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!