Monday, January 30, 2012

PBL thoughts as a new unit begins

Two thoughts, one practical and one philosophical, as I prepare for my new PBL unit on kashrut.

1) In my first unit, which focused on korbanot, I essentially had the students learn the material that I used to teach, and the project asked them to take that material up a level by envisioning a 21st-century Beit HaMikdash. On the whole it worked well, insofar as the students did learn the material and did manage to find areas where technology could be integrated. However, the leap from material to project was fairly small.

For this new unit, I am planning on having the old curriculum material serve as merely a launching pad for a more comprehensive study of modern kashrut. The unit is based on Devarim 14, where the Torah presents a list of kosher and non-kosher animals. Our study in the past has included reading several articles about animals of questionable kashrut status, as well as comparing these verses with the similar list in Vayikra 11. While I plan on keeping all of that material in, my goal is to construct a learning experience that uses those sources as a way to teach certain principles that guide modern kashrut, and for the students to take advantage of the many resources available from kashrut organizations (OU, Kof-K, Star-K, and CRC, among others, have extensive reading materials online). While I have not yet finalized what the project itself will be, there will definitely be a greater gap between this unit this year and the same unit in past years than there was for the korbanot unit.

2) Taking a broader perspective, one of the beautiful things about a PBL unit is that it actually helps to transition students to a higher level of learning. When students are younger, their learning activities and experiences are wholly guided and directed by their teachers. As adults, we are in full control of what we learn and how we learn it. In between, there should hopefully be a gradual shift in the locus of control when it comes to learning - witness the existence of electives in high school and a college student's freedom to choose courses and concentrations. By introducing PBL in Middle School, I am easing students into the next level of their education - I am still controlling the overall curriculum, but students are given choices about what sources to learn and at what pace they proceed. They also have substantial latitude about what the final product should look like. And, of course, I am always around. Unlike at higher levels of education where a student often has to chase down a professor and sometimes has to go it alone in between meetings with his or her advisor, my PBL students work mainly in the context of our class, which means that they have full access to me to help guide them to the next level of their learning.

And, of course, that is what I like the best about PBL - it moves towards more "authentic" learning, where the learning is driven not by the curriculum of the teacher but by the curiosity of the student.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Is Your Child's Teacher a Twit?

Actually, the correct term is "tweep", but headlines exist to grab your attention and hopefully this one worked.

Of course, the focus of the question is whether or not your children's teachers make use of Twitter. For the uninitiated, Twitter is what is known as a Microblogging site, where people can post updates about themselves, or about anything, so long as those posts are constrained to 140 total characters (and, yes, spaces count). Twitter has become popular both as a favored communication tool of celebrities and sports stars, as well as a prime tool for bringing people together in last year's Arab Spring uprisings.

For many people who do not use Twitter, their knowledge of it mainly consists of the celebrity use and scandals such as Anthony Weiner's injudicious posting of a raunchy image on the site (this costing him his congressional seat). Many parlay this aspect of Twitter into a high-minded and moralistic defense of why they do not use the site and look somewhat askance at those who do. However, I would argue that such a logic is tantamount to not reading The Economist because there is a magazine called People, or not watching the news because television also brings us The Jersey Shore. Like other media, Twitter is a tool that can be used to appeal to both the lowest and the highest common denominator in society.

Which brings me to Twitter in education. Over the past several years, people in various fields, including educators, have realized that Twitter is a very powerful tool for communicating, collaborating, and even for creating community. One participates in Twitter both by posting "tweets" as well as by following the postings of others. I can choose exactly who I follow and their tweets will be the only ones that I see - thus no Justin Bieber or Eli Manning ever appears in my "stream". A majority of the people that I follow are educators, and their posts either share ideas about education or, more commonly, share links to sites and articles about education (Twitter automatically shortens URLs so as to satisfy the 140 character requirement). Better than almost any professional development session I have ever attended, the people that I follow on Twitter have kept me up to date on trends, developments, and new websites that have made a tremendous difference in the way that I educate my students. And, of course, I try to reciprocate by sharing what I find as well (you can follow me as @RabbiRoss on Twitter).

But Twitter is even more powerful than that. In my last post, I wrote about #jedchat, a weekly discussion held among Jewish educators on Twitter, just one of many such chats that exist (and which were highlighted in a recent article in the Washington Post). The pound sign is known on Twitter as a hashtag, and by placing them within a tweet, a person allows even non-followers to find his post if they choose to follow that hashtag (obviously actually trying it yourself will make it far more understandable). A Twitter chat takes place when people decide to discuss a given topic at a specified time, with all posts containing the hashtag pertaining to the discussion (in this case, #jedchat). Conversations take place at a break-neck pace, as all participants view the constantly-updating stream of comments and attempt to respond and reply to those that they have thoughts about. Such conversations, involving a wide range of participants from a wide range of schools, communities, and geographic locations, inevitably are rich in content, surprisingly deep in their analysis, and infused with a true spirit of collegiality and community (you can see for yourself by viewing the jedchat archives here).

And, as I noted in my last post, such chats have led to the creation of broad communities of educators from around the country and around the globe. In the past month alone, I have taken part in at least three events or live discussions that grew out of Jedchats, and I am not the only one. Given that this chat is only three months old, I consider that quite an accomplishment, and it certainly seems to be one important (and far cheaper) new way that professional development is done in schools - what is commonly known as Professional Learning Networks, or PLN's.

And so, to return to the original question - is your child's teacher a tweep? I should certainly hope so.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Jedchat beyond the Twitterstream

The true power of a community (or "community", depending on how far you feel we have come) such as Jedchat is not in the ability to create one hour speed-dating-like conversations that focus around a given topic in education. Nor is it in its ability to bring together educators from across the country, and sometimes the world, on a regular basis whereas previously we could only meet at the occasional conference.

No, for me the true power of Jedchat is when it becomes the springboard to further and more substantive communication and collaboration. For all of the wonder of twitter chats, the fact is that we communicate in that forum in mere soundbites; and while many of us have become quite skilled in saying a lot in 140 characters or less, there is clearly so much more we can say when given fuller forums.

I have had the privilege of taking advantage of this aspect of Jedchat twice in the past few weeks. A recent Jedchat focused on the issue of Project-Based Learning (PBL), a topic that I have recently become very interested in in my own teaching, and thus a topic that I had much to comment about during theJedchat. I signed off of the chat feeling both exhausted from the usual breakneck pace of the chat and exhilarated from being able to have such a substantive dialogue with my colleagues about something that I was deeply involved with in my day-to-day teaching life. However, that was only the beginning.

A few days after the chat, Debby Jacoby, a wonderful educator in San Francisco and a super-avid tweep, contacted me wanting to speak in more detail about PBL. And so it was that Debby and I found time to Skype from one coast to the other to discuss the various benefits, challenges, and possibilities that are involved in PBL.

Around the same time, Dr. Moshe Krakowski of Yeshiva University got in touch. In addition to serving as a professor in YU's Azrieli graduate school of Jewish Education, Dr. Krakowski also moderates a CoP (community of practice) of educators who hold a monthly phone conference on the topic of PBL. Dr. Krakowski asked if I would join the CoP and if I would lead the next discussion, relating my experiences and future plans with this approach to teaching. I happily agreed and this past Thursday I had the privilege of speaking with roughly ten educators from across the country in a very spirited dialogue about PBL.

To my mind, this is the true power of the Jedchat community - when the once-weekly "meetings" become a time to lay the ground work for future conversations. I have already had encounters with colleagues from Jedchat where our live conversations have simply picked up from where the Jedchat discussion left off, and the chance to parlay Jedchat discussions into live meetings, conferences, and skype sessions is indicative of the fact that Jedchat is becoming a significant tool in the creation of a cohesive and coherent network of Jewish educators.

(cross-posted on

Monday, January 9, 2012

The Only Mussar Schmooze I Ever Give

I figured that I would wait for everyone else to weigh in on recent events in Beit Shemesh before offering my thoughts. Also, I have not had time to write until now.

It is hard to formulate what should be the proper response to the events in Beit Shemesh (and Yerushalayim and New Square for that matter) from the perspective of a Centrist Orthodox American educator. Yes, it is important to consider that someone living in a different world than where the events are taking place is bound to have somewhat of a skewed perspective. And as someone who has fundamental disagreements with the Charedi approach to so many things, I am bound to either be too harsh or to overcompensate and excuse things that I find inexcusable.

But at the end of the day, I have a hard time justifying, even in my best moment of dan l'chaf zechut (loosely translated as walking a mile in someone else's moccasins), actions such as spitting on little girls, calling those girls prostitutes, Jews throwing dung at Jewish bookstores, and dressing up your children as Jews in Nazi Germany when your own recent ancestors might have been those Jews in Germany and you should understand the vast differences between the situations.

As such, we come to the only mussar schmooze I ever give my students. I tell my students that when all is said and done, there are two questions that they should ask themselves if they are unsure if their actions are appropriate:

1) Is this what Hashem wants me to do?
2) Will this help bring Moshiach?

Simple or simplistic as the questions sound, they require some deeper thinking. Asking whether or not Hashem wants you to do something has nothing to do with deciding that your understanding of the verses about Shabbat mean that God wants you to throw stones at Shabbat violators or sit outside in shorts in your hammock on Saturday afternoon. Rather, it means that one should consider whether or not he is acting in accordance with what he can honestly say is the direction that the classical sources are pointing, or if he is just following his own conscience or desires and hoping that there is a source or two out there that can back him up. This does not necessarily work for halacha, but I am pretty sure that I would decide that vandalism is not condoned by any of the sources that I have read.

The second question requires one to remember why our Sages tell us that the Beit HaMikdash was destroyed - baseless hatred. There is no question that we are an argumentative people, and we seem to relish that reputation. However, we are also fairly firm on the point that disagree does not mean despise. A person who spits on an 8-year old girl is a person who does not ask himself what he is doing to restore a sense of brotherhood among the Jewish people. He is a person who is not looking to increase peace; only to increase the spread of what he views as "right".

A challenge of raising students to keep an open mind is the danger that they will get so good at nuance that they will be unable to take strong positions on issues and will be unable to fully recognize when someone or something is horribly wrong. It is imperative that we train our students to be sensitive to how to find the proper path so that they will be capable of recognizing when someone has undoubtedly stepped off of it.