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.