eyes and aching feet set us off to our next destination.

The afternoon was spent in Tamps at The University of South Florida (USF). USF is a member institution of the State University System of Florida, and is the eighth largest university in the nation and the third largest in the state of Florida, with a total enrollment of over 47,000 students. USF’s 2011 freshman class averaged a 3.6 GPA and a 1050 on the Critical Reading and Math portions of the SAT. Those students who had originally loved UCF felt a similar affinity for USF. Dinner was had at the Chabad house. The personal home of Rabbi Pinney and Chava Backman welcomed us with open arms and provided us with a place to socialize and a wonderful home-cooked meal. Discussions with Rabbi Backman yielded information about Jewish life at USF. With over 2000 Jewish undergrads, Jewish life is available to those who want to avail themselves. Chabad is only a few blocks away from campus and a home to a weekly Shabbat meal with over 60+ students. Chabad appeared to be the only key to Jewish life on campus in addition to area synagogues.

Day 3

Eckerd College was next on our tour. Eckerd is a private, 4-year, coeducational liberal arts college with approximately 1800 students. The campus is surrounded by water, a beautiful beach and has a very laid back population. The highlight of the tour was Eckerd’s waterfront area where students were able (at no charge) to rent boats, wake boards, kayaks and many other types of water equipment. Eckerd’s 2011 freshman class averaged a 3.4 GPA and an 1140 on the Critical Reading and Math portions of the SAT. Eckerd has approximately 200 Jewish undergraduates, but Jewish life is sparse. There is no Chabad, and Hillel is a student organization supported by the campus. There is a Rabbi who serves the Jewish students on campus, but he shared that upholding Orthodox traditions would be challenging on campus but that students eager to grow the community on campus will face a good challenge, but have the support of the students and administration. Eckerd strives to encourage students to create a positive experience and for many this environment is a good fit to explore Jewish identity. 

Our last stop was a visit to the Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU). FGCU opened its doors in 1997 and is the newest member of the State University System of Florida with approximately 11,600 students. The campus is located south of Fort Myers, Florida and 21 miles from Naples, Florida on 760 acres. The highlight of the tour was FGCU’s waterfront area and fabulous residence halls (every student has their own room). FGCU’s 2011 freshman class averaged a 3.35 GPA and an 1030 on the Critical Reading and Math portions of the SAT. FGCU has a growing Jewish life, a newly formed Hillel and strong ties to the Ft. Meyers Jewish community.

Looking back, the trip was a huge success. Our students were exposed to a wide variety of schools and gained a tremendous amount of knowledge. Special thanks to Debbie for checking out each of the schools' Special Services and Tutoring Centers (Please contact Debbie with specific questions about a particular school's programs). It was a wonderful opportunity for the three of us to bond with 16 fabulous students, meet some amazing University educators and administrators, and connect with alumni of Hillel who are thriving at their current institutions.

Looking forward to next year...

 

Posted by FELDG on Wednesday February 27, 2013 at 03:49PM
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The Hillel-geist, January 2013

Presenting the January 2013 Hillel-geist a quick and quirky look at what's happening at Hillel ... by the numbers: 

Posted by on Thursday January 24, 2013 at 10:44AM
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An imperfect snapshot: what we can't learn from report cards

It’s easy to get caught up in the belief that grades neatly and fully encapsulate a young person’s ability and prospects, rather than give us a useful but imperfect snapshot of their performance.  As we head into midterm examinations, consider these two case studies to be food for thought--and a reminder to all of us to view each student as a whole child, not just as the sum of their grades:

In 1949, the midterm report below was given to a young Eton College student, John Gurdon.  He was 15 at the time:

Excerpt: His Biology teacher wrote, “His ... work has been equally bad, and several times he has been in trouble, because he will not listen, but will insist on doing his work in his own way.  I believe he has ideas about becoming a Scientist; on his present showing this is quite ridiculous, if he can’t learn simple Biological facts he would have no chance of doing the work of a Specialist, and it would be sheer waste of time both on his part, and of those who have to teach him.”

In 2012, Dr. Gurdon--referred to now as Sir Gurdon--was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for his landmark work in reprogramming mature cells to become pluripotent--that is, to act as stem cells.

Our second example: excerpts from John Lennon’s report card, from Quarry Bank School, Liverpool,1955-56.  He was 15 years old at the time as well:


Excerpts from John Lennon’s report card:

  • English: He is an intelligent boy who could do very well.  
  • French: A disappointing result. He is so fond of obtaining a cheap laugh in class that he has little time for serious concentration.
  • Mathematics: Poor. He never makes any really sensible effort. 
  • Art: Very satisfactory.
  • Religious instruction: His work has been of a low standard. 
  • Headmaster's end-of-year comment: He has too many of the wrong ambitions and his energy is too often misplaced.

And last, but not least, Winston Churchill's report from Ascot, where his conduct was described as "exceedingly bad."  He was, evidently, "a constant trouble to everyone, and is always in some scrape or other.  He cannot be trusted to behave himself anywhere." 

 

Posted by on Monday January 7, 2013 at 03:02PM
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Transitioning to a new model of teaching and learning

Not long ago, I watched our Director of Educational Technology, Seth Dimbert, give a stellar presentation at Cafe Hillel.  The entire talk was tremendous, but one part really hit home with me.  Recently, I’ve (ahem) appropriated two of his slides, and have begun using them as an object lesson about the importance of change and growth in the way we think about pedagogy and schools.

So, with apologies to Seth, take a look at this picture:

Imagine, if you will, that in the year 2013, you entered a medical facility and saw a scene that looks like this.  Every single object in this photo is outdated: the iron lung, the scrubbing facilities, even the nurse’s uniform. And let's be honest: if you took your son or daughter for even the simplest, most non-invasive procedure and saw anything--anything!--in this photo, there is no way you’d allow them to receive treatment there.  To the contrary: you’d run for the door.

Now click on this version of the picture (which is actually a very brief video):


As we zoom out of the scene, we realize that the photo isn’t of a hospital or doctor’s office at all.  Rather, what we’re looking at is a medical school, where nurses were trained to use the latest in medical technology.  It's a primative looking place.  We can imagine the skills being taught were similarly outdated.

Happily, we’ve come a long way in the last half century in adopting more refined, more robust approaches to learning.  If you were to enter any modern medical school, you wouldn’t see a single thing the same as in this photo--including, and perhaps especially, the method of instruction.  Increasingly, medical schools (and business schools, and art schools, and engineering schools) are recognizing that the new skills doctors (and business people, and artists, and engineers) require can best be taught by using tools that may not have been available even one generation ago: simulations, 3D printers, technology enhanced laboratories, mobile computing, flipped classroom models, and more.  

As just one example, the University of California-San Francisco is among those schools that have truly embraced a contemporary, modern approach to teaching and learning:

In the past, students worked in labs that had fixed operating tables, harsh lights, and heavy anatomy textbooks. Today, as you walk into the new UCSF Anatomy Learning Center, the first thing you notice is a bright and welcoming space. The tables and lights are mobile, huge video screens line the walls, and there are iPads at every station. Such upgrades represent more than just flashy new features; they actually represent a studied approach to learning that helps students become better doctors, pharmacists, nurses, dentists, and physical therapists.

A typical day in the lab finds one of our first-year students, Dominique, assigned to study the knee joint on her first "patient," a cadaver. She swipes through the iBook lab manual, watches videos, and interacts with detailed graphics while dissecting the cadaver's knee. When she finds something interesting during the dissection -- say, evidence of a knee replacement surgery -- she uses a roving camera station to display the finding on all the other screens in the room for her classmates to see. Dominique and the rest of the class then move to the adjoining classroom where they image their own knee joints via ultrasound, giving her a unique perspective as the images come from within her own body. Finally, Dominique watches a live knee exam with a real orthopedist and Mrs. Mukherjee, a patient who had agreed to have her clinic visit telecast into the anatomy lab via the telemedicine network. Dominique is particularly struck as Mrs. Mukherjee talks about living with knee pain.

Glance back at that first picture again.  If you knew your doctor was trained in such a facility, you'd run for the door just as fast as if she had proposed treatment there.  It is not possible to do a good job of teaching modern medical skills with tools appropriate to the early 20th century.  

Now think about our own classrooms.  We are cultivating 21st century skills in our students.  But doing so in classrooms suited to 20th century practice puts teachers and students at a profound disadvantage, because it engenders the same sort of teaching and learning that we can imagine went on in that old-fashioned nursing classroom.

I'm reminded of a quote by Mark Prensky, a pioneer both in technology and learning:

It is amazing to me how in all the hoopla and debate these days about the decline of education in the US we ignore the most fundamental of its causes. Our students have changed radically. Today’s students are no longer the people our educational system was designed to teach.

As we embark on our new capital campaign, it’s worth remembering that a school of excellence must be in an excellent facility.  Our goal isn’t simply beautification--that would be worth neither the effort nor the expense.  Rather, the purpose is pedagogical.  The past two decades has seen us make quantum leaps in terms of what we know about how young people learn.  Words like “neurosculpting,” “phase-change theory” and “design-based education” have entered our lexicon, replacing an outdated vocabulary that focused on young people as receptacles of information.  We have an entirely new approach to learning available that allows us to individualize and personalize instruction--but the tools we provide teachers and students, including the learning environment, need to be appropriate to the challenge at hand.

Posted by on Friday January 4, 2013 at 08:59AM
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Cultivating ignorance

Re-reading Stuart Firestein's excellent work, Ignorance: How It Drives Science, I was reminded of the old saying that "It is very difficult to find a black cat in a dark room--especially when there is no cat."   

I was also reminded of a tremendously daunting fact found therein: that in every decade or so since Newton's time, the number of scientific articles that have been written has more or less doubled.  Think about that for a moment: whereas scholars believe that Newton's brain might have been able to contain all the scientific certitude the world had to offer in, say, 1667, there are now, quite literally, hundreds of thousands of new scholarly articles published each year.  This is to say nothing of the millions of articles, experiments, and half-baked notions that don't actually get published.  

Those of us with a pressing interest in science and science education can't help but begin to wonder.  If it's not possible to know everything about science--if, indeed, it's not possible to be familiar with even the smallest fraction of the combined body of scientific knowledge in any specific domain--what does it mean to "know" science?  

And if we assume--as indeed it's probably safe to do--that our body of knowledge grows at a similar pace in the arts, in the social sciences, and in mathematics, to say nothing of burgeoning fields such as technology, what does it imply about the relationship between scientific knowledge and schools?

Firestein believes he has the answer: that the goal of science, and thus science education, shouldn't be simple mastery of a canon of knowledge.  That's a losing proposition--and besides, that's not how science is really done, anyway.  Science, he believes, progresses when we carefully cultivate the right kind of ignorance--not the willful embrace of individual stupidity, but a recognition of the power of what we collectively don't know.  Science, he argues, is not about carefully structuring hypotheses and experiments--it's about getting the data, then worrying about the hypothesis.  

Or, as Firestein puts it--it's about fumbling about in a dark room looking for a black cat.

Firestein actually offers a course at his home university that focuses on exactly that.  Entitled "Ignorance," Firestein invites guest speakers in the sciences to come in to talk about the interesting things they don't know, the things at the very fringes of their fields, things that excite their fancy, the brass rings that are, up until now, out of their grasp.  It focuses on what they'd like to figure out, what they hope to someday find.  

Looking beyond the epistemology of science, it's possible that Firestein has hit on one of the fundamental issues facing us in education.  What does it mean to reframe education so that our focus is not merely on the acquisition of knowledge?   Can we imagine schools that cultivate the right kind ignorance--really, a proxy for curiosity--amongst our young charges?  What do schools look like when knowledge is seen as necessary but not sufficient to the learning process--important, but largely in service of imagination?  

 

Posted by on Wednesday December 5, 2012 at 06:50PM
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Targeted instruction: what schools can learn from big-box retailers

During my first weeks in South Florida I experienced what I have come to refer to as a culture micro-shock. When you move to a new city you expect things to be different, so you prepare yourself appropriately. I fully anticipated that practically everyone would speak Spanish; that most of my fellow Jews would be Sephardic rather than Ashkenazi; and that people would regularly don mittens and parkas in weather that put me in mind of shorts and flip-flops. I'm proud to say that I wasn't really thrown by any of these things.

But I was stunned by the selection at my local Target.

In the process of unpacking and in need of supplies, I drove to the big box mall down the street from our home and was surprised to finds all manner of goods I had never seen before, despite being in a place that had obtained my custom for years. I was disproportionately astonished by the existence of cans of dulce de leche on display at the front of the grocery section, flabbergasted that I couldn't find a sweatshirt if my life depended on it, and alarmed that the store didn't carry the precise specific brand of dishwasher soap I had always used up north. These things shouldn't have even made my radar, not with all the other major changes I was experiencing, but the little things tend to be what throw you for a loop. I puzzled about it: how could this be? What did it mean? Shouldn't a major international chain be consistent in their offerings? How could they afford, or even administer, so many little adjustments?

And--because I’m an education nerd--a small part of me thought, "Wait a second. This is the opposite of standardization, which is what schools do when they begin operate to scale. It's adjusting to your clientele. How can they do that?"

Not long after, I came across an article in the New York Times that detailed the story of an angry Target shopper--the father of a teenaged girl who had been receiving direct mailing advertisements from the store for diapers, prenatal vitamins, and baby formula. The parent accused of Target of trying "to convince his daughter to get pregnant" and demanded they stop sending her literature:

The manager didn’t have any idea what the man was talking about. He looked at the mailer. Sure enough, it was addressed to the man’s daughter and contained advertisements for maternity clothing, nursery furniture and pictures of smiling infants. The manager apologized and then called a few days later to apologize again ... On the phone, though, the father was somewhat abashed. “I had a talk with my daughter,” he said. “It turns out there’s been some activities in my house I haven’t been completely aware of. She’s due in August. I owe you an apology.”

It turns out that every time you make a purchase at most large chains, your shopping patterns give them all manner of insight into your life. Customers are unknowingly assigned guest ID's. Their buying habits are closely tracked, and that data is dynamically mined at the macro- and micro-levels. If, for instance, a female shopper in her late teens living in a certain area code stops buying certain products and begins buying others--cocoa butter, for instance, or a purse that could double as a diaper bag--that shopper is flagged as being likely to purchase other items that an expectant mother might need. Target actually developed an algorithm for this--a predictive pregnancy index, if you will. (Incidentally, there is a fascinating and potentially educative side note to this regarding how they decided to engage in targeted advertising without actively creeping out their shopper base. Rather than bombarding young women with ads for cribs and strollers, they would insert them in seemingly random but visible fashion next to an array of things they were fairly sure the shopper didn't need--rider mowers, for instance, or men's hygiene products--so that they would jump off the page at them as a fortuitous opportunity.)

Studied in the aggregate, then, each Target store is, within certain limitations, able to stock its shelves accordingly. Sure, 90% of the items might be the same in every branch, but they have the tools to adapt automatically and immediately to their specific demographics--adding, say, dulce de leche but removing Sanders' Hot Fudge from the canned goods aisle. Local managers could even position the stock in physical ways that made sense for the people who visited their store, say, putting the cocoa butter next to the prenatal vitamins instead of with the suntan lotion. For the enterprising retailer, the possibilities offered by the abundance of detail and a "long tail" philosophy are endless and robust.

The takeaway from all of this is that, for some organizations, scale of operation doesn't have to lead to soulless standardization. In fact with the right data and institutional flexibility, the opposite can be true. And the opportunity for large enterprises to collectively and individually service the needs of its base with such a fine degree of precision leads me to wonder what we in schools can learn from this approach.

Can we adjust our offerings the way Target does? Is it possible to engage, systematically, in targeted instruction the way a store might engage in targeted marketing? Can we use our scale of operation as a strength, a source of personalization rather than impersonalization? Most of all: what data would we really need to mine to make us more responsive to our students?

Posted by on Wednesday November 21, 2012 at 08:26AM
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Two Cultures

In 1959, C.P. Snow delivered his famous Rede Lecture at Cambridge entitled, "The Two Cultures." For many years prior, Snow had been privileged to work both among and in between two of the finest collections of minds assembled during the 20th century--one artistic, one scientific--and was deeply disturbed not only by the lack of a common vocabulary, but by the profound dismissal of each by the other:

They give a pitying chuckle at the news of scientists who have never read a major work of English literature. They dismiss them as ignorant specialists. Yet their own ignorance and their own specialization is just as startling ... Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold; it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is about the equivalent of, "Have you read a work of Shakespeare's?" I now believe that if I had asked an even simpler question--such as, "What do you mean by mass, or acceleration," which is the scientific equivalent of saying, "Can you read?"--not more than one in ten ... would have felt that I was speaking the same language.

Snow's observations were tempered by a wise caveat: he was naturally distrustful of attempts to divide anything into two. I concur. But sometimes the boundaries really are astonishingly clear, and in education, no divide is more obvious (and perhaps more toxic) than the one between "schoolers" and "learners."

I should probably explain the difference. A teacher who subscribes to the “learners” philosophy is concerned primarily with the ongoing development and competencies of her students, whereas a teacher who approaches the process the “schooler” standpoint is primarily concerned with encouraging her charges to play the role of student. The dominant metaphor of the former is “serious play,” whereas the dominant metaphor of the latter is “serious work.” There is of course value, though perhaps not equal value, to each; but nothing good ever really comes from conflating the two.

Just this past week, I witnessed a conversation between two outstanding teachers that reminded me of just how far removed the two perspectives can be. Both are expert and professional, well-liked by students and respected by colleagues; and both are genuinely and absolutely dedicated to making sure their students learn. But the conversation revealed a mammoth chasm between the two competing philosophies:

“I have a problem,” said one. “I have a handful of students who are failing my class. They do fine on their tests and projects, and I know they understand the material, but they’re not turning in their homework, and it’s costing them points. It’s like they just refuse to do it.”

The other teacher looked confused. “If they understand the material and are doing fine on tests,” he asked, “why are you giving them homework in the first place?”

“They have to do the homework,” the first teacher said. “It’s a big part of their grade.”

“Why is it a big part of their grade? If they already know the material, why are you forcing them to do it again?”

“Look--they need grades in the gradebook,” the first teacher said, exasperated.

“They do, or you do? Who are you evaluating?”

It was a small but very telling exchange. The conversation went on, and continued to reveal the fundamental gap: one believed they served students best by enculturating her students to the rules of the institution; the other believed he was serving his students best by applying the rules of the institution only where it facilitated individual growth. At times, I’m sure, they’re both correct. But the fact that each was genuinely puzzled by the other’s response said a lot.

Like Snow’s Cambridge, we have here at Hillel two remarkable collections of minds. We are in accord with regards to purpose, but not always with regards to the language we use in approaching the fundamental work of every institution of learning. A big part of our ongoing challenge, as we continue to grow and refine what education looks like here at Hillel, is to develop a language that addresses the needs of both, so that the vocabulary of one is always used in the service of the other.

Posted by on Friday November 16, 2012 at 08:27AM
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A People of the (i)Book

Walking through campus this morning, I came across a trio of students working at the picnic tables in the island by the upper school. Each of them was deeply immersed in--well, I wasn’t quite sure what they were immersed in at first, but they were certainly doing something on their iPads, and they were being pretty intense about whatever it was.

I sat down next to them and asked what they were doing. One was watching a shir shared by Rabbi Uri Pilichowski, who has begun to “flip” his classroom so that content delivery is done outside of school--that way, in class activity can focus on more robust and interactive activities. Another was doing a physics simulation using Algodoo. The third was logged onto Khan Academy, reviewing the steps in a calculus problem.

“Did your teacher assign you that video as homework?” I asked.

“No, but I wasn’t clear on how to do it, so I looked it up myself. I like Khan Academy,” he explained. “Sometimes it’s better to be able to learn something at your own pace. Plus there are quizzes so I know what to expect when I go to class.”

As I talked to these students, for whom technology is such an integral part of their existence, I was reminded of a fascinating conversation we had at a faculty meeting nearly a year ago. We had floated the idea of bringing tablets (such as iPads) into our classrooms. Most of the teachers were in favor; others were more cautious. One Judaic staff member opined stiff opposition, especially insofar as it related to subjects such as Rabbinics and Talmud. “There’s a reason,” this staff member reminded us, “that we are known as Am Hasefer--the People of the Book.”

Another staff member rolled her eyes and answered: “Before we were a people of the book, we were a people of the scroll. Then technology intervened.

“And by the way--before we were a people of the scroll, we were a people of the tablet--well, tablets, anyway. So this is nothing new.”

It was a terrific moment, and really quite funny. But of course she wasn’t entirely correct: there is something new here. Not only do we need to recognize that the skills and competencies our kids need are different, and far more complex, than the ones our generation needed; we also need to recognize that our kids’ minds have been trained--in formal and not-so-formal ways--to learn in a different manner entirely than we’re used to.

Neurosculpting--the shaping of the neural pathways in our brains--occurs whether we intend to do it or not, and each new experience and stimulus shapes the way we learn. Our kids‘ daily lives require multi-tasking, sifting through piles of information, transferring skills from one domain to the next. Their brains, in short, have become hardwired to learn in a fundamentally different way than we did when we were their age. And--and this is the key part--that’s just fine. It’s the way it should be. After all, the world they have to function in is a very different place than the one we entered.

And so the tools we use to help them learn need to be very different as well.

Two hours later, I witnessed an entire 6th grade class seated around two tables in our newly reconceptualized Upper School Media Center.

Upper School Media Center Director and Educational Technology Director Seth Dimbert

Each student had a device--some used smart phones, others used laptops or tablets--and they were interacting with their “regular” teacher, Rabbi Meir Wexler, who was teaching them “on location” from New York. They were planning a Tikkun Olam project to help communities in New York dig out from Hurricane Sandy, and were using Skype and an interactive tool known as PollEverywhere to contribute to the discussion. The debate was informed, animated, and tremendously robust.

I asked them what they liked about this style of learning, and whether it was working. Their responses were instructive. Take a look for yourself:

Check out Rabbi Wex's Wexcellent blog here.

Posted by on Thursday November 8, 2012 at 11:42AM
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Vanessa Donaher, Hillel’s Director of College Counseling - 14 Juniors + 3 Chaperones + 6 Colleges - A Hillel first and a Fabulous 3 days!

At 5:30am on Monday, February 27, 2012, I, along with Dana Ponsky and Rabbi Chaim Albert, began an 800-mile+ trip with 14 Hillel Juniors. The goal of our first college visit trip was to visit six colleges over three days in an effort to introduce the students to a wide variety of academic institutions and hopefully spark some individual excitement for a particular school or two.

Our first stop on Monday afternoon was in Orlando to visit the University of Central Florida (UCF). UCF is a member institution of the State University System of Florida, and is the second-largest university in the United States by enrollment. UCF’s 2011 freshman class averaged a 3.8 GPA and a 1250 on the Critical Reading and Math portions of the SAT. With over 6000 Jewish students in the area, UCF is home to a Hillel chapter and a Chabad house approximately two miles from campus, which offers Friday night dinners. There is no kosher meal plan available, but the Student Union is home to a café, which offers Israeli food and is certified Kosher by Conservative standards. Our visit included a two-hour walking tour around UCF’s 1400+acre campus. For many of our students, this was a first time they had set foot on a college campus. Many loved the feel and diversity found on a large college campus, yet some felt a bit lost. Activity on the campus was palpable with students and organizations abundant. Wide eyes and aching feet set us off to our next destination.

A quick lunch and short car ride brought us to Rollins College, a private liberal arts college in Winter Park, Florida with approximately 1800 students. Rollins is currently ranked by U.S. News & World Report as the #1 regional educational institution in the South, a ranking now held for seven consecutive years. We were greeted with a picturesque yet quiet campus, an amazing contradiction to our previous location. We set off on our walking tour, which included a visit to a classroom, library, model residence hall room, and a bit of rain. Some students felt right at home while others felt its size shortly into the tour. Rollins’ 2011 freshman class averaged a 3.6 GPA and a 1220 on the Critical Reading and Math portions of the SAT. Jewish life on campus was not as abundant as at UCF, but students are able to rely on neighborhood synagogues and the support of other Jewish students on campus. The students are also able to use the services and programs through the Chabad at UCF to stay connected with other students.

We then headed out to Tampa with an eye toward dinner and made our way to the University of South Florida (USF) Chabad house. The personal home of Rabbi Pinney and Chava Backman welcomed us with open arms and provided us with a place to socialize and a wonderful home-cooked meal. Discussions with Rabbi Backman yielded information about Jewish life at USF. With over 2000 Jewish undergrads, Jewish life is beginning to take shape. Chabad is only a few blocks away from campus and a home to a weekly Shabbat meal with over 60+ students. Chabad appeared to be the only key to Jewish life on campus in addition to area synagogues.

Day 2

We headed over bright and early to see University of South Florida (USF). USF is a member institution of the State University System of Florida, and is the eighth largest university in the nation and the third largest in the state of Florida, with a total enrollment of over 47,000 students. USF’s 2011 freshman class averaged a 3.6 GPA and a 1050 on the Critical Reading and Math portions of the SAT. Those students who had originally loved UCF felt a similar affinity for USF. Those who favored a small quaint campus looked forward to our next stop, St. Petersburg, Florida.

Eckerd College was next on our tour. Eckerd is a private, 4-year, coeducational liberal arts college with approximately 1800 students. The campus is surrounded by water, a beautiful beach and has a very laid back population. The highlight of the tour was Eckerd’s waterfront area where students were able (at no charge) to rent boats, wakeboards, kayaks and many other types of water equipment. Eckerd’s 2011 freshman class averaged a 3.4 GPA and an 1140 on the Critical Reading and Math portions of the SAT. Eckerd has approximately 200 Jewish undergraduates, but Jewish life is sparse. There is no Chabad, and Hillel is a student organization supported by the campus. There is a Rabbi who serves the Jewish students on campus, but he shared that upholding Orthodox traditions would be challenging on campus but that students eager to grow the community on campus will face a good challenge, but have the support of the students and administration. Eckerd strives to encourage students to create a positive experience and for many this environment is a good fit to explore Jewish identity.

Day 3

Our final day of the trip began with a visit to New College of Florida (NCF), the honors college for the state of Florida. NCF is a public, liberal arts college located in Sarasota, Florida with approximately 800 students. New College is home to less than 100 Jewish undergraduates yet the environment is conducive and supportive of students seeking to practice traditional Judaism. New College is situated on a beautiful and quaint campus and offers a non-traditional learning environment where students create their own learning paths and are evaluated through written teacher evaluations rather than letter grades. Classes are extremely small and students even have tutorials with individual professors. Socially, the students are generally non-traditional as well – we were hard-pressed to find a student wearing shoes. Overall, the students were impressed with the learning environment, but this community is something that appeals to a smaller population of our students.

Our last stop was a visit to the Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU). FGCU opened its doors in 1997 and is the newest member of the State University System of Florida with approximately 11,600 students. The campus is located south of Fort Myers, Florida and 21 miles from Naples, Florida on 760 acres. The highlight of the tour was FGCU’s waterfront area and fabulous residence halls (every student has their own room). FGCU’s 2011 freshman class averaged a 3.35 GPA and an 1030 on the Critical Reading and Math portions of the SAT. FGCU has a growing Jewish life, a newly formed Hillel and strong ties to the Ft. Meyers Jewish community.

Looking back, the trip was a huge success. Our students were exposed to a wide variety of schools and gained a tremendous amount of knowledge. Also, it was a wonderful opportunity for us to bond with 14 fabulous students, meet some amazing University educators and administrators, and connect with alumnus of Hillel who is thriving at her current institution and has found a renewed passion for her Jewish identity.

We realized our initial goal was met when we arrived back at Hillel on Wednesday evening, and Joel Hirshbein exited his van wearing proudly his new Florida Gulf Coast University shirt! Go Eagles!

Posted by Mrs. Vanessa Donaher on Tuesday May 15, 2012 at 11:46AM
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Rabbi Joshua Spodek - Today is a celebration.

Enjoy Rabbi Joshua Spodek’s keynote remarks from April 2’s National Junior Honor Society Induction Ceremony; Rabbi Spodek is Hillel’s Director of Judaic Studies & Hebrew Language.

Today is a celebration.

Today we are not just celebrating each of you and your individual achievements and successes.

Today we are not just recognizing your talents, hard work and leadership.

Today is a celebration of Education.

Today we recognize the importance of Education both at home and in school.

Today we celebrate the crucial and critical role your parents and teachers play in shaping young lives.

Egypt and Israel three millennia ago were nations that asked themselves the most fundamental human question of all: How do we defeat death and conquer mortality? How, in the brief span of human life, do we participate in something that will endure long after we are no longer here? 

The Egyptians gave one answer - an answer that through the ages has tempted emperors and tyrants, rulers and kings. We defeat mortality by building monuments that will stand for thousands of years. Their stones will outlive the winds and sands of time.

The Jew gave an entirely different answer.

The Israelites, slaves in Egypt for more than two hundred years, were about to go free. Ten plagues had struck the country... On the brink of their release, Moses, the leader of the Jews, gathered them together and prepared to address them. He might have spoken about freedom. He could have given a stirring address about the promised land to which they were traveling, the “land flowing with milk and honey.” Or he might have prepared them for the journey that lay ahead, the long march across the wilderness.

Instead, Moses delivered a series of addresses that seemed to make no sense in the context of that particular moment. He presented a new idea, revolutionary in character, whose implications remain challenging even now.

He spoke of children, and the distant future, and the duty to pass on memory to generations yet unborn.

Three times he turned to the theme:

“And when your children ask you, ‘What do you mean by this rite?’ you shall say...”

“And you shall explain to your child on that day, ‘It is because of what the Lord did for me when I went free from Egypt.”

“And when, in time to come, your child asks you, saying, ‘What does this mean?’ you shall say to him...”

About to gain their freedom, the Isaelites were told that they had to become a nation of Educators.

Freedom, Moses suggested, is won, not on the battlefield, nor in the political arena, but in the human imagination and will. To defend a land, you need an army. But to defend freedom, you need Education. You need families and schools to ensure that your ideals are passed on to the next generation, and never lost, or despaired of, or obscured.

The citadels of liberty are houses of study. Its heroes are teachers, its passion is education and the life of the mind. Moses realized that a people achieves immortality not by building temples or mausoleums, but by engraving their values on the hearts of their children, and they on theirs, and so on until the end of time.

A Letter in the Scroll -
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (pages 32-34)

Today is a celebration of education - you are all the proud products of the education that you receive at home and at school.

The attributes and pillars of the National Junior Honor Society of Scholarship, Leadership, Character, Service and Citizenship are all learned at home and at school in partnership with your parents and teachers.

And so today we celebrate and we thank you, our National Junior Honor Society students for being roles models and exemplars to your fellow students and friends.

May you continue to learn, to grow, to shine and to inspire others.

Mazel Tov.

Posted by on Wednesday April 4, 2012 at 07:43AM
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