Jewish RIC-CU-LUM OF THE FUTURE

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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Redemption or a Service Industry

September 5, 2014

ballroom dancingThis started as a phone call. As part of the redefinition of Torah Aura Productions, I now spend three days a week calling educational leaders. I am speaking to a Director of Education. In a response to a simple “How are you?” I get, “Today is one of those times when ‘Service Industry’ seems to be winning. You know what I mean? I didn’t, but I listened.

“Most of us when we go into Jewish education think we are entering a redemptive process. We really believe that our work will make for a better world. That vision get wipes out when we deal with parents who believe that we are actually working for a local service industry.”

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When First Base is as Good as a Home Run

August 20, 2014

Joel Lurie Grishaver

engageIt all started with the word “engagement.” As soon as it was on the table—we began adopting a policy that less can be much more. Engagement as a behavior is little more than eye contact.

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F.A.Q.s or Did You Read Relational Judaism?

March 1, 2014

groupJoel Lurie Grishaver

1. “Why didn’t they come?”

There were forty families in the family class. At the most recent special event thirteen kids and five parents showed. I was asked, “Where was everybody—they love this class and I have been working with them since kindergarten?”

Then came my Q & A:

Q: Did the congregational Rabbi come?

A: No

Q: Was the educator there?

A: No

Q: Were the right families involved in the planning of the event?

A: No families were involved in planning.

Q: Who organized the food?

A: The teacher.

Q: Has anyone read Ron Wolfson’s  Relational Judaism?

2. “Should I buy I-Pads for my “Hebrew School?”

Has anyone asked “What are you going to do with them?

My friend and code-writing genius Russel Neiss says No.” I say, “Yes” and “No.”

I need to ask a number of questions:

  1. Is there an IEP for using them? Is there a reason you need them—or will the reason perhaps follow if you have them?
  2. Is there software you plan on using? There is nowhere near enough Jewish software to validate the costs.
  3. Do you invite Aish and Chabad to teach at your school? Most of what you google on Jewish topics is going to take you to Aish and Chabad sites.
  4. Do you care if your kids watch porn, text, or in some other way blow off your designated use? Don’t tell me you will put filters on the web-link. Any eleven- year-old who can’t hack their way past parental controls isn’t worth keeping.
  5. Do you have enough bandwidth, tech-savvy and other support resources available?
  6. Have your teachers been trained in how to teach with computers or smart-pads in the classroom.

If you’ve answered “yes” to enough of these questions then this magazine confirms that I-Pads will be “the love of your life.” There are lots of perfectly good uses for computer, or rather smart pads, or rather I-pads but do you have a trail of bread crumbs to follow to find them. Do not assume that students and therefore their parents will love you better if you have them.

Some schools are indeed putting technology to good use, but all of those schools have dealt with the above questions. Computers are good ways of doing research (but that means access to the web). There is some Jewish software and more is coming but not enough to support the hardware cost. There are a zillion good ways of using secular apps and sites—but you have to be literate in order to use them in a Jewish context—and you are never going to do as well as secular schools who didn’t manage to put a TV in every classroom. They had the government helping them do so. An episode of Sleepy Hollow that had a golem doesn’t justify YouTube any more than the old X-Files with a golem did.

I-Pads are perfectly useful tools but managing a lot of them is really hard—ask any mother with two kids and three tablets in a doctor’s office.

Besides, has anyone read Ron Wolfson’s Relational Judaism?

If fact, we (Torah Aura) are busy developing e-books, applications and projects all of which put technology to good Jewish use. There is a direction here, but buying the I-pads doesn’t get you there.

3. How Can I Reduce My School to One Day a Week (and still have it work as well)?

In 1981, the year we started Torah Aura Productions and began Torah Aura Bulletin Board, I wrote an essay called “Time Wars” (that had nothing to do with Dr. Who). It was a then reaction to the tendency to shorten three day a week schools down to two days a week because of working mothers having a hard time carpooling their kids. I wrote as if—but didn’t actually know—that it was the beginning of an end. Now most schools are only one or two days a week and still are downsizing. With the demolition of contact hours has come a radical downsizing of expectations. The question is no longer one of achieving less with less, but how much do we still have any right to hope for.

So this rabbi calls me and says that conditions on the ground have made it necessary for them (a traditional Conservative congregations) to condense their program that had been (a) two days a week and (b) a required junior congregation on Shabbat morning. Given the local pressures, the school was going down to one day a week. The Rabbi called me and asked me the best way to do this. I raised a couple of questions and found out that they already had these things covered.

First, I pointed out that neuroscience says that to move things from short term memory to long term memory (that makes learning a second language successful) takes three interventions a week. The Rabbi added that they were adding a second treatment with a fifteen minute a week over the internet class with a teacher. That built them up to twice a week, use of our new PrayerTech application will bring them up to three times a week. Success is again possible.

Second, I talked about Stockholm syndrome (where captives identify with those who are holding them captive). This has frequently turned schools into communities. The Rabbi took my point, saw me with a new congregational informal family program and raised me with a new youth director.

The basic truths here are the lesson. (1) Reducing number of Hebrew sessions per-week increases significantly Hebrew failure (because of the needs of long term memory needs). (2) Jewish futures are built out of the communal bonds built outside of the school experience. If you are going to reduce the shared hours, you have to build up the other communal contact points including youth group, summer camp, and Israel experiences. Reduce the class hours and you have to up group participation in community building experiences.

The Leaning Tower of Pizza

I learned in a high school science class that the Tower in Pisa will never fall as long as the balance point of the tower remains within its based. It is a precise measurement. I studied a lot of science and I used to be sure about a whole number of things. Now I learn Torah and am sure of very little. I no longer know the shape of things to come. Like most old men, I can tell you better what is gone than I can tell you what next will be. I am not saying that “I know nothing,” but I am now rather very much on the curve. I have read Relational Judaism. I have watched all of Metropolis several times, but all the dates that I have known for the coming of the messiah have passed. I don’t know why the leaning tower is still standing—must have been some intervention. I guess I am now more into dreams than visions.


Jewish Education and the Food Revolution

June 9, 2011

If you are in anyway a “foodie” you know the words “local and sustainable.”

Jamie Oliver is a British Chef who is very much part of the local and sustainable movement. He is also an upstander who has changed the nature of the food served in British State Schools, opened a restaurant where he trains and employs at risk teenagers, and in a reality TV show – Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution – has come to America to try to teach American’s about healthful eating.

His first season was in Huntsville, Alabama – the most overweight city in America – where he made some significant impacts on school lunches among other things. This year he came to Los Angeles and was pretty much defeated by the local ennui. His one big accomplishment was to get the Los Angeles School district to agree to remove flavored milks. Flavored milks (common practice in American public schools) are seen “as the only way to get kids to drink milk” have three times the sugar content of most soda and are probably significantly responsible (with other villains like pizza and fast food) for the dramatic escalation of diabetes in children.

Last year I wrote a probably incoherent tweet about Jamie Oliver being a fabulous role model for Jewish education—having the fortitude and skill to induce people to do what is right even if it isn’t the easiest or most fun choice.

Recently I sat at a conversation to discuss the future of the complementary school. I don’t know what the complimentary school is except that it is the hip-term now used by federated culture to indicate what most Jewish parents describe as “Hebrew School” and “Sunday School.” It joins Religious Schools, Religion Schools, Supplementary Schools, Torah School and Congregational schools in the list of euphemisms for what started life as the Talmud Torah.

All I can figure out is that a complementary school is a place where you get a lot of positive feedback. I hope it doesn’t mean that we are an accessorizing secular education.

Among the people participating in this discussion of the future of majority Jewish schooling was the local communal camp director. His comment was: “We had a school group out to camp for a retreat and at the end of the year the school voted the camp experience their favorite experience of the year.”

Chocolate and Strawberry milk always score highly when students evaluate their food choices.

Let me make two things absolutely clear:

  1. I am NOT saying that camp and camp-style learning present a clear danger the way that flavored milks do, and
  2. I am NOT saying that schooling should not be “fun,” but, I will continue to quote the mission statement drafted by the Brookline High School faculty, “We believe that education is an addiction to the tart and not the sweet.”
    (Quoted by Tom Peters in A Passion for Excellence.)

What I am saying is that good Jewish education should be “local and sustainable.”
By “local” I mean, that Jewish education should take place within the dynamic of a living Jewish community. Judaism that cannot be lived can’t be all that functional. Likewise, those who teach should be part of that Jewish community. This does not mean that one can only hire members to be teachers—BUT RATHER—communities need to work hard at making faculty feel invited to participate.

By “sustainable” I am meaning that Jewish Education should lead to future Jewish living. It is impossible for me to define what is adequate learning to sustain Jewish life. For me, it includes a lot of text literacy and tools for “making-meaning” out of primary Jewish sources. These are the tools to remix the Jewish tradition. But, I am more than willing to admit that adequacy has a lot to one’s definition of Jewish living.

I fully believe that the community built at a camp retreat is a useful and highly functional expression of the community that creates “local,” but I doubt that it transfers a lot of sustainability. I know that you can’t teach until you have engaged. That makes engagement necessary, critical, and probably achievable, but it isn’t sufficient to the task of continuity.

We no longer live within the physics of “if you teach them they will come” but I can’t support reduction past the point of sustainability just to achieve demographics. My tradition teaches me that sha’ar yashuv. We will be sustained by a surviving remnant.

Unflavored milk is best for kids even when it isn’t their first choice.


End the Drop-Off Soccer Practice

March 9, 2011

soccerrJust as all parents “know” that Hebrew School are failures; all Jewish teachers “know” that Soccer is to blame for that failure. I want to write in praise of Soccer.

Soccer is probably less successful than Jewish schools. Fewer AYSO participants grow up (especially in America) to be professional soccer players than Jewish students grew up to affiliate with Jewish institutions. The Passover Seder is probably more repeated item in adult Jewish lives than the corner kick.

But, Soccer is really good at teaching some things and instilling some values. Soccer is really good at teaching players that they have obligations to their teammates. Youth soccer is really good at dealing with diversity and drilling in the acceptance of less successful players. It does teach the value of practice, the importance of conditioning and the thrill of victory (sometimes). Any questions about the good of sports, watch The Bad News Bears.

Ironically, if there is one criticism of Youth Soccer is that it is a drop-off activity that doesn’t involve the family. Like the Bravermans’ on Parenthood, we probably need more times when the whole family plays sports together.

Perhaps the only significant criticism of Youth Soccer (and the other drop-off activities) that our students participate in comes from Joseph Chilton Pearce who criticizes the adult involvement and control of organized sports. He teaches, “Play is the only way the highest intelligence of humankind can unfold.” He is the parenting philosopher who best gives voice to the teachings of Vivian Gussin Paley.

Here is the bottom line: Soccer manages to be compelling while Jewish studies rarely play as well in the elementary years. (Very few Jewish preschoolers have negative experiences). The drop-off part of the experience is more a parental complaint than a destructive force. Drop-off is not a reason to end Jewish schooling, though teaching about belonging as well as soccer teams do is a worthy goal. It remains our challenge to make students’ time in Jewish schooling as “rewarding” (notice I didn’t say “fun”) as soccer.

If I was going to choose the number one sport activity it would be skateboarding for its affirmation of individuality and its goal of progression. But, the simple truth is this, I no more choose our students leisure time activities than I do their media use.

My truth, I don’t want Jewish learning judged on the leisure time scale, any more than I do real school. Compelling, individual, affirming and caring is the goal of all learning. Our job, is not the corner kick, but doing those things well.


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.