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But do you think these programs are EFFECTIVE?

Yesterday, I posted the following on Facebook:

Favorite moment(s) of the day: Today I helped coordinate the Understanding Our Differences program on Learning Disabilities for Grade 4 at Gabriel’s school. We do hands-on activities in the classroom first, then move down to the library where the whole grade gets together for a guest speaker. Today’s speakers were two sisters who grew up in Newton. They spoke about how difficult it was when they were kids. They were both bullied and treated very unkindly because of their learning disabilities. During the Q&A, one girl in the front row raised her hand and said, “This is not a question. It’s a comment. I think that no matter what kind of learner a person is, people should not be mean to them. Everybody has stuff that is easy for them, and stuff that is hard for them. That’s just the way people are. And, if you see someone being mean to someone else because of the way that they learn, then you should stick up for them and be a good friend.” I thought that was going to be the best moment, but it just got better. A little later, another girl raised her hand. “This is not a question. It’s an analogy. I have a little sister, and we like to race each other on our bikes. But I have long legs, and she has short legs. So when we race each other, I give her a head start. I don’t think she’s getting an advantage. It’s just that if we both start at the same time, then it would be unfair. And it doesn’t mean that I’m better than her, it’s just that I have long legs and she doesn’t. It’s like that with Learning Disabilities. Everyone is good at different things, and we should all get help with the things that are hard for us.” Some days, I feel sad for the state of the world, and the lack of empathy I sense in the way I see people treat one another. Today was not one of those days.

A few years ago, I was carpooling to a conference with a fellow educator.  She asked me about my career.  I told her that my background was in the field of Social Emotional Learning, and that I had worked for many years for an organization that was focused on changing school climate and culture to be supportive not just of children’s academic development, but of their social and emotional well-being as well.  She asked me to tell her more, so I told her a story, much like the one above.  The story I told was one in which students were engaged in an activity that encouraged them to put themselves in another’s shoes, and take the perspective of someone different from themselves.  The story ended, like the one shared above, with several students expressing thoughtful and inspiring insights prompted by the educational experience they had just participated in.

“And do you think these programs are effective?” my colleague asked in a neutral tone.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Well,” she continued, now in a tone that was both condescending and dismissive, “It’s been MY experience that kids say what they know teachers want to hear, then they go on behaving in the way they were before.  It’s been MY experience that these programs take a lot of resources and classroom time, but they don’t have any actual effect on behavior.  They affect what kids say when there are adults around, but they don’t actually affect what kids do when they’re on their own.”

I sat stunned into silence.  I mean what could I say, really?  This “fellow educator” had just torn down my entire career in a single statement.

Over the years, I’ve revisited that moment in my memory many times.  Every time I go back to that moment I try to remind myself that the power of Social Emotional Learning is extremely well-documented in study after study.  I remind myself of the transformations I’ve seen in the schools I’ve worked in.  Transformations of classrooms in which the climate went from chaotic and disconnected, to peaceful and supportive.  Transformations in culture where I’ve seen adults go from talking about “those kids” to talking about “our kids”.   Transformations in which kids were given the tools to understand and communicate about differences, and so were able to come together in ways that they hadn’t been able to do without social emotional learning practices.

And so, when I have an experience like the one I had yesterday in UOD, for a long time, the first voice I hear in my head is that educator from that car ride a long time ago.  “It’s been MY experience that these programs take a lot of resources and classroom time, but they don’t have any actual effect on behavior.  They affect what kids say when there are adults around, but they don’t actually affect what kids DO when they’re on their own.”

To that voice, I say, “You’re right.  Sometimes, kids just say things that they know adults want to hear.  But sometimes, like in that UOD lesson yesterday, kids say things because they’ve had a new and powerful insight.  They’ve thought about a person they know, or an interaction they’ve witnessed, in a new way.  And they want to share with the person that gave them that insight this wonderful new thought that they’ve had.  Will this new insight lead to new behavior?  Maybe, maybe not.”

But one thing I know for sure.  The two young women who spoke at UOD yesterday had been students in that very same school, just fifteen short years ago.  And the bullying and cruelty they experienced at the whim of their classmates does not happen anymore in that building.  Does. Not. Happen.  And that is because there has been intense and focused attention on creating a school culture and climate in which differences are understood and diversity is celebrated.  And it happens one conversation at a time.  One thoughtful comment at a time.  Those comments are uttered for a million reasons (maybe to impress a teacher, maybe not), but they are heard and recognized by everyone in the room.  And when it happens again and again, it changes the culture.

So, in answer to my colleague’s long-ago question….  Yes.  Yes, not only do I think these programs are effective, I know these programs are effective.  I hope in these intervening years, that you have come to know it too.

 

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Safe at School

A little over a week ago, on Valentine’s Day, many of us were celebrating a day of love with our sweethearts and our families.  In Parkland, FL, a school community was devastated by a school shooting that left seventeen people dead, and dozens more injured.

And while many elected officials predictably chimed in with their standard “our thoughts and prayers go out to this community”, it is clear that something has changed in our country.

Across this country, it is clear that we have had enough.  Enough needless, avoidable bloodshed.  Enough senseless violence.  Enough cowardly inaction.  Enough pathetic excuses.  Enough.

I didn’t particularly want to talk to my kids about the Parkland shooting, but the news was on in a public place the other day, showing vigils and walkouts across the country.  So I tried to explain in as non-scary a way as I could what was happening.

S is in Middle School now, and had already heard about the shooting.  She had also heard about the student walk-out being planned for March 14.  I asked her if she thought she might want to join.  She replied, “I agree with what they are doing, but I’d be scared to walk out.  What if someone with a gun comes to the walk-out and starts shooting?”

G asked if he is safe at school.  I explained that we are fortunate to live in a state with very strict gun laws.  I feel very safe sending him to school each day, and I don’t feel that something like the Florida shooting will happen where we live.  “Then why are people in our state going to protest?” he asked.  I replied that we want to live in a country where everyone can feel safe, and that gun laws need to change in our whole country in order for that to happen.  I asked if he would like to go to the upcoming March for our Lives Rally in Boston with me.  He replied, “Yes, I would.  And I’m going to make a sign that says ‘I want my cousins to be safe at school.”

Let me be clear.  These are NOT conversations that I want to be having with my children.  These are not conversations I want anyone to have to have with their children.

And speaking of conversations nobody should be having right now….  I am literally shaking with rage over the suggestion that the problem of school shootings can be solved by arming teachers.

There are so many, many, many things wrong with that idea that it’s almost impossible to think where to start.

Let me start with the fact (not opinion, fact) that bringing guns into schools will de facto make schools less safe.  I’m not going to bother looking up statistics on accidental deaths/injuries caused by guns.  But anyone who has worked in an environment with children knows it is just common sense to keep harmful objects out of the reach of children.    (Okay, my stomach is starting to tighten at the sheer stupidity of having to write this last paragraph, and the sheer stupidity of someone who would think that having a loaded gun in a classroom does not raise safety concerns….  so I’m going to move on.)

Let me continue with how demoralizing to the profession of teaching it is to suggest that teachers should carry guns.  Teaching is more than just a job.  It is a vocation.  A calling.  Anyone who has ever had the good fortune to meet a truly spectacular teacher knows that these people were put on this earth to nurture, encourage, mentor and guide our children.  Good teachers invest their hearts and souls into understanding our children, loving our children, and creating classroom environments where our children can thrive.  When I hear someone suggest, all in one breath, that we need to make our schools safer by having metal detectors, locked doors, and armed teachers, it literally makes me feel sick.  Teachers are not inanimate objects like a door that you can place a lock on or an entryway where you can install a metal detector.  Teachers are human beings who have taken on one of the most important and undervalued roles in our society.  Throwing around the idea that teachers should also, in addition to the billion roles they already play, take on the role of armed security guard….  this further devalues the already taken-for-granted things that teachers already do.

And finally, let me talk for a moment about teacher training.  Over the course of my career, I have had access to some amazing professional development experiences that have exponentially expanded my capacity to nurture and educate children.  I’ve had training in child development, psychology, classroom management, diagnosing reading disabilities, hands-on math instruction….  you name it.  One summer, I attended a week-long STEM training on-site at NASA.  I learned to be a better science teacher from actual rocket scientists.   And being a teacher, I know that staff training hours are golden.  For every hour you put into training, you wish you had three or four more hours, because you can never do more than scratch the surface on any given topic.  I think of the hours that are currently going into training for lockdown procedures and active shooter situations, and it haunts me.  From a professional development perspective, it feels like time taken away from things that could actually make me a better teacher.  From a personal perspective, I can tell you that when you are walking through a building, discussing the play-by-play of what you would do in an active shooter situation, you start playing out the situation in your mind.  You start imagining the sound of gunshots.  You start to visualize the looks of panic on your students’ faces.  You feel your pulse quicken as you imagine what it would be like to herd your students into the supply closet and pull the door closed behind you.

Every time I attend one of these teacher trainings, I leave feeling sick to my stomach.  It has to stop.  We are educators.  Our safety matters.  I should feel safe in my work environment.  Our children should feel safe in school.

If you have not yet taken action, please do.  The tide is beginning to turn, and we all need to be part of it.

Thanks for reading.

https://everytown.org

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The Time of Our Joy

Lately, the world has felt like a dark and chaotic place. At night, you fall asleep to images of devastating hurricane damage, and in the morning you wake up to news of a mass murder at a country music concert. All of this with the constant drumbeat of corruption, lies and hard-heartedness coming from our nation’s capital.

It’s been hard to focus lately. It’s been hard to keep up with carpools, homework monitoring, and bedtime routines. In the middle of each of these everyday tasks, my attention keeps slipping away from the mundane jobs in front of me to the feelings of hopelessness and helplessness that keep rising up like storm clouds blocking out the sun.

Given this context, the holiday of Sukkot is resonating deeply with me this year. On Sukkot, we set up a temporary dwelling place out in nature. It needs to be solid enough to withstand the weather, but fragile enough to let in the light from the stars and the moon.IMG_2349

Ever since we first began the tradition of building a Sukkah in our yard, I’ve appreciated many aspects of this holiday. I enjoy the opportunity to be creative. As adults, we don’t often have the opportunity to bring to life something we dream up in our imagination that has no practical purpose. Our Sukkah fits all of the traditional qualifications, but it also expresses the whimsy and creativity of our family. I love it.

I enjoy the opportunity to be in nature. During the time it takes to build and decorate the Sukkah, I appreciate being outside. I drink in the crisp fall days, and look up through leafy branches at the bright blue sky. I savor the dinners eaten outside to the sounds of squirrels scampering up trees and the sight of the sunset illuminating the evening sky.

Most importantly, I enjoy the mandate to BE HAPPY. A nickname for Sukkot is IMG_2394.jpg“Z’man Simchateinu” or “The Time of Our Joy”. In order to truly fulfill the mitzvah of Sukkot, it’s not enough to merely construct a sukkah. You also have to decorate it, and you also have to invite guests. Some years, this feels like a lot of pressure. This year, it feels like the solution to a deep, deep yearning.

Our world feels increasingly confusing and frightening. Lives are cut short every day by things beyond our control– from a car slamming into a crowd of peaceful protestors to catastrophic storms whose effects are magnified by climate change to a madman with access to automated weapons. So many things are outside of our control.

IMG_2392.jpg            This year, in the process of fulfilling the mitzvot of this holiday, I’m reminded of all the things that are WITHIN our control. I can create a beautiful, sacred space right in my own backyard. I can carve out the time to eat slow, relaxing meals with family and friends. I can nurture important relationships in the context of this time and space. I can give myself permission to BE HAPPY.

Last spring, I was deeply moved by the words of the sonnet written by Lin Manuel-Miranda in response to the shooting at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando. His words have been echoing in my mind this week:

My wife’s the reason anything gets done

She nudges me towards promise by degrees

She is a perfect symphony of one

Our son is her most beautiful reprise.

We chase the melodies that seem to find us

Until they’re finished songs and start to play

When senseless acts of tragedy remind us

That nothing here is promised, not one day.

This show is proof that history remembers

We lived through times when hate and fear seemed stronger;

We rise and fall and light from dying embers, remembrances that hope and love last longer

And love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love cannot be killed or swept aside.

I sing Vanessa’s symphony, Eliza tells her story

Now fill the world with music, love and pride.

 

I’ve highlighted the lines that feel particularly meaningful at this time. First, on this Sukkot, I remember that nothing here is promised, not one day. Sukkot is a reminder to take time each day to create some happiness. Enjoy our beautiful, natural world. Revel in the gift of each other.  Each day is precious, and the gifts of today might not be here tomorrow. The sukkah itself is a reminder that everything in our lives (both the joy and the tragedy) is temporary.

Second, on this Sukkot, I remember Lin Manuel’s encouragement to create beauty out of tragedy. Fill the world with music, love and pride. I can start by creating a beautiful space in my own backyard, and filling that space with twinkling lights, good food, laughter, friendship and love. Then, I can take all that love, and let it radiate it outward. I can let that love motivate me towards generous and loving acts that help repair our broken world.

Next week, when the holiday is over, we’ll pack up our twinkly little sukkah and store its component parts until next year. I’ll carry the empowering memories of intentionally creating a time and space for joy, light and love during these dark times. Then, I’ll roll up my sleeves and go back to the work of adding my voice and my efforts to fighting the intolerance, inequality and injustice that is so prevalent in our country right now.

This year, the holiday of Sukkot is giving me a welcome reprieve from feelings of hopelessness and helplessness. Wishing that by next year, the world is in a better place.

 

Wishing you all a joyous and peace-filled holiday.

PS  Adding to our joy this year is the purchase of a trampoline.  Look at those bouncy, happy children!!!

Warming up for Tefillot (and the day)

One of the things I love most about working at Camp Ramah is the impact that it’s had on my own personal spiritual development. I grew up going to a Jewish sleepaway camp, so I remember how profound it is to live in an immersive Jewish community for weeks at a time. I remember how the pace slows on Shabbat, how the spirit lifts during an exciting round of Israeli dance, and how the soul is refreshed during quiet Saturday night singing under the stars. I remember all of these things, but the depth of change in my own spiritual being now that I’m experiencing Jewish camp as an adult has come as a surprise to me.

This year, in particular, I came to camp seeking a particular kind of change. During the off-season, I work in a supplementary Religious School. Part of my job is to teach students to read and chant tefillot. I get a lot of satisfaction when my students can recite all the words of Birchot Hashachar or can chant the Amidah flawlessly after weeks of practice. However, I’m aware that these accomplishments would feel much more rewarding if reciting these prayers felt more personally meaningful to me. And so, I came to camp this summer primed to deepen my own prayer experience.

I had several “Aha!” moments during Staff Training week. The first was during Tefillot on the second morning of training. The leaders of the activity encouraged all of us to brainstorm ideas for getting our campers “physically and spiritually ready” for tefillot each morning. This was a new thought for me. I always just show up at tefillot. I never thought about how the experience would be different if I did some type of preparation. But once I thought about it, it made so much sense. Musicians can’t produce beautiful music without tuning and warming up their instruments. Athletes can’t accomplish amazing physical feats without stretching and warming up their bodies. To what new heights could we lift our campers’ prayer experience if we helped them get physically and spiritually ready for tefillot? To what new heights could I lift my own tefillot? I left the session eager to explore.

The next “Aha!” moment came during a staff learning session about the poetry of Yehuda Amichai. I was deeply moved by Amichai’s simple but elegant imagery, as he explored themes of man’s relationship with G-d, peoplehood, and prayer. The poem that resonated with me the most was titled simply, “A Tallis Poem”. In the poem, Amichai uses beautiful images to explore the experience of wearing a tallis. As soon as I finished reading the poem, the answer to the previous session’s question (how can I make myself physically and spiritually ready for tefillot each morning?) became clear. I wanted to try wearing a tallis.

Sometime in the coming year, I plan to make an excursion with my daughter to buy “real” tallitot for the two of us in honor of her upcoming Bat Mitzvah. But for the purposes of this summer, I felt a sense of urgency. I went on to Amazon (yes, you really can buy anything on Amazon!), and picked out a simple tallis. It was light-weight, with a pretty purple and gold trim, and most importantly, they assured me it would arrive by Shabbat.

Wearing a tallis during tefillot has changed the experience for me. I used to scan the room during tefillot and think that everyone else looked like they were doing “real” prayer. I often felt like I was just saying words, but not really praying. I felt like there was some intrinsic difference between everyone else’s prayers and mine. My brain was always filled with thoughts like, “I didn’t go to Day School, I don’t speak Hebrew, I don’t go to a Conservative Shul. Everyone else knows what they’re doing here, and I don’t.” Making the decision to purchase and wear a tallis, for me, was making the decision to take ownership of my own tefillot experience. While my background in tefillot might not be as robust as other members of the camp community, I can feel good about where I am on my journey. I can take any step I want to deepen my own spirituality and heighten my own prayer experience. This summer, the step I’ve taken is to start wearing a tallis.

Tefillot feel so different to me now. Every morning, I make an effort to arrive a few minutes early. I take a moment to breathe deeply. I kiss the tallis and recite the blessings. I swoop it up over my head, and feel the weight as it rests on my shoulders and envelops me. During those few moments I settle my own mind, and I set my own intentions for tefillot. I feel, for the first time, warmed up. I feel physically and spiritually ready for tefillot, and for the rest of the day.

 

A Tallis Poem

By Yehuda Amichai

Whoever put on a tallis when he was young will never forget:

taking it out of the soft velvet bag, opening the folded shawl,

spreading it out, kissing the length of the neckband (embroidered

or trimmed in gold). Then swinging it in a great swoop overhead

like a sky, a wedding canopy, a parachute. And then winding it

around his head as in Hide-and-Seek, wrapping

his whole body in it, close and slow, snuggling into it like the cocoon

of a butterfly, then opening would-be wings to fly.

And why is the tallis striped and not checkered black and white

like a chessboard? Because squares are finite and hopeless.

Stripes come from infinity and to infinity they go

like airport runways where angels land and take off

Whoever has put on a tallis will never forget.

When he comes out of a swimming pool or the sea,

he wraps himself in a large towel, spreads it out again

over his head, and again snuggles into it close and slow,

still shivering a little, and he laughs and blesses.

 

Open Closed Open: Poems, trans. by Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld (New York: Harcourt, 2000), p. 44

Celebrating a Milestone

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We are here at camp for our third summer. It’s been a wonderful first week and a half. S is delighted to be reunited with her camp friends. G has had a great time in the staff kids program (the Gan), rediscovering his favorite routines and activities at camp. I’m enjoying re

IMG_1445turning to the same role for a third time, and discovering that my work becomes more rewarding and enjoyable each summer.

This Sunday, I will say good-bye to my first group of campers, and begin preparing for the next group to arrive on Tuesday.

It’s all part of the routine of camp, except for one major difference. The next group of campers will include my son, G.

Every time I think about G leaving the safety and comfort of the Gan, and becoming a “real camper”, I get emotional.   I feel a deep urge to take a moment, and appreciate the significance of this moment.IMG_3740

I find myself thinking back to when G was first diagnosed with autism. He was two and a half. At that time, we had no idea what G’s life was going to be like. We thought of all the things that are part of a typically developing kid’s childhood– baseball games and play dates, sleepovers and swim classes, piano recitals and bike rides, and on and on and on. We thought of all these things, and we worried that all of them would be out of G’s reach. That because of his challenges, that he would live life on the sidelines.

IMG_1418Over the years, we began to see that our worries about life on the sidelines were unfounded. Slowly but surely, we became connected to wonderful people and amazing programs that suited G’s needs and interests. Challenger League has provided an opportunity to play baseball. iCanBike Camp has provided an opportunity to learn to ride a bike. The Academy of Physical and Social Development has provided an opportunity for G to practice the social skills he needs to interact successfully with his peers.

But of all the wonderful and amazing supports in our lives, the one that rises to the top is Camp Ramah.

Shortly after we signed S up for her first summer of camp, we learned about the Tikvah Family Shabbaton. This weekend for parents, siblings and children with a disability has been our lifeline for the last four years. Twice a year during the off-season, we come to Camp Ramah to reconnect with our Tikvah family. For 72 hours, we eat, pray and play together. We celebrate one another’s successes, and help each other through hard times. At Tikvah, both our children are known and loved for who they are.019-L2260635

Then summer rolls around. We come back to camp for the “on-season”. We get to see many of our friends from Tikvah (both kids and staff) at camp during the summer, and deepen those relationships during our time here. S has her buddies in her bunk, and those friendships become closer and more significant each year. For the last two summers, G has been part of the Gan. As far as I know, he is the first child with a disability who has been part of this program. From day one, he has been given the support he needs to succeed, all the while building his confidence and independence.

photoFor the past ten days, G has spent the majority of his waking hours with the Gan. However, he’s also spent a good chunk of time with me and my campers. Morning prayers, evening activity, and most of Shabbat, G has been with my group. I can’t express how deeply it’s touched my heart to see G welcomed into the group by the kids and the staff. When we walk into prayers in the morning, the kids scoot over to make room for G on the bench. At evening activity, a counselor notices G on the edge of the group, and gently guides him into the thick of the activity. Yesterday, I asked the boys in the group to give G a tour of their cabin. They walked him around the bunk, pointing out where they put their toothbrushes, where they hang their jackets, and what they do with their towels after they shower. I could see on G’s face the excitement he’s feeling about moving on to this next level of independence. More importantly, I could see on the boys’ faces that they felt proud and important to be called on as helpers.IMG_2600

I’ve spent the last few days on the phone with parents of my future campers who will be dropped off at camp for the first time on Tuesday. They’ve expressed to me how they are going to drop off quickly, and hope to get out of sight before they start crying over this exciting but heart-wrenching milestone of dropping their baby off at camp. For me, I think I’ll be able to hold it together for the day. But I know the tears will come when I return to my cabin at night- the cabin I’ve shared with G for the past two and a half summers. I’ll be by myself here for the first time. I know I will mourn the passing of time, and how quickly G’s childhood is flying by. However, I will also be celebrating this enormous moment in his life. G will be a real camper, in a real bunk. He’s going to have an experience that we never, ever thought would be possible back when he was first diagnosed with autism. He’s going to share this experience with friends we’ve made through Tikvah over the years, and he’s going to be supported by staff who’ve grown up in Ramah understanding the value of inclusion.
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Of all the wonderful and amazing supports in our lives, the one that rises to the top is Camp Ramah. Thank you, Camp Ramah. We are so very, very grateful.

 

D’Var Torah – Parsha Vayikra

I am part of a “Community of Practice” that meets monthly.  Our group is comprised of educators who work in Jewish schools.  Together, we study and learn together on the topic of supporting inclusion of individuals with disabilities within our schools.  Each meeting begins with one member offering a “D’var Torah”.  Literally, this means “words of Torah”.  We connect the Torah story of the week to the work we are doing around inclusion.  It was my turn today….  and even though I’m not experienced in writing a D’var, I was happy with the way this one turned out.  So here it is.  Enjoy!

 

D’Var Torah – Parsha Vayikra

I’d like to start with a story I posted on my personal Facebook page last week:

We have a fence in our backyard that’s about 10 panels long. In the last storm, the posts that hold up the first three panels got uprooted. David called a contractor to come look at the fence, and give an estimate for repair. Yesterday, the doorbell rang. It was the contractor. He was a big, taciturn-looking guy with a thick Russian accent. I went with him into the back yard to look at the fence. Big Fence Guy paces back and forth a few times, scratching his chin as he goes. Then he comes back to me.


Big Fence Guy: I theenk you have two choices. You can replace whole fence, which weel cost lots. Or, you can replace just posts ruined in storm. I’m not sure how long rest of fence will last, so I’m not sure best answer.


Me: Oh, I see. You’re not sure which advice to give me. It sounds like you’re on the fence.


Big Fence Guy:


Me: It’s an American expression. “On the fence” means you’re having trouble making a decision.


Big Fence Guy:


Me: In your line of work, I think that’s an expression you might enjoy knowing.


Big Fence Guy: (after a long pause, I see a slight smile). Yes, that’s good expression to know.

 In the current political climate, I’ve been very mindful of trying to make connections with people from a wide variety of backgrounds. I really enjoyed creating this particular bridge with a person whose job it is to build fences.

 And,yes…. I’m well aware that I’m a nerd.

 

While most of my friends appreciated the story, the puns, and my nerdiness… I did get push-back from one friend who argued that we should always reach out to people who are different from us, no matter what the political climate.

And this brings me to this week’s parsha.

In this first Parsha in the Book of Leviticus, G-d describes to Moses the laws of animal sacrifice. G-d goes into great, great detail about which animals shall be sacrificed, how they should be sacrificed, when they should be sacrificed and why they should sacrificed. There is very little left to the imagination in this recitation of laws.

Which led me to wonder, given that animal sacrifice is no longer part of Jewish ritual practice, what can be learned from this parsha? As I read through the commentaries, I discovered some of the purposes for sacrificing animals: to give the People of Israel a physical act that they could do to atone for sins, show appreciation to G-d, and also to bring themselves closer to G-d.

In modern life, our prayer services have taken the place of ritual sacrifice. Three times a day, there is an opportunity to physically take out a prayer book, and engage with G-d through prayer.

I also think a mindful commitment to Jewish values can take the place of ritual sacrifice as well. I believe that we all have good intentions. Jewish ritual and prayer can help us to transform those good intentions, which only exist in our minds and hearts, into behavior that carries out into the world.

Take the story at the beginning.   In our current political climate, my heart aches for immigrant families who live in fear of being deported and Muslim people (or people who resemble Muslims) who live in fear of being the target of hatred and bigotry. But it’s not enough for my heart to ache. I need to turn that ache into action. Make donations, attend rallies, and yes… even make a gesture of friendship and humor towards the big, burly guy who is mending my fence.

How does this relate to inclusion?

For all of us here, we are committed to making our schools, synagogues and communities more inclusive and welcoming towards individuals with disabilities. This Torah portion reminds us that it’s not enough for that commitment to reside within our own hearts and minds. In order to fulfill our commitment to inclusion, we need to be constantly at the ready to back up our commitment with action- even when that action is uncomfortable. We need to be ready to look beyond a child’s behavior (even if that behavior really pushes our buttons), and try to decode the message the child is communicating through the behavior. We need to be ready to offer feedback to our colleagues, even if we know that feedback might not be readily welcomed. We need to be ready to push back on parents, community members, or decision-makers in our communities if they are clinging to beliefs that pose barriers to inclusion.

Inclusion can be hard work. It can be messy and uncomfortable. However, we can hold on to the thought that that the work we do is an outward expression of a commitment to our Jewish values. And that thought can help us persevere when the work becomes difficult.

Equality vs. Equity (or… the only thing I really want for my kid is for him to not NEED the damn boxes)

If you’ve been around here for a while, you will know that I’ve been involved in a project at my kids’ school to help parents in the school community better understand Inclusive Education.  The impetus behind this project
is described here:  https://frootloopsblog.wordpress.com/2016/10/10/changing-the-conversation-part-1.

I’ve had the privilege of working with an amazing team of educators at my kids’ school to plan and present a series of workshops to parents on the topic of Inclusive Education.  The most recent workshop was held last night.  The title of the workshop was ” Response to Intervention: Addressing the Needs of All Students at [our school]”.

The bulk of the workshop was a fabulous presentation by a first grade teacher and our school’s Intervention Specialist.  It was mostly about how the school uses assessment data to group kids, and plan lessons based on the specific skills each child needs to work on.  The presentation began and ended with this graphic:equity

Using the image as a springboard, one parent raised her hand and said the following, “I really appreciate your presentation, and I’m trying to get some more clarity on this issue.  I hope this question won’t seem insensitive, as that’s not my intention.”  She paused, and then continued, “ I get that we want to provide enough boxes so that everyone can see over the fence.  What I’m wondering is what would happen if we give everyone 3 boxes?  Then everyone can see over the fence AND the kids who could see over the fence already could see even further!  What would that look like?”

I think this question gets right at the heart of teaching people about inclusion and Inclusive Education.

When I see this graphic (and I’ve seen it many, many times), I see three kids who have the same goal.  Let’s watch a baseball game together!  The only problem is that, in the picture on the left, the two big guys are busy enjoying the game…  while the only thing the little kid can see is fence.

When I see this graphic, it makes me so happy that the kids have figured out how to solve the problem.  Cool!  We have enough boxes!!  All we need to do is transfer a box from the big guy to the little guy.  Now we can all see!!  Look at that…  the Red Sox just scored a home run!!!

However, I think our society perpetuates a scarcity mentality.  What’s in those boxes?  How do I get one for my kid?   I also think our society elevates individualism over community.  Who cares about that little guy, as long as my kid can see the game…  that’s all that matters.  We’re seeing this writ large in national politics at the moment, and we can see it play out in our day to day lives.

Well I’m here to let you in on a little secret.  THE BIGGEST THING I WANT FOR MY KID IS FOR HIM NOT TO NEED THE DAMN BOXES!

Just to demystify a little bit…  let me tell you a bit about what’s inside my kid’s boxes.  Our first boxes were delivered when G was just 9 months old.  He wasn’t meeting his physical benchmarks, so he started working with a physical therapist.  We added speech therapy and occupational therapy when he was two.  Later, we added behavioral therapy and a play skills group.  Did I mention we received all these boxes before he was even three years old?

I remember bursting into tears one day when G was five.  We were just wrapping up a two-hour session with our behavioral therapist.  I was saying good-bye to her in the driveway, and I happened to look across the street.  Our neighbor and her five-year-old daughter were just returning home from kindergarten soccer.  It was a beautiful spring day, and the little girl’s soccer uniform was practically glistening in the sun.  Moments earlier, I had been on top of the world, thinking about the amazing progress G had made that day with his therapist.  My high spirits came crashing down when I started thinking about what he was missing out on.

After three years with the behavioral therapist, we finally made the decision that G had made enough progress to “graduate”.  While he still needs many other supports, he had acquired the specific set of skills she had to offer.  Nothing makes me happier than to get rid of one of those boxes.

Back to the graphic…  I think it’s a natural reaction to want the best for your kid.  And maybe, when you see that someone else’s kid got two boxes, while your kid has none, it might raise some questions about the boxes.  What I’m asking is to please, please….  think for a moment about what might be inside those boxes.

Those boxes represent ramps that make buildings handicap accessible.  Those boxes represent assisted listening devices for kids who can’t hear.  Those boxes represent hours of phonics instruction for kids who can’t hear the difference in the sound of a “p” versus the sound of a “d”.  Those boxes represent aides who can support students in overcoming the obstacles they face due to autism, ADHD, anxiety, or a billion other disabilities.  Those boxes represent whatever a kid needs so they can see the ballgame instead of the fence.

So again, I ask you….  let’s keep our focus on our goals as a school community.  Heck, let’s keep our focus on our goals as a society.   At the end of the day, it’s not about how many boxes you have.  It’s about working together to make sure everybody can see the game.

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