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.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Color War in School - Why?

That is the question that we hear every year from a few people - isn't color war something done in camp? Isn't school for learning, not playing? And, of course, we never had this when I went to school, so it is not necessary and is a waste of time and resources.

I will admit that at one time early in my career, I was not fully on board with the idea of taking three days away from learning for a series of games and artistic presentations. And, since I did not have color war when I went to school, it went against my own pre-conceived notion of what was appropriate for school and what was not.

However, as I have become more seasoned as an educator, and as I have been intensely involved in the preparations for color war for several years, I have become pretty well convinced that this is not only a good use of time and resources, but that, in fact, this is fully consistent with what a school exists to do.

Let's look into this. Why do people send their children to school, and why do they send them specifically to a Yeshiva day school? There are many possible answers. If it is because they are legally obligated to send them to school, then obviously they are wasting their money paying for Yeshiva. If it is so that their children can learn both Torah as well as general studies in a Jewish environment, then I can understand why color war sounds like a waste of time. After all, despite all of our efforts to put some degree of content into color war (theme material, Tanach-based scavenger hunts, trivia competitions, and so on and so on), the fact is that most kids do not learn all that much during the days of color war, and thus formal learning does effectively grind to a halt during this time.

However, I would suggest that there is an additional layer of education that people want for their children when they send them to a Yeshiva day school. Obviously they want them to know how to read Hebrew and to learn Chumash. But more than that, they want them to come out of the school with a positive feeling, not only about themselves but about Judaism as well. This is a major challenge facing educators, and it is one that I will write more about in a different post. But it is a challenge that explains what is important about color war.

The answer is more than simply "If the kids are having fun in a Jewish context, then they will enjoy being Jewish." Frankly, I do not think that that is true. Kids are fairly savvy, and they are able to distinguish between Judaism being enjoyable and appealing to them and fun that happens to take place in a Jewish environment. To the extent that the former is true, the kids are likely to develop positive opinions of Judaism and Jewish practice; to the extent that the latter is true, they will likely develop meaningful friendships with their classmates, without necessarily developing deep feelings about Judaism per se.

[Obviously, there are many issues that influence a child's outlook and approach to Judaism, and the school is not the only one. I am working with the conceit that the school does play a significant role for many of its students. Of course, the particular home and community situations are crucial as well.]

Back to color war. In a well-designed and well-run color war (and I like to believe that we do it well in my school), children who do not necessarily shine in the classroom are given multiple opportunities to display their talents and take part in something that appeals to them. Our color wars have multiple opportunities for children with artistic talent, musical talent, technological talent, athletic talent, and even for those with academic talent. Students are placed into new groupings which cross grade lines, class lines, and hometown lines, and therefore have to develop or make use of social skills that often go ignored. While some activities are focused on an individual performance, most require some degree of teamwork, and the general sense of team spirit and camraderie that is the sine qua non of color war tends to be infectious (that's why we have one silent lunch each time - team spirit can get very loud).

And all of this is done in a decidedly Jewish context and spirit. The theme material may not be relevant during a 3 point shooting contest, but the various presentations are all based on the Torah/Jewish-based material. As such, every student has the opportunity to sing, paint, act, present, or cheer about Zionism or Jewish heroism or Jewish courage or whatever the theme is. And while the presentations may take place on the final day of color war, the preparation takes place over all of the days, and tends to involve every single child. Such moments leave a deep and lasting impression on children.

So that is color war - a chance for students to shine in ways that they do not normally shine in school; an opportunity to break down social barriers and form a community; and a moment in time when students put true passion and excitement into talking about (and cheering about) something decidedly Jewish. And so to answer the question posed by the headline of this post: "Color War in School - Why?" I would say simply "Why not"?

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

You are all individuals!

I got up to give the dvar Torah in davening the other day and began by describing the following scene (one of my favorites):

How was this relevant to anything? I explained to my 7th and 8th grade students that davening is a completely unnatural experience, and it in fact goes against everything that we do all day long. For an entire day, student have adults tell them that they are unique in some way or another. More and more, educators are learning the value of seeing beyond test scores and providing an ever-widening range of assessment, differentiated experiences, and extra- and co-curricular activities designed to allow each student the maximum number of opportunities to display and develop his or her talents and interests.

And then we bring them in to davening. Davening - where everyone says the same words, and sits and stands and bows and take steps forwards and backwards in the same way at the same time. Where the singing is imposed and everyone sings together with no voice standing out. How does this fit in with the messages that we impart to our students all day long, and given this fact, how can we blame them for not looking forward to davening?

The easy approach is to say that part of Judaism is the need to be a part of the collective. As much as we celebrate diversity of character, and as much as we would like everyone to develop their own talents, it is still important for everyone to have moments where they abandon their individuality in order to melt into the greater whole. Tefilla is the model for this - while each person has the right to add something to his or her own private Shemoneh Esrei, the fact is that tefilla, when done with a minyan, is a minyan-centric activity, with a uniform pace and any other changes being down on a communal level.

However, this is a lesson that is not easy for teenagers, and certainly not modern teenagers, to digest easily. And thus, there are two ways to go. One way is to say tough luck. Some lessons are not so easily learned, but they have to be learned because they are important. There is no question that there is some truth to this position. However, perhaps we can examine the other approach. Perhaps there is another way to explain tefilla to kids, or perhaps there is more that we can do to appeal to our students while still maintaining the integrity of tefilla. I will muse more about this in future posts - what do you think?