Hidden Sparks helps find each child’s own light

Hidden Sparks helps find each child’s own light

Tamar Appel becomes the nonprofit’s director of education

Tamar Appel, right, talks with Claire Wurtzel, the co-educational director of Hidden Sparks, at a Learning Lenses meeting.
Tamar Appel, right, talks with Claire Wurtzel, the co-educational director of Hidden Sparks, at a Learning Lenses meeting.

Tamar Appel of Englewood is making a big change in her life this summer that could catalyze a big change in the lives of many Jewish schoolchildren and their teachers.

After 18 years as a teacher and administrator at Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls in Teaneck, Ms. Appel is becoming the director of education at Hidden Sparks, a nonprofit that provides Jewish day school educators with the tools to support the full range of learners in mainstream classrooms.

Beginning July 6, Ms. Appel will oversee Hidden Sparks’ curriculum development and spearhead its educational initiatives.

“What drew me to Hidden Sparks is that they aim to increase teachers’ capacity to serve all the students in their classroom, from struggling students to grade-level learners to gifted learners,” Ms. Appel said. “From my experience as a classroom teacher, I know this is what great teachers aspire to do — and it can be hard to do.”

Hidden Sparks has focused on honing this “differentiated instruction” concept for day school and yeshiva teachers since its inception in 2006. The organization now provides professional development programs and on-site coaching at 110 schools in eight states; some 3,875 educators have been trained to use Hidden Sparks curriculums.

Ms. Appel gave an example of how differentiated instruction works. Rather than assigning every student the same material to read when introducing a new topic, the teacher will assign readings at different levels to fit each learner.

“This way, each student can read something at the level at which he or she is capable, but also that ‘stretches’ him or her a little, followed by answering guiding questions,” she said. “And then everyone has something to contribute to the discussion when the class comes together. I’ve done that in my classes, and I know that it takes a lot of time and work to prepare. But having the tools to do that on a regular basis is really important.”

While all schools struggle to educate students at different levels, she added, it can be a particular challenge for day schools, because the dual curriculum in day schools makes differentiated instruction even more challenging to implement. There are more classes than in public school, and also some of the classes have content in Hebrew.

Despite that extra challenge, “day schools often are committed to the idea of differentiated instruction,” Ms. Appel said. “But as for any other school, it’s something that’s intrinsically difficult to put in practice.”

Ms. Appel has been the associate principal at Ma’ayanot for 12 years; she has continued teaching Hebrew language and literature, general and Jewish history, and public speaking.

In addition, she has supervised faculty in pedagogy, curriculum design, and communication, helping them to achieve their goals for the classroom and for their own academic and personal growth. She has also overseen professional development and the orientation and acclimation processes for new teachers, mentoring several of them through the Jewish New Teachers Project.

Outside of Ma’ayanot, for the last two years Ms. Appel has mentored Jewish day school leaders through the YOU Lead program under the auspices of Prizmah, a network dedicated to strengthening Jewish day school and yeshiva initiatives. She’s also recently served as a team member on the accreditation committee of the Middle States Association Commissions on Elementary and Secondary Schools.

It seems inevitable that Ms. Appel would have developed a passion for education during her upbringing in Fair Lawn. Her late father, Seymour Kaplan, taught at a public school in Harlem. Her mother, Pnina Kaplan, has taught in Jewish day schools in Bergen and Passaic counties.

A 1991 graduate of the Frisch School, Ms. Appel earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Pennsylvania. She has taken part in Harvard University Graduate School of Education’s Summer Institute for Principals as well as Yeshiva University’s partnership program for school leaders.

“Tamar is one of the region’s most dynamic educators, with a strong record of innovation in teaching, curriculum building, and professional development,” Hidden Sparks’ executive director, Debbie Niderberg, said.

“We were impressed with Tamar’s educational expertise and insight, her strengths in nurturing other educators, and her passion for education. We are very much looking forward to her joining our team. Over the course of her career, she has proven to be an insightful leader and administrator who can help other teachers better understand the range of student learning profiles within our day school system.”

Ms. Appel pointed out that her administrative experience at Ma’ayanot and her acquaintance with other schools and administrators afford her “an inside view of what it means to have every teacher teach every student, what it means for a school to have that capacity, and how school leaders can make that a priority. I have always taught diverse learners, even within homogeneously tracked classes. As a teacher and as a parent of day school students, I see the importance of the value of reaching every student.”

Ms. Appel’s involvement with differentiated instruction curriculum planning will include input into the newest version of Hidden Sparks Learning Lenses core course. She also will be involved in supporting Hidden Sparks teacher coaches.

“I’ve been the beneficiary of mentorship, and it helped me grow as a teacher and even kept me in the field,” she said. “High school teaching was not originally my field, and mentoring gave me the skills and confidence to succeed. To mentor individual teachers one on one to help them grow in ways that are important to them is invaluable, and the Hidden Sparks external coaches I’ve met so far seem amazing, insightful, and professional.”

She noted that the Hidden Sparks team is not exclusively from within the Jewish day school world but “from excellent schools across the world of education” and are “a cohort I’m thrilled to work with and learn from.”

Ms. Appel and her husband, Burton, the associate director of the Children’s Cancer Institute at Hackensack Meridian Health, send their two sons to Yavneh Academy in Paramus, where Ms. Appel got her elementary education.

She said that she has loved working at Ma’ayanot, but having “decided to make a change for further growth,” she now looks forward to forging fruitful relationships with the educators in all the schools served by Hidden Sparks.

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