Blog #9: Final Blog
Covered in Dead Sea mud
Looking back on the past two years of graduate school, it is really hard to summarize all the things I feel that I have learned and the ways in which I have grown and changed as a result of this experience. Each class that I took left me with new information, new ideas about the way in which the world works and planted concepts in my head for how I might grow to become the professional I want to be and to make a meaningful impact on the world. Each professor opened my eyes to new topics, and new areas of study and research that I never would have even considered previously. In graduate school I found others who shared an enthusiasm for learning and I found an environment where people were eager to engage in conversation and explore new ideas and pursue the discovery of innovation in areas of mutual interest that will, I am sure, effect the nonprofit sector in years to come. I feel fortunate to have met and interacted with so many brilliant thinkers, and the individuals who will undoubtedly contribute to shaping and reinventing our field. In my field placements I came in contact with professionals who taught we an incredible amount about the kind of professional I want to become and the professional context I need in order to succeed. I have met some unbelievable, awe inspiring professionals whose personal commitment and motivation to serve the Jewish people provided me with a constant reminder, about why we are doing this work in the Jewish world and why it continues to be relevant and important. These individuals have become mentors and friends who I know will be a source of support and encouragement throughout my career.
HUC Jerusalem Campus
The most amazing, surprising and significant ingredient, however, that really made my graduate experience at Hebrew Union College one that was absolutely incredible and truly unique was the wonderful cohort of colleagues and friends that I found in my classmates.
Our group became fast friends. They are all so smart, so fun, and really made my graduate school experience one that I will remember forever. These individuals pushed me academically, challenging me to think beyond my preconceived notions, stereotypes, and ideas and otherwise accepted perceptions of the way in which the world works. We encouraged each other to explore new things, go to new places, dream new dreams, push the envelope, challenge the status quo and work hard, all the while providing loving and caring support for each other in our respective journeys. The bond we found is truly unique and I am certain will prove lasting. I am going to miss our happy hour dates, bi-weekly video conference calls, grabbing dinner and running into each other in the parking lot or on our way to and from class, though I am sure that we will continue to be in touch and see each other regularly.
I appreciate so much the opportunity to have attended Hebrew Union College and the University of Southern California these past two years. I really feel that I found an incredibly nurturing educational environment that really gave me the freedom and encouragement I needed to explore my own ideas and perceptions, allowed me a forum to test my conventional thinking, build confidence and open my eyes to new insights in areas I had only been minimally exposed to. This graduate school experience has given me the necessary tools and a strong foundation from which to build my professional career.
As I prepare to move forward and into a new and different chapter in my life I take with me the experiences I have had at Hebrew Union College with staff and professors, the education gained from coursework and field placements, and the unmatched friendship and collegiality of my classmates. I intend to spend time in the next year traveling and working in nongovernmental organizations abroad. I am eager to see the world and come in contact with a variety of cultures, people and organizations. Ultimately I hope to build a multi-faceted career that involves continuing to do research on various aspects of the nonprofit sector, nonprofit consulting and facilitating mutually beneficial partnerships between the corporate and nonprofit sectors.
On a camel
Posted by Isaac at 11:20 AM
Blog #7: Greeting the Queen
Before I came to DeLeT I was a businessman. A good ol' firm-handshaking, power-lunching, Wall Street Journal-on-the-train businessman. And although I could only stand worrying about the fate of a web 2.0 start-up for about 9 months, I played the part fully. I had Friday evening drinks with the boss and flirted with clients. I had multiple suits. These suits still hang in my closet, part of the permanent exhibit in the museum of me: "Isaac's short-lived corporate stint." And of all of my suits (a rarther unimpressive three in all) there is one that still sticks out: my go to suit.
Every young go-getter needs a go-to suit, and mine (if I may be so brash) is particularly spectacular. It was handmade for me by a diminutive 70-year old Vietnamese woman in a little tailor shop outside of Hanoi. It fits perfectly. It has a subtle, almost imaginary pinstripe to bring out its charcoal grey stitching. And it cost me about $90 (or 16,000,000 Vietnamese dong if you're counting). I felt invincible in that suit, and with a clean shave and a little hair gel, I was ready to take on the world.
As a DeLeT fellow at Brandeis I wear a tie. All male faculty members do. But I haven't had occasion to pull out any of my three suits until last week on open house night. I saw a TV show a few nights ago about the queen receiving foreign dignitaries at Buckingham palace. Maids spent hours making sure that each chair was pulled exactly 60cm away from the table, and that every piece of silverware, down to the smallest quail egg spoon, was perpendicular to the edge of each silk napkin. The manager of the household spent no less than three days figuring out who to place next to the king of France. What a great analogy to open house at Brandeis!
Teachers spend the end of February and the beginning of March fastidiously preparing their classrooms as if Sarkozy himself was on his way. One second grade classroom transformed itself into Africa, complete with tribal drums, cooked yams, and paper mache interpretations of every animal on the savannah. To the uninitiated, such a baroque display might seem like overkill, and to my student-centered, DeLeT trained eye I saw an unnecessary ball of stress for a bunch of 7-year olds. But I was wrong. The kids loved open house; they loved making fun projects in class and showing them off to their friends and parents, not too mention the constant praise and the free hot chocolate. All of the ulcer-inducing stress, it turned out, was on the teachers. But we gritted our teeth and stuck thumbtacks into the walls until we developed calluses. Some nights we even stayed at school until (gasp) 7:30pm. It was tough, and sometimes tedious, but I felt more like a teacher than I had all year. And on the night itself, I got to feel a bit like the queen. Parents and students entered the school in long processions, and I shook more hands than I ever did at a business meeting. What a great night.
Posted by Isaac at 11:06 AM
Blog #6: Tu B'Not
This was a bad field trip. Like worse case scenario bad. Like so bad that, after a day of digging weeds instead of planting trees, and walking up Sherpa-worthy San Francisco hills, we were presented with a lunch that featured ham and cheese. Ham and cheese! I mean c'mon, I can't make this stuff up. We were muddy, bloody (one activity included pruning Blackberry bushes), and famished. And most of us were 12 years old.
Okay, I've gotten the painful stuff down on paper. Let's backtrack...
On the Wednesday after Tu B'shvat (March 11th, if you're keeping score) I took my 6th graders on a tree planting field trip to Mclaren park, in San Francisco's Visitacion Valley. For those of you familiar with the city, Mclaren park and Viz valley should be immediate red flags. These are two of the more dangerous SF destinations, and also two of the most hillridden. To make a long story short, the field trip was poorly planned. We hooked up with a group of 8th graders from Visitacion Valley Middle School who seemed like more-or-less good kids, but who were sent our way without any teacher or adult chaperones. I have never been called the N-word so many times in one afternoon (come to think of it, I've never been called the N-word at all), an epitaph that was often proceeded by F-bombs or other single initial abuses of the English Language. After a long day of dodging insults from 13 year olds, and trying to keep my own students sane, we were treated to the aforementioned ham and cheese sandwiches. And worst of all, the whole field trip was overseen by a prominent Jewish organization that will remain nameless.
Why am I writing about all of this? Because I haven't felt more like a teacher in my seven months as a DeLeT fellow. During the entire day long debacle, I was acutely aware of the fact that I was my students' support system. I could feel both my students, and all of the other kids we were with, looking to me to gauge my reactions. When one of the Viz Valley students threw a rake at another teacher, I could tell that my kids were looking for a reaction from me. I knew that I had to calmly take the student aside and talk to her. I had to keep my cool for the sake of my kids.
I've known all year how influential a teacher's actions can be, especially with 6th graders. Whether they show it or not, all of my students look up to at least one of their teachers. They care what their teachers think, and they follow the example that they set. This field trip was a living example of the power of the student teacher relationship. Time and again I saw one of the kids looking at one of us teachers like we had all the answers. Often times, I had no answers, but I was the teacher so I had to come up with something. And I did. And that's how I know I can do this whole teaching thing.
Posted by Isaac at 1:43 AM
Blog #5: The Kallah Approaches
I remember the first time my parents came to stay with me during college. I was a sophomore at UCSB, and I'd managed to avoid in-house parental visits for my first year and-a-half of school by moving from a campus dorm to an overcrowded three bedroom apartment populated by seven boys, each with a penchant for playing loud rap music and practicing questionable personal hygiene. It turned out that my parents and I had vastly different reactions to the difficult realities of UCSB's housing situation, and what I saw as an ideal college life of watching five consecutive episodes of Sportcenter with my shirtless best friends, my parents saw as a living nightmare of dirty dishes and neglected shower grout. So I got to experience both my life in Santa Barbara with my friends, and, every eight weeks or so, life in San Francisco with my parents, where I could do all the laundry my heart desired and shower without wearing flip-flops. Needless to say, I was happy with the arrangement.
Inevitably, however, there came a day when my parents decided that they wanted to stay with me. It was spring break, and I was working on a project with a favorite professor of mine, and picking up some extra hours at the local coffee shop. They wanted to experience Santa Barbara for a few days, and what better way to do it than to stay with their oldest son at his beach-side bungalow. They were finally coming to stay with me after all this time, and I was horrified. What would my parents think of the house? How could I make them comfortable when my lifestyle felt so different from theirs? And perhaps scariest of all, what would I do with them?
I've been thinking a lot about this first parental visit lately, because I've been planning for my DeLeT cohort's visit to Brandeis Hillel Day School, where I am a fellow in the sixth grade. I love my life at Brandeis, and more than that, I'm proud of it. But I know that life at Brandeis is vastly different from life at the other fellow's schools, and leading up to the Kallah, I've been riddled with some of the same anxieties that I last experienced as a beach-bum college sophomore: What if Brandeis is so different from my cohort's experience that they find it uncomfortable, or, to use a word that my mom was fond of when describing my college houses, "icky?" And worse yet, what will I do with everyone? Whose classes should we see? What resource rooms? And, how will I cram it all in to two hours?
It's not that I've been afraid of my cohort judging me or my school. In fact, I know that they will only be supportive and excited to see what I've been dong all this time. But that's just it. I value my cohort's opinion in the same way that I valued my parents'. I care deeply about all nine other members of the DeLeT team, and, like my parents, I want to impress them. The difference this time, however, is that Brandeis is not a stain ridden beach house dangling off a bluff. It's a place that I'm proud of, and instead of being anxious as the Kallah approaches, I'm getting more and more excited.
I hear so much about the value of cohort learning in the DeLeT program, and I think the experience of preparing for the Kallah really exemplifies it. Working with a group of like-minded, developing educators makes me excited about the prospect of showing them around my life as a teacher. I know that their impressions of the school and their insights about its culture, will help me learn more about my life than I ever could have if I had stayed isolated. It feels good to have visitors.
Posted by Isaac at 11:45 AM
Blog #4: December Blog
As I write this, the Hanukkah candles are literally "burning low." It's the first night of Hanukkah, and I'm in Palm Springs, CA visiting my grandmother. This is the first Hanukkah that Grandma has had without my grandfather, who passed away in April, and the mood here in front of the candles is both solemn and celebratory. We are solemn, of course, because we all miss Grandpa. The house feels empty without him. For one thing, I haven't had a single drink all night, which Grandpa would never allow on a day of celebration. Even the meal tastes different; Grandpa would always cook the brisket, and although Uncle Greg marinated and slow-cooked with all his heart, it just isn't the same. But we are in a celebratory mood as well. The latkes were perfect this year (which in my family is something to celebrate in-and-of-itself) and my cousins both made it home from the East Coast unscathed. Most of all, the holiday has put us each in an introspective mood, and after dinner, I find a few minutes to myself to sit quietly, stare out at the golf course (this is Palm springs, after all), and think about how lucky I am.
For one, I'm in great health. Sure, I can't hit an 18-foot jumper like I used to, and I've been dealing with some nagging dental issues lately, but overall I'm truly blessed. My good run of health also extends to the people I love in my life. Grandma's pushing eighty and still yelling at me about politics and ordering bottles of wine at dinner. My parents are both youthful in their middle age, my brother is as healthy as I am (and he can still hit a midrange jumper), and all of my friends are as energetic as 20-somethings should be. I'm surrounded by people that I love, and I couldn't ask for anything more.
Which brings me to my work with DeLeT. The past couple of weeks at school have been difficult. Sixth graders, it seems, tend to get antsy before a long break (who knew?) and present a great deal of classroom management issues. I have caught myself getting frustrated more often than usual during the weeks leading up to Hanukkah break, and a few times I even found myself questioning whether this whole teaching thing really is for me. But sitting here on the first night of Hanukkah, thinking about my grandfather and all that I have to be thankful for, things have been thrust into their proper perspective. I love what I'm doing, and even on the worst of days, I still get to work with kids and other educators who share my passion for learning and teaching. I usually get home before 5:00 and regardless of how tough my students are, I can't wait to get up the next day and do it all over again. I can't help but feeling so lucky to be where I am today. And I know my grandpa would be proud.
Posted by Isaac at 2:00 PM
Blog #3: A Stranger in a Strange Land
From August 2006 to September 2007, when, as far as I knew, DeLeT still just meant "door," I taught English at an International school in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Chiang Mai is the city version of what happens when you first pour Pop Rocks into your mouth. There are motorcycles everywhere, buzzing through traffic with four, sometimes five passengers, changing lanes, and making u-turns more or less at their convenience. There are outdoor marketplaces on what feels like every corner, selling everything from teak-wood furniture, to live eels, to TV shows on DVD, all the while managing to work beer into the shopping experience. And more than anything there are people everywhere. Walk down any soy in Chiang Mai and you're liable to end up on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange; in the middle of a group of fast talking 20-somethings, speaking a language you don't understand, and laughing at what seems like the world's funniest inside joke. Oh, and you're taller than everyone.
I've been back in the states for a little over a year now, and I haven't given much thought to the overwhelming feeling of being a foreigner in a busy South East Asian city. I feel so at home in San Francisco–a city where I've spent nearly my entire life, and where I get to be one of those zig-zagging drivers–that nothing really startles me here, and I have the happy illusion that I'm in control. But the feeling that I grew so accustomed to Chiang Mai came rushing back to me on a Monday in late August, when the students arrived for their first day of school at Brandeis.
Students rushed into the auditorium with that same streets-of-Chiang-Mai exuberance. From the kindergarteners, wide-eyed and nervous, still holding on to their parents' legs but plotting their first steps into their new school, to the eight graders, who waltzed in like they owned the place, hugging and high fiving teachers and friends alike, everyone looked and acted like they belonged. The auditorium was buzzing with noise and energy, people were weaving through crowds of chattering students and parents, laughing and talking like they were old friends. And once again, I was taller than everyone.
I realized during the first few hours of that first day of school that I was, for all intents and purposes, back in Chiang Mai. But more than that, I realized how much I loved it. In DeLeT we talk a lot about the "culture" of the Jewish Day School. Each school is unique, with it's own overwhelming customs, and baffling language. It's challenging to be part of a new culture, but it's that challenge that I'm most excited about as I begin my teaching career. Since that first day, I have been learning how to navigate within the culture of Brandeis, and I'm struck by how similar the experience has been to my time living abroad. In Chiang Mai, even a trip to the grocery store was an exciting, e-mail-home-worthy adventure, and while my daily life became more familiar as my year went on, that feeling of excitement never wore off.
No two days have alike at Brandeis thus far, and talking to my mentors and other members of the faculty has taught me that no two days in the classroom will ever really be the same. In my career as a teacher, there will always a new culture or community to experience, be it because of a change in school policy, a new faculty member or administrator, or simply a new dynamic in the classroom. I am so excited to have the opportunity to take on this challenge, because although it will be difficult, it will certainly never be boring.
Posted by Isaac at 12:32 PM
Blog #2: The Big Bang
Bringing my students into the world of meetings
I've heard physics teachers talk about the idea that matter is never created or destroyed. There is a finite amount of stuff in the universe, the thinking goes, so nothing just materializes out of thin air; everything comes from something else. If this thinking is true (and I'm pretty sure it is), then I have found the one of the universe's richest stuff breeding grounds: the first two weeks of work at Brandeis Hillel Day School in San Francisco.
I've worked in many settings in my young life – from corporate offices, to schools, to small businesses – and every job has offered one constant: meetings. Call me on any weekday between the hours of eight and six, and chances are I'll have to get back to you later because I'm in a meeting. When I sold tamales out of a stall at a farmer's market, we met to talk about salsa choices, and potential fillings (I always found myself battling for more cheese). When I worked a sales job at a startup internet company, we met to talk about "product" (whatever that means). And during the first two weeks of school at Brandeis, when the campus was sans students and full only of coffee drinking teachers and note taking administrators, we met to talk about everything. Brandeis, it turns out, is the universal breeding ground for the meeting. Meetings remember, like all other forms of matter, are never created or destroyed, they are simply recycled and released back into the universe to be dispersed throughout the world's various jobs. Brandeis is one of the largest recycling centers.
Making a human know with my advisory
I learned so much during those first two weeks and, for the first time in my working life, I found myself loving meetings. During my summer classes at DeLeT, we talked a lot about the ways teachers are perceived by society. When someone hears you're a teacher, I learned, they may say things like "oh, good for you," or "wow, that's so noble." It is noble, of course, but as a DeLeT fellow I'm working to challenge the underlying message in these remarks, namely that teaching is somehow a "soft" profession, something charitable that anyone could do were they so inclined to "give back." One of my jobs as a student and an educator is to approach teaching as both an art and a science. When one thinks about teaching in this way, it becomes a vocation more related to medicine or law than a saintly calling. People do not say "oh good for you" when someone reveals that they are a doctor, and no one meets a doctor and thinks that they could do his or her work were they so inclined. Teaching is the same way. It is a profession that requires a specific set of skills and knowledge that I'll always be working to refine and develop.
My meetings at Brandeis all approached teaching in this way. When we looked closely at curriculum and scrutinized every aspect of our classes, we became NASA scientists preparing for a launch. When we talked about individual students, and how we could shape the dynamic of our classrooms to accommodate them, we became sociologists. And when we set up our rooms, thinking about the ramifications of desk placement and bulletin boards we became chemists setting up a successful reaction. It sounds a bit idealistic to talk about teaching in this way, especially given where it's often placed on the totem pole of professions in this country. But I can say with confidence that my meetings created this perception of teaching among the entire staff of the school. Being around a group of professionals that approached teaching in this way was contagious, and it's a feeling that has stuck with me during these first six weeks of school when (gasp!) actual students have been filling up the classrooms.
I am very excited about continuing my education and refining my craft. I know that this year will bring ups and downs as I learn to navigate all of the different skill sets teaching requires. But for now, I'm happy to be working in this elemental breeding ground, going to meetings and recycling matter for the good of the universe.
Posted by Isaac at 1:30 PM
Blog #1: Dancing my Way into a Community
My DeLeT Cohort
It's 9:00am on the first Friday in July. I'm exhausted because the house I'm staying at in the valley has a fish tank that hums a few decibels too loudly to qualify as the "relaxing white noise" my hosts promised. I'm also a bit unsteady on my feet; still shaky from navigating the 110 commute that, as a native San Franciscan living in LA for the first time, feels more like an interstellar battle from a Star Wars movie than a relaxing drive to school. I'm in the Mercaz at HUC, standing in a circle with nine almost-strangers . The chairs have been put away so the room feels more like an acting class than the communal prayer space where I've been getting to know my cohort at our daily Shacharit services. My back is to the ark. I'm standing on one leg with my hands on Rami's shoulders, and my mouth wide open in a moment of spontaneous laughter. I'm interpretative dancing.
When I applied to the DeLeT program at HUC back in February, the last thing I expected to be doing at the end of my first week of class was performing an improvised operatic interpretation of Genesis in front of one of HUC's directors. I can say with confidence, though, that I wouldn't have wanted it any other way. I am working to become a Jewish educator for many reasons, but community is first among them. I attended BHDS–the Jewish Day School in San Francisco where currently I'm doing my fellowship–and I feel a great sense of pride and achievement to have the chance to give back to the community where I grew up. What I learned about DeLeT during that first week is that community means just as much to each member of my cohort, and HUC as an institution, as it does to me.
An education experience in the Mercaz
My DeLeT cohort ranges in age from 23 to 40-something (but no one looks a day over 28, of course). We come from different educational, geographic, and denominational backgrounds. We run the gamut from people who have a strong sense of cultural Jewish identity, but are unfamiliar with much of the Keva of being Jewish (I myself identify as this Jew now, and one of the reasons I'm so happy in DeLeT is because I have the opportunity to explore and broaden my Jewish identity), to people who speak fluent Hebrew and see their davening practice as an essential part of their Jewish lives. But we are all part of DeLeT because we are committed to becoming the next generation of Jewish leaders, and more to the point, we share a common enthusiasm about Jewish education.
Of course, I wasn't thinking about all of this during my first Friday of interpretive dancing. (Many interpretive dances followed, by the way. And our studies in dance became an integral–and barrel-of-laughs-fun–part of our studies of integrating art into the classroom.) I was just enjoying myself with my cohort– who were quickly becoming my close friends–and shaking off the night of fish tank sleeplessness and the harrowing commute. I recognized right away, while crooning about the forbidden apple like a Jewish Pavarotti, that I was part of a community at DeLeT, and I knew also that the rest of my cohort felt the same way.
I am now into week five of my work at Brandeis, and the blog entries that follow will definitely detail my experiences as a new teacher, and as a student during DeLeT's first year as a program that offers a California state teaching credential. (Woohoo!!) But I wanted to explore the community piece here, because it is a theme that I will come back to again and again, and it will certainly be one of the defining elements of my experience at DeLeT.
Posted by Isaac at 3:45 PM