Friday, February 20, 2009

"Tricks of the Trade"

I tend to be a little compulsive when it comes to organizing materials for a specific program - especially if it's the first time I've worked with a group of people. Obviously, I want to put my best foot forward. While I can't control all the things that might come up, the more organized I am before I walk through the door, the fewer the "glitches" are which seem to occur with any program.

So where do I start?

I begin with the web format I discussed in my previous posting. Once I have two or three ideas listed in each content/modality area which pertain to the topic, I look at the whole program to determine both the flow of the program and its integrity – does it fit together? Does it make sense? Have I included enough different angles or perspectives from which participants can approach the topic? Once I’m satisfied with the answers to these questions, in short order I

  • determine space needs within the facility limitations
  • pull together a draft agenda
  • prepare center signs: I like to use a specific graphic relating to each center, and (when possible) a different type face.

During this stage, the program is still pretty fluid. Facility limitations often cause ideas to be reworked or eliminated. It’s hard, for example, to do a relay race if there’s insufficient space! “Facilities” also includes equipment: do we have access to a DVD player, a microphone, a sink? If not, can we adapt the activity or do we need to come up with a substitute? Sometimes the absence of someone with a specific talent also results in reworking or eliminating certain activities. Oftentimes I can rework an activity so that specialists are not necessary – or if they are available, I’ll rework the activity to take advantage of their expertise.

After the brainstorming and dealing with the big questions, I look at each area in turn to decide what this specific center needs in order for these specific activities to work easily.

In the Israel Center of the Tu B’Shevat program I just facilitated, for example, I decided on two activities: Make-your-own Hebrew weather flashcards AND Learn about the Arava Institute

Both good ideas, yes?

Both had barriers to overcome:

Many adults in the community are not fluent in Hebrew; much of the Hebrew language instruction in the School is oral, not written. Barrier: few people knew the Hebrew for the weather words; few can read the Hebrew; and few can write the words on the index cards. Solution: Labels were used to make the flash cards. Each label had a Hebrew word, the transliteration, and the English meaning. A poster was prepared that showed the same information next to an illustration of the word. Participants were encouraged to select the words they wanted, attach the label to an index card, and illustrate the meaning of the word in a way that made sense to them.

Barrier: One of the teachers of older children suggested this activity would probably bore her students. Solution: She suggested they be encouraged to write brief stories for younger students, incorporating the Hebrew vocabulary appropriately.

Barrier: Given the short amount of time to prepare, we had difficulty obtaining written material about the Arava Institute (our fault – not theirs!). Solution: One of the teachers suggested using their website to convey information. Barrier: the program was held in a rented facility without internet access. Solution: Using the graphics and copy available from the website, we produced Powerpoint that we were able to run on a laptop.

[You'll notice, I hope, that at this stage we actually increased the number of activities from two to three to address the potentially "it's too easy/boring" reaction of older students. The teacher provided good feedback and being open to what she offered prevented problems down the road.]

Once we were able to find solutions to the barriers, we began to prepare the following:

  • A flyer that contained a list of activities participants could choose to engage in
  • A supplies list (index cards, labels, markers, writing paper, pens/pencils, poster, powerpoint, laptop, extension cord, and a tzedakah box – since the Arava Institute was the tzedakah beneficiary that morning).
  • Directions for the teacher who was stationed at the center

We decided who would be responsible for getting which supplies. I emailed the directions to the school director and asked her to forward them to her staff with a request for feedback. (At some of the centers, I prepared samples and step-by-step instructions for the teachers to follow.)

I repeated this process for each of the different centers, as well as for the take-home materials.

Once the draft schedule was approved and centers were assigned to each space, I printed the agenda, the evaluation forms (see my previous post), two posters containing the entire list of activities by center, and flyers to be placed outside each room so people would know they were in the right place. Using a different graphic and type face for each center was a visual aid that allowed people to find their destination quickly when it was time to change activities.

I had prepared a master list by center of all the supplies and materials needed. As I gathered them, they were placed in a large zipper storage bag (like Ziploc or Glad bags), with the center sign visible. After I bagged the material for each center, I crossed it off my master list, zipped the bag shut AND didn't open the bag again. (I've learned - the hard way - that this is the only way I can ensure that I don't remove something, forget to return it, and find myself without a critical piece when I get to the program site!)

I always plan to get there at least ten minutes before I can get in to set up. That gives me the opportunity to take a deep breath and R-E-L-A-X.

It's not possible to foresee every eventuality or avoid every crisis, but attention to the details in the planning goes a long way!

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Family Programs

I’ve been working on a couple of large projects this past month.

Although they’ve been interesting, I’ve found myself struggling with the “brain fog” that often seems to hit in December and/or January, in which it takes a great deal of effort to stay focused and productive. But the days are growing longer and, this week, we were blessed with unseasonably warm weather. So now I know again, that winter will *not* last forever: Spring is on its way!

So, what – you might ask – have I been up to?

I just finished a Tu B’shevat program for a family program at a local synagogue. It was actually a lot of fun to prepare for! As a brainstorming tool, I used a web format like this:

I find it helps me a) make sure I include activities for different types of learners; and b) visualize the interrelationships between some of the areas.

You’ll notice that some of the areas are “content” areas (eg, Israel, Mitzvah work) and some are “modalities” (i.e, writing, art, drama) and some can be “either/or” (texts, music). Depending on the age of the group, I may add other ideas to the web. “Movement” is a popular one, as is “books or stories.” After brainstorming, I share the web with another person to see what ideas it triggers for them.

And then, I get to work!

Especially if it’s a multi-age program – but even if it’s not – I generally try to come up with more than one idea or activity for circle in the web, using Bloom’s taxonomy as a loose guide. For example, if the topic is “Tu B’shevat,” in the writing center, I might offer the following selections:

  • Write 15 things that come from trees.
  • Write a poem (haiku or acrostic) about some aspect of trees.
  • Write a journal entry as if you the boy in Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree trying to explain to his children why there were no trees planted on their street.
  • Pretend you are an inanimate object that helps people fulfill the mitzvah of bal tashchit/do not destroy. Describe yourself; tell what you do; discuss how you feel when people use you; and provide one rationale for people who ignore you to change their behavior.

Particularly for large-group program, but also for class lessons, I often like to provide participants with a variety of options from which to choose. If possible, I like to do this both when presenting the lesson, but also in reinforcing it through class work and assessment. By providing choices, I find that students are apt to focus more on the content and less on the method. The ultimate question I’m asking them to answer is “What do I know (or what have I learned) about this topic?” A student may do a better job of illustrating what s/he has learned rather than writing a descriptive paragraph. For family programming, the levels of projects also allow parents and children to work together on something slightly more sophisticated or nuanced than the child would undertake on his or her own.

I like setting up “centers” or “stations” for people to work at – it gives me an opportunity to locate several “quiet” activities near each other; to break the group into more manageable subgroups; and gives me a quick view of which activities seem to be attracting the most (or the least) participants. My personal preference is to provide one large block of time for “center work” and allow people to move through the activities at their own pace. For some groups, that sense of freedom translates into chaos – they do better with defined time blocks. In that case, it’s particularly crucial that I provide more than one activity per center, to accommodate those who work at a faster pace than others.

It is important, however, to have both a formal beginning as well as an ending to the program. During the beginning you can set the stage for the experiences the group will be having, and outline whatever specific parameters there may be. The ending provides a chance to summarize the learning as a whole group. Asking “What’s one thing you learned today” will result in more targeted responses than “Did you enjoy the program." I also use the final period as an opportunity to have participants fill out a brief (half-page) evaluation sheet consisting of the same questions I use in my own reflective exercises. I ask both students and parents to fill out an evaluation, with the only difference in the questions being the final one.

  1. What did you learn today?
  2. What worked particularly well?
  3. What should we change next time?
  4. Did your child participate the way you thought s/he would? OR Did you get to work with your parent the way you wanted to?

Organization helps make a program like this more successful. My next posting will contain some “tricks of the trade” I’ve learned along the way!

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Shabbat Yitro

A friend gave the d’var Torah this past week on the parshah Yitro/ Jethro. He made a number of good points. There were two that really resonated with me.

The context for the first was Yitro’s arrival at Moses’ tent. Moses was occupied with settling all the disagreements between the Israelites. Yitro – his father-in-law – arrives and sees Moses’ exhaustion and also the trouble brewing while the Israelites are waiting in line (in the heat) to speak to Moses. He offers Moses some unsolicited advice, which involves establishing a process in which disagreements are settled by judges appointed by Moses, with only those issues that cannot be resolved ultimately making their way through an appeals process to Moses.

My friend comments:

I believe there are a number of aspects in the way that Jethro counseled Moses that allowed Moses to make the right decision.

The first thing that Jethro did was to let Moses know he was advising him out of a sense of concern for Moses, his daughter and grandchildren and for all the people of Israel. Sometimes, when we are offered advice by others, we can become suspicious of their motives. Jethro never suggests that he should take on some of the burden off of Moses’ shoulders. Jethro doesn’t nominate himself or anyone else by name to fill the role of a judge.

Jethro never questions his son-in-law’s wisdom or his leadership abilities. Often, when we are given unsolicited advice, we can become defensive and look upon the advice offered as criticism.

Jethro tells his son-in-law that he should follow his advice only if G-d commands him to. Jethro understood that Moses had a very special relationship with G-d and that anything that Moses did or said was done with the guidance of G-d.

His comments made me wonder if I am as respectful when I offer unsolicited advice.

The second point my friend made discusses the juxtaposition in this parsha of Yitro offering unsolicted advice and the Israelites receiving the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai.

He finishes his d'var Torah by saying:

To me, the one word that best sums up what happened at Mount Sinai is the word “miracle”. The transmission of the Ten Commandments not only changed the lives of all those who were physically there to witness it, not only did it have an impact on later generations of Jews that cannot be over-stated but it also represents one of the most important events in all of human history.

So, why is this incredible moment in the history of our people preceded by something as seemingly ordinary as a father-in-law offering advice to his son-in-law? I believe that the Torah is teaching us that we, as people, help to make miracles possible, in part, when we offer to help one another.

In other words, while G-d is entirely responsible for the miracles we read about in the Torah and for the miracles we have witnessed in every generation since then, we as humans are responsible for maintaining a world that is conducive to G-d’s miracles and blessings.

We are responsible for maintaining a world that is conducive to miracles and blessings. It's a powerful (and empowering) concept.

Shauvah tov - a good week.