May 4, 2015

The FutureIf we are going to look at the future of Jewish education, at some point we are going to have to stop talking about technique and look at the content. My assumption is that not only are we going to be teaching in a host of new ways, but that we are going to be teaching for very different ends. If the student of the future demands a whole new approach, then the school of the future grows very different skills.

We know that the child of the future will enter with a very different set of skills and a very different learning context. We know that the families of the future will practice their Judaism in very different ways: synagogues will be less central, Israel less overarching. And ethnicity will be the strongest Jewish connections. Parents will be making very different demands. We know that (a) there will be few content demands, (b) Hebrew will not make any more of a difference that we can give to it, (c) life cycle will be more brief (think of shiva as “one” and not “three”) and (d) seeing as parents feel that they learned nothing (and are just as good for it) their worries about their children’s knowledge will be less so. And witnessing those who show up, (e) intermarriage is not the apocalypse.

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More Effective “Personalization.”

January 30, 2014

I get this e-mail from Ira Wise that is titled: “Your Next Topic” with just a web address in the body of the e-mail. I worry that his e-dress book may have been hacked and the web page will be filled with worms, viruses and other nasty things. I shrug my shoulders and clicked on the site. It turned out to be a good story and the topic of this article.

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I’ll Take “Executive Function”

October 19, 2011

Executive Function

“The theory of executive function is not an exact science, nor is it a standard diagnostic category. Even so, it can provide a framework in which parents and professionals can understand a child’s level of cognitive ability.”  Stanberr, Kristin. Executive function: A new lens for viewing your child. This theory of how we mentally navigate life offers a new way to view a child’s strengths and struggles. It also points a future direction for Jewish Education.

Ellen Galinsky wrote a book called Mind in the Making: The seven essential life skills every child needs She takes Neuroscience and breaks it down into material manageable by most parents and most teachers. She takes executive function and breaks it down into seven simple skills. This is pre-frontal cortex stuff that weaves together our social, emotional, and intellectual capacities.

  1. Focus and Self-Control. This is our ability to pay attention, to not be distracted, and it where we remember the rules.
  2. Perspective Taking. This is where we develop empathy and view things from different points-of-view.
  3. Communicating. This involves not only language skills, but our ability to grasp what images, metaphors, points-of-view will best communicate our insights to others.
  4. Making Connections.  Making Connections involves figuring out what is similar and what is different. (“One of these things is not like the other.”) Figuring out how one thing connects to another. This is associative and comparative thinking.
  5. Critical Thinking. This is our ability to evaluate and to decide what evidence we are going to use to make decisions.
  6. Taking on Challenges. According to Dr. David Bryfman, challenge is a definitional part of Experiential Education. Here is our ability to tackle the new and the difficult.
  7. Self-Directed. Engaged Learning. Self-Direction is also an element of Experiential Education.  It is where that which is demanded is transcended by that which were want to seek.

Before I go any further, I want to give a shout out to Marci Dickman, the Director of Life Long Learning at Congregation Beth Emet in Evanston, Illinois. I was privileged to watcher us this book and this material to train her teachers.

The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer

Neal Stephenson is a writer of speculative fiction. One of his creations is the “Dynabook”  In his novel, The Diamond Age, he comes up with the idea of a tablet like book that is continually programmed and acted out so that the protagonist can grow her executive functions. Actors and writers are always in the background creating the next part of the story the protagonist needs.

It is not impossible for computers to activate and grow executive functions. But empathy and the rest of these skills are best modeled and reinforced by real people.

The Best Argument for Textbooks

I have a friend who sent me this link: Increase Student Engagement by Getting Rid of Textbooks it is written by Shelly Blake-Plock, a high school classroom teacher from Maryland. He argues:

As a teacher, I’d say that the best things textbooks do are

  1. make my life easier by supplying me with reading passages, questions, and projects for the kids to do,
  2. organize the class material in such a way that we can stay on a steady course, and
  3. make it easy for colleagues and I teaching the same classes to “keep on the same page,” so to speak. And in all three cases, the textbook serves the teacher quite well.

What I know about complementary Jewish education is that it is powered by teachers who need all the help they can get. A good collection of texts and a function sense of organization can improve most Jewish classrooms. If you want to see how this works, look at Experiencing the Torah or Torah Toons I  OR You Be the Judge  or The Jewish Law Review.

The Jewish Present

In his sci-fi novel Martian Time Slip Philip K. Dick envisions an arcade where the games are actually computers with personalities who interact with the students. E.g. it is possible to play with Albert Einstein. We can all envision better Jewish futures. The question that needs to stand is “Can we build a great Jewish present?”

The reality is that today, the majority of Jewish students will be educated in classrooms fronted by teachers. That is the frustration and that is the reality. They are not the best teachers, most are untrained and part time. Many are volunteers. They are hard to gather and harder to train. But they are what we have to work with.


Shelly Blake-Plock, the teacher who argued against textbooks actually understands Ellen Galinsky. Neuroscientists have conducted studies that show that success Executive Functions can predict success in later life better than academic text scores. While Headstart students do not do better than non-Headstart students in their later years in public schools, they do much better in life. Here is where the Executive Functions really kick in.

We have to work with what we have. Our best resource is teachers who want to succeed—who care about the future of the Jewish people. If we can get our teachers to focus on executive functions, if we can get them to exude: Focus and Self Control, Perspective Taking, Communicating, Making Connections, Critical Thinking, Taking on Challenges, and Self-directed Engaged Learning we can promise parents that “Hebrew School” can lead to student success in life. Not a bad promise. The good news, all of these can be learned by studying Jewish texts—something that should be the core of what we do.

Remarketing Jew Education

January 26, 2011

We are at an interesting moment in the world of parenting. This parenting chaos directly impacts the way we present ourselves as Jewish “schools.”

The first voice is Amy Chua, author of  “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,”  who says give your child no room to do anything but succeed. The other voice is Wendy Mogul, whose long overdue second book, “The Blessings of a B-Minus,” cajoles us to accept our child as human beings. Both books are now coming to prominence. One is about high achievement, the other is about resilience. Both take a swipe at the long over emphasized issue of self-esteem.

Chua wants us to be tougher on our kids and demand “perfection.” Mogul understands that “failure” is a useful growth opportunity. Both of them wind up as commentary on new reports about the failure of American schools to even teach the difference between facts and opinions and the overall failure of American Universities to make any impact on the learning of many of their present students. Richard Arum, lead author of the study, “Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses” (University of Chicago Press) came out in January, too, is the third voice putting the foundations of the way we parent at risk.

Believe it or not, all this comes back to the role and optics of Jewish schools, particularly Jewish supplemental schools. Who we are as a school has a lot to do with what our parents believe a school is.

We are simultaneously being told be like regular schools and become technological. At the same time we are being told, don’t be like a school at all (we’ve had enough of that) be a camp or a program or something interesting (and do that using a lot less time). What is common knowledge every where but in our classroom, is the universal belief that the present Jewish schooling system is a total failure.

Here is a radical idea. We ought to play to our own strengths. We know that the Jewish tradition centers on learning how to close-read texts. (Think reading comprehension!) That we use a thing called “Talmudic Logic” that teaches you how to evaluate evidence, reason, and know the difference between fact and opinion.

Jewish schools can and should do camp pretty well. We need to get better at technology. For sure, our tradition centers on building both self-esteem and resilience. But, what Judaism really is good at is learning—deep learning.

In the future, when the alternative (for example) is 10 minutes of Skype a week plus one informal event a month probably involving families, we will brag:  “We help our students become better learners.”

Camp will do camp better than we do. Other schools will always have more money to spend on technology than we do (and Web 2.0 apps only go so far). But what we can really brag about is “let us teach your children the Jewish tradition and they will do better in life.”

We will incorporate the camp selling point: “You children will make friends to last a lifetime.” We will have the technological appeal: “We allow your children to remix the Jewish tradition.” But our unique promise is about learning skills. Right now we teach not language but mechanical reading. Language provides useful insight. Mechanical reading is self-serving. We are geared to teach names and facts, but “meaning” and “insight” are what are precious. We have to work to make our classrooms both challenging and responsive, and those are goals we can achieve. It is perhaps the only truth that will keep us in business.

To stay on the weekly schedule, to make it worth the carpool time, Jewish Schooling has to have advantages. The good thing is that we own them: Friends, Remixing, Creativity, Resilience, and Academic Excellence. We know how to do this—we simply need to become good Torah teachers and not a pale imitation of secular schools.

Do I Need to Put a Mezuzah in My Flying Car?

January 4, 2011

The 1939–40 New York World’s Fair was the first exposition to be based on the future, with an opening slogan of “Dawn of a New Day”. It allowed all visitors to take a look at “the world of tomorrow”. According to the official New York World’s Fair pamphlet:

“The eyes of the Fair are on the future – not in the sense of peering toward the unknown nor attempting to foretell the events of tomorrow and the shape of things to come, but in the sense of presenting a new and clearer view of today in preparation for tomorrow; a view of the forces and ideas that prevail as well as the machines. To its visitors the Fair will say: “Here are the materials, ideas, and forces at work in our world. These are the tools with which the World of Tomorrow must be made. They are all interesting and much effort has been expended to lay them before you in an interesting way. Familiarity with today is the best preparation for the future.”

This world’s fair not only began the “cult of the future,” it was the first time we were promised the Jetson’s vision of a flying car. The flying car is the one part of the great promises of 1939 that has not come true. We have the robots, the stainless steel kitchens, the computers, televisions and more. But we still don’t have the flying car. Not even Top Gear has gone there, but we are being promised one.

Honestly, my concern is more mezuzot than flying cars. Jewish education is presently locked into the “cult of the future.” We have forgotten the lesson of the Trylon and Perisphere – (the futuristic symbols of that World’s Fair) – that “Familiarity with today is the best preparation for the future.” I want build a shining future. I think that our dreams are important. But, I am also concerned with the present.

I know that someday classrooms will have three walls of smartboards like on the CSI shows. I know that every kid will have tablet textbooks that whir and spin and do flip-flops. I envision personally creating an interactive Rashi program that teaches process rather than content. And, I have a suspicion that Jewish classrooms will come with bunk-beds to better recreate the camping experience because the future is not only technology.

My favorite educational future can be found in a Philip K. Dick novel, Martian Time Slip. In his future Mars all hands are need for work so a series of teaching machines care for the children. School is an arcade of cyber personalities. You can hang out with Plato, Albert Einstein, and Abraham Lincoln, etc. Each of these machines is interactive. They build relationships with the students and come to know what each student needs. I fantasize the Jewish version, being able to learn with Akiva, Maimonides and Rashi (all in kid friendly versions). The fantasy extends to early members of Hovevei Zion, Rick Recht and Martin Buber telling child friendly versions of Hasidic Tales.

I am not afraid of Skype Bar Mitzvah tutoring but I am concerned about the reduction of Jewish connection to ten minutes a week and one shabbaton a month. Because I believe in cognitive dissonance I believe in carpools and time spent together.

I went to one of the last of the Urban Hebrew schools. I walked there, spent between a half[H1] -an-hour to forty minutes to hanging out, fooling around (all but unsupervised), while waiting for class to begin. That free-form time spent together with other students is my strongest memory and the real bond in my Hebrew School experience. It is no different than pizza before Hebrew High. What Philip K. Dick understood is that students and teachers, even with teaching machines, need to build relationships. As my friend Danny Siegel says in one of his Psalms, “…they know you well enough to know you.”

Right now I know that electronic textbook technology is not ready for affordable use, so I got to do the best I can to make ideas jump off printed pages. I know that a few non-day schools have a smartboard or two, but it is not a technology we can expect. Even access to video projectors is limited. I have been to several workshops that have told teachers that social networking is the future, but few of these teachers are paid for training or preparation, let alone updating their profile.

I want to dream about the future, and talk about it and work on it; but I also want to know about the best contemporary best practices. As long as most Jewish education takes place in classrooms with teachers, I still want to work on making those settings better. Jewish education is about the future, but it is also very much about the now. In between our dreams and experiments (“It’s Alive!) we still need to worry about being effective this afternoon.

We will have smart-classrooms and remote learning, but right now most Jewish learning takes place on whiteboards and I want them to be used well. I want to maximize family education, continue to create powerful Jewish experiences, and not give up on youth groups.

First we need the flying cars, then we can worry about whether or not they halakhically need a mezuzah. We can give up on the present when the future is ready. We need to build all kinds of alternatives but not abandon improving the normative until they are ready.

The Jewish Future’s so Bright I got to Wear Blinders

November 22, 2010

Once upon a time there was “The Board of Jewish Education of Greater New York and Suffolk Association for Jewish Education Services.” The two have merged and the new organization has just re-branded itself as “The Jewish Education Project: We pioneer new approaches in Jewish Education for every age.” This is not that organization’s first name change. Before it was “The Board…” it was the “Bureau of Jewish Education of Greater New York.”

Once upon a time upon a time there was Dr. Samson S. Benderly the founder of the Bureau of Jewish Education of Greater New York. He, with his good friend Dr. Mordechai Kaplan, reinvented Jewish Life. Benderly, who was one of the giants of Jewish Education is in need of a Wikipedia page. (Anyone need a project?) The New York Times ran a story on Dr. Benderly with the head line, “HOW THE KEHILLAH WORKED AN EDUCATIONAL MIRACLE; Faced a Big Problem in Teaching 200,000 Jewish Children, Only One-Quarter of Whom Had Religious Training and Solved It in a Way That Is Pronounced Unique in American Educational History.”

The Kehillah was the first large-scale communal tzadakah organization (a precursor of the Federation model). The standardization and professionalization of Jewish Education through the Bureau of Jewish Education was one their first projects. Benderly was hired to and succeeded at creating a modern education system in New York. The goal, here, was for Jewish education to become a professional school system, just like the public schools. The idea was, just as the public school system had “Americanized” a generation of Jews, a profession, modern, Jewish school system could “Judify” them.

I do not dislike this new name change though I am perplexed by it. Two things surprise me. The first is the equation of newness with goodness. Their catch phrase, “We pioneer new approaches in Jewish Education for every age” doesn’t suggest striving for excellence, doesn’t ask for effectiveness, and doesn’t set impact as the target. Also, newness can be an idolatrous end. It stands in direct opposition of respect for the elderly and veneration for the past.

I fully believe in the technological. I brush my teeth with an electric toothbrush. I floss every evening with a water pick, and am fully addicted to using my Smart phone. Yes, this article is being written on a computer and facts researched on the internet. What I am looking for is balance. Meanwhile, I mourn the number of veteran teachers and educators who are now jobless and unemployable because despite their years of experience they fail to know the secrets of worshipping the gods of “the future,” while they have many many tools and skills derived from experience and learning. Dr. David Bryfman, a staff member of the Jewish Education Project and one of the heroes of “the newness,” recently tweeted, “How can you learn Jewish texts in 140 characters?” 140 is the magic number of characters in a Tweet.

I recently attended the Jewish Futures Conference at General Assembly of Jewish Federation Councils in New Orleans. There was a lot I liked, some I will learn from and use, and some that repulsed me. Not bad on average.

I could have lived without “I would take a bullet for my Facebook friends” (no attribution will be given). I  was deeply riveted by a presentation by Russel M. Neiss and Charlie Schwartz. These two are young masters of the internet who are presently working on a project called MediaMidrash that links videos with compelling Jewish curricular content. They were among of the winners of The Jewish Futures Competition with a video you can see on line.

Charlie and Russel say that four factors should be the foundation of the Jewish Educational future. That future must be open, re-mixable, meaningful & relevant, and community building.

Open means that this material should be “open-sourced.” Simply put, it should be available for free on the internet. That is really good for the learner. I resented having to buy a back issue of an important Jewish Educational publication just to get information on Samson S. Benderly.

I do like Google and use it because it is free. Open is good for all but the producer who must either sell his creation (and therefore not be open), be independently wealthy, or get funded by a foundation to produce it. Foundation funding is a null sum game, and much of Jewish educational creativity has been entrepreneurial.

Entrepreneurial is one of those buzz words from the past. The beauty of commerce is that you are successful because people are willing to pay for what you create. We once sold Torah Toons and created a company. Torah Toons is now open-sourced and available for free at YouTube. It is accessible via Media Midrash.

Even though I have some problems with “openness,” I completely affirm their other three attributes.

Thomas Mann wrote a novel called The Glass Bead Game or Magester Ludi. It is a study in the sociology of knowledge. The center piece of the book is a game that is played following patterns of an idea or image through its appearance in all of human culture. In the book one can follow a piece of literature into music into mathematics. I loved the novel as a teenager (and have been less successful at re-reading it recently).

For the first Jewish Teachers Handbook (Alternatives in Jewish Education, Denver, 1981) I wrote a short story called The Pin Game. This was a Jewish adaption of The Glass Bead Game. It told the story of a synagogue where students played a game using a deck of cards filled with Jewish quotations and had to build “runs” out of different quotations that expressed the same idea. This was a vacuum-tube era version of remixing.

The idea of remixing is that one can take parts and pieces of the old, cut and paste them, and create one’s own new whole. I have always liked that idea. When we created Torah Aura Productions, I spoke of our educational mission as vocational. This is essentially remixing, where students take parts and pieces of the Jewish tradition and reshape them into a Judaism they can live. In a 1996 essay, “Welcome to the Gorilla Habitat” I wrote:

The job of the Jewish Educator in North America is close to that of the Zoo keeper. Both jobs require the creation of an artificial environment in which the species can hopefully survive and breed. The original habitat of the gorilla can never be reproduced in the zoo–rather the zoo keeper is sent searching for “essences.” S/he is busy, trying (with the resources at hand) to bring the right minimal elements which will support and sustain gorilla life. The literature of Jewish education, both philosophical and methodological, when viewed from this perspective, is also a search for the “essense” of Jewish survival…

Text learning is a communal process. It usually takes a combination of insights to crack a text open. In class direction, it often happens when enough energy has been pumped back into the ancient words that the text regains living voice. It is at these moments that the teacher gets a chance to withdraw. What is left is student challenging student, student questioning the text, student defending the text, and the ongoing insights of 2,000 years of consideration alive in the classroom. Text teaching can be magical for it bring the past book to its own new life.

Russel and Charlie do not limit their vision of Jewish education to text study (though they do actively include it.) Rather, as children of Web 2.0, they understand sampling and adapting, picking and choosing as an artistic vision that can create a way of life.

Meaningful & Relevant
Who could disagree? I would only add one caveat. In A Passion for Excellence, Tom Peter’s sequel to A Search for Excellence, he quotes a mission statement from Brookline High School. He says, “We believe that learning is an addiction to the tart, not the sweet.” It understands that most really addictive things (other than sugar) are acquired tastes. It takes someone to guide you into coffee, wine, and the rest.

The job of the teacher, especially the Jewish teacher, is to make the Jewish tradition be more than Twinkies and chicken nuggets. Meaning & Relevant should be an end goal, not a starting requirement. That doesn’t mean that one should have a long period of boredom before the good stuff kicks in, but that deep, worthwhile Judaism isn’t necessarily the first click on a website. We have to get learners past moments of impulse and move them into the area of reward for accomplishment.

Recently, I was asked by a rabbi why I included the idea that angels were not dead people. He asked me, “How am I going to sell this idea to my students?” I explained the idea that Jews, if they go anywhere after death, return to the Garden of Eden, and not to choir robes and wings. I told the Rabbi, “You don’t have to sell it. You just have to open it as a possibility.” The idea may be uncomfortable for some learners who live in a pop-Christianity (The Horn Blows at Midnight) bubble. But, “uncomfortable” is a major part of real learning.

Community Building
Yes. Judaism is not a game played solo against a backboard. I believe that Jewish community can be started, deepened, and maintained on the internet. I am just not convinced that it can happen without moments of sharing physical space. PunkTorah’s (2nd place winner in the competition at the GA) vision of online Jewish worship communities doesn’t do it for me. Let’s build socially networked communities, but let’s not rule out the value of classroom, gatherings, and teachers.

One of the end goals of a Jewish Education and Jewish Life is the formation of community. We must embrace the goal of community and any tools that can build it.

I will admit that I may be stuck in real life gatherings where teachers meet with students. I believe community that gathers in real space and where students can connect directly with a Jewish dating pool. That may be my lack of vision. Neil Postman wrote Teaching as a Subversive Activity and then, later, Teaching as a Conserving Activity. He said,

“A new technology tends to favor some groups of people and harms other groups. School teachers, for example, will, in the long run, probably be made obsolete by television, as blacksmiths were made obsolete by the automobile, as balladeers were made obsolete by the printing press. Technological change, in other words, always results in winners and losers.” (Talk given at the German Informatics Society (Gesellschaft fuer Informatik) on October 11, 1990 in Stuttgart.)

Teachers have survived the television, let’s hope that they also transcend the silicon chip. As I have blogged before, I believe in classrooms and technology, not classrooms or technology.

Russel and Charlie ended their presentation with “And on Friday we turn off all of our gagets and celebrate Shabbat.” There is the balance of future and past that I was hoping for.

Today, the word “new” scares me. It often means “less.” And more often, it means “killing off the old.” What I learned at the Jewish Futures conference is there are tomorrows that can make me comfortable and even excited.

Harlene Appleman, Director of the Covenant Foundation opened the Jewish Futures Conference by saying, “As professionals, educators, and forward-looking thinkers making an impact on the Jewish future, we will be inspired, challenged and energized to be agents of change within Jewish education and our greater community”

“The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” Jonathan Woocher, the Chief Ideas Officer of the Jewish Education Service of North America (JESNA) and Director of the Lippman Kanfer Institute borrowed this quote from Alan Kay, computer scientist and visionary, to end the Jewish Futures Conference. And let us say, “Amen.”