Sunday, December 30, 2012

Let's Close the Door on Open Houses

A few years ago, I walked into the home of a friend who also happened to be a school administrator (the two often seem to go together).  Expecting him to greet me in a relatively normal fashion, I was a bit surprised to find him frantic and on the phone.  Apparently, his school had just botched their open house and he and his fellow administrators were now scrambling to schedule local parlor meetings and other ways to reach out to the community to get out the message that they had failed to effectively communicate that morning.

What struck me as funny about this was how unnecessary this all should have been.  Yes, his school has several local competitors, but the fact is that most prospective parents and students could probably have told you more or less what made this school unique from the others, which students already attended the school, what the word on the street was about the school, and so on and so on.  In other words - what was the purpose of the open house in the first place?

This issue bothers me every year as we prepare for the open house in my school.  Every school in my area holds one of these events, and the costs in money and time are staggering.  While I am not privy to the specific budget involved, schools spend money on consultants pushing the latest cool model for open houses, for ads in local Jewish papers, for decor and food, and for who knows what else.

On top of that, and perhaps a bigger drain on the school, is the amount of human time involved.  Meeting after meeting of administrators and teachers and lay leaders to make sure that every detail of the open house is planned just so in order to maximize the positive buzz that emerges from the evening.  On top of that, it is almost impossible for an open house to be a winning moment - if it goes well, then you did what was expected.  If it goes poorly, people ask how you can mess something up when you had four months to prepare?!?!

And what is actually the goal of the open house?  On the elementary school level, and perhaps the high school level as well, the main goal is to get people to come back to take a tour when they can get a truer and more unvarnished look at the school - the school in action during the day and not the school when it is dressed up for a two-hour show at night with no students present.*

*Kind of funny that an open house trying to sell a school has everything except the actual students.  I am not counting those students who are carefully selected to serve as smiling faces at the open house, kind of like the smiling kids on the tarmac greeting foreign dignitaries to North Korea.

There may be a second goal of the open house - to give the prospective parents or students a warm fuzzy.  In other words, the open house aims to make an emotional impact that hopefully will carry the day when families are making their decisions.  As I noted before, there is not really much of an intellectual decision to make - most people learn much of their information about schools by talking to people who already attend or by picking up the general "word on the street."  No, the open house tries to paint a rosy picture of the school that will be difficult for you to forget when you are making your decision.  In other words, it aims to sway a $100,000-$150,000 decision based on a gauzy video and some nice presentations in an extremely controlled environment.**

**In no way should this post be seen as denigrating the work that people put into the open houses.  I have seen many dedicated and talented people devote and donate much of their time to producing impressive open house productions.  My point is that all of that work could be better directed towards helping the schools in a thousand other areas.

My colleague, Rabbi Steven Penn (@stevenpenn1) has an idea which I think is brilliant, and is actually done at a higher level of education.  His suggestion is for all schools that serve a given area to have one showcase night in a neutral location.  Each school will have a booth and can do with the booth as they wish, with the goal being for everyone to sign people up for tours.  Obviously, schools who seek to impress with new buildings or flashy productions will lose that aspect of the night, but the savings in man-time and money should be well worth it.  Basically, this is what Yeshivot and Seminaries in Israel do.  At least in the New York/New Jersey area, there is one night in each general region where all Israel schools send a representative in order to present and arouse interest.  After that evening, students and parents investigate their chosen schools, perhaps take a trip to Israel to go on tours, and ultimately come to a decision.  On the whole, it seems to work, and I am not sure why Jewish Day Schools and High Schools in areas where there are choices should not aim to follow their model.

What do we think?  Can this work?

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Newtown Tragedy and the Teacher's Dilemma

This is not going to be a post trying to understand what happened this past Friday in Newtown, Connecticut.  I don't think that anyone will ever or possibly can understand what possesses an individual to murder 26 innocent people, including 20 kindergarten children, in cold blood.  And, honestly, it won't matter all that much even if  the police manage to piece together a motive.  Nothing is going to bring those children or the adults who cared for them back to this world.

This is also not going to be a post about how the concept of school as a fortress has been once again shattered.  After Columbine and Virginia Tech and who knows how many other such tragedies, schools have had in mind the possibility that some deranged individual could, in a flash, turn a ordinary school day into unspeakable horror.  My school, in accordance with State law, conducts drills every month preparing us for what to do in case a dangerous individual is inside or outside of the building.  My sense is that we are all going to take the next drill a lot more seriously.

No, this post is about something that teachers struggle with from time to time when dealing with difficult students.  We are being told that the murderer in Newtown was a loner, the type of kid who would avoid prolonged interaction with others.  He was apparently intelligent, but had personality issues that probably led some of his teachers or guidance counselors to wonder if he was in some way classifiable.

And, let's face it, every school has kids who are like that in some way - withdrawn, shy, socially awkward, perhaps the target of bullies.  After Columbine and other tragedies, there was much talk about how the perpetrators had been socially marginalized and speculation ensued that if we could make schools more inclusive places then we could undercut some of the emotions of exclusion that were suspected to have led to murder.  As such, the past decade has seen a tremendous amount of discussion and programming and legislating about bullying, to the point where certain states have developed "anti-bullying" laws that require schools to file all sorts of paperwork every time one student says anything demeaning to another student.

But now we come to this case, and we have to go back to the drawing board.  This murderer does not seem to have been subject to bullying.  His social marginalization seems to be self-inflicted and there are as yet no accounts of his having been made to suffer at the hands of others (of course, we may yet learn that he was).  At this moment, a mere 60 hours after the tragedy, it seems that the murderer was some who had been mentally ill for some time, and somehow something snapped that brought him to this - or a series of events eventually led to this moment.

And that is where I get to the dilemma that teachers face.  There is an article being passed around social networks today written by a woman whose 13-year old son displayed such violent behavior that she eventually made good on her promise to bring him to a mental hospital after he threatened her over a dispute concerning the pants he was wearing.  While the behaviors of the boy in this article are more extreme than any I have ever seen in my almost 20 years of teaching tweens, I have definitely seen behavior that is a mere few steps below his on the extreme-behavior ladder. Should I ignore a student who locks up when things do not go as planned?  Do I call the school psychologist? The principal? The police?  I would hope that at least the latter two options would be considered a gross overreaction, but I cannot help but think that there are people in Newtown today who knew the murderer a few years ago and are questioning whether they should have done more back then so that 26 people could still be alive today.

It is a bit of a tightrope that we, teachers and parents, walk when it comes to extreme behaviors.  We want to believe that our children are having a rough stretch or are learning how to work through conflicts or are just a bit on the quiet side.  We don't want to be alarmist or offend anyone or stigmatize a child before he or she has had a chance to mature and develop into the fine young man or woman that we are sure they can become with the right guidance and love and nurturing.


But the more that these tragedies continue to dot the landscape of our consciousness, the more that there is a tiny voice in the back of our minds that wonders about that kid who is a little too impulsive, too detached, too difficult to reach.  Does this child have the capacity to, God forbid, do something unspeakable?  Is it OK for me, as a teacher, to think that about any child?  If yes, then is there something that I should be doing, even as minimum as throwing up a red flag to those people who can be helpful?  If not, am I running the risk of ignoring a child who, at the end of the day, needs help?

The answers are not easy, but it is important that we grapple with the questions.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Changing the Culture, One Teacher at a Time

As technology rushes into schools at an ever-increasing pace, we are constantly bombarded by talk about whatever happens to be hot this week.  Khan Academy! Ipads in classrooms! Skyping with your teacher! Attaining warp speed, Mr. Scott!

However, once we clear through all of the hype and excitement, the fact remains that no technology is going to change anything in a classroom without teachers who not only understand how to use that technology, but - far more importantly - understand how that piece of technology can have an impact on the way that learning takes place in their classrooms.  A teacher who has students use an ipad as a cool notetaking machine or who skypes with another classroom or an author as an activity in between curricular pieces is pretty much wasting someone's money, specifically whoever laid out the dough for all of that fancy technology.

The real challenge for school administrators is how to encourage teachers to adopt a mindset that sees technology as a powerful lever that can help them to alter their classrooms to produce more authentic and deeper learning.  The traditional answer has been through large-school professional development where the guru of the month comes in, gives a speech that wows everyone and gets them thinking about how they can employ these new ideas in their classrooms, and then everyone has another cup of coffee, sobers up, and continues teaching in the exact same way as before.  Thankfully, this approach is on the wane, but that still leaves us with the issue of how to move teachers towards incorporating technology in an effective and meaningful fashion.

The approach in my school is to narrow my view.  Instead of saying "How can we make our school a place where all of the teachers practice effective use of technology as a means towards better learning?", we turn our focus to one teacher at a time.  In our minds, there are teachers who already understand how to do this effectively, and they need only general support and encouragement from us to keep doing what they are doing and some guidance on how to take it to the next level.  That is usually enough, as they instinctively know what we am looking for and how to get there.

The real work on our part is with the next category of teachers - those who are willing to learn but are not sure where to begin.  With these teachers, we work one-on-one, on a regular basis, exploring their current curriculum, speculating about how it can possibly be taught in a more effective manner, and only then finding specific pieces of technology that can be helpful.  It's kind of PBL for teachers - we figure out the problem that we are trying to solve and then locate the means and the tools to help solve it.  As a result, we am slowly increasing the number of teachers that are on board.  The key word is slowly- we will not have a full faculty teaching in this manner by the end of the year. But then again, the guru or large-scale approach was not going to do it either.  My hope is that this approach will eventually increase the number of teachers who focus on 21st century skills and good technology integration to the point where they help to set the overall tone within the school.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Thoughts on ipads in the Classroom

As readers of this blog well know, I have just jumped back into PBL in my 7th grade class, with a revamped version of my original PBL Korbanot unit.  In addition to the changes that I have made to the unit, I now have the added advantage of our school's newest ipad cart, thus giving us the ability to have access to either  computer or an ipad every day of the week.

What has been so amazing to watch in the first couple of days with the ipads is both the ease with which the students began using them and the fact that every student used them in a slightly different way.  The ease of use was a no-brainer - several of them have their own ipads already, several more have parents or older siblings who have them (including my son), and many of the others have ipods and so they were at least familiar with the basic interface.

What was more interesting was the way in which each student set out to use their new devices.  I have created a wiki complete with links to source material, instructions, videos, images, and many other resources that they will need to access in order to construct their learning.  But aside from that one constant, the students discovered a wide variety of apps that they can use for taking notes, and many of the apps have different features that sometimes speak to each student's strengths - whether it is ScratchWork with its split-screen ability or Pages and its powerful set of tool or Evernote and its cool elephant logo (and ability in take pictures and insert them into notes, among other things).  I learned a great deal about my students' work habit and I picked up a few tips for apps that I promptly downloaded onto my own ipad.

This highlights one of the real strengths of Project-Based Learning, the freedom for each student to decide how they want to proceed through material, and more importantly the freedom for them to learn how to collate and organize that material.  As my 7th graders move from a stage where they expect notes to be handed to them to the more mature stage where they will have to be create meaningful notes that eventually lead to a meaningful product, the different ways in which they use their ipads shows that they are quickly learning this very important skill.

One other note - I have had almost total student engagement in class the past few days.  I don't mean silence - students can be silent if they are surfing the web on their ipads.  My students have been highly focused and highly motivated, asking crucial questions about material, struggling to understand what their overall purpose is, and learning how to work within their groups so as to maximize their learning.  Again, I see this as one of the main goals of PBL - ensuring that every student is actively learning for as long as possible during the course of the class period.  So far, so good.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

What is Important for Kids to Know? - PBL as a Clarifier

An advantage of teaching a class frontally, as most classes have been taught since time immemorial, is that you as the teacher has total control over what information is taught.  Notice that I said taught not learned.  We can never be 100% sure whether or not our students are learning, and we are often not even sure what we mean by learning.  However, we can be 100% sure that we have taught something, and that often provides comfort to us as teachers.  It is comforting to know that if our students grow up not knowing the function of a mitochondria or the purpose of a semicolon or the correct dates for all Jewish holidays, it is definitely not our fault, since we are sure that we taught them that information.

The problem with this approach is that it makes real learning into almost a non-sequitur.  Students tend to get so focused on the details that they miss the overall idea behind the learning.  How much of studying is about memorizing lists and flashcards - in other words, bits of information that can be easily digested in quick shots without taking the time to step back and appreciate the forest that all of these trees make up?

But are we ready and willing to make the sacrifice in the other direction?  Are we OK if students miss some details here and there as long as they are focused on the big picture?  I think that this is one of the key questions that one needs to consider when constructing a PBL unit.  If you are going to let students loose on information for several weeks, you could have them fill out homework questions and take quizzes every day or so, thus ensuring that they have at least written down every oh-so-important detail at least once.  Or, you can have them decide on their own (with some help and guidance) which details are essential to answering the guiding question of the project.  Yes, they might not be able to list every single part of the cell along with a seven word explanation of its function, but they will have a very solid comprehension of the cell as a whole.

And, let's face it, that is really all that they need.  I am not trying to minimize any particular discipline, and so I will take my own as an example.  I am currently involved in a PBL unit on korbanot (sacrifices).  When I taught the unit frontally, students needed to know every part of the altar in the Holy Temple and what function it served, among myriads of other details.  Now that I am turning the learning over to them and have decided to not give them small summative assessments along the way, I am risking that some of them may not know every one of those parts.  However, they are far more likely to have a deeper understanding of how the altar as a whole functioned in offering of the daily sacrifices (for the uninitiated, it is not so simple).

To take it a step further, if I am truly concerned with my students leaving this unit with some knowledge of the sacrifices and the role that they played in the religious life of Ancient Israel, do I want them clinging to fading memories of a few scattered details, or do I want them feeling that they have a basic understanding of this aspect of worship - and that they can go back and fill in the details later if they desire to pursue it further?  I am gambling on the latter option.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Revamping my approach to PBL

After my initial ventures into the world of Project Based Learning (PBL) last year, I have had several months to think about my experiences, to read up on how others approach PBL, to meet PBL rockstars such as Suzie Boss (@suzieboss) and to just generally consider in what ways I could alter and improve my Project Based Learning units.  A few thoughts as I am about to launch my first redo:

1) The projects should not all look the same.  When I launched my PBL unit on korbanot (sacrifices) last year, the basic structure of the unit was for the students to follow my original curriculum that I had used for the past decade, only to proceed at their own pace and with some high-tech enhancements (such as instructional videos that I created using Camtasia Studio).  I also included some extra material for some built-in enrichment for those students who wanted to push themselves a bit further.  Overall, I felt that it was not a bad plan, and the fact that the students generally took to the new approach seemed to justify that feeling.

However, when it came to the students' projects, I had a feeling that something was not as right as it could have been.  Most projects seemed to be variations on each other, with the main difference being students' various strengths in PowerPoint and their creativity in designing their presentations.  While I sense that each group did have a valuable learning experience, I think that it fell short of what could have been.

With that in mind, I am altering the unit this time in several ways.  For starters, I am expanding the range of materials that is open to the students.  While still guiding them towards certain key areas, I want them to come study those areas because the project drives them to it, not because the curriculum page tells them that they must.  As before, there will be the opportunity for some students to push themselves farther and some to  merely satisfy the requirements.

I am also making the project more open-ended.  On round one, the goal was for the students to envision what the Beit HaMikdash (Temple) would look like if modern technology was incorporated.  A creative idea, but ultimately somewhat limited.  The new version will ask the students to construct a convincing case for including this oft-neglected topic in the general curriculum, including presenting a sample curriculum outline.  I am enlisting several Jewish educators to serve as the panel to whom the students will have to present (if you are interested in being a part of this, please let me know).

2) Students need to be placed into groups.  For my first try, I stayed away from following this piece of advice, figuring that it would be easier for the students to handle the new modality of learning if they could at least have the comfort of working with a friend.  But, as they say in teen romance movies - "It's not you, it's me" - I think that I was more concerned about how the kids would react than I needed to be.  And so, I spent a few key minutes making groups that will combine students of different strengths.  I was not as concerned with who is friends with whom - one key 21st century skill is learning how to collaborate with all sorts of people, and being able to collaborate with a classmate who may not be your best friend actually seems like a fairly easy version of this.

3) Assessments.  One of the challenges of a PBL - actually, a double-edged challenge - is how to ensure that the students are learning as they go off on their own, and how to have enough "grades" during the period that they are working on the unit.  The easy solution for this would seem to be to have the students complete a series of small assignments such as homeworks and quizzes as they proceed through the materials.  while this makes sense from the teacher side of things, or at least from the bookkeeping side of things, it creates more busywork that does not in itself have much of an educational outcome.

A better use of everyone's time is to have the students create some living and dynamic document or product that must be updated on a regular basis.  It can be something as simple as a Googledoc or a wikispace page or a blog.  Whatever the medium, it should encourage students to reflect on what they have learned over the past day or two and integrate into what they learned previously in the unit.  In this way, their final project will gradually emerge, rather than being something that they have to put together at the end of the unit, looking back over weeks of notes (the way they currently study for tests or work on summative projects).  This goes to what I consider to be the heart of PBL, which is deeper and more meaningful learning every step of the way, not only because the students are responsible for their own learning, but because they become more invested in it.

Undoubtedly there are more changes and adjustments that I will be making as this unit moves forward.  Stay tuned.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Kids are Amazing - Reflections on the Superstorm

A few years ago, my seven-year old required emergency surgery - three days before my sister's wedding.  In the lead-up to the surgery, I asked the doctor if my child would heal in time to walk down the aisle.  An audacious request, but you at least have to ask.  Without batting an eyelash, the doctor replied, "Kids are resilient."  Sure enough, no one at the wedding would have guessed that one of the adorable nieces and nephews walking down that aisle had been under the knife just a few days before.

In turns out that kids are not only physically resilient, they are mentally and emotionally resilient as well.  This past week has been an excruciatingly trying time in the Northeastern United States, as Hurricane/Superstorm Sandy effectively shut down large portions of New York City, washed away parts of Long Island and the Jersey Shore, left millions without power for days (and some about to enter week two without electricity), and created gas lines reminiscent of the 1970's oil embargoes.  Many schools were shut for all of last week, and some remain closed this week or have had to open to alternate locations due to storm-related damage.

On an individual level, the week has been a taxing one.  For the millions of home without power and heat, staying at home meant coping with ever-dropping temperatures and having to read or play games by flashlight, something which is an adventure the first night but quickly loses its appeal.  Many people have taken up residence in the homes of family and friends, but the sense of being uprooted is never a pleasant one.  People have spent days in malls and libraries and Starbucks stores just for some warmth and some power for their devices.

And so after a week without school (I would never call it a vacation - it was anything but that), we opened our doors today, ready to deal with kids who had been without power for days, kids who might be going home to someone else's house, kids who have been through a week the likes of which most of the adults in the building have never been through.  And then, as they always seem to do, the kids came into school like almost nothing had happened.  Yes, they all had stories to share, stories that had happened to them or their neighbors or their relatives.  Yes, some of them are still displaced and had that look of waning hope that by the end of the day the lights would go on.  Yes, some were grateful that the school was providing school lunch for everyone, even those who normally bring from home.  But on the whole, today was a surprisingly normal day from start to finish.

It is said often that kids crave routines and guidelines and boundaries.  That as much as kids seem to want to be able to do things their own way, most of them want to operate in a world where the basics are clearly defined and there are safety nets around them.  Seeing our students today reinforced how true that is. As much as kids do not love the work or the tests or the rules, something in them appreciates that school represents a stable part of their lives, and after a week of instability they are happy to be back with their friends and even with their teachers.  They are indeed resilient, and the fact that they treat it as something so normal is perhaps the most amazing part of all.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

A Challenge for Project-Based Learning

I originally got into Project-Based Learning (PBL) as a way to change up my classroom, make learning more engaging, and ensure that more or my students were more actively involved in their learning for as much time as possible. By taking three weeks of frontal-learning classes and turning them into three weeks of a learning lab experience, I feel that I definitely achieved my goals, or at least made great strides towards achieving them. The PBL lessons that I designed for my class provided a solid structure for my students, and I was able to move around and work with small groups of students, targeting my instruction to their specific learning needs. Beyond that, students were able to move at their own pace, and thus on any given day I could have ten groups of students at ten different points in the curriculum.

I am now embarking on what I consider to be an even bigger challenge for PBL. I have just produced my first PBL unit for Behrman House Publishers, which specializes in creating materials for Jewish supplementary schools. For those unfamiliar, these are schools that serve students who attend public school during the day who then spend a few hours on Sunday mornings or on weekday afternoons learning some of the basics of Judaism. In general, the curriculum in such schools tends to focus on holidays, well-known Bible stories, prayer, and Jewish character traits (midot). Schools that offer more intensive courses sometimes include Jewish history, Jewish philosophy, and more text-based classes.

One obvious challenge of teaching in such schools is that the motivation level of the students is significantly below that of normal school classes. Students tend to be tired, either because it is Sunday morning or after a full day of school, and the fact that such schools often do not have grades removes even that external motivator. Many students are simply counting the days until their bar or bat mitzvah, after which time they no longer have to go to Hebrew school (although exceptions exist - I taught in a wonderful Hebrew High School where over 300 students above bar and bat mitzvah enthusiastically come every Sunday morning to learn). Beyond that, since school often meets only once per week, it is difficult for a teacher to build momentum from one week to the next, and if a holiday knocks out school then weeks can go between class sessions.

This is where PBL is a calculated gamble for such schools. On the one hand, it may be exceedingly difficult to expect students in such an environment to run on their own with materials that they may or may not understand. What works in a regular classroom ("OK everyone get into pairs and work on this project!") can potentially fall flat in a classroom of students with low motivation. Furthermore, the time lag between class meetings can result in needing extra time each lesson to remind the students what they are doing - in contrast to my PBL students who would arrive in class before me and be deep into their work by the time that I arrived.

On the other hand, PBL may be exactly what Hebrew School needs. Much has been written in recent years about how the supplementary school model has proven to be inadequate, and how it often leaves its students with a bitter taste about Judaism. That makes sense - if your main exposure to some club involved being dragged out of bed on Sunday morning to learn about some language that you don't speak or some prayers that you don't say or some strange Biblical characters you would also be unlikely to feel an affinity towards that club. One of the key goals of Hebrew School, in my opinion, is to inspire the students to have positive feelings about their Jewish heritage in a meaningful and lasting way. That last clause is crucial - if Hebrew School becomes nothing more than playing games with Jewish words thrown in (think gefilte fish and herring on a Candyland board) then the kids eventually realize that they are wasting their time, even though they may be enjoying the moment. On the other hand, if the learning is both genuine and fun, if it appeals to the students' mind while also allowing them to get up, work and schmooze with their friends, and engage with materials that are not simply boring texts (and Behrman House's materials are certainly not boring texts), then perhaps PBL can help to enliven the classroom experience for these students and help them not only learn something, but be inspired to continue learning.

As I said, this is a challenge, both for me as the author of these units and for the individual teachers who will be using them and putting them into action. As I (hopefully) get feedback from the classrooms, I will post more about how this approach is working in real life.

Friday, August 31, 2012

I Thought Harvard People Were Supposed to be Smart

Breathless news reports today are informing us about a large-scale cheating scandal at the hallowed Harvard University. It seems that a significant percentage of students in a class of over 250 undergraduates are accused of collaborating with one another on a take-home exam this past spring. The administration is appropriately exercised about this betrayal of "trust upon which intellectual inquiry at Harvard depends." Students, if found guilty, face punishments as potentially severe as being asked to leave the University for up to one year.

Serious stuff, indeed. But I have to ask: Aren't Harvard professors supposed to be, you know, kind of smart? Do they truly believe that on a take home final exam - a high-stakes test in an already high stakes environment, done during a time of year when students have several other such tests to take - that some students would not be looking for some extra help, or a shortcut, or some other advantage??? Yes, the students, if guilty, violated a universal academic code, but how can anyone be so naive as to be surprised about this?

As much as it runs counter to so many nice character traits and Rabbinic maxims of judging people favorably and all, I always assume that there will be someone who tries to take advantage of every system. We ask a lot of our students at every level of education. My students are in school from 8 until 4:40, then try to cram in homework, projects, studying, sports teams, dance practice, and untold hours of texting and web surfing - all while getting a decent night's sleep. Eventually something has to give, and if students feel that some of their work is mere busy work or that they cannot figure why they should be motivated to do their own work, you better believe that they are going to "collaborate."

I have found two antidotes to potential cheating- one technical and one substantive. The technical one is actually a technological one. As my students do more and more work online, I can now see when work was submitted and, in some cases such as work done on a Googledoc, I can track all of the edits. This avails me of much more knowledge about the students' progress and process than if I would simply ask them to hand something in, and the fact that they know what I know sometimes serves as a deterrent to the more blatant forms of cheating. Not perfect - I believe that every system can be gamed - but not a bad start.

The real antidote is in the type of work that I assign. The easier it is to simply spit back material, the easier it is to cheat without too much fear of being caught. However, as students are asked to be more creative, analytical, and original, they realize that their work is going to stand out and similarities to another's work will be painfully obvious. Can they still get around this system - yes, but it is much, much harder to do so.

So, yes, the Harvard cheating scandal is awful and horrible and all of that, but it should not be a surprise to anyone. The real question is what type of test the professor had given and what had he or she done to increase the chances that students would be more concerned with intellectual inquiry than with simply getting the work done and over with.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Are We Outsourcing Our Memories to Google?

(crossposted on

Hanging in my office is a slide that reads "If your students can Google the answer, then you are asking the wrong question.". This pithy aphorism expresses the ever-more-widely-held view that as teachers, we should not be spending our time drilling reams of facts into our students. In an age of Google and smartphones and iPads and wifi, our students can instantly and enjoyably find out all of the minutiae that we want them to learn. Rather, we should spend most of our instructional time focused on imparting either skills or deeper analysis to our young charges.

By contrast, there is a debate in the Talmud over what type of individual should be appointed to lead a congregation. Should the community search for someone who possesses vast stores of knowledge, or should they instead turn towards a leader who has remarkable analytical skills? After some discussion, the conclusion reached is that the individual with the greater knowledge is preferable, as people need someone who has the ability to draw on what he has learned in order to answer their questions, not someone who will answer their every query with another question.

At first blush, these statements do not seem capable of existing within the same world, or at least within the same educational framework. Should we be loading our students down with facts in hopes that we are giving the proper tools for leadership, or will their adult lives be best served by being able to think critically? In some sense, there are several reasons why the fact-cramming approach seems to be somewhat passé. Many of us perhaps recall school as being an endless procession of reading and memorizing, much of it in subject areas that did not interest us in the least. The increasing popularity of flipped learning, blended learning, project based learning, and all of their cousins has put a stress on the teacher's role in stimulating critical thinking skills. And, of course, there's ample research that cramming information is among the worst ways to learn something for long-term recall purposes. Seemingly, the days of the Jeopardy champion as hero and role model are behind us.

On the other hand, it strikes me that there is something to be said for accumulating knowledge, and not via Google. In order to analyze material, you need to have material to analyze, and the more that you are working with, the better your analysis can potentially be. One of the true joys of being a lifelong learner is seeing how different strands of one’s education continuously overlap and come to bear on one another. Additionally, before you can Google a fact, you need to know what you are searching for. We look for new knowledge in context, trying to add one fact at a time to our existing knowledge base, hopefully in a way that helps us to keep our learning organized in our heads. To my mind, that is a major role that teachers play - pointing to students towards new knowledge in a way that makes sense and in a way that will allow them to retain that knowledge and be able to access it for future use.
So, who is right? Should we allow Google to serve as our outsourced memory bank while we spend our time engaged in creative and analytical intellectual pursuits? Or should we aim to acquire as much knowledge, as measured in raw facts, as possible, in the hopes of creating solid foundations for future learning, plus the occasional know-it-all who is a good teammate for Trivial Pursuit?

My sense is that the two statements that I began with actually balance one another, and hopefully provide us with a healthy and even-keeled approach to take as the educational pendulum continues to swing away from the fill-them-up-with-facts approach and towards the make-them-think approach. There is no question that our students need to learn facts, and lots of them. The question is how we are going to go about getting all of that information into their heads. Are we going to lecture at them all day, and follow that up with simplistic homework or other assessments that merely ask them to fill in blanks? If that is our approach, then we may as well just teach them to use Google well, as we are ultimately not even teaching them the information that we want them to know. However, if we teach our students basic material, or even more advanced material, and then have them review it in a way that not only forces them to repeat and rehearse the information, but also requires them to give it serious thought, in a way that Google cannot help them, then not only will we create students who can think, but also students with vast and useful funds of knowledge.

Friday, August 24, 2012

The Baseball Season and the School Year

I love baseball. No major revelation there - baseball seems to be the sport of choice of intellectuals, both real and self-styled. George Will, Stephen Jay Gould, A. Bartlett Giamatti - the list goes on and on of men who were primarily academics or achieved fame for thoughtful discourse in other fields and yet could not resist penning some significant tome about our national pastime. Perhaps it is because it is a game that even the least athletic individual could see himself being able to play (Seriously - football offensive linemen are basically houses with eyes, but Phil Rizzutto is a hall of famer). Perhaps baseball appeals to eggheads because its slow pace allows time to calculate pi to three thousand places in between pitches. Or perhaps the critics of baseball are right, and baseball is a boring sport whose fans are boring people.

I'll let other people argue those points in forums (fora?) that are more appropriate for such discussions. For me, certainly as I get older and possibly wiser, baseball has several global areas of appeal, one of which stands out as we stand at the precipice of a new school year: the long season.

Baseball's long season is unique. In football, if you lose your first three games, you start planning for next year. In baseball, you have 159 more chances (When the 1998 Yankees won a then-record 114 games, they began the season 1-3, and pundits everywhere were writing how no team had ever started a season like that and gone on to win it all. So much for that tidbit). In 1994, some guy named Tuffy Rhodes hit three home runs on opening day, and a new Babe Ruth was crowned. Rhodes hit a total of 13 in his major league career and moved to Japan the next season. Last year, the Pittsburgh Pirates, who had not had a winning season since the first Bush administration, were in first place for a week in July. They finished the season over 20 games out of first (although they are having a nice season this time around).

The point is that the baseball season, like life itself, is long. Very, very long. The events of a week or even a month can be overwhelmed by the events of five other months. Many players who make the all-star team in July wind up having just slightly above average seasons when all is said and done.

(And don't get me started on the career thing. Many a player is deemed to be a future hall of famer after two or three impressive seasons, only to find out that being that good for a decade or more is not so easy.)

Applying this to education is a simple shift, and one that is apropos for the beginning of school - which takes place next week in the NY/NJ area and has already happened in many other locations. The school year is long - there are slightly more days in the school year than there are games in the baseball season. Opening day is at once exciting, exhilarating, and exhausting. Students are eager to learn, lessons are well-planned, books and notebooks and pens and everything else is exactly where it needs to be. But then we get into the heart of the year - schedules get crowded, fatigue sets in, events and activities and programs compete for our precious teaching time. Students reach new milestones in their personal maturation and with that often comes new challenges for them, for their parents, and for their teachers. The long year presents plenty of opportunities for mishaps, miscues, and flat-out bad days.

On the other hand, as in baseball, it allows plenty of room to iron out all of the wrinkles. Over the course of a long season, those who are truly good will prove themselves, while those who are mere pretenders will founder on the rocks. In school as well, those of us who believe in what we are doing, who genuinely care for our students, and who are dedicated to making each class and each day an opportunity for our students to learn something new and to grow in some small way - we will be able to work through those rough days and be able to look back in June on what has been another successful year.

Wishing everyone - teacher, parent, and student alike - much success as we embark on another exciting school year.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Can PBL be Inspirational?

We all remember them. The teachers who sparked an interest that became a passion that became a career. The professors whose command of their subject matter and brilliant lecturing style made attending a class about Etruscan Art as much fun as mindlessly watching Animaniacs. The instructors that we still talk about and quote with reverence and fondness decades after we have left their classrooms.

After spending two or three decades in school, each of us can likely point to a few teachers scattered over the course of our educational experiences who inspired us in some way, be it intellectually, spiritually, morally, or otherwise. Sometimes what we remember about them is what they actually taught us, but more often than not, I suspect, our memories are more visceral and emotional - we remember the excitement that we had for their class, our desire to learn more from them, and the life lessons that we possessed upon emerging from their classrooms.

Can a Project-Based Learning (PBL) classroom produce this type of inspiration? As readers of this blog are well aware, I am a big proponent of PBL as a more natural and mature approach to learning, and a way to ensure that more of our students are more actively learning more of the time, and in a way that will result in better and deeper understanding of the material. I fully think that it is worth the extra effort that it requires of teachers, both on the preparation level and in the classroom on a day-to-day basis. The more that a student's day is conducted in PBL (and related type) environments, the more likely that student is to have a rich and meaningful educational experience, and particularly an experience that he or she is meaningfully engaged in.

However, my question aims for the next level - can this produce the type of inspiration that we recall receiving from the best of our own teachers? Where did that inspiration come from? Did it come from finally understanding the concept behind the Pythagorean Theorem or the causes of World War I? Did it result from the feeling of satisfaction that came from completing a creative project demonstrating a principle in physics? Was it in any way related to the curriculum?

My sense is that the actual curriculum is merely a context for inspiration. The fact that I love American History is not simply because it is a good story. More likely, it is due to the fact that over a six year span, five of those years were spent with two teachers who demonstrated a genuine interest in their students, a passionate love for their subject, and a single-minded devotion to trying to imbue their young charges with the same feeling. While not every student caught the fever, it was inevitable that some would - and many did. Can this happen in a PBL classroom? Does the less-structured and less-teacher-centric nature of the PBL classroom provide a framework within which the best teachers can connect with their students in a way that they will not only facilitate learning but will be able to inspire an enthusiasm that will remain far beyond the end of the course?

My sense is that PBL definitely provides an opportunity for inspiring students, but like everything else in PBL, it takes more work. A PBL teacher is not going to elevate students through brilliant oratory or by overwhelming them with encyclopedic knowledge of the subject. Rather, the inspiration will come through the working with small groups of students, through helping students organize themselves as they struggle to direct their own learning, through providing every student with everything that they need to emerge as independent learners. Students are unlikely to walk out of every day of a PBL class wowed at what they learned. But they are more likely to look back at the overall experience and be amazed at the type of learners they have become - and realize that there was someone guiding and encouraging that entire process.

Monday, August 13, 2012

The Disconnected Educator

Admittedly, that is a strange title for a blog post. And certainly a strange title for a blog post from an educator who evangelizes about the wonders of Twitter, RSS feeds, wikis, and every other way to increase our connectedness to one another.

However, this post is really and truly about the flip side of all of that. I just returned from a three-week family vacation in Israel. Given the many costs involved with the trip, when it came to getting a phone, I opted to simply get one that could make phone calls (texting came with it, but I never used it as the phone had no keyboard of any sort and I am spoiled in that regard) - no data plan. In other words, I was able to check my email and get online while we were at our home base, but while we were out seeing the country, locating the best spot to have schwarma, or just visiting friends and family, there was no way for my to quickly check my inbox or a score update.

Even further, since I only brought an ipad with me, my time online was more limited as I am not as comfortable flipping around from one app to another. My Twitter life has been almost nonexistent for the last three weeks. My Facebook posts were minimal, as I do not announce to the world when I am half a planet away from home (OK, maybe a bit paranoid). Even when I did check in on work-related emails, I only responded when they were urgent.

And the shocking result? I survived. Not only did I manage to make it through without constant connectivity, but it was truly liberating. I was able to give my full attention to my family and our vacation without feeling that pull from my holster to make "just a quick check." More than that, I returned home not feeling as if I had to immediately get back to my online life. I have slowly perused items in my RSS reader. I have ignored whatever I missed on Twitter - there is too much to read even when you are sitting at your desk, certainly too much to catch up on after a few weeks.

For all that we talk about the need to be online and to make good use of social media, we have to balance that talk with the idea that we do not need to be engaged in social media 24 hours a day. As with many things that we do, our initial forays into new apps or forms of media can be marked by an all-consuming need to spend a lot of time posting, tweeting, tagging, linking, and just reading all that others have to offer us. However, eventually it is crucial to bring a sense of equanimity and calm to our online worlds. It is rare that life is moving so fast that we will completely miss out on things if we log in a few hours later, and vacations are meant to be enjoyed, not to be a source of stress because we are not as connected as we always are. If we have done a good job in building our social networks, then we should have constructed networks of people who understand that we all need a break once in a while, perhaps even for a few hours every day when we focus on our work or our family or on some mindless activity that is important to our mental health. Taking a big break helped to drive this point home to me. Hopefully it stays with me as life kicks back into high gear.

Monday, August 6, 2012

A follow-up to Beware the Overhaul

My post yesterday, commenting on Rabbi Dov Lipman's recent comments in the Jewish Press, generated a number of comments and discussions on this blog and in other forums. One strain of comments suggested that I essentially agree with some of the reforms that Rabbi Lipman proposed, but I was merely put off by his manner of presenting them.

Upon reflection, I think that while there may be a kernel of truth to that idea, the fact is that Rabbi Lipman and I disagree on a very fundamental concept. True, we both seem to feel that the standard Yeshiva curriculum needs to become more varied. Personally, I believe that at a certain point, perhaps by 11th grade, we should allow students the option of having a non-Gemara intensive track for those who, after 5 or 6 years, do not find Gemara to be all that appealing. In fact, this notion lay behind my doctoral research, which looked at high school seniors' motivation to learn Gemara. However, I come to these ideas from an educational and curricular perspective, while Rabbi Lipman seems to feel that a shift in the curriculum will produce better Jews.

What is not clear to me is why Rabbi Lipman does not think that Gemara is up to the task of creating menschen. The Gemara itself offers one opinion that a person who wants to be a "chassid" (pious individual) should study the Order of Nezikin, which focuses on laws of damages. How does the study of complicated civil law make one pious? The most common explanation that I have heard is that these laws are, at their root, all about how we treat one another. I am currently learning the beginning of Bava Batra with one of my children, and an overriding concept in the early chapters is about hezek re'iyah - damage that's done by being able to see into another's property. The law thus inculcates the idea that another person's privacy is so sancosanct as to make it illegal to violate it even in a small manner. Numerous other examples abound throughout Nezikin, and the rest of the Gemara as well.

By the same token, the eternal messages that Rabbi Lipman writes about that are contained in Tanach can be muted if taught improperly. Biblical critics study the same text that we focus on in Yeshiva, but they look for things other than spiritual and moral enlightenment in that text. Even within our own schools, an intense focus on technical minutiae or too much time spent on skills to the total elimination of understanding the message can drain the Torah of its ability to illuminate the proper path that we should be following in life.

And so, the solution to Rabbi Lipman's crisis is not to change what we teach but how we teach it. If our students do not understand why we are learning what we are learning, if they cannot connect the text to their broader lives, if they are not impacted in a deep sense by a great lesson, then we as teachers have to see what more we can be doing. Obviously, enlightenment will not happen every day for every student, but the cumulative effect should aim at something more than mere ability to learn (not that that is a bad goal, either). I am always gratified when I meet a former student who many years later still remembers a Rashi or a piece of Gemara that I taught him. But when I meet a former student who tells me that there is a way in which he lives his life that he learned from me, then I feel that I have done what my job is supposed to be.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Beware of the Overhaul: A Response to Rabbi Dov Lipman

I have recently become acquainted with the writings of Rabbi Dov Lipman, an American-born educator living in Beit Shemesh. Rabbi Lipman is basically an American charedi who is attempting to bring some moderation to the overall charedi mindset in Israel. To his credit, he is the rare American who has moved to Israel and actually gotten himself involved in the political scene.

However, his most recent column, "Overhauling Orthodox Education to Make Better Jews" has several fundamental problems that I would like to address.

1) Rabbi Lipman's basic thesis is that Yeshiva day school and high school education has failed, insofar as we are producing students with minimal Jewish knowledge, low levels of religious motivation, and a total lack of middot. He begin his article with a story of a boy in between years one and two at a post-high school hesder Yeshiva who rudely and offensively overcharged a Rabbi for the simple act of giving him a ride, claiming that the high charge was because he also had to spend time driving home after the errand.

I would have hoped that, as a respected and respectable writer, Rabbi Lipman could do better than take one individual and use him as a symbol for all that is wrong with an entire system. While he briefly admits that this young man was an exception, that admission seems to be made just so he can say that he made it, and his essay continues on the assumption that this child represents a new low that aloof Orthodox education has reached. Is it normal for journalists and politicians to routinely use scant anecdotal evidence to bolster larger and more substantive agendas? Of course. Do I expect more and better from Rabbi Lipman? Yes I do.

2) It is unclear to me who exactly Rabbi Lipman is addressing. As his sample student is an attendee of a hesder Yeshiva, I would assume that he is speaking to the American Modern Orthodox community. Also, as the reforms that he calls for stress a decrease in Gemara learning in favor of Tanach and other subjects, I would assume that he is not addressing the charedi community, where such an idea would never fly.

OK, perhaps it is not so unclear. But assuming that Rabbi Lipman is addressing the American Modern Orthodox community, which he is connected to through his involvement in various post-high school institutions, I wonder why he thinks that he is coming forward with new ideas. Has he ever read a Lookjed digest, where most if not all of his reforms have been discussed and debated over the past decade and a half? Has he spoken substantively with American educators about the challenges that they face in encouraging religious enthusiasm in 21st century America? And does he realize that many Orthodox schools already have a more varied curriculum than the one that he seems to imagine them to have? True, American students tend not to have the familiarity with as many verses of Tanach as their Israeli counterparts, but they often have far stronger critical thinking and analytical skills (the differences between American and Israeli education will have to be a separate post).

And Rabbi Lipman is by no means the most significant person to make this appeal. A decade ago, Mori V'Rabi HaRav Aharon Lichtenstein made a call to shift the curriculum away from Gemara and towards more learning of Mishna and Rambam. That article led to a vigorous and healthy bate with his student, Rav Yehuda Brandes (since translated and published in English), but the fact is that no major change in the curriculum came about as a result. Rav Herschel Schechter at YU has been quoted as saying that instead of trying to teach our girls Gemara like we do the boys, we should try to teach the boys Tanach and Halacha as we do the girls. Not that anyone is listening to that statement, either.

If Rabbi Lipman wants to succeed where others have not on this front, he should take the step of seeing post-high school education as what it really is - a continuation of high school, not the place where American high school students' religiosity is "saved". He should see his classes as part of year 13 of a curriculum and work with those who came before him to figure out what the students should be doing at each stage of their education.

3) Rabbi Lipman's article plays into the discontent that people often feel about their children's education, at a time when too many people are willing to see the negative and overlook the positive. In so many ways, American yeshiva day schools are succeeding like never before. Witness the growth of the number of students who attend Yeshivot in Israel or summer learning programs or mishmar programs. On the secular side, our students' achievements match up more than favorably with their counterparts from some of the best schools in the country. And chessed abounds, whether it is the growing trend of a chessed project as part of the bar and bat mitzvah celebrations, school-run chessed programs, or those that are community based.

Of course, if your child comes home with a bad grade or has a rough day, you as a parent are often more inclined to see the issues as systemic, and it is towards this mindset that Rabbi Lipman's article appeals. In short, it is not helpful. If he felt that the off-the-derech situation was due to a malaise within the Yeshiva system, or that the growth of white collar Jewish crime was a direct outgrowth of things learned in our system, or that we were producing a generation of ignoramuses, then perhaps there would be something to talk about. But one rude kid does not a failed system make. There are many reasons to support altering the curriculum - in all streams of Orthodoxy- but Rabbi Lipman does not convincingly make the case in this article.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

The Siyum HaShas - What Are You Going to do Next?

Wednesday night at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey (and order the course of this week and next in many other locations around the world), thousands of Jews came together to celebrate the completion of the latest cycle of Daf Yomi, the page-a-day learning of the entire Talmud that ultimately takes about seven and a half years from start to finish. Having utilized the Daf Yomi approach for two cycles, I can definitely attest to the many benefits that learning Daf Yomi has to offer.

First and foremost, someone who stays with Daf Yomi for an entire cycle has the opportunity to see the entire length and breadth of the Talmud, the central source for Jewish law and Rabbinic wisdom. While such a breakneck pace is not ideal for retention, it is impossible for some of what has been learned to not stick, and for those who teach Daf Yomi classes, the rate of retention is undoubtedly much higher.

Second, Daf Yomi is an amazing exercise in self-discipline. It is one thing to have a chavruta (study partner) that you meet with a few times a week, assuming that both of your schedules can be made to work. It is something else entirely to go over 2,700 days in a row (that's more than Cal Ripken Jr., and he got off days and winters) and never miss that hour of Talmud study. This includes working around Yom Kippur and Tisha B'Av and business trips and vacations and weddings and the million and a half other things which make up our daily lives. To do it for a month or a year is already quite an accomplishment. To do it for a cycle is indeed praiseworthy.

There are many more reasons to recommend Daf Yomi and to praise those who take part in it. However, I want to pose a challenge to those who just finished and are thinking of getting started again (or perhaps already have). The challenge is to consider whether you can do better. Again, let me be clear that I am in no way denigrating Daf Yomi and all that a person accomplishes by doing it. However, for someone who has already completed one or more cycles, what is the reason to start over? Is it simply a reflex after so many years? It is a sense that everyone is doing it? Daf Yomi shiurim often take on the air of an exclusive club, with those who are involved forming a camaraderie which goes beyond their Torah study. If you are starting over, is it for the social benefits as much as for the learning?

Perhaps it is for the discipline that I mentioned before. That would certainly be a worthy reason. Having stopped Daf Yomi six years ago after my last Siyum (I was on my own schedule at times), I can certainly attest to the fact that while it is difficult at times to stick to the schedule, it is motivating to know that you always have a set piece of study that you must engage in each day. Sometimes, having a less-defined course of study makes it easier to skip a day now and again.

But whatever the reason, I think that it behooves all those who are serious enough about their learning to do Daf Yomi to ask themselves if they can push themselves a bit further. Face it, doing a second cycle of Daf Yomi barely counts as "chazara" (review) insofar as one's learning of each page is separated by seven and a half years for his last learning of that page. Perhaps incorporate some degree of real review into this cycle. Perhaps add another commentary to your study. Perhaps commit yourself to really read through the notes in the Artscroll or all of the additions in the new Koren/Steinsaltz or subscribe to and read one of the many Internet-based series of insights to the daily Daf.

Or perhaps even move away from the Daf. Choose a masechet (tractate of Talmud) and learn through it slowly and deliberately with the depth that Daf Yomi's pace does not allow for. Explore another area of the vast sea of Torah that you are not sufficiently acquainted with, be it Tanach or Halacha or Jewish thought. True, there are no international celebrations for any of these other schedules of learning, but the goal is for each one of us to raise our own levels of learning to the maximum that we have been granted the capability to achieve. On a communal level, I hope that Daf Yomi continues to provide the steady and constant opportunities for Torah learning that serves as its backbone. But on an individual level, I hope that each one of us has the honesty and sense of self to inquire of ourselves whether or not there are broader vistas that we should be exploring as well.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Open your ears,Close your minds

I recently finished reading all four volumes of Robert Caro's magisterial biography of Lyndon Johnson, a work that was supposed to take three volumes but now will actually need a fifth in order to complete the story. As in his first book, about Robert Moses and the creation of modern New York City, Caro focuses on power and how it is accumulated and used. He takes a clear and harsh stance on Johnson's ruthlessness in accruing power to himself, and the lengths he would go to, even destroying another man's career, in order to score political points. He paints Johnson as a bully and a master of the political arts who used those skills primarily to advance his lifelong goal of reaching the White House.

However, and this is to my mind one of the outstanding features of these books, Caro also goes to great lengths to highlight the benevolent side of Johnson. He repeatedly hearkens back to the time Johnson spent teaching impoverished Mexican children, when he was the only teacher who ever truly cared about them. He expends countless words on Johnson's role in forcing through passage of multiple Civil Rights bills over the decades-long objections and filibusters of the Senatorial Southern Bloc, noting that Johnson truly believed in this cause, and not only because supporting it could help him be elected to national office one day. And, in the most recent volume, Caro speaks glowingly of how Johnson's brilliant command of the way that the levers of governmental power worked helped him to ensure a smooth transition in the days and weeks after the Kennedy assassination, thus soothing a shocked and traumatized nation.

What is notable in this regard is that Caro does not feel the need to issue disclaimers every time he writes something positive about Johnson. He leaves no doubt that he is not a fan of Johnson, and yet he does not qualify his praise with silly non-sequiturs such as "well, Hitler was nice to his dogs also". Caro is able to recognize that people are complex, and that even dominant personality traits leave room for other, often contradictory ones to manifest themselves as well.

In this sense, Caro seems to be unique in today's world, and certainly in today's political climate. So much of so-called enlightened discourse has descended into something akin to sports fandom. When one roots for a sports team, he tends to do so blindly, seeing all the players on his team as heroes, and members of the opposition as evil. It was a difficult moment of cognitive dissonance for Yankee fans when Wade Boggs, the Roger Clemens, then Johnny Damon switched from red socks to pinstripes - suddenly these villains had become the good guys. Of course, that is ok because, as Jerry Seinfeld once said, being a sports fans basically means rooting for laundry - you want the team to win and your feelings about the humans inside the uniforms are connected to which uniform they are wearing.

But this mindset moves from harmless to pernicious when it enters areas of discourse that actually have an impact on the way that people's lives are lived and governed. Political discourse seems more and more like rooting for a sports team - you pick your side and you never concede an inch to the opposition. Seriously, has E.J. Dionne every admitted that Barack Obama has made a mistake, and has Anne Coulter even conceded that he has done something right? How many other so-called shapers of opinion could have their names accurately substituted into that sentence? This is not discourse - it's trash-talking with sophisticated vocabularies, and it does no one any good at all.

Of more immediate concern to me is the degree to which this close-mindedness has permeated our religious discourse. A recent Internet rumor noted that a prominent Chassidic Rabbi was planning on boycotting the upcoming Siyum HaShas (once-every-seven-years celebration of the completion of the learning of the Talmud via the page per day schedule) because among the dozen or so speakers invited to attend was a Rabbi who could be associated with being pro-Zionist. Never mind the details and never mind whether or not this rumor is even true (I still do not know)- the fact that it was plausible should give us all pause.

And this phenomenon is not only evident for issues in the public sphere. I have friends on Facebook who tend towards the liberal end of the religious spectrum who never miss a chance to share an article critical of those to the right of them, but rarely if ever find the time to share praiseworthy articles of such people. A day camp in my area separates students based on the school that they go to, supposedly because parents who send their kids to purportedly more religious schools do not want their kids in the same bunks as kids from so-called less religious schools. This notwithstanding the fact that all of the schools in question are officially modern or centrist orthodox, the parents pretty much all have the same upbringing, and the kids go to the same shuls and all know each other. Somehow, we have deemed it acceptable to establish a narrow range of criteria by which we will judge someone to be acceptable, and we are afraid to even consider the possibility that interacting with someone who holds slightly different views could be a rewarding and edifying experience.

How have we reache this point? Frankly, I am not sure and I do not really think that it matters. The more pertinent question is how are we going to reverse this trend of numbing and suffocating close-mindedness? Surprisingly enough, I think that our schools have a tremendous role to play. When we talk about a school that teaches critical thinking skills, we have to realize that we are not referring to teaching kids to reject everything that their parents or their tradition has tried to impart to them. Rather, we are talking about giving children the skills by which they can honestly evaluate new ideas that are presenting to them, and analyze those ideas in light of the foundational beliefs that have been passed on to them. Of course, the key is to first provide children with a firm set of ideas and practices that will form the basis of their daily lives. But once we have put that in place, and of course we will continue to do so as they grow older, it is important to help them realize that there a other people out there with other views and that those views can be listened to, considered, and then either accepted or rejected politely. True discourse can, and often does, end in disagreement - but it always ends with understanding. That seems to be missing from our current political and religious discourse, and it is imperative that we find a way to restore it.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Is Project-Based Learning Countercultural to Judaism?

I have been spending a fair amount of my time since the school year ended involved in Project-Based Learning (PBL). As readers of this blog know, I began introducing PBL into one of my Judaic Studies classes this year and I have been working to encourage other Judaic Studies teachers to do the same. As it is always easier to try new things when you have a community of people to support, encourage, and guide you along, I am trying to spur along the creation of that community. I delivered a webinar for Yeshiva University on this topic several months ago, and I have been meeting with my own teachers as well as teachers from other Jewish day and high schools in the months since, offering guidance and advice as to how to take our most ancient texts and teach them in a new and hopefully more thought-provoking fashion.

One thought that has been nagging at me all along is whether or not PBL is countercultural to Jewish tradition. By this I do not mean simply that PBL, by placing the student in control of his or her learning, represents a change from the normal and accepted method of teaching. That is true in just about any school context, certainly in the United States. However, it strikes me that this shift is even more pronounced within a Jewish context due to the importance that we place on Rabbinic authority, the wisdom of the ages, and respect for elders.

My friend Rabbi Gil Student has recently written about the erosion of Rabbinic authority in our world, and the ever-hardening stance of right-wing Jews towards total obeisance to Rabbinic authority and the corresponding Modern Orthodox flight from such a position is just one example of the tensions involved in this all-important issue. Seemingly, Project-Based Learning, by making the student the main engine of his own learning, would seem to decrease the perceived need for the teacher as the fountain of all wisdom, and thus would possibly lead to a sense that our revered teachers - revered as they may be - are not the authority figures that they once were. Taking this out to one possible logical conclusion, by encouraging the use of PBL in Judaic Studies classrooms, I may perhaps be unwittingly sowing the seeds of my own demise, and the demise of my profession in general. Perhaps all that we will need are teachers who can construct a good curriculum or lesson plan, and let the students go on their own from there.

Fortunately, I have come to the conclusion that the opposite is, in fact, the case. Project-Based Learning does indeed put students at the center of their own learning, but the teacher is still a necessary component of that learning, and perhaps an even more important component than when the teacher was the one standing at the head of the room, spouting wisdom to be lapped up by intellectually thirsty students. In a well-run PBL classroom, there is no question that the teacher is the one providing the framework and guidance for what is to be learned, that the teacher is the one directing the students to both sources and ideas, and that the teacher is the one who is constantly on the move, answering a question from one group and then another and then another. In fact, the students are more likely to see their relationship with the teacher as being one where they want to learn well in order to take part in the learning atmosphere created by the teacher as opposed to trying to memorize the information in order to score high on the test created by the teacher. The former represents a more collaborative context, whereas the latter is potentially competitive or, at worst, cynical.

I will take this even one step further. When I think about the hundreds of teachers that I have had, which ones stand out? Sure, some of the best are those who impressed me for their brilliance or their humor or for some other surface type of reason. But the teachers that I think about most and refer to the most are those who provided me with specific skills that I continue to draw from every time I learn. What is important from those relationships is not so much the specific material that I learned from them (although that is undoubtedly key as well), but the fact that they taught me how to do it on my own. And that is what a teacher is doing in a PBL class. He may not be the one imparting the specific bits of knowledge to the students, but he is the one showing them how to effectively find the knowledge, how to think about and analyze it, how to work with others in curating that knowledge, and how to think broadly and creatively about that knowledge. Those skills are universal and timeless, and they are likely to strengthen, not weaken, the respect that the student has for such a teacher.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Twitter Comes to Life at ISTE

I have written in the past about the importance that I attach to the social network Twitter, but the true importance of it was driven home to me on several occasions during last weeks conference of the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE). I knew going in that there would be many people there that I knew about via Twitter, perhaps because I follow them or perhaps because they are "Twitter rock stars". However, my own personal "Twitter moments" at the conference made the event something that it would not otherwise have been.

To wit:

1) No sooner had I boarded my plane Sunday morning and settled into my seat than the woman across from me asked me if I was going to ISTE. Turns out it was Dr. Shira Leibowitz (@shiraleibowitz), Principal of Solomon Schechter in Westchester, NY, an avid and respected tweep, both in Jewish and general education circles. Finally putting faces to the avatars, we had some fruitful discussions, occasionally joined by Dov Emerson (@dovemerson), founder of #jedchat and Assistant Principal at DRS-HALB on Long Island.

2) While waiting to enter the opening keynote, I finally met in person Debby Jacoby (@debbyj18) of the BJE in San Francisco, someone with whom I have been corresponding all year - to the point that we have already collaborated on several projects. I should note that that last statement is not strange in the twitterverse - several presentations at ISTE were co-run by people who considered themselves colleagues and friends yet had never met before coming to San Diego.

3) I walked into the conference on Monday morning and noticed a semi-familiar looking individual sitting on the floor (which is common at ISTE) perusing his daily schedule for the day. Taking a chance, I said, "Mr. Amidon?" - and Tyler Amidon (@mramidon), who I had only corresponded with via #edchat, looked up, recognized my Twitter name written on my badge, and wound up following me to the first session of the day. We would attend several other sessions together during the course of the conference, and have continued our dialogue in the week since. As he tweeted to me following the conference: "Chatting now will be that much richer now that I've shaken your hand!!"

4) I attended a panel session about flipped learning moderated by Aaron Sams and Jonathan Bergman. During the session, I was tweeting notes and questions that I had about what was being discussed. Common practice is to do this mainly for those who cannot be in the session but want to follow it anyway (multitasking is very vibrant at ISTE). After I tweeted one question about something one of the panelists said, I glanced down and saw that he had tweeted me back an answer. This back-and-forth continued for a moment or two, and in the meantime others noticed the discussion and jumped in.

Now for the cool part. No sooner did the panel end when the person sitting in front of me turned around and asked if I was Rabbi Ross (my Twitter handle). When I replied yes, he introduced himself as the person who had just tweeted me a question, and we began speaking about creating online materials for Judaic Studies classes. As we made our way towards the door, someone else stopped me, and it turned out that she had also been following the tweets and suddenly we had a very rich conversation among five or six people about some new ideas in the Jewish classroom.

5) Of course, part of the way that I choose the sessions that I attended - out of several hundred choices - was by seeing which twitter heroes I wanted to hear from for more than 140 characters. As such, I had the pleasure of hearing Chris Lehmann (@chrislehmann) discuss his successes at the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, Vicki Davis (@coolcatteacher) speak about wikis and the flat classroom, and George Couros (@gcouros) and Patrick Larkin (@patrickmlarkin) discuss visionary leadership and digital citizenship.

What is common in all of these anecdotes, and probably thousands of others that people could tell from ISTE, is that they highlighted the fact that Twitter is just a tool, but a very effective one. While I have learned much from so many people in snippet-length tweets, the most important thing to come out of all of that is the basis for real human interactions and relationships. Having interacted with people via Twitter, I knew to seek them out to learn more from them. I agree that networking with people in a blind fashion is missing something, but there is no question that it can certainly be a step to greater things.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Technology in Education is not about Technology

That title must seem fairly strange, especially as I am now at day 4 of the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) conference, a 20,000 person shindig with educators from around the country and around the world all here to discuss and learn about - what else? - technology and it's place in education. I will post more about someof the specific take-always from this conference and some of the really cool things about it as well in later posts. For now, I want to focus on this one issue.

One of the overriding themes at many of the sessions that I have attended has been about keeping the focus on the students. I attended a session this morning co-presented by George Couros and Patrick Franklin, principals in Alberta, Canada and Burlington, Massachusetts, respectively, who between them have over 27,000 followers on twitter and are certifiable rock stars here at ISTE. One of the first things that George said was that he wants to remove the word digital from what we do because it incorrectly puts the focus on that aspect of our work. Their talk was about how principals envision their schools and how they encourage their students to think and take control of their education. It just so happens that a lot of technology is really useful for doing all of this - but it remains a tool, not the driving force.

On Monday morning, I attended a session by Alan November, wonderful speak who consistently advocates for teachers to find more and more ways to make students more active within the classroom. A key word in his presentation was motivation, with a particular focus on finding "jobs" for individual students to carry out in the classroom, such as scribe or researcher, that will allow them to have a greater and more active role in the learning that is taking place. Again, many of these ideas could not come to fruition without the powerof technology and the web, but the goal is what we do with all of that technology, not our focus on it.

I could go on and on, and I yet may do so in later posts. If you want to see my notes from the seasons I have attended, I have been posting them using Evernote (a wonderful tool that Tzvi Pittinsky just wrote about on his TechRav blog) and sting them to twitter (follow me at @rabbiross). But my point for now is that this conference is largely nothing that a critic of technology in schools would assume it to be. Yes, everyone is walking around with a smartphone and an iPad or chrome book or laptop and sometimes using more than one at a time. Yes, there is an overwhelming large vendor expo with more technology products than you could ever dream about. And, yes, I have learned about some really cool sites and devices.

But at the end of the day, this is an education conference and not a technology conference. To those people who have an allergic reaction every time someone suggests a new device or app to be used in the classroom, get over it. Technology already exists in your classroom and the best thing that you can do is to get ahead of it. It is indeed overwhelming and there are more products and sites and apps out there than we have time to think about. Nevertheless, the word from the experts and gurus out here is that the key is to keep our focus on where it has always been in schools - on our students. The rest is just commentary.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Heading to ISTE!

This Sunday, I will be heading to San Diego for my first ever ISTE (International Society for Technology in Education) conference - a 20,000+ person confab with over 700 sessions, keynotes, hangouts, hoe-downs, and every other possible way of getting a bunch of committed, innovative, and wired educators together to talk about ways to improve the field. And, of course, it is a good excuse to be in San Diego during the last week of June.

I will be blogging from the conference, and tweeting as well (follow me at @rabbiross) and will obviously have much more to say once I am there and get over the feeling of being overwhelmed. Right now, simply looking at the convention center is making me feel overwhelmed. A few thoughts before I head off:

1) Live meetings are important. One thing I am looking forward to at this conference is finally meeting many of the people that I know only through twitter and the blogosphere. Some of them I simply follow. Some of them I have had long, drawn-out twitter-fueled conversations with. Some of them I can almost pick out of a crowd. Some hide behind an animated avatar. As wonderful as social media is - and I am a believer - there is nothing that substitutes for sitting down for a chat or hearing a live session from someone that you have already gained so much from.

2) Everyone is your teacher. As the Sages say, "Who is wise? He who learns from everyone." I have no doubt that every single one of the 20,000 people in attendance at ISTE will have the potential for teaching me something, whether they are presenters or people waiting in front of me on line to get into a session. There will be so many people there from so many walks of life and types of schools (from around the country and around the world), and there are so many innovations being tried in classrooms that chances are anyone I speak to will have something to say to me that I do not already know. At the same time, I have to be willing to share and not assume that as a newbie at the conference I have nothing to contribute - as I said, everyone here will be a teacher.

3) Building a Jewish education technology cohort. I am attending this conference thanks to the good graces of the AVI CHAI foundation, who are sponsoring Jewish educators at ISTE for the second time. In addition, several other Jewish foundations will be sending cohorts, and many other ISTE veterans from Jewish day schools will be attending on their own as well. As events like this become more fixed on the calendar of Jewish schools, and as the network of ISTE attendees from such schools continues to grow, the impact on the type of education that we are able to provide to our students will increase as well. While Judaic education specifically currently is far behind more general subjects such as math and science in terms of the resources that are available online, an ever-growing group of Jewish educators will help to begin to produce materials and ideas that will allow others to leverage the power of technology to improve and enhance their classroom environment.

That's all for now. Stay tuned for updates from the conference.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Asifa and Centrist Orthodoxy

As is well known by now, on Sunday night there was a huge gathering ("asifa") of Orthodox Jews in Citi Field to talk about the dangers of the internet. This was a primarily a Charedi event, and, as such, the messages were primarily the standard Charedi messages of banning the internet, or at worst using a filter (and even then only at work, not at home). Much has been said about the gathering already - including the huge irony of the massive amount of internet coverage and the number of people at the event possessing smartphones. I would like to focus on one overarching point.

Obviously, coming from a Centrist perspective, I am generally in favor of the internet. My broad position is that it is a tool that can be used for good and for bad, as virtually everything can be. Obviously I am aware that the internet is somewhat different in terms of how much is available and how easily it is available, and I have thought about to what degree that should alter our thinking on this issue.

However, at the end of the day, the divergence in opinions between the Charedi and Centrist/Modern approaches seems to me to be a question of which risk everyone is willing to take:

1) The Charedi approach is to demand that everyone avoid the internet. The risk is that when people fail to heed that warning that they will be ill-equipped to deal with the many and varied temptations and heresies that they will stumble across.

2) The Centrist/Modern approach is to allow the internet and to try to educate people into becoming savvy consumers of content, able to discern between what is useful and what is harmful. The risk, of course, is that our students will be exposed, sometimes unwittingly, to a wide range of objectionable and forbidden materials and will not always have the tools or the resolve to turn away.

Which approach is sounder? Honestly, I am not sure. The all-or-nothing approach is attractive as long as it succeeds, and I am sure that it often does. However, I am also sure that it does not succeed as often as its proponents claim that it does (if it did succeed, there would be no need for an asifa). On the other hand, allowing ourselves to use the internet not only opens up wonderful vistas and opportunities, but also strikes me as a more mature approach. Unless one is planning on living his entire life sheltered from the world, and I am not, then one will eventually need to learn to live and deal with the many complexities that exist.