Monday, May 18, 2020

A Letter to Day School parents

Dear Parents,

It has been well over two months since we have had the opportunity and privilege to teach your children in our normal school environment.  Yes, we have been making real efforts to continue to educate our students via Zoom and other online platforms, but even for the older students who can more easily handle such situations, it is still a far cry from what we normally are able to provide and what we want to get back to providing.

At the same time, this moment presents an opportunity for most of us.  Those of you who are medical professionals and are doing the heroic front-line work of saving lives or searching for cures and vaccines are probably busier now than you were before this all started.  But most of the rest of us probably find ourselves with more time on our hands - no commuting, no endless carpools, no gym or malls or meals out, no minyan or shiurim outside of the house.  Your children are undoubtedly seeing a lot more of you, and while that can be stressful at times, it also allows you to focus on your ever-important role in the chinuch of your children.

It is often debated whether education is a science or an art.  If it is the former, the thinking goes, then there should be a collection of time-tested theories and techniques that can be taught to anyone willing to commit themselves to it.  If it is an latter, then we are looking for teachers who possess a certain undefinable yet unmistakable spark of talent or inspiration that propels them into that hallowed realm of "everyone's favorite teacher" status.

I would suggest that the teaching-as-art metaphor has another aspect to it.  An artist is only as good as the medium on which he deploys his talents.  A cheap piece of notebook paper is nothing compared to an expensive canvas, paints come in varying qualities, and a potter's clay must be mixed just so in order for it to be molded to the exact shape that the artisan desires.

As teachers, we can take all of our knowledge and skill and pizzazz and bring them into the classroom in our efforts to impart knowledge and hopefully a love for the subject matter to your children.  However, every teacher knows that not every "canvas" is the same.  Every student brings something different to the classroom - not only in terms of their ability, but also in terms of what they are motivated to do and what they find valuable and important.  Teachers can try to improve those qualities of the canvas, but the truth is that those are the things that are forged at home.  Even before you think your child is paying attention, they are noticing what you consider to be important and what you value.  By the time a child enters school, he or she has spent four years being formed, and they will continue to build on that every day of their lives.  Now that they are spending all of their waking time with you, here are a few areas where you can make a tremendous impact over the next few months:

1) Tefilla - From the youngest grades, schools teach children to daven, adding more and more tunes and paragraphs each year, and hopefully introducing lessons on the meaning and purpose of davening as the students are mature enough to appreciate it.  But any educator will tell you that by Middle School, you can tell a lot about the parents' attitude towards davening from the attitude that their child brings with them.  For now, tefilla is being done at home, which means that your children will see you doing it.  For now, there is no such thing as coming late, or talking during davening, or complaining about the chazzan.  For now, all that exists are your moments of connecting with God.  Let your children see how important that is to you.

2) Torah - It's almost axiomatic - the doctor's kid has the best Science Fair project, the finance guy's kid wins the Stock Market Game, and the Rabbi's kid gets top marks on Gemara tests.  But while the Rabbi might not understand markets and the finance whiz might be clueless about genetics, raising a child who feels that Torah is an essential component of our lives can be done by just about anyone, regardless of their level of Torah knowledge.  Find something to learn with your child, even for just a few minutes, even for just a few times a week.  That little bit of time investment will communicate loads about the value that you place on Torah study and will give you new and significant topics to discuss with your children.

3) Shabbat - While we all know that Shabbat is the day for family, how much time did we devote to our family on an average Shabbat back in January?  Between catching up on sleep, hanging out at the kiddush, and long meals with multiple families where the adults talk for hours while the kids eat, bentch, and run, perhaps we did not always take advantage of this most special of days.  Well here we are - davening is shorter, there are no kiddushim, and meals are just with our nuclear families.  To call this a golden opportunity to improve family bonds and to better appreciate the beauty of Shabbat would be a massive understatement.

Over the past two decades, there has been a massive increase in programming in Jewish Day Schools.  While some of that is a result of evolving notions of education, a lot of it is also an attempt to provide religious inspiration to our students, many of whom have not been finding elsewhere as everyone's lives have become more and more busy and chaotic.  With much of that chaos currently on hold, you have a chance to provide that inspiration to your children - and, believe it or not, they are so willing to receive it from you.  We continue to be ready to work our artistic talents on these precious canvasses - and we wish you much success in this unforeseen moment when you can significantly impact the overall quality and receptivity of those canvasses to what we have to teach them.

Looking forward to continuing to partner with you,

Your Children's Teachers

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

The Coronavirus will change everything! (Spoiler: not really)

The past month has been one of upheaval for every aspect of our world.  As people have retreated into quarantine, businesses have closed, and life has moved online, everyone has tried to figure out how to remain positive, sane, and solvent for what is still an undetermined amount of time.  Education has been impacted along with everyone else, with the rapid popularity of Zoom and other video-conferencing tools allowing many classes to continue while teachers and students are confined to their homes.  Teachers at all levels of comfort with technology have figured out how to reconfigure their lessons, and administrators have been working with their faculties to figure out how to alter academic expectations and maintain a sense of normality and stability for their students.

As would be expected, there has also been a surfeit of articles and blogposts about how this is going to change education forever.  Often based on the tired complaint that our current system of education was designed during the industrial revolution and has not changed much since*, these writers posit that now that people have been shown that everyone can teach online, teachers will be forced by mass pressure to radically change their method of instruction.

*To my mind, this complaint is a lazy one.  It is generally stated that whole-class frontal instruction was created to help mass-produce students who all knew the same thing, and that such an approach should be thrown out because we have now discovered new and exciting and more effective ways to teach.  It ignores the fact that some of those new ways require more teachers and other resources, and thus cost more, as well as the fact that every generation has put forth its educational panaceas that do not always stick (open schools, anyone?).  On top of that, there are innovations from the industrial revolution which are still essentially with us, such as the assembly line, but have been tweaked and improved over time.  Whole class frontal teaching is not always the most effective approach for each individual student, but it can be very effective if done properly and with an appropriate mix of other instructional methodologies.

Leaving aside the fact that our schools today are a far cry from the schools of even thirty years ago in terms of instructional methodology, awareness of and sensitivity to the differing academic, social, and mental needs of students, and even curricular goals, what I think the past month has really shown is that online teaching may be a substitute for content delivery, but fails miserably in replacing school.  Even for content delivery, younger students (definitely below grade 6, and even for some at that age and older) often do not have the independence or the patience to sit in front of a screen and focus on a lesson for more than twenty minutes at a time, a few times per day.  Several high schools in my area initially tried replicating their 8-9 hours of instruction online and quickly retreated, realizing that there is only so much that students can handle virtually.  College professors who pontificate about the future of education being online should realize that they are working with twenty year-old students who take about 12 hours of class per week even when they are on campus, not ten year-olds who restlessly manage to complete 6 hours of schooling every day.

More important is the fact that attending school is not just about acquiring content knowledge.  Zoom cannot replace the mentorship and guidance that teachers give during the two minutes walking from one class to another, during lunch and recess breaks, and during a million other "stolen" moments of time during the school year; Google Hangouts does not replace actually hanging out with your friends by your locker or on the bus; FaceTime is not the same as face time.  As my teacher Rabbi Yehuda Amital once said, "You can make a robot that does everything a mother does, but what kind of a child will you have?"  Our students may still be acquiring some knowledge, but they are losing out on much of the human connection that helps to make the learning process richer, deeper, and ultimately more lasting.

Eventually, we will be able to return to our schools and to resume our full complement of classes and programs.  Will there be lessons learned and a million small changes made as a result of our time teaching from a distance?  Undoubtedly there will be.  But perhaps the most significant changes will be an increased appreciation - by teachers, students, and parents alike - that education is first and foremost a people business, and that it is the personal connections that we form and nurture on a daily basis that are the real secret of the success in education.

Sunday, January 5, 2020

Daf Yomi - Building a Global Beit Midrash

For obvious reasons, Daf Yomi is all the rage these days.  Over 110,000 packed a football stadium and a basketball arena in the New York area last Wednesday for the Agudah-sponsored Siyum HaShas, and countless smaller siyumim have been made around the world in the days since.  In Teaneck, over 300 people came out on Sunday morning for an event launching the new cycle of Daf Yomi, and with good reason it is assumed that perhaps as many as half a million people learned the first daf of Masechet Brachot on the same day, a feat both unprecedented and unimaginable to previous generations.  Over the next few days and weeks, countless people who never before saw themselves as candidates to finish Shas will at least take the first steps along that path.

Consistent with Newton's third law, all of this positive action produces the inevitable and predictable reactions.  Daf Yomi is not the ideal way of learning; it is too fast; it is too slow; it is too superficial.  The critiques come from both the halls of Yeshivot as well as from secular Talmud scholars - and they all contain a modicum of truth to them.  However, they also strike me as largely irrelevant, and for two reasons that I wish to elaborate upon.

Reason #1 - The mitzva of Talmud Torah
Rambam (Hilchot Talmud Torah 1:8) rules that a person is obligated to establish fixed times for Torah learning every day and every night, based on the pasuk in Sefer Yehoshua - v'hagita bo yomam va-layla.  Shulchan Aruch (O.C. 155:1) codifies this as well, and emphasizes the need to make this time a permanent fixture in one's day.  Granted, neither one demands that the learning in question be the study of Gemara, and certainly not the amount demanded daily by Daf Yomi.

However, Daf Yomi is perhaps the most successful program of study that makes a daily demand that one learn a certain amount.  The one course of learning mandated by the Gemara, namely the requirement to review the weekly parsha with a commentary (shnayim mikra v'echad targum - Brachot 8a), only requires us to finish the parsha over the course of the week, and thus one could fulfill that obligation by waking up early on Shabbat morning and spending an hour or two reading through the parsha.  Only Daf Yomi requires its adherents to show up every day without fail, with no regard to busy days, vacation days, holidays, or any other type of days.

But, but, but!!! What about all of those other "Yomi" programs - Nach Yomi, Mishna Yomi, Mishna Berura Yomi?  Don't they count as learning?  Of course they do - but we have to recognize that they all were created in the shadow of Daf Yomi.  If mishna is more one's speed, then by all means, he or she should focus on mishna.  If Tanach works for you - go for it.  And if you are learning in Yeshiva and you have time for serious analysis far beyond what is involved in Daf Yomi, then certainly you should expend your energies there.  The genius of Daf Yomi is that its widespread and growing acceptance forces everyone to answer the question of "What are you learning today?" - and forces us to answer it every single day, exactly as Rambam and Shulchan Aruch have ruled.  Your answer to the question can be that you are doing Daf Yomi, or it can be that you are learning something - anything - else.  But your answer cannot be "nothing".  Daf Yomi has elevated the issue of learning every day to the status of a national priority and thus even if it is not for you, it pushes you to figure out what is.

Reason #2 - The Global Beit Midrash
There is a disheartening comment by the Midrash (Vayikra Rabba 2:1) that states that for every 1,000 people who begin to learn Tanach, 100 will advance to learn Mishna.  From that 100, 10 will move on to Gemara, and only 1 of those who advance to the level of hora'a, meaning that they will be qualified to offer halachic instruction.  On the face of it, it sounds like an educational system with a fairly low success rate.

Of course, those numbers are not set in stone and they do not have to remain static.  Centuries of Jewish thinkers, from the Sages to the Maharal to modern-day educators, have offered pedagogical, methodological, and psychological advice as to how to enhance education, reach more students, and create learners who will absorb more of what they are taught and be able to analyze that material at ever-higher levels.

However, on its most simple level, the Midrash is saying that Torah learning is challenging.  To be an accomplished Torah scholar requires one to master a wide range of texts written over several millenia, in multiple languages and dialects, in often opaque and complex writing styles.  There are more books to master than there are minutes in a year, and every volume seems to cross-reference every other volume.  Viewed from that perspective, one out of a thousand does not seem so bad.

It is here that the sheer popularity of Daf Yomi becomes its strength, by raising the numbers of people who enter into the pool in the first place.  While there are undoubtedly some for whom Daf Yomi is not the best way to spend the time that they have available for learning, for so many more that time was not being used for learning in the first place.  True, for many of those individuals attending a Daf Yomi shiur will be the highest level of learning that they will attain - and that alone is an amazing accomplishment!  However, the more people who involve themselves in the daily study of Gemara, the more likely that a few of them will push beyond and become the people giving the Daf Yomi shiur, and perhaps even go beyond that.  Further, as was highlighted at the Siyum HaShas this past week, the result of children seeing their parents involved in daily study of Gemara is likely to be children who follow in their parents' footsteps, again expanding the pool of people who commit themselves to serious Torah learning.  If a rising tide lifts all boats, then the tide of Daf Yomi is currently a high one indeed.

Rav Meir Shapiro, in founding Daf Yomi, famously dreamed of two Jews from different countries and different stations in life being able to chance upon one another on a train and be able to converse about the daf that they both happened to be learning.  As Daf Yomi continues to gain in popularity with each new cycle, those encounters become more common and the broader Jewish world continuously crystallizes into an international Beit Midrash.

Monday, July 9, 2018

Transmitting our Vision to the Next Generation

In a letter written to his wife Abigail, future President John Adams wrote, “I must study Politics and War that my sons may have liberty to study Painting and Poetry, Mathematics and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematics and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Music, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine.”  Though often underrated as a Founding Father, Adams had a clear view as to the purpose of the grand experiment that he and his compatriots were undertaking - they would occupy their time with the necessary activities of nation-building so that the next generation could focus on building a thriving and thoughtful nation. And that would, in turn, allow the third generation the opportunity to engage in those pursuits which were more aesthetically pleasing, intellectually stimulating, and personally elevating.

The pioneering visionaries who founded our first local day schools decades ago in industrial hubs such as Jersey City and Paterson may have had a similar thought process to that of President Adams.  Ivrit curricula and Erev Shabbat programming were the farthest things from their minds. Their role was to undertake the monumental task of creating Jewish schools and to convince people to entrust their children to the educators in those schools, in order to preserve Jewish life in America for another generation.  As our community has grown and our schools have increased both in number and in size, we have indeed had the luxury to no longer worry about the existence or survival of the schools, but rather to focus on the degree to which we are able to care for the educational, spiritual, and emotional needs of each and every one of the thousands of students in our schools.

And yet.  And yet for all of our successes in building communal institutions to a degree of sophistication unimaginable to previous generations, we nevertheless find so many of our children struggling to find meaning and purpose within the framework that has been bequeathed to them.  How often do our children not see the connection between the lesson learned in Chumash class and the behavior expected of them in their daily lives? How many children show up in shul on Shabbat, unsure where to go or what to do? How many seconds after Shabbat - hopefully, after Shabbat - do our teens turn on their phones so that they can maintain their “streak”? (Ask a teen if you’re not sure what that means.)

There is an old adage in wealth management that serves as a useful counterpoint to John Adams’ vision.  It claims that “the first generation makes the money, the second generation spends the money, and the third generation goes to work for someone else”.  Studies have shown that somewhere around ten percent of family-owned businesses are still run by the grandchildren of the founders, and a surprisingly low percentage of wealth in this country has been inherited.  Why is this so? Simply stated, as each generation inherits wealth, it fails to also inherit the appreciation for what went into creating that wealth. Never having experienced a sense of want, they don’t understand the effort involved in maintaining that which they were given.  Many businesses frame the first dollar that they earn; children lucky enough to receive birthday money from their grandparents tend to run out and spend it.

As with material wealth, so it is with spiritual wealth.  The founders of our older schools were not all as halachically knowledgeable as today’s communal leaders are, and yet they intuitively understood that the Jewish community in America could not survive without an educational system that would provide their children with both the knowledge of and love for Judaism.  Their success was seen in the growth and development of our communities, as Bergen County has grown from a handful of shuls, three schools, a few kosher food establishments, and no local mikvah in the mid-1970s, to the amazing array of institutions, services, and organizations (even multiple Shomer Shabbat sports leagues) that we are so familiar with today.  Asking for accommodations due to one’s religion was once a risky proposition; today it earns supportive national coverage for our Yeshiva sports and mock trial teams. Thankfully, the vast majority of our children have rarely, if ever, had to sacrifice in order to maintain their observance.

And therein lies our challenges, both as educators and as parents.  How do we instill in our children the sense that all that they have inherited was built for them so that they may do something even greater with it?  How do we teach them that there is more to do, when so much has been done already?  How can we help them find meaning in something that was simply presented to them?

So many recent innovations in what takes place in schools flow from an attempt to answer these questions.  From looking for teachers who are as inspirational as they are intellectual, to color war and chagigot, to Friday night onegs and winter break kollels - all of these and more are efforts to touch the souls of our students and to provide them with opportunities to push themselves religiously and spiritually.  It is a monumental and never-ending task in an increasingly distracted age, and it is a task that cannot be accomplished by schools alone.

As parents, we have to ask ourselves if we are doing everything we can to inspire our children to continue to strive religiously.  Do we make the same effort to get them to shul that we do to get them to little league? Do we encourage them to admire and have as role models people who exude middot, or celebrities whose morals may be far from our ideals? Do we send our children to learn in Israel, while silently praying that they don’t become “too frum” while there?  In short, do we know what we want for our children, or do we assume that raising them in a strong and vibrant community is enough to ensure that they will come out fine?

John Adams was wise to clearly articulate his vision.  His son, John Quincy Adams, would follow in his
footsteps to the presidency, his grandson, Charles Francis Adams, would become an ambassador,
and his great-grandson, Henry Adams, would author one of the most important and celebrated
American memoirs.  The task before us is to do the same - to articulate, first to ourselves and then to
our children, on an ongoing basis, our vision and dreams for their spiritual and religious growth and
development. By doing so, we will hopefully instill in our children the passion and commitment that
our predecessors possessed.

(Originally published in the New Jersey Jewish Link, May 17, 2018)

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.