Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Mitzvah Heroes Fund

What an exciting day yesterday was: after nine months of waiting and following up, The Mitzvah Heroes Fund received its final 501(c) (3) status from the IRS. All donations from the past as well as from this time forward are now fully deductible - we are now a designated "public charity" (their term, not ours). Our US IRS tax ID number is 26-1913966.

We began Mitzvah Heroes in an attempt to fill the gap left by the closing of the Ziv Tzedakah Fund last spring. In 9 months, just over $30,000 has made its way to the very deserving Mitzvah Heroes and their clients in the United States and Israel. We have and will continue to treat all donations and the recipients with the utmost of respect and dignity.

Steve, Bill and I (co-directors of the Mitzvah Heroes Fund, Inc) are conscious that economic times are difficult for many people, and there may be additional hesitation to make donations to Jewish organizations due to recent developments and investment dollars lost due to dishonest people and practices.

The Better Business Bureau recommends that you look for recipient organizations which use no more than 35% of the donations they receive for overhead, publicity, etc. Two recent articles (one by the Associated Press and one by the Boston Globe) indicate that even those guidelines aren't always followed.

All three of us volunteer our time (which helps keep our overhead low) and are able to pass on to our Mitzvah heroes between 95%-97.5% of the funds we receive. We support Mitzvah heroes and organizations with minimal overhead and bureaucratic structures, preferring most of your money to go to direct support of people in need.

We need your help:
  • If you're on Facebook, please join our group and suggest that your Facebook friends join our group.
  • Consider making a contribution (quick and easy with PayPal from our website WITH OR WITHOUT a PayPal account) to celebrate this milestone; $10.00 or $18.00 goes a long way and is not a small or trivial amount of money to the Mitzvah Heroes Fund (of the donations received this year, over 90% were under $110.00)
  • Tell your friends, Rabbis. Teachers, family (regardless of how young or old) about us and let them know that there are options and alternatives for their charitable dollars.
  • Remember us when you need to honor or remember someone at a simcha or somber occasion.

In the next month or two, we will send out our first Annual Report describing the people, organizations and programs that WE (you and us together) have supported in the past year. This not only shows who we support and why, but will also add to our transparency as we will show all monies received and how they were distributed. IF YOU WOULD LIKE TO RECEIVE THE NEWSLETTER FROM MITZVAH HEROES, please click here and scroll down to the box on the left-hand side.

Finally, here's a link you may find of interest: Bill, Steve and I were recently inteviewed by a reporter from the Washington Jewish Week. Quite frankly - it was a lot of fun and we got to talk about some very neat Mitzvah heroes!

Wishing you a year filled with the joy of making a difference in the lives of others,


Friday, December 26, 2008


I’ve been spending a lot of time lately thinking about tzedakah. Often translated as “charity,” tzedakah really means "justice." It’s a mitzvah – a commandment, not at all voluntary. The concept of tzedakah often involves other Jewish concepts and middot or values:
  • gemilut chasadim – deeds of lovingkindness
  • kol israel areivim zeh ba'zeh - all of Israel is responsible for each other
  • tikkun olam – repair of the world
  • kavod – respect for people, human dignity

What triggered these thoughts – and their intensity? Several factors:

As you may or may not know, I am a co-director of the Mitzvah Heroes Fund, Inc. I’m the one who’s privileged to send out acknowledgement receipts to all our donors. Generally, I try to get the acknowledgements mailed within a couple of days of receiving the funds. Unfortunately, I’d fallen behind since early November. Each time I’d turn my computer on, a reminder would flash on my “To-do” list.

Mitzvah Heroes is very close to receiving notification of our approval as a 501(c)(3) organization. We’ve had “approval pending” on all our materials since March (our incorporation), but some donors are reluctant to donate until final approval is received. In light of the Madoff scandal, I can understand that sentiment. [The IRS does allow tax-deductions for contributions to “approval pending” organizations. Just thought you might like to know that!]

Mitzvah Heroes has also been involved in a couple of events recently. At one, we spoke to middle school aged day school students about the wide variety of tzedakah opportunities available and how to key their projects to their own interests.

In another setting, we were part of a Chanukah program. We spoke to fifth grade day school students about three Israeli “Mitzvah heroes” – organizations that make a big difference in people’s lives with very little bureaucratic process or overhead. We presented the students with a tzedakah challenge: If they organized a campaign to persuade lower school students to “vote” with their tzedakah which of the three recipients was the most deserving of funds, we would match their funds up to $180. The challenge could last only a week, because the following weekend, we had a courier leaving for Israel who could deliver the funds as allocated. We compared their collecting these funds to the purpose of the shamash/helper candle in the hanukiah/Chanukah menorah – they would be able to bring “light” to the recipients of their funds.

The students met our challenge – and exceeded it! In 5 days’ time, they raised $389 – of which we were able to match $274 ($180 plus money thrown in a pot at another engagement, plus tzedakah from my home, plus “found” money in an old wallet, plus…. you get the idea!) The money left for Israel on 12/21 and was distributed by the 24th. (I got a call on the 23rd, that they’d received an additional $27.35 – could we please pick it up? Of course I said “absolutely!”) Over $250 consisted of coins. Little donations that, when added to other little donations, made a big difference.

Our final MHF event of the month occurred in the middle of the Tzedakah Challenge Campaign. We set up a table at a Chanukah Fair at a nursing home. We had materials displayed from a number of the Mitzvah heroes we support and had the opportunity to talk tzedakah, mitzvot, and heroes with many of the residents, the chaplain, and guest speaker Danny Siegel, Mitzvah maven extraordinaire. It was a wonderful place to spend a day. We collected $70 that people added to the pot, if they wished (which we used to apply as matching funds for the Tzedakah Challenge). The atmosphere in the home that day was one of gentle kavod demonstrated towards the residents. It soothed my soul to see the respect with which they were treated and their delight in their ability to share their memories. I left feeling nurtured.

In addition to the above, I’ve also been asked to design an educational learning program for fifth grade students in our region on tzedakah. I’ve been grappling with what specific concepts we wanted to teach, in addition to which strategies we’ll employ, and which organizations we’d like to ask to participate. Yesterday, the pieces finally came together.
Our three key concepts will focus on the following:

*Maimonides’ 8 Levels of Tzedakah

*Universalism vs. Particularism in making donations

From Seder Eliyahu Rabbah, “If a person has food in his home, and wishes to
perform an act of tzedakah with it, first he must sustain his father and
mother; if there is anything remaining he should sustain his brothers and
sisters; after that the other members of his household; after that, other
members of his family; after that, those who dwell in his immediate area;
after that, those who dwell in the neighborhood; from then on, he may
increase his benevolence among the Jewish people.”

*Due Diligence in checking out recipient organizations -- see Smart Tzedakah

A person should not contribute to a tzedakah fund unless he knows its
management is reliable and knows how to conduct the fund properly. (Yoreh Deah

If you haven’t yet made your final allocations for the current secular year – please do so. In today’s tight economic times, your pennies, nickels, dimes, quarters, and dollars are needed now more than ever.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Mid-Year Reflections

Six months ago, I engaged in reflective practice at the end of my first year as a “Jewish Educational Consultant.” At that time, I articulated some things I would “do differently” in this coming year. It’s worth taking a mid-year look and see how things stand at the mid-point of the year. Let’s see now:

I’ve decided to build in structured time to stay on top of the logistics involved in running a business. 9 AM on Monday mornings didn’t work. Well I structured a different time and day in, but I’m still not REALLY doing this. Time to think about new options:
  • maybe asking a friend to help with the accounting piece (?Do I really want someone else getting in to my financial stuff? What would be the emotional cost of having a friend involved?)
  • maybe working with an acquaintance who’s a life counselor (?Maybe I need to be accountable – sorry for the pun – to someone else?);
  • maybe just quit messing around and do it?
On the positive side, I’ve set up a separate calendar on my PDA for invoicing purposes; all my receipts are in one drawer (even if they’re not entered into Quicken), and I’ve learned to cross reference invoices and checks received.

I’ll set up a process for new clients, so I can track whether I’ve opened a file or begun a project without forgetting any details. I’ve made some (small) progress here by setting up separate “binders” in my OneNote program – it enables me to save notes from phone calls, emails and download research directly from the Internet and save it.

I’ll revise the curriculum and materials for the long-term teacher training classes I’m running AND have them ready to go before the first class. DONE! – but the classes were cancelled because we didn’t have the enrollment the grantor required.

I’ll review and assess the format I use in other workshops, in order to model how one can teach to different learning styles. I’ve begun to do this – repackaging some of the workshops I’ve done in the past; using some new technology. It's actually been kind of fun!

I’ll look for a few other consultants here in the area to network with on a regular basis – for support, brainstorming, and collegiality. This I HAVE done – I’m now meeting/talking semi-regularly with three separate colleagues. It’s good to be able to bounce ideas around and to get energized when I hear what others are doing.

I’ll update and expand my website to more accurately reflect Morah Mary Consulting. I did revise the website this summer and even signed up for a search engine enhancement… BUT I didn’t follow through with the suggestions resulting from the analysis. It’s on my to-do list for this winter break.

Okay – what are some other things I’ve been involved in that weren’t on that list:

Pro-bono work – I’m working with a group that was in a period of crisis this summer, guiding them through the process of visioning and then articulating what they’re looking for in a new director.

Tzedakah work – As a co-director of Mitzvah Heroes Fund, we’ve watched our Fund collect and distribute over $30,000 in less than 9 months. We’re well on our way to getting our IRS 501(c)(3) status approved. In the last week, with a co-director, we’ve presented programs to two separate groups in this area.

Personal – as a personal tzedakah project, I knit scarves for homeless men and women who are sheltered by an interfaith group of religious institutions in Howard and Prince George’s counties in Maryland. One of the participating institutions is Oseh Shalom, where I worked for four years. It’s been my custom to knit scarves for the guests to have during the weeks they are housed at Oseh. So far, I’ve completed 18 men’s scarves and 3 women’s scarves. My goal is 2 dozen men’s scarves and 18 women’s scarves. The first guests will arrive at Oseh at the end of January. I’ve got a little time left – but not too much!

Personal study – With a friend and fellow-congregant, I’m co-chairing the weekly Torah study sessions at our synagogue, Tikvat Israel. Our primary job is to organize things so that each week someone leads the discussion on the Torah portion. It’s been fun…. but I’m thinking maybe it’s time for me to volunteer to lead another session – I haven’t done that since before Rosh Hashanah.

More reflection later – I’m “reflected out” right now!

Shabbat shalom.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Facilitating Group Dynamics

I did a couple of workshops for our local Education Day last month. Our individual workshop topics are often (intentionally) broad and designed to attract a wide number and variety of participants. It’s always a challenge to figure out how to convey the most amount of information in a very short period of time.

On the one hand, we’d like to be able to model good teaching strategies and involve our participants as much as possible. On the other, often the quickest way to present information is by using a frontal/lecture approach. And this year, we were given the added challenge: “Make your workshops work for both classroom teachers and youth group workers.” Both are teachers of Jewish kids – one in a formal educational setting; the other in an informal educational setting. My specific charge from the planning committee was – “Do something on classroom management.”

Several of us brainstormed ideas for workshop names (that’s not one of my strong points: naming things) and came up with one in time for the deadline: Facilitating Group Dynamics: Providing a Safe Structure for All Participants

In the past when I’ve taught mixed groups (classroom teachers and youth group workers), I’ve done my same-old-same-old, just periodically remembering to add, “Oh, this works in a youth group setting, too, by the way. All you have to do is….”

I decided this time, if I was going to model how to include both types of learners, I had to use language that 1) was intentionally exclusive; 2) flowed easily; and 3) really was applicable for both situations.

It was harder than I thought it would be.

I could easily identify which words I wanted to remove from my presentation: teacher, student, classroom, texts, principal/ed director, class. I wasn’t so sure what I would substitute – or how I could make the language flow easily instead of awkwardly. I played with a lot of phrases in my mind and was beginning to panic, when I reread the subtitle one more time: Providing a Safe Structure … The light bulb went on: STRUCTURE!

And so, I built an analogy between the structure necessary in order to allow for positive group dynamics in a safe, protected environment….and building a house! Here are some of the comparisons I made:

  • Examine your site => find out about your setting
  • Consult an architect => check in with your program director
  • Subcontract, if necessary => know who your resource people are
  • Build your foundation => identify the key values that will guide your work

In total, I outlined 13 steps, ending with “Give them the keys/Empower group members to be responsible for implementation.”

It ended up being great fun to prepare for the workshop – and the group that participated in the workshop really got into it. One of the best discussions ever! Here are links to .pdf files of both the PowerPoint and the Participant Workbook. Enjoy!

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Torah Study on Toldot

Our synagogue, Tikvat Israel, has had a weekly, lay-led Torah study session since the beginning of the cycle last fall. Individuals volunteer to lead a Torah discussion on the weekly portion. Discussions are held after the kiddush. People are welcome to daven together at services and stay for the study; to come just for study; or any combination of the above. We've always had at least a minyan (10 participants) and frequently have between 18-24 people.

Because each of us brings his/her unique perspective to the table, the insights and discussion are often wide-ranging and frequently provide “food for thought” during the coming week. The internet facilitates our study by allowing us to “hear” the ideas of people from around the world. This past week’s Torah portion was Toldot – the story of Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob and Esau.

Our leader this week was a knowledgeable colleague who works with young children and their families. She particularly likes the stories in Beresheit/Genesis because they’re great stories—filled with insights into family dynamics and interpersonal relationships. The discussion she led yesterday focused on the relationship between Isaac and Rebekah – their playfulness with and attraction to each other early on in their story and the silence between them as their sons grow into adulthood.

As she was guiding the discussion, asking questions and sharing her own, she read the following from Rabbi Yaakov Asher Sinclair from Ohr Sameach, a yeshiva in Israel where her son is studying.

In this weeks Torah portion, Eisav returns home so ravenous after his work that he sells his birthright for a bowl of lentils. In fact, he is so consumed by his desire for food that he doesn’t even describe the lentils by name. He merely says to Yaakov "Pour into me, now, some of that red red" (25:30) English translators usually append a noun to the adjectives, such as "that red stuff," but in Hebrew there is no noun, there are just two adjectives one following the other. In Hebrew, a noun is called shem etzem, meaning "the name of the essence", the thing itself. An adjective is a shem toar, "a name of description." When our physical desires lead us to mistake appearance for essence, when we exchange a world of nouns for a world of adjectives, when style dominates meaning, then we have truly lost our birthright.

“Stop,” I interjected. “Can you read that again more slowly?” She agreed. Here’s the part that jumped out at me:

In Hebrew, a noun is called shem etzem, meaning "the name of the essence", the thing itself. An adjective is a shem toar, "a name of description." When our physical desires lead us to mistake appearance for essence, when we exchange a world of nouns for a world of adjectives, when style dominates meaning, then we have truly lost our birthright.

There's really nothing left to add, is there?

Shavuah tov/a good week.

Friday, November 21, 2008

On a High

I’m ending the week on a high…educationally speaking.

With a colleague, I’ve been facilitating/teaching a group of 15 for-the-most-part beginning religious school teachers.

We’ve met five times since the September, for slightly less than two hours each time. We’re a diverse group – some younger, some older; some still in college, many working first jobs; some Israeli, some Americans; some working with early childhood students, some with older students.

My colleague and I have tried to expose them to a variety of topics. We’ve tried to make our sessions interactive, modeling our belief that all teachers need to teach to a variety of learning styles. (Sometimes we've been more successful than others!) The topics we’ve touched on include the following:

  • Jewish identification
  • Challenges and Opportunities in Supplemental Education
  • Jewish Values Guiding Our Teaching
  • Multiple Intelligences
  • Big Ideas/Goals/Objectives/Learning Activities
  • Working in Small Groups
  • Auditory/Visual/Kinesthetic Learning Styles
  • Gender Bias
  • Centers and Center-Type Activities
  • Graphic Organizers
  • Cooperative Learning Techniques
  • Strategies to Build Energy in the Classroom
  • Classroom Management “On One Foot”

All of which have been undergirded by reflective practice – what worked and why? What didn’t work and why not? What should we change next time?

This past week, participants in the course began to “present” – sharing a 20 minute lesson they’d taught recently. The assignment outline asked

  1. how the lesson fit with the “Big Idea” for their class this year;
  2. strategies they used;
  3. complications they encountered;
  4. evidence of learning – how they knew the students learned what they taught;
  5. their assessment of the lesson; and
  6. what they would change next time.

In a little more than an hour, seven participants shared their lessons with the rest of the group. My colleague and I kept our comments to a minimum and invited the rest of the group to ask questions of the presenters and comment on what they had heard.

Later that week – we kvelled.

What we heard were participants who demonstrated their clear understanding of key concepts: big idea, goals, different learning strategies, assessment of student learning, and assessment of their own experience.

What we heard were colleagues who were supportive and encouraging – not afraid to compliment or to question.

What we heard were participants who are so student-focused already that they were able to adapt the plan to fit unanticipated changes.

What we heard were colleagues who are able to show how their teaching builds on the teaching done by another participant.

What we saw were participants whose eyes lit up as they talked about key values and their students.

What we saw were eyes seeking out colleagues when participants were urged to “identify someone you work with who can help you brainstorm” when specific situations would occur.

What we saw are teachers who can laugh at themselves and genuinely funny things that happen when they work together or with students.

What we know is that this group of people is now

a) a community
b) a community of learners
c) a community of learners who will pass that love of community and learning on to their students.

Is it any wonder I’m on a “high” today?

Shabbat shalom.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Being a Fly on the Wall

In the past month, I've found myself doing a lot of teacher observations, at a variety of schools. It seems that's one of the things I do best!

In most cases, I'm met with some degree of hesitation, if not outright defensiveness. Part of my job -- as I see it, then -- becomes the challenge of getting past the hesitation/defensiveness before I leave the classroom. It's not always easy.

I walked into one classroom recently, where the teacher met me with a certain amount of resistance. She said, "I'm not even sure why you’re here." I THOUGHT "Oh boy!" but I SAID, "To help you become a better teacher." "Well, if that were true," she retorted, "you would come back after school one day during the week. That's when I really have problems!" Before I left the building that day, I did two things:
  1. I spoke to her supervisor and we rescheduled another time -- of the teacher's choice -- for me to return.
  2. I mentioned what a great activity she had planned and that I was looking forward to hearing how it played out.

That second visit went much better – the teacher greeted me with a big smile; when asked by a student about my presence in the room, she explained, “She’s a teacher of teachers and she’s helping me.”

The lesson moved logically from one activity to another; she used her madrikh in a substantive way, as a co-teacher working with a small group (after ensuring he knew what she was looking for); for the most part, the majority of students stayed on task most of the class period. The “problem?” One table of students who were loud, impulsive, and whose noise made it difficult for other students to make progress.

She had a couple of minutes between sessions, so I spent the majority of that time articulating examples of good teaching. We ended with – “There’s really only one problem I see.” She knew immediately what I was talking about and said she’s often told them she’s going to separate them. I suggested she stop threatening and just do it. The need for students to have friends to be with in religious school had been the value she was holding dear. But she realized that it was having a negative effect on the rest of the class, so we talked about other values and I made some suggestions of how to proceed with these changes.

I then went home, wrote everything up (setting, observations of class dynamics, evaluation, suggestions for improvement, and an end note), sent it to her supervisor and asked her to send it directly on to the teacher involved.

So what’s the learning in this experience for me?
  • It really helps if the teacher knows that an observation is planned.
  • It also helps if the teacher knows that my job is to help them become more effective.
  • It is just as important for positive interactions/dynamics to be noted as the negative ones.
  • Sometimes, the observer notices things (behavior triggers) that the teacher doesn’t. Those observations can be helpful to the teacher.
  • Sometimes, the observer may pick up on student behavior that merits a closer look.
  • The sandwich approach still works: good news – bad news – good news (or strengths—weaknesses-strengths).
  • When giving suggestions to modify a teacher’s classroom behavior, it helps to explain “why” the change should improve the situation.
  • When giving more than two suggestions, I’ll often make a list of five or six. Sometimes I’ll pick one from the list, if I think it’s really crucial, and I’ll ask the teacher to pick another suggestion from the list. I’ll ask the teacher to work on those two until they become more comfortable ways to operate. Then I’ll ask them to go back to the list and pick two more! This provides them with the opportunity to structure their own learning – and acknowledges that we all have different priorities. It can also help them set goals for themselves.

I left the room, feeling as if we (the teacher and I) had begun to establish a positive working relationship. We'll see how it plays out!

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Missing Ellie

Today would have been my sister Ellen's 48th birthday. She died one August day, twelve years ago, of Crohn's Disease.

According to Jewish custom, we're supposed to remember our loved ones on the anniversary of their death (their yahrzeit date). But we were on vacation when she died and I have trouble remembering the exact date. Besides, Ellie wasn't Jewish... so somehow remembering her on her birthday "works for me."

Ellie was seven years younger than I - in many ways, she was my "first child." I loved her, cared for her, changed her diaper, encouraged her to walk, taught her to say "Mama" and "Dada" -- and when the time came, took a deep breath and talked with her about the "facts of life." (One of the most awkward and uncomfortable discussions of my life! Poor Ellie, I'm sure I embarrassed her greatly!)

Her illness was a long and ugly one - we figured later she'd probably been sick for almost 20 years when she died. It deprived her of many experiences. But she was funny and clever and remarkably bright. The world is diminished by her absence.

She lived with us while I was pregnant with our second child and on total bedrest. Our son, who was two and a half at that time, loved his Aunt Ellie as only a young child can - with every fiber of his body. When our daughter was born, Aunt Ellie delighted in holding this newborn on her lap and quickly figured out how to make the baby stop crying. She never quite mastered the trick of changing diapers, though!

Some years, the remembering has been more difficult than in other years. This year, it's been hard. My mother is not well. The current economic crisis reminds me of my family's economic crisis around the time that Ellie was born, shortly after my father had lost his job. And even the weather this past week has been more typical of mid-state Wisconsin weather in late October than typical Maryland weather this time of year.

There is a reading from the Yizkor service which has always been a comfort to me.

At the rising of the sun and at its going down,
we remember them.

At the blowing of the wind and in the chill of winter,
we remember them.

At the shining of the sun and in the warmth of summer,
we remember them.

At the rustling of the leaves and in the beauty of autumn,
we remember them.

At the beginning of the year and at its end,
we remember them.

As long as we live, they too will live;
for they are now a part of us,
as we remember them.

When we are weary and in need of strength,
we remember them.

When we are lost and sick at heart,
we remember them.

Where we have joy we crave to share,
we remember them.

When we have decisions that are difficult to make,
we remember them.

When we have achievements that are based on theirs,
we remember them.

At long as we live, they too will live;
for they are now a part of us,
as we remember them.

May her memory be for a blessing.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Maybe It's Not A Totally Lost Cause?

I may have blogged a little too quickly yesterday, about the two courses being cancelled due to under-enrollment.

In separate conversations with educators in both Virginia and Maryland, we were able to do some out-of-the-box thinking about other approaches that may work.

One colleague suggested front-loading the training next year, during school sessions. It would mean his teachers wouldn't necessarily have madrichim the first couple of weeks of school, but it would allow the participants to be trained during their already-committed time.

Another colleague suggested offering the course weekly during second semester, instead of spreading it out over the entire year. The compressed time might work easier for participants.

Another idea that surfaced was the possibility of a weekend retreat at the beginning, followed by intermittent "check-ins."

So maybe it's not a lost cause.... Sounds like a brainstorming session might be in the works for after our community-wide Education Day in early November.

I'm feeling better....

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

A Major Disappointment

I blogged earlier (this summer) about the class for 11th and 12th graders that I was looking forward to teaching this year – the one for kids who thought they want to be religious school teachers. I had decided to change the structure of the class to one that would include a “lab” portion each week. I thoroughly enjoyed the time I spent working up a Scope and Sequence, defining a Mission Statement and looking for materials that would work in the “lab.”

We had hoped to offer two sessions – one in Maryland and one in Virginia. Dates and times were chosen. The syllabus was finalized. A grant was applied for and received.

Unfortunately, neither location has had sufficient enrollment to allow us to offer the classes. I’m not quite sure why, but I suspect that we didn’t do an adequate job of marketing the programs and the recent sudden economic downturn has people apprehensive about spending additional monies. The ultimate reason, I know, could be that teens just aren’t interested. I’ll have to post the “official” cancellation notice tomorrow for both programs. ::sigh::

I still think it’s a good program; I still think there’s a community need for programs like this. It just may not be the right time.

I am very disappointed.

Friday, October 10, 2008

A New Insight

Sometimes, when I least expect it, I run into some information that causes me to re-examine what I thought I knew.

A SCENE FROM THE PAST: At a school I directed for a number of years, we had a high percentage of students who had a variety of learning disabilities. We also had several – eight to be exact – students who had either autism or asperger’s syndrome. We – the students, teachers, parents and I – worked to find ways to involve our students in authentic learning and community experiences. Sometimes we had more success than others.

There was an older student in our program, one who was bright, articulate, curious, fond of routines and a lover of predictability: a student who thrived when he knew exactly what to expect; and who was rattled when others couldn’t “see” what he “saw” in a discussion. Situations in which there was more than one right answer were difficult for him to cope with – or comprehend. As he entered seventh grade, we found the social piece was becoming increasingly difficult and causing pain to him, to his classmates, and to his teacher.

After one particularly distressing day, Mom and I spoke about possible alternatives. We had an existing HomeSchool program at that time and Mom requested that he be allowed to participate in the HomeSchooling program. Social interactions, she pointed out, were a stumbling block for him across the board, in every setting he found himself. He wanted to learn – was eager to pursue advanced studies. We’d tried, she said, to make the traditional setting work. Maybe it was time to try something else.

After discussion with the student, with Mom, with the teacher and the Rabbi, we all agreed it was a viable alternative. I agreed to work up an accelerated course of study designed to challenge him well beyond what we were able to do in class. I spent time in transition discussions with both the family and the class he was leaving behind.

HomeSchooling worked – for about three weeks.

Then Mom called and asked if I could meet with her and the student. The student told me he was learning a lot, but that there was something missing: a learning community. Even though he’d had problems in class and with the other students, he missed being with them and hearing their ideas. He asked if he could come back to class. I reminded him that the class wouldn’t be able to move at the accelerated pace – he understood that. And that there were going to be times when he disagreed with others – and I expected him to remain in control of his temper. He agreed to do that.

So I began to do some scripting, both with him individually and with the class collectively. I told them how I expected them to greet each other; what words they could use to disagree (respectfully) with each other; and specifically how to stop pushing each other’s buttons. We also provided a couple of safety nets for the more volatile participants.

As things settled in, the Rabbi and I conferred. I expressed how incredulous I’d felt when the student said he missed being with the class, even though it was hard for him. I remember saying, “All the literature tells us that Asperger’s kids prefer to work along – they don’t want to be in groups working.” The Rabbi listened. “Perhaps,” he said, “the literature is wrong. And maybe these kids fit in when the community can accept them.”

FAST FORWARD: Last week, rushing through the grocery store, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a book: Look Me in The Eye (John Elder Robison). I stopped in my tracks.

How often had I said that to students, until I learned that for some students, eye contact makes it impossible for them to share their thoughts?

I reached for the book and read the subtitle: “My life with Asperger’s.” I read it through in two days, unable to put it down.

On page 211, John Elder Robison writes:

Many discriptions of autism and Asperger’s describe people like me as “not wanting contact with others” or “preferring to play alone.” I can’t speak for other kids, but I’d like to be very clear about my own feelings: I did not ever want to be alone. And all those child psychologists who said “John prefers to play by himself” were dead wrong. I played by myself because I was a failure at playing with others. I was alone as a result of my own limitations, and being alone was one of the bitterest disappointments of my young life.

I am very grateful that my former student felt safe enough to approach his Mom and me about re-entering the classroom. I am very grateful that I had the sense to LISTEN to what he was saying. I am very grateful that I was able to pull out specific words and phrases to teach this group of young men and women not only what to say, but how to say it. I am very grateful to the other students in the class who were able to rise to the occasion. And, I'm very grateful that I was able to discount what "all the literature said" and regard my student as a unique individual.

It ended up being a good year.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Change: Noun or Verb?

I'm taking a class, with a group of other Jewish communal workers - we meet monthly and discuss a variety of topics. It's an eclectic group and so we often get a variety of viewpoints.

One of the topics that arose last week was the subject of "change." The instructor asked, "How do you feel about change?" Being the forward-minded people we are, we all agreed that while others might have problems with change - we don't.

Pretty pat answer.

But the question's been echoing in my mind all week. Perhaps not surprisingly, given the start of the New Year (5769) this past Monday at sundown.

After a while of turning the question around and examining it from different perspectives, it occurred to me that what we'd done, as a group, was to treat "change" as one word - without distinguishing between the verb change (which refers to a process) and the noun change (which is the outcome or product).

I maintained in class that I don't necessarily have a problem with change-the-noun. After all, I'm all about change - my life is vastly different than I ever could have envisioned, growing up in a German-Catholic-Lutheran farming community of 5,000 people. I learned a long time ago that "5-year plans" weren't part of my makeup.... "Seize the moment" or "the road less traveled" was more typically my style.

And yet.... and yet, it's not quite that simple.

I hate change-the-verb.... I hate feeling disoriented... the unpredictability that occasionally catches me unaware and makes me scramble to regain my equilibrium. I hate having to be oh-so-very-mindful until new patterns become routines.

We did a lot of moving when I was growing up -- I always felt at a loss until our new house became a "home." And that generally seemed to happen around the time I would enter a dark room and automatically hit the light switch on the first time.

I like routines.... I like grabbing my briefcase and knowing that all the materials I'll need for a specific class are there: pencils, glue sticks, books, notes, stapler, markers, tzedakah box. Since I teach different classes in different settings, I have separate bags for each -- I can just "grab and go" and not think about all the discrete items I need.

I like routines.... when I get up each morning, I grab a cup of coffee and sit at the computer. I check my email accounts, log on to Facebook, read the comics, peruse the headlines, and follow some blogs (in the same order every morning). Only after that routine is completed, can I go on to something new.

Any yet, if I'm totally honest, despite my discomfort at the process, I look back over the intentional changes I've made - and I would make them all over again: moving East, leaving my career path, meeting my husband, converting to Judaism, having children, becoming a Jewish educator, engaging in volunteer work (Judaic and secular). How different my life would have been if I'd not been willing to engage in that process!

May the year ahead hold sweetness, good health, and sufficient challenges to keep life interesting - but not overwhelming. L'shanah tovah!

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Quick Note

Still swamped and tried to dig out and settle into a routine. Hopefully that will happen sooner rather than later, and I'll be able to blog again more regularly.

In the meantime, here's an inspirational blog for parents and teachers about meeting our kids where they're "at" instead of trying to push out kids that are all equally adept at the same things.

From Raising Small Souls, here's why differentiation is critical.


Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The 3 R's: Rigor, Relationships & Relevance

Last month, at CAJE, I had the opportunity to participate in two learning sessions with Marc Kay, an educator from the Detroit, Michigan area. Marc has taught in the following settings: day school, supplemental school, youth group, and is currently a secular high school English teacher. He brought a wealth of practical experience, as well as research-based findings, to his workshops.

The title of one of his workshops was “Jewish Education in the 21st Century: Relevancy and Rigor in the Classroom.”

Honesty compels me to admit that my initial reaction to the word “rigor” is to flinch: the connotation for me usually implies a lot of jargon that ends up meaning, “teaching to the test,” “college-credit for high school work,” and “how much can we cover in how short a period of time.” In fairness, my Merriam-Webster defines it as “a strict precision or exactness” – a values-neutral definition.

By adding “relationships” and “relevance” to “rigor”, Marc changed the equation.

“The primary aim of all education is not to enable students to do well in schools or colleges, but to help them do well in the lives they lead outside of the schools and colleges,” he explained. He went on to say, “This theory applies to our hope to how our students apply their Judaic education to becoming part of their greater Jewish community.” [emphasis added]

Marc debunked some of the false ideas of “learning” currently circulating:

  • finishing a textbook means achievement
  • listening to a lecture means understanding
  • getting high test scores means proficiency

Instead, he identifies the roots of learning as containing the following:

  • meaning, not just memory
  • engagement, not just transmission
  • inquiry, not just compliance
  • exploration, not just acquisition
  • personalization, not just uniformity
  • collaboration, not just competition
  • trust, not fear

Too many students see education as something that happens to them, he adds. Seeing real-life applications of what they are learning and understanding how they learn and developing the ability to monitor their own learning progress changes that passive state to an active one.

Relationships between students and teachers are a key factor. Learners flourish if they know that they matter to someone. From my own experience as a parent and teacher of students with learning difficulties, I know that students are more willing to exert themselves and plow through their challenges when they know that their teacher cares about them and believes in them.

Relevance comes into play when students are able to understand how the information or skill has some relevance to their lives; when they are encouraged to grapple with their own understanding of what they are learning; and when they learn how to learn as a result of the process.

In a meditation on the blessing that precedes Torah study, Rabbi Leila Gal Berner comments on the Hebrew phrase l'asok b'dvrei torah:

The Hebrew words here do not say "to study Torah," but rather to "be engaged" or "to be busy with" the study of Torah. We study Torah not an an intellectual exercise alone. Rather, we understand our "engagement" with Torah more holistically, as an evey day, every moment activity. We also understand that to be fully "engaged" with Torah is to wrestle with Torah - to challenge our tradition while loving it, to question while celebrating it. (Kol Haneshamah: Shabbat Vehagim, JRF)

Ultimately, Marc believes that we need to adapt our lessons (and our approach, I might add) so that the students we interact with can answer the question, “So what?”

How many of my students this week can answer why the content we’re grappling with matters and what impact it will have on their lives?

Thanks, Marc!

Thursday, September 4, 2008

An Invitation

As we begin a new year, I'd like to shift our direction slightly.

I'd like to invite you to make comments on what what I post, to add your own suggestions and insights, to help change this into a "virtual community."

Here's a starting point: do you have any suggestions that you've found to make your beginnings with your students easier? Is there something you ALWAYS do? Or something that you'll never do again? I'm eager to hear!

Let's learn together....

Wednesday, September 3, 2008


Before the week is out, I will have participated in staff orientations at six different programs in the last month. I’ve presented content (on differentiation, on working with parents), participated in ice-breaking activities, oriented staff to new responsibilities, and responded to questions about programs that haven’t yet been fleshed out. I’ve also participated in work sessions with teachers working to articulate the "big ideas" in the materials they'll be teaching this year. I've brainstormed with colleagues who are in new settings this year. I’ve gone to Burlington, VT for CAJE; New Haven, CT for a family wedding; and consulted via phone with a wonderful colleague from Michigan, who has inspired me to push myself in new directions. I’ve worked intensely with a couple of communities in the midst of unanticipated transitions. And I’ve scrambled to help implement two new programs regionally – both directed at building our next generation of religious school teachers. With all due respect to Nat “King” Cole, those “lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer” WEREN’T.

What I’ve come away with is a deeper sense of appreciation for the commitment of the men and women who choose to spend a chunk of their discretionary time teaching Hebrew, holidays, prayers, values, history, peoplehood, CONNECTION to the youngsters in our communities.

For the most part, our teachers are “avocational” – that means teaching is not their main vocation. They come to us for orientation and planning at the end of the work day. Some cut their family vacations short or arrive back at their colleges early. They come tired and anxious, eager and apprehensive about the coming year. Which students will be part of their classes? What’s different this year from last? How will they structure their time? They come, knowing that the work in which they are about to engage is significant. They know that they need help – in content areas, organization, confidence, working with certain types of students and/or parents. Some are confident in their knowledge level; others see only how little they know. They know that the time is too short, that the task is too great: “You are not required to complete the work, but you are not free to abandon it.” (Pirke Avot; 2:16)

But the bottom line is that they come… week in and week out, they come.

All our teachers will struggle at some point this coming year. All will try to juggle commitments to home and family, their “real” job, and their religious school classes. Some will be more successful this year than others. How do I define “success?” Success, in my mind, is the ability “to reach and teach.” First comes the connection – and then the student and teacher are available to grapple with content together.

My wish for you – for all of us – is “smooth beginnings, a year of enough challenges to grow and learn (but not so many that we’re overwhelmed!), and a recognition that we can make a difference.”

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Actors

Written two years ago...after a local education day

Yesterday, I got to teach Sam again.

At a local educators’ day, I was standing outside the door, waiting for teachers to filter in when a young man approached me. “Morah Mary,” he said, “do you remember me? You taught me in third grade and now I’m back to learn from you again.”

Do you remember me? “Of course, I remember you,” I replied as my eyes filled with tears.

I remember one day early in the school year, after class I complimented you on your high participation and the quality of questions you asked. You grimaced and said, “But you really shouldn’t compliment me: I didn’t want to come today. My Mom made me.” I remember writing you a note that evening and explaining that although Mom may have “made” you come to class, Mom wasn’t in our room and she didn’t “make” you walk in with a smile…she didn’t “make” you raise your hand…. she didn’t “make” you help the kid seated next to you…..

I remember that you were part of a group of six friends who thought the best part of religious school was the chance to see your friends and get caught up on each others’ lives. What you had to share with each other was infinitely more interesting than what I could teach. At a parent/student meeting to brainstorm solutions, I remember wryly responding to a parent, “Putting one in each corner of the room might work, but my classroom has only four corners….” After that meeting, you were the student who came up to me to apologize for being thoughtless and disrespectful, and you vowed to improve.

I remember your face when we’d talk about how what we were learning connected with our daily lives – and the way your face would light up when you were able to make a personal connection.

I remember the questions you asked – thoughtful, provocative, eager to put the pieces together.

And I remember the last day of class. You weren’t there. I was so disappointed. I wanted to say goodbye – to find a private moment to let you know how privileged I felt to have had you in my class that year.

Five minutes after class, you and your Mom walked in. You were obviously distraught. Mom explained that you hadn’t wanted to say goodbye, but realized that you had to. We spoke for a moment – you looked at me with your soul in your eyes. I took your hand and remember saying, “Some day, Sam, you’ll be a religious school teacher too – and you’ll be blessed with students just like you.”

What I learned from Sam those many years ago was a simple, critical lesson. I shared it with him and his colleagues in the workshop I taught yesterday – in order to be “master teachers,” we must let our students touch our hearts and be willing to touch theirs in return.

Yesterday I got to teach Sam again – and he got to teach me. Baruch haShem – my life has been blessed!

Sunday, August 24, 2008


Okay, so where was I? (That’s the problem with “vacation” – it’s hard to regain your momentum!)

Improv. theatre…. setting …. the script…. oh, yeah – the props! Now I remember.

“Props” can be anything that help your script come alive: things that your students can experience – taste, touch, smell, hear.

If you’re teaching a lesson on what I used to call “the Jewish uniform” – bring it in! Bring in a tallit (or three). Let your students finger the fringes. Let them trace the Hebrew letters on the atarah/collar. Let them tent themselves in the tallit/prayer shawl as they repeat the blessing after you. Let the tallit settle on their shoulders – show them how to fold the edges up, so they are able to hold a siddur/prayer book at the same time. Let them experience laying on tefillin – examine different styles of kippot.

If you’re teaching about Passover – let them smell and taste the maror/horseradish; let them chop the apples and add a little grape juice – and have that as snack instead of challah; let them break the matzah to hide an afikoman.

If you’re teaching about the Dead Sea – fill a basin with super salty water. Place it next to a basin of clear water. Let them take turns dropping objects into the basins and watch how they float in the super-salty water.

If you’re trying to evoke the solemnity of Kol Nidre – or the joy of Simchat Torah – play instrumental music softly in the background while students are working.

When you learn about Chanukah together, have them bring in their Chanukiyah from home – and let them tell the stories associated with their personal Chanukiyah.

Let them hold the lulav and hear the branches whisper as they are shaken east, west, north, south, up and down. Let them gently scratch the surface of the etrog and smell its lemon-like odor.

When you study Torah with your students, use a Chumash that includes both Hebrew and English, if possible. If that’s not possible – photocopy the page you’ll be studying together. If that’s even beyond what you can provide – type your text as it’s found in a Chumash, including the verse numbers interspersed within the text.

Take them to see a Torah scroll up close. Let them help undress it and carefully roll it out. Let them use the yad/pointer to point to the Hebrew words – and let them tell you “there are no vowels!” Let them touch the wood of the etz hayim/rollers. Let them be responsible for dressing the Torah, hearing the clink as the breastplate is settled into place – and the jingle of the bells in the crowns. Let them feel the texture of the Torah cover – and open and close the ark carefully as it is replaced.

Then take a moment to catch your breath – and think about the experience.

Use lengths of material as costumes when studying biblical characters…. as tents when they’re Israelites wandering in the desert….or pioneers settling in the Land of Israel… or to block off a special area in the classroom in which they can repair to think calming thoughts.

The more we make the learning real, the easier it is to engage our students. The greater the level of engagement, the greater the likelihood of retention. Using all of our senses in teaching and learning helps make the learning come alive.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Just Back From CAJE33

I’m just back from CAJE33 in Burlington, Vermont – where I had the opportunity to connect with old friends, solidify relationships with beginning friends, and make new ones.

Along the way, I participated in some great workshops. Ongoing professional development is key to staying fresh and continuing to learn and grow.

For a Powerpoint of the information I presented in the “Success Stories in Congregational Education” poster session, click on “What’s New” at my website:

I enjoyed my time in Vermont – but it’s good to be home and back in a routine!

The Script

Even though I’ve likened teaching to improv. theater – you still need a script. Some days you’ll be able to follow it fairly closely. Some days, there’ll be a detour along the way. Other days, you may as well throw it out the window and go for the “teachable moment.”

I’ve known some teachers who rarely prepare a lesson, insisting that they know their content well enough that they can “wing it.” I’ve never yet met one who is as successful as s/he thinks at doing that. The kids get the short end of the stick when teachers don’t prepare. Somehow, that doesn’t seem fair to me.

So what should your lesson plan consist of? Let’s start with some general questions:
  • What’s the “big idea” that you want to teach…. this year? … this unit? …this lesson? [Enduring understandings]
  • What should the students be able to do at the end of the lesson? [Objectives]
  • How will you know that can attain those objectives? [Assessment]
  • What strategies will you employ to get there? [Remember that students learn best in a variety of ways (auditory, visual & kinesthetic)]
  • What materials will you need to use? [texts, videos, web info, flashcards, journals, guest speakers/demos]
  • How many of your strategies will allow students to interact directly with the materials? [The greater the interaction, the greater the engagement. Learning is not a spectator sport.]
  • In what order will you present the information? [Look for flow and natural segue ways]
  • How much time will you need for each component? [Remember to allow for set up, transition and clean up times]
  • What will your madrich/madrichah (aide) be doing in order to help students reach your instructional objectives?
  • Before students leave, what opportunities will you provide for them to reflect on their learning for the day?

And finally, you’ll need to provide for your own reflection time. Here we go back to my big three questions (with which I began this blog in June, 2008):

  1. What worked – and why?
  2. What didn’t work – and why not?
  3. What will I do differently next time?

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Setting the Stage - Act 2

Regardless of what kind of space you and your class occupy, there are certain portable accoutrements that shout “This is a Jewish educational environment!”

What are some of them?
  • A tzedakah box
  • Some indicator (flyer, brochure, poster with information) about the recipient of your students’ tzedakah funds for the year
  • An aleph-bet chart
  • A chart featuring the words to the blessing for studying Torah
  • A daily agenda
  • Kippot
  • Classroom rules. I used to call mine “Mitzvot shel Kitah Gimmel” (the commandments of third grade)
  • A Hebrew “Word of the Day”
  • Song poster(s)
  • Classroom job chart
  • Sh’ma
  • Jewish calendar
  • A "Welcome" sign on the door
  • An attendance chart
  • If your students' parents pick them up at your classroom door, a "Notice for Parents" posted on the hallway outside the door involves them in what's going on in your classroom

A milk crate and a luggage carrier (with bungee cords) have made my life much easier over the years!

Along with these items, I also always carried a pencil box containing enough sharpened pencils, scissors, glue sticks, markers, tape (masking and clear), paper clips, a mini-stapler, and a hole punch for my class to use.

Is it a bother? Yes.

Why do it? It puts your stamp on the space you’ll be occupying for 2 or more hours a week. It says to your students, “Our time together is important enough for me to go to the effort to make the space ours.” It helps focus attention on our work at hand. These items serve as visual reminders for the rules we’ve agreed upon, our classroom priorities. They help join us as a community. The supply box sends a clear message that we don’t use the objects in our classroom that belong to others because we have our own things.

It takes an extra little bit of time to put it all up at the beginning of the class period, but it ensures that you'll be in the classroom to greet the students when they arrive. It takes a few minutes extra at the end of the day to pull everything down, but that provided some time to reflect on how things had gone that day.

A word to the wise: If you forget to remove any of these materials at the end of your class, be prepared that they will probably NOT be there next week.... and the person whose space you've occupied may be very irate that you left them behind. Check lists, my friend. Check lists help us remember!

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Setting the Stage - Act 1

If we’d walk into your classroom, what would we see?

Is it welcoming? Bright, cheerful, organized?

Does it reflect your students’ involvement? How can you tell that your class occupies this space, for at least a small amount of time each week?

Is it a “Jewish space?” What makes a space Jewish?

Very few of us have the luxury of having our own space – most of us share with at least one other group: sometimes more. If we’re fortunate, our classroom is located in a larger Jewish space (synagogue building, JCC, Jewish camp). In that case, the “big picture” has already been established and there may well be symbols of Judaism visible/audible to our students: mezuzot, Hebrew letters, books with Jewish content, kippot, posters, signs, music, oral Hebrew ….

Some of us work in secular settings: for example, rented public school space or a community center.

Still others share places used for non-Jewish worship or study, such as a church or interfaith center.

Each setting provides its own challenges and opportunities for us to “set the stage” for our students.

When we’re using rented space, the biggest challenges are that 1) nothing can be posted permanently; 2) we can’t store things so that they are readily accessible; and 3) we have little control over the room setup.

Unfortunately, we often look at those challenges and decide that there is nothing that can be done.

Fortunately, that’s not true: there are some things we can do!

We can take chairs off the desks and turn them upright – we just need to remember to replace them at the end of class. In secular school settings, students often have to do this at the end of the day, so you’ll be scaffolding on top of a habit they already have.

We can re-arrange some of the furniture to make the space more conducive to our needs – we just need to remember to move things back at the end of the day. Digital pictures depicting the room as seen from different angles are immensely helpful.

We can laminate posters – and tape them up at strategic places (the door, over the chalk/whiteboard) – we just need to remember to remove them before we leave. A checklist helps with routine reminders.

We can bring displays in –using two tri-fold pieces of cardboard (aka “science fair boards”) clipped together with binder clips – for center work, displays, and sharing information with groups of people.

And that’s just a beginning…..

Friday, August 1, 2008

Teaching is Like....

...improv. theater!

The teacher is both the protagonist and the director of the performance; the classroom is the set. The script is the lesson plan and the learning materials are the props.

It's like improv. theater because the students don't have scripts -- or at least, some of them don't. The teacher's challenge is to respond to the improvisions the students throw his/her way. The goal is for the teacher to remain in character -- and continue to teach!

In this staging, the teacher controls the setting (environment), the script, the props, and stage directions. S/He has some control over the pacing of the lesson - but not total control because the students' improvisations can easily throw things off balance.

As a teacher gets to know the students in the class better, s/he is better able to predict what kinds of improvisations the students might throw into the mix. Generally speaking, if the relationship between the teacher and students is respectful, the improv comments/behaviors of the students may actually enhance the lesson and cause the learning to soar to a different height or along a parallel path that provides additional insight for all.

Those items the teacher can control (setting/environment, script, props, and stage directions) can easily affect the quantity and quality of the improvised role of the students.

In the next week or so, we'll be taking a closer look at each of these pieces.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

It's Almost August!

There’s something about the approach of the beginning of the school year that gets my juices flowing.

I find myself wandering the aisles at office supply stores. A new calendar …. (Wait. You use a PDA now, you don’t need a paper calendar). New folders – and they’re on sale, too! (Stop, you have a whole shelf of multicolored folders already in the closet… you don’t need any more) Cute new containers to store my ever-expanding office “stuff” … (Wait. How will this work with what you’ve already got?) New binders … (Stop! You just took all your materials OUT of binders and put them into files because the binders take up too much room on the shelf.) New notebooks … (What about the three half-used ones from last year?)

I pour over the teacher supply catalogues, pausing briefly at the whiteboard/easel combination units and chart paper stands (You already have some from when you were teaching/directing -- even if they're not as fancy as these.). I look longingly at the organizers – the hanging file holders and schedule charts and lesson plan books – and sigh. (You’re out of the classroom, now. Remember?)

There’s something about new beginnings and hope and optimism. New materials – crisp, clean, bright and colorful – remind me of that hope and optimism. This year, I think, this year, I’ll make a difference. We’ll soar to new heights…. explore new vistas…. learn together. This year will be GREAT!

Notebooks and folders and clean calendars and pristine lesson plan books… wouldn’t it be great if it were only that easy?

One of these days soon, I’ll indulge my inner child just a little bit again. And I'll leave my inner mother at home ::grin::

[UPDATE: Well, I did have to go to the office supply store because I needed to print some more business cards..... and I did leave my inner mother at home. My inner big sister came instead -- still put brakes on some of my impulsivity, but she's a little easier to talk into things than my inner mother is!]

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

"A Letter to Teachers"

I almost never write in books. It’s an old habit, dating back to my college days when I realized I could sell my used texts for more money if I hadn’t written in them.

On Sunday, I picked up Vito Perrone’s A Letter to Teachers, another old favorite. When I first picked it up – over five years ago, now – I was so struck by what he was saying that I grabbed a red pen and began to underline, check, highlight, add exclamation points, and dog-ear the pages. It was fun to find myself as captivated by some of his ideas this past weekend as I was the first time I read them.

Here are a couple that jumped out at me:

It is also important when thinking about the content of our teaching, the questions we raise, the experiences we provide, the materials we select to read and reflect upon, that schools are not the only learning environments in children and young people’s lives. They are exposed to, even bombarded by, television, films, radio, newspapers, magazines, fast food restaurants, and billboards. And they hear conversations in the streets and in their homes.

In relation to many of these visual and auditory sources of information, teachers can help by providing their students with appropriate lenses and tools through which to understand their surroundings more fully, to assist them in separating the substances from the discordant noises and surface images. This means, of course, that they don’t close the curriculum to the world that their students listen to and look at every day outside school. It is helpful for teachers to know as much as they can about the neighborhoods their students come from, what the encounter in the streets, what the sounds and smells are, what is watched on television and what popular music is.

Question: How much of a correlation is there between the curricula of our religious schools – and the lives that our students and families lead? Do we talk about “real” situations – do we provide the opportunity to grapple with “real” issues? How much do we know about our students’ “other lives” – their homes, their secular schools, their sports activities, the books they read, the games they play, the music they listen to? Without a point of connection between our classes and what they’re living, what we teach becomes (in many ways) irrelevant.

As a principle, it is usually more productive within every area of learning to teach less more deeply than to teach more as a matter of coverage.

That comment actually earned a “YES” with 2 check marks in the margin.

“There’s never enough time,” we wail, “so I have to get in as much material as I can.” Our curricula are often too ambitious, filled with so much that there’s scarcely time to breath. Perhaps if we truly believed what we often espouse about life-long learning, we’d be able to stop and explore with our students. Deeper instead of wider.

Thanks, Vito.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Saturday's "Time Out"

It was an interesting Saturday…. wherever I looked, it seemed as if there were lessons to be gathered.

I became reacquainted with an old friend – a delightful book by Phillip Done entitled 32 Third Graders and One Class Bunny. If you’ve ever taught early elementary (oh, perhaps up to fourth grade), there’s nothing in this book that you haven’t heard at least once! What a true ear Done has for the authentic dialogue and rip-roaring humor that catches a teacher off-guard when s/he least expects it. It’s a joyful book and reminds me – again – why I work with kids.

Saturday night, my husband and I had the pleasure of attending a house concert sponsored by a friend of ours. The guest artist was Steve Eulberg, who delighted us with his instrumental and vocal compositions. Steve played guitar, mountain dulcimers and – a real treat – a hammered dulcimer with tones so rich they resonated in your mind long after the strings stopped vibrating. Two of Steve’s songs spoke to me.

He opened the evening with a tune called “A Ship May Be Safe.”

A ship may be safe in a harbor/at anchor close to the shore;
yeah, a ship may be safe in a harbor / but that ain’t what ships were made for.

Ships were made for sailin’ across the high seas
More ships and sailors rot in the port
than ever are drowned in the sea. (2x)

Made me think: how often do I go for the safe and predictable instead of being willing to try something new? Change doesn’t come without risk – but without change and growth, we (I) atrophy.

And later Steve and our host sang a wonderful song entitled “We Are An Answer to Prayer” which addresses the question: what if our prayers to survive the current struggles actually send our descendants into the future to pull us through? The harmony was exquisite – the words provocative. It reminded me of Doug Cotler’s song (Standing on the Shoulders) with the phrase “I’m standing on the shoulders of the ones who came before me.”

Both Steve’s song and Doug’s evoke the sense of interconnectedness – l’dor v’dor/from generation to generation.

The torah of Phillip Done and Steve Eulberg challenged me, refreshed me – and brought a sense of wonder and gratitude into my life. What a wonderful Shabbat!

Sunday, July 27, 2008


I used an unusual term for assessment in my last posting. Did you catch it?

"Evidence of learning" -- what does that mean?

Often, when we think of assessment, the first thing that comes to mind is..... a test (bingo!).

But, a test is only one measure that can be used ... and it may not always be the best measure.

Whether it's a good measure depends on some of the following factors: How well is it written? Are the questions clear? Are there a variety of answers possible and has the test-writer allowed for that? Is the test formatted clearly, with clear delineation between different parts of the test?

Written tests can work for some students.... but what about the students who have difficulty with small motor (think "bubble tests") or difficulty with visual tracking or difficulty with letter reversals or difficulty with word retrieval (can explain the concept, but can't recall the word) or...

"Evidence of learning" expands the notion of assessment to include a variety of ways in which students can indicate they've mastered the material. It could include some of the following:
  • a newspaper article
  • a three-panel cartoon
  • a diorama
  • a Venn diagram
  • a rap song or poem
  • a panel discussion or debate
  • a sketch, diagram or floor plan
  • an audio recording or video recording
  • a collage
  • a journal entry
  • a skit
  • ______________________________

One of the strategies I used when I was teaching was to schedule a “Bible Review Day” on a regular basis. Students chose a chapter to explore in greater detail by using strategies similar to those listed above. In addition, I asked each to fill out an index card with 1) their name; 2) the name of the chapter; 3) the main characters; 4) the lesson the chapter taught us.

During Bible Review sessions, they took turns presenting their project and explaining it to the class. I asked follow up questions about their project, as did their classmates. The project was a fun piece – the kids (for the most part) enjoyed it and the break in routine was welcome. The index card was actually a key component – it told me what they had learned.

How can you expand your assessment strategies to include “evidences of learning?”

Friday, July 25, 2008

Teaching's "Big Questions"

One of the most difficult tasks in figuring out a curriculum is trying to articulate specifically what it is we want students to know at the end of their time with us.

Having a well-written Mission Statement can help begin to define our goals. Developing a Scope and Sequence – listing what material will be covered in which order at what grade – can help. Does it go without saying there should be a match between the Scope and Sequence and the Mission Statement? Probably nothing should “go without saying….”

The next big step is to define at each level, exactly what we want students to learn from the vast pool of knowledge available to them.

As a teacher I learned early on to review my students’ progress on a monthly basis, first listing what my instructional objectives had been and then ascertaining what my students could actually accomplish at the end of the month. I learned about Bloom’s taxonomy and the hierarchy in asking different types of questions. And I learned to use definitive verbs (identify, describe, differentiate) instead of the amorphous “understand” or “know” when writing both objectives and outcomes.

But specifically what to teach – what to choose to emphasize – was hard for me.

If I was told to “teach about Chanukah,” for example – I wasn’t quite sure what to teach: historical context, rituals and customs, music, food, Hebrew, values, when it occurs on the calendar; about assimilation (and if so, how); or about “miracles” or symbolism? Too many questions – and I was never quite sure what my students already would know before they came in to my (third grade) class.

As a director, I spent a great deal of time previewing text books, teacher guides and resource materials. I wanted to ensure that the approach the authors used was one that would mesh with the congregation's ideological perspective.

But I never really focused on providing teachers with the specifics of what I expected them to emphasize in their classwork.

It wasn’t until last year, when I began teaching in our Midrashah L’Morim program (for 11th and 12th graders who think they want to become religious school teachers) that I really faced that deficit for the first time. As I passed out a list of materials for students to use in plotting an annual calendar for their mythical classes, one of the students looked at me and said, point-blank, “You’ve given us text books, not a specific curriculum. What do you want us to teach about from these books?” (Nothing like getting nailed by your students, especially when they’re right).

In order to provide an authentic an experience as possible for my Midrashah students this year, after I finished my “Scope and Sequence” for the lab segment of our program, I began to work on “what should students know at the end of the unit” for the grades we’ll be focusing on.

It was harder than I anticipated. The process of identifying these specifics was complicated by the wealth of information, the developmental levels of the students, AND the LIMITED AMOUNT OF TIME AVAILABLE TO US.

But here’s what I ended up with for my hypothetical Kindergarten/First Grade class:

Materials selected: Let’s Discover the Bible; Let’s Discover God; Oral Hebrew Language – Family, School, Body words; an Introduction to Israel

At the end of the unit, the student will be able to:

Text study:
1. summarize the story in 3-5 sentences
2. identify what s/he sees as the main lesson of the story
3. give examples from his/her daily life which support/refute the main lesson
4. find the main characters on a “biblical family tree” (where applicable)

1. identify the season of the year in which the holiday occurs (here in US)
2. identify and describe 2-3 ritual objects associated with the holiday
3. provide a 3-5 sentence description of the holiday
4. match the Hebrew name of the holiday with an English description of it

1. identify which creations remind us of God’s presence
2. recite the Sh’ma and discuss its meaning for them.
3. identify individual behaviors which indicate we are made in God’s image
4. list the things in his/her life for which s/he is thankful for and write a personal blessing for them.
5. provide examples of ways in which symbols are used as reminders of covenantal behavior.
6. describe ways in which Shabbat can be celebrated as a “separate time” from everyday life.
7. identify different purposes for prayer and different ways in which individuals and communities pray.
8. demonstrate patterns of orderliness in their lives.

1. translate from English to Hebrew, and Hebrew to English, and use correctly in context
* 10 words relating to body parts
* 7 words relating to family
* 5 words relating to school
2. identify holidays by their Hebrew names.
3. count to ten in Hebrew.

1. locate the cities/regions studied on a map of Israel.
2. identify one key fact about each of the areas studied.

Evidences of learning – photographs, charts with student lists on, family trees, anecdotal reports, samples of student work

I would give this to my teacher at the beginning of the year. At the end of the year, we would jointly review and assess these expectations and, if necessary, revise them for the following year.

[Note: Understanding by Design (Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe) has been helpful for many professionals who wish to engage in this process. It doesn’t work for me, but it might for you. ]

Monday, July 21, 2008

Jewish Values for VBDM

One of the initial challenges for me in Values-Based Decision Making (VBDM) was that I frequently considered only a few values. Obviously, they were the ones I was most familiar with.

When my Rabbinic colleague began to teach me this process, I shared that dilemma with him. He generously shared a list of Jewish Values and Concepts that he had compiled. While it doesn't include all 614 mitzvot / commandments -- it's an excellent beginning.

Personally, I also found it helpful to use the Hebrew names for the mitzvot and middot / values. If you've ever studied a foreign language, you know that concepts don't always have an exact equivalent from one language to another. Using the Hebrew reminds me of two things:

  1. The translation may not be exact and often needs explanation
  2. VBDM is sacred work.

Values-Based Decision Making has taught me to mindfully make decisions which hopefully end up benefitting my community. Interestingly enough, sometime the end result is not the same solution I would have reached if I followed my first instinct.

[NOTE: if the link gives you problems, here's the roundabout way to get the list:

  1. Go to my website --
  2. Click on "Links to Learning"
  3. Scroll down to Jewish Values
  4. Click on the embedded link and the file should pop up. If not, please let me know]

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Values Based Decision Making

Decisions: we make them all the time.

Some are relatively straightforward and take little deliberation to arrive at an appropriate response.

As teachers: May I go to the bathroom? * Can I do the art project first? * Can Josh and I work together?

As directors: Can you buy this CD for my class? * Do I have to attend the workshop next week? *Can I have an extension on the due date for the report cards?

Others issues are more complex.

For teachers: Classroom behavioral issues that impede the learning process * Whether to take advantage of “the teachable moment” – and if so, how – or to stick with the planned lesson and objectives * How to balance individual student needs with the needs of the entire class

For directors: Instituting a new policy or procedure * Addressing school-wide (program-wide) behavioral issues * Allocation of scarce resources * Staffing decisions

When I was a school director, I was blessed to be able to work with a rabbi who was gifted in the use of values-based decision making for those “big questions.” Not only did he use that approach in guiding his own decision-making procedures, but he also taught me to intentionally use the same approach.

It becomes complicated since, in many cases, competing values are often involved. Frequently, the process gets short-circuited because we stop at the first value we consider -- the one that's most obvious to us. In a nutshell, the approach I learned from my rabbinic colleague works like this:
  1. Define the issue
  2. Get as much information as possible.
  3. List the values that are involved – as many as you can. If necessary, refresh your memory by looking at a list of Jewish values.
  4. Determine how each value will impact the outcome.
  5. Decide which values carry the most weight in this specific situation.
  6. Make your decision and share that decision with the individuals/constituency/community that the decision affects, acknowledging the process you engaged in to reach your decision.

I’ve found this very difficult to do in isolation. I need to be able to bounce ideas off a trusted colleague, co-worker, mentor, rabbi, or consultant – depending on the individual situation. These people, over time, have become my “kitchen cabinet” – my behind-the-scenes resources whose collective insights provide me with the wide range of perspectives necessary to make the best decision I can. I’ve learned to be grateful for the advice they provide – and to be willing to take the time to be part of their “kitchen cabinets.” It’s mutually sustaining and benefits the students and teachers we individually work with.

Many communities use VBDM in making communal decisions. Many Reconstructionist communities use it explicitly. When I typed “values based decision making” into the Yahoo search engine, there were only three Jewish references that appeared in the first 20 entries on the list that popped up. The first two are from the Chapel Hill Kehillah in North Carolina. Kol HaKavod (“All the Honor”) to Chapel Hill Kehillah and their leadership, some of whom I’ve had the privilege of working with on Jewish educational issues. For a clear example of the way they use their process, I urge you to check out their link on Values Based Decision Making.

(The other entry is from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, in an article entitled "A Chaplain's Guide to Values-Based Decision Making" by Rabbi David A. Tuetsch, which is also cited as a source by the CHK).

It's not an automatic, easy-to-use process when one first begins. If it was, we'd all be making decisions this way, wouldn't we? But the benefit is profound -- both to us as individuals and to those with whom we work.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

May It Be My Custom

I’m feeling a little unsettled these days, trying to figure out my role in a number of changes that are occurring.

Typically, feeling unsettled leads me to this prayer, often used as a meditation during Yotzer Or, part of the Shabbat morning service. Frequently, it helps me feel balanced, and centered.

Master of the Universe
Grant me the ability to be alone;
May it be my custom to go outdoors each day
Among the trees and grass, among all living things.
And there may I be alone, and enter into prayer,
To talk with the one to whom I belong.

May I express there everything in my heart,
And may all the foliage of the field
(All grasses, trees, and plants)
May they all awake at my coming,
To send the powers of their life into the words of my prayer
So that my prayer and speech are made whole
Through the life and the spirit of all growing things,
Which are made as one by their transcendent source.
by Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav (1722-1811)

A deep, cleansing breath – a glance outside at the sky and the tree branches brushing against my window – and watching the squirrels jump from branch to branch.

The connection helps calm my thoughts and release the tension from my back and neck.

May it be my custom to go outdoors each day
Among the trees and grass, among all living things.
And there may I be alone, and enter into prayer,
To talk with the one to whom I belong.

It helps put my "stuff" into perspective.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Words from a Master Teacher

One of the nice things about the summer is the opportunity to catch up with people. I happened to be involved in an email conversation with a remarkable Master Teacher this past week.

She's been teaching quite a long time. She taught both of my 20-something children when they were in seventh grade. Their faces still light up when they see her. Our paths had diverged for a while and then re-intersected a couple of years ago when I was leading a knitting and crocheting group at our synagogue.

Our conversations during the K&C group were wide-ranging and one night in particular, the rest of us were enthralled with the stories she shared about some of her experiences in Israel, shortly after the founding of the State.

It was just a short jump in my mind from having her share her stories with us to asking her to share them with the students in my school (third through sixth graders) as part of their studies of the land/geography of Israel.

I have very clear memories of her kicking her shoes off and (starting at Haifa in the north) walking the length of a huge, room-sized map, telling stories about people she knew, the sights and sounds, and helping us experience Israel in a way few others can make it come alive. My students were enthralled, mesmorized, silent - wrapped up in the stories from another time and place. Fifty minutes later, she took a breath and asked for questions. We ran out of time before we ran out of questions. She was our text person that day.

Anyhow, we were talking -- emailing -- about our favorite subjects: students and teaching. Here's what she had to say:

I still shake my head, as a passionate educator, when I remember my heyday as a kid, hookey player par excellence. No one would have laughed louder than I, had someone told me I would spend most of my life as an educator. You know the drill: loved learning; hated school. At this advanced stage in life, I am convinced the beloved teacher is one who, still, loves learning and appreciates that the mind of a child must soar beyond bricks and mortar - and now. We have to mind travel with them; we have to stimulate their own willingness to let go the fetters of here and now to travel back into the past and forward into the future. That's the part I've always loved best because, as I now know, I've never grown up. :-) Like Peter Pan, I see no sense in that.....

How many lives she's been able to profoundly affect through her ability to travel with her students.


Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Parent Piece

from a presentation I gave last fall....

As educators, we focus a lot on our students with special needs and our teachers. But there’s another piece that we need to focus on, too: the “parent piece.” I’d like to take off my educator’s hat now and speak to you as the parent of children with special needs.

As an educator, there are several comments I frequently hear from teachers: If they [parents of children with special needs] really cared about their child’s Jewish education they’d medicate their kids during religious school, too.

Medications can help with certain issues. They don’t make the situation go away, but they can make it better – “can” being the operative word. Not all meds work for all children. Every medication carries with it a cost, a side effect. Common side effects with stimulant medications are lack of appetite and difficulty sleeping. So parents of a child on this type of medication face difficult choices -- do they choose to medicate their children, so they have an increased ability to focus and control their behavior – or do they choose to have their growing children eat … and sleep? I have the most beautiful pictures of my daughter’s bat mitzvah that are almost too painful to look at. The pictures were taken after a summer on much-needed stimulant medications – she weighed less than 95 lbs then and looks emaciated..… Parents make the best decisions they can for the whole child.

Why don’t they tell us what’s going on? Why don’t they share information with us?

There are many reasons why parents don’t share information. They may be unaware of their child’s behavior – after all, the parent doesn’t see the child in a school setting. They may think that with our smaller class sizes and shorter period of instruction, their kids can hold it together okay. They may have some of the same glitches their kids have – and find it difficult to advocate, explain or organize themselves in such a way as to be able to share information in a helpful way.

But there’s another factor, one that might be hard for many of us – with our love for school and learning situations – to understand. For many of our kids with special needs, school is not a good place to be. It is where they often feel most incompetent…. and a place where they have no friends. Parents spend a lot of time and energy fighting for their kids – trying to make their kids’ school experiences less negative. For many, they just don’t have the energy to expend in working with a supplement school – in addition to their child’s secular school.

What would we have you do? Listen….. just listen and suspend judgment. Help make your school a safe haven - or "sanctuary," if you will - where they can share their "stuff" without worrying about your response. That's the starting point. The details can be worked out afterwards.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Grishaver + Epstein = ?

So, from Grishaver we understand that many Jewish parents carry "baggage" with them when they bring their children to our religious school. Some of that baggage they (and we) are aware of -- some of it is more subtle, perhaps not even named.

From Epstein, we learn that there are a variety of ways in which parents can (and should) be involved and that parental involvement is key to student success. Most of us already knew that, but she provides the research data which validate our instinctive knowledge.

How to combine the two - that's the question.

Here's what I know about parents, born out by years and years of experience:
  • Parents have choices today. They CHOOSE to send their children to our school specifically. Their reasons for choosing our school may - or may not - be nuanced. But they could chose NOT to affiliate.
  • Before parents can hear what I have to say about their child, I may need to hear what they have to say.
  • People only share "stuff" (about themselves, their children, their circumstances) if they believe it is safe to share.

We know that we need to meet learners where they're at before we can bring them along to where we want them to go. Same thing with parents.

We need to listen (without thinking about our response while they talk).

We need to acknowledge that we understand how they feel, even if we don't agree.

We need to value their children. They are bringing us the very best children they have -- we're not getting the dregs -- but the best they have.

We need to value the trust that they have in us to do the right thing by their children.

We need to understand that any relationship is a two-way street. At the same time, because of the "baggage," we may need to model for them how that relationship should be conducted.

We need to convey that we know they are making the best choices they can for their family. Those choices may not be the ones we would make for our family, but they are charged with the responsibility for making all the pieces fit together for their family.

Not easy, is it? But then, if it was - everyone would be doing it and there'd be no need to grapple with the issue.