Action Research: Enhancing the Zionist Identity of a School

by: Lee Buckman

Rabbi Lee Buckman is Founding Head of School, the Frankel Jewish Academy of Metro Detroit. He was a participant in Lookstein’s Principals’ Program and now serves as a mentor.

In this issue we introduce a new feature – an action research project conducted by a participant in The Lookstein Center’s Principals’ Program. Lee Buckman investigated the effectiveness of programming on increasing student awareness of the school’s Zionist ethos.

Two years ago, in May 2006, I was sitting in Tzefat with our 12th graders on their month-long senior Israel trip. After Shabbat dinner two students led their peers in a values clarification exercise about the definition of a good Zionist.

The next day I wanted to press them further on their understanding of Zionism. I decided to present a follow-up question to the group and ask whether or not they thought their school was Zionist.

Given that this conversation was taking place in Israel, I had expected their response to be affirmative. And yet, the students’ responses were mixed. Some said that the Frankel Jewish Academy was not a Zionist school. A few said it was. Others said they did not know.

I was surprised. After all, this discussion was taking place in Israel with a group of students that had sung Hatikva at every weekly assembly for the past four years. They knew first hand that Hebrew was a four-year graduation requirement.

They knew that just a few years earlier our school was one of the few high schools that did not cancel its Israel trip in 2003 at the height of the Second Intifada. In their freshman year, we chartered a 737 jet to Washington, DC to transport the entire student body to participate in the rally in support of Israel on the lawn of the Capitol.

I began to realize that although one could recount numerous programs, activities, and dramatic moments that could define the school as Zionist, these events were not connected one to the other in the minds of our students. No organizing principle connected or drove these commitments.

As part of an action research project, I set out to create these connections and thereby heighten the Zionist ethos of the school. To do this, I developed a theory of action, a plan that I hypothesized would help students understand more clearly the role of Israel in the school’s mission, and sketched out the data that I would need to collect to assess the extent to which I accomplished the task at hand.

Theory of Action

My main hypothesis was that a series of sustained conversations about the centrality of Israel in the life of the school would help students create the necessary connections.

Initially, I had hoped to establish a heterogeneous committee of students, staff, and board members that would meet regularly to work towards accomplishing these goals. Due to schedule conflicts and logistical problems, this was not practical. Instead, we established a set of parallel conversations around the topic of Zionism in the school. My thinking was that the more that stakeholders talked about the nature of our commitment to Israel, the more Israel would take a central place in the consciousness of the school. That proved to be true.

Teacher Engagement.

I decided to begin with the Jewish Studies and Hebrew Language teachers. This cross-departmental collaboration in and of itself was an accomplishment. For most of the school’s history since its inception in 2000, the Hebrew teachers and Rabbinics/Bible teachers worked independently.

The more we studied together, the more I realized that it was the Hebrew Language staff, made up mostly of secular or masorati Israelis, who carried the vision of Zionism in the school. They planned the Israeli holiday commemorations celebrations such as Yom Hashoah and Yom Ha’atzmaut. It was not a distributed vision or even one we ever discussed explicitly.

The group met every three weeks for over a year and often for two or more hours at a time. Meetings were scheduled ahead of time, agendas were published, minutes were distributed, and substitute teachers were hired whenever necessary. Sometimes these meetings were heated and we would have to repair some damage and re-establish guidelines so that that we could be honest without being hurtful.

Over the course of the year, these faculty members produced a draft of a graduate profile. It described what we collectively hoped students would know, value, and do by the time they graduated. This document captured the common language and aspirations around which we began to coalesce: A belief that students should shoulder a sense of responsibility for the future of the State of Israel; a commitment to spend a semester or year living in Israel after graduation; and a willingness to grapple with certain questions – How does love of Israel not simply help Israel but define them as Jews? How does Israel enrich and fit into their religious lives?

Once we had drafted this graduate profile, began backwards planning in order to embed these goals in the curriculum and identified areas where each department could reinforce the curricular objectives of the other. In addition, after some intensive learning about various forms of religious Zionism, I wrote a ten-page essay on the religious significance of Israel that helped me clarify my position as Head of School and served as a conversation piece among staff and among students.

Yet, more than any product that we produced, the process was most valuable. Sustained conversations on enhancing the Zionist character of the school, co-planning Israel celebrations, and sharing what each was teaching in his or her own classes—all of these conversations trickled down to our students and help them form a more integrated picture of who we were as a school. They improved collegiality among the Jewish Studies and Hebrew Language Departments and distributed the responsibility for carrying forward a vision of Zionism more evenly among the teachers.

Although we did not extend these conversations too far beyond the Jewish Studies and Hebrew Language teachers, we did hope to do so eventually. In the meantime, the school’s guidance counselors participated in a national mission to Israel for college guidance counselors. The purpose was for counselors that worked in high schools with a large Jewish student population so that they can help promote long-term programs in Israel. Educating this key opinion-maker in our school had a significant impact as will be evident.

Student engagement in the conversation.

Our Director of Student Life designed grade level shabbatonim devoted to the theme of Israel. Israelis played a key role.

Our shenat sheirut interns were invited, and when these Israelis were unavailable, other young guests from Israel (e.g. Pardes and Hartman interns) helped staff the shabbaton. They shared their autobiography, led activities, and served as a general resource or role model. On motzai Shabbat, time was allocated for “work groups” to brainstorm ways in which the students or staff could bring more “Israeliness” into the school.

The impact of these shabbatonim was evident immediately. Ninth graders, for example, reported that prior to the shabbaton they did not know the meaning of words like aliyah and Zionism, but following the shabbaton they did understand and could participate more intelligently in conversations about the Zionist character of the school.

Older students formed an Israel action committee. Their goal was to make Israel more salient in the school through regular student updates on news from Israel.

At various times throughout the year, we invited representatives from twelve different institutions to introduce their gap-year program to the students. Alumni who had spent a year in Israel were also invited to speak to current students about the impact that their year in Israel had on them.

Slowly and in a deliberate manner, Israel was taking a more prominent place in the consciousness of teachers and students in the school. Throughout the year, we made sure that parents and board members knew that Israel was the focus. I wrote articles and spoke at board meetings. More than that, as we began to crystallize our thinking, we began to share our image of the ideal graduate (the graduate profile) at parent meetings. A special meeting, for example, was convened for 11th grade parents to educate them about MASA-sponsored post-high school programs in Israel. As time went on, the term “gap year” to describe these programs became part of the lexicon.

Results

I was interested in knowing what the results were of increasing the number of Israel programs and activities in the school, initiating school-wide conversations at shabbatonim among students about our connection to Israel, and promoting a year-long experience post-graduation.

To do this, we conducted surveys and focus groups and collected other data to determine whether or not the students and staff were “getting it,” i.e. that Israel was central to the mission of the school and that the school is a Zionist institution. A twelve-question survey (see sidebar) was administered to 9th, 10th, and 11th grade students on the last day of final exams (Seniors had already graduated) in order to investigate the extent to which our students feel connected to Israel and the extent to which the school helped shape their relationship with Israel.

Of 162 students in grades 9 to 11, 127 completed the survey. That constitutes a 78% response rate, a percentage that allows us to make some fairly reliable generalizations. The majority of students (62%) reported having been in Israel, having parents that have been to Israel (80%), and having family or close friends living in Israel (63%).

Data indicated that students understood the centrality of Israel in the mission.

Students were asked three questions about the place Israel takes in the culture of the school. In response, 44% reported that they felt that the Frankel Jewish Academy, to a great extent, helped them develop their relationship to Israel. Forty-eight percent of the students reported that the school did so to some extent.

Over half the students (56%) felt that the school had done a good job, to a great extent, explaining its relationship to Israel (56%). Thirty-five percent said that the school did so to some extent.

An even higher percentage of students (58%) reported that they felt, to a great extent, that the school had provided sufficient emphasis on Israel. Another 29% felt that the school, to some extent, provided sufficient emphasis on Israel.

An increased number of graduates chose to spend a year in Israel.

In previous years, an average of four students per graduating class deferred university admissions to spend a year in Israel. Most chose Orthodox yeshivot or seminaries. In 2007, perhaps as a result of our efforts, there was a stunning increase in the number of students that chose to defer college and spend a gap year in Israel. Of the 50 students in the 2007 graduating class, 20 chose to spend their gap year in Israel! Six enrolled in yeshivot or seminaries, five in one of Young Judaea’s Year Course tracks, and nine in various other contexts (e.g. Mahal, Sherut Le’umi, Kibbutz, Rimon Music School, etc…).

Much work must still be done to create a new communal norm outside the Orthodox community where a gap year in Israel is viewed as a rite of passage. However, among the 2007 graduates, focus groups were conducted to begin to determine why that class graduating class was different from all others, and they typically said, “going to Israel post-high school seems like the natural things to do from our school.” The truth is that it had not been natural; we were beginning to change the culture of the school and make it natural.

Conclusions

In contrast to the ambivalent responses among the students in the Class of 2006 a year earlier, which prompted this action research in the first place, students the following year reported much more unanimity in understanding that the Frankel Jewish Academy school was a Zionist institution. They understood that Israel was central to the school’s identity as a Jewish institution. Furthermore, they understood that it was a primary goal to instill in each one of them an attachment to the State of Israel and its people as well as a sense of responsibility for Israel’s welfare.

In terms of their evaluation of the school, the students seemed to feel that the school was doing what it should be doing in terms of Israel engagement. For example, 58% of all respondents reported that, to a great extent, the school provided a sufficient emphasis on Israel. Slightly less than that (56%) reported that, to a great extent, the school did a good job explaining its relationship to Israel. Nearly all (92%) reported that the school helped them either to some extent or to a great extent to develop their relationship with Israel.

Personal and professional insights due to action research

In addition to the changes made in the school, this action research project, which was the outgrowth of training at the Lookstein Principals’ Program, had contributed much to my thinking and actions as school leader.

First, I adopted a new methodology of thinking about school improvement. It involved formulating a hypothesis on the factors that might lead to change, reflecting ahead of time on what would constitute success, implementing a plan, collecting data to monitor one’s progress, and using those data to make better decisions. In many respects, I became an administrator-researcher. School improvement became an experimental science. I began to ask others to view their work in similar terms and structured around similar questions: What do we think needs to improve? How do we think we can get there? What kind of data can we collect to let us know how we are doing?

Second, the action research opened up conversations in ways that I had not previously been able to do. With discussions taking place on so many levels, I could not control the process. Stakeholders felt freer. Teachers reported that they felt more empowered in the process. They felt I was much more open to their contribution and that I was not looking for a particular result. I, too, felt that conversations were much more open-ended and that there was genuine dialogue.

Third, this action research project helped me and the school become more purposeful. The sustained conversations with teachers and students gave birth to a more clearly defined vision of Zionism. At the same time, they generated significant questions: What does it mean to be a Zionist in the 21st century? Who does and who should carry the vision of Zionism in a school? What language should be used to express those aspirations? These are enduring questions.

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