The State of the Obvious

February 23, 2016

Joel Grishaver

koren_matovu_062909_380pxHebrew School is supposed to teach Hebrew. For a short period after the 6-Day war and in sporadic occurrences Hebrew Schools have tried “Modern Hebrew.” Now Hebrew has mainly meant “Prayerbook Hebrew.” The most recent, most successful, and currently popular of these modern Hebrew programs came out of Cleveland (thank you, Nechama and Lifsa) is called Hebrew Through Movement and is pedagogically sound. However “Prayerbook Hebrew” is still granted most favored nation status and there is a logic to this.

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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.”

The “Do It Like the Public Schools” Fallacy

August 18, 2010

Somewhere in a box of books I have an early 1950’s book on Sunday school that tells teachers (and or principals) to go to the “public schools” and learn how to be educational professionals. Teachers are told to watch the way they conduct lessons, manage their classrooms, and organize their days. The paradigm that “true education” takes place in the “public” and now “private” schools and what we do in Jewish education is a pale imitation.

The “do it like the public school” fallacy assumes that education is universal and all we add as Jewish educators is some Jewish content. So we hear, “they use filmstrips, we should use filmstrips, they use overhead projectors, we should use overhead projectors, they have computers in every classroom, we should have computers, and they have smart boards so we should have smart boards.” The fallacy rests in the outcome. The goal of the secular school, whether stated or not, is now to get kids into college, since a high school diploma is now good for nothing else. The goal of Jewish education is to create the next generation of Jews who will continue to educate their children. We can add do mitzvot, self-actualize as a human being, develop an understanding of the Divine, redeem the world, and a lot of other things to this list.

The foundational question here, taking the gift of good “backwards planning” from the “Educational Leadership Torah” is “do our goals really suggest the same methodology?”

Here is What I Hear

  • They still use textbooks but we are not supposed to use textbooks because they are the primary reason that Hebrew schools suck.
  • They give homework. We are not allowed to give homework.
  • They test. We are not supposed to hold our students accountable.
  • We may use some measurement tools, but our evaluations are designed to build self-esteem.
  • They have gym, many of our school sessions are too short to even give recess.

Here is What I Know

Bahya ibn Pakuda teaches “the Torah cannot be learned except among friends” and we are taught in the mystical tradition that the real goal of Torah learning is dibbuk haverim, friends that stick together.

My bottom line is this quote from Avot d’Rabbi Natan:

A friend is someone with whom you eat and drink. A friend is someone with whom you study Torah (God’s word) and with whom you study Mishnah (ethics and laws). A friend is someone who sleeps over or at whose house you can spend the night. Friends teach each other secrets, the secrets of the Torah and secrets of the real world, too.

And echoed by these:

What is a friend? Someone who for the first time makes you aware of your loneliness and his, and helps you to escape so in turn you can help him. Thanks to him you can hold your tongue without shame and talk freely without risk. That’s it. (Elie Wiesel, Gates of the Forest )

If it has any value at all, friendship must be understood as a tentative… step towards a meaningful and creative use of the space between birth and death that each person knows as life. (Jacob Neusner, Fellowship in Judaism)

I can’t say more than this, “I have a core belief that Jewish learning is centered in relationship (sleep softly Martin Buber) and the future of the Jewish people is rooted in the friendships we build.

To my last blog posting I got this response from Michael “Zaydie” Scolnick:

“My mind goes back to last year when I was teaching Jewish cooking to 12th graders. They were in and out of the kitchen, cooking (or just schmoozing with other Jewish kids) and, at the end, when the latkes were made (the BEST latkes the world has ever seen) carrying them around to other classes to share them.”

That simple post tells the whole story.

What Secular Schools Can’t Do

As Jewish teachers we need to center our work on the things that secular schools don’t do.

Schools that get to real life issues and real life questions and make Judaism an important tool in the way that their students deal with reality — they go on the list of the impactful. When Judaism becomes a resource is answer the questions posed by ultimate issues or when it becomes a guide in resolving ethical choices the student wins and the school is a winner. When Jewish content becomes a way of coping with the reality of death or motivates involvement in human need the school that made that possible has made a difference. And, we should add, when students find prayer an important personal too for self actualization — we have made a difference. Lots of schools make these things happen. More should.

When a school gives a student a hands-on experience in redeeming the world, when tikkun olam becomes part of their world view, we have another check in the victory column. When students and their families commit to make acts of g’milut hasadim an ongoing commitment in their lifestyle — that earns a gold star. When learners make a difference in the world we have made a difference in their lives. That is our job.

And most of all, when students become teachers the school that made that happen deserves a standing ovation. Virtually all schools in this country have madrikhim and tutoring programs. Not all of them are great, but all of them begin the process. The more they create a sense of value in their participants, the more they provide training and learning, the more they enable the transition to real teaching jobs in college, the better they are. These schools move to the successful list.

When schools get their students to Israel they have also won for themselves a place in the victory circle. This is another criteria for victory.

I was taught that Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav taught: “Everyone reaches in three directions, out to find others, in to find themselves, and up to find God. The secret of creation is that when one grasps in one direction one grasps in all three.”

As we write and actualize our school mission statements, we need to center them on helping students grasp in all three directions.

Spending Wisely in Difficult Times

February 27, 2009

[Cross posted to TAPBB.]

We’re hearing from a lot of schools that the difficult economic situation is having a profound impact on Jewish education. Synagogues are being forced to slash budgets, staff are taking pay cuts, and jobs hang in the balance.

With all these challenges, choosing books and curricular materials can be an especially daunting job. How can you make a shrinking amount of money go even further? Where can we “trim” without sacrificing the excellence in education that students and their families have come to expect? How can you drain a bit of the metaphorical bathwater without losing the baby?

We want to help you think about the choices you are going to have to make. We know you’re probably going to have to make cuts, but we want to help you keep the baby. Here are some thoughts.

Curricular materials are worth buying when:

1. They are books of texts. Ask yourself, “Are there words in these books (not just information) that are worth knowing?” Texts have a special role in the process of Jewish learning. We are a people of “quotations.” We learn not only with words, but we learn words. Text study invites a process of interpretation. To make sense of a text, a learner must choose its meaning. The process of studying texts is a process of deciding what they mean to the individual learner. In working with them, learners come to affirm what they believe is Jewish—and to draw the limits of what they believe is not Jewish, or not their Judaism. Text study is a process of saying “yes” and “no.” Text study is a process of identity formation.

Texts are conversations. They are chances to state, “To me this text means x,” while another student gets to say, “To me the text says y.” In bouncing meanings off of each other, students get to clarify their own understandings while building connection to those involved in the dialogue. Dialogue over texts builds community. People share intimacies. They feel closer. Talking together leads to more talking together. The end result of good conversation, conversations about meaning, is a sense of community. Texts create shared experiences.

Texts bring the past into the future. They are valuable relics of the past that we can carry forward. But unlike a Bronze-Age pot, texts also have a future. They teach us not only about their original context, the time and place where they were created but they also help us build the future. Texts’ meanings continue to evolve as we develop. A text doesn’t only have one meaning. Texts are stronger than memories because texts continue to offer a chance to choose and apply understandings. Texts are truths that travel and grow with us, and give us a chance to root an evolving Judaism in our ancient tradition.

Simply put, textbooks are worth buying when they are books of good texts.

2. They are filled with experiences. There are experiences and there is busy work. The key question is not if a book offers “seat work” that keeps kids busy. The question is not how much drill and practice a book offers. (And that is not saying that drill and practice isn’t valuable but drilling is one of the things you can do without textbooks.)

The core question needs to be: What kind of interactive and memorable learning does a book facilitate?

If a textbook involves reading and writing, that’s not enough. Either one of those alone is certainly not enough. But, if a book facilitates small group work, if it demands inquiry, if it leads to debates or theater or art or original discoveries, if its product is active learning… then it is worth having. Then you need it.

You have to ask yourself a few questions. Without these materials, would a classroom look different? Would it be difficult for a teacher to invent a memorable classroom without curricular resources? Would it be difficult for students to make authentic Jewish meaning for themselves without a textual foundation?

A good textbook should provide the resources for a classroom adventure. Textbooks are not for reading aloud. They are not to be lectured about. They are not a resource for word puzzles and self-evident questions, or a replacement for information that is easily found elsewhere. If a textbook is going to be worthwhile, it needs to facilitate great (not just adequate) learning moments. If your textbooks don’t do this, don’t buy them again next year.

3. They grow a teacher’s skills and abilities. It there is nothing that brings new insights to the table — if a textbook doesn’t enable a teacher to explore new kinds of activities and expand their teaching vocabulary — then save your money. A good textbook brings resources to the class that teachers would not or could not find on their own. It involves teachers in creating classroom moments that they would or could not create on their own. After using a book, a teacher should grow in their understanding of the content, expand in their relationship to the material, and move into classroom tools that are new for them. Good curricular materials are not about repetition. Rather, they should be vehicles for innovation. They should challenge both students and teachers and allow both to soar.

Research has shown that new teachers do better with the traditional combination of textbook, workbook, and teacher’s guides. The researchers suggest that it is the structure that provides success. Rather than worrying about what to do, the teacher can focus on how to do. For new teachers, books offer a path to success that is a helping tool. That would be a good enough reason to purchase a textbook for a new teacher. But the right book provides the foundation that lets a teacher improvise and improve. Rather than defining textbooks as millstones, think of them as stages on which teachers can perform.

4. They are necessary for effectively teaching Hebrew and Prayer. Language work is different. While oral-aural Hebrew can be taught somewhat successfully with limited print material, visual learners need resources that enable their success. But the core issue that needs to be addressed is whether there is real benefit to the Hebrew-Prayer materials you are using. The question that you must start with: “What do your students learn that they wouldn’t learn from just using the siddur itself?” A good Hebrew primer enables success that lasts. Think about how many of your students retain their mastery of the alef-bet. When it comes to the siddur, think about what your students learn. If they are just mastering the performance of the prayers, save your money and use the siddur. A good siddur curriculum should go into the meaning and kavanah (spiritual purpose) of the prayers, enable an understanding of the placement and sequence of each prayer in the siddur, and should grow students’ ability to understand the Hebrew of the siddur through mastering and applying language structures.

You’ll notice that lots of Hebrew-Prayer materials are quietly getting more expensive. Make sure that you are getting true cost-benefit from you Hebrew-Prayer resources. Are your students learning twice as much? Are more of them coming to services? Are your teachers inspired to make their classrooms interesting places? If you don’t have three “yes” responses, consider switching your curriculum.

The bottom line:

Even though we are interested in selling you books, we’re interested in you spending your budget wisely. School educators and principals tell us that they are first-and-foremost interested in two outcomes: happy kids and happy parents. Until those two are satisfied, you can’t get to the real work of ensuring a Jewish future. You need resources that excite students in class and that get the most out of your teachers.

For a book to be worth the money, it has to come off the page. It has to become conversation (not just short answers). It has to be meaningful (not just entertaining) to students and parents, because novelty doesn’t last long. A book should make a connection with eternity, with learning that is not only for the moment, but will last a lifetime.

We believe that Torah Aura Productions offers affordable excellence. Call us. We’ll be more than happy to help you make choices within your budgetary limitations. We are committed to work with you and to help you succeed.