Wednesday, February 29, 2012

What is "Jewish" education?

Last nights #jedchat focused on the topic of differentiated instruction in Jewish education. As always, it was a lively discussion among a committed team of educators (and I encourage as many people as possible to join these chats every Wednesday night between 9 and 10pm EST). However, I could not help wondering, and I expressed this at one point in the discussion, if there was anything distinctly Jewish about the topic.

There has been much talk in recent years about the "professionalization" of Jewish education. That term refers to a lot of different things to a lot of different people, but it its broadest sense it means that Jewish schools are slowly but surely moving away from being the equivalent of shtiebels for kids and actually beginning to emulate many of the best practices that have been developed and tested in the much larger and more accountable school systems across the country. This refers to every aspect of the school, from teaching methodology to how observations are conducted to how students of differing needs and abilities are dealt with. There is no question in my mind that this is generally a good thing.

But at the same time, this professionalization erases many of the boundaries between Jewish schools and every other school in the country. The more that we recognize that the key to teaching a solid Gemara class is not only about being a talmid chacham but also about being able to organize a good lesson or to construct a valid and potent assessment, the more we find ourselves realizing that there is much to learn from the math teacher down the road in P.S. 47. The differences that remain are in the content that we are teaching and in the overall atmosphere of our schools.

One person on the chat last night noted that one difficulty that arises in trying things such as differentiation in Judaic Studies is that there are very few available materials that teachers can grab in order to provide multiple learning opportunities for their class. There is no doubt that this is true -a science teacher has a wealth of textbooks and websites where she can go for enrichment or remediation materials for students who need them, whereas the average Chumash teacher has to create everything from scratch - doubly so if we are talking about online materials. On a related note, it is not always easy or possible to set students learning on their own if they are incapable of understanding the Hebrew of Ramban or the Aramaic of a particularly difficult sugya. Again, additional work for a teacher.

But those concerns are more quantitative than qualitative and thus I return to my original musing - what is so "Jewish" about "Jewish education"? At least on the level of methodology and pedagogy, I am not sure that there is anything so unique. And I am not sure that that is such a bad thing.

I would love to hear people's comments on this post.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

When Students Challenge the System

Teenagers are a rebellious lot. I know - nothing new in that statement. But even more than the obviousness of it is the basic, underlying reason for it. Just as two-year olds are often "selfish" not due to a moral deficiency but more likely due to their recent discovery of the idea of "self", teenagers are just beginning to sense that they have moved from children to adults and thus need to test the boundaries of those new-found powers (remember, a century and a half ago teenagers were in the workforce in industrialized countries).

Every teenager expresses this rebellion in their own way. The "good" kids perhaps break curfew by a few minutes or some other minor act, while the more difficult ones unfortunately get involved in a whole range of behaviors that are far beyond what I want to deal with in this post. Much of this rebellion, at least in its early stages, is generally harmless and is not meant maliciously, and adults would be wise to keep that in mind when being challenged by a headstrong 15-year old.

But what about when the rebellion challenges the system? Here is the issue that is on my mind today that I do not have a great answer to. I work in a middle school, and thus I get to deal with the first years of teenagerhood. In some ways I have it easy - my students are not yet older teenagers dealing with issues of drugs and booze and sex and Lord knows what else, and they are not in a public school environment where they might be dealing with some of those issues already at this age. On the other hand, that natural proclivity towards independence/rebellion still needs an outlet, and that often manifests itself in a litany of minor, just-under-the-radar, you-know-its-wrong-but-I-can't-prove-it type of offenses.

The hardest ones to deal with are the cases when the infraction is not in dispute, but a student challenges the rule itself. An example: In lower grades, there are a variety of rules that can be categorized as rules that restrict or limit freedom of motion. Rules that demand that students be in class or in the lunchroom or in the gym at the right time, that one can only go to the bathroom with a pass, and so on and so forth. In general, these rules make sense for younger children and they are fairly easy to enforce. As students move into Middle School and thus teenagerhood, however, while the rules may still make sense (safety and accountability issues, not having five kids leave a class at once, etc), enforcing them becomes trickier. A random snippet of conversation from an attempt to enforce such rules:

Teacher: Where were you during lunch?
Student: I was in room 101 doing my homework.
Teacher: But you know that the rule of the school is that all students must be in the cafeteria during lunch!
Student: But I needed to do my homework because my aunt is getting married tonight and if I don't do the work now I won't have a chance later!
Teacher: That is very admirable of you to try to stay on top of your work, but we really need to know where every student is - had there been an emergency, no one would have known were to find you.

OK - we are one minute into the conversation and we are already playing the hysterical worst-case scenario card. Let's be honest, at a certain age students are going to be old enough to fend for themselves, especially if they are all of 30 feet away from where they are supposed to be. Who is right in this case? Do the rules have to be enforced unless a specific exemption is given? Can we allow an 8th grader to decide that he or she is mature enough to be treated like an adult? If we begin making exceptions do we open the door for mass chaos? If so, are we keeping everyone in line for the sake of the overall system?

There may or may not be easy answers to these questions. I suppose if you have a firm opinion then the answers are easy. However, we have to consider whether we are committed to finding a balance between running a smooth and safe school and at the same time respecting our students for the adults that they are becoming and that we are helping them to be. Personally, when a response sounds lame or automatic to me, I try not to give it. The quandary then becomes what response should I give? I would love some feedback on this one.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Y'all come back now, ya'hear?

The day school that I attended through 8th grade is honoring, at this year's annual dinner, both a member of my class as well as a beloved teacher who began at that school as my 6th grade teacher and then followed us through graduation. While I have no official affiliation with the school anymore (and actually work for a semi-competitor), I wanted to express my friendship and gratitude and was planning on submitting a small ad to the school's journal. Then I thought, "Wouldn't it be nicer if I could get some of my classmates together and put in a joint ad?" Out of 75 members of our class from over twenty years ago, I am in contact either via email or Facebook with about 8-10, so I sent out a quick message asking if anyone else would want to participate.

Long story short, I now have an email list of over 40 members of that class, and I just submitted an ad signed by 26 of us, with total contributions of over $1500. Everyone who responded was happy to give, and amount varied based on what people could do (I made no specific request in terms of amount). I have already heard that both honorees are extremely gratified by the gesture, and it was certainly nice to be back in touch with many people that I spent up to 10 years in school with yet have had minimal, if any, contact with for well over a decade.

What I want to highlight in this process is the role that the school itself played, not because it was dismaying to me, but because it was so representative of the role that so many other schools would have played in a similar situation. I approached the school to see what current information they had on my classmates to see if they could help me locate people. The first thing I received was a list of 12 names, with no email addresses and only the home addresses of their parents. A few weeks later, someone from the school scanned and sent me the pages in the back of our yearbook with everyone's contact information from the day we graduated (obviously no email back then). In other words, the school had no official record of where 75 of its graduates had been since the day that they left.

As I said, there is nothing unique about that - and I should point out that the school has been extremely helpful in other ways throughout the process and is encouraging my classmates and myself to attend the dinner. But, while I have not done a survey, and certainly have not compared schools in competitive markets versus schools that are focal points of small communities, my gut impression is that schools that say good-bye to their students after 8th grade really do say good-bye. Yes, the graduates may come back for a visit early in 9th grade, but eventually they become entrenched in their new schools, form new connections with new friends and teachers, and look back on their elementary school days as perhaps fond memories, but not as any continuing part of their lives.

In one sense, this is perfectly understandable. While students may spend ten years in a K-8 institution, they are not years where those students are generally ready to form deeper and more lasting relationships, and certainly not such relationships with teachers. Both intellectually and emotionally, students in high school and beyond are more capable of forging connections with teachers as those teachers help them through the various developmental issues and crises that arise in the teenage years (thus prompting the lament that people fly in their Rebbe from shanna alef to be at their wedding, but fail to invite their 6th grade Rebbe who lives down the block).

But from a school perspective, how hard is it to keep even a minimal connection with these students? Reach out to them once a year while in high school, perhaps inviting them to a tisch with a favorite teacher or having them help out with a school event. Maintain a database of email addresses and send out an email each year asking them to keep their information current. Start a Facebook page aimed specifically at alumni to keep them in the loop about what is going on in the school. The possibilities are both endless and virtually cost-free.

And here is the payoff (at least one of them): I just raised $1500 from alumni who had had no connection with the school for two decades. I would guess that if the school would take this list and contact all of us again next year, some of us would still be happy to give a small amount, and I would posit that they could collect $1000 in small donations. Now imagine if a school did that with every class that had graduated. While the new graduates would not donate much (and perhaps should not be approached), a school that has graduated 30-40 classes (such as the school in which I teach) could raise enough to send one or two kids to school just based on these good-will nostalgia-fueled donations.

More than that, maintaining a connection demonstrates that the school possesses a long-term interest in its students, that it truly believes that it serves a vital, guiding role in the lives of these children, and therefore it wants to see where they go, what they do, how they turn out. That type of caring is rarely ignored or overlooked, and ultimately helps to shape and define the nature of the school itself.

Monday, February 13, 2012

The Genius Fallacy

An interesting post this morning on the phenomenal website Free Technology for Teachers featured a short movie about Thomas Edison and his accomplishments. While the video is factual, it goes to considerable length to stress the notion that Edison stole most of his ideas from others, and while he was definitely a bright individual who accomplished a lot, he does not deserve credit for most of the things that we give him credit for.

By coincidence, one of my colleagues mentioned this afternoon that she had found some site online about George Washington for her son who is interested in history and, as it turns out, "George Washington was not as great a person as we think he was."

Now, on the one hand, both of these resources seem to be examples of the current trend to move away from the "Great Man" approach to history, which sees history as being propelled forward by a few all-knowing, all-capable, and often infallible individuals (usually men) who made wondrous discoveries and inventions, successfully fought valiant battles, and invariably made the correct decisions and predictions in difficult situations. Human beings are obviously far more complex than that, and it is of course true that Washington owned slaves and Edison borrowed (to be generous) some of his ideas from others and touched them up a bit before presenting them to the public.

Yet at the same time, such information only means that these individuals were not perfect - it does not necessarily take away from their greatness. I have always felt that Edison's genius lay not in inventing the light bulb, but in founding the power company that allowed people to use the bulb. While it is true that Washington won precious few battles, there is a reason that he was chosen to head the army and that he would have easily served a third term had he not made the precedent-setting (until FDR) decision to step down in an effort to prevent the presidency from turning into a monarchy. Clearly both men were great - just not in the way that we often lazily define greatness.

I bring this up not because the Edison video bothered me, but because this issue speaks to how we teach our children to aspire for greatness. I am hard-pressed to think of an individual in the history of the world who came from nothing to be great without any help. Most scientific inventions and discoveries did not occur to someone in a flash in the middle of the night, but rather were the result of much trial-and-error, and often one person built off of the work of another until a truly groundbreaking idea was hatched, the result of a painstaking and incremental process. Genius is a wonderful gift to possess, but it does not guarantee accomplishment - that usually comes as the result of countless hours of hard work. Michael Jordan worked harder than any other player in the NBA. The difference between a smart guy in shiur and a Rosh Yeshiva is thousands of additional hours spend poring over seforim.

In a sense, the Edison video seems to me to be Rav Aharon Kotler's fears realized to their fullest. In an essay written in 1935, Rav Kotler spoke against the trend of portraying the Avot (forefathers) as flawed human beings, fearing that such an approach would ruin the faith of Jews everywhere. The bias in the Edison video would seem to bear out this fear - if we insist on focusing too much on the flaws in people who we hold up as models then we lose the reverence that we want to convey as well. With regard to Edison, the stakes are not that high - I don't think it really matters whether or not I revere Edison - but when it comes to pillars of a faith or religion there is an obvious an apparent risk involved.

However, Rav Kotler's view was preceded by a counterview offered by Rabbi Shimshon Refael Hirsch. Rav Hirsch notes that the Torah does not shy away from describing the errors of the ways of our Biblical heroes, and that we should not try to cover up what the Torah has laid bare for us. By doing so, Rav Hirsch notes, the Torah has presented us with human characters that we can relate, people that we are capable of emulating if we would desire to, individuals that "we all should copy because we all could copy."

Why is this important to convey to our students? If greatness is a God-given gift, then there is really no point in striving for it. Either you have it or you don't, and time will let you know what the answer is. However, if greatness is something that is there to be grasped by anyone willing to put in the effort, if it is something achieved by effort and toil and occasional failure, then we can teach our students how they, too, can achieve greatness.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

It's not about the Benjamins

Technology in education is everywhere. Smartboards in classrooms, schools experimenting with ipads, weekly Twitter chats among educators, and on and on and on. At times, it can seem that not much else is happening in education. The New York Times frequently has articles that seem to shine a harsh light on tech's role in education, while the New York Jewish Week's education writer seems to write about nothing but technology in education.

What is interesting to me is that many of this articles focus on the finances of education technology, and that angle is particularly emphasized in discussions of technology in Jewish schools. With the high cost of Yeshiva tuition (whether or not it is high compared to what it costs a public school is irrelevant since you still have to pay for tuition in addition to your taxes), people are looking for any solution available that can reduce costs, and technology seems to many people to be that silver bullet. Salman Khan has everyone's hearts aflutter (atwitter?) with his sweet serenades about the miracle of flipping the classroom, and new schools are opening that are pledging to leverage technology to reduce costs throughout the school.

This point was driven home to me this week when my school, Yavneh Academy in Paramus, NJ, was featured in a well-done and lovely short video on the Jewish Daily Forward about some of the ways that we are integrating technology in our school. Interestingly, the tag line under the video reads "As Jewish day schools look for new ways to keep tuition down, Yavneh academy in Paramus, NJ has been integrating technology and online learning into the curriculum." One would assume, therefore, that a primary goal of our technology integration is for the purpose of reducing the cost of tuition.

Now slow down a moment. Let's all take a deep breath and consider that statement. While there may be occasions where integrating technology can lead to lower costs, the fact is that most of our technology decisions are driven by a search for the best available tools to educate our students. In the 21st century, it just so happens that there are many, many tools that falls into the category of technology (replacing the previous technologies of mechanical pencils and those holed-paper reinforcements). However, we firmly believe that technology should always lose out if its benefits are dubious or non-existent when compared to other methodologies.

Beyond that, where do these cost savings come from? Computers, printers, routers, servers, ipads, smartboards, software, and so on are not cheap, can be expensive to repair or replace, and the more of them a school has, the more people the school needs to maintain them (our computer department has gone from 2 people to 4 in the last five years, and all four of them are stretched beyond belief between teaching, providing tech support, providing professional development to help teachers learn the new technology, and helping teachers plan for how and when to use tech in their classes). And even if the value of these things pays off in the long run, what exactly are they replacing in order to save a few Benjamins? Let's try to figure that out.

1) School supplies. Even if a school went completely digital, it is obvious that an ipad costs way more than pens, pencils, notebooks, and compasses. Clearly, the savings is not over here.

2) Textbooks. An interesting debate. Apple caused a tidal wave of discussion last week with their announcement about the new ibooks author and their deal with the major textbook companies to provide content via this platform. My friend Tzvi Pittinsky has written a bit on this topic on his fine blog, and while itextbooks seem promising and exciting (updatable, able to have videos and other media embedded in the books, etc), it is clear that there are many issues still to be discovered with these products. Furthermore, there are very few Jewish textbook companies, and thus as easy as ibooks author looks, it will take a serious commitment of time from somebody to start producing these books for Judaic studies. A cost saver? Unknown.

3) Teachers. This is where most people are probably thinking about saving money via technology, by reducing the amount of time that teachers need to teach, or by allowing each teacher to teach more students, and thus to ultimately require fewer teachers in each school. Since salaries eat up something on the order of 70-80% of a school's annual budget, this would seem to be the place to save money.

As someone recently wrote, "Any teacher who can be replaced by a computer, should be." Meaning that to the extent that a teacher is simply reciting lessons that students can read on their own in books, such a teacher should certainly fear that the glowing box in the back of the room is gunning for his or her job. However, the role of a teacher in a class is so much larger than that - from designing the overall lessons and deciding which technology to include, to marking and reviewing student work (not just checking multiple-choice answers, but providing meaningful feedback and engaging students in conversation to understand how they can improve on what they have done), to identifying which students need additional help and which ones need additional challenges, to reaching out to those students who are reluctant to get involved and help empower them to become more active learners.

Even Khan's notion of a flipped classroom is not necessarily meant as a way to save money by firing teachers. He proposes having students learn the basics on their own so that class time can be spent on application, rather than saving the application for homework. What he flips is the role of the teacher to make the teacher MORE important, not less so. Instead of intoning basic information, teachers in a flipped environment become guides who respond to specific student learning needs, each on his or her own level.

While it may be possible to fit a few more students in a class that is highly driven by technology, there is a limit. While my class of 23 might be able to expand to 28, at some point it becomes very difficult to tend to the needs of all of my students. And while there are some schools that are experimenting with cubicle-like models for students who get most of their information from online materials, such programs are still too new for there to be reliable studies about them, and they are most irrelevant right now for Judaic Studies as a bare minimum amount of online material exists.

Does technology hold the power to reduce the cost of day schools? It is unclear. There are some experiments being tried across the country right now that will provide us some answers. However, the primary reason to integrate technology is because it often does hold the power to enhance and improve the educational experiences that we give our children. And that, of course, is priceless.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

When Life Gets in the Way

We lost a teacher today. Beth Isaacs - Morah Beth - a mother of four and kindergarten teacher to many more than that, succumbed today to a recurrence of the cancer that she had beaten once already. I was not close enough with Beth to be able to write a proper or fitting eulogy for a woman who had what I consider to be one of the toughest jobs around (seriously - imagine working with 5-year olds for 7 hours a day; then imagine doing it while smiling the entire time - simply amazing), and this is not the appropriate forum for that anyway. I simply want to reflect on how such a moment plays out within a school.

Beth passed away overnight, which means that faculty found out as they arrived at the building this morning. Those who davened in the same shul had received a phone call as they headed out the door. The rest of us learned the news one hushed whisper - "did you hear?" - at a time. We shared the news with our Middle School students, who had been davening for her, although they had never had Beth as a teacher (she taught here 13 years ago and then returned last year when her family moved back to the area). As noon approached, there was a certain quiet sadness just below the surface in the building. Learning is going on more or less as normal, but the adults in the building are wearing the weightiness of their emotions on their faces and some of the older students have felt a need to ask.

[I say "a need to ask" with no explanation what they are asking about because it is interesting to watch how children grapple with death. Even those who may have unfortunately experienced the death of a loved one are not always sure what to think or feel, and so they express themselves in more concrete ways - wondering about the nature of the illness, what her family will do, when exactly she passed away. For the younger and youngest children in the school (including Beth's students - whom she has not taught for about 2 months), the death seems to barely register, and yet now and then a child opens up with a more sophisticated question than we ever would have expected and that question needs some sort of an answer.]

But most affected in the school are the teachers, most notably those who worked with Beth every day in early childhood. Almost every early childhood teacher left to attend the funeral today, and other teachers and staffers pitched in to cover classes and to ensure as smooth as possible a day for the students who are barely aware, if at all, of what has occurred. Our mental health faculty has brought in an additional person to be available for any teachers who need to speak and reflect. Plans for baking challah in her merit are being changed to plans to bring food to her family in their time of need. Every family's bonds are tested by the trials that it faces, and a school family is no different.

There are many other half-formed thoughts in my mind that are not ripe enough to be written, and perhaps much of what I have written was not fully formed either. But a moment such as this requires some reflection. May Beth's memory be a continuing source of inspiration to those who knew her, and may we all remember to appreciate those who make up part of the fabric of our lives and communities.