Monday, June 30, 2008

Mission Statement

A Mission Statement ideally sets forth the vision that a school has for itself. Generally, it’s written by lay leaders of a school/congregation (often with professional input). It should be reviewed periodically to determine that the vision, as expressed, is still accurate.

Here’s one that I particularly like – from a community I used to work with:

The mission of the Religious School is to teach and promote living Judaism – from a perspective of Reconstructionist thought and practice – as the way to create personal, communal and ecological tikkun. All Religious School programs are designed to accomplish two goals:

  • To foster Jewish literacy, including the following components –
    *Values & concepts
    *Texts – Tanach
    *History – Experience of the Jewish People
    *Hebrew (i.e., language)
  • To engender an appreciation for Jewish living, including the following aspects:
    *Rituals & their meaning
    *Ethics (Tikkun)

Note that we are not claiming to foster a commitment to Jewish living, though this is indeed our hope. Though we feel our program will make this more likely, it is the actions of home, synagogue, and community interacting with school that will be the ultimate determinant of commitment.

This Mission Statement was written for a school that met the following hours: 2 hrs per week for K-2; 4 hours per week for grades 3-6; 3.45 hours per week for grade 7; and 1.45 hours per week for grades 8-12. They also had a HomeSchool component for families who were unable to participate in the midweek program for whatever reason.

It articulates several points very clearly – life skills are important; so is the identification with a particular Jewish movement. It’s reasonable to assume that the components of Jewish literacy that this community wishes to focus on are listed in order of importance. The aspects of Jewish life to focus on are spirituality, rituals AND meaning, and ethics. Tikkun /Repair is mentioned twice in the statement, so one can assume that social action could be a key component as well.

The final statement is perhaps the most interesting. The Statement acknowledges that the ultimate determining factor of commitment to a Jewish life style depends on “home, synagogue, and community interacting with the school.” The school doesn’t carry the burden alone. It may well be that this value helped determine the success of the HomeSchool program – parents teaching children within the parameters of the school-designed program worked remarkably well for about 25% of the student body.

With this Mission Statement in place, I would design a curriculum that has a heavy emphasis on values and text, followed by a “social studies” component which includes Jewish history and experiences as part of klal Israel / the Jewish people. Less emphasis would be placed on Hebrew language.

As it happened, this particular school ended up with two discrete segments: the Sunday program, which encompassed more traditional topics taught in a more traditional way; and the Midweek Program, which focused on Hebrew review and a Chuggim/ Clubs Program. The Chuggim program taught values through art, music and movement, drama, creative writing, and cooking.

The Mission Statement is the starting point for serious work with curriculum. All other decisions – content, emphasis within content area, methodology – are shaped by what the school articulates as its vision.

This will be the Mission Statement for the hypothetical school I’ll have my Teacher Training participants “work with” in the lab section of our classes.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Teaching Teachers: Program Development

I’m beginning one of my favorite types of projects. Fortunately, it’s on my “to-do” list for the summer, so I can both enjoy the task – and enjoy my enjoyment of it!

The setting: I teach a 14 week course for eleventh and twelfth graders who think they want to become religious school teachers. This will be my second year teaching this course – and boy, did I learn a lot last year!

Changes I’ve made already for this year:
1. I’ve chosen a text. Last year I didn’t use one, just photocopied materials from a variety of sources. The problem with that was I don’t think the participants ever “got” the big picture. I’d forgotten that text books often help provide a framework for learning and organize the material.
2. I’ve laid out the calendar year. I know which weeks we’ll be having class; when the breaks are.
3. I’ve decided the topics for each class. Using the text as a starting basis, I’ve re-ordered the sequence of some of the topics. I’ve made a preliminary decision to spend about half the class time (45 minutes) in the presentation of new material and half the class time in a “lab” setting, in which participants can practice what they’re learning.
4. I’ve decided at which points I need to supplement the text – and what materials I will use to do so.

The next step is to gather “lab” materials for participants.

Last year, I’d asked them to get a set of texts and teacher guides for the classes they were “madrichim-ing” in and use them as sources for the homework assignments I would give. That didn’t work very well at all. A) They didn’t like the homework piece. B) Not all the classes they were madrichim-ing in used texts. C) For the purposes of our class, there was no standardization.

So, the “obvious” step is to pull together materials that can be used in our class setting.

Last year the participants ended up working across the developmental span – first grade, fifth grade and seventh grade. So, I’ve made the decision to provide materials for a first grade class, a fourth grade class, and a seventh grade class. Participants will be able to chose with which age group they would like to work in our class setting.

In order to provide as authentic an experience as possible – I’ll need to set up some parameters, use a mission statement, and develop a scope and sequence. Why?

Parameters: each participating congregational school last year met on different days, and for different lengths of time. For the purposes of standardization, I’m choosing the following parameters for this year: Our hypothetic school will meet one day a week for two hours.

Mission statement: IF a school has a mission statement and IF its mission statement drives its program, one can tell a lot about the community and how it views Jewish ed. I’d like our participants to know that such statements exist and how they can inform a prospective teacher and/or parents. Our hypothetical school will use a mission statement from a previous school I directed.

Scope and Sequence: A school needs to look at its educational program as a unified whole. Given the amount of time available to it (see the posting from June 25), are the expectations reasonable? Does the content flow from year to year? Is the content balanced (over the entire educational period)? A scope and sequence helps use the scarce amount of time available in the most effective way possible.

The Scope and Sequence for our hypothetical school is my current task.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Another Master Teacher

My eighty-seven year old father-in-law has begun to study Torah.

On a regular basis.

With Peter Pitzele.

As a member of an Explora-Torah group.

He’s so excited he can hardly wait to share his insights in our weekly phone conversations. His excitement is infectious - I can hardly wait to hear what he's learning!

He says: “Peter asks questions. That’s the difference. He doesn’t tell us the answers. He asks us what we would think or say or do if we were in that situation.”

And he says: “You begin to see how it can make sense.”

Then he says: “Not everyone sees it the same way, but that’s okay.”

And finally: "You have to listen. Even if it's not what you're expecting someone to say, you can't put them down."

Peter Pitzele is the developer of Bibliodrama, an approach to studying sacred text which involves biblical investigation, improve theatre, and fun! The author of Scripture Windows: Toward a Practice of Bibliodrama (Torah Aura, 1998), Peter helps bring text to life by encouraging participants to respond “as if” they were the character in the text. On his website, Peter describes what Bibliodrama has to offer:

Combining a close reading of biblical texts with searching, imaginative questions, Bibliodrama offers people of all ages and levels of knowledge an opportunity to experience of a method of creative study that, in the past twenty five years, has changed the way we read the Bible.

Peter is a master teacher.

And from my father-in-law I have learned (again) it is critical

  • to meet the learner where s/he is;
  • to engage them in the learning process;
  • to allow them to “own” that which they are learning;
  • to provide ways in which they can reflect on what they’ve learned.
Perhaps that makes my father-in-law a master teacher, too?

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Religious School Math - Let's Do the Numbers!

One of the biggest challenges facing supplemental school teachers is TIME.

We talk about “a year” of religious school. How much time do we REALLY have? For a six-hour per week program, we can use the following figures (formulae are provided below):

180 hours per year - 6 hours per week x 30 weeks
-15 hours
per year - Gathering time (attendance, collect tzedakah, etc.)
-15 hours per year - Wrap-up time (assign h/w answer questions, distribute papers)
-15 hours per year - Break time (bathroom, stretch time)
135 hours per year- SUBTOTAL: Time in class

135 hours per year x 7 years that we hope students will attend= 945 hours in total.

This assumes that a student has perfect attendance and is present for the entire class each time the class meets.


  • Any cancelled sessions (“snow days”) should be subtracted from the total.
  • Other factors that may affect the total number of in-class teaching/learning hours include music classes, tefillot sessions, family education programs and/or special programming. While these types of programming can add significantly to a students’ overall experience, they decrease the amount of in-class time available to cover designated material.
  • Also included in that total is the time spent on community-building within your classroom, on discipline issues, and issues “du jour” which need to be dealt with before the lesson can proceed.

And if your program meets less than six hours a week.... your total number of hours for learning is decreased significantly.

And what do we expect our supplemental teachers to be able to teach? And our students be able to learn?

More on that later.....

Formulae used to calculate the data above

Hours per year: 6 hours per year x 30 weeks in the religious school year (some years, it's less)

Gathering time: 10 min/class x 3 classes/week x 30 wks/year divided by 60 min/hour

Wrap up time: 10 min/class x 3 classes/week x 30 wks/year divided by 60 min/hour

Break time: 10 min/class x 3 classes/week x 30 wks/year divided by 60 min/hour [NOTE: this total will increase significantly if food is involved or students go outside for a break]

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Incrementalism, Take 2

I remember, at some point during my studies prior to conversion, being absolutely bewildered by the vast array of Jewish rituals and practices I was learning about. I remember feeling frustrated and wondering how – or even, if – I ever could make the transition from “not-Jew” to “Jew.” Being Jewish, I was learning, should impact every single aspect of my daily life – it wasn’t something I could only pull out and wear at defined times.

Maybe I was making a mistake, I thought. Maybe it was too much to ask to go from being a ham-and-cheese or cheeseburger-with-milkshake lover to a kashruth-observant Jew who would automatically know whether something was permissible or not. Or from being a hey-it’s-Friday-night-let’s-order-a-pizza-in kinda person to a candles-wine-and-challah-with-Shabbat-dinner adherent.

I wish I had access to Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson’s It’s a Mitzvah! Step-by-Step to Jewish Living when I was grappling with these questions. Unfortunately (?) I converted in 1982, a full 13 years before Rabbi Artson’s book was published. I first became familiar with it in September 2001, as I was writing a post-September 11th Home-and-School curriculum, entitled “Rainbow People.” It’s a Mitzvah! became a primary source as I wrote that curriculum.

What made it particularly attractive was Brad’s “baby steps” along the way to observance of mitzvot. Instead of taking an “all or nothing” approach, Brad advocates a gradual approach. In his own words:

One of the excuses Jews use to disregard the demands of our religion is an inability to observe its totality immediately. Far too often we look upon Judaism as an all-or-nothing affair; either observe it 100 percent or don’t even bother. Such as approach ends up discouraging willing Jews from exploring their own heritage and distorts the true nature of Judaism. This book advocates a gradual approach to Jewish life without abandoning the traditional goals of Judaism. … Such a method allows the reader to absorb a new skill, value, or priority while taking advantage of his or her life history. Some growth is better than none, and a lot is better than a little.

It was an intriguing concept for me to explore. There had been conscious, deliberate decisions that my husband and I had made regarding how we would observe some of the home-centered mitzvot – kashruth, Shabbat rest, tefillot. Since those choices rarely lived up to the standard set by the orthodox community, I often wondered as if my commitment to Judaism was as sincere as it should be. What I wasn’t doing sometimes seemed more definitive than what I was doing. Since I wasn’t doing it all, I felt as if what I was doing was nothing.

In the last seven years – since I first discovered It’s a Mitzvah! – it’s become my go-to source for many questions of observance. Consequently, I’ve found myself focusing more on what I do, instead of feeling guilty about what I don’t do. Therefore, I’ve found it easier to continue to progress in some areas. Where I’ve chosen to remain at my level of current observance, it’s been a mindful choice – not one that rules out the possibility of future change.

Monday, June 23, 2008

A Master Teacher

I went to see my neurologist last week.

Last year, I was diagnosed with severe obstructive sleep apnea. In many ways, the diagnosis was a relief. It was certainly better than what my over-active imagination had conjured up. Best of all – there was something I could do for it: I could wear a CPAP mask to bed.

With the mask on, I slept beautifully. Most of my symptoms disappeared. I felt better. I woke up refreshed. As time wore on, I also woke up with painfully dry skin and occasionally dry eyes. I glopped myself with skin lotion – before bed and when I awoke. It was marginally better, but messy. The mask also made it difficult for me to shift positions in the night – and I began to wake up stiff. Somehow, this had stopped being fun. In my mind, the cost began to outweigh the benefit.

And then one night, I decided just to try sleeping without the mask “for just one night.” Before I knew it, I was sleeping more without the mask than with it. Eventually, I stopped wearing it altogether.

When I saw my doctor last week, I told him what my current practice was and how I reached my decision.

He listened. He asked questions about how I was feeling, about my productivity, about other stresses I’d shared with him earlier. He was concerned about my dry skin and dry eyes. He looked back at the results of my sleep test.

And then he gently said, “I see you had over 60 interruptions an hour a year ago. You are getting some deep sleep now, but you probably are still awaking several times during the night. Every episode of apnea puts stress on your heart. Ultimately your heart will stop. That’s what causes death: the heart stops. That happens eventually to all of us. I don’t want your heart to have to work any harder than it must.”

He waited. I mentioned diet and exercise. He smiled (again gently) and said that although those things help, lack of restorative sleep causes the most damage. Would it be possible, he wondered aloud, if I could wear the mask two nights a week? Could I handle the dry skin, if it was only two nights a week?

HOW he was saying it made it possible for me to hear WHAT he was saying. Instead of pushing for maximum compliance, he was able to commit me to what I could do.

So I’m back on the mask….two nights a week, I can deal with dry skin and dry eyes and stiffness in the morning when I awaken.

What powerful lessons I learned from him:

  • The manner of delivery is crucial if we want people to “hear” us.
  • It’s equally important not to allow yourself to get diverted with side issues.
  • Don’t minimize the difficulty the student is having.
  • Negotiate to come up with a result both parties can “live with.”

I’ve found a new master teacher to model myself after!

Friday, June 20, 2008

An Unveiling

This weekend, my husband’s extended family is gathering for an unveiling. In Jewish tradition, an “unveiling” is held approximately 11 months after someone has died. The tombstone is unveiled, the mourners gather again, and one more milestone in adapting to life without a loved one is reached.

This weekend’s unveiling is particularly difficult, because the loved one committed suicide at age 35 last summer. He was the same age when he died as my younger sister was when she died (of a chronic illness twelve years ago). Both he and my sister shared the same birth month, an interest in art and creative endeavors, and both struggled with mental health issues.

My sister’s death caught me unexpectedly – as did the suicide a year ago. Although she had been ill for well over ten years, she had seemed to be “doing better.” She was seven years younger than I; I did a lot of “motherly” things for her. We were closer than siblings – she felt like my first-born.

I am a convert to Judaism. My sister’s death was my first direct experience with Jewish mourning rituals.

It was strange – the funeral rituals I grew up with were more familiar than Jewish ones. As a member of a children’s choir over forty years ago, we had often been called on to sing at funerals. I knew the liturgy, music, customs, and things that people would say to us mourners. However, as familiar as they were, those practices no longer fit the person I had become.

Our Jewish practices allow for a “shutting down” period between death and the funeral – mourners are not expected to attend to the details of everyday life. I found it off-putting to help arrange for out-of-towners arriving for the funeral…. and downright weird to go to the grocery store.

I found myself resenting the well-intentioned “She’s in a better place right now.” I didn’t want her to be in a “better place:” I wanted her at the other end of the phone so I could talk with her. I didn’t want to be consoled – I wanted to express my grief and anger at a life cut too short.

It was hard to leave the cemetery before the casket was put into the ground. I felt we were leaving her body exposed, instead of tucking it in – as I used to tuck her into bed so many years ago.

But the hardest part was returning to my parents’ home after the funeral. We had only just begun to adjust to my sister’s absence – to begin to say aloud the unspeakable words – and suddenly there was no one there to listen, to mourn with us.

So I came home to a community that was willing to allow me to mourn in our Jewish way. We sat shiva for three days. I shared my grief and pain and silly memories with friends who were content to “just listen.” I went to minyan for 30 days to say Kaddish. When I visited her gravesite 11 months after she died, I searched for a pebble to put on the tombstone. I explained to the younger brother who accompanied me, that it was a Jewish custom, to mark that the person was remembered and the gravesite had been visited. The custom provided us both with a sense of comfort. He took to carrying a box of pebbles in his car, since it was so difficult to find them in this well-cared-for cemetery. It comforted me, knowing that he found comfort in one of my Jewish rituals.

This weekend, I’ll remember both: my husband’s relative and my sister, and think about lives cut too short. May their memories be for a blessing.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

"Stop the Merry-Go-Round - I Want to Get Off!"

I am my own worst enemy at over-committing myself.

Now, that’s not a particularly new insight – what’s new is that I “got it” this week BEFORE making the commitment. Usually, it doesn’t sink in until I’m up to my eyeballs and paddling frantically to keep my head above water. And then I wonder how I got there.

This week, as I said, I took a step in the right direction.

I’d seen an ad in last week’s Jewish Week for a new, two-year class that would be starting in the fall. The topic was interesting; the contact person is someone I’d love to study with. So I popped off a quick email asking for more information and began (in my mind) to try the idea on for size.

When I received a response to my request for more information – I stopped cold in my tracks: did I really want to commit to being out another night each week (I’m currently running at least two nights many weeks next fall)? Did I really want to make a two-year commitment, when my life is still in a state of transition? Did I really want to obligate myself to read 100 pages a week, when often it’s all I can do at the end of the day to play mindless games on my computer?

But, I argued with myself, the teacher is great – energizing, exciting; I’d learn a lot. Furthermore, it was time to make a commitment to study – after all, I’m not working full time anymore. Best of all – it looks interesting.

Ultimately, I kept coming back to the question of time. Midway through this discussion with myself, I realized that just because things have eased up this past month (it is summer, after all!), they won’t always be at this relaxed pace – and the class time and prep time were more than it was reasonable to commit to during this period of transition. For me. For right now.

So I guess I’ll pass on the opportunity for right now. Maybe I’ll catch it when it goes around again.

Whew! I'm grateful that I recognized that the only one that can over-commit me is me. (I wonder how many more times I have to practice this lesson before it really sinks in?)

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

What I would(will) do differently....

I’ve already begun to make some changes as I begin my second year.

  • 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. (duh - am I really surprised by that???)

  • 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’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.

  • 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’ll look for a few other consultants here in the area to network with on a regular basis – for support, brainstorming, and collegiality.

  • I’ve updated and expanded my website to more accurately reflect "Morah Mary Consulting."

And I’ll remember to continue to engage in reflective practice!

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

What didn't work....and why not

“What didn’t work” – this is always the more difficult piece to own. But, here goes.

What didn’t work was that I accepted a six-week teaching assignment for a class that would continue for the rest of the year….Why not? I accepted the assignment because I was afraid I wouldn’t get consulting jobs and wouldn’t have any money coming in. It was complicated by the fact that it generally took me about six weeks to get to know the class I was teaching. So, by the time I got to know them, it was time to leave. I didn’t allow for “getting to know you time” as I used to when I taught previously, because there was “not enough time to waste on non-academic material.” I have learned that fear is probably not a good motivator to drive my decision-making. The decision to teach was not necessarily wrong, but the motivation (fear) colored my interactions in a way that was not positive… I should have invested the time in community-building….done a better job of transitioning the students to their new teacher.

What didn’t work was teaching a class of potential religious school teachers without using a text as a structure for the class…. Why not? I didn’t find a text that I thought was comprehensive enough, so I pulled my own material together. The problem was that while I had the big picture, I’m not sure the students were able to see how all the pieces fit together. Next time I will use a text to provide a framework for the learning and provide handouts to supplement what the text provides. I may need to take material out of the order given in the text, but that will model how to use material in a way that makes sense for your class instead of automatically following the order the text book publisher decides on.

What didn’t work was that I sometimes found it difficult to stay on top of the business aspects of running my business – submitting project proposals to clients, billing in a timely manner, entering financial information into my data base, keeping up with the filing, updating my webpages…. Why not? It wasn’t as great a priority as it should have been. Sometimes, it seemed like there weren’t enough of those tasks to do to justify the time spent. Next year, I will schedule a set time each month (at least) to stay on top of things. It will help me feel less overwhelmed by the details. (I wonder if I can find a way to break through the “ho-hum” factor?)

Monday, June 16, 2008

What worked....and why

What worked, much more than I expected, was that I was able to launch my consulting business successfully..... Why? I spent time working with a career counselor before making my final decision. That reflective piece -- with someone who didn't know me -- proved to be really helpful. I also did the necessary legal work to be established as a "limited liability corporation." I found that provided a framework in which to think about what I was doing as "real." I purchased a domain name and began to work on my web pages, so they were ready to go when I left my then-current position. That was helpful, because it forced me to articulate what I thought I could do and what specific skills I have to offer.

What worked was being open to the different kinds of projects than I expected to work on.... Why? I found I learned a lot, worked with people I wouldn't have otherwise had a chance to work with, and discovered more skills I didn't know (for sure) that I had. Best of all, it had a positive effect on my business' bottom line!

What worked
was keeping in touch with colleagues.... Why? Despite some initial awkwardness as my role shifted from colleague to consultant, it was important for me to stay "in the loop" regarding educational issues in this community. It also provided ways for me to remind people that I was still around and would be willing to help problem-solve.

What worked
was attending to my own professional development needs this year. I participated in a variety of professional committees, purchased books dealing with establishing a small business, consulted with my son (The IT Expert) on my web page design and content, and began regular participation in weekly Torah study sessions offered by our congregation and facilitated by congregants.... Why? In addition to keeping in touch with people who are focused on the same issues I am focused on, it was a way to remain open to new information. Becoming more adept in the areas of small business development and technology -- both areas outside my "comfort zone" -- help make me feel more competent and capable. The Torah study sessions have become a focal point for my week, providing an opportunity to learn with adults from a wide variety of backgrounds as we grapple to find relevance in the words of sacred text.

What worked
was becoming involved in the boards of two non-profits* as a volunteer.... Why? As an education director, I frequently worked in excess of 50 hours a week, leaving little time for anything else. I find interacting with different groups of people energizing and rejuvenating. It expands my horizons. I feel as if I'm a more interesting person. I feel like I'm making a difference.

To paraphrase Frank Sinatra: When I was fifty-five, it was a very good year....

*MCCPTA-EPI (Montgomery Co. Council of PTA-Educational Programs, Inc)
*Mitzvah Heroes Fund, Inc.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

As the year winds down....

This June marks the end of my first year as a consultant. After sixteen years of teaching in Jewish religious schools, directing two very different schools in two very different communities, I decided it was time to branch out on my own, establish my own consulting business (Morah Mary Consulting, LLC), and share what I've learned with others.

As the year comes to an end, I find myself pondering the same questions that arise at the end of every academic year: Did I meet the goals I set forth for my students this year? What "teachable moments" are indelibly captured in my memory? What challenges arose that I didn't anticipate? What new things did I try this year? Did they work? What practices did I hang onto that had outlived their usefulness? What students did I find it challenging to work with? Did I handle those situations the very best I could? In short: What worked and why? What didn't work and why not? What would I do differently next time?

The short version, I learned from Elissa Kaplan, the director of the first school I taught at.

When I began to teach, I was what we call an "avocational" teacher -- someone who teaches in a religious school who has no educational training, but is committed to helping kids learn about Judaism. Elissa has many strengths, but one of her most valuable gifts is the ability to nurture and train avocational teachers.

I learned much of value from Elissa, but perhaps the most important was the need to engage in reflective practice.

If I don't know what worked and why -- I can't replicate the successes we've had.
If I don't know what didn't work and why not -- I'm doomed to repeat my failures.
If I can't articulate what I'd do differently -- I can't mindfully plan for the future and incorporate what I've learned.

Todah rabah, Elissa -- thank you.