Principals Perspective (May 2022) - Dr. Lisa Vardi
Dr. Lisa Vardi

Readying CESJDS High School Students for the Real World

Ready for the Real World? headlines the latest issue of an educational leadership journal that I read monthly. The catchy title piqued my curiosity. The journal did not disappoint! 

All writers in this month’s volume agree that high schools must reimagine education. We must  equip students with skills, not just information, to prepare them to thrive in a world that is unpredictable and ever changing. One writer, Michelle Borba, author of Thrivers: The Surprising Reasons Why Some Kids Struggle and Others Shine, posited seven teachable strengths her research identified to help students prepare for life: self-confidence, empathy, self-control, integrity, curiosity, perseverance, and optimism. Silver, Boutz, and McTighe challenge schools to provide students with opportunities to solve complicated problems using complex thinking processes. These opportunities should include inquiry-based investigations, design thinking, and in-depth evaluation. 

This volume reminded me of the skills, habits of mind, and character traits found in the Portrait of a CESJDS Graduate, and the vision our school espouses, the growth of confident, compassionate thinkers who engage the world through Jewish values. We hope that our students graduate with the skills to not just engage the world, but change the world for the better. Many Jewish values we develop in students, k’hillah, tikkun olam, v’ahavta l’rei-a-ka, align with the teachable strengths Borba identified. We teach these skills both inside and outside the classroom. 

Last month’s High School Tikkun Olam Makers (TOM) Makeathon, sponsored by the CESJDS Center for STEM in Jewish Education, exemplifies the kinds of challenges we provide our students so they can develop complex thinking skills and the strengths mentioned above. TOM, an organization with which CESJDS recently partnered, is a global movement of communities that creates and disseminates affordable solutions to neglected challenges of people living with disabilities, the elderly, and the poor. Cassandra Batson, Upper School STEM Coordinator, explained the premise and process of the makeathon: 

The two-day Tikkun Olam Makers (TOM) Makeathon we hosted during the first weekend of April, was unlike any other STEM competition I have planned, hosted, and facilitated. What made this event unique was that a Need-Knower identified the challenges that our high school teams had to tackle. And not just any Need-Knower but a fellow student who shared her firsthand experience as a wheelchair user at CESJDS. Each team had a chance to interview the Need-Knower and to learn from her perspective. Students did not just embrace the Engineering Design Process to propose solutions to a problem, they had to think through different aspects of the Need-Knower’s challenges and empathize with her. 

Through the course of the two days, I was inspired at how thoughtful and mindful our students were in their process. Rather than throwing out general ideas, students really focused on the Need-Knower and what she shared with them. Their goal wasn’t just to propose a solution or to win, it was to help the Need-Knower feel more independent at school. This is what STEM and learning should be about. It’s not always about the newest gadget or the most complex technology; it’s about seeing how the skills and concepts one learns can be applied in real world scenarios in order to solve problems or make a greater impact.

I was fortunate to serve as a judge for the TOM Makeathon and to witness firsthand the skills our students developed and then demonstrated during the competition. The students did not just view the makeathon as a STEM challenge but one geared at repairing the world, tikkun olam, one of the school’s core values. All teams designed a device that allowed wheelchair users to more readily open the doors in the Upper School building or to access soap more easily in the bathrooms. Students designed, tested, and retested their prototypes based on the Need-Knower’s feedback. STEM Coordinator, Ms. Batson shared that she looks forward to next year’s second annual TOM Makeathon and hopes to get even more students involved.  

The makeathon is only one way we provide students with experiences that ready them for the real world. Others include: Junior Statesmen of America, the Rocketry Club, the Robotics Club, Mock Trial, the Debate Club, Arts Chai Lights, and so many more. Reimagining high school requires that we provide more voice and choice to our students both in and out of the classroom with a strong emphasis on skill and strength building. I look forward to engaging our faculty in the coming years in even more ways in which we might do so.