Sunday, February 27, 2011

Teaching Tefilla - Not Just Davening Together

Tefilla in school is hard. For many teachers, it may be the worst part of their day. Trying to make it through a 30-40 minute (or more) Shacharit with students who perhaps do not know what they are doing and who likely are not enjoying the experience can be an experience appropriate for one of the deeper levels of hell. Add in the little games that go on (going to the bathroom, getting a tissue, furtive messages telegraphed across the room or over the mechitza, notes for tests hidden in siddurim, etc etc etc), plus the fact that the teachers are trying to balance their stewardship of the minyan with their own davening, and you have all of the ingredients for an educational disaster.

This year, we have been using some of our professional development time with our teachers to talk about and to work on tefilla. While we are trying to do many things at once in this context, the most significant message that I have pressed with our faculty is to think about tefilla as if it were an academic subject. Even though there are no grades or tests (and I do not advocate instituting them), we have to approach tefilla the same way that we would approach any other class.

Begin with the end in mind. This time-honored curriculum-planning principle, often associated with the Understanding by Design model, should be the first step in approaching tefilla as a subject. What are we trying to accomplish by davening with the students. Our school runs through 8th grade. Do we expect all of our graduates to be master daveners? Is that realistic? Do we at least expect them to know their way around the frequently-used sections of the siddur? Do we expect them to know when to sit, stand, and bow (what I call the calisthenics of davening)? The list of questions that can be asked here is endless - and the fact that the questions are even being asked is the most important step of all. We are not simply davening-with-the-kids-in-the-morning-because-that-is-what-we-do. Rather, we have clear goals, or at least working goals, and we are trying to achieve them.

Next, figure out how we are going to move towards achieving those goals. Here is where things get a bit tricky. A good educator is willing to change things up in class when the current pedagogical approach is not working. Have kids work in groups. Use more technology. Alter the material from what was originally planned. And yet, even if tefilla is a disaster, most schools get no further than perhaps singing a bit more or moving around the students' seats. That's educational thinking? Not at all. If we approach tefilla as a subject, then we might be willing to tinker with some of our more sacred cows. Smaller groups which spend some time discussing davening during davening itself. Spending more time on certain parts while perhaps skipping over others occasionally. A little bit of dancing during Hallel. Obviously, not every suggestion will go over with every crowd, but as many ideas as possible should be put on the table.

But what about OUR davening? So comes the cry from those Rebbeim and teachers who lead the minyanim in their schools, and it is a sincere cry indeed. If my tefilla five days a week is to be in school, I would like it to be as "real" as possible. A nice thought, and I agree with the sentiment that part of the role of a school minyan is to prepare students for the daily minyanim that they will hopefully attend. However, we have to make sure that they leave us with a willingness to still attend minyanim. If that means that we have to daven a little faster, or a little less, or in some way different than we would prefer - that is our chosen lot in life. Plenty of people who would love to take their time davening have no choice but to daven at the 6:30 minyan in their shul that ends at 6:56 because their bus comes at 7:13 - our sacrifice is different, but with hopefully a payoff for our students.

[And yes, every school should have a posek that they consult before making changes that seem to run counter to, or have only a brief familiarity with, halacha. But you will be surprised how much wiggle room there is.]

If you are not yet doing so, I implore you to change your thinking about tefilla - treat it as an educational moment, not just davening. Think about it - some of our students will go into the sciences, some into math; some will continue to learn Gemara for the rest of their lives and others will not; but every single one of them will be davening daily, weekly, or at some consistent point in their lives. That makes tefilla the most important subject we can teach them. Let's do it well.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Boys and Gemara continued

In my last post on this topic I asked if any high school or day school administrator could put forth a sound rationale for why they make Gemara the primary subject in their school day. I would like to ask that in a slightly different way - does any school have clearly stated goals as to what they are trying to accomplish in teaching Gemara?

By goals I do not mean that they write the usual pablum about "developing lifelong learners" or "teaching Gemara skills" or whatever tired and trite phrase gets used on the website of any high school that bothers to even put something together. Those phrases are meaningless insofar as they tell the reader absolutely nothing about what the school is doing. Does any school try to not teach skills or want its students to stop learning after graduation?

Meaningful goals, on the other hand, would present a clear vision as to why the school is teaching Gemara and what it hopes to accomplish by doing so. Those goals would ideally be measurable (whether or not any measures actually exist), and would ideally drive what is going on in the classroom. The current approach seems to be to make broad statements that amount to "we love Gemara" and then let every Rebbe do his own thing. I am not so sure that this is not often the case on the Middle School level as well. How many 7th graders "learn" Tosafot, even though they can barely find the daf or translate the basic words? What well-organized curriculum has the students doing advanced level work before they can manage the simpler levels?

[I will admit that this issue may really be part of a larger issue - the issue of school-to-school disconnect. Certainly in the greater NY/NJ region, where many day schools feed into each high schools, the high schools decide on their own where to start in terms of what they expect the students to know and be able to do, and then, four years later, the Yeshivot in Israel do the same thing. How many boys get to Israel and get told to prepare mekorot for shiur when they are still not sure whether Nedarim is in Nashim or Nezikin? While it may be practical to simply decide what you are going to teach - after all, it is pretty hard to be beholden to the curricula of 5 or 10 or 25 feeder schools - no one is served well by a system that picks an arbitrary starting point regardless of the actual ability level of the students.]

Back to goals. Imagine if we could cobble together at least a rudimentary menu of goals that we would like to achieve in the teaching and learning of Gemara. Working with the understanding that not everyone is going to be a Rosh Yeshiva, but that we nevertheless feel that it is important, for one reason or another, for everyone to receive significant exposure on some level to Gemara, we devise a range of curricular goals and expectations that our schools will work to teach. Within such a framework, we can set minimal expectations, after which point students could opt to spend more time on different approaches or perhaps different areas of learning. Yeshivot in Israel can better choose their clientele - not just the "nice" guys or the "intellectual" guys, but the guys who are at a certain range on the skills and ability spectrum, and then can tailor their program accordingly. Yes, this would mean more skills-based classes and less intensive lomdus at some of the higher levels, but ultimately that would go further in producing students who can actually learn on their own - which, if we are to believe all of those statements about "lifelong learners", is exactly the point.

But, I hear you cry, how do we teach skills to 18 year olds without boring them to death? Stay tuned for my next post.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Mr. Steven Holtzman ob"m

My plan was to continue my thoughts about Boys and Gemara learning. However, I found out last night that my high school English teacher (9th and 10th grade), Mr. Steven Holtzman, passed away last week and I felt that his memory deserves a few words.

My all-boys high school had Judaic Studies all morning, and thus a number of our General Studies teachers came to us after teaching a full day in the public school system. Mr. Holtzman was one of those teachers, coming in for a couple of periods of Yeshiva high school boys after what I am sure was an exhausting day at Bloomfield High School. At times he would come in late, and the fact that he had health issues meant that on not-so-rare occasion he would be absent. On top of that, we only had General Studies classes four days a week. And, since we were trying to learn literature and grammar and vocabulary and some SAT preparation, there was rarely a sense of continuity to our learning.

And yet... I probably got more from Mr. Holtzman than I did from most of the teachers that I have had at any level of education (I spent 30 years as a student so there have been many, many teachers). If you only count teachers through high school (since after that you can pick your favorites), I would say that he is probably top-10, if not top-5. How can this be so, given what I wrote in the previous paragraph?

As I reflect on Mr. Holtzman now, over twenty years later and now with a decade and a half of my own teaching under my belt, I think that what was most notable about Mr. Holtzman was that he was most interested in having us learn. He was not concerned with his teaching per se, was not concerned with covering material - although both of those were undoubtedly important to him. But paramount in his mind was that we walked out of his class enriched in our knowledge and appreciation of English and, more importantly, enriched as young men and future citizens of the world.

Mr. Holtzman had a unique grading system when it came to essays and papers. We would receive two grades written one on top of the other. The letter grade on top was our grade for content. Below that would be a number grade that reflected our grammar, and which could run way into negative territory. Different infractions carried different point values, and if you ever "broke unity" - i.e. digressed mid-essay - that was 50 points right there. Do it twice in one paper, and you were already at zero before he got to your misspellings and punctuation. I distinctly remember receiving an A+ over negative 255.

But what made this system great was the logic behind it. Only the letter grade counted, because that was the reward for clear and organized thinking, originality of thought, and general hard work. However, the number grade was there to shake us up. Mr. Holtzman knew that even if that grade did not count - even if we knew that it did not count - it would nevertheless give us pause and force us to concentrate more on perfecting our grammar for the next time.

It was in Mr. Holtzman's class that I did my first real analytical paper. To conclude our unit on Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, we were charged with writing a paper comparing Shakespeare's analysis of power in this play with the effects of power as borne out in the Watergate affair. It was a brilliant assignment - I distinctly recall reading through several books on Watergate, after which I had to distill both the play and the history into several overarching thematic points (such as abuse of power), and then provide support for each argument. Not bad for a 9th grade assignment - I believe that every level of Bloom's taxonomy was covered in that one.

And, of course, for all of his seemingly gruff demeanor, Mr. Holtzman cared about us. Whether it was spending time predicting our future careers (he felt that I would be a political speechwriter - eerily prescient in terms of my likes, although I have no real stomach for hardcore politics), doing the New York Times crossword puzzle together with him coaxing the answers out of us, relating the origin of his nickname ("Hoagie"), or pizza parties with his ever-present and beloved falafel (I recall a fondness for lots of techina), I would venture a guess that most of his students have many fond memories, and more importantly can point to several key life lessons that were learned in his class.

Two final quotes that we had hanging in the classroom:

"If you aim for the clouds, you will land in the treetops" - encouraging us to aim high, for even if we fail we will be further along than if we had never tried

"If life were fair, I'd have hair" - this one has becoming more and more meaningful to me over the years :)

He will be missed.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Boys and Gemara - Not So Simple

Rav Herschel Schechter, in addition to being a real Talmid Chacham and a warm and witty individual, also has a knack for making good observations in pithy and memorable ways. A friend of mine once related that Rav Schechter had noted that while there seems to be a push on to give girls the same education that we give to boys, we should really be trying to do the opposite - to give boys the same education that we give to girls. Think about it - girls leave high school (in those programs where they do not learn Gemara, or learn it minimally) having been through much of Tanach and having taken a variety of courses of real, practical Halacha. By contrast, their male counterparts have spent pretty much all of their time learning Gemara, which may have benefitted some of them in a concrete way, but has left many of them confused about Gemara and still ignorant about Tanach and Halacha.

There are so many directions to go with this topic that I am not sure which one to choose first. The question of what is being gained by boys learning Gemara to such an extent has bothered me since I entered education, and it ultimately was the driving force behind my doctoral research (which you can access here if you want). I suppose that the initial question is whether or not schools (and here I am focused mainly on high schools and, to a lesser degree, Yeshivot in Israel) can offer an educationally sound rationale for making Gemara the main subject that is studied as measured in number of hours dedicated to it.

The symposium that I referred to from the Lookjed forum a few posts ago offered a vast range of reasons why it is generally important to learn Gemara. My concern here is more focused: Can a high school principal present a firm rationale explaining why it is crucial for all of the boys in his school, who operate on many different levels of intellectual ability, perhaps come from a variety of religious backgrounds, and who perhaps are going to a variety of different types of higher educational environments - why it is important for every single one of those boys to be taught Gemara to the point that it reduces all other limudei kodesh to secondary status.

Let us assume that studying Gemara is important for one reason or another. I do not deny that and, as a Gemara teacher myself, I can think of a good number of reasons. And let us assume that Gemara cannot easily be taught in short blocks of time, that the analytic nature of Gemara, different from all other subjects, requires time in which the students can carefully work their way through the ins and outs of the Talmudic arguments. To the extent that this is true, I would certainly agree that Gemara should get more time than other subjects - how else will students come to appreciate all of the beauty inherent in this most unique of texts?

However, let's say that 10th grade has just concluded. The students about to enter their junior year have been learning Gemara for an average of 5 years in school, including at least 2 in the intensive high school environment. The top students are beginning to show the ability to learn on their own. The next tier of students, while they still need work on their textual skills, are certainly capable of participating in the discussions about the sugya. But what about the students further down the ladder? What about those kids who have decided that Gemara is just not for them - either they are not good at it, are not interested in it, or some combination of the two or some other reason? Certainly they have had enough exposure to make at least a semi-informed opinion. And yet do we offer them the option of switching into a less-Gemara intensive track? Furthermore, if we want them to go to Yeshiva in Israel, just about every option available to them offers a program that is Gemara-intensive, even more so than their high school programs were! Are we serving these children well? Are we right in hoping that eventually everything will just "click"?

I am going to leave this post off here and allow for comments before I continue. Stay tuned.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

More thoughts on Girls and Gemara

I was thinking of adding in the pressure to get married factor to the reasons why Gemara programs for women get less serious beginning post-high school. The line of thinking would go as follows: Since that is the age when some girls begin thinking about marriage, and within a few years most of them are (a girl who turns 25 with no immediate marriage prospects is generally not seen as a positive development in Orthodox circles, even MO ones), Gemara learning becomes less important for a couple of reasons. First, there are certainly guys out there who see girls learning Gemara as some sort of radical feminists, and therefore some girls try to shed that aspect of their character. Second, and more importantly, if girls are focused on not only marriage but married life, then they may look at their mothers, see that they do not learn Gemara, and conclude that it was a nice and enjoyable subject (perhaps) until now, but now it is time to "get serious".

I was then thinking that this cannot be completely true, as there are obviously plenty of young women who are preparing for careers, including careers that require several years of graduate school, and manage to maintain those pursuits alongside pursuits of marriage prospects.

Then again, it is difficult to take so many things seriously at the same time. Our boys have the luxury of being able to focus on both college and learning simultaneously, firm in the knowledge that they can postpone serious dating for a year or two with no serious injury to their shidduch prospects (I actually spoke with one such individual recently). On the other hand, for a girl to handle career preparation, serious learning, and serious dating may be more than any human should have to handle.

I actually believe that the real difference is one that I alluded to in my previous post on this topic - societal expectations. For whatever reason, we expect that boys who have gone through yeshiva day school and high school will continue to learn Gemara into adulthood and we do not expect the same thing of girls who have had the same experiences. Whether or not this is a proper expectation for boys is a separate discussion that I will address in a separate post. However, the fact remains that either as a result of the explosion of daf yomi (also an interesting topic) or the creation of a system of Gemara for everyone in the post-Shoah world, or for some other reason or variety of reasons, we do expect Jewish men to be involved somehow in the learning of Gemara. By contrast, how many Gemara shiurim for women exist, even in the most modern communities, and how many women even attend or try to attend Gemara shiurim in their communities? How many women learn Gemara at home by themselves or with a chavruta via phone or skype or otherwise?

I am not putting down these realities. My point is to highlight the fact that there are very few role models for our girls when they have to decide how important Gemara is going to be in their lives. Similar to the situation described by Virginia Woolf in A Room of One's Own, where she lamented the lack of female novelists who could serve as role models for girls aspiring to such a career - although I would say that we are moving beyond a dire situation, as there are more and more women who at least continue serious Gemara study beyond their high school years.

We have certainly not reached a tipping point in terms of girls and Gemara, and I doubt that we ever will. I think that certain segments of our society are unlikely to ever place enough importance (if any) on this, and that will keep it a viable option for our girls to decide not to pursue serious Gemara study. However, I do believe that we are succeeding in making it an acceptable pursuit, and to the degree that demand gradually increases, we will be able to continue to provide learning opportunities for these girls.

[One note I did not include in my last post. A small gauge of success can be seen even in Midreshet Lindenbaum. Two decades ago, my wife was taught Gemara by a staff made up almost entirely of men. Now I believe at least half of the shiurim are taught by women. A true sign of success of an educational endeavor is when you train your next generation of teachers who faithfully carry out and execute your mission.]

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Girls and Gemara

My colleague Rav Yaakov Blau recently posted on the Lookjed educators list about the current state of girls' Gemara education.

I think that we are at a stage where modern orthodoxy needs to look at the current state of women’s learning and honestly evaluate what has been accomplished. I’m often asked, since I’ve taught in schools with co-ed gemara classes throughout my teaching career, if the girls are as good as the guys in my gemara classes. What I have found (and of course, these will be generalizations) is that the girls are often stronger than the boys in high school, they’re more attentive, hard working and serious. Yet, after a year in Israel with the boys going to a top yeshiva and the girls going to a top women’s yeshiva, the guys have far surpassed the girls.

The gap only gets wider after that. I believe that the reality is that from the point of the year in Israel and on, men are afforded much greater and intense opportunities than women are. This is not meant to disparage the teachers of the post high school teachers, GPATS, Drisha
etc, who are wonderful people and include some top rate talmidei chachamim, I think they would all agree (the males who teach in these programs) that they had opportunities in learning that their female students will never have. I don’t believe that there is anything
innate limiting women. The best proof is the yoatzot halacha. I believe that after intensely learning hilchot nidda, those women tend to have a vastly superior grasp of those halachot than their male counterparts. Sadly, that is the only example of such a phenomenon.
Perhaps as a community we have accomplished what we need in terms of women’s learning, but I think that we have to be honest with ourselves that we have not created real equality.

And here is my response:

My good friend Rav Yaakov Blau raises some excellent points on the issue of women's learning, and concludes with the statement that we have not created real equality between men's and women's learning, specifically relating to Gemara learning.

I think that it is possible to both agree and disagree with Rav Yaki's statement - it all depends how we define our terms.

1) When we say that we have not created equality, does that mean equality of opportunity or opportunity of results? In terms of equality of opportunity, I think that it is possible to say that we are certainly creating it. Two decades ago, a girl who wanted to study Gemara after high school could go to Midreshet Lindenbaum and then to one class in Stern. Now she has several options in Israel, along with several post-college options. While there are obviously fewer options than the boys have, consider that two decades ago there were far fewer Yeshivot in Israel for boys. My point is that the opportunities increase as demand increase - such education for girls began later and thus is lagging behind in numbers. However, there is no question that there are increasingly more opportunities being offered for women.

2) On the other hand, perhaps Rav Yaki's disappointment is misplaced. He seems to assume that we SHOULD be trying to create equality. If equality means every girl - or at least most of them - learning Gemara in some serious fashion into her college years, then we have to ask if that is a desideratum in our community? While once only the top boys were sent to Yeshiva, certainly in the post-war world the norm has been for every boy to continue to learn Gemara, and for them to continue this as men as well, be it in kollel or in a daf yomi shiur on the train. For whatever reason (and there are doubtless many of them), our community has not demanded the same for their daughters. Take a poll of seniors in high school where both boys and girls have been learning Gemara for 6-7 years - I would be willing to bet that far more boys than girls feel that it is important for them to continue learning Gemara for the rest of their lives.

Cheer up, Rav Yaki. We are certainly making progress on this front, assuming that we define progress as more of our girls having more opportunities to learn at ever-higher levels. How many women taught Gemara in day schools and high schools even ten years ago? Now the numbers are growing, and several of them teach coed classes without anyone batting an eyelash. Does a gap remain in terms of sheer number? Undoubtedly, I think that it always will - but there is no question that we are moving forward.