Eileen Levinson, Founder & Creative Director
Wendy Jackler, Program Manager
Many students in mainstream Jewish day schools struggle from learning difficulties and risk falling through the cracks. Hidden Sparks’ professional development program has transformed the ability of educators to teach diverse learners, equipping them with knowledge and skills, resulting in immediate gains for struggling and all students. Through a curriculum focused on understanding children’s learning and behavior and rooted in Jewish values, a coaching model to support teachers and teacher leaders , and program for parents,Hidden Sparks has had a far reaching impact on teachers in community to Orthodox schools in NY, NJ, BA, Chicago, FL and five Israeli cities.
The kabbalistic value of Nitzozot, or finding the spark in everyone and the Jewish maxims of Chanoach LNaar Al Pi Darcho (teach every child according to their path) ,and “Aize hu Mechubad, Hamichabed et habriot… “ are the essence of all of our meetings and our work with teachers, students, and teacher leaders.
Our curriculum and approach for working with schools stem from , the Jewish principle of hanoch L’Naar Al Pi Darcho (teach every child according to their path) as well as the core Jewish principles “Aize hu mechubad, hamechabed et haberiyot; Who is respected? He who respects others (Pirkei Avot)”, reflected in our promotion of establishing a respectful, inclusive community, and that we are all created b’tzelem Elokim, inculcated in our approach of respecting and celebrating differences. Additionally, we model a collaborative peer approach (chevruta/chaburah) with teachers and coaches ,as well as a collaborative approach with students to problem solve, respect the relationship, and empower students. Ultimately, we aim to create Kehillot Kesher- both a connected community of educators who are lifelong learners devoted to their students and classrooms where peer to peer connectedness and teacher-pupil connectedness are paramount.
The heart of the work with teachers and focused on students is “chanoch lenaar al pi darko” and, together with the teacher, we differentiate for struggling learners, discussing strategies for helping students with attentional challenges, or memory issues, or lagging social skills. A coach comes in to work with a classroom teacher, always beginning from where the teacher wishes to begin. Together, both in chavruta (dyads) or chaburah (small groups) they observe students and look at their learning and behavior, focusing on observable behaviors, rather than labeling, and focused on their Hidden Spark. Hidden Sparks takes a strength based approach (tzelem elokim), understanding the whole student, their learning, behavior, temperament, and the ecology of the home, school or community, with the motto of “kids do well if they can” and “all students want to succeed”- we have to understand them and provide the teachers with the tools. This results in the teachers becoming a more empathic teacher, more attuned to his/her students. The student often feels the difference and the teacher reports increased confidence and hopefulness.
One of our principles is commitment to collaboration:. “Two are better than one; for if they fall the one will lift the other” (Ecclesiastes, 4:9) A commitment to the spirit of collaboration permeates all levels, beginning with teacher-student collaboration, and teachers’ belief in their responsibility to help every child succeed. Collaboration includes teamwork among professionals, and within and across schools.It includes team meetings among professionals and peer mentoring inorder to best meet the child’s needs. At the heart of our curriculum, which we model for students, is the Collaborative Problem Solving Model (developed by Ross Green and Stuart Ablon) which endorses a collaborative stance between teacher and student for solving issues that arise, fostering alignment with the student, communicating respect, and empowering them. Finally, part of the teacher’s role is to help nurture a compassionate, respectful learning environment that acknowledges and celebrates differences among students in the class. Our coaches model this with teachers, help them to understand different student needs and to nurture a caring, respectful environment. As part of this process they also help teachers to help students metacognitively understand their own learning needs so that they will be able to advocate for themselves in life. (362)
Evidence of our impact is manifest both in the evaluations that we have commissioned and in the stories we hear from our partnering teachers. A 2013 Columbia University evaluation of our programs found that 81% of teachers communicated in a less judgmental manner; 95% use collaborative learning techniques with their students, 70% have used collaborative strategies with their fellow teachers, and 92% have changed their teaching in some way to address diverse learners. In addition, we hear stories of students impacted, such as Hannah*, a 6th grader whose social struggles were having a negative impact on her mood and school experience, and was performing academically below her potential.The Hidden Sparks coach encouraged the teacher to look for Hannah’s strengths (a new concept for the teacher). When the teacher began to notice Hannah’s creativity, the coach encouraged her to provide Hannah with a prominent role in class activities that would draw on her creative strengths. Concurrently, the coach recommended that the teacher speak with Hannah privately regarding her academic performance, to see if she could tease out what was going on. As a result, with the support of the coach, the teacher was able to present lessons for the entire class on studying strategies, and when grading Hannah’s tests, the coach recommended that she make note on sections where Hannah did well and had clearly implemented the strategies taught. The teacher reported that with time, a shine came back to Hannah’s face and she was more cheerful at school, and hopeful when completing her assignments. Hannah’s budding relationship with her teacher and the supporting strategies played a significant role in lifting her grades as well.
When we approach a school to partner with us, on the one hand, we are presenting them with an innovative curriculum and pioneering approach, and on the other hand, we are able to show them that in fact, our principles and practices stem from Jewish tradition and wisdom. Across the board, our partnering educators value the fact that they are being coached in an approach that allows them to tap into their traditions and beliefs, which fosters a more organic integration into their practice as educators. In our experience, teachers undergo a shift in mindset when we engage with them, so that through the practices that we encourage, they develop a deeper understanding of their students and feel empowered that they have the ability to help them and switch the downward spiral, leading to increased feelings of positivity and hopefulness both amongst the teachers and their students. When we begin, as our tradition dictates, from a strengths based collaborative approach, finding the children’s “hidden spark” and building in opportunities to celebrate different students, it impacts teachers, student lives, the classroom culture, and the values and attitudes with which we raise the next generation.
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