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!

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