Dr. Shulkind delves into the aspects of our school and greater community that make us a successful institution that produces strong and prepared students who further the mission of our school.
Our Middle School Director, Geoff Agnor and I, are in the process of visiting high schools to which our 8th graders will matriculate. In just one week, we visited or spoke with Geffen Academy, de Toledo, Milken, Windward, Brentwood, Shalhavet, and Crossroads. In every conversation, the Head of School or admissions director remarks that there is a special quality about our graduates. Something special must be happening, they say again and again, because our school produced students defined by their confidence and their humility, by the power of their voice and the depth of their gratitude.
It is true. Our students know who they are and where they belong. I am more and more convinced it is all about what one of the leading educational thinkers of our time, Deborah Meier, calls “the company children keep.”
In her writing on “the company children keep”—the relationships in our schools—she argues that the structure of most of our school alienates children from the teachers we hope they learn from and emulate; schools are increasing impersonal, and children are increasingly isolated from the adult world. Meier has devoted her life’s work to restructuring schools, to help children keep company with teachers and other adults in their schools. This concept of small schools with intimate teacher students relationships defines many of the best independent schools in our city.
Schools, influenced by the work of Meier and others, focus on the creation of community—community in classrooms, community at grade levels, community in the parent community. However, these communities are horizontal; they largely pull together groups of kids and adults in similar developmental stages. We too focus on the horizontal community; we have the most incredible of volunteers in our Parent Association, Retention Committee and Development Committee that work tirelessly to make sure our community is strong and supportive. Plus, all adults in our building have had extensive Responsive Classroom training, which gives them the tools to create a healthy classroom community in which each child experiences a sense of meaning and belonging.
Horizontal community is important, but if you follow Deborah Meier’s assertion to its logical conclusion, children also need a vertical community. If the goal of keeping company with adults is to be a productive adult who lives a life of meaning, they do not only need this while in school, they need it their whole lives. Our Lainer School students are part of a multigenerational Temple community that literally spans from birth to death, and it is a community they can be part of all the days of their lives, not only until their 8th-grade graduation.
On a typical day in our building, a second grader will see babies in our Parenting Center, parents of their classmates who know them well, middle schoolers who might be the older sibling of a friend, and grandparents of classmates attending minyan or serving on Temple committees. When they return at 20 to see a younger sibling’s orchestra concert, they will be embraced by the School Rabbi who took them to Israel, who knew them since they were crawling, and they will sit in between their own grandmother and the young father of a preschooler. When they return at 36, with their own three children, now students in our School, they will run into Ms. Krauss who taught their siblings them to be expert writers and Ms. Lipman who shaped their mathematical thinking forever. And at 40, they will sit in their father’s memorial with Rabbi Wolpe who married them and alongside a community that has danced at weddings, mourned at shivas, and rejoiced in Sukkahs.
Vertical community matters to children because it models what it is to be an engaged member at every phase of life. It matters to parents for the same reason, but for parents, it also offers a sense perspective only available in a vertical community. Our recent grandparents day reminded me of this truth.
Here is what I mean: Three years ago, I read a book called the "Conscious Parent" by Dr. Shefali Tsabary, and one of the brilliant takeaways was the idea that you should make your child feel loved and valued not for what they do or accomplish but simply for who they are. The author uses the example of watching a child playing soccer—instead of complimenting how fast the child runs, tell them that you love watching them play.
I repeated Dr. Tsabary’s maxim to many Lainer School parents and felt proud of my own ability to enact it. And then my daughter, Olivia, became super serious about soccer. All of a sudden, I found myself on the sidelines, sweating, nervous at every kick, giving directions a bit too audibly. After the game, I felt slightly embarrassed, after all, I knew that I was not on the field—yet week after week I could not hold back. I was reassured, however, by all the other moms and dads who seemed equally anxious and unduly invested. In the final game of the season, a real nail-biter, I was pacing back and forth and saw four people sitting in lounge chairs, sipping coffee and completely enjoying themselves. They were grandparents, of course, and an uncle and an older friend of the family.
I realized that these four loungers had in abundance something that parents are missing—perspective. They did not angst over every play, they watched the game marveling at the energy and passion of the girls, the perfect weather, the unencumbered future in front of them.
A few days later, I watched our own Lainer School grandparents and special friends visit our classrooms, and I witnessed the same unanxious involvement. Not a single grandparent worried whether their grandchild read at level G or level J by the end of first grade. Grandparents did not stress about a friendship that is on the fritz or the fact they did not get the perfect part in Kabbalat Shabbat.
As I visited each classroom, I realized why a vertical community is important: Grandparents, in sharp contrast to parents, aren’t on the field with their grandchildren. Grandparents are in the bleachers, looking down, and what they saw that morning was a roomful of Jewish children who are both joyful and disciplined learners. They saw children proudly wearing kippot and chamsas, classrooms with Israeli and American flags, covered in Hebrew and English. They entered our classrooms and only saw the Jewish future, and they gave me as a parent and educator and all of the other parents in the school a perspective about what is really important: what is happening in our classrooms is beyond their own grandparents' wildest dreams.
It is this perspective, this vertical community, that is the true magic of our School and Temple community. This is the answer to what makes our kids so special: it is the company they keep, the fact that they are immersed in a vertical community that raises them and claims them as part of the Jewish community that stretches back thousands of years, and will, God willing, stretch forward indefinitely.