Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Washington Post vs. Mr. Miyagi

I recently came across this post on the Washington Post website, by Valerie Strauss but actually by Roger Schank, which explains, subject by subject, why kids hate school.  The overall gist of the column is that students are not taught any knowledge that is of immediate relevance to their lives, and therefore they are bored and disillusioned with their education, simply counting off days and filling in scantron bubbles until graduation.

Anticipating the inevitable blowback, the author mentions criticism that he has received for writing similar articles in the past, most of that criticism coming from teachers, and condescendingly forgives the teachers for their ire, noting that it is not their fault, they are only teaching what they are ordered to teach by a larger and faceless system.


It seems to me that Mr. Schank has regrettably never seen the Karate Kid.  If he had, perhaps he would recall how Mr. Miyagi, one of the greatest of all movie teachers, taught karate to young Daniel-San.  No calisthenics, no kicks, no chops, no nothing that looks at all like karate.  Rather, he had Daniel program what seemed like slave labor - paint the fence, wax the car, sand the deck - every time with a specific motion, and every time until Daniel reached theist of exhaustion.  The true climax of the movie is not the final scene when Daniel defeats his nemesis (I would give a spoiler alert, but if you have not seen it yet, I take no responsibility), but rather when Mr. Miyagi demonstrates to Daniel that all of that hard labor was in fact teaching him the proper techniques that he would need in order to master karate.

(For those who prefer literature to cinema, the same thing takes place in T. H. White's The Once and Future King, as Merlin gives Wart a curious education, all of which comes into play during the climactic scene of the novel.)

Back to Mr. Schank.  On one level, he is on to something.  It is much easier to learn something when you can see its immediate relevance.  In fact, that is a large part of my motivation behind project-based learning.  However, not every thing that we learn has an immediate connection to the world around us. Many parts of our education have a slow and steady impact on us, shaping our character, molding the way that we think, broadening our horizons and the way that we view the world and the people in it.  The purpose of a broad and deep liberal arts education, something that is under severe assault in our society on several fronts, is not to create future professors of liberal arts, but to create thoughtful, discerning, and sensitive citizens.  

I would be interested to hear the type of curriculum that Mr. Schank would propose.  But more than that, I would be interested to see the type of students and citizens that he would intend to produce.  I am keeping my money on the Miyagi approach.  After all, it worked the first time.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Do We Still Need Gemaras?

When I was first learning Gemara, before the advent of Artscroll, if you wanted a text that could help you out, you basically had two choices.  The old-school choice was the Soncino translation, an English version of the Gemara that was written in a vocabulary almost as difficult as the Hebrew/Aramaic original.  Alternatively, there was the Steinsaltz Gemara, a new and new-fangled version that was quite intriguing.  Rather than maintain the classic "Vilna" layout of the page, Steinsaltz broke the text into topical paragraphs, added punctuation, and included his own running commentary/explanation alongside those of Rashi and Tosafot, the two "big guns" on the standard page.  For making all of these seemingly helpful changes to the page (not to the text, which remained the same), Steinsaltz was widely excoriated and shunned, and by the time he finally got around to completing his massive work, the Artscroll revolution was upon us.

You can read more about the controversy over Steinsaltz's Gemara at this post by my friend David Zinberg. The main issue that he raises is one that is bubbling up right now for Jewish educators - do we even need to hand our students actual Gemaras (or Chumashing or Mishnayot or Neviim) anymore?  I am speaking specifically about schools that are trying out iPads for all students - there are several apps, some of them free, that contain the complete text of many classic Jewish texts.  Why not just have the students reference that version of the text on the same device that they are using to take notes?  It would avoid having students forget their books, and would provide opportunities for all sorts of innovative ways to learn and study.

One issue that Zinberg points out is the veneration of the classic Vilna layout of the page, completed between 1880 and 1886 by the Romm publishing house. In truth, the basic layout goes even further back and the Romm edition is merely the latest one to gain near-total acceptance.  Steinsaltz took heat for breaking that down.  Meanwhile, versions of the Gemara that add vowels to the Vilna page are seen perhaps as a crutch, but not as a threat, and the Artscroll Gemara, which severely reduces the need for the learner to put in all that much effort, has been heralded as the greatest thing to happen to Torah learning since Sinai.  The Artscroll iPad app, for all of its innovation, kept the standard page layout, and thus has received many of the same accolades as the print edition.

But should any of that matter?  Ask any Gemara teacher in Middle School or High School to list the skills that he or she is teaching, and "knowing how to navigate the standard page of Gemara" will certainly be on the list, but will likely be something to which only a small amount of time is devoted.  Vocabulary, key words, identifying whether a Tanna or an Amora is speaking, learning the different parts of the Gemara's argument - these are the key skills which occupy our time in the classroom, and they can all be learned regardless of the page layout.  By contrast, no such insistence on a page layout is required or even desired in any of the other text-based Judaic subjects - we tend to look for the edition that will work best for the students.

I am not saying that using a running text of the Gemara using the U'v'lechtecha BaDerech app is necessarily the best way to go.  Perhaps the sugya-based iBooks currently being crowdsourced through an effort of Rabbi Mordechai Smolarcik will be the wave of the future.  On the other hand, I can think of a variety of reasons why I might prefer an old-school paper edition of the Gemara in my classroom.  However, it is an issue whose time has come and that we should be prepared to explain to ourselves and our students why we are using whichever version of the text that we have decided to use.

What are your thoughts on the matter?  Please share in the comments section.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Reflections on ISTE 2013 (Which I didn't Attend)

ISTE 2013 - The International Society for Technology in Education's annual four-day confab, held this year in beautiful and broiler-hot San Antonio, Texas - ended last Wednesday afternoon with a rousing closing keynote address by Adam Bellow, encouraging all of us innovative and forward-thinking educators to do what we can to change the world.  Coming at the conclusion of four days of networking, learning, and peering into the future of technology, education, and the confluence of the two, Bellow's at times emotional, at time humorous speech was the pitch-perfect conclusion, sending the almost 20,000 attendees home energized and ready to make a real difference in their schools and to their students.

As I wrote about last year, the ISTE conference is an amazing and overwhelming experience.  Session range from discussing specific apps for the iPad to brainstorming new ways to demonstrate leadership within one's school.  The conference presents one with the chance to have those long conversations with colleagues that the school year leaves no time for, to connect with one's personal learning network in person, and to meet people from literally all over the world who bring a ridiculously wide range of experiences, ideas, and dreams and to work to help each other make those dreams a reality.  As ISTE came to a close, I was full of ideas and suggestions that I am eager to try out in the upcoming school year.  Just like last year

With one difference.  I was not at ISTE this year.

Nope.  For a variety of reasons, I was not able to make it down to Texas (will have to get to the Alamo another time).  However, that did not mean that I was left out of ISTE.  True, I did not get the face-to-face interaction that I would have had had I been there in person.  And I was not able to follow up every session that I attended with a schmooze with the presenter or with the person sitting next to me.  However, one of the true strengths of ISTE is that it exists within the various networks that all of its attendees have worked so hard to create over the past few year.  And, like and strong and solid network, not everyone has to participate in an activity in order for everyone to benefit.

Readers of this blog will not be shocked to hear that Twitter played a major role in my ISTE experience this year.  My good friend and frequent collaborator Rabbi Tzvi Pittinsky took copious notes at his sessions on Evernote, tweeted them out, and made sure to mention me in the tweet if the topic was one that he felt was of particular interest to me.  The incomparable Suzie Boss kept up a constant twitter stream on PBL issues, and responded to many of many queries and comments throughout the week.  An untold number of people alerted me to which sessions were going on, allowing me to put out feelers for quotes, comments, and notes. Several of these sets of notes have been added to my Evernote notebook for future reference as I plan for next year.

There is no question that attending ISTE in person is infinitely more enjoyable and beneficial than living it vicariously through one's friends and network-mates.  By the same token, it is important to realize that while four intense days provides a nice charge, it is the other 361 days of the year that we have to take that charge and run with it.  My thanks to my network for sharing their excitement and learning with me - I hope to reciprocate from Atlanta next year.