Monday, May 18, 2020

A Letter to Day School parents

Dear Parents,

It has been well over two months since we have had the opportunity and privilege to teach your children in our normal school environment.  Yes, we have been making real efforts to continue to educate our students via Zoom and other online platforms, but even for the older students who can more easily handle such situations, it is still a far cry from what we normally are able to provide and what we want to get back to providing.

At the same time, this moment presents an opportunity for most of us.  Those of you who are medical professionals and are doing the heroic front-line work of saving lives or searching for cures and vaccines are probably busier now than you were before this all started.  But most of the rest of us probably find ourselves with more time on our hands - no commuting, no endless carpools, no gym or malls or meals out, no minyan or shiurim outside of the house.  Your children are undoubtedly seeing a lot more of you, and while that can be stressful at times, it also allows you to focus on your ever-important role in the chinuch of your children.

It is often debated whether education is a science or an art.  If it is the former, the thinking goes, then there should be a collection of time-tested theories and techniques that can be taught to anyone willing to commit themselves to it.  If it is an latter, then we are looking for teachers who possess a certain undefinable yet unmistakable spark of talent or inspiration that propels them into that hallowed realm of "everyone's favorite teacher" status.

I would suggest that the teaching-as-art metaphor has another aspect to it.  An artist is only as good as the medium on which he deploys his talents.  A cheap piece of notebook paper is nothing compared to an expensive canvas, paints come in varying qualities, and a potter's clay must be mixed just so in order for it to be molded to the exact shape that the artisan desires.

As teachers, we can take all of our knowledge and skill and pizzazz and bring them into the classroom in our efforts to impart knowledge and hopefully a love for the subject matter to your children.  However, every teacher knows that not every "canvas" is the same.  Every student brings something different to the classroom - not only in terms of their ability, but also in terms of what they are motivated to do and what they find valuable and important.  Teachers can try to improve those qualities of the canvas, but the truth is that those are the things that are forged at home.  Even before you think your child is paying attention, they are noticing what you consider to be important and what you value.  By the time a child enters school, he or she has spent four years being formed, and they will continue to build on that every day of their lives.  Now that they are spending all of their waking time with you, here are a few areas where you can make a tremendous impact over the next few months:

1) Tefilla - From the youngest grades, schools teach children to daven, adding more and more tunes and paragraphs each year, and hopefully introducing lessons on the meaning and purpose of davening as the students are mature enough to appreciate it.  But any educator will tell you that by Middle School, you can tell a lot about the parents' attitude towards davening from the attitude that their child brings with them.  For now, tefilla is being done at home, which means that your children will see you doing it.  For now, there is no such thing as coming late, or talking during davening, or complaining about the chazzan.  For now, all that exists are your moments of connecting with God.  Let your children see how important that is to you.

2) Torah - It's almost axiomatic - the doctor's kid has the best Science Fair project, the finance guy's kid wins the Stock Market Game, and the Rabbi's kid gets top marks on Gemara tests.  But while the Rabbi might not understand markets and the finance whiz might be clueless about genetics, raising a child who feels that Torah is an essential component of our lives can be done by just about anyone, regardless of their level of Torah knowledge.  Find something to learn with your child, even for just a few minutes, even for just a few times a week.  That little bit of time investment will communicate loads about the value that you place on Torah study and will give you new and significant topics to discuss with your children.

3) Shabbat - While we all know that Shabbat is the day for family, how much time did we devote to our family on an average Shabbat back in January?  Between catching up on sleep, hanging out at the kiddush, and long meals with multiple families where the adults talk for hours while the kids eat, bentch, and run, perhaps we did not always take advantage of this most special of days.  Well here we are - davening is shorter, there are no kiddushim, and meals are just with our nuclear families.  To call this a golden opportunity to improve family bonds and to better appreciate the beauty of Shabbat would be a massive understatement.

Over the past two decades, there has been a massive increase in programming in Jewish Day Schools.  While some of that is a result of evolving notions of education, a lot of it is also an attempt to provide religious inspiration to our students, many of whom have not been finding elsewhere as everyone's lives have become more and more busy and chaotic.  With much of that chaos currently on hold, you have a chance to provide that inspiration to your children - and, believe it or not, they are so willing to receive it from you.  We continue to be ready to work our artistic talents on these precious canvasses - and we wish you much success in this unforeseen moment when you can significantly impact the overall quality and receptivity of those canvasses to what we have to teach them.

Looking forward to continuing to partner with you,

Your Children's Teachers

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

The Coronavirus will change everything! (Spoiler: not really)

The past month has been one of upheaval for every aspect of our world.  As people have retreated into quarantine, businesses have closed, and life has moved online, everyone has tried to figure out how to remain positive, sane, and solvent for what is still an undetermined amount of time.  Education has been impacted along with everyone else, with the rapid popularity of Zoom and other video-conferencing tools allowing many classes to continue while teachers and students are confined to their homes.  Teachers at all levels of comfort with technology have figured out how to reconfigure their lessons, and administrators have been working with their faculties to figure out how to alter academic expectations and maintain a sense of normality and stability for their students.

As would be expected, there has also been a surfeit of articles and blogposts about how this is going to change education forever.  Often based on the tired complaint that our current system of education was designed during the industrial revolution and has not changed much since*, these writers posit that now that people have been shown that everyone can teach online, teachers will be forced by mass pressure to radically change their method of instruction.

*To my mind, this complaint is a lazy one.  It is generally stated that whole-class frontal instruction was created to help mass-produce students who all knew the same thing, and that such an approach should be thrown out because we have now discovered new and exciting and more effective ways to teach.  It ignores the fact that some of those new ways require more teachers and other resources, and thus cost more, as well as the fact that every generation has put forth its educational panaceas that do not always stick (open schools, anyone?).  On top of that, there are innovations from the industrial revolution which are still essentially with us, such as the assembly line, but have been tweaked and improved over time.  Whole class frontal teaching is not always the most effective approach for each individual student, but it can be very effective if done properly and with an appropriate mix of other instructional methodologies.

Leaving aside the fact that our schools today are a far cry from the schools of even thirty years ago in terms of instructional methodology, awareness of and sensitivity to the differing academic, social, and mental needs of students, and even curricular goals, what I think the past month has really shown is that online teaching may be a substitute for content delivery, but fails miserably in replacing school.  Even for content delivery, younger students (definitely below grade 6, and even for some at that age and older) often do not have the independence or the patience to sit in front of a screen and focus on a lesson for more than twenty minutes at a time, a few times per day.  Several high schools in my area initially tried replicating their 8-9 hours of instruction online and quickly retreated, realizing that there is only so much that students can handle virtually.  College professors who pontificate about the future of education being online should realize that they are working with twenty year-old students who take about 12 hours of class per week even when they are on campus, not ten year-olds who restlessly manage to complete 6 hours of schooling every day.

More important is the fact that attending school is not just about acquiring content knowledge.  Zoom cannot replace the mentorship and guidance that teachers give during the two minutes walking from one class to another, during lunch and recess breaks, and during a million other "stolen" moments of time during the school year; Google Hangouts does not replace actually hanging out with your friends by your locker or on the bus; FaceTime is not the same as face time.  As my teacher Rabbi Yehuda Amital once said, "You can make a robot that does everything a mother does, but what kind of a child will you have?"  Our students may still be acquiring some knowledge, but they are losing out on much of the human connection that helps to make the learning process richer, deeper, and ultimately more lasting.

Eventually, we will be able to return to our schools and to resume our full complement of classes and programs.  Will there be lessons learned and a million small changes made as a result of our time teaching from a distance?  Undoubtedly there will be.  But perhaps the most significant changes will be an increased appreciation - by teachers, students, and parents alike - that education is first and foremost a people business, and that it is the personal connections that we form and nurture on a daily basis that are the real secret of the success in education.

Sunday, January 5, 2020

Daf Yomi - Building a Global Beit Midrash

For obvious reasons, Daf Yomi is all the rage these days.  Over 110,000 packed a football stadium and a basketball arena in the New York area last Wednesday for the Agudah-sponsored Siyum HaShas, and countless smaller siyumim have been made around the world in the days since.  In Teaneck, over 300 people came out on Sunday morning for an event launching the new cycle of Daf Yomi, and with good reason it is assumed that perhaps as many as half a million people learned the first daf of Masechet Brachot on the same day, a feat both unprecedented and unimaginable to previous generations.  Over the next few days and weeks, countless people who never before saw themselves as candidates to finish Shas will at least take the first steps along that path.

Consistent with Newton's third law, all of this positive action produces the inevitable and predictable reactions.  Daf Yomi is not the ideal way of learning; it is too fast; it is too slow; it is too superficial.  The critiques come from both the halls of Yeshivot as well as from secular Talmud scholars - and they all contain a modicum of truth to them.  However, they also strike me as largely irrelevant, and for two reasons that I wish to elaborate upon.

Reason #1 - The mitzva of Talmud Torah
Rambam (Hilchot Talmud Torah 1:8) rules that a person is obligated to establish fixed times for Torah learning every day and every night, based on the pasuk in Sefer Yehoshua - v'hagita bo yomam va-layla.  Shulchan Aruch (O.C. 155:1) codifies this as well, and emphasizes the need to make this time a permanent fixture in one's day.  Granted, neither one demands that the learning in question be the study of Gemara, and certainly not the amount demanded daily by Daf Yomi.

However, Daf Yomi is perhaps the most successful program of study that makes a daily demand that one learn a certain amount.  The one course of learning mandated by the Gemara, namely the requirement to review the weekly parsha with a commentary (shnayim mikra v'echad targum - Brachot 8a), only requires us to finish the parsha over the course of the week, and thus one could fulfill that obligation by waking up early on Shabbat morning and spending an hour or two reading through the parsha.  Only Daf Yomi requires its adherents to show up every day without fail, with no regard to busy days, vacation days, holidays, or any other type of days.

But, but, but!!! What about all of those other "Yomi" programs - Nach Yomi, Mishna Yomi, Mishna Berura Yomi?  Don't they count as learning?  Of course they do - but we have to recognize that they all were created in the shadow of Daf Yomi.  If mishna is more one's speed, then by all means, he or she should focus on mishna.  If Tanach works for you - go for it.  And if you are learning in Yeshiva and you have time for serious analysis far beyond what is involved in Daf Yomi, then certainly you should expend your energies there.  The genius of Daf Yomi is that its widespread and growing acceptance forces everyone to answer the question of "What are you learning today?" - and forces us to answer it every single day, exactly as Rambam and Shulchan Aruch have ruled.  Your answer to the question can be that you are doing Daf Yomi, or it can be that you are learning something - anything - else.  But your answer cannot be "nothing".  Daf Yomi has elevated the issue of learning every day to the status of a national priority and thus even if it is not for you, it pushes you to figure out what is.

Reason #2 - The Global Beit Midrash
There is a disheartening comment by the Midrash (Vayikra Rabba 2:1) that states that for every 1,000 people who begin to learn Tanach, 100 will advance to learn Mishna.  From that 100, 10 will move on to Gemara, and only 1 of those who advance to the level of hora'a, meaning that they will be qualified to offer halachic instruction.  On the face of it, it sounds like an educational system with a fairly low success rate.

Of course, those numbers are not set in stone and they do not have to remain static.  Centuries of Jewish thinkers, from the Sages to the Maharal to modern-day educators, have offered pedagogical, methodological, and psychological advice as to how to enhance education, reach more students, and create learners who will absorb more of what they are taught and be able to analyze that material at ever-higher levels.

However, on its most simple level, the Midrash is saying that Torah learning is challenging.  To be an accomplished Torah scholar requires one to master a wide range of texts written over several millenia, in multiple languages and dialects, in often opaque and complex writing styles.  There are more books to master than there are minutes in a year, and every volume seems to cross-reference every other volume.  Viewed from that perspective, one out of a thousand does not seem so bad.

It is here that the sheer popularity of Daf Yomi becomes its strength, by raising the numbers of people who enter into the pool in the first place.  While there are undoubtedly some for whom Daf Yomi is not the best way to spend the time that they have available for learning, for so many more that time was not being used for learning in the first place.  True, for many of those individuals attending a Daf Yomi shiur will be the highest level of learning that they will attain - and that alone is an amazing accomplishment!  However, the more people who involve themselves in the daily study of Gemara, the more likely that a few of them will push beyond and become the people giving the Daf Yomi shiur, and perhaps even go beyond that.  Further, as was highlighted at the Siyum HaShas this past week, the result of children seeing their parents involved in daily study of Gemara is likely to be children who follow in their parents' footsteps, again expanding the pool of people who commit themselves to serious Torah learning.  If a rising tide lifts all boats, then the tide of Daf Yomi is currently a high one indeed.

Rav Meir Shapiro, in founding Daf Yomi, famously dreamed of two Jews from different countries and different stations in life being able to chance upon one another on a train and be able to converse about the daf that they both happened to be learning.  As Daf Yomi continues to gain in popularity with each new cycle, those encounters become more common and the broader Jewish world continuously crystallizes into an international Beit Midrash.