Wednesday, December 28, 2011

PBL - What I would do differently

My class's Project-Based Learning (PBL) unit is just about finished. Projects have been handed in and students will be presenting over the next few days. Before I sum up with my successes, a few lessons learned for future endeavors such as this:

1) Defining work expectations from the outset - We ran this unit over the course of three weeks, sometimes in the computer lab and sometimes in the classroom. Most students got into the mindset that all work was to be done in class. What resulted was a bit of a rush towards the end when they realized that there was too much material left to be done in the remaining class time. Takeaway for me is to help them realize that doing a little bit outside of class each night would help move the process along.

2) Grading system - For this unit, the students had about 20 small assignments along the way, which were a combination of google form questions, written reviews, and voicethreads. Of course, the end goal of the unit was a major project that called on all that they had learned. While I am not clear exactly what form it should take, it seems that presenting graded material as being part of a portfolio would be beneficial to all involved. For the students, it would help them to organize their work as they build towards the final product. For me, it would allow me to produce a final grade that takes all steps of the project into account, as opposed to having 21 distinct grades.

3) Review and reflection - After the learning was complete, we spent one day in a circle reflecting as a class on the process (more on the student reaction in a different post). Ideally, we should have be doing some form of reflection daily or at least every few days. I had intended for the last 2 minutes of each class to be a time for this, but 40 minutes passes by very quickly and I was never able to really establish the pattern.

4) Move beyond PowerPoint - Let's face it, when students use PowerPoint they aim for flashy backgrounds and all sorts of crazy entries for their text and images. Maybe I'm getting old, or maybe I am just no longer impressed by it. Or maybe I am aware of the many, many more ways that they can creatively present their material. One of my groups did make use of Prezi, which is PowerPoint on psychedelic drugs, but is definitely a change. No one went for the various animation or storytelling sites that are out there - the question is whether they knew about them, and, if not, how do I introduce them to such sites without taking too much class time (if any)?

This is not to say, by the way, that their presentations are not well-done. Many of them are visually appealing and display some real tech-savviness. But there is so much more out there for them to discover.

5) Plan better and more publicly - The Buck Institute of Education, the gurus of PBL, have many useful forms online that are helpful in designing these units (and a strongly encourage anyone contemplating PBL to visit the site). One form is a 4-week blank calendar to be used to plan out learning experiences. While I did make use of it, some of it was built as I went along. To a degree this was necessary, as I was still feeling things out and getting used to how long everything really takes. In the future, as I get better at this, I would definitely suggest having the entire thing built before the unit begins and posting it for the students. My students were generally great about walking into class and getting started before I got there - imagine if they knew exactly what was on the agenda for the day.

All in all, I think that this was an amazing experience and one that I will be repeating for future units. As I noted above, the positives will be forthcoming.

(By the way, tonight's twitter Jedchat was about PBL in the Judaic Studies classroom. Archives can be found here)

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Can there be a Universal Judaic Studies Curriculum

I begin with a digression, but a relevant one. Tonight was the 8th installment of "jedchat", a twitter-based discussion focusing on issues in Jewish Education. For those of you who think twitter is solely about movie stars posting about what they are eating for breakfast, there is a lot of great stuff out there waiting for you to discover it. For those of you who have never participated in a twitter chat, let's just say it is the Martial Arts of conversation, as you try to follow several strands of discussion all at once.

Anyway, tonight's topic (full disclosure: I missed the actual chat and just picked up the archives) was about the possibility of creating a universal curriculum in Judaic Studies. General Studies subjects do not really have this issue - the question there is more which universal curriculum should be the official one. Should it be the newly-adopted core standards? Should each state get to decide what is important? Should textbook publishers have a say (they do anyway)?

But Limudei Kodesh is different. There are no textbooks or teacher editions or awesome materials that everyone loves readily available. Only now are some materials beginning to appear online, and many of them are being slowly created by classroom teachers, as the limited size of the market makes it difficult, in the sense of not-so-profitable, for companies to invest significant sums of money for products that will only reach a few thousand students at best.

More than that, Judaic Studies curricula, to the extent that they actually exist (saying that you are learning Devarim or Bava Metzia is NOT a curriculum), tend to be products of certain hashkafic decisions. Which parts of Chumash do we believe are more important? Which Rashis* should the students know? Should we learn Moed or Nezikin? Do we want kids to memorize texts or think deeply about them? Is anything off limits? And so on and so on.

As an aside, I hate calling multiple comments made by Rashi "Rashis" - there was only one Rashi, and he made lots of comments. OK, I feel better now.

Furthermore, Judaic Studies has only recently begun to be treated by large numbers of its practitioners as education as opposed to "learning". The former implies standards, pedagogy, lesson plans with clearly delineated goals. The latter implies opening up a sefer and trying to make sure that the "boys" are learning with a geschmak (whatever that means). If you are concerned with "learning", then what matters is that the students give off the appearance of making progress along some invisible and undefined metric that exists solely in the mind of the classroom teacher. If you are involved in education, then you view your students in the context of similar students in similar classrooms elsewhere in the building and in similar schools across the world and you are concerned with what you can do to ensure that your students are accomplishing what those other students are accomplishing (and you hope for some objective method by which to make that assessment).

Taking all of that into account, I have found that Judaic Studies teachers often develop a sense of independence, almost a resistance to having curricula imposed on them. While teachers of General Studies topics are trained to look for the next edition of a beloved textbook, Judaic Studies teachers often spend their summers producing and editing workbooks, slideshows, and other materials that they produced, often shunning materials created by other teachers for similar topics. Since they have had to fashion their own curricula, there is no set of materials created elsewhere that will perfectly fit what they need. As such, attempts to create a universal curriculum will need to consider that it will be asking teachers and schools to change curricula that they may have worked for years to fashion and hone, and often that they regard as hallmarks of their educational programs. Gathering a group of Judaic Studies curriculum experts together is a tantalizing idea, but there is no guarantee that their ideas will stick in the marketplace.*

*Just by way of example, in the past ten years several companies have attempted to create curricular pieces for Judaic Studies and then sell them to schools. Off the top of my head, I would include Tal-Am, NETA, Bonayich, Gemara Berura, and the Taryag Project. While all of these programs have had some successes, I would say that Tal-Am is the only one that I have heard consistently positive reports about in terms of schools using them and keeping them. Most of the others have had mixed success, some of which has stemmed from the difficulty of taking the ideal version of the program and integrating it into a pre-existing system. Those programs that are more flexible are able to work with schools to allow them to get the benefits of the program while sticking with their old curriculum to an extent; those that are less flexible simply have to look elsewhere.

One idea that popped up in the chat might be a valuable place to start. One person mentioned a Beur Tefilla curriculum, a subject dear to my heart (we have created just such a curriculum - from scratch, of course - in Middle School in my school). The reason why this idea catches my eye in this discussion is because it is a topic that most schools do not teach. As Clayton Christensen has noted in his writing on disruptive innovation, such innovations tend to begin around the periphery, in areas that are not really receiving any attention. As such, the innovation can make initial inroads without bothering the system, perfecting itself until the point when it has received enough attention and enough testing that it is ready to enter the mainstream. Perhaps this is the place to begin in terms of standards - choose an unchartered curricular wilderness and develop it well, and try to build from there.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

PBL Ponderings - The Unsure Stage

I am now two and a half weeks into my PBL experiment. On one level, it is working wonderfully. I have watched my students become very self-reliant in their learning - sometimes I feel that I am bothering them when I ask for 15 minutes every other day in order to teach them some small piece of material that I think is best done as a class. Several of them have searched for and discovered new resources online and added them to the wiki for their classmates to benefit from. They are learning how to divide and conquer with their working partners so that they can efficiently finish the material on deadline. And, of course, I have not once had to tell them to get to work.
And yet - I am left to wonder to what degree they are actually learning the material. When I frontally taught this material over the past 10 years, I could be content in the knowledge that the information had been accurately conveyed and that the big picture view had been applied. I was able to make little side comments that would provide "bonus" knowledge, and class discussion was generally very fruitful in terms of broadening the scope of what the basic material conveyed.
Now, I am left to wonder about all of that. While I spend virtually every moment in the classroom answering questions, working with small groups to discuss finer points that they might pick up on, and helping to guide student learning in a much more precise and individualized fashion than I ever before did, I am holding my breath until the final projects to see what they have really learned.
Of course, all of this may just be my basic teacher ego speaking. In the past, I knew that the material had been properly taught, but I had no guarantees that it had been correctly learned. In fact, it was a near-sure thing that student unit assessments would be handed in with weak attempts to parrot back the phrases that I had uttered, but without a deeper understanding of what they meant. In theory, a PBL classroom environment should solve much of that - while I do not yet know if everything is being learned properly, I do know that everyone is learning - and that might be a far more valuable lesson and experience than whether or not they can explain the intricacies of the אשם שפחה חרופה to me in a project.
All will be answered soon - the learning ends this Friday, and projects are due next week. Included in next week's lesson plans is time for reflection as a class (a crucial component of PBL). As always, stay tuned.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

PBL Update - How's it going so far?

Thank you to those who have commented, retweeted, and otherwise provided some feedback and encouragement about my initial post about my Project Based Learning experiment. Having now completed four days of the unit, a few reflections on what I have learned.

1) This is hard work, even though I am not really "teaching." Given the fact that I am doing this with an honors-level class, I have a roomful of very motivated students. What that means is that when I include material on their project sourcesheets that are for enrichment if they choose to do it, most of them are going to go for it. That keeps the pressure on me to keep materials ready and available, and to be around to explain things when they challenge themselves to study materials that might be slightly above them.

2) Structure is key, despite the lack of structure. On Tuesday, we spent class in the computer lab, mainly since the first round of materials were a series of online videos that I had created. Over the past two days, we have been back in our classroom (mainly due to lack of computer lab availability) with the students equipped with their Chumashim, notebooks and in some cases laptops. A number of students entered class yesterday unsure what they were supposed to do - wait, rabbi, you mean you're not teaching us? By the time I walked in today, everyone was already hard at work.

2a) My students are awesome. Did you catch that last sentence? 7th graders were working before the teacher entered the room! Amazing.

3) Flexibility is key. One of the early sources that they had to cover was a bit beyond their ability to comprehend. I let them all discover this on their own, then put on the board today that at 9:45 we would be learning that source together. This allowed them about 20 minutes to continue to proceed at their own pace, after which we had a 15-minute lesson that they had already learned some of the background material for and that they understood where it fit into the overall picture. The key for me has been to see when it is appropriate to help out each group of students and when I need to call everyone together for a mini-lesson. I think that they appreciate coming together once in a while, as it represents their notion of what "class" is "really" like.

4) Feedback and reflection. I am reserving the last two minutes of each class period for the students to reflect on what they have done, both for themselves and for me. I have made available feedback forms which provide space for both, and thus far they have been very helpful to me to know what they would want more of, and I believe it is helpful to the students to catch their breath and take stock of how far they have progressed and what their next steps are.

5) Is this for everyone? As I noted, I am doing this with an honors-level class, which means that motivation is relatively high, as are ability and skills. Could this work with a more heterogeneous class? I don't yet know. Part of my goal is to first try it out with this group so as to get an understanding of potential difficulties and pitfalls in a class where their strengths will help to make it work. Once that has been done, I can move towards encouraging it in other classes as well.

More to follow as we get further into this process. So far, it has been exhilarating.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Project Based Learning and the Big Flip

Making the transition from teaching a standard, teacher-focused class to running a student-directed inquiry center is not easy. Despite all of the talk about blended learning, flipped classrooms, 21st-century skills, and so on, the fact is that most teachers remain most comfortable doing what they have been doing with, at most, minor alterations and accommodations to new technologies and methodologies.

I definitely fit into that description - until this morning. This morning, my 7th grade Chumash class began their first Project-Based Learning (PBL) unit. I have taught a wonderful unit on Korbanot for the past 10 years, and over time the unit has been adjusted slightly to allow for different projects, to make use of a wiki, and to incorporate more and varied material. However, the class was still essentially a "sage on the stage" performance starring yours truly. This morning, all of that was blown to bits.

I walked into the classroom and presented the students with a "memo" from Eliyahu HaNavi explaining that the Beit HaMikdash is about to be rebuilt and their were charged with the task of devising a plan to effectively integrate modern technology into the regular system of korbanot. In order to do so, they have to research the korbanot (instead of my teaching it to them) as well as several other details related to the Beit HaMikdash. I have been busy preparing online materials (such as this) as well as hard-copy resources to be used in the classroom. We will be meeting in the computer lab twice per week during this unit, and students are free to go at their own pace as well as to take advantage of built-in enrichment by pushing themselves to research deeper into certain topics or to take on additional topics (such as korbanot ha-of or menachot, which I have never included in this unit in the past).

I will be posting every few days as this project continues - it is as much an experiment for me as it is a new experience for my students. One reflection for now: As I sat in my study over the weekend preparing various outlines and materials (and many thanks to the Buck Institute for Education, the gurus of PBL), I was struck by the momentary discomfort when I realized that I was preparing to give up my role as the sole voice of authority in the classroom in favor of being a research advisor. I forced myself through that discomfort, and hopefully my students will reward me with several weeks of exciting learning and creativity.

More to follow - stay tuned.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

I Get By with a Little Help from my (Critical) Friends

One of the first oxymorons in the entire Torah comes when Adam is given his wife and she is described as being an ezer k'negdo, literally a helper who is opposite him. While the various commentaries wrestle over how to reconcile the notion someone who is both an ally and an opponent, I think that I have now found the perfect definition - Critical Friend.

I came to this revelation over the past three days as I was privileged to attend a Critical Friends Retreat sponsored by the Institute for University-School Partnership of Yeshiva University. Fourteen Yeshiva day school and high school administrators from around the country were brought together to spend several days thinking together, strategizing together, and challenging each other to broaden their perspectives in terms of how they handle the many difficult and sometimes gut-wrenching situations that school administrators inevitably have to deal with.

While I am still mentally decompressing from the retreat, a number of takeaways that I believe are important for both administrators as well as their constituents to be aware of:

1) Leadership is a lonely job. YU President Richard Joel addresses the group on the final morning and stressed exactly this point. The higher up one is in an organization, the fewer people there are in the organization who truly understand the pressures and conflicts that he or she is facing. Usually, a leader makes a decision and is immediately and simultaneously lauded and condemned for his brilliance/stupidity. While one can gradually steel themselves to handle the blowback, it is crucial to try to cultivate professional relationships with others who can stand in your shoes.

2) One notable aspect of the retreat was that we did not try to solve each others' problems. In each of the seven main sessions, one person presented a case study of a situation that they were facing, and we followed a strict protocol (taken from the website of the National School Reform Faculty) which aimed at clarifying and probing into the issue, without offering any concrete advice. The goal of all of this was to encourage the presenter in each session to consider his issue in a broader context and perhaps from new angles. Just as we are often more concerned with how our students arrived at the answer than we are with whether or not they got it right, so too here was our focus on the process. To a man (and woman), each of us felt that this process was highly beneficial in forcing us to pause, reflect, and provide thoughtful input.

3) As IUSP Director Scott Goldberg noted, one goal of this and similar retreats is to try to create a field of Jewish educational leadership. As Jewish schools are outside the reach of government oversight and compulsory national standards, there is not always a need for administrators to collaborate with their peers in other schools, even if those schools are in the same community. However, there is obviously much to be gained from creating such networks, and while social networking is wonderful, personal contact forms a much stronger basis for meaningful professional relationships.

4) I hope that some day school parents are reading this post, if only to appreciate what is going on in the world of Jewish education. With so much focus on tuition and technology, parents often do not hear about the many ways in which the educators who service their children are committing themselves to grow personally and professionally. While I obviously had to be "out of the building" for a day and a half of school in order to be a part of this retreat, the benefits that accrue as a result of my participation should be far more valuable.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Moving away from Prepackaged experiences

More and more, it seems that our students live lives that are, for lack of a better term, pre-packaged. They attend either the day school in town or one of the few schools, move from there to the one or several available Yeshiva high school options, do the year in Israel thing followed by either the YU/Stern track, the Ivy league track, or the good-state-school (Rutgers, Maryland, Michigan, etc.) track, and ultimately do the doctor/lawyer/accountant/permanent grad school thing.

Beyond the general itinerary through life, more and more of their other activities seem to fall into predictable patterns and categories. They play sports (in organized leagues), they take music lessons (generally piano, drums, or violin), and perhaps the girls are involved in dance or gymnastics. Vacations tend to be taken to one of a limited number of popular locales (how many of your students spend winter break in either Florida, Israel, the Caribbean, or, if you are in the NY metro area, Great Wolf Lodge?), and summers find them in one of a handful of camps.

But it goes even further than this. With apologies for sounding old and crotchety, when I spent a year in Israel less than 20 years ago, time spent out of Yeshiva was time to improvise. Perhaps you went to a family friend that had made aliyah, or an Israeli friend that you just met, or perhaps you hopped on a bus with a couple of friends and hiked around Israel for a day or two. In the time since, it seems that more and more there are "official" experiences that everyone "must" have. Pre-Pesach in Poland. Shabbat at "the Moshav". And on and on.

I have a chicken-and-egg discussion in my head about this. I think that it is obvious that increased connectivity plays a role in this homogenization of experience. People quickly find out what others are doing and want to be a part of it, or at least do not want to be the only ones left out. I'm not sure if the technology creates the need to be an individual by doing what everyone else is doing or if it merely facilitates it.

I bring this up because I just concluded three days with my 7th grade students at Camp Frost Valley, a beautiful, expansive YMCA campsite in Claryville, NY. Our students spend three days with no cellphones (they don't work up there), no internet, no technology of any kind. Instead, they engage in a variety of outdoor activities meant to begin to build a sense of community and to challenge them to challenge themselves to do things that are perhaps outside of their zone of comfort.

As much as our Frost Valley trip is a program, and we do indeed scrutinize and strategize every moment of the trip in our planning process, the fact is that, for the students, this does not fit the normal pre-packaged model that so many other aspects of their lives fit into. You cannot fabricate the thrill of trying to work up the nerve to fly on the Giant Swing (some 40 feet in the air), and you cannot predict what will happen when 12 teenagers are charged with a task that requires them to work in concert in order to solve. If only we provided our students/children with more moments where we bring them to some place - either in space or time - and let them be the arbiters of what type of experience they will have.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Teaching My Own

For years I have been hearing the question, "Are you going to teach your own kids?", and for years I have had what I felt was a pretty good response, "That's such a New York question." By that I did not refer to any particular stereotype of Gothamites, but rather to the fact that if someone is a teacher in a Jewish day school outside of the metropolitan New York area, it is highly likely that they will eventually teach their own child, as many schools simply do not have enough students to have multiple classes. However, in the NYC area, and particularly in Bergen County, New Jersey, where we have 4 Yeshiva day schools with 700+ students each, it should be fairly simple to teach a different section or even teach in a different school.

However, I happen to think that the school that I teach in provides the best education in the area (you are free to disagree, but, hey, it's my blog), and it also is very clear about its Torah U'Madda orientation, and so my kids are in the school in which I teach. However number two, we track students in our Middle School and I teach the top track. As thus, if my own kids are deemed capable of making it at that level, we are going to enter the situation of me serving as Rebbe to my own kids.

My chavruta, who grew up as the son of his teacher/administrator, said to me, only slightly tongue-in-cheek, that my only choices would be to either favor my child to the point that the rest of the class hates both of us, or go completely in the opposite direction, so that my child hates me. It seems to me that there must be a middle ground.

Part of that middle ground is due to a flaw in the question. I am not only teaching my son, but also all of his friends who have spent the past seven years in my house, in my car, and interacting with me in all sorts of ways outside of the framework of school. So now not only is my son my student, but so is his entire chevra.

A week and a half into the school year, all is going fine thus far. Part of the reason is because my son and I are both very conscious of this arrangement and thus we are both invested in finding the right balance between father and teacher. He does call me Abba in class (it's not as if this is a secret to the other students), and I try not to always call on him first but also not to always call on him last. I have taken up the practice, which is probably a good one anyway, of having students write their names on the backs of their papers so that, even if I more or less learn their handwritings, I do not instantly see who I am grading and favor or disfavor my own progeny as a result.

I recall that in my senior year in college one of my professors, Alan Charles Kors, informed us one day that during the previous lecture his daughter had been sitting in the back of the room, the first time in his almost three decades of teaching that any member of his family had attended one of his classes. He shared some of her observations with us (something about his using multiple accents for foreign languages). I am not sure if his case was by accident or by design (if your father taught philosophy, would you go to hear him lecture just for fun?), but he did seem to be genuinely pleased and gratified to have had his child as his student for even one day. In that spirit, and contra the warnings of my chavruta, I see this as an opportunity for father and son (with daughters looming in coming years) to see sides of each other that we do not otherwise see - and hopefully another facet to add to our relationship.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Reflections on 9/11

Has it really been 10 years already? Perhaps because we have never truly gotten past it; perhaps because we constantly talk about living in a "post-9/11 world"; perhaps because our narcissism makes our tragedy so much more important than the tragedies that came before our generation - for whatever reason, it is difficult to believe that a full decade has passed since that most surreal of days (side note - the word surreal seems to be used way too much, but there is no other word that I know of to describe the combination of shock, confusion, denial, and inability to absorb the enormity of what happened than to call it surreal).

While I am tempted to offer more general thoughts about the day, I am trying to remain true to the educational nature of this blog, and so I offer a few brief thoughts about what we can share with our students about this day. Keep in mind, of course, that our high school students were no older than 2nd graders, and our middle school students had not yet entered school and thus have no memories of their own of 9/11.

1) Heroism. We live in a world that has many heroes. Superheroes, sports heroes - we even apply the term to large deli sandwiches. However, all of our notions of heroism should be defined by what certain individuals, particularly New York City firefighters, did on 9/11. On an average day, these brave individuals risk injury and sometimes their lives to save others. On 9/11, they took this to an entirely different level. Two massive skyscrapers had been converted in towering infernos, people were being evacuated from the buildings and the area as quickly as possible, and hundreds of New York's bravest WENT UP the towers. That had to be an act that overrode every single inherent survival instinct that man has. And while they could not have known that the buildings would collapse like two stacks of pancakes, those fires were certainly many times worse than anything any one of them had ever before witnessed.

Teach this lesson to our students. In a world where people acting poorly or out of evil or malice often get the headlines, remind them of man's capacity to do incredible good. Heroism has been described as ordinary people doing extraordinary things. To that I would add that all extraordinary things are done by ordinary people - you do not become extraordinary until after the fact.

2) Perspective. My wife likes to remind me that one of the top stories on the news early in the morning of September 11, 2001 was whether or not Michael Jordan was going to make a comeback for one more run at an NBA championship. A couple of hours later, no one really cared about that.

Now, it is certainly possible to be too glib when making that point. Of course, your skinned knee does not matter in light of millions starving in Africa - but your knee still hurts. Perspective is the ability to evaluate events relative to one another, to be able to deal maturely with the world around us, and to understand that which is consequential and that which is not. When Michael Jordan's career can lead the national news, we should have the presence of mind to be thankful that there is nothing of real consequence that requires our attention. We should enjoy our diversions, and recognize that they are exactly that, and we should work to gradually instill this sense of perspective in our students.

3) Finally, a unique challenge that we face in educating about 9/11. I took my children a couple of years ago to the Police Museum in New York City. It is a small museum with a few exhibits, including a small exhibit about 9/11. That exhibit featured rare footage from the day, and there was a sign hanging up that warned that the film might be too intense for children. Notwithstanding that warning, my older children watched the few minutes of film, and they did not find anything that was too disturbing in it. I don't think that this is because my kids have a high tolerance for watching disturbing images - I think that the nature of attacks were such that we really do not have any images that are disturbing for someone who does not remember having lived through that day. Think about it - the clips of the plane hitting the building or the buildings on fire or even the collapse are not much worse than scenes from an average action movie, and even clips of people jumping from the upper floors are taken from so far away that it is hard to truly appreciate the horror of such a moment. The tragedy as it unfolded was relatively faceless - it took the ensuing weeks of tributes to put human images alongside the numbers.

I was thinking about this in contrast to Holocaust education. In that case, we have no shortage of truly disturbing images - of emaciated prisoners, of mass murders, of torture. The Nazis allowed us to see their barbarity in all of its twisted glory, and as such we can still sense the pain and brutality over six decades later. When it comes to 9/11, we have no such pictures. Remember that hospitals were expecting to be overrun with patients who never came - they simply never emerged from the towers. As such, teaching about 9/11 is a task that requires storytellers, people who remember the events of the day, people who can talk about the despair and the worry and the waiting for someone who never came home or who finally did call home many hours later. May we be up to the challenge of preserving the memory of those who perished simply because they were Americans.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Teaching about Churban Yerushalayim

I had the privilege of spending most of my Tisha B'Av listening to Rabbi Dr. Jacob J. Schachter expound upon the kinnot. Rabbi Schachter picks up where Rav Soloveitchik left off, splitting his time (and it is a LOT of time) between formal shiurim and overviews of selected kinnot, and much of his material comes from or is at least inspired by the The Rov, who Rabbi Schachter spent many a Tisha B'Av learning from.

One point that he made several times today (as well as in past years and in his book about Tisha B'Av based on the teachings of The Rov) is that Rav Soloveitchik was opposed to the creation of a separate day to commemorate the Holocaust, believing that Tisha B'Av was intended to be the catch-all day for all Jewish tragedies. Just as we have kinnot on Tisha B'Av about the Crusades and the burning of the Talmud in France in 1242, and no other day is designated to mourn these tragedies, so too the Shoah should have been subsumed under the rubric of Tisha B'Av. In fact, Rav Soloveitchik would put forth maximal effort to refer to the Shoah in his discussions on Tisha B'Av, and Rabbi Schachter followed suit today.

My purpose in this post is not to discuss the existence of an independent Yom HaShoah. I would like to consider, instead, a related educational thought. While it may be possible and perhaps even proper to include the Holocaust in our thoughts and discussions on Tisha B'Av, Yom HaShoah is reserved for the discussion of the Holocaust, and only of that horrific event. While I have no argument with that approach - it is, after all, the reason that the day was created - it struck me that there is no time during the school year when we focus on the most significant tragedies in Jewish history, namely the destruction of the two Batei Mikdash.

Now, one can say that this is not our fault - had the Babylonians and Romans had the good sense to attack during the winter months then we would be able to have programs, assemblies, yemei iyun and so on discussing Churban Yerushalayim. However, since they forgot to coordinate their pillaging with the Yeshiva calendars, we have no choice but to cede this all-important aspect of Judaism to summer camps. Assuming our students go to camp, and assuming that they are in camp for Tisha B'Av, and assuming that kids in a camp mode can focus adequately on Tisha B'Av when it is 90 degrees outside and they have no air conditioning.

I would suggest two openings during the school year, and I welcome suggestions or solutions that are already being done. The first one is to seize upon the oft-overlooked fast of Asara B'Tevet. This fast suffers by being the shortest in terms of time, is often on a Sunday or during a winter vacation, and has become a universal fast in the sense of it being Yom Kaddish HaKlali or being a fast for events that took place on three consecutive dates. However, it is the only one of the four fasts connected with the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash that a school can reliably use. Shiva Asar B'Tamuz and Tisha B'Av are in the summer, and no one is going to run a Churban Yerushalayaim program the day after Rosh HaShana. Hence, perhaps Asara B'Tevet could be used as a mini-Tisha B'Av - not as sad, not as intense, but an opportunity to speak to our students about what we have lost.

The other opening is when we teach about davening and birchat hamazon. It struck me that we do a horrible disservice to our students when we teach them an upbeat and happy tune for ובנה ירושלים in birchat hamazon. Rather than allowing them to focus on the fact that we are asking for Hashem to rebuild something that we desperately need back, we song-song along, oblivious to anything other than the proper clapping or banging rhythms for this part of the tune. One of the Rebbeim in my school occasionally highlights to our students the centrality of Yerushalayim as evidenced by our having to remember it every time we eat a cookie and have to make an על המחיה afterwards. Would that we would all have this consciousness.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Cellphones, Facebook, and the Banning of Technology in Schools

A discussion developed on the Lookjed educators' list recently about cellphones in schools. It seems that there is a Yeshiva in Israel which uses a signal blocker to prevent their students from using cellphones in certain locations at certain times (probably the Beit Midrash during morning seder and the like). Most respondents to the original post were thrilled with the potentially availability of such a device, while one commenter took the extreme opposite approach, nothing that we cannot ban everything and it is better to make learning more fun for the students so that they do not feel the need to text or do whatever else it is they are doing on their phones.

I held off commenting on this thread for a while, and when I saw that no one else had taken what I consider to be the middle road on this issue, I contributed my two cents. Before getting to the heart of my thoughts on the issue, I would like to broaden it as well.

I would guess that many schools are like mine in that they have some form of a ban on cellphones during school hours. This results in a cute cat-and-mouse game of students trying to use their phones and some teachers trying to catch them. Every once in a while a culprit is caught, and those teachers who are particularly savvy about it generally have fewer students texting anyway - either because the kids know that the teacher knows the tricks or because teachers who are savvy about stuff like this also happen to be pretty savvy about how to hold the attention of students (what we call "with-itness").

I would guess as well that there are many schools that ban or block various websites on their school's server. Obviously, a school should take steps to block any pornographic or similarly objectionable sites, but it seems that other sites, such as Facebook, have been targeted as well.

In asking around, I have had a difficult time finding a good reason for banning Facebook (or other similar sites, but no question that FB is the most popular one and thus the easiest target). If the issue is that it distracts kids while they are online, then we may as well ban the entire internet. If the issue is that kids share things on FB that are not appropriate for school, then we have to ask if we are banning something that has tremendous upside because of the possible actions of a few deviants (and keep in mind that every rule in a school has a few deviants - dress code, anyone?). If the issue is that Facebook and texting can and sometimes are used for social exclusion, bullying, and cyber-harassment, then once again we have to consider both that these things can take place without these tools and that we are potentially banning useful tools because of the possible misuse by a few.

Obviously, I am increasingly not in favor of such bans and blocks, and not only because I make use of both of these tools extensively. One some level, I believe that such policies stem from the digital native/digital immigrant divide. Most of the adults in schools, even those of us who are relatively tech-savvy, are still digital immigrants. We can remember a part of our lives when digital technology was not the lifeblood of human existence. Our students, on the other hand, are natives. They have been using computers since several minutes after birth, and they are thus incredibly agile with a wide range of tools. There is no doubt that they use their cellphones and Facebook accounts in ways that most adults do not - and to some extent that probably scares us. Not scares us in the sense of worried that something bad might happen, but scared in the sense that this obliterates the normal power structure in school. Our students may be zooming past us on the information superhighway, driving fully tricked-out sportscars while we are trying to figure out all of the features on our five-year old minivans. And so we level the playing field the only way we can - we let the air out of their tires by setting up bans and blocks.

This is a battle that we will lose. If we are merely banning something, our students will find a way to beat the ban. If we block a site, we run the risk of having mediocre reasons for doing so, which will ultimately make us look silly and weak to our students.

So what to do? My position is that our best bet is to co-opt technology as much as we can, and for two reasons:

1) They are very useful in educational settings. Basic cellphones can be used as calculators and as clickers, using sites such as Smartphones are even better, as they are effectively mini-computers, and hence research devices that students have and thus schools do not even have to buy. Facebook can be used as a communication device within a class or a school community. Their newest competitor, Google+, seems to have even more potential for use in schools (and within two weeks of its beta rollout there are already a myriad of posts online about how best to utilize it in education).

2) We are wasting a golden educational opportunity. To the extent that we have concerns about how students make use of their phones or facebook accounts, the only way that we educate them about this right now is to have lectures by experts, from within the school or outside, about the dangers of the internet. If these were effective, there would be no need to keep having them, and thus I would conclude that a powerpoint slideshow by some grave-looking individual cannot compete for a moment with the razzle-dazzle of colorful and social websites (who did you listen to as a teenager - your mother or your friends?). By allowing these things in school, we have a chance to offer guidance, to provide students with more socially acceptable and appropriate ways to use all of their wonderful toys, and occasionally to catch them misusing them - thus opening up a teachable moment in a relevant manner (lectures in auditoriums are not teachable moments).

There is one more reason to make use of these tools as much as we can in schools. As I noted above, our students use their phones in a manner that is different, either qualitatively or quantitatively, from the way that we use them. However, I have noticed that they can be limited in the way that they use them. To them, a cellphone is for texting, music, and games - but not for answering poll questions or helping in a collaborative effort in class. To the extent that we can show them new cool ways to use technology, we may close the native/immigrant gap one small bit at a time.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Do Your Students Type in Hebrew?

There is a debate underway in this country about the value of teaching cursive (aka script) handwriting in schools. Defenders of this age-old practice speak of it as a venerable institution, helping students move from a clunky print handwriting to a more mellifluous and unbroken script, and thus, presumable, aiding in the writing process. A person properly signs his name in script, and thus this skill is one that should continue to be taught as soon as students have properly mastered printing.

On the other side of the argument are those who claim that students barely write anymore. That is not to say that they no longer compose sentences, but rather that they rarely engage in the physical act known as writing. As technology continues to ride its ever-increasing and all-encompassing encroachment into our lives and the lives of our students, the fact is that the times when a person will need to actually write something by hand may be reduced to nothing more than the occasional signing of his name.

Whichever side of this debate one finds himself on (and I suspect that the qwerty crowd will ultimately succeed, or at least minimize the time used in teaching cursive - see here for one such example), Jewish schools have a second item to think about in this regard - teaching Hebrew keyboarding. Until now, it was fairly easy to ignore this skill - Judaic Studies teachers, at least in Middle School and High School, are somewhat notorious for assigning far less homework and far fewer papers than their General Studies counterparts, and given the general inability of our students to type in Hebrew, we have allowed ourselves to be satisfied will transliterations or pencilled-in Hebrew, while silently praising those few students who have mastered Hebrew typing on their own.

But we are entered a time when this will no longer suffice. Google forms and wikis allow a teacher to create homework assignments that students can answer online, and they both allow one to type in Hebrew. To the extent that students are not trained in Hebrew typing, the questions asked by nature must be limited - no direct quotes from פסוקים, no finding a שורש, and certainly no work for עברית class at all. Why should half of our faculty be forced to accept a בדיעבד use of the wonderful tools that are out there?

The students may, of course, pick up on this disparity as well. If their General Studies courses are rich in computer-based assignments and their Judaic Studies classes still rely on pen and paper, which half of the day will seem to be more dynamic and relevant to their increasingly wired and screen-based lives? We have a difficult enough time making Torah relevant to our 21st century students - we should at least take advantage of those avenues that are readily open and available.

Of course, teaching Hebrew keyboarding (remember when it was called typing?) will take time, but the solution should be easy. Just as the 3rd grade English teacher has to give up a little time to invest in this future skill, 4th grade Hebrew teachers should be willing to make the same sacrifice in the name of the bigger picture (students should not learn two keyboards at once - that could result in system overload). While it might cost a perek or two of Navi, which could of course be made up by any creative and enterprising teacher, it will give their students the opportunity to acquire a skill that will benefit them for the rest of their educational careers.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Student-Centered Education - Good for the Jews?

(This post is a semi-continuation from this post)

One of the most important terms in education today is the notion of student-centered education. As opposed to teacher-centered education, where the topics to be studied, the sources of knowledge, and the pace of learning are all determined by the all-wise and all-knowing oracle at the front of the room, student-centered learning aims to shift the locus of control of all three of those elements to the student as much as possible.

As I discussed in my previous post, this is already being done at higher levels of education. College students get to choose their classes (although the professor often guides things from there), and more and more those students can choose when they learn, as many professors are putting material online. The notion of an independent study allows the student to choose a topic, find his or her own source material, and decide when each stage of the work will be done, with the professor contributing some necessary guidance and advice (and a dissertation is basically an independent study on steroids). High school elective courses provide students with a chance to choose their topics of study, but, again, the teachers tend to maintain control over the other elements of the learning experience.

Online and blended learning at ever-lower levels of education represents an attempt to shift significant amounts of control to the student and an even-younger age. Obviously, one challenge is to make sure that we are not giving students too much choice, too soon. Even in the rosiest vision of a blended learning environment, trained educators will still have a role in terms of defining and delimiting the parameters of what sources should be studied, where and how to find those sources, what to do with those sources, how to analyze material, and on and on. But those challenges are for a different post (and, trust me, I will get there).

My current concern - and, remember, I am in favor of this type of learning - is whether or not the notion of student-centered learning is in fact consistent with Jewish values. We place a tremendous amount of importance on the authority of our tradition and our elders, an idea which seems increasingly out of place in a society that emphasizes the "new new thing" - and especially when the divide between digital natives and digital immigrants (Prensky, 2001) accentuates that divide to a perhaps unprecendented degree. As Yossi Prager of the Avi Chai Foundation said in his remarks to the graduates of the Azrieli Graduate School this year:

"Traditional religion, and Judaism especially, is countercultural; it can only flourish by forging an alternative to the culture around us. Freedom is freedom to stand apart from the tyranny of the present [secular] consensus; it is the freedom to transform ourselves into something faithful yet new, disciplined yet unprecedented..."

Respect for authority may indeed be part of our countercultural nature, and it is a backbone of what has kept us who we are. Blended and online learning present amazing possibilities with the opportunity to transform so many aspects of education in so many ways. However, it is important that we understand and anticipate some of the collateral issues that can develop, and work to construct an educational approach that can keep our students in the center without having them think that the world revolves around them.

Monday, July 4, 2011

What kind of children are we raising?

My Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Yehuda Amital, once told of a conference he attended in Bar-Ilan University. At that conference (whose exact purpose I do not recall), one of the academics declared that artificial intelligence and robotics had reached a point - and this was at least 15 years ago - where the day was not far away where a robot could be built that could do everything that a mother could do. Short of marvelling at the advances in technology, Rav Amital took a broader view and replied, "Yes, we could construct such a robot that could serve in place of a mother. But what kind of child would it raise?"

This question is consistently on my mind these days as we continue to make computers and technology an increasingly important part of education. It seems that we have reached at least the third level of computer involvement in education. Once upon a time, computers were more or less for typing up papers - glorified typewriters, if you will. The next level was computers as a communication tool (email) and then sliding into a role as a classroom aide (smartboards, etc.). The current level is computers being used as a more collaborative medium, as blogs, wikis, googledocs and so on allow students and students and/or students and teachers to work together on projects, lessons, and an ever-widening variety of educational experiences.

Now education is moving towards the next level - online learning or blended learning. In some ways, this has already arrived. The University of Phoenix is famous for their online courses, and people have been able to order great books or entire university courses on tape for decades. has made it possible to download thousands of shiurim and to literally follow shiur yomi from many of Yeshiva University's Roshei Yeshiva. However, all of those efforts have been aimed mainly as adults. What is beginning to happen is the introduction of this type of learning at the high school, the middle school, and perhaps even the elementary school level.

Few, if any, people are suggesting that 3rd graders should download their assignments, watch YouTube videos, and play podcasts and somehow assemble an education in that fashion. Rather, most suggestions to this effect speak of gradually introducing more and more computer-based elements into a student's education, thus providing them with the opportunity to expand their horizons, better control the pace of their own education, and come to class ready to discuss that which they have already absorbed. As I will discuss in future posts, there is much to commend this approach to education when done well and in an age-appropriate fashion.

However, I write this post as a necessary caution for myself and all other like-minded educators who willingly embrace the next wave in education, and particularly if technology is involved. To my mind, much good has already been achieved through our adoption of various technologies, and there is much more good still on the way. However, we have to bear in mind Rav Amital's question - what kind of children will we raise if we hand over significant portions of the education process to machines? Our role as educators is not simply to pour information into receptacles known as children. Rather, we are charged with helping our students develop as students, as good citizens, as socially responsible members of society, and as Bnei and Bnot Torah. Computers can accomplish the information aspect - we have to make sure that we hold on to our role and ability to do the rest.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The 20% solution and Summer Vacation

My good friend Tzvi Pittinsky posted this week about how Google comes up with all of the cool tools that they have (many of which most people do not even know about). They apparently demand that their workers use 20% of their time, or roughly one day per week, to work on their own projects. The thinking is that given "free time" at work to dabble and be creative, these workers will try to improve the product in ways that would not be thought of if these workers were simply going about their normal workload.

Tzvi wonders out loud what would happen if we allowed our teachers and students to do the same - if school is a knowledge industry, then imagine the ideas that would flower forth if we allowed these ultimate knowledge workers to be creative for a few hours each day.

It seems to me that, at least as far as teachers are concerned, we already have that 20% time - it's called summer vacation. Mathematically, it works out to about 20% of the calendar year, but that is not my point. For many, many teachers, summer is the time to work on new ideas - new curriculum elements, new uses for technology, new pedagogic techniques, and on and on. The school year is a time when we are so put-upon with papers and grading and preparing for the next few classes that there is simply not enough "free" time for the type of creative thinking that brings about the next great idea or even the next small but significant shift in teaching.

I am speaking from immediate experience. Our students' last day was last Wednesday, and report cards were due at midnight that night. Since Pesach, I had been inundated with not only the work involved for the classes that I teach (included producing and marking three full sets of long finals), but also with all of the various scheduling of events and proctoring for the final two months of the school year, putting together graduation, and myriad other administrative tasks.

Then the clock struck twelve on Wednesday night. Classes were over, report cards were entered, activities were completed. Summer had begun, and with it the chance to begin to think about larger plans and ideas. I had been jotting down one-line reminders for myself for weeks, with the hope that I would get back to many of those ideas once the school year ended. Now that the year was over, I felt the creative juices begin to flow. Vague ideas started becoming concrete sets of notes, and hopefully I will have more to share as the summer progresses.

Sure, not every teacher spends their summer working. And every teacher spends some time taking a vacation (which, in my opinion, is very necessary after working with kids in groups of 20 or more for ten months). But most teachers - more than you know - spend significant time over the summer using that relative freedom from their daily routine to brainstorm and create better and more engaging ways of teaching.

Now if we could just get the kids to use their 20% of the year the same way...

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Last Day of School

Eventually, there has to be a last day of school. No matter when you choose to end school - late June, early June, mid-May, Pesach - there has to be a day that is the last one. For many teachers and administrators, this day is to be dreaded - it is hard to do meaningful learning on such a day, we may have spent the better part of the past week wrapping things up with our students and having class parties, and the final day may only be a half-day anyway. Thus, the challenge presents itself of how to do more than twiddle one's thumbs on the last day of the school year.

I like to think that we have developed a nice approach to the final days of school. Sometime during the final week, most classes get into what I will call "siyum" mode - having the last homework, the last test, learning the last few psukim or vocab words or math problems. In our Middle School, we end finals with several days still to go in the school year and conclude with a final chessed project (this year we cleaned up some local parks), a final advisory program, and student council elections for next year. Teachers had a chance to return finals and offer final messages to their students.

When it came to the absolute last day of the year, we adhered to what I consider to be the three messages to send on the last day of school:
1) We had a great year!
2) Have a great summer!
3) Go (name of school)!

How did we do this? We asked all of our students to come in wearing the school colors (and we even slightly relaxed the dress code for this). We said goodbye to those students who are moving elsewhere and recognized those who had excelled in non-academic areas during the year. We played a Jeopardy-style game that reviewed all sorts of things about the school year - from subject matter to school and current events to teacher trivia. Finally, we watched a student-prepared "highlight video" of the entire year and counted down from 10 to the final bell. Our students left happy, excited for the summer, and proud to go to such a wonderful school.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Authentic and Manufactured Experiences

We took our 8th grade class on their senior trip to Niagara Falls a couple of weeks ago. We ditched Washington in the wake of 9/11 (nothing was open) and we never looked back. Our thinking is that seniors do not want to see museums - they just want to hang with each other. In theory, we could spend three days on the bus and they would be more or less OK with that.

At any rate, on the third day we did the actual Falls - first the Maid of the Mist boat ride, followed by the Cave of the Winds, where you walk right into the "bridal veil" falls and get beyond any previous notion of wetness that you ever imagined. I love these activities - I have done them every year for the past nine years and am already looking forward to doing them again.

What struck me was a sincere and unprompted comment from one of our students. We walked from the Maid to the Cave (about a 10 minute stroll around the corner), and while we were doing so, one young lady remarked to me that her family never takes trips like this. Now, mind you, her family has gone on plenty of vacations to plenty of "vacation hot spots." So I asked her what she meant, and by way of explanation she commented that when her family goes on vacation they spend a lot of time in the hotel, but do not generally do things as undoubtedly real as Niagara Falls.

To my mind, this comment was refreshing and thought-provoking. It was refreshing in that it was good to hear a student self-aware enough to realize that simply going to Florida or the Bahamas or even Israel is not really an experience if all that you do is go there without experiencing the place itself.

But more important, the comment was thought-provoking in that, more and more, it seems that the experiences that we provide for our children are more manufactured than authentic, more defined by accumulating lists of locations visited, restaurants eaten at, and official "chavayot" than by experiencing the wonders of nature or having a moment of quiet reflection and spiritual contemplation. As we drove the 6-7 hours to Niagara Falls, passing through some beautiful upstate New York countryside, most of our students had their eyes securely fastened on some form of a screen. When we went to a Toronto Blue Jays game on one night of our trip, some of our students undoubtedly marked off in their head that they had made it to one more stadium in their vague goal of going to all 30.

However, when we stood on the Maid of the Mist, coming as close to the powerful Canadian Falls as possible, watching the walls of water on either side of us and the massive mist rising in the middle, it was simply impossible to think anything other than "awesome". To my mind, no roller coaster in the world can offer what Niagara Falls can - an unbridled encounter with the enormity and undeniability of God's might and the amazing wonders of nature that He created.

And that was, I believe, what touched something inside the student mentioned above. She had been to plenty of nice places and stayed in plenty of nice hotels and eaten in plenty of wonderful restaurants. But at a certain point, one realizes that none of those things offer more than external, physical comfort. Something inside this student was longing to be impressed, to be touched, to be inspired. Niagara Falls did it for her. As educators, it is our job to open our students' eyes to the experiences that will do the same for them.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Finding the Right Tool

Every year, our school runs two three-day trips. Our seventh grade students have a three-day trip in the fall to a YMCA camp in upstate New York and our 8th grade students take their senior trip in May to Niagara Falls and points north. For the past few years, I have taken upon myself to blog both trips, with the thinking that this will give parents the opportunity to hear about what we are doing and - more importantly - to see pictures of their children having a great time.

With our 8th grade trip coming up, we are making a change. Instead of blogging, we are going to report from our trip via Twitter. There are many reasons for the switch, and I feel that they are instructive for teachers and administrators who are beginning to use Web 2.0 tools such as blogs and Twitter.

1) Blogging takes time and was best done at the end of the night on a laptop. Twitter is tailor-made to be done via smartphone.

2) Regular blogging was best for providing end-of-the-day updates. Twitter will allow us to post updates from wherever we are, and can even serve in place of the phone hotline that we have used in the past to update parents about the trip and when we are arriving home (although I think that we will keep the phone system in place for at least this year - transitions have to be gradual).

3) Our blog was not part of a larger school blog, and therefore did not have a natural following. Our school's Twitter account already has a significant number of followers.

3a) Once parents decide to follow our Twitter feed in order to follow the trip, they are likely to continue following us.

4) We can still post pictures via Twitpic, so parents can still see their kids getting drenched at the Falls.

Web 2.0 tools are fun, they are flashy, and they can be cool and make you be seen as cool. But if you use the wrong tool, its utility can wear off quickly and you may waste a lot of time before you realize that you are broadcasting to no one. My advice is to try out as many of these new tools as possible, but heavily monitor how their are being received. Ask me in two weeks how the Twitter experiment worked out.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Some Nachas

It has become almost cliche in education to say things such as "children are all good at heart" or "teenagers are looking for structure and guidance" or other such statements that make the basic point that most students are looking towards their adult mentors for some direction in life, even if they sometimes exhibit this reverence by ignoring our guidance, destroying the structure that we create for them, and exhibit something other than that innate goodness. Of course, a cynic would reply that these statements are all somewhat self-serving: Exxon-Mobil believes that gas is the best type of fuel, Steve Jobs does not understand why anyone would use evil Microsoft products, and teachers believe that they are absolutely essential in the lives of students.

Well, to warm your hearts, three recent cases with my students that showed that at least some of them truly want to do what is right.

1) We have been creating a ביאור תפילה class in Middle School, which now meets twice a week in 6th and 7th grade (with more to come!). Students learn the meaning of the words, some basic laws of davening, and some of the ideas behind what they say. The class also affords them an opportunity to ask questions about davening that may be on their minds. The other day, a mother came over to me and asked, and I quote, "What have you done with my daughter?" Apparently, her daughter's davening has noticeably improved over recent months, and when she pressed her daughter as to what had happened to bring about this welcome change, the girl, after much prodding, replied "ביאור תפילה"

2) I had a meeting scheduled during a teaching period. I entered my class, taught them for a few minutes, left them with an assignment to proceed on their own, and left the class. This is a small and motivated class that I can trust to not commit random acts of vandalism, but as they are 8th graders and it is now mid-May, I was not sure whether or not I should realistically expect the work to be done. As it turns out, the meeting was delayed, so I headed back to class with about 5 minutes left in the period. As I approached the room, I heard that the class was indeed learning in exactly the way I would have wanted them to. I remained outside the door, unseen by my students, and finally entered just before the bell to applaud and commend them.

3) Most amazing of all to me. A number of students crossed a line with me the other day and I asked them to remain inside during recess the next day (basically a מדה כנגד מדה consequence - they cost me class time, so I asked them to give me back some of their own time). As it turns out, the meeting that was delayed from item #2 was rescheduled to be during recess and I was thus not around to meet these students who I had asked to remain inside. Incredibly, most of them simply took it upon themselves to remain indoors. They understood what they had done, the consequence made sense to them, and thus they felt obliged to clear their own slates. Amazing.

Do such moments happen often in schools? Yes. The trick is to be able to put aside the countless demands on our time and attention, to get past what sometimes harries us, and to realize that, yes indeed, our students do want to do right, do want to impress us, and do want us to provide them with guidance and structure.

Friday, May 6, 2011

The Wonder of Voicethread

I have become a serious fan of a fantastic Web 2.0 application - Voicethread. This site allows you to post an image and then record yourself speaking about it, while at the same time utilizing a "doodle tool" to draw on the image. After you are done, you can share what you have done with others and they can also record comments and make drawings. Each person can then see what everyone else is done, and the drawings start fresh for each person, so that when I watch someone else's recording, I watch in real time what they are saying and drawing.

This application has solved a major problem that I was having, and I suspect plagues many others as well. When teaching texts, the most effective way to ensure that students learn how to read texts is to have them actually read it. However, there is simply not enough time in the day, week, or even school year for a teacher with a class of 20 or even 10 students to have every student read enough times to be effective. Once upon a time this was solved with tape recorders. Students handed in tapes to the teacher, who would listen to them (after lugging them all home) and offer comments or a grade. Then came sound files - solved the shlepping problem, but created the new issue of very large files that did not attach well.

Enter Voicethread. This not only solves the old issues, but it provides a bonus as well. On a weekly basis I now post a piece of Gemara and invite my students to read it to me online. In addition, I ask them to use the doodle tool to punctuate as they are reading. In order to see what they have done, I simply log in to Voicethread and everyone's readings are there waiting for me, along with their punctuation. This has no impact on my email inbox and I can do this from any computer anywhere that has internet. Best of all, I can do this as often as I want (although I would remind teachers that it does take time to listen to everyone, and thus I sometimes give shorter readings - enough to figure out if a student is capable of reading or not). Instead of each student reading for me 3 or 4 times a year, I can now hear everyone 15 to 20 times. And - yes, there's more - this takes no time out of class as it is all done on their own time.

I have shared this with other teachers on my faculty and they are rapidly adopting it - not only for Gemara but for Chumash and Navi as well. Our 6th grade teachers have discovered that it is a good way to figure out which kids come into Middle School with weak reading skills. Other teachers have started toying with uses for it beyond simple reading reviews. The possibilities are endless.

Oh, and best of all, it is dirt cheap. Educational accounts are available to schools at the cost of $1 per student per year. If your school won't buy it for you, splurge on it yourself - it will be worth every penny.

Friday, April 29, 2011

What is the Future of Holocaust Education?

This Sunday, the 27th of Nissan, is the official established date of Yom HaShoah VeHagevurah, Holocaust Memorial Day (the actual observance is being pushed off one day by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate so as to avoid people violating Shabbat to take part in events on Saturday night). As such, this is a good time to raise for discussion an issue which weighs on my mind frequently.

On the one hand, Holocaust education is at a high point - entire libraries could be filled with the scholarly works and personal accounts that have been written about the Shoah, many States (including New Jersey) and European countries mandate Holocaust education, and Holocaust denial, while still very much alive, seems to be clearly defined as intellectually dishonest (Deborah Lipstadt's courtroom victory over David Irving being just one high-profile example). I have seen a Holocaust memorial in the US Air Force Base Museum in Dayton, Ohio and a memorial to Anne Frank at the Children's Museum in Indianapolis. Museums dedicated to the Holocaust are plentiful and approach the topic from a vast range of angles.

On the other hand, it appears to me that we are approaching a new era in educating about the Holocaust. The Holocaust ended 66 years ago, and thus the survivors who are still alive are in their 70's, while those survivors who have vivid memories to share are in their 80's. As such, the list of those available to provide first-hand accounts of their experiences is shrinking. Even those who are children of survivors and who wear that badge with a certain sense of pride - they are living examples and memorials to the fierce determination of their parents to survive in the face of the worst that mankind had to offer - are in their 50's and 60's. In other words, the landscape of those who are being asked to preserve the memory of what took place is increasingly populated by those who are two generations removed from the actual events.

Why is this important? I am not concerned about us forgetting the Holocaust - it has clearly become fixed as a major moment in Jewish history. Think about it - when listing major tragedies that have befallen us, the list is usually pretty short - Destruction of the Second Beit HaMikdash, Spanish Expulsion, Holocaust. While there are of course many more that can be added, this is clearly the shortlist. My concern can perhaps be summed up as "when does the Holocaust transform from a current event into part of history"?

What do I mean as a part of history? In short, it means an event that we can learn about while remaining emotionally detached. Take the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash as an example. We mention it in our davening on a daily basis, we end many a speech and dvar Torah with a prayer for its rebuilding, we spend three weeks every summer vicariously mourning for it, and we spend Tisha B'Av engaged in talking about the destruction in all of its gory detail - and how many people can say that they are truly touched and really feel the pain of the loss? Of course we can't - it happened two thousand years ago, and while we can perhaps understand intellectually what occurred and what the loss of the Beit HaMikdash means to us as a nation, it would take a herculean effort of emotions to truly cry over its destruction.

Pesach provides us with another example. All of us sat at our seder tables two weeks ago and probably mentioned that the Jews were in Egypt for 210 years. Did anyone bother to consider how long that was? Two hundred and ten years ago, John Adams was wrapping up his term as president of the US, France was in the throes of post-revolutionary chaos, the Vilna Gaon had just died and Rav Shimshon Refael Hirsch was not yet born. In other words - it was a LONG time ago. And yet, since our sojourn in Egypt is so far in the past, we are able to mention two centuries of enslavement and suffering as if it took place in the blink of an eye. Time does indeed heal all wounds.

And so to my question. At some point in the next fifty years, the Holocaust will begin to enter the annals of history. We can argue that this tragedy is different because of its size or its scope or the vast amount of material and evidence that is left behind from it, but the fact is that no human event has ever defeated time. And thus, my question for educators is what lessons do we feel should be the enduring ones from the Shoah? When everyone is three and four and five generations removed from the actual events, when no one exists who has even met a survivor, what do we want people to know when they learn about the Shoah? Discuss.

[Reminder - comments are welcome, but please do not post anonymously.]

Monday, April 11, 2011

Half Shabbos and the Dread of Pesach

About 7 months ago, Professor Alan Brill wrote a blog post that introduced many people to the term "half Shabbos" - which roughly refers to people, generally teenagers, who appear to be keeping Shabbat, yet have granted themselves an allowance to text on that day. Many reasons have been offered for how this phenomenon came about - is it the new form of teenage rebellion, are kids just too addicted to texting - but I would like to focus on what I consider to be a deeper cause of this occurrence, and in particular in light of the upcoming holiday of Pesach.

From my perspective, the issue with half-Shabbos is how it can be prevented. In a lecture that spoke to this issue, Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblatt of Riverdale spoke about the need to re-capture Shabbat for our children (and students). In a nutshell, if Shabbat is all about the don'ts and can'ts and shouldn'ts then we are conveying to our children that Shabbat is a day of restrictions, and of course that natural teenage need to somehow rebel will see Shabbat as an easy target. Religion is one of the prime areas in which kids express their individuality/rebelliousness, as there is not much that their parents can do to stop them short of punishment - and every parent and teacher knows that one has to be careful with a kid who is threatening to go "off the derech." Kids tend to know that parents are afraid that one infraction is just the first step to full-scale abandonment of religion, and thus for those who are so inclined, religion is quite a weapon in their struggles with parental or other authority.

However, if we can make Shabbat into a positive day, we may be able to get ahead of this problem. If we approach Shabbat, both at home in and the classroom, as a wonderful opportunity for rest, for coming together as a family (something that may be a rarity for many families during the week), for hanging out with friends, and so on, then we may be able to decrease the need to violate Shabbat as an act of rebellion - why would someone want to militate against something that is so positive?

[Obviously, if half-Shabbos is more a function of addiction to texting, then the journey may be a different one. I suppose that is for a different post.]

This comes to my mind as one and the same with how we approach Pesach. Full disclosure - I love Pesach. I love the seder, I love being with family and perpetuating long-standing traditions, I love the fact that it is a nice vacation during a beautiful time of year. Fuller disclosure - some years I make Pesach and some years I do not. When I do make Pesach, I am involved in every aspect of it, from cooking to cleaning, including lifting all sorts of pieces of furniture in search of Lord-only-knows-what.

That being said, few things grate on my ears more than hearing people complain in front of kids about the stress and labor involved of making Pesach. No question - there is much stress and much labor. We may very likely be cleaning more than we have to (consult your Local Orthodox Rabbi on that one), and keeping up with which products are and are not acceptable can be quite a challenge. Cooking for a cast of thousands with limited ingredients in the two days after the kitchen is kashered is a task that far exceeds making Yom Tov any other time during the year.

But what do our kids hear? Do they hear about the wonder of the holiday? Do they develop a sense of excitement and anticipation coming into it? When they are younger, they surely do, as they come to the seder armed with colorful projects and joyful songs and whatever else they learn in early childhood. But as our children and students grow up and become more sensitive to the subtle messages that we convey, are we aware of the messages that we are sending them? As with Shabbat, are we communicating that we are looking forward to all that this day has to offer, and we hope that they will as well, or are we presenting the holidays as days on which to rest from the burden of preparing for the holidays?

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Standing in the Way of Technology

My school uses Google Apps for Education, a wonderful service that not only provides us with a Gmail-based email system, but also affords us many other Google tools such as documents and calendar which we find quite useful in a school setting. As many of you know, one feature of Gmail is gchat, whereby you can have a live chat (or even a video chat) on your Gmail screen while you conduct other business.

For one reason or another, our school has disabled chat for students (one feature of the education module of Google is that you can pick which applications are available). After the initial complaining about this, my 4th grade daughter came home one day and announced that she needed the computer at a certain time, because she and her friends were having a chat. But isn't chat disabled, we asked (although I knew what the answer would be)? She replied that they had figured out that it is possible to create a Google document and have a chat within the document - a wonderful tool that was created to allow people to collaborate on a document and talk about it as they create it. For my daughter and her friends, this was simply an easily-discovered and impossible to shut down loophole around attempts to squash their abilities to communicate in the way that they wanted to.

Now to the picture shown above. Most of you recognize it as the famous picture from the Tianemen Square demonstrations in China in 1989, when one brave individual momentarily stood up to an entire column of Chinese tanks as a show of protest against the Communist government. What is often unsaid about this picture is that this student's victory was short-lived, as the government eventually quelled the demonstrations and the regime lives on over two decades later.

To my mind, the tanks are our children and students using technology, and the lone student is anyone who tried to get in their way. We may succeed in making a rule here or disabling an application there, but they are more resourceful and far quicker than we perhaps give them credit for, and there is no way that they will lose this battle.

This has tremendous implications for schools and teachers. When we talk about technology in schools, often we talk about certain applications used in computer classes, or about policies restricting cell phones or laptops in class. If we are truly in the business of educating students, then doesn't it make more sense to teach them the responsible way to use these tools? Yes, if we are boring, they will look for distractions, and electronic devices are great distractions. But wouldn't it be so much better for everyone if our classes were not only interesting, but found a way to co-opt these tools (cellphones included!) so that our students wanted to be engaged? Do we ban Facebook in school? If so- why? At a certain age our students all have FB accounts, and by keeping it completely out of the school environment we are losing an opportunity to teach them how to use it responsibly. Do you think that lecturing them about the dangers of FB really resonates with everyone? With anyone?

There is so much more to say on this topic, and much is being written in many corners - in the world of general education, as well as in all parts of the religious spectrum - about how to properly incorporate the tidal wave of new technology which is developing faster than we can find ways to deal with it. I will blog further about some of the details in the future. For now, decide if you want to be in the tank, or if you want to be that student who looked like a hero for a moment, but ultimately lost the war.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Why Does the Jewish Week not Support Day Schools?

First, a disclaimer. This is not a post about the tuition crisis that is going on. There are plenty of blogs and comments and whatever that are devoted to that, and they tend to generate mostly heat and almost no light. Rather, this post is about institutional support for Yeshiva Day Schools, particularly in the media. The New York Jewish Week has a rather long article this week entitled "Teaneck Parents Eyeing Public (School) Option", which focuses on some of the various non-Yeshiva options that parents in Bergen County, NJ are exploring to help alleviate the awesome financial burden of paying for day school for multiple children. For those who are not aware, a Hebrew-language charter school has been approved in neighboring Englewood, NJ, and this article discusses both that option as well as the general option of sending children to public school, along with various ideas for after-school Talmud Torah programs to help compensate for the loss of a Jewish education. Late me state very clearly that I have nothing but sympathy for parents who are at the point of making these decisions, and I truly believe that most of them, in a perfect world, do want their children to be in Yeshivot but simply find the finances impossible. That said, I am bothered by the fact that the article slants towards the charter school/public school option, while giving no real reason while a Yeshiva education would be preferable (all things being equal).

A few noteworthy points:

1) The article begins by talking about Yitzi Flynn, and claiming that he "transferred his 10-year-old son from the Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey to Teaneck’s Thomas Jefferson Middle School this fall." However, much much later on we find out that that shift had nothing to do with finances and everything to do with the educational needs of his child. Seems like a bit of a bait-and-switch to me.

2) In commenting on communal efforts to stem the crisis, the article first quotes "Mira" as saying "People are not planning properly; most are in denial. And the communal leadership across the board, no one is getting up and saying ‘This is not sustainable.'" While the next paragraph mentions groups such as the OU, YU, and JEFG that are all working on solving this very problem, and in fact are saying "this is not sustainable", the article only mentions what they have done and are working on towards the end, and follows the initial mention by saying that many parents see their efforts as "too little, too late." I ask - would it be better if they did nothing at all? As this is an article, and not an opinion piece, shouldn't Julie Weiner (the writer) have done her homework into the work of these organizations in this regard?

3) In discussing the after school Talmud Torah option, the article claims "While some question how much Judaic material an after-school program can cover, pointing to the failure of Talmud Torah programs in generations past, the Rosens are hopeful." I ask - "some" question? There have been actual studies done about the effectiveness of Talmud Torah programs, and they are not pretty. Ask the Conservative and Reform movements how successful Hebrew school has been for them! Granted, we are now dealing with a more observant and perhaps committed parent body, but there are nevertheless many issues with Talmud Torah programs that will still exist. Should Weiner have at least made mention of them? Or is her goal to note that this is just a matter of opinion and thus anyone could wind up being correct?

4) Weiner then notes that Yeshiva education is no guarantee of a child's ultimate religiosity, allowing a quote from one family that they have family members who went to Yeshiva and are apparently not so religious. While anecdotal evidence certainly exists in all directions, again there have been studies done that have found that a Yeshiva education is one of the most important factors that contribute to lifelong religious observance and involvement. But, again, Weiner makes no mention of this. Her agenda is clearly not to promote Yeshiva Day Schools.

5) I have no idea what to do with this quote: "Vidaver noted that day school is itself a relatively new phenomenon, “a movement of the past two generations.” - Some people would call that progress. Two generations ago, Julie Weiner, as a woman, might not have been given her current job - should we roll that back as well since it is only two generations old?

So here is my question - what is the role of a Jewish newspaper? I am sure that they would defend themselves with some high-minded statement about simply reporting the facts or speaking for all segments of the community or something like that. I think that is rubbish. We all know that even news articles can serve effectively as opinion pieces, and this article (written by someone who is not Orthodox) seems to do exactly that. I would hope that a Jewish newspaper would cover a sensitive issue such as this with the appropriate amount of sensitivity to both sides of the issue, not by promoting the side of the issue that they perhaps support (which is interesting to me, as the editor of the paper is Orthodox and sent his own children to Orthodox schools) while giving short shrift, if that much, to the other side. Day schools and community organizations need everyone's help if they are going to figure out solutions to this problem - the Jewish Week is helping stir up antagonism to that cause.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Challenge of "Unteaching"

Every year around this time, I teach my students the laws of Purim. Inevitably, someone tells me that the mitzva of mishloach manot is fulfilled by providing two foods that require two different brachot rishonot. When asked where they learned this law, the students either do not know or credit their teachers in the younger grades.

Examples of such misinformation abound. My son in kindergarten actually objected to a book about tashlich that showed people throwing bread into the water (the teacher found me and asked if she should stop using the book - I politely referred her to her immediate supervisor); Countless people believe that we do not eat giraffe because we do not know where to shecht them (a myth debunked here); and don't get me started on when we take three steps back and forward at the beginning of Shemoneh Esrei (correct answer: before saying ה' שפתי תפתח - there is no connection between the number of steps and the number of words in that pasuk).

So how do these and countless other misconceptions come to be? Let me point out that some of these myths are fairly widespread, and thus there are teachers at higher levels of education who predictably reteach, or perhaps unteach, our students on these points (one high school teacher friend actually complained to me that I was taking away his fun by taking care of the unteaching before my students reached his class. Tough on him.).

The simple answer is that these misconceptions are taught in the early years of a child's education. And here I come to a bit of a minefield, so let me begin with the qualifiers. As a veteran Middle School teacher, I am constantly in awe of the work done by teachers in the younger grades, and more in awe as the kids get younger. I have the option of coming into class moderately prepared and putting material out for my students' consumption. I can have my students do a writing assignment to chew up half of a period. I can give tests or essays or projects or anyone of a million other things which take a middling amount of effort to compose and even less effort to execute (although a decent amount of effort to mark). Teachers of early childhood and the early grades are hands-on all the time. They have to constantly be reacting to the changing moods of their young charges, and they cannot simply give an assignment and hope for the best - they have to be always vigilantly looking out for myriads of nuances and eventualities until the last child goes home at the end of the day.

Those teachers are also charged with another awesome responsibility. They are the first teachers of halacha that children have. While they may not say that they are teaching halacha (they use more age-appropriate terms such as "teaching Pesach"), that is, in fact, what they are doing when they prepare children for each holiday with a collection of elaborate and colorful projects, songs, and worksheets.

And here is where things get tricky, and let me reiterate that I am in no way intending to offend. It is expected that someone hired as a Rebbe has spent a certain amount of time learning in a formal setting and has a certain level of comfort, familiarity, and facility with the standard volumes of halacha. While we would forgive a Middle School Rebbe who cannot cite every teshuva of the Chida, we want him to at least have reviewed the Mishna Berura before teaching halacha to his students.

To my knowledge, there is no such requirement or expectation of first grade teachers (to pick a grade at random). It is certainly far more important that they be experts of pedagogy and child psychology than of Shas and poskim. For many of them, their knowledge of halacha may be more mimetic than text-based (see Dr. Haym Soloveitchik's classic article for more on this topic). However, the fact remains that they are the first ones to introduce a wide variety of halachot to our children, and the fact is as well that it is very difficult to unteach ideas learned at a young age. We are often unduly influenced by our first impressions, and it can be a struggle to convince a child that what he or she has learned in the past is simply not so.

There is a further issue, and that is one of basic middot and respect. If I teach my students something contrary to what they learned in 3rd or 4th grade, ineveitably someone asks, "Does that mean that Mrs. So-and-so was wrong?" The correct answer to that question is often "yes", and yet simply giving that as an answer can be fraught with dangers, from leading students to doubt that which they have been taught, to leading them to look askance at the fine individuals who taught them in previous years.

So what is a teacher to do? On one level, one can appeal to the authority of the sources. Rather than say "I am right and your other teachers were all wrong", make use of original texts in class and inform students that there may be other opinions, but you have not seen them quoted in the classical sources. While this effectively is the same as saying that what they learned in the past was incorrect, it does so while encouraging a healthy sense of respect for tradition and authority, rather than focusing on the errors made by others (and thus encouraging a sense of lack of respect for tradition and authority).

It is also possible to work to prevent incorrect teaching. As my own children have come home over the years with the occasional erroneous information, I have relayed that fact to our school's Lower School Assistant Principal, who has taken the opportunity to work with the teachers going forward to correct any such mistakes. Rather than be a self-righteous parent calling up a successful teacher and saying "I know better", this allows the error to be corrected in a respectful fashion, as the AP generally either has or can create contexts wherein he learns with or reviews specific material with the teachers, and thus can come around to discussing the point of contention. We all make mistakes in our teaching, and most teachers are themselves students at heart and thus are open to hear how they can learn more and how they can then share that learning with their students.

I will end on a positive note. A vast majority of what our students are learning is correct, and the errors that I am focusing on are probably minor details that will not make a major difference in one's performance of mitzvot (it does not really matter why we do not shecht giraffes - the fact is that we are not shechting them one way or the other). As I said above, I am in awe of the work done by teachers of young children, and in particular of the teachers of my own children. May they continue their labors of love for many more years to come.