Thursday, September 28, 2006

Planning for Educational Growth Beyond K-12 by Jeffrey Kobrin

We spend hours agonizing over the most appropriate teachers, informal programs, and curricula for our children and students as they progress from pre-school to the elementary years and on to secondary school. We work hard to forge continuity between the various levels, to insure both that the students’ learning is developmentally appropriate at each level and that they have sense of growth and continuity as they progress. It often seems, though, that once our students reach graduation, all we can do is hope and pray that they will continue their Judaic studies, whether by opting for a year or more of study in Israel, by continuing at Yeshiva University and the like, or by attending shiurim or establishing hevrutot on their own.

While we have begun to seriously commit financial and political resources to maintaining and Orthodox presence on various college campuses, whether by funding Chabad houses or by placing Kollel Mi-Tzion representatives and their families to serve as role models and teachers, the disconnect between our children’s secondary educational experience and their campus experience remains unnecessarily vast.

In the 1950’s, Rabbi Joseph H. Lookstein initiated a program in continuing Jewish education for yeshiva graduates attending New York area secular colleges. Students in the program heard lectures from their former high school instructors on topics including lashon, Tanakh, and Talmud. The program was, for the time, relatively rather intensive, meeting at least twice weekly for two hour sessions. Without thinking about what such a program would demand of already overextended high school programs, faculty, and budgets (quite easy to do in this venue), wouldn’t this be a wonderful way for high schools to maintain and strengthen the relationships with alumni, as well as provide much needed support in the form of both content and “go-to” people for the students now out in the world of secular studies?

Schools could provide classes for their own alumni as well as for any other interested students attending local universities. Imagine the possibilities for community impact! Admittedly, such a program would require a re-envisioning of the role of the high school in the community, does not help the student in a town devoid of any such program, and begs the question of when we stop giving our children “roots” and start encouraging them to use their “wings.” Nonetheless, it might really be a much-needed system of support for many of our high school graduates.

Rabbi Jeffrey Kobrin
Headmaster
Ramaz Middle School
(212) 774 - 8057

Role Models and Education by Nati Helfgot

In many of our day schools, in addition to the living role models that our children can learn and grow from, there is often a conscious attempt to present to students ideal types of people who they should aspire to emulate. This goal is achieved both through formal and informal means such as stories, choice of curricula and direct exhortation as to the "ideal" they should strive for. One of the more popular, and ultimately not so subtle methods is the ubiquitous pictures or posters of various great Rashei yeshiva and Gedolim that often adorn the halls and walls of many day schools throughout the country.

This phenomenon has always both fascinated and troubled me. One the one hand, these pictures on the walls reflect an attempt to project the centrality of Talmud Torah as a central value of Jewish existence. It highlights the esteem in which we rightfully hold Torah scholarship and our aspirations that all should strive for Torah excellence. On the other hand, these pictures by definition limit our perspectives by sending a message that there are only one or two "ideal" models that we project to our children in the classroom.

In terms of Talmud Torah proper, the model that is projected is the great Rosh Yeshiva, expert in Shas and Poskim and classical "lamdanut". No pictures usually appear of great baalei machshava like R. Yehuda ha-Levi or experts in parshanut ha-Mikra like R. Abraham Ibn Ezra or Nehama Leibowitz zt"l who were not gedolim in classical gemara learning. Moreover, beyond the world of Talmud Torah proper, other role models of the great baalei chesed - whether rabbis or lay-people - communal leaders who worked tirelessly for the Jewish community or Israel, simple baalei battim who toiled with honesty and integrity, or a whole host of other wonderful role models are often left out of the mix entirely. We would and should be proud to project such people to the wide spectrum of children that we teach.

With these models on display, Talmud Torah, in its more narrow "lomdishe" sense, subtly moves from being a central value, to being an exclusive value. In addition, the young girls in our schools are very quickly initiated into a reality into which women role models of excellence in Jewish life are simply invisible. We should try to be more inclusive. The pictures we choose to put up on our walls are part of the portraits that we shape in our hearts and the hearts of our students.

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Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot is the Chair of the Departments of Tanakh and Mahshevet Yisrael as a well as a Halakha rebbe at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School. He worked in a wide range of Yeshiva High Schools for over 15 years and continues to lecture and run in-service workshops to Judaic studies faculty in various locales.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Community Educator: Building a Profession, Supporting Professionals by Carol K. Ingall

Teaching is a profession that has almost no career ladder. Brand-new teachers and veterans of twenty years share the same job description. Bored teachers leave the profession, or worse, they stay, and their students are the losers. For many teachers, administration has no allure. Those who might be interested are overlooked by search committees preferring CEO types to run their schools, non-educators with backgrounds in finance and fund-raising. These skewed priorities mean that teacher education, a must for professionals as well as pre-professionals, is an afterthought, if it exists at all.

I am also concerned about our inability to keep newcomers, particularly those to Jewish day school education, in the field. I have just completed a study of three young women who had all the predictors for success in the field. (Down the Up Staircase: Tales of Teaching Jewish Day Schools [2006], JTS Press.) No one lasted longer than four years. What intervention might have made a difference in their careers?

I propose the position of Community Educator (CE) as a remedy. The CE would be a seasoned teacher blessed with the ability to reflect on the nature of teaching and skilled at “reading” a classroom, i.e., interpreting student behavior. She should be an expert in pedagogical content knowledge, an extrovert who reaches out and empathizes with the struggles of both newcomers and veterans. Her mandate would be to create a community of teachers who learn, making professional development an organic part of school culture. What might the job description entail?

  • Design of parent education programs, curricular initiatives, and co-curricular experiences for students
  • Socializing novices into the profession, the school culture (“how we do things here”), and the community, if necessary, through a multi-year course designed by the CE
  • Training mentors among the senior staff in a course of her design
  • Setting up dyads of mentors and mentees who follow a program explicitly designed for new teachers
  • Monitoring the dyads to avoid mismatches and confusion of coffee-klatsching with mentoring
  • Working with all teachers on problems that occur in their planning, teaching, or evaluation

While the CE is a full-time position, mentors and novices would receive reduced teaching loads to accommodate their teaching and learning responsibilities. As day schools insist on CEO’s instead of visionary leaders, the CE is a position that is long overdue.

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Carol K. Ingall is the Dr. Bernard Heller Professor of Jewish Education, Jewish Theological Seminary. She is the author of Maps, Metaphors, and Mirrors: Moral Education in Middle School and the recently published Down the Up Staircase – see http://tinyurl.com/rx6t9.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Communities of Learning by Pearl Mattenson

What would our schools look and feel like today if they were truly communities of learning? Imagine if all the stakeholders in the school community truly identified themselves as learners. All of us, administrators, parents, teachers, board members, and of course our students, acknowledging that what we don’t yet know is a more powerful motivator in our lives than what we claim to know. What would the conversation sound like in our staff meetings and our board meetings? What approach would we take to a phone call with a dissatisfied parent or a child who has been sent to the Principal’s office? How would we present our ideas in our professional associations? How would we respond to the ideas of other?

When I declare myself a learner and live my life that way, I am committed to ongoing reflection and consideration of new ideas and approaches in light of what I have already learned. I am a listener and know the value of developing good listening skills- if I can’t listen I might miss critical learning. I am a keen observer, aiming to describe what I see even before I try to make sense of it in the context of what I think I already know and believe. As a learner I am thirsty for any and all sources of knowledge. As a Jewish learner, I am sensitive to the complexity and multiplicity of meaning and that sensitivity humbles me. But to play on Hillel’s statement in Pirkei Avot, ‘if I am only a learner what am I?’

I am not sure that learning can really take place in the absence of community. Although some of us might wish otherwise, Gan Eden is not a secluded island filled with books for Adam to pore through for the rest of his life. Each of us is unique and endowed with divine capacities. As Rav Kook has taught[1] ‘True peace can only come into the world through multiplicity…when all sides and approaches are revealed and it will become clear how there is a place for each.’ We have much to learn from each other, and a true community of learning is structured to honor that assumption. Professionals learn from their lay leaders and vice versa. Teachers have opportunities to collaborate and learn with and from each other. Students are not only learning with each other but are exposed to a broad range of people and ideas.

May we all be inspired to create and contribute to communities of learning and perhaps give voice to that which Resh Laskish taught (Shabbat 63a):

אמר רבי שמעון בן לקיש שני תלמידי חכמים המקשיבים זה לזה בהלכה הקדוש ב"ה שומע לקולן

Resh Lakish said, “When two scholars attend to each other in the course of debating the law, the Holy One Blessed Be He hears/listens to their voice.

Partnerships rooted in a serious intention to learn and understand one another will cause even God to sit up and take notice!

[1] Author’s translation עולת ראיה, הוצאת מוסד הרב קוק, דף של:
השלום האמת אי אפשר שיבוא לעולם כי אם דווקא ע"י הערך של ריבוי השלום...שיתראו כל הצדדים וכל השיטות ויתבררו איך כולם יש להם מקום

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Pearl Mattenson is a Leadership Coach who specializes in building the capacity of both veteran and aspiring leaders in the Jewish non-profit world. Her clients are professionals who want to take their leadership capabilities to a new level- developing themselves and learning to develop others. Pearl is currently coaching several Heads of Jewish Day schools. In addition she co-directs the Induction Partnership, a program of the Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education at Brandeis University.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Focus on Prayer by Francis Nataf

One of the most problematic features of our educational systems is that the period in our day that has the potential to be the most powerful formative religious experience has, in fact, become an exercise in drudgery.

The fact that the opportunity for a sustained direct encounter with spirituality provided by prayer does not exist anywhere else in our school day should give it our most serious attention.

The first problem is that our schools (and shuls) don't really teach prayer. We may teach our students the vocabulary and mechanics of the prayers but rarely is there a serious attempt at teaching the art and experience of prayer.

This is not the place to explain the various exercises possible at various age groups to help them truly pray. Suffice it to say that prayer as art and experience needs to be taught experientially.

If teaching the art of prayer may be difficult and uncomfortable, we have less of an excuse when it comes to teaching about prayer and its literature. The forte of our institutions is the teaching of text. Since we have so many teachers who are talented in making Tanakh and Talmud come alive by rigorous close readings, why don't we ever see these teachers use this methodology with the siddur? Lest we think of the siddur as some sort of basic primer lacking sophistication, I would strongly concur with Rab Shlomo Wolbe z'l's observation that the siddur is, in fact, not only the most profound, but also the most difficult text of the entire Torah
she be'al peh (Alei Shor I p. 28). I would also add that for the individual Jew it is the most important.

Equally valuable are organized courses on the nature of prayer. This topic is one of the most central ones in Jewish Thought. Our students must be versed in what prayer is all about and how it works.

Lastly, I have told my own students going into Jewish education that if they are forced by the school schedule to limit prayer education to the slot alloted for prayers, they should seriously consider (within halachic limits) making prayer education the primary focus of this period and actual prayer secondary. I feel that doing otherwise is a dangerous misreading of priorities.

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Rabbi Francis Nataf was ordained at Yeshiva University and also holds degrees in Jewish history and international affairs. He is the Educational Director of David Cardozo Academy in Jerusalem. Rabbi Nataf is a regular contributor to Lookjed and has just come out with his first book entitled "Redeeming Relevance in the Book of Genesis: Explorations in Text and Meaning" Urim Publications).

What if? by Erica Brown

What if we situated Hebrew schools in Jewish day schools and not in synagogues? Sounds preposterous? Never been done? All the more reason to give it some thought. Today, day schools in America are a fast-growing educational movement. People who never sent their kids to day schools are reconsidering, and synagogue movements that promoted public school education now have their own affiliate day schools. With all of the enhancements in recruitment, attendance and quality of day school education, there is a community educational orphan that we can no longer afford to neglect: congregational schools.

Hebrew school education has been notoriously bad for decades. It was and continues to be the Jewish educational institution most pilloried and least effective. The novelist Philip Roth created a fictional scene that we can imagine taking place in a variety of American living rooms. A young boy complains to his father that he hates Hebrew school. The father beams and wishes his son mazal tov for following in the fine family footsteps of his ancestors; both he and his father also hated Hebrew school. This "tradition" is not only damaging to the young minds who hold Judaism at
fault for a life-time; it hurts the Jewish community as a whole.

Instead of using weak teachers with little background in Hebrew schools, imagine having the elementary division of day schools using some of their finest teachers, resources and even day school students to participate in a much more content-rich program for public school students when the regular school day is done. Sure there are plenty of practical details to iron out, but many day schools use their facilities for Jewish camping in the summer or rent out auditoriums for community functions. Why not have the day school become the real educational center for the community at large?

For all of us whose lives rotate around day schools - we attended them, send our kids to them, teach in them, run them - it is time to look beyond our walls and invite others to join in the success. Who knows? Such a program might even enrich the school coffers and more importantly, might even draw some new students who would never have given day school a second thought.
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Dr. Erica Brown is Scholar-in-Residence for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. Dr. Brown's articles have been the basis for discussions on Lookjed in the past. See, for example http://www.lookstein.org/lookjed/read.php?f=1&i=3826&t=3826

Putting God in the Center by Yaakov Bieler

When thinking about where Orthodox Jewish day schools might place renewed emphasis both curricularly as well as experientially, I would advocate that God and the manner in which an awareness of His Presence shouldimpact all that we do should be made the central theme of all religious education initiatives. If Avodat HaShem is the ultimate purpose of Judaism and Jewish belief, I am not sure that day schools are presently doingenough to nurture such a sensibility.

While a symptom of the problem is the quality of Tefilla (prayer) that the average day school student engages in not only within the school precincts, but also on Shabbat, Yom Tov and during vacation times - if a student sensed a personal closeness to HaShem, his/her Tefilla per force would have to be serious and heartfelt - I believe that the manner inwhich the subject matter of the Shiurim that comprise roughly half of thedual curriculum is approached, also contributes to spiritual aridity. TaNaCh, Tora SheB'Al Peh, Halacha and Hashkafa must all be perceived by teachers and students as so much more than mere examples of ancient literature and commentaries that comprise Jewish culture and tradition. While wishing our students to achieve literacy with regard to the textsand concepts of our heritage is an important goal for our educational institutions, nevertheless I would maintain that literacy must be understood as little more than a means to an end rather than an end initself. Even if a student upon graduation can competently read, decode, analyze and comprehend Jewish primary and secondary texts, if s/he is devoid of spirituality and a sense of having a relationship with the Divine, then literally and figuratively "Ikar Chaser Min HaSefer" (the essence is missing from the text).

I have always been inspired not only in my personal study, but also in myteaching by the insight of R. Chayim Volozhin in his commentary RuachChayim: on Pirkei Avot 1:1 :

For when one engaged in the study of Talmud and Codes and Tosafot, and inhis research and dialectical discourse concerning them, he is attached(deveikut) to the Holy One for all comes from Sinai ... The Holy One andTora are a unity, and he who is attached to His Tora is attached toHim.

[1] Placing God front and center in the day school experience is crucial to the viability of Orthodox day school education.[1] Cited in R. Norman Lamm, Tora for Tora's Sake in the Works of Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin and His Contemporaries, Ktav , Hoboken, NJ, 1989, p. 243.

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Rabbi Yaakov Bieler is the Rabbi of the Kemp Mill Synagogue, Silver Spring, Maryland, and is on th faculty of the Malvin J. Berman HebrewAcademy. He has published extensively on topics related to the philosophyof education in the modern Orthodox day school, including an article entitled "Preserving Modern Orthodoxy in our Day Schools" accessible at http://tinyurl.com/z2un2