If We Were 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 Four: Final Thinking

In putting together this model we have tried to do two opposite things. The first is to make little structural change in the ways schools operate. We still have grades, classes, blackboards, textbooks, and the like. We have not asked for radical change from teachers. They still get to plan lessons, use traditional teaching strategies, and manage their classrooms (when needed) in a professional manner.

The second is to get maximal impact by enhancing the traditional classroom with the opportunity for group work and camp-style relationships. Teachers give up nothing by working in this style. They only gain greater flexibility and greater support. The price they pay is the mastery of a few skills that will enrich what they are already doing. The hardest of these is re-envisioning their classrooms as changed but not changed.

Ten Models of Madrikhim-Led Activities

  1. The class divides into Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai and prepares for a debate. One madrikh helps each group prepare. They read two pages of material, rehearse arguments, and pick speakers for a mock Sanhedrin.
  2. The teacher gives the class texts to study in hevruta (dyads), The students find a partner and read through the texts, answering the questions. The madrikhim shepherd their groups, sitting among them and facilitating the process. Then, at the right moment, the madrikhim gather their flocks and debrief the hevrutot in groups of eight.
  3. Three groups go off with their madrikhim. Each group prepares a play about a different event in Sarah’s life. They then come back to class and perform.
  4. The class is working on the blessings before the Haftarah. Groups of five are formed. The teacher takes one group: so does each of the madrikhim.
  5. The teacher asks the class to read chapter seven and work on the questions at the end. Each table works through the questions with the madrikhah. There is no writing, but there are excited small-group discussions.
  6. The first grade is doing a synagogue scavenger hunt. Each table goes off with their madrikh, looking around the entire building for the eight things that they need to find.
  7. The seventh grade is sent into the library to do research on their reports. Each madrikh huddles his table, talks over the task, assigns jobs, and sits in the middle as the students bring books to him, asking, “Is this okay?”
  8. The teacher sets up her room in learning stations. A madrikhah sits at each station and works individually with the kids as they rotate past.
  9. The teacher announces that there will be a Hebrew vocabulary quiz and a prize for the table that has the best collective score. The kids dive across their tables, whispering and huddling as their madrikhim serve as their coaches, training them for the upcoming challenge.
  10. The teacher asks each student in the room to work individually. The teacher and the two madrikhim work the room, checking on the progress of each student. The last madrikhah sits with the two kids who would not successfully work on their own and leads them through the material.

For the school there are costs, too. And we are in a day and age when costs matter. There are two or three or even five years more of teachers because students are studying through twelfth grade not seventh or ninth or tenth grade. There is supervision and training for both madrikhim and teachers. There is salary money for the madrikhim. And (I’ve heard principals worry about this) there is the cost of a set of T-shirts.

But let’s look at the benefits.

We keep more kids in the building and as part of the learning process longer—though it may take a few years to build into this model. We provide students with a warmer and more personal school experience.

Teachers have a great series of successes and have partners in their enterprise.

The school builds a deeper connection with families, and families become part of a group that bonds them to the synagogue.

A system of role models is established that leads more and more students to continue their Jewish education through the end of high school.

More and more Jewish teachers are trained and created.

The bottom line is that all of this leads to greater fulfillment of the Jewish mission.

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