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.”