Rosh Hashana: A STEAMy Time of Year
Welcome to the 20th volume of Daf Kesher. Dr. Lorch wrote this column for 19 years and I am pleased and honored to continue the tradition. In my weekly column I plan to share my view of Schechter Manhattan and thoughts on broader Jewish educational issues. I hope that my writing will offer insights into what makes Schechter Manhattan such a special place to learn and grow; those things were apparent to me from the very first moments of the school year this week.
As Schechter Manhattan students returned to school on Wednesday morning they were welcomed with a new and special piece of high tech artwork. The banner read “Welcome, ברוכים הבאים” and lit up with bright LED lights. It was designed and constructed by the Schechter Manhattan faculty last week. The teachers modeled their banner on the work of the MIT Media Lab and utilized electric circuits and sensors to bring their vision to reality. As students walked by the banner, they were wowed by it and wondered aloud, “How does that work?”
This faculty activity was the first of many projects and learning opportunities that are planned for the inaugural year of the Lieberman Family STEAM Center. Thanks to the generosity of Schechter Manhattan grandparents, Eileen and Jerry Lieberman, the Lieberman Family STEAM Center will enhance our existing focus on strengthening our students’ 21st-century skills, with emphasis on critical thinking, problem-solving, collaboration, adaptability, creativity, and initiative. (Expect to hear much more about the Lieberman Family STEAM Center in the coming weeks.) The faculty banner activity was fun, and also modeled the type of problem-solving and design projects that will be frequently incorporated in the Schechter Manhattan curriculum this year.
STEAM is more than an acronym representing the integration of Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math studies. STEAM is an approach to thinking and learning for the 21st century. STEAM learning starts with identifying authentic problems and challenges and then moves forward with bringing the knowledge and skills from those disciplines together to design and implement solutions. STEAM learning includes careful reflection on designs, prototypes, and models in an effort to find the weaknesses and errors in a solution and to then create something new, effective, and elegant.
On Wednesday afternoon, as the students and faculty gathered for our annual welcome back assembly, I found myself thinking about STEAM while we were singing a Hebrew song. kol shana, with lyrics by Nisan Friedman and music by Amos Barzel, includes a refrain…
כל שנה מתחילה בסימן שאלה
ואנחנו נמצא לה תשובה
Every year begins with a question mark.
And we find an answer for it.
The song expresses the unknown that we face at the beginning of a new year. And on the first day of a new school year, that question mark looms large. Will our plans work out? Will we be successful? Will we be happy? The song also suggests that we have to take an active role in figuring out the answers to these questions.
This week we are also reaching a new year on the Jewish calendar. In Jewish tradition, this time of year, the month of Elul and the High Holiday period is not only a time for looking ahead to the next year but also a time of personal reflection. We take stock of ourselves, through a process of heshbon hanefesh, personal accounting. And once we have looked honestly at our actions and the lives we led in the previous year, then we can move forward with a plan for improvement, teshuva.
While singing it also occurred to me that the process of personal accounting and planning to improve that we do in preparation for and during Rosh Hashana parallels the STEAM learning process. Both require careful reflection, so as to identify areas in need of improvement and problems to solve. Both STEAM and teshuva include taking action towards improvement- trying various models and steps until we make repair. And both start as the song suggests, with a big question mark that requires our active engagement to find answers.
STEAM and teshuva both touch on some of the big ideas that animate our approach to teaching and learning at Schechter Manhattan: reflection and study leading to action. Reflection is an important cultural marker of our school- we employ it in our teaching, by thinking carefully and critically about our practice so as to continue improving. We teach it to our students, by asking them to look carefully at their work and consider what they learn about themselves and what they want to work on further. And we use it for school improvement, by reviewing everything we do and taking seriously the feedback of our faculty, students, and parents. All of this reflection allows us to identify goals and action steps so that we can continue on our continual path of growth.
Study at Schechter Manhattan is frequently connected to taking action. Students learn about the importance of helping and giving to others and then take action through community service projects. They study the structure of well-constructed arguments and then employ them in debates. In the portfolio process, students identify action steps that they will take to achieve their goals. And they explore content and skills in Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math and then use what they know and can do to design and build real things.
The first sentence of the Schechter Manhattan Mission Statement reads, “Our mission is to ignite within our students a passion for learning and a commitment to translating ideas into meaningful action.” I believe that the work of the Lieberman Family STEAM Center combined with study and practice of the Jewish traditions of heshbon hanefesh and teshuva affords Schechter Manhattan students the opportunity to develop the knowledge, skills, and dispositions to be reflective and action-oriented people, and will help inspire their commitment to those ideals.
I wish for all of us a year in which our reflection, our honest acceptance of our strengths and challenges leads to meaningful growth, for us, our students/children, and our school.
On behalf of the Rabbinic Advisory Committee and the Board of Schechter Manhattan, I am excited to continue “Talk Torah” to our Schechter families.
One of the hallmarks of a Schechter education is to help our students make personal meaning out of their learning. A component of being a part of a Jewish day school is understanding how our sacred texts have wisdom within them that can elevate what it means to be a student, a child, a sibling, a parent, a friend, a community member, and more!
As a part of many editions of Daf Kesher in the months to come (generally the 2nd Shabbat of each month) we are pleased that there will be a section of Torah that you can use with your families at home over the weekend.
There will be a structure to each: A summary of the weekly Torah portion including an introduction of themes that emerge in the parashah, an explanation of one verse in particular, and key thought questions that you can discuss. We hope that “Talk Torah” will be an added way for you to bring the learning home.
Rabbi Rachel Ain
Sutton Place Synagogue
Chair, Rabbinic Advisory Committee