Thinking about Hearts, Minds, and Hands in Israel

IMG_1364The time is quickly approaching when we will return together to share our summer adventures and begin a new school year. This summer I had the opportunity to travel to Israel with other administrators and teachers from independent schools in the Pittsburgh area. Our tour took us to schools and towns along the still young borders with Lebanon and Syria. We explored the religious and historical layers at the many sites in Jerusalem, Nazareth, and around the Sea of Galilee. Along the way, we met an amazing assortment of individuals – Israeli and Palestinian, Jewish and Arab and Christian, and teachers, students, and parents.

Each person had his or her own story, but they all shared two characteristics that I had not expected to be so widely cultivated in Israel: innovation and compassion. We met educators who were designing and publishing science textbooks that currently exist at American research institutions but not in our publishing houses. Picture a seventh grade, digital science textbook with three different video demonstrations and real-time data graphs, paired on the screen with customized practice questions and a live, college-aged tutor waiting on the video chat line. These resources have been in use for three years and were built by teachers, programmers and administrators working side by side for many years. The faculty members we met at each of the schools were well versed in American and international conversations about quality and innovation in education.

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Also surprising to me, given how much is at stake in the religious, political, and ethnic conflicts, was the compassion we encountered across the country. We talked with two parents, one Israeli and one Palestinian, who had both lost family members in violent acts and who now travel to schools talking about reconciliation and how to see the conflicts from the other side. We visited the Children’s Village, where all the residents take into their homes children who are recovering from traumatic events, often five or more children at time. Each adult, whether a store owner, security officer or bus driver, was also trained in counseling techniques to help the young people recover from the troubling events in their already young lives. Aside from the surface differences of language, each person we met seemed to me quite similar to someone I would meet at home in Pittsburgh. It was only after talking with them – asking questions, offering a few stories of our own – that we understood they were living extraordinary lives.

These individuals live where cultural conflicts are easy to see, where change can be very swift, and where the stakes can be tragically high. Cultural narratives compete to outlast against each other through an omnipresent popular culture and through important cultural institutions, from schools and courts to synagogues and mosques. It was difficult for me to simultaneously examine the messages I heard – “we respect all people” was a common refrain – and evaluate those messages next to their actions, which too often devalued the people of the other side. In many ways, this reflects one of the hardest parts of growing up anywhere in the current, media-rich world of the 21st Century: how do young people learn to speak and act with integrity when they see so many others saying one thing through media messages while their actions do something else?

IMG_1486As parents and teachers, I think we increasingly recognize that we have chosen the Academy because we believe all students need our attention in order to become lifelong thinkers, doers, and feelers. Just one of the three is not enough. This is behind the words in our school’s mission to simultaneously educate our students’ hearts, minds, and hands.