Thursday, April 30, 2015

Rabbi Dr. Aharon Lichtenstein ob"m - Ish haEmet

Much has been said and written over the past week and a half concerning the legacy of my teacher and Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Dr. Aharon Lichtenstein.  His vast Torah knowledge, his familiarity with English literature and other academic pursuits, his sterling middot, and his ability to always be the adult in the room, to always be the individual who could weigh multiple sides of a complex issue and come out with a position that you may not have agreed with but that you had no choice but to respect.  These aspects and many others have already been covered by those who knew and understood Rav Lichtenstein far better than I ever will.

So what can I add?  Perhaps not much.  However, one aspect of Rav Lichtenstein seems to have been covered only en passant, and perhaps my two cents can be useful in the continuing efforts to fill out the portrait of this towering figure.

I do not recall the question that he was answering, but somewhere during a sicha to American students during my first year at Yeshivat Har Etzion, I distinctly recall Rav Lichtenstein beginning a response by saying, "The Stoics say - and it's also a Gemara in Bava Batra..."

My natural first reaction at the time was to wonder who the Stoics were, and to simultaneously be impressed that Rav Lichtenstein cited their thought (of course, this is something that all of Rav Lichtenstein's students soon got used to).  My second reaction was to marvel over the fact that this great Rosh Yeshiva was citing the Gemara, which made up the very air that we breathed in Yeshiva, as a secondary and ancillary source to a school of Greek philosophy.

Over time, I came to realize that Rav Lichtenstein was not showboating, he was not showing off his knowledge of Greek philosophy, and he was not attempting to prove his Modern Orthodox bona fides or flaunt his worldliness by highlighting the secular source before the Torah one.  Rather, this was just one of countless examples of Rav Lichtenstein's strict commitment to truth in everything that he did.  For Rav Lichtenstein, every field of knowledge that he knew, every one of the seven or so languages that he had at his disposal - every bit of it existed to further elucidate the world of Torah and Avodat Hashem, and he recognized that sometimes Greek philosophy or English literature or the French language contained a word or an idea that could be expressed better by those thinkers or writers than could by done by the Tanaim and Amoraim and Rishonim.  It took effort to be straining to understand a complex two-hour shiur in Hebrew and then to realize that a French phrase had been slipped in, but Rav Lichtenstein did so not to show off his French (he was born in France, after all), but because his pursuit of precision, of whole and unvarnished truth, virtually forced him to make use of whatever shred of knowledge he had in his vast mental storehouse in order to come as close as possible to that truth.

Many of us who teach or write or speak publicly are prone to name-dropping and the need to make cultural references.  Sometimes it is because we feel it will make us look more sophisticated and educated.  Sometimes it is because we are trying to connect to our audience, and we feel that a good quote from the Simpsons or Mad Men - not quite the height of culture - might possibly do the trick.  I believe that Rav Lichtenstein raised the bar for us in this regard.  He taught us that our involvement with worldly culture should ultimately be for the purpose of improving our commitment to Torah and Avodat Hashem.  Rather than indulge in lower culture with the excuse that it will help our teaching, that we have to bring ourselves down to our students so that we can then elevate them, Rav Lichtenstein's example was that we can immerse ourselves in the "best that has been thought and said" in an effort to challenge and inspire those who we teach to expand their horizons in the pursuit of  God's truth.  I suspect that many of Rav  Lichtenstein's students developed reading lists and chose college majors at least partially in order to understand his references, and hopefully we are able to remember that our goal is not to name drop, but to use those expanded horizons for the noblest purpose of all.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Despite what everyone says, Pesach really is wonderful

Starting a few days after Purim each year, my Facebook feed begins lighting up with tales of woe and prophecies of doom.  Pesach is on the way, and that means that everything that is bad and wrong about being an observant Jew is about to descend upon us - from the scourge of kitniyot, to overzealous shiurim of matza and maror, to the need to clean every bathroom tile, to the problem that after two generations of Yeshiva education we somehow have tables full of people who want to offer Divrei Torah, thus producing an all-too-long Maggid.  If Jewish social historians a thousand years from now were to uncover only blogposts as evidence of the way we lived, I shudder to think what they would make of us.

What's funny is that most people I know enjoy Pesach.  Few people complain about being underfed, most people realize that eating even the strictest shiurim is still not all that much (especially when you have not eaten for upwards of three hours), many people realize that they are using Pesach as an excuse for spring cleaning (and there are probably more men helping with the cleaning than were doing so fifty years ago), and most people I know have a Maggid that is appropriate for their seder, balancing the various needs of all of the people at the table.  Most people I know look forward to the chance to reconnect with family, to create some of the most important and lasting memories for themselves and their children, and to take a break from their busy lives to reconnect religiously (although my accountant friends tend to seem a bit stressed).

So what is all of the rage about?  Perhaps, playing to stereotype, we simply like to complain.  Perhaps some of the frustration is real, as food prices seem a bit too high and the rise in double income families means less time to get all of the cleaning and cooking done.  Or, perhaps, if I may engage in some armchair psychology, the complaints are really proxies for larger issues (e.g. dissatisfaction with Rabbinic Judaism, the "turn to the right", a breakdown in tradition, the "turn to the left", a blind adherence to tradition, a love of kidney beans, etc.).  Since Pesach is a time when everyone is paying attention, as everyone wants to make sure that they are doing everything right for the holiday, now is a wonderful time for everyone to flex his or her agenda and create a little buzz around the kiddush table.

Either way, it is important for us to ask ourselves what the cost of all of the protests are.  As I wrote four years ago, our children hear our complaints even if we do not intend for them to.  Impressionable teenagers can and do open up the Jewish Week or get forwarded blogs from the Times of Israel where we self-righteously publish one-sided columns deriding venerable practices as if our entire existence is threatened by having to eat a little extra matza or not eat green beans (I admit, I don't understand that one.  On the other hand, I don't really like green beans, so I break even.).  We have to remember that there are two opportunities here that we dare not miss.  First, we can teach our children and students to become educated consumers of halacha, knowing when to ask questions, how to ask those questions, and who to ask those questions to.  Second, we have to make sure that we are presenting Pesach, and mitzvot in general, as opportunities to improve ourselves and to strengthen our connection to God.  We might not always agree with every detail, but if we miss the forest for the a few of the trees we may put the future of that forest in jeopardy.

Wishing everyone a happy and meaningful Pesach.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The Triangle Offense and Packaged Curricula

Phil Jackson is a certified basketball genius.  He has won more games as a coach than all but four other men, more NBA championships than anyone else, and his teams have a higher winning percentage than those of any other coach.  He is renowned for being the architect and chief implementer of the "triangle offense", an offensive system that supposedly is part of the key to all of his success.

So, when the New York Knicks were searching for someone to help them out of a decade-long funk, they brought in Jackson, who played for the Knicks in their championship heyday of the 1970's, to serve as the team president.  Sure, he would be able to work his triangular magic on a team that had seen few winning seasons of late and seemed to be increasingly dysfunctional.

Except that it did not work.  Jackson took over the Knicks in the middle of a lost season last year and promptly replaced the coach with one of his former players, Derek Fisher.  He then laid out the plan - the Knicks, a team made up of one superstar, one former superstar, and a collection of lesser lights, would follow their rookie coach as he directed them into the triangle offense and on to victory and back to the playoffs.  Sadly, this plan did not work, as the Knicks won only 5 of their first 41 games this season and Jackson has now publicly acknowledged that something went amiss.

How could this be?  How could something that worked so well for so long suddenly fall flat on its face in New York?  It's not as if Jackson coached in low-pressure smaller markets before this - his championships came in Chicago and Los Angeles, the next two largest media markets in the country.  If the system was designed so well that it merely needed to be installed in order to work, then why did it not work once installed?

Of course, there is another component that may have had something to do with Jackson's previous success.  His Chicago teams featured a couple of Hall of Famers named Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, and his Los Angeles teams included future Hall of Famers Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant.  In other words, each of his rings can be attributed to at least two mean who are arguably among the 50 best to ever play the game.  The triangle offense may have helped, but it may not be enough to turn a mediocre team into a champion.

The tale of Jackson and the Knicks resonated with me as reminiscent of the thoughts that run through my mind every time someone pitches a new educational product or curriculum my way.  So many products promise eye-popping results, guaranteeing that my students' abilities and motivation and outputs will be massively increased, that test scores will go up, that Nobel Prizes will be coming their way because of the method that has just been perfected or the online portal that has been carefully designed or... you get the point.

Education, like sports, is a people business.  Our goal as educators is to create the conditions that will allow the most number of students to succeed to the greatest degree possible.  And when those efforts do not work, or do not work for some of our students, our next goal is to tweak the approach, or find a new approach, that will allow them to ascend the ladder of success a little further than they had before.

That is why teacher training is so much more valuable than purchasing programs that include training in how to use the program.  Our teachers need to know how to sense what their students need and how to respond when the best laid plans are not working.  For Phil Jackson, that means finding some other geometric construct.  For our teachers, that means slowly but surely developing an ever-deeper pool of resources and instincts that they can call upon when the situation calls for it.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Jedcamp on a roll

It started so simply.

Back in late 2012, a number of educators in South Florida organized the first ever Jedcamp, or Jewish Edcamp.  Playing off of the still-young-but-gaining-steam "unconference" model of Edcamp, these educators decided that a similar model could be employed for Jewish educators.  The rationale was simple and twofold: First, almost all Edcamps took place on Saturday, thus precluding observant Jews from attending, and, second, that there are many issues unique to the Jewish educational community that rarely get discussed among educators from different schools and different branches of that community (day schools, supplementary schools, community schools, federations, etc.).

The initial results were excellent.  Over forty people came out for a day of fruitful and dynamic discussion on a wide range of topics, both tech-based and non-techie.  But the true success of the first Jedcamp was that it led to the second one, in New Jersey in April 2013.  Like the one in Florida, the New Jersey Jedcamp brought together a wide range of educators for a full day of meeting, greeting, brainstorming, and envisioning.  One member of the Florida planning team came north, and a future Jedcamp planner from the West Coast made the cross-country trek to see just how much potential this new model had.  A small start, but a solid one.

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During the 2013-2014 academic year, the Jedcamp model gained a little more traction.  South Florida held a second Jedcamp.  San Francisco held two.  Chicago had their first.  In New York and New Jersey, two full day Jedcamps were held in addition to two shorter (but very well attended) nighttime events.  In all, several hundred Jewish educators attended Jedcamps last year, experiencing the power of professional development that was based on collaborating with inspiring and devoted colleagues, not simply listening to well-paid gurus sharing the current trend in education.

Beyond the events themselves, Jedcamp started connecting with the broader Edcamp movement.  Kristen Swanson, a founder of Edcamp, attended Jedcamp in San Francisco and became a source of advice and direction for several Jedcamp organizers.  Jedcampers attended the Edcamp "Birds of a Feather" session at ISTE 2014 and shared the community-building aspect of Jedcamp that is such a powerful feature of these events.

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The 2014-2015 academic year has barely begun, and already Jedcamp is in full swing across the continent.  JedcampBoston and JedcampLA took place this past Sunday.  South Florida is back with another Jedcamp this coming Sunday (sign up now!).  Chicago gets back into the game on October 19th (sign up here) and Toronto takes place a week later on the 26th - the first Jedcamp outside of the United States.  Plans are being made for a Jedcamp in Brooklyn, NY in early November and one in Northern New Jersey in the spring.  The Jedcamp model has begun attracting attention from several other communities, including Mexico City!  Like Edcamp before it, the second full year of Jedcamp is poised to have more events after a few months than it had in its entire first year.

Like any maturing phenomenon, much is being learned as more events have taken place.  Attendance often peters out as the day goes on; scheduling on a Sunday can be tricky when trying to include supplementary school teachers who often teach Sunday morning; reaching out to those not tied in to social media often takes an extra effort.

At the same time, Jedcamp has achieved some notable successes beyond its mere existence.  To some extent, Jedcamp grew out of social media communities such as #jedchat on Twitter and Jedlab on Facebook, and the conversations at Jedcamps have often started in cyberspace, continued live at the events, and then gained further steam back in cyberspace.  Real connections and relationships among distant "colleagues" have been formed and strengthen through Jedcamps, as educators from far-flung parts of one region, or even from different regions of the country have come together to share their thoughts and concerns.  Topics that rarely get discussed in more formal professional development sessions are given plenty of airtime due to the "bottom-up" nature of the Jedcamp model.

So, what comes next for Jedcamp?  I would offer a few visions:

1) Spreading the learning.   For all of my enthusiasm about the spread of Jedcamp, it really has only hit a few major cities so far.  While there may be a limit to the number of metro areas that have enough Jewish educators to have their own Jedcamp, there is still a ways to go before we reach that limit.  If you are interested in starting a Jedcamp in your area and want to know what to do next, please feel free to reach out to me or anyone else who has planned a Jedcamp.

2) Spreading the learning (part 2).  Even in communities that have hosted Jedcamps, there are doubtless many educators who did not even know that such an opportunity existed.  Reaching out both within and beyond social media networks can take serious planning and requires knowing the contours of your community and who can help reach out to all potential participants (by the way, lay leaders are welcome as well).  It takes effort, but a Jedcamp is enriched when it includes as diverse a group as possible.

3) Recognition as "real" PD.  Jedcamps are fun; professional development is serious.  You choose to go to Jedcamp; your school sends you to a professional development day.  Jedcamps are free (so how valuable an they be?); professional development has a line in the school's budget (so it must be worth it).

All of those dichotomies often lead people to believe that Jedcamps and not as valuable a use of teacher's time as traditional professional development sessions are.  That conclusion is clearly false to anyone who has been to both types of professional development.  While there is no question that there are experts in the field who have much that is valuable to share, and there are certainly full-day workshops that equip teachers with new skills and tools to take back to their classrooms, it is just as true that a day at a Jedcamp conversing with colleagues about innovative, inscrutable, or pervasive issues can be just as meaningful a day and can help a teacher grow and develop as a professional in a similarly meaningful way.  As Jedcamp continues to grow and spread, it is important to convince stakeholders and decision-makers in schools that Jedcamps should be considered equally among the other professional development opportunities afforded to schools.  And, let's face it, they can be a real money-saver as well.

To all those who have run or attended a Jedcamp already - Kol Hakavod!  To those who have not done so yet - what are you waiting for?

Monday, September 1, 2014

The Most Important Year

My youngest child is about to begin second grade (where did the time go?), and while that may not seem like the most momentous change that is happening in my house this school year - our oldest is headed to high school, after all - in some ways this is a game-changing moment that is about to take place.  Why?  What earth-shattering learning happens in second grade that is more important than that which is learned in 6th or 9th grade?

The answer is simple and twofold.  At least in our school, 2nd grade is when a child learns Shemoneh Esrei and receives her first Chumash.

Learning Shemoneh Esrei means a radical change in how a child davens (prays).  Until now, davening has been about a handful of songs from the periphery of the service, as well as the all-important Shema.  However, Shemoneh Esrei is the heart and soul of every prayer service, and until this point my daughter has been missing that.  When she sees her parents and siblings davening at home or in shul, she knows the motions of Shemoneh Esrei (feet together, gentle front-to-back swaying, siddur held slightly aloft), but she has never really had access to what they were really doing.  Now she is going to know, and her davening will forever be different.

The same goes for Chumash.  Until now, her exposure to Chumash has been second-hand.  She has learned many Bible stories, often in great detail and with meticulous attention to what the text describes, but it has all been a story, perhaps no different in her mind from Ramona and Charlie Bucket.  Now those stories will have a text and words and grammar.  She will be able to recognize roots that she learned in one chapter and have now popped up in another one, and she will be on a path to notice, as generations of commentaries before her have, when something seems to be missing or askew in the text.  Many civilizations have their heritage preserved as an oral tradition; we have ours entrusted to the written word.  A child's first encounter with that written word is hopefully the beginning of a lifetime of deep and serious learning.

As we grow older, we tend to form connections with our high school teachers, our college professors, and our Rebbeim and Morot that we as young adults are privileged to learn from.  Often we forget or lose touch with the teachers who had us at our earliest stages.  And yet it is they who put us on the path towards those teachers who will educate us when we have matured and who usher us, at a very young age, into the world of Jewish learning and Jewish living.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Think before you call

David McCullough, in his masterful biography of President Harry Truman, relates the story that President Truman's desk in the oval office had a collection of angry letters that the President had written to various congressmen and senators.  Of course, this being a time long before email, if the letters were in Truman's desk, that meant that the intended recipients never saw them.  If Truman never bothered sending the letters, why write them?

A 6th grade teacher of mine once gave us advice that seemed, and still seems, to be impossible to follow.  He told us that we should think seven times before we say something to make sure that our words are not harmful, foolish, or otherwise ill-advised.  Of course, telling a room of 11-year olds to be thoughtful may seem like an exercise in futility, but as I grew up I realized that by setting the bar so high, this teacher may have really been aiming for us to think even once before speaking, something that seems like an ever-rarer occurrence in today's fast-paced, quick-response age.

Of course, the advice of my teacher is the answer to the question about Truman.  President Truman understood that when we have something to say to someone, particularly when we are angry or worked up, we need to release those words as soon as possible.  And so Truman did - onto the paper.  The mere act of writing the letters was in itself therapeutic, but Truman realized that actually sending a letter written in a fit of pique would ultimately do more harm than good and damage relationships with people that he needed to work with.  And so the letters went into the drawer, never to be seen by their intended targets recipients.

These thoughts come to mind as we are getting ready to embark on another school year.  In our Middle School, it will be our second full year running a 1:1 iPad program.  In thinking of the various pros and cons of such a program, one seemingly side issue comes to mind.  By equipping our students with devices that are always online, we are providing them with an easy and quick way to contact their parents as soon as they feel the need to do so.  While our long-standing policy to not allow cellphones in school largely muted constant communication between parents and children during the day, in this case the devices are completely legal and even sanctioned, and it is next to impossible to prevent students from switching to email when a teacher critiques them or a social situation explodes or they just feel like saying hi.

What is so wrong with this?  Don't schools constantly speak about wanting to partner with parents in the education of their children?  Aren't we happy that parents take an interest in what is going on in school?  Well, yes - but we need to consider what is lost when that involvement becomes too much, too soon.  I have received phone calls from parents complaining about something happening in a particular class while that class is still taking place.  In other words, the child has not had the chance to speak with the teacher, to voice his or her displeasure or discomfort, to work to find a solution, to consult with the various other adults in the building who are here to help everyone work out various issues.  Instead, the child has immediately circumvented the process and the parent has been complicit in doing so.

Why is this a problem?  A big part of school, and certainly middle school, is gaining the social skills that one needs to navigate difficult situations in life.  I have spent a good deal of time coaching students on how to approach teachers that they have had a disagreement with, and in most cases I insist that the student handle the situation on their own.  More often than not, not only is the particular situation resolved, but the student gains a new appreciation for the teacher, and vice-versa, and future problems are often forestalled.  When parents take the "snowplow" approach, trying to smooth a path for their children, they are sacrificing long-term social skills for short-term relief, to the ultimate detriment, not benefit, of their children.

When every adult is equipped with the ability to text and email immediately, it can be exceedingly tempting to make use of that ability all the time.  I have spoken to many adults who have a hard time not reaching for their phones when they have a lull in their day.  As we begin a new school year, it is important for us to realize that sometimes the fastest way is not always the best way.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Forget Finland, Imitate Israel

I recently had the privilege of spending several weeks with my family visiting Israel.  Of course, some people might consider the privilege to be a dubious one, as we were there during Operation Protective Edge, Israel's war against Hamas in Gaza.  While we were far enough away from the center of the military operation to be able to generally conduct ourselves normally, we did hear a couple of air-raid sirens that sent us running for the safe room.

As is widely known, Israel protects itself from any missiles which seem like they might land near populated areas via the "Iron Dome" missile shield, a wonderful piece of technology that basically sends missiles up to knock out the enemy missiles.  The Iron Dome missiles are able to zig-zag across the sky until they find the incoming enemy volley, ultimately exploding it into far-less harmful shrapnel.

My teenage and pre-teen children were obviously a bit apprehensive about the situation at first, and I did my best to both reassure and explain the details of the Iron Dome system to them.  After one such explanation, my daughter looked at me and asked simply: "Why are the Israelis always so smart?"

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A lot of attention has been paid in recent years to the success of Finland's educational system.  Apparently, they have succeeded in constructing a system where everyone gets a wonderful education, teachers are well-paid and receive ample time for both preparation and professional development, and the students score exceedingly high on international standardized tests (notably PISA -the Programme for International Student Assessment).*  Time and again, at conference after conference, American teachers and educational leaders have tried to figure out what is Finland doing so right that America is doing so wrong.

*Ironically, Finland is often held up as a model of a school system that is not reliant on standardized tests.  That may be true, but one reason that their system attracted so much attention is because they do so well on a standardized test.

Glowing article after glowing article has been written focusing on how Finland provides education to all while spending far less per student that the U.S., how their students are encouraged to play (in the educational sense of the term), and how well their teachers are respected. Certainly, it sounds like it is a model worth emulating, or at least a country worth emigrating to.

However, it struck that there are a few phrases that I do not hear that often in connection with Finland.  Those phrases include things such as "Famed Finnish inventor..." or "this groundbreaking product, first developed in Finland", or "Finnish Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry...".  In other words, while the Finnish system of education seems to be a well-run system, I am wondering what the products of that system are.  Are they producing well-educated students who are solid citizens willing to ensure that their system of education continues to serve as a cornerstone of a stable society for generations to come?  If so, that is wonderful.  However, it may also be lacking those traits that lead to groundbreaking, out-of-the-box achievement, such as creativity, dynamism, and risk-taking.

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Go back to the beginning of the last paragraph and look again at the phrases that I rarely hear with the term "Finnish" in them.  Now try them with the word "Israeli".  Works a lot better, doesn't it?  The wikipedia page of Israeli inventions is impressively long.  Six Israelis have won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in the last decade.  Half of the microchips that form the backbone of our daily existence may have been made or invented or improved in Israel.

Why is this so?  How does a country of roughly 6 million people who have spent most of their existence engaged in war, preparing for war, or recovering from war manage to play such an outsized role when it comes to creativity and innovation?  In the book Start-Up Nation, Dan Senor and Saul Singer fingered two main causes - the fact that every Israeli is required to spend three years (with some variation) serving in the army and the fact that the country is made up of many large pockets of immigrants.  The common denominator between these two groups is their willingness to take risks, to try new things when the old approaches do not work, and, perhaps counter-intuitively, to not be restrained by hierarchies.

I would add one wrinkle, consistent with a topic that I discuss often on this blog.  So much of what Israel has developed has been out of necessity.  The Iron Dome system was not someone's science fair project (although, truth be told, it kind of looks like it) - it was created to protect against the very real threat of very hostile enemies constantly firing missiles at Israel.   Other military developments fall under the same category.  In the field of agriculture, Israel has pioneered methods of drip technology to conserve water in a very dry region and has created several species of plants and fruit trees that are able to grow in a land where water is scarce.   For a country surrounded by hostile enemies, and with European nations somewhat wishy-washy in their friendship, it is certainly worthwhile for Israel to have developed not only a strong system of hospitals, but also some seriously cool technological advances to go along with those hospitals.  After all, if you have to rely on an unreliable neighbor for treatment, it is probably best to just stay home and get your treatment locally.

In other words, Israeli innovation is the ultimate in PBL - their scientists, farmers, doctors, and techno-geeks are looking for solutions to real-world problems and have the daring and creativity to try anything until they find something that works.  Paradoxically, the Israeli school system is rarely cited as a model - class sizes are large, there are frequent labor strikes, and each new minister of education brings along his pet agenda that demands changes in curriculum, methodology, and testing.  And yet, this messy and inchoate system has produced one of the most creative and dynamic cultures of inquiry and innovation in the world.

So for everyone looking for a model school system to emulate, the question may be how far down the road you are willing to look and what end product you are looking for.  If quiet stability is your thing, Finland is your country; it certainly seems like an easier sort of existence.  But if you are looking to produce students who might change the world, I would suggest a small Mediterranean country that has grown up in a tough neighborhood yet has figured out how to succeed.