Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Is the Salute to Israel Parade merely a school activity?

This coming Sunday is the annual Celebrate Israel Parade (formerly known as the Salute to Israel Parade), one of several ethnic-type parades that take place in New York City each year.  In general, the parade is a wonderful celebratory event, which thousands or marchers, floats, minor celebrities, politicians, and all the other hallmarks of large events in large cities.  The occasional politically-charged controversies, such as the annual appearance of about 15 virulently anti-Zionist Jews (who somehow always get picked up by the New York Times), are actually forgettable sideshows to what is overall a wonderful event.

I have been participating in the parade for most of the past 30 years, and I have recently noticed something that disturbs me far more than any controversy.  What has caught my attention of late is that the parade has largely turned into the world's largest Jewish day school event.  Just about any school that wants to maintain its bond fides as being Zionist sends a delegation to march, perhaps requiring all of its students to do so.  And, of course, most of those students have family members who come out to cheer from the sidelines, anxiously awaiting that one moment when their child walks by, resplendent in his or her special t-shirt and perhaps carrying a cardboard cutout of fruit or a harp or something else depicting his or her school's theme.  However, it often seems that there are very few people watching who do not have a carpool interest in the parade.

To the extent that we believe our own hype, this should trouble us as a community.  If we believe that the parade is our community's chance to demonstrate our pride in and connection to the State of Israel, then the fact that there are several city blocks along the parade route with almost no spectators should be seen as a disappointment at least and a communal failure at worst.  Especially given the fact that every other parade of this type brings out huge crowds, it is particularly glaring that our parade cannot do the same.

Perhaps this turnout issue is a case of one success feeding another failure.  On the one hand, be have been very successful in getting most schools in the area to be very active participants in the parade, and there is no doubt that the thousands upon thousands of students who march make the parade the wonderful event that it is.  However, as families "age out" of schools, they often feel that it is time to turn their focus and attention to other activities and other ways to spend their time.  If the Celebrate Israel parade is seen primarily as a school event, then it is one more thing to leave behind when your last child graduates high school.  I would suggest that it is important for those involved in planning the parade and our community leaders in general to foster the notion that this is an event that grows in impact as its numbers increase and that even if someone has no kids left in the school system, or if their kids have not gotten there yet, their support is vital to the overall success of the parade.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

"Does Any of this Still Count?"

We have reached that point in the school year where my 8th graders have one overriding question on their minds.  As their thoughts turn to the senior trip, graduation, and the various ways in which they can show that they are all grown up, they often wonder, "Hey, Rabbi - Does any of this still count?"  On a basic level, they are asking why they should still have to sit in classes where there might not even be a final exam, and even for those classes (such as mine) where there is such an exam, they are wondering why they should bother studying.  After all, they have all gotten into high school, and their June grades will have no impact on their immediate future plans.

On one level, this is understandable.  While we stress to our students that things such as manner and respect and davening (prayer) do not recognize senioritis and should always be in play, it is harder to make that case for specific subject material.  No one is going to miss out on medical school because they daydreamed through the last month of 8th grade science and no one is going to fail to become a Rosh Yeshiva because they were doodling during a month of Gemara back when they were 14 years old.*

*Although one can argue that the people who become Roshei Yeshiva are probably the ones who were already serious at age 14.

But on another level, it reflects a natural outgrowth of our educational system.  So much of what we do in school is incentive based, and those incentives are generally grades.  Students are well trained from an early age to know that what really matters is the number or letter that appears at the top of that quiz or test or project.  They learn to ask things such as "will this be on the test?" and - even worse to my ears - "do we need to know this?"*  At the end of the day, our assessment-focused system, no matter what type of assessments we use, conditions our students to judge something's value by its connection to a grade.

*My answer to that question is well-known to my students.  "You need to know everything."  Kind of removes the uncertainty while stressing that everything that we do is for a reason.

As adults, we know of course that not all of life is like this.  While much of what we do is incentive-driven (in this case, the incentive is a paycheck), we also learn that there are many things in life that we do because we enjoy them or find value in them.  One can construct an argument that says that that is also incentive-driven, but if it is, it is in a way that is so different from the grade-based or salary-based incentive system as to be unrecognizable as being the same thing.  Our goal as educators is to find a way to convey to our students a love of learning - learning in general and our disciplines in particular - to the extent that they are driven to learn even when the tangible incentives fall away.

This was not intended as a Project-Based Learning post, but I believe that PBL can help in solving this conundrum.  When students' experience in class is about listening to a lecture, filling out homework sheets, and cramming for a test, it is often the grade and the grade along which propels them forward on a daily basis.  However, when given more control over their own learning, students gradually develop their own internal motivation towards their learning.  This is not to say that they will necessarily love a discipline just because that class was a PBL environment; but they are more likely to at least have a positive attitude towards the learning experience in general when they felt a sense of ownership over it, and not a sense that they were charged with merely regurgitating information back to the person who dispensed that information in the first place.  The more that we can make the learning experience belong to the students, the more that they will be willing to do it even after it "no longer counts".

Friday, May 3, 2013

My PBL Class gives me a glimpse of the Future of the Classroom

I admit it.  Right now, I am being somewhat unfair to my 7th grade Torah class.  They are in the middle of a rather large Project-Based Learning (PBL) unit for me, while at the same time they have to work on a project related to the Torah curriculum.  Each year, we ask each 7th grader to pick one mitzva (commandment) from somewhere within the curriculum and to research it further, ultimately devising a presentation that is displayed, science-fair style, at our annual 7th grade chicken dinner (which is a topic for a different post).  In other words, my class currently has two units of learning that they are working on for me, often with different work partners.

Fortunately, we have found a way to take advantage of this situation.  Within the context of my PBL class, the students have our allotted class time to work on their research.  While, in theory, they could be doing homework for another class, they realize that it is best to work on the material that I have assigned them, as this is the time that they have me available to answer their questions and guide them through the sources.  Having two projects due for me has led some students to switch off - working on one project in class one day and another one on a different day, depending on which one they require my assistance for.

The result is an interesting window into what could be accomplished with greater adoption of student-centered classrooms.  A number of years ago, a group of educators in Israel published a paper imagining what a high school would look like if modeled like a Beit Midrash (download the paper here).  Their basic premise was that the focal point of both the physical structure of the school and the schedule of the day would be time spent in a Beit Midrash, with students required to attend both mandatory and elective classes throughout their years in the school.  However, the main learning would be accomplished by students working independently or in groups, and making their own decisions on how to allocate that time.

What if, instead of five periods per week of Chumash and five of Gemara, my students had three or four of each, with the rest being used for independent work time which could be used for either subject, or some other subject?  Obviously, with me or another Judaic teacher present during that time, they might be more likely to work on a subject in which I could be helpful.  However, this would provide the students with the chance to hone their time-management and prioritizing skills.  They would know what needs to be accomplished, but once in control of making that learning happen, they would have the freedom to also decide when it would happen.

I will grant that this goes back to what I feel is the main question about flipped learning, blended learning, and all of their cousins.  None of them are anything new.  It is the way that adults learn, and it is certainly the way that both college and grad school work - do the readings, then come to class to discuss them.  The novelty is that we are trying to accomplish it with students at ever-younger ages.  And so, the issue that we would have to grapple with is are we ready to allow students in high school or middle school or even younger to not only find the material on their own, but manage and discipline themselves and their time?  At what point do we loosen our grip on our students' hands, and by how much?  Truly a question that serious-minded educators must always ask.