Dr. Sarah Levy has been involved in the field of Jewish Education since 2002, working in the areas of supplemental education, day school education, adult education, and experiential education. She holds a M.A. in Jewish Education from Hebrew College, a doctorate in education from Northwestern University, and certificates in advanced Jewish studies, day school education, and Jewish educational leadership. She is currently the director of Jewish life and learning for Denver Jewish Day School a pluralistic community day school in Denver, CO with 355 students in grades K-12. 

Sarah Levy

In the course of working as Prizmah’s Associate Director of Teaching and Learning, I have had the opportunity to get to know Sarah Levy through her enthusiastic participation in many of Prizmah’s webinars, working groups, and Reshets. Sarah has impressed me with her high energy and willingness to share, and most of all with her passion for learning from anyone and everyone. So I am excited to give readers the opportunity to learn from her.

What is innovation? How do you define innovation?
I’ve thought a lot about this…in terms of my own answer as well as the answer from my school. I’ve done a lot of reading, and no one really has a great answer. I’m fascinated by the different responses people come up with. My best answer is that innovation is an approach to education that creates spaces and opportunities for students to engage in learning on a different level, focusing on deliberate integration of information, 21st century skills, personal meaning-making, real world application and transfer, and student empowerment. For me innovation is….you know it when you see it. It’s so hard to define and put into words, but when you walk into an innovative classroom, you know it. A colleague recently impressed upon me the idea that “the shift” has already been made, and now everything we’re doing is innovative.

It’s hard to define and put into words, but when you walk into an innovative classroom, you know it.

Denver JDS fourth grader presents his plans for a redesigned Yom HaShoah ceremony as part of Zman Cheker (In-Depth Inquiry Time), where each grade looked at a different driving question related to bravery.

Describe what you’re doing at your school that is innovative?
I’m a big-picture thinker. When I think about innovative work, I think K-12 across disciplines and how to integrate everything. We want innovation to be a mindset that we cultivate across the school. We’ve been doing that by launching specific initiatives. One such initiative we called Zman Cheker. We wiped out the schedule and focused on a different driving question for each grade level. Since it was Chanukah time, we focused on questions of bravery. This brought about a focus on interdisciplinary project based learning (PBL) and culminated in an all-division exhibition. Teachers are excited about  PBL but apprehensive about going big, so we’re going to do intensives where we look intensely and deeply at one topic (upper grades). Teachers are submitting the proposals but students will be very involved.

Students sit in their completed sukkah at Sukkah Structure Sundae, a family cardboard challenge where teams created ushpizin-themed sukkot.

We’re also working on our Maker spaces with the idea of creating the maker mentality throughout the school, not just at a certain scheduled time. We are thinking through our Judaic scope and sequence and our Hebrew program, working Judaics into everything we do and Hebrew into everything we do. Again, we don’t want these changes confined to a schedule. We are rethinking everything we do with student experience at the center and engaging students to guide that experience whenever possible.

Denver JDS fifth graders look on as their structure is being tested as part of their study of natural disasters.

Middle schoolers at DJDS launch their arks as part of their study of the narrative of Noah. 

What is most exciting for you about your school’s innovative work?
The idea of getting to the place where it’s a mindset. We’ve been working to cultivate the mindset, convince teachers of the need….it’s been a lot of admin coming up with ideas, teachers along for the ride. I’m excited for teachers as full partners and students, too. Working together toward one common vision. Once we get past the development stages of cultivating the mindset and we get into the stages of what we can do with it.

What is challenging?
Change is hard. It’s a different way of thinking about teaching and education. It’s challenging for us to think about changing what we’re doing. Teaching is special in  that teaching is a craft; it is very personal. So it might feel like we’re asking teachers to change who they are. It can be hard to ask people to change, but we recognize that this is the direction that is best for our students.

What do you need to be successful as an innovator?
Time… time to think, to process, to make changes, to plan, reflect and grow. An innovator needs support and buy-in from the stakeholders (admin, parents, students, etc.) in order to be able to take risks, adopt a growth mindset and be ok with that.

How do you continue learning?
I do a lot of reading. I’m a research nerd. I support the integration of academic research into the practitioner field. I also read beyond the world of Jewish education- Edutopia, Mind/Shift. I cultivate networks of colleagues through a variety of channels. I offer myself as support to others, too, and hope that they’re ok with me reaching out to them for support.

How do you reflect and share your learning process?
I’ve always considered myself to be a reflective practitioner. I made a goal this year to make time to reflect every Friday morning, and I created a chart with prompts (shared below). I felt that structured, weekly reflection would force me to appreciate what I did well, as well as to set goals.  I share a lot with colleagues via email, sending specific articles that I think would be relevant for that person. Sometimes, I write posts for blogs.

Sarah’s Weekly Reflection Prompts:

  • How am I feeling? (because I want to generally check in)
  • What is something great that happened this week? (because I want to remind myself of the positive)
  • What is something I learned? (because I am committed to ongoing learning)
  • What is something I did well? (because I want to recognize my accomplishments)
  • What is something for which I am excited next week? (because I want to think towards the future)
  • What support do I need to be most effective? (because I need to be mindful of what I need)
  • How did I show empathy? (because I am trying to grow in the area of emotional intelligence)
  • For what/whom am I grateful? (because gratitude often leads to happiness)
  • Song of the week (because it’s fun)
 What book has inspired you?

Tony Wagner’s works: Most Likely to Succeed, Creating Innovators, The Global Achievement Gap. The message is really relevant, and I find him really inspiring.

What inspires you in your work?
My kids….I have 4 small children. When I think about everything I’ve done and learned, it’s my kids who have been most impactful in shaping who I’ve been as an educator. They’ve taught me so much including patience and collaboration. When I think about why I do what I do, they are the first thing that comes  to mind: I want the world to be a better place for my own kids and for all the students at my school.

What inspiration can you share with other innovators?
It’s worth it. It’s a daunting task to make significant impact. It can be overwhelming….choose a way to start because it’s worth it. And don’t be afraid to ask for help; lots of people are interested in helping.