Seeking Excellence: Partnering with Universities

Lynn Raviv, Director of Development, NE Miles Jewish Day School, Birmingham, AL

Four years ago our school began a journey toward a learning environment focused on project- and inquiry-based learning, values-based learning, and differentiated instruction across all subjects. This huge shift in pedagogy was embraced by our community, and a capital campaign was launched to redesign existing spaces. Our small school has now been transformed into a hub for our progressive and highly technology-based academic program. The former student commons is now the heart of the school as an Innovative Learning Center (ILC), and connects with the dining hall (our former library) to allow the ILC to expand for special programs. Perimeter areas outside classrooms on the upper floor are now learning pods for students to gather and engage in partnerships for learning.

With our own internal community poised for dramatic and exciting change, we set out to find the best resources available in our larger community to continue our quest for an excellent, innovative program. And we had immediate success with one phone call.

The local McWane Science Center entered into a partnership with us, as well as their partner, The University of Alabama in Birmingham. Our contact, through their common program ALASHAP, is Co-Director Katie Busch. ALASHAP’s mission is to “provide opportunities for teachers and administrators to extend their understanding and practice of inquiry-based teaching and learning as they help students explore, question, and construct scientific understanding of the world around them.” Certainly, these goals were important to us in our quest.

It did not take long in this initial conversation with Busch for both of us to realize that boundless benefits would be realized from being connected. We were a perfect proving ground for ALASHAP to test its new programs: a small school, dedicated faculty, and the great desire for this opportunity for our students, all critical dynamics for a successful combination.

Indeed, we are benefitting in significant ways. Busch, who works in tandem with our ILC coordinator, Devon Cantwell, began by providing professional development for our faculty through a method known as The Private Eye, a simple technique with powerful educational outcomes, developed by Seattle-based educator Kerry Reuf. This method promotes student thinking by analogy and writing and can be applied in both general and Judaic studies.

How simple is this hands-on learning process that “rivets the eye and rockets the mind?” Students look at an object through a jeweler’s loupe, a metaphor for magnifying thought. Using this everyday object and simple questions, students get to discover, rather than being told facts. They become engaged, sometimes mesmerized, very curious. The students become hooked and begin to ask a million questions as they are learning skills to help them in their journey of learning. Our teachers have said they have extended units because of the curiosity of the students who were hooked, wanting to learn more, engaged in this process that asks them to be critical thinkers, creative, to theorize and produce products in writing, the arts and in a myriad of ways that are generated by this process of discovery.

It all began with a phone call. Seeking excellence by partnering with a university has moved us forward. The Private Eye has created more student-driven learning opportunities, and we have an ongoing strong bond with Busch who will continue to work with our faculty in other related projects. With her we share questions and ideas, and she helps us network with other educators, sharing materials and information. Busch especially appreciates being able to vet her projects with a whole school community across the curriculum, which she can do because of our size and the fact that she values the dedication of our staff. The university has included us as partners in grants, appreciating the connection with the private school community and the opportunity to be important stewards of education in their community, a critical aspect of their mission.

Consider the opportunities that universities provide to support excellence in your school. Reach out to a local institution of higher learning. Do not be afraid of a ”no.” It just might be that the university may not have a way to connect at that particular time. Universities need community partners. They want to have an impact.

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HaYidion Excellence Summer 2015
Summer 2015