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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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.

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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The 60 Cycle Hum of the Human Soul

April 4, 2013

Because I understand loneliness, I believe in the existence of the human soul. I believe that we are engineered with a need for connection. People aren’t meant to be alone. More than just believing that infants need attention, I believe that all of us need family, community, and a circle of friends. Loneliness is the 60 cycle hum of the human soul turned on and running, but not yet connected. It is the screaming over the phone line—waiting for a modem on the other side to respond.

There are two basic ways of dealing with loneliness without making friends. One is to suffer. The other is to mask the loneliness with business. We try to be too busy to feel, or we try to numb the feeling. At the moment we have two realities. At this stage in the development of technology there seems to be a lot of engagement that can best be described as isolating.

I believe in love letters. Correspondence can develop relationships. The research on social media suggests that social media connections can deepen relationships but have a hard time creating them (see Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation by Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger).


Here is what I know. Affiliation (and contributions) are trending down. It is as if a guy in a rubber dinosaur suit is crushing a city built of cardboard buildings. Jewish institutions are closing, merging, and downsizing. Jews are staying away in droves. What is easy to witness is the fact that teens are staying away from all youth movements and report that they don’t want cliques (see Current Trends in Jewish Teen Participation with Out-of-School Activities). Show me a teen that doesn’t want to be part of a clique and it is bad news for the Jets and the Sharks. Likewise, boys in particular (who are notorious at being busy playing video games and hacking) are staying away from any Jewish groups.

While we are often complaining that Jewish institutions are not investing enough in technology, ironically this is the technology that creates the business that impedes membership. If the Jewish people are going to fight for their future, technology (positive or negative) is not the issue, community (and affiliation) is.


We blame the Religious School (and demand that it only be fun) while simply not joining or not attending the synagogue that is the real source of the alienation. It is not only the memory of the synagogue not being fun, of it as a source of boredom, but that as Christopher Lasch in The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations describes it the new narcissist keeps far away from any involvements that might limit his freedom and mobility. And, yes, I am suggesting that those lost in the reflection of the iPad screen and worship at the idol of the latest and the coolest are narcissists.

I want it clear; I am not blaming the technology, though it tends to inflict dopamine addiction, but the context in which it is place. I am not blaming the victims of boredom, though I am saddened by their response. I am concerned about the Jewish community’s and the Jewish educational communities’ response to non-involvement in that they have forgotten that our greatest gift is the ability to end loneliness. Community—not reinforced individuality—is our best sell. We need not go into the ontology of “freedom” here. It is enough to say that belonging and feeling connected does not limit free will.

We need to listen through the apparent selfishness and consumerism of the current generations and understand that they are masking their loneliness with a great new business.


We should be on Facebook and Twitter. We need apps and websites, and we have to make peace with technology and those who use it. But our strongest sell needs to be, “We can end loneliness.” Our schools are a place of friendships. Our communities are accepting, supportive, and welcoming. Where those things are not true—we must make them true.

Ron Wolfson latest hit (after “welcoming”) will be Relational Judaism. He is right and his book will be the next great “The Jewish Book.” It is well deserved.

In the same way, Gila Gevirtz’s new Experiencing Sacred Community should be the new standard for Jewish education. To build a shining Jewish future—we need a round table—we need a communal Judaism.

Rather than thinking of this moment as a beginning of decline—or even a radical call for innovation (though that is never bad) think of it as a moment where the loneliness and need that will build the future is fermenting. While bells and whistles can mask loneliness, they can never solve it. The need for human contact will give us a future.

Skype may be a foreshadowing of teleportation. Texting certainly has replaced the quill.

But remember “we need one another…” because “no man is a keyboard.”

Guitar Zero

March 9, 2012

typingI saw The Artist this weekend. It is the story of a publishing company in the age of technology. I also learned how hard it is to get text for an article off my Nook. E-books, for the most part, can’t be down loaded into a text file, so you have to retype them. I tried photocopying the screen to get a hard copy. Simple to say, it was a failure. That left me typing off the screen. The bad news is if you have to retype text from the screen that screen dies if you don’t touch it—which is rather hard if you are typing with two hands.

Guitar Zero by Gary MarcusBut, this is about a book that went from an article in the New York Times to my hands in under two minutes. That’s one for technology. The book, Guitar Zero, by Gary Marcus is a play on Guitar Hero, the video game that got the author believing that he might learn play guitar after all. Dr. Marcus, a professor of cognitive psychology, who is an expert in neurobiology, writes about his own successes and failures at the guitar in those contexts. He took a year’s sabbatical to learn to play. It becomes “Guitar Zero: The New Musician and the Science of Learning”.

For our purposes, there is a lot of correlation between learning to play guitar and mastering the sounding out (decoding) of the Hebrew Language. Dr. Marcus’ book can teach us a lot about that part of our enterprise.

So let’s start with the problem: K. Anders Ericsson, a psychologist, says that it takes “10,000 hours” of practice to become an expert. Expert, in our terms, means reading out loud a blind Hebrew text fluently. Dr. Marcus explains that while there are prodigies who can achieve success with less, but ten years of 1,000 hours of lessons and practice is what it takes most people to succeed.

Not surprisingly, look at what Gary Marcus defines as a good teacher:

A good teacher is not only a good diagnostician of course, but also a good motivator. Had my teacher urged me to go home and simply practice alternating short notes and long notes, I would no doubt have been bored out of my mind…The truly talented teacher diagnoses the problem and then proposes a treatment that is both fun and rewarding. It the larger literature on teaching and training…studies consistently point to the abilities of the teacher to motivate their students, to understand their particular needs, and to come up with exercises that are neither too easy nor too hard (shades of the principal of proximal development.)

As I write this, I can see the heads shake. We all know that two parental commandments stand in our way:

  1. Thou shalt not take up too much of my child’s time.
  2. Thou shalt not give homework.

I know the problems, but let’s look a little more are what Dr. Marcus has to say about teachers:

Why do we need teachers at all? The most obvious answer is that teachers know things that their students don’t.…Another reason, of course is that teachers can serve as motivators…either through carrots…or through sticks.…Good teachers can also impose structure, helping to know what to practice and when. It is not enough to say, “Go home and practice; a good teacher says what to practice, and how: the most skilled teachers aim to help their students practice efficiently. Beyond all this, the most important role of a teacher may be to help the students pinpoint their errors and target their weaknesses. Beginning students especially are often too busy trying to make music.

His model of good teaching does come from private lessons, but it makes some powerful challenges. He suggests that the most important teaching skills are (a) diagnosis of problem, (b) appropriate individual remediation, and (c) provide motivation.

Dr. Marcus credits his willingness to pick up a guitar and to start learning to a video. Guitar Hero made over $2,000,000 in a year at its pick—and still its producer, Activision, decided it wasn’t profitable enough and discontinued manufacturing the game. We in Jewish education can’t hope for the kind of development money that was involved. Dr. Marcus makes it clear that while Guitar Hero was great motivation and helped him get over his fear of music making, it still took teachers to empower and motivate his actual playing of the guitar.

Here is one more piece to look at—the parents role in the students mastering of guitar or piano:

She knew that kids would only practice at home if doing so was pleasurable. What most impressed me about Michele was the immense pains she took to make sure her student’s parents were well instructed, especially in the art of making practice a happy and regular part of every day’s routine. The single point that Michele was most adamant about was a rule for when parents should correct a child’s mistake: never, ever, until the child had made that error at least three times.…If practice with Mom or Dad got to be a drag, the whole game was lost. Michele made sure that never happened, sprinkling her weekly parents-only night class with sound techniques for wanting their children to excel right away and being patient enough to foster a happy learning environment.

Imagine parents coming to a weekly class about how to be the parent of a music student. Now, push the idea forward to Hebrew school. That is really partnership with parents. The takeaways from this book are the following. When it comes to teaching Hebrew decoding:

  1. Video games do have a role in motivating and empowering student mastery of Hebrew.
  2. There is a point where human teachers need to take over the teaching role.
  3. As we hire and train Hebrew teachers the focus needs to be on (1) diagnosis, (2) remediation and (3) motivation.
  4. To get practice to happen we really need the trust and support of parents.

At the moment, and Torah Aura has been working on it, there is a call for experiential education. Among the things that Experiential Education asks is that: (1) learners take responsibility for their own learning, (2) that learning builds community, and (3) challenge is involved.

Learning a musical instrument involves students taking responsibility for their own learning and a challenge is definitely involved. Hebrew can do the same. You can add to it a family component (but that is an essay to come). The simple truth here is that Hebrew learning can be experiential and can involve teachers and technology. It is not an all or nothing question. But, let’s not leave the teacher out of the equation. In Dr. Marcus’ words:

What may be more important is whether they are equipped to listen well and give feedback that is simultaneously constructive and enthusiastic. It is not about the technique, it’s about the teacher.

Jewish education has been quick to adopt the summer camp metaphor that leads us through informal education and towards experiential education. It is time we realize that it needs to be meshed with the music lesson model and affirm great teaching along with camp counseling and code writing.

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.

Success in Jewish Education Scares Me

July 13, 2011

A story about Cuisenaire rods. Cuisenaire rods were a great innovation the teaching of mathematics. These rods are definitely a European thing and probably socialist (as well as experiential math). They were different length colored rods that were used to help numbers make sense. The longest was ten units long and colored orange. The rod that was five units long was colored yellow. Two yellows were as long as an orange. So does a red (2) and a brown (8). It helped students to visualize the way that numbers were built. There was one problem—a lot of pieces to pick up at the end of the lesson.

Eventually, they were too successful (and probably were the subject of too many conference workshops and articles). A major American textbook publisher decided to make them simpler. They made one color snap-together shapes that had indentations for every number. Snap together plastic was easier to clean-up. Eventually, the publisher gave up on producing manipulative materials and put pictures of them in their textbooks instead. It was like “Video Killed the Radio Star”, which could also be seen as an application of Gresham’s Law as taught by Shelly Dorph), “In Jewish education, ‘Bad money always drives good money off the market.’”

The same narrative functions in Jewish education. Here is an example. About thirty years ago family education was the hottest new technology in Jewish education. It became too successful. Now every synagogue in the country (except for those with a collective AARP membership) is family-oriented and every school actualizes experiences called “Family Education.” Recently, the Consortium for the Jewish Family (a new name is coming) received a grant from the Covenant Foundation to jump-start the movement so that the quality and impact of these experiences can be improved. You can find out about this summer’s family education conference, check out the Jewish Family Education Conference in Detroit.

Right now, the latest ‘hot topic’ in Jewish education is experiential education. It has just been adopted as a retro-fit to the entire curriculum of one of the major publishers. Believing in the movement, I am scared that it will go the way of Cuisenaire rods.

Text Me an Experience

For the past four years I have been working on creating materials that are specifically designed for experiential education. In other ways, since the founding of Torah Aura Productions we have been creating experiential materials. We are a company founded at camp and rooted in camp. I know that a number of people believe that textbook and experiential are oxymoronic. But, I do not. I believe that education starts with a nugget of understanding or insight that we are trying to enable students to grasp. For the Jewish tradition, these insights are usually locked into texts. And I have always believed (a) that for Jews good text study is experiential and (b) they can be at the heart of powerful Jewish experiences. I have always envisioned my work as experiential, confluent, and a lot of other terms that have grown out John Dewey’s work. We have been shaping our materials to be used in groups, to be short and precise, and to defeat the reading out loud of long passages.

While I am anything but an expert, defining experiential education seems useful.

First, it is education, so it is connected to planned change. This is not that vicarious learning doesn’t happen in all learning environments, but education is by definition about backwards planning. It starts by defining outcomes and finding ways to hit that target.

Second, Experiential Education is active learning. Learning happens when students “do” something. The learning comes from the doing.

Aristotle said, “For the things we have to learn first before we can do them, we learn them best by doing them.” (Bynum, W.F. and Porter, R. eds. [2005], Oxford Dictionary of Scientific Quotations. Oxford University Press. 21:9.)

Third, the deep learning in Experiential Education is in the reflection on learning. It is when they verbalize the experiences they have had.

A non-educative experience is an experience where a person has not done any reflection… (Dewey, John. 1938. Experience and Education. Macmillian)

Experiential Books

Any book can be used experientially. That is just a question of adaption. But it is possible to create books that specifically create experiential moments. We play by these rules.

  • First we envision the experience(s) that will culminate the lesson or lesson segment.
  • We create the text needed (and only the text needed) to actualize that experience.
  • We figure out an experiential way of digesting that text piece (often a group task).
  • We then segue into the primary learning activity—making sure that reflection on that activity is part of the process.

The things to know are that textbooks are not the opposite of positive experience. They can indeed be tools that enable and actualize experiential learning. Materials that are shaped in reading level, focus, and length make their use in active learning easier.

Experiencing the Future

Here is the problem. We know that experiential education is a valuable resource for Jewish education. We know that there is a large conversation that involves talking about its application and techniques. We also know that the larger this conversation gets, the greater the chance that experiential education will be trivialized. Success comes with risks of sustainability as “everyone” begins to jump on the bandwagon. New ideas are subject to entropy.

What can we do? We can accept the inevitable. We can hold to best practices. And, we can integrate these tools into our on-going skill set. It can join values clarification, inquiry, open classrooms and a whole host of past innovations that no longer have the buzz, but are still integrated (in one way or another) into the way we teach.

There is a huge difference between a fad and an innovation that has a natural flow and ebb. Our job at the moment is to create the best practices, the important resources; the serious applications of experiential tools and not worry about the future. Education always winds up being about today’s practices. What we innovate now will become memories and history. Right now, we need to be careful about quality applications of Experiential Education and let the rest take care of itself.

By the way, you can still buy Cuisenaire rods.