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.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Parent-Family Involvement

Dr. Joyce Epstein (Johns Hopkins University) has done landmark work in the area of parent and family involvement in children’s education. “There are many reasons for developing school, family, and community partnerships,” she writes. “The main reason to create such partnerships is to help all youngsters succeed in school and in later life.” [emphasis added]

Almost twenty years ago, when Epstein began to publish about her research, schools across the nation began to listen and re-evaluate how – or indeed, if – they interacted with parents. She provided a framework for schools to use in assessing the type and quality of interactions they had with parents. The Parent Involvement Framework defines six specific types of parent and family involvement.

  • Parenting (help parents establish home environments to support students as learners)
  • Communicating (design effective forms of school-to-home and home-to-school communications about school programs and children's progress) [And, I might add, “use them”]
  • Volunteering (recruit and organize parent help and support)
  • Learning at home (provide information and ideas to families about how to help students at home with homework and other curriculum-related activities, decisions, and planning)
  • Decision-making (include parents in school decisions, developing parent leaders and representatives)
  • Collaborating with community (Identify and integrate resources and services from the community to strengthen school programs, family practices, and student learning and development)

In addition to providing the framework for involvement, her work also acknowledges the challenges faced in each type of involvement and the impact of implementation on all parties: students, families, and teachers.

Questions to ponder:

How are parents and/or families most apt to be involved at your school?

How effective are the communication mechanisms in your school – and are they bi-directional or only from school to home?

Do you follow up when people volunteer? Do you let parents/families know specifically what types of assistance you can use?

Do you provide materials to use at home as a means of extending student learning and drawing parents closer? Does the material presuppose a certain education or background level? Is the tone condescending?

Are parents involved at key points in decision-making processes – or are they only involved at the end, after the decisions have already been made? Do you genuinely welcome input – or expect your oversight board to “rubber stamp” decisions?

Do you collaborate with your community – synagogue, movement, geographical region, issues-based interest groups? Do you encourage families to do so? Do you welcome the information that they bring to you?

In summary, I can’t help but wonder how is it that secular schools find it easier to acknowledge the importance of family involvement as an indicator of educational success than many of our supplemental schools do?

Monday, July 7, 2008

Jewish Parents

Two words which often strike fear into the heart of Jewish educators.

“Jewish parents.”

If you ask a group of teachers what comes to mind when you say, “Jewish parents,” these are some of their responses: “Pushy” … “Arrogant” … “Uninvolved” … “Don’t care” … “Sense of entitlement” … “Irresponsible” …”Don’t discipline their kids”

Teachers-who-are-parents are often as harsh in their comments as non-parent-teachers.

When did parents become the enemy? And who benefits when we keep categorizing them as the enemy?

Joel Grishaver takes a long, thoughtful look at parent-teacher relationships in his 1997 Jewish Parents: A Teacher’s Guide. He reminds us that most Jewish adults stopped their Jewish education after bar or bat mitzvah. He says that when they look at us, Jewish educators, they come face-to-face with three things:
  1. Their own ambivalent or even bad memories of Jewish schooling…
  2. Their own sense of Jewish inadequacy.
  3. Their embarrassment over their children’s forthcoming Hebrew School failure (for which they feel ultimately responsible).(pp 20-21)

No wonder it’s so difficult to communicate with our students’ parents! When you add that to the likelihood that the reason we’re probably contacting them in the first place has to do with a problem (behavior, attendance, academic difficulties), the hostility we often encounter makes sense.

Here’s something to think about: How often do we pull a parent aside to tell them something we appreciate about their child? About a kind thing we overheard their child say? About a great point the kid made in class?

Grishaver goes on to ask,

“So here is the question (again): Why would a generation of Jewish kids who hated Hebrew School and who swore that when they grew up they would never subject their own children to the same kind of torture, become parents of the kids who now claim to be suffering in our classrooms?

The answer in one word: “ambivalence.” Ambivalence does NOT mean not caring. Ambivalence means feeing two different ways…. the truth is that most of the parents we work with do care a lot, but they care in different ways than we [emphasis added] want.” (p 23)

To summarize the rest of the section, this is how Grishaver articulates what parents want and don’t want.

They want their kids to

  • have a sense of Jewish history, culture and values as one piece of their identity;
  • feel good about being Jewish; and
  • their kid to be regarded as authentically Jewish, so they can call upon their Judaism when they need it.

They don’t want to 1) have to force their kids to be Jewish; and 2) be embarrassed by their own Jewish inadequacies.

Many parents, Grishaver adds, have three additional desires of which they may not even be fully aware:

  1. They want their Jewish past healed.
  2. They want a family bond which can keep their family together and provide stability.
  3. They want to belong.

That's a lot to think about.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Putting It All Together....

So, we've got 1) looking for the positive in each kid and 2) owning responsibility for the classroom climate and weather. Doesn't that cover it all?

It's a good beginning....

One of the things I wished I'd given more thought to in my early days of teaching is my philosophy about kids. I spent a lot of time on lesson plans, classroom activities, newsletters home to parents (pre-email days!), record-keeping and collecting tzedakah.

I spent almost no time thinking about kids: how I felt about them, what I expected from them, how to build relationships with them, what kind of a community I wanted my classroom to be. In those days, I thought that all I was responsible for teaching was content.

Boy, was I wrong!

Content is an important part of Judaic education, to be sure. But it's not the be-all and the end-all. To quote Abraham Joshua Heschel: “We have to have more than textbooks, we need text-people.”

What I do now, when I begin a class, is deliberately remind myself how I think about kids. Here's what I've finally come up with, after all these years:
  • I like kids
  • I expect kids will be kids, not little grown ups
  • I don't think kids get up in the morning and think, "Oh, boy, I get to see Morah Mary today. I wonder how many ways I can push her buttons?"
  • I think kids learn different ways.
  • I think kids show you what they've learned in different ways.
  • I think kids want the grownups in their lives to like them.
  • I think kids want, need and deserve respect.
  • I think kids want to be heard.
  • I think (often) that kids have as much to teach me as I have to teach them...and sometimes more!

What other core beliefs do I have regarding kids?

  • To quote Rick Lavoie, "A kid would rather look bad than dumb."
  • There's no wrong answer when I ask, "What do you think?"
  • Sometimes the answer I get that I'm not expecting is much more insightful than the answer I thought I should get.
  • A kid might not remember what I taught, but s/he will remember how they felt in my class.
  • I need to remember at all times that I'm the grownup in the room -- and need to model "grownup behavior."

And, ultimately: a classroom needs to be a safe place for everyone - students, madrichim /aides, and teachers.

I've decided I want to be one of Heschel's text people.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Classroom Weather

About five or six years after I began teaching, someone shared the following quote from Haim Ginott with me:

“I have come to a frightening conclusion. I am the decisive element in my classroom. It is my personal approach that creates the climate. It is my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, I possess tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated, and a child humanized or de-humanized.”

By that time I already understood that my students were apt to be more cooperative if I identified something I liked about them and focused on trait instead of on the behaviors that made me nuts.

But Ginott upped the ante – and laid the responsibility for classroom dynamics squarely on my shoulders.

At about the same time, my mother-in-law gave me a T-shirt that we both found hilarious. It read simply: “When Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.”

My kids gleefully affirmed it: “Yeah, when she’s in a bad mood, we suffer.”

Ginott puts the same theory into educationalese and provides graphic examples of the “ain’t happy” part.

The T-shirt is long gone, but the quote has remained above my desk ever since. As teachers, the responsibility for the classroom weather is ours.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Did You Really Mean It?

The first couple of years I was teaching, it seemed that all I could do was keep my head above water from week to week. I poured over teacher guides for text books, ran to our central agency for information and worksheets, plotted my two hour class time down to nth degree, made extensive notes so I wouldn’t forget a single thing, packed my school bag, and did it all over again!

Fortunately, in those early years, I had very small classes and things went fairly smoothly.

By my third or fourth year, my classes were getting bigger as the synagogue and school were growing. And, as always happens, things – relationships – became more complex.

One year, my class and I just seemed to start off on the wrong foot. It was more kids than I’d ever taught before – I think we were up to twelve at that point. Some of the kids had special needs. Some of them were children of prominent members of the community. And – horror of horrors! – some of them were more interested in what their friend had to say than what I had to say!

I came home that first week almost in tears, and began complaining to my husband, son and daughter what a rotten class I’d gotten that year. They listened (or actually, probably didn’t listen) as I ranted and raved. Finally, my daughter looked up at me and said firmly, “Mom.”

“What?” I muttered, mumbling something unkind under my breath.

“Mom,” she said again firmly.

I looked at her. “What?”

“You know how you always say that there’s some good in everybody?”

“Yeah,” I responded suspiciously.

“Well, I want you to tell me one good thing about each of your students.”

I tried to laugh her off, but she was fixed on her goal. “Did you really mean it when you said everyone has something good in them?” she pushed, “or were you just saying that?” (I swear I heard someone whisper: “Busted.”)

To make a long story short, I was able to come with “something good” about all of the kids – except two. Then Miss Put-Your-Money-Where-Your-Mouth-Is gave me my assignment for the week: “Next week when you come home from school I want you to tell me something good about those two kids, too.”

And darned if that wasn’t the first thing she asked when I got home from school the following week.

A funny thing happened after that. As I began to look for something positive in each of my students, they became less obnoxious, more interesting, and more interested.

We ended up having a good year, that year – my kids and I. Thanks to someone who believed in making an honest teacher out of me.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Scope and Sequence

Here's the Scope and Sequence I designed for our hypothetical school, based on the Mission Statement in my preceding post.

Grade - K/1 (Yr A) [Note: Since this is a combined class, there needs to be a Year A and a Year B, so that students don't repeat exactly the same information each year]

  • Text - Creation to Joseph (Let's Discover the Bible, Set 1)
  • Holidays & Values - Let's Discover the Holidays
  • Spirituality - Let's Discover God
  • Hebrew - Oral Hebrew Language, focus on Family, School, & Body words
  • Israel - Places in Israel

Grade - K/1 (Yr B)

  • Text - Moses through Writings (Let's Discover the Bible, Set 2)
  • Holidays & Values - Let's Discover Shabbat; Whole School materials: Symbols
  • Hebrew - Oral Hebrew Language, focus on Colors, Numbers, Holiday words
  • Israel - Our Jerusalem
  • Jewish Experiences - Let's Discover the Synagogue

Grade - 2

  • Text - Creation, Noah
  • Holidays & Values - Let's Celebrate the Holidays; BJL Values
  • Spirituality - BJL God
  • Hebrew - Oral Hebrew Language, focus on Holdays, animals, home, weather; incorporate easy sentences
  • Jewish Experiences - Let's Explore Being Jewish

Grade - 3

  • Text - Lech Lecha, Joseph
  • Holidays & Values - Rosh Hashanah & Yom Kippur
  • Spirituality - I Have Some Questions About God
  • Hebrew - Z'man Likro
  • Israel - The Great Israel Scavenger Hunt

Grade - 4

  • Text - Being Torah
  • Holidays & Values - Chanukah & Purim
  • Spirituality - Partners with God
  • Hebrew - Hineini 1
  • Jewish Experiences - The Life Cycle Journey

Grade - 5

  • Text - Exodus
  • Holidays & Values - Sukkot, Pesach, Yom Ha'Atzmaut
  • Hebrew - Hineini 2
  • Israel - Artzeinu
  • Jewish Experiences - Out of Spain: Celebrating Sephardic Culture

Grade - 6

  • Text - A Topical Bible
  • Holidays & Values - Simchat Torah
  • Hebrew - Hineini 3
  • Jewish Experiences - Challenge & Change, Vol 3

Grade - 7

  • Text - Think Prophets
  • Holidays & Values - Rediscovering the Jewish Holidays
  • Israel - History of Israel; Matsav
  • Jewish Experiences - Klal Yisrael

Grade 8 - Judaism & Human History

Grade 9 - Why Be Different?

Grade 10 - Apples and Oranges

Grades 11/12 - Hot Topics

Initially, one of the parameters for this hypothetical school was that it would meet two hours a week. After looking at the Mission Statement, the materials available, etc., I arbitrarily decided to have K-7 meet 2.5 hours a week. That decision would never be made so quickly or easily in real life ::grin:: but, hey -- this is a "hypothetical school" and it made things much easier for the purposes of this training exercise.

If you'll compare the curricular materials to the Mission Statement, you'll see that it's a pretty good match. The one topic area covered (actually quite extensively, given the amount of time available for study) not mentioned specifically in that document is the area of Israel. Nominally, at the very least, it could be encompassed in the "social studies" aspect of the curriculum. I've chosen to separate it out because I think an understanding and awareness of Israel is a key component in helping our young men and women understand World Jewry of today.

In our lab session of our Teaching Teachers class, we'll work with the materials from grades K/1 (Yr A), grade 4 and grade 7. That will provide the developmental span I'd like the participants to experience. This Scope and Sequence will enable participants to see how the materials they'll be working with fit into the "big picture."

[NOTE: In "real life," depending on your minhag hamakom / the custom of the place, the educational leader might pass a new curriculum by the lay board charged with oversight for the religious school. I always did: I found it gave me practice explaining why I had made the choices I made, and it enabled the board to speak more knowledgeably about our program.]