Teaching About Israel/Palestine During Complicated Times: Using the QOL Wheel

CoexistI teach in a Jewish school. The school is committed to teaching about Israel. The school is also committed to allowing students to form their own connections, ask their own questions, and make their own connections to Israel. This means, to me, confronting the complexities of life there, right now.

The problem: any article, written for public consumption, is biased and has an agenda. And in my Jewish Studies class, while I can devote a bit of time, now and then, to grappling with the situation in Israel, I don’t have the time for a deep dive into “how to be media savvy when reading about Israel.”


Today’s Solution:

Yesterday, we had an all-school performance by the Inside Out Contemporary Ballet company which explored the voices of dancers dealing with life in Israel and Palestine.

I built on this, starting class with the music of Yair Dalal, whose has made music with Israeli and Palestinian musicians together for many years.

We then read a personal reflection by my friend, Tamara Kaplan, wherein she describes life in Israel, and speaks frankly about the tensions and the moments of hope when Israelis and Arabs come face to face in Jerusalem today, in normal – and therefore deeply meaningful – moments. Cabs. Supermarkets.

Sometimes, it’s small talk. Other times, they talk explicitly about “the craziness.”

Says the author:

Taking the risk of being with each other, breathing a sigh of relief when we know we are safe with each other, and then getting on with the business of being normal, nice people — except that for each of us here in Jerusalem right now, every normal, nice interaction that would be forgotten in a second if we were living in normal days — [all this] is now taken into the heart as a little, precious sign that all may not be lost, and that faith between [people] may yet prevail.


QOLStudents listened to Yair Dalal and reflected on the letter, conducting a Quality of Life 360 – a system I have devised for evaluating and articulating how people cope with trauma and enrich their lives.

The prompt: How have Israelis’ and Arabs’ lives been impacted by the current situation? What are everyday people doing to cope? And what are your own thoughts, concerns, hopes and prayers?


facetofaceI was surprised at the students’ ability to empathize with people from different backgrounds, and their ability to use the categories of the Quality of Life Wheel to construct their own language to understand a very scary, overwhelming situation.

We then turned to Facebook (gasp!) and students asked questions, allowing Tamara to IM back. For a few moments, we were connected to a place far away, but very near.

15 minutes later, when every who wished to speak had spoken, we listened to the final words of Yehuda Amichai’s poem, “Swords and Plowshares,” sung in Yair Dalal’s Mantra of Peace.

Then, we opened our texts, and we learned about Revelation at Mount Sinai, where God and Human both quake when they come face to face.

“Don’t stop after beating the swords into plowshares, don’t stop! Go on beating and make musical instruments out of them. Whoever wants to make war again will have to turn them into plowshares first.” -Yehuda Amichai

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10 Item Checklist for Your First Two Weeks of Class

catAmagnetiCClassroom.com is back from summer vacation with a top-ten list to get your own classes off to a good start.

An effective and positive beginning sets you and your students up for success in three ways.

  1. Logistic

Your students don’t know your system, don’t know your rules, and don’t necessarily know how to use the resources you’re going to make available. Meanwhile, they’re not signed up for the tools you want them to sign up for, you don’t have some critical contact information you’ll later need, and, well, your classroom is not “systems-go.”

2. Thematic

Students might know the name of the class, but they don’t know why they should be psyched for the class. Or what the class has to do with their lives. And if you don’t know the answer to that, well, you won’t be able to transmit it. That’s a missed opportunity to earn “buy-in.”

3. Social/Emotional

If you want the class to be somewhere students are happy to be, you’ll need to invest in the class being somewhere they feel seen, heard, and felt. This begins right at the beginning.

Here are 10 things to take care of in the first two weeks, addressing these 3 areas. Some are easy adaptations, and some you should flag for follow-up if the “ship has launched,” so to speak. There’s always the quarter break.


boringDay 1: Share the theme, get students talking, and get them registered for your preferred modes of communication

While many teachers begin the year with “reading over the syllabus,” I believe the students’ retention of this information is low, and none of our three goals above are achieved. Plus: BORING. Instead, try this:

  1. Open with one of your essential questions: something which any student is both qualified to speak about, and also inherently interested in. My two high-school classes begin with, “Is it a safe world or an unsafe world?” and “What makes life better.” I don’t talk for the first 10 minutes of the first day of class. For more about essential questions, check out this site.
  2. prezoPut together a Google slide-presentation or Prezi that you can reuse and improve from year to year, which includes interesting and amusing video clips, some topics for discussion, and some interactive fun-stuff. I’ve used this Prezi for a few years, and it keeps me on track, includes fun activities, and sets up the theme for a literature course I teach, where I’ve identified “relationships” as the main theme.
  3. At the end of the slideshow, give them homework: to sign up for Remind, to read your class norms and policies, and bring any clarification questions to the next class.

rulesDay 2: Get the students familiarized with your class norms, co-create a covenant, and begin reinforcing your values.

4. Allow students to ask questions about your class norms and policies. Clarify, and as homework, have them review the norms and policies to study for a quiz. Let them know, in advance, that any questions they get wrong they can recover points on by coming to your office with the correct answers located on the document.

Hint: consider this being the introduction to your year-long policy: quizzes can be corrected for credit!

5. Have an open-ended conversation about class values: student-to-student ethic, productivity, and responsible use of technology.

Hint: have students record their ideas on a group Google Doc Covenant like this one and have them sign it.

6. Have the students create homework passes, which look a lot like popsicle sticks with the students’ names. Talk with students about what your goals for homework are, and how you also understand that sometimes life happens – and homework doesn’t get done. That’s what the passes are for. Students can be honest about not having homework done – and the reason why won’t even matter. Twice per quarter.

This reinforces that the rest of the time, it really needs to be done.

dojo7. That evening, add any behaviors the class wants to reinforce to Class Dojo, an excellent tool for increasing positive conduct in the classroom.

Day 3: Jump into your first lesson with something interactive

8. Use Socrative or Poll Everywhere to begin class with a survey, predicting the class results, and discussing the findings. Be sure the topic is connected to the enduring understandings of the unit.

9. Be sure that you plan at least two separate sessions, in the first two weeks, where students tell stories from their lives on a thematically relevant prompt. Students who feel like people are “getting them” are more resilient to critique – both from their teacher and from their peers.

10. Have a meeting with every student who misses / forgets any low-stakes assignment (or shows signs of acting out), early on.  At the meeting, give the clear message that you are never here to judge, you are only here to support. Express how eager you are to clarify and help. Be positive and enthusiastic.


Here’s wishing you a great start to your semester!

I’d love to welcome my readers to suggest their own first-two-weeks checklist items below!


10 Things to Remember at the End of the School Year

  1. endofyearcatYou did not die.
  2. You did not kill any of your students.
  3. You are a better teacher now than you were at the beginning of the year.
  4. Your bad days are better than many other teachers’ good days.
  5. You care about your students – enough that you take your own time to read about teaching. And the students can feel that caring.
  6. Some of what you taught, the students will remember. Most of what you taught, the students will forget. But something you taught might have started a process – a journey – a new way of seeing the world — that stuff you may never know about. But trust that it happened.
  7. Next year will be better than this year.
  8. Nobody ever looked back on their life and regretted their time as a teacher.
  9. There was one student out there who needed you. And you were there for him or her.
  10. As a teacher, you spent the year working on the most important things a person can work on: being a better person, and making the world a better place.

The hardest thing about professional reflection is doing it.

funny-fat-cat-looking-mirror-what-done-with-my-life-depressed-unhappy-picsTwo competing findings in the world of learning:

  1. One becomes a master after 10,000 hours of practice.
  2. Learning requires reflection.

We have a notion in our world that to get good at something, you have to practice, practice, practice. And if you think of your teaching as a craft like any other, then you’ll conclude that it will take a lot of hours in the classroom to reach mastery.

If you teach 4 or 5 hours a day, and your school has 170 or 175 days of instruction per year, you should hit mastery somewhere around year 13 or 14.

That, believe it or not, is the good news.

The bad news is that deeper research shows that it is not sufficient simply to accrue hours in order to learn a  body of knowledge or a skill set. The learner must reflect — that is, turn back, turn in, and ask: what am I doing? What did I do well? What did I do wrong? How do I fix it? And how will I know it is fixed?

And reflection, while important, is not usually fun.

  • It’s easier, after a successful class, to bask in the glory of a job well done.
  • It’s easier, after a class which flops, to forget about it and hope that whatever went wrong never happens again.

carl_cat_red_dot_mirrorBeyond this, the school day is set up not to allow you to reflect. Teachers dash from class to class with barely enough time for the bathroom, let alone five or ten minutes of reflection. And if you do have time, technically, then you also have a pile of other responsibilities to address, all with varying levels of urgency. So you don’t have time.

A beautiful quote from the classic the Mishna (a Jewish text) sums it up: don’t say “When I have time I will learn –” you will never have time.

So, too, for reflection.

The solution of the ancients was to build time for learning into each day. A few minutes, a few hours – whatever it is.

For us, we build time for reflection into our day – or at least our week – and ask: “How did I get here? Do I want to be here? Where do I want to go, and what will it take to get there?”

  • Do this in your head, walking out of class, every day. Jot down one “takeaway” when you get to your desk.
  • Do this over coffee, once a week.
  • Do this with a journal every Sunday evening.
  • Do this with a colleague every other week: take turns reflecting.
  • Do this with your department head once a month.
  • Spend an hour on this at the end of every quarter.

It takes 10,000 hours to become a master.

It takes 10 minutes of reflection to become better than you were.

Differentiation in Baby Steps, Part 1: Don’t Differentiate Yourself Into Insanity

differentiate cartoonHave you ever seen this cartoon before?

I have — about two dozen times, and it frustrates me; it’s often the first slide in a presentation on differentiated instruction in the classroom , and while yes, it makes a point, it raises some serious concerns.

If I understand the logic: the goldfish should not be asked to climb a tree. Let her, um… do a modern interpretive swim.

The idea behind differentiated instruction is simple: different students have different abilities and limitations, and rather than expect all students to learn and to work in the same way, we should tailor our teaching, assignments, projects, and assessments to be as inclusive as possible. (For in depth reading on differentiated instruction, check out some books by the guru, Carol Ann Tomlinson. She’s written a book on about every angle you can imagine – from problem based learning to focusing on the humanities.)

Sounds good, right?

I’d like to complain about this cartoon, however, and in doing so, make a couple of points to help new educators step, in a balanced way, down the path of differentiating in their classrooms.

burnoutThe First Caveat to the Cartoon: A burned-out teacher who differentiates is worse than a healthy teacher who doesn’t… yet.

The cartoon suggests something which, in the ears of a well-intentioned, eager, beginner educator, can result in disaster: if you don’t differentiate, you might as well be asking a fish to ride a bicycle. Or climb a tree.

This is a problem; while the premise of differentiation is simple, the execution is beyond complex. A teacher can tweak any element of the students’ class experience in numerous ways – from daily work to the final project.

This creates great opportunity! Hooray!

This also can create mental and physical collapse for the beginner educator.

kittenMy first two years of teaching, I never knew when enough was enough: staying up late enough. Familiarizing myself with enough texts. Including enough activites. Designing enough adventures. Two o’clock in the morning, in the blue glow of my computer, still dissatisfied with the unit plan, I would shake my fists at the ceiling and yell, “How is a mere mortal to teach?!”

That is not a sustainable model for a career of teaching.

And that was before differentiation came to town.

The Second Caveat to the Comic: Students are cats

3catsThe second caveat to the comic is that a room full of students is generally not a monkey sitting next to a horse sitting next to a goldfish. It’s more like… three different kinds of cats. One is the jumpy cat which zings under a bed when you walk into the room, the second is the cat that won’t get up off your lap even when you stand up, and the third enjoys raking his claws across every cloth surface he can find, including your shins.

Yes, students are unique. Yes, you should take steps, when the time is right, to learn differentiation. Yes, eventually, you will include many forms of differentiation for many types of cat.

Learning to reach the next plateau of any life stage involves discovering that it’s much more complex than you ever would have expected. No worthy growth goal can be tackled in a single, frenzied dash.

karatekidAs my most significant teacher mentor once said, “Daniel-san. First learn walk. Then learn fly.”

Then, learn climb tree.


To continue to Part 2 on this series, click here.

Defusing Unnecessary Conflict / Avoiding Power Struggles With Your Students

assembleThis post was originally featured on Thought Partners, a blog for educators, hosted by the excellent classroom behavior management app, Class Dojo.


Sometimes, students will resist instructions because something is immoral or unethical. This is good. As a first year teacher, a student called me out for mocking a regional accent. I was defensive at first, but she was absolutely right.

But sometimes, students resist because that’s what they do.

In some cases (like class policies), as long as the policies are thoughtful, your best bet is to listen and then use some sort of formula like, “Well, unfortunately, in our school, a hall pass is not a choice. Please use it.”

In other cases, however, student resistance can undermine a learning goal: suddenly, you’re locked in a battle with a single student about a concept that is not even the point of a lesson. And everyone is getting annoyed.

Here are three classic case-studies of how to defuse student resistance. All three draw from a simple fable: a tree and a reed argue about their relative strength – but when the storm winds come, the stubborn, brittle tree is uprooted. The reed bends with the wind.

treePre-warning, affirming, joining – and redirecting:

The scenario: you are studying a story where a character exhibits behaviors, traits, or values the students will find objectionable, but it’s beyond the scope of that class to get distracted by those objections.

The solution: warn the students before they read that they will not like some of the things they see. Tell them that their objections are founded and justified. Join with them in agreeing that the behaviors are problematic.

Then, say, “However, we’re going to put those objections in the parking lot. We may get around to them. But we may not. Our goal is not going to be taking Character X to task for how he acts, which is pretty bad, we have to admit. But our goal in this particular class is to look at the circumstances that led him to those behaviors.”

If a student, mid-discussion objects to Character X’s behavior, reaffirm:

“Exactly, and that’s what I meant when I said that there were problematic things about that Character. I wish we had a whole class to dig into that, but I’m afraid it’s beyond the scope of this lesson. So, back we go to the historical circumstances.”

Set up the resistance as a straw-man and then “pretend” the best:

The scenario: a new policy in the school has raised student ire. You feel that students have complained enough about the unfairness of the new policy. You want them to reflect on the potential benefit of the new policy and not turn your allotted five minutes into more griping.

orpheusThe solution: in your question or prompt, suggest exactly what the students are likely to have concluded, and then redirect:

“The new policy is either total hoo-hah, designed to put you into a prison for your minds, or perhaps it speaks to a conflict of two real values that we can probably agree are both important.  For the moment, let’s just pretend that the rule is not designed simply to take away your rights and make you miserable. What might have been the intent of the principle when she composed the new policy?”

Affirm frustration, relieve the student of needing to argue further, and offer a new option:

The scenario: a student has missed a deadline and has a lousy grade as a result. She has come to argue with you about the grade. You want her to stop fixating on the grade and think constructively about the future.

The solution: meet the student where she is, and paint the picture about what’s coming down the road.

You: “Look, tell me if I’m not getting you. You felt like you put in a ton of work on this step of the project and the deadline ruined your grade, right?”

Student: “Right.”

You: “And it’s a bummer because why should the deadline affect the grade for the product, right?”

Student: “Right.”

You: “So look, on the one hand, I don’t expect you to love the late-policy of this class. That’s not your job as a student. You being upset about it makes total sense. If I were you, I’d probably be upset, too. But my job is to have policies that are fair and consistent. That’s what I’m expected to do as a teacher, and the policy can’t change. And we may not see eye to eye on that, but we’re going to need to be okay with that. But more importantly, my job is to help you move past this setback and plan for how the next phase of the project is going to go, and make sure it’s a huge success.


Patrick Learns to Speak: Design Thinking for Teaching Compassion, Team-Work, and Creative Process

prototype 5The challenge: in our world, many people are unable to relate to the needs and lives of others. That said, teenagers, with limited life experiences, and with their tendency to see the world through a rather narrow scope, are paradoxically poised for some of the most powerful connections a human can know.

What does a 15 year old at a private school in San Francisco have in common with Patrick?

Patrick is a deaf 15 year old in a rural area of Uganda. He spent the first 15 years of his life cut off from others, communicating only with crude gestures…until a teacher named Raymod Okkelo taught him sign language. His story came to me via Facebook, and it moved me.

I teach a course called Mystery of Connection. It’s about the pitfalls and paradoxes of human relationships. They are both necessary and impossible, the best and most challenging things in our lives, the source of heartache and joy. Teenagers want desperately to understand and process their own relationships. Thus, the class.

I had already designed a unit, inspired by a Silicon Valley design company called IDEO. They produced something called Design Thinking For Educators, and while I have many criticisms, it lead me to design a unit in which students explore a well known Hebrew Bible story, explore the themes in their own lives, and produce a work of art in three stages: sketch, prototype 1.0, and prototype 2.0.

The students were ready to share their second prototypes, but today was the day before Thanksgiving break. Many students were missing. And I’d been struck by Patrick’s story. An idea came to me, on the spot: let’s do an exercise on empathy, art, brainstorming, creativity, and teamwork.


Phase 1: Students Watch Video.

Text, Self, Philosophy TrianglePhase 2: Students use SELF, TEXT, PHILOSOPHY/THEME triangle to design a sketch in under ten minutes. In short, the sketch must:

  1. Show the imagery, words, or phrases in the Mt. Sinai text.
  2. Demonstrate or describe one of the themes of the text, as students had already explored in the major project, a week earlier.
  3. Make the piece about Patrick – his past (as presented by the video) and his future.

(Their Anchorwork – work to be done while waiting for next steps) was a paper revision and / or a worksheet.

prototype 3Phase 3: Students are paired up to share their drawing. They had 10 minutes to create a sketch that was a hybrid of the two sketches. As I walked around, students speculated about Patrick’s life – the silence and loneliness of his past, his smiling as he connected to others in the story, and his future – and all the new possibilities.

Phase 4: Pairs are combined; groups of 4 have 5 minutes to create a hybrid of all their work.

Phase 5: The two teams of 4 then present their work to each other.

prototype 1Phase 6: The whole group of 8 debated how to create a single work, including elements and ideas from all 8 students.

Phase 7: Two students (one from each team) drew the final design on the board while the other students worked on Anchorwork.


patrickThe Final Product

The final product is a design that combines powerful emotion, with images of loneliness and connection: ears and eyes, hands and motion, fire and a mountain, and out of the top, a brave and powerful fist breaking forth.

Students seemed amazed that they had come up with this.

We spent some time talking about Patrick and the power of his new speech.


This Thanksgiving, I will be mindful of voices – the voices of people in the world, and in our own nation, silenced by oppression.

But this Thanksgiving, I will also be thankful: of the privileges and blessings in my life, for the power of words which brings me closer to the people around me, for my students, for trying something new.

And for the teacher who opened up Patrick’s hands – and his world.