If We Were the Rulers of Hebrew School World

This blog entry is a four year old document created after the CAJE conference in St. Louis. Give the recent flutter of postings on the “failure” of Hebrew school, I believe that the time has come to repost it. It is really long, so I will post it in four parts during Sukkot. I invite you to come into my virtual sukkah and engage in a conversation with colleagues on what may be the most important issue we face.

– Gris

Part Three: Building a Model

Here is where we get practical. We are going to imagine re-engineering the present supplemental school with the minimal amount of structural change or cost, yet for the maximum effect. Our goals for this change are simple.

  1. We are going focus on increasing and deepening contact through twelfth grade with a maximum number of students.
  2. We are going to develop curricular opportunities to deal with “the four questions” mentioned above and other issues that move our students toward adult understandings of Judaism.
  3. We are going to work to maximize Jewish social contacts and to increase a sense of Jewish community for both students and their families.
  4. We are going to try to build bridges between Jewish involvement in high school and Jewish involvement in college.

To achieve this we are going to implement the following changes.

  • Extend confirmation or high school graduation until twelfth grade and work hard to make this a celebrated and honored part of congregational life.
  • Make a service commitment part of the confirmation/graduation process with serving as a madrikh or madrikhah (counselor/teaching assistant) as a favored way of fulfilling this commitment.
  • Train teachers to utilize madrikhim in a group-work (camp-like) style within the framework of their regular classrooms.
  • Assign one madrikh for every eight students in each classroom and establish a structure (that we will call “a table”) as a bunk-like unit.
  • Provide madrikhim with (a) viable reimbursement for their time and (b) hadrakhah-centered training for their work. Teachers and madrikhim must also train together.
  • Create events and responsibilities for madrikhim as a group (or as groups) to take front stage in the school and in congregational life.
  • Establish a national data link that allows principals to recommend madrikhim who have graduated from their schools to principals in the area where these students are going to college.
  • Begin youth group activities in second or third grade with a portion of the staffing being done by the same madrikhim who work with these kids in religious school.
  • Schedule a minimum of five family events for each classroom. Teachers will need to receive training to facilitate these events. One of these events should be a Shabbat in the home of one of the student families. One of these events should be or include a recreational activity for the families. The goal here is to create a havurah-like relationship for participant families.
  • Establish a system of parenting workshops where the synagogue works with groups of parents on the stages through which their children are going.

Now let’s look into the specifics of each of these innovations.

Extend confirmation or high school graduation until twelfth grade and work hard to make this a celebrated and honored part of congregational life.

When Larry Kushner was the rabbi of Temple Beth El in Sudbury, MA, “confirmation” was a twelfth-grade process called siyum (completion). The major element in siyum was the congregation’s annual publication of a hardback volume that contained essays by each of the “graduating” students. These essays were statements of personal theology that were developed by each student in consultation with the rabbi. Each essay took a school year to write and had the rabbi as thesis advisor, challenging and reinforcing each student’s thinking and growing its sophistication.

The Sudbury model did two things in a single process. It provided students with a chance to develop a sophisticated adult understanding of Judaism—one no bar/bat mitzvah could ever approach—and it celebrated publicly extended Jewish learning and therefore increased the odds that more students would participate.

The Sudbury model is not the only way of doing it, but it does manifest three elements we want to imitate.

(a) It extends Jewish learning through the end of high school.
(b) It utilizes this extended learning time to focus on developing more sophisticated and personal expressions of Jewish meaning.
(c) It publicly celebrates this extended Jewish learning and its results as a way of encouraging more students to opt for this kind of extended learning.

Keeping students learning through high school fulfills two objectives: It enforces the connection between Jewish life at home and Jewish life in college, and it provides time for Jewish learning when students have developed significant sophistication as learners.

Make a service commitment part of the confirmation process with serving as a madrikh or madrikhah (counselor/teaching assistant) as a favored way of fulfilling this commitment.

In Spokane, Washington, the entire Bar/Bat Mitzvah process is organized and staffed by high school students. Each Bar/Bat Mitzvah student is assigned a tutor who not only works with him or her, but who attends services with the student, and who winds up on the bima with the student during the ceremony. Perhaps the most exciting part of the whole program is that it is administered and monitored by a pair of head tutors who are also high school students. In many ways this is a model program out of which this vision of the future supplemental school was created.

Service learning—opportunity for teenagers to volunteer their time to make the world a better place—is big at the moment. Universities like to see it on applications, and the students themselves feel good about doing it. Not only is a tikkun olam commitment in and of itself a good Jewish value, but educationally it offers us a second opportunity. We want our students in food banks and shelters, but we also want them in our schools. Defining being a madrikh or madrikhah as a service opportunity is a step in this direction.

To be specific, we want the social action/tikkun olam committee of the congregation to create a number of hands-on opportunities where high school students can join with adults in specific projects, but we want to make sure that work in the school falls out on this list.

Train teachers to utilize madrikhim in a group-work (camp-like) style within the framework of their regular classrooms.

In the Talmud, Bava Batra 20b, we find the following:

Rava said, “The maximum number of students who are to be assigned to one teacher is twenty-five. If there are fifty, we appoint two teachers. If there are forty, we appoint an assistant at the expense of the town.”

Rashi comments: “What is a teaching assistant? It is someone who hears the lesson from the teacher with the students and repeats it to them until they know it for themselves.”

Our model for madrikhim comes from this Rashi. We define the role of the madrikh/madrikhah as being one who learns the core content from the teacher and then uses that content in activities with the students. This is much like a parent who helps a child with homework by working through the materials with their child.

You already know that we are moving toward a new way of using madrikhim. Here is a simple truth: The greatest reason for the failure of most madrikhim programs is the inability of teachers to effectively utilize these high school students in a rewarding way. Before we start talking about developing a program for high school students, we need to make sure that we have a training program for teachers in place.

Teacher training is a critical part of this revision. This should include:

  • Providing teachers with concrete models of ways of using madrikhim. They need a vocabulary of specific activities, and they need a vision of the relationship and the model.
  • Providing teachers with some supervision skills. They need to know good ways of helping these high school students grow into their roles.
  • Providing models of communication that will allow teachers to quickly provide the madrikhim with the information and resources that they will need to succeed without taking much extra time from either teacher or madrikh.
  • Providing work on mentoring skills, because the growth of the high school student is one of our clear goals (and not merely a side effect of this process).

Assign one madrikh for every eight students in each classroom and establish a structure (that we will call “a table”) as a bunk-like unit.

Right now the following things tend to be wrong with these programs:

  • High school students do not last very long as madrikhim because the experience is emotionally unsatisfying (if they are working above 2nd grade.)
  • Teachers, especially teachers of older students, have no real commitment to the program because they don’t know what to do with their madrikhim.
  • Madrikhim sometimes become behavior problems, gathering at the back of assemblies and setting bad examples.
  • It is hard to find students who want to give up their Sunday mornings to be part of such a program.

A school with table-based staffing fixes many of these problems and looks something like this.

  1. Students arrive. A madrikh is at the door greeting each student. Students come in and head to their ,tables where a madrikhah is waiting with a “sponge” activity, one designed to “absorb” students as they enter. Conversation at these tables is student-centered, warm, and welcoming.The teacher, meanwhile, wanders from table to table, taking her part in the welcome and looking over the opening activity.
  2. The teacher swings into the first part of the lesson. Like a traditional classroom, this lesson can be “frontal,” didactic, Socratic, interactive, or whatever works for the teacher. It lasts from 10 to 15 minutes, and its major
    purpose is to introduce the new material for the day.
  3. The class moves into group work. Table by table (small group by small group) five to eight students and their madrikh work through the worksheet, or read and discuss a text, or prepare to take one side in a debate.
  4. After twenty to thirty minutes of work, during which the teacher rotates among the working groups, monitoring and joining in, the class is re-gathered and the answers are gone over, or the positions shared, etc. Here again a teacher is running as traditional a classroom as he wants.
  5. Then the class heads to the school service/assembly. As they sit down the madrikhim carefully position themselves. Each student who needs some attention, each group that could benefit from a little more supervision has someone sitting next to or with them. When it comes to the service, thirty madrikhim join in, letting the singing and the energy rise to a pretty impressive level. It is a powerful, energy-filled gathering.
  6. When they get back to the classroom, the teacher directs the class to do an art-project to further express the material already covered. The teacher takes one table, two madrikhot take the other two, and they each work on designing and executing a mural. Meanwhile, a madrikh and the two students who missed last week head out into the hall, sit down, and go over what they missed.
  7. At the end of the day the students are seen to the door, teacher and team huddle for five minutes, and then all head home.
  8. Over the week the madrikhim receive a one page e-mail that outlines the activities for the next session, assigns a chapter of reading for them to do in preparation, and gives the madrikhim the key questions and answers for a discussion they will lead next Sunday.

This kind of madrikhim program is a thick idea with many different layers of impact. First and foremost, this program is for the madrikhim.

We know a couple of things about camp counseling that transfers here.

  1. Camp is for the counselors.
  2. It is a really rewarding experience.
  3. One learns the most preparing to teach.
  4. Teaching becomes a transferable skill that can be picked up in any community where the student goes to college.

For the school, we are enabling a personal, highly interactive, exciting version of Hebrew school where kids have a chance at
(a) building much greater connection to fellow students (because there will be a lot of room for talking),
(b) bonding to a teenager who will be their regular table madrikh/madrikhah, and
(c) mastering the content more successfully because of learning in a small group that cares about the success of each member.

For the student, we are

  1. in a classroom that is a more adaptive and forgiving,
  2. with a big commitment to group,
  3. with a much greater variety of activities, and
  4. with a wonderful role model who has plenty of time to pay attention “to me.”

Just as at camp, counselors make ordinary things fun, and every kid wants to grow up to be a counselor. We are today in a universe where youth group is at risk, Israel trips are much more limited in participation because of politics, fewer kids are able to devote a summer to counseling. The madrikhim model abandons peer leadership, a difficult model (and one that has driven the boys out) to a cross age (Zionist youth movement) model where older students work with younger ones.

We still want a peer youth group active, we still demand Jewish learning in order to teach, we expect training to participate, but we build all this around a setting where one has a great shot at being needed and loved.

Imagine a school with thirty or forty kids in madrikhim T-shirts welcoming students at the door, being there as the ru’ah section in assemblies and services, existing as living proof that the school has succeeded.

Provide madrikhim with (a) viable reimbursement for their time and (b) hadrakhah-centered training for their work. Teachers and madrikhim must also train together.

Pay is not always important, but it can be a big motivating factor for both parents and teenagers to break into their busy schedule and make time for Judaism. Real pay also says that this is an honored and respected role. Synagogue time should at least be able to match McDonald’s.

Rethinking this model would involve two to three students in each classroom. This would allow:

  • the use of camp and group work models in the classroom.
  • the presence of a cluster of such students to alter the management issues and make control easier both on the classroom and especially in large group gatherings.
  • the ability to provide tutoring, special groupings, and meet individual needs.
  • greeting tasks and the knowing of students well enough to know them.
  • the ability to create a youth community and make an impact on these high school student.

The things that should form the core of a madrikhim training program are:

  1. Jewish content
  2. Hadrakhah (basic leadership skills) such as (i) where to sit, (ii) how to greet, (iii) role modeling, (iv) basic “counseling,” etc.
  3. Tutoring skills
  4. Discussion group leading
  5. Arts leadership: arts, crafts, drama, music, etc.

Create events and responsibilities for madrikhim as a group (or as groups) to take front stage in school and in congregational life.

In 40 Things You Can Do to Save the Jewish People I wrote that people should choose a synagogue based on the presence of teenagers at Simhat Torah. Today I don’t know any synagogues where teenagers are involved in Simhat Torah. But if they were, it would make a huge difference. It would say that Torah couldn’t be outgrown. It would be an event that was part of the bar/bat mitzvah year and that would make an amazing statement. Imagine a whole synagogue full of religious “tables” drumming on the pews. Imagine the energy of them dancing together. Imagine Simhat Torah becoming a whole community affair.

When I was the director of the youth program at North Shore Congregation Israel in Glencoe, IL, the youth group used to present the congregational Purim Spiel. It became one of the leading moments in congregational life. Not only was it a good show, but people wanted to know who and what the youth group would mock. This moment became the “nobody wanted to miss it” commentary on the congregational year and gave that youth group a prominent role and perception in the eyes of the congregation. We want to find the same kinds of moments for the madrikhim, moments where every parent will want their children to be part of this program.

Establish a national data link that allows principals to recommend madrikhim who have graduated from their schools to principals in the area where these students are going to college.

This one can’t be done by one congregation or one Jewish educator. It is the kind of thing that CAJE or Hillel or the national denominations should want to do. But because no one has thought of it, I’ll include it here, because it is needed. When we build a link between being a high school madrikh/madrikhah and becoming a Jewish teacher in college, we build strong continuity of Jewish life and connection. When we make it easy to go directly from a high school job to a college one, we do good for the student and we do good for the schools as well. And we grow and pass on teachers who understand how to work with madrikhim in a group work-style religious school classroom.

Begin youth group activities in second or third grade, with a portion of the staffing being done by the same madrikhim who work with these kids in religious school.

One of our objectives in any congregational school is for students to have Jewish friends. These friendships will make teaching them easier, will work to insure their continuity in our programs, and will lead them toward Jewish connections later in life. By starting as young as second or third grade, we begin these Jewish friendships early. By starting to create group experiences early, we build connections between students and carve out space for a different kind of youth group experience in future years.

The use of the same madrikhim as part of the staffing for these programs builds a direct connection between formal and informal experiences and allows these students to extend their relationship with their tables in completely different contexts. While a lot of these events will be bowling and amusement park experiences, they will also provide an opportunity for Havdalah and birkat ha-mazon.

Schedule a minimum of five family events for each classroom. Teachers will need to receive training to facilitate these events. One of these events should be a Shabbat in the home of one of the student families. One of these events should be or include a recreational activity for the families. The goal here is to create a havurah-like relationship for participant families.

Congregations have tended to opt for family education events run by a family education specialist or an educational director, not trusting or not feeling comfortable burdening teachers with the responsibility. Here were are looking to meet enough times to transform a class into a havurah. We want parents to know and connect with each other; we want the students to have access to each other in other settings. These connections are the way we are going to build continuity of participation. This chance given to teachers to know their parents is the way we are going to make their classrooms more manageable, because building partnerships will be much easier.

The creation of a home Friday night brings families closer to a home Shabbat experience of their own. The addition of events to celebrate the Jewish holidays—a sukkah event, a Hanukkah event, etc.—would be great. Part of what we are asking is that larger congregations think of classes as contexts for programming and homes as settings for these programs.

Establish a system of parenting workshops where the synagogue works with groups of parents on the stages through which their children are going.

The second half the bonding parents to parents is to get them to share the issues they are dealing with with their children and have them serve as resources for each other. We can take them from beginning school past driver’s licenses. Workshops that deal with these developmental moments and with ongoing family issues like homework and sibling rivalry will connect parents and tighten our havurot.

Advertisements

One Response to If We Were the Rulers of Hebrew School World

  1. Good job, really good articles are you interisting about self improvement?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: