The Improvement Challenge
by Daniel R. Weiss
Daniel R. Weiss is the Head of School at Bornblum Jewish Community School in Memphis, Tennessee.
There is a buzz in the air at Bornblum. It is the sound of teachers and staff at work in their offices, classrooms and throughout the hallways bringing with it the excitement that our students’ first day is fast approaching. This excitement is contagious as we share with each other the ideas and perspectives on education that have been percolating in our minds these weeks of summer vacation.
Perhaps the root of our excitement is that the opening of a new year is a chance for a fresh beginning. It is a chance to meet new people. It is a chance to reevaluate who we have been during the past year and who we hope to be in the coming year. A new year gives us the opportunity for introspection.
This coming week not only marks the beginning of our school year, but it also begins the Hebrew month of Elul, marking one month until Rosh Hashanah. Each morning during the month of Elul (except for Shabbat), we sound the Shofar. Hearing the sound of the Shofar serves as an alarm clock; a reminder that we need to wake up and make the most of our day and make plans for the coming year. The root of the Hebrew word Shofar (shin, pey, resh) means to improve. The month of Elul is our opportunity to improve ourselves and to help those around us as they strive to make their own improvements.
To take the necessary steps for improvement, we must realize that there is something that needs improvement. Therein lies a great difficulty for so many of us, knowing where we all fall short and how to improve upon it. As human beings, we must continually strive to better ourselves. This is achievable only when we dig down deep to uncover the areas in which we fall short, the areas which need improvement.
The same is true at Bornblum. This summer we have worked hard to uncover those areas where improvement is desired. We took further action this past Monday, as our faculty and staff came back to work. We engaged in a project which focused on community and diverse learners. The project is called the “Five Chair Challenge”. Working in five separate groups, our staff were given different characters who needed a specific type of chair that would accommodate their needs. For example, one character was an astronaut who needed a chair that would provide room for his spacesuit as well as a place to put his Tang. Another character was an elderly man who struggled to get in and out of a chair yet needed something that would recline to help his ailing feet.
Each group was given a set of materials to design a chair that would meet the needs of their character. The first task was to design a chair by sketching it using only paper and markers. The second iteration of the chair had participants using only corrugated cardboard and scissors. Our third chairs were made from pipe cleaners. The fourth out of playdoh. And the fifth out of 25 toothpicks and a roll of masking tape. Each iteration of the chair required our staff to think outside of the box, to determine what was of the most importance and how to use the limited resources that they were given to make something that would be useful for their needs.
The Five Chair Challenge models facts that we know to be true. Each of our students learns in a different way. Each of our teachers teach in a different way. As our year begins to come into focus, as we ready ourselves for new challenges and new opportunities, we must focus on how to change and improve who we are as individuals and how what we do impacts the individual students that we teach.
The root of Shofar can also become the word Shefer, beauty and fairness. When we stop and prepare for the start of the year, we must also reflect on what contains beauty and on what is deemed to be fair, fine or good. Our diversity as a community is what brings us beauty. It is what helps us to improve who we are and what we can do. Sometimes it might take us more than one attempt. Sometimes we are limited by the materials we are given. But in the end, it is the beauty of our product that reflects who we are.
As we begin our year this coming week, I invite you to join me in continuing to improve our school and enriching the lives of our students, families and community. My door is always open. Please come see our product and meet with me to help us continue to grow.