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Millennial: Shane Skikne, 30

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Millennial: Shane Skikne, 30

Job: Senior software engineer, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative
Alma Maters: Gann Academy ‘11, Olin College ‘15
Hometown: Middleton
Currently living in: Different places for a month at a time: Florida, California, Boston, Australia, etc.
Hebrew name: Shlomo Meyer
Favorite foods: hummus or ramen
Favorite movie: “Shawshank Redemption”
Favorite TV show: “What We Do In The Shadows”
Favorite books: “The Westing Game”; “Maybe You Should Talk To Someone”
Favorite hobbies: Travel, board games, throwing events
Favorite travel destination: Sydney
Somewhere you’d like to go next: Japan
Favorite Jewish person not in your family: Jon Stewart
Favorite Jewish holiday: Yom Kippur
Favorite North Shore spot: Richardson’s Ice Cream in Middleton

 

What is your Jewish background?

I was born in South Africa and moved to the North Shore. The Jewish community in South Africa looks a bit different, which definitely affected how my family perceived it. Growing up on the North Shore, we hopped between Conservative synagogues and Chabad. And then I went to Jewish day school at Cohen Hillel and Gann, which I think definitely helped to figure out how to make Judaism my own, and that I don’t have to choose a task, but more like you can really choose aspects of Judaism you want a part of your life. I staff a lot of Birthright trips, and I really enjoy doing that, to get to have all these different discussions and think with all sorts of different people, what does Judaism mean to them and how do they want Judaism to play out in their lives.

Would you talk more about being South African?

A large part of the Jewish community there fled the Holocaust. A lot are Lithuanian Jews. One, there isn’t really a concept of Conservative Judaism there to the same degree: there’s Reform and Orthodox, which leaves a little less of a middle ground that causes some interesting tensions, but also given they’re a much smaller minority in the country, there’s more of a sense of kinship and community. A lot of Jews started to leave in the 1980s and 1990s and went to Australia, Israel, and Canada, especially as things started to get less stable.

What is the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and what do you do there?

The organization is completely separate from Meta [Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp]: We don’t work with Meta, we don’t go to Meta offices, we don’t get Meta stock. Rather, Mark Zuckerberg and his wife committed 99 percent of their wealth over about the next hundred years to this organization to help us tackle some really big systematic problems going on within America and the world, especially around health care and education.

I’ve spent the past four and a half years working on the Summit Learning Platform, which is a tool used by a network of schools that follows the same program. The platform is supposed to be a holistic program that lets teachers bring together a lot of different types of learning, with especially a big emphasis on differentiation. That’s defined as how to help teachers meet students where they are instead of teaching a sort of one-size-fits-all class. How do you help a teacher have a room of 20, but have the tools and capabilities to change what they’re teaching and the specifics of the assignment based on their strengths, their weaknesses, their passions, so every student can feel more engaged.

My emphasis has especially been on teachers’ and students’ day-to-day interactions, which has often been through feedback: how do teachers effectively and efficiently provide feedback to their students, how do students act on that feedback, and how do you measure good feedback, which is an interesting problem. Lots of feedback might mean you’re giving ineffective feedback, so it was difficult to figure out how to measure success. Our big emphasis has been how to give teachers superpowers while giving feedback, so we’ve been working on projects like making a comment bank, so teachers can reuse the comments they give students often, or letting teachers pair the comments they’re making with resources they suggest students use or the exact skill they want students to focus on when responding to the feedback.

How did virtual classrooms during the pandemic shift your work?

At the beginning, we saw two interesting things. With our emphasis on differentiation, we already had all our curriculum digitized, and requirements about every student having access to a computer, so we heard positive feedback about our schools having an easier transition because they already had curricula digitized, computers, and students who knew how to navigate coursework themselves, which made that initial shock a little easier, because some of those changes felt natural. On the other hand, before COVID, we wanted to focus on how to enable teachers in the classroom to differentiate effectively, so we really emphasized the “in the classroom” bit. With that classroom assumption gone, we had to rapidly focus on tools that could make these features work better in a virtual setting.

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