DJLN Educator Spotlight: Building an Innovative School Culture With Dr. Melanie Waynik

| By Yonah Kirschner, Project Manager, Digital Content and Communications

Melanie Waynik has been the Head of School at Ezra Academy in Woodbridge, CT for the past five years. She was formerly an elementary teacher, a Day School board president, and served on the strategic planning committee to establish a new Jewish high school. She is the proud parent of three day school graduates. Melanie received her Ed.D. from Teachers College, Columbia University in Educational Leadership. Her research and interests revolve around school culture and its influence on teacher practice.




When did you realize you wanted to work in education?

Sophomore year of college I was studying abroad at Hebrew University as a Biology major, and a friend of mine was volunteering at Hadassah Medical Center. She was working with kids with long term illness who were missing a lot of school. I thought if I worked there, too, I could give back and also improve my Hebrew by speaking with the kids. So I tutored there once a week and by the time I came back from Israel I switched my major to Education.


How is Ezra Academy different from other Jewish day schools?

We are a small school in a small community and only have about 80 students from K to 8th grade. We’re a progressive school by educational philosophy and believe in multi-age classrooms that are a reflection of community. We believe children should be active participants in learning, and should learn from each other,  and from teachers, and that teachers should also learn from children. Students work collaboratively in chevruta for everything we do, not just for text study.

There’s also a strong emphasis on social and emotional growth and teaching children the power of success and the power of failure.We do project-based learning and have a makerspace. We say “If we want students to be courageous learners, we have to be courageous teachers.” That means taking chances and learning from failure as well as success. The first people to use the makerspace were actually the middle school Judaic studies teachers. When a student commented that there were lots of buildings mentioned in the story of Joseph the teachers realized this could be a maker project. Students went back to the text and found every piece of description of any building. Then they went to archaeological documents and found out what we know about Ancient Egypt at that time and what the buildings may have looked like. We brought in the math teacher who taught them what it means to make something to scale. Then, they designed the buildings out of wood, paper, and clay, and taught younger students the story using those creations.


How do teachers integrate technology into the classroom?

We have technology tools readily available. In K-1; they have ipads, though we limit screen time to a 20 minute maximum. Once they get to 2nd and 3rd grade they begin using laptops for research and if they want, for creative writing. In 4th and 5th grade we teach Google Docs so they can really collaborate and share readily with teachers. Finally in middle school we are 1:1 with laptops.

They learn very early on how to be creative and meaningful with technology. For instance in 3rd grade when they studied explorers they wrote a dialogue and interviewed a costumed Magellan using a green screen, to show us what they’ve learned rather than just writing a report. My music teacher has keyboards connected to laptops and now, as students compose, the music is notated for them. They have not only learned to read music and compose, now they are scoring their own movies - that has very much kept them engaged in music. An art teacher used a SMART board to display Van Gogh’s Starry Night and show students what it would look like in warm colors and cold colors. We also have a science teacher who does a lot of virtual field trips that have been really well received. The students have also participated in  webinars with scientists and researchers from all over the country. We had our 8th graders prepare questions for the scientists and engineers about how they got into the field.


How do you create a school culture where this kind of innovation can take place?

Slowly. This is my 6th year as Head of School. When I started I had a very clear idea of what the school should look like. I knew I wanted multi-age classrooms, each with a general studies teacher and a Judaic studies teacher so those could be integrated. We started with K/1st grade and I overstaffed it. We put a ton of time and effort into developing the curriculum and provided a fantastic year for those kids. Then I had one of those teachers go into 2nd/3rd grade and wrote that curriculum for the following year. Before I knew it, parents were asking about a combined 4th/5th grade classroom. So I think change needs to be slow, and you have to invest time and resources. My teachers are all engaged in curriculum writing and decision making. In building community and in changing a culture if you give people opportunities to contribute, it's much easier to get them to buy in.


What advantages have you seen for students with technology integration?

In middle school, with their dual curriculum, going 1:1 and being a Google Docs school has really helped students make that transition from one class where everything is self-contained to moving from one place to another. We are also starting a studies skills class for 7th and 8th graders using Notability. (I learned about that tool at your Tech for Learning Initiative Summer Institute, so that choice is a direct outcome of my time there.) Technology also makes the editing process so much easier. Then kids are freed up to think and spend time being creative. . That’s enormous.


As you mentioned above, you participated in The Jewish Education Project’s Tech for Learning Initiative Summer Institute. What were some of the highlights?

The reason I chose to go as Head of School is because technology is not my strength, and it's something I am looking to make more a part of the teaching and learning in my school. I felt if I was going to lead an initiative that I had to “get my hands dirty.” For me, it was a wonderful experience because I had the opportunity to listen and think about all the ideas that the experts and novices alike were bringing to the table. It gave me an opportunity to think not only about what we do, but also to hear about possibilities. When you hear about a possibility that's what really allows you to think outside the box and be innovative. To hear about things you've never thought about before was really powerful. For my teachers it was about specific apps and what they could do in the classroom; for me it was about how will I lead this initiative. There are so many possibilities; it’s very exciting.


What inspires you most about being an educator?

One of my all time favorites stories is about our Hanukkah production. It’s a huge show and every class performs. There’s always something in English and something in Hebrew. It’s a great alumni reunion and the kids really shine and love it. There was one very shy little boy in Kindergarten and he got on stage for the show. His father told me he said “Abba, my school is magic.” For me that was an incredibly powerful story. I get up in the morning and I’m really excited to be here and see what’s going to happen that’s new and inspiring. That’s a huge gift.