Sunday, May 31, 2009

Schools That Work

“Schools That Work: What We Can Learn from Good Jewish Supplementary Schools” was written by Jack Wertheimer, and published by The Avi Chai Foundation just this past March. Wertheimer is a professor of American Jewish History at the Jewish Theological Seminary. The team of ten researchers (Isa Aron, Marion Gribetz, Billy Mencow, Nachama Skolnik Moskowitz, Randal F. Schnoor, Susan L. Shevitz, Serene Victor, Harold Wechsler, Cyd Beth Weisman, and Jack Wertheimer) set out to identify what characteristics could be found in successful Jewish supplemental schools.

From the Executive Summary:
In an effort to learn about the range and quality of programs, a team of ten researchers—five academics and five experienced educators with backgrounds in school administration—observed ten Jewish supplementary schools reputed to be effective, as defined by the quality of formal study and positive Jewish experiences they provide, the clarity and thoughtfulness of school objectives, the development of a community of practice to translate learning into Jewish living, and the coordination of key personnel in the pursuit of those goals.
Wertheimer goes on to articulate four “enabling factors” which must be present in order to have “Schools That Work.” Here's my summary of what he wrote:
  • School communities must define a vision and articulate how they plan to accomplish their vision. These visions need to include learning goals, which most school vision statements do. But they also need to go beyond that: Schools need to provide students with opportunities to enact Jewish commitments and to engage in Jewish activities.
  • School communities need to create a culture of collaboration among lay leaders, among professional staff, and among both groups. They also need to establish a culture of self-reflection.
  • A congregational or communal base of support is necessary. School communities need to identify potential resources, both internally and externally. After they’ve done that, they need to plan to make maximal use of these resources; ie, it’s not sufficient just to identify the resources – they need to be implemented.
  • Schools That Work involve lay leaders in both the life of the school and by cooperating with them to refine the objectives of the school.

So simple…. and yet not.

Vision/Mission Statements: Generally speaking, when I begin working with schools as a consultant, one of the first things I ask for is a school mission statement.

I’m often surprised by the number of schools that don’t have one – or cases in which there’s one for the synagogue, but not a separate one for the school. Without a mission statement, I wonder how communities know whether they’re doing what they want to do – or how they can ascertain whether their efforts are successful.

Many mission statements focus on the skills that they hope the students will learn with the goal being to function effectively as a Jewish adult. Hicks, Glasgow and McNary report that [new] “teachers often see teaching as telling and learning as memorization.” (What Successful Mentors Do; Corwin Press, 2005, p. 39). “Learning” is considered separate from “doing.” Do our mission statements include “doing” that goes beyond the one-time performance of bar or bat mitzvah? What opportunities are there for students to engage in Jewish cultural activities? Deeds of g’milut hasadim /lovingkindness? Teaching others? Social justice activities?
I’m not surprised that this was first on Wertheimer’s list of “enabling factors” for Schools That Work.

Community Culture: Collaboration and self-reflection: they exist hand-in-hand.

Far too often, I’ve noticed that either schools are separate from the life of the congregation or there’s a territoriality that exists among the professional staff. In the former case, the school exists in isolation. There’s little or no cross-fertilization of ideas or practices. When communities collaborate, each segment of the community validates the work of the other. In the latter case, either there’s a competition among staff (who is better/more powerful/etc) or an inability to recognize that frequently staff functions overlap. “That’s *NOT* my job” can be as detrimental as “That’s *MY* job – keep your nose out.”
Teamwork – collaboration – recognizes the ebb and flow of work responsibilities and crunch times: people are able to pull together to benefit the whole.

If there’s no collaboration, it’s also difficult to engage in self-reflective practice. There’s little opportunity to get honest, caring feedback from colleagues. If the environment is competitive or segmented, self-reflection can be perceived of as a weakness.

Base of Support/Involvement of Lay Leaders: when a school is an involved, active, engaged part of congregational life – and the congregation is actively involved and engaged in all facets of the school – the base of support is more solid and lay leaders are involved in substantive and meaningful ways. Without that base of support (and the willingness to tap into it) and the involvement of all lay leaders, I don’t believe that schools can be successful at integrating students into the Jewish life of their community.

Next time: Characteristics of Schools that Work

Friday, May 29, 2009

How Important is a Sense of Belonging?

On Friday, May 8th, Michael Gerson, a columnist for the Washington Post, wrote an interesting op-ed piece quoting the findings of Robert Putnam. Putnam (with David Campbell) has written a book entitled "American Grace: How Religion Is Reshaping Our Civic and Political Lives,” which will be released next year. According to Gerson, the book is already making a splash. “…the book they haven't yet finished will make just about everyone constructively uncomfortable,” Gerson writes.

He goes on to describe Putnam and Campbell’s recent appearance at a conference.
At a recent conference of journalists organized by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, Putnam outlined the conclusions of "American Grace," based on research still being sifted and refined. Against the expectations of hard-core secularists, Putnam asserts, "religious Americans are nicer, happier and better citizens." They are more generous with their time and money, not only in giving to religious causes but to secular ones. They join more voluntary associations, attend more public meetings, even let people cut in line in front of them more readily. Religious Americans are three to four times more socially engaged than the unaffiliated. Ned Flanders is a better neighbor.
I’ll take a break here, so we can all give ourselves a pat on the back.

And, then (are you ready) comes the part that I suspect will make many of us uncomfortable:
Against the expectations of many religious believers, this dynamic has little to do with the content of belief. Theology is not the predictor of civic behavior; being part of a community is. People become social joiners and contributors when they have friends who pierce their isolation and invite their participation. And religious friends, says Putnam, are "more powerful, supercharged friends."

Let’s look at that second sentence again: Theology is not the predictor of civic behavior, being part of a community is.


If it's not theology that makes the difference (and I'm including values and commandments - middot v'mitzvot - in the broad topic of "theology).....

And if "being part of the community" IS what makes a difference.....

Maybe as Jewish educators we should spend more time building connections among our community members rather than worrying about skills acquisition, how much content we can cram in during the (hopefully) seven years we have students enrolled prior to their bar/bat mitzvah, and how well the kids will perform on that day.

Maybe we should deliberately, intentionally, mindfully use some of the scarce hours that we have students with us to spend time fostering that sense of community -
  • helping kids get to know each other;
  • helping students to be involved with the adults in the congregation's business of bringing repair to the world
  • becoming a place where they can feel safe and secure as they explore what it means to them to BE Jewish and DO Jewish.
Maybe? Ya think?

One of my colleagues shared a document - and a philosophy - with a group of us gathered at the first RENA (Reconstructionist Educators of North America) Conference in Naperville, Illinois in 2005.

Deborah's belief was that Parent-teachers need to pro-actively design Shabbat School experiences that will help students build relationships and a sense of community. A sense of community, group cohesiveness, friendships do not necessarily “happen” naturally, especially given the paucity of time we are spending together each year.

At her school, Havurah Shalom of Portland, Oregon, they decided that One way to do this is to be sure that there are activities that build community in every session.

Build. Community. In. Every. Session

Not once a year - at the beginning of the year; or once a semester; or whenever there was a new teacher.... but ... In. Every. Session

I can hear it already - There's not enough time as it is.... now you want us to "waste" time playing games?!?

And - if I'm being honest - there's a time when my voice would have been protesting louder than anyone else's.

But.... if I've learned anything these last six years, it's that if we don't focus on building a sense of community within our classes and our schools - the learners* aren't connected. If they're not connected, the learning is irrelevant. If the learning is irrelevant.... that's when time is actually wasted!


*applies to adult learners as well as kid-learners, I've found.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Update - Take 2

Okay, so the last post focused on what did work. Time to be honest: what didn’t work?


::Deep sigh::

Ok, so I should have *KNOWN* this.

The agenda for the third session was really content-heavy. In a little more than two hours, we hoped to “cover” the following:

Direct Instruction (Teacher Centered Approach)
Learning Centers (Learner Centered Approach)
Developing Rubrics
Energizing Classroom Discussions
Cooperative Learning

Let’s take a step back for a moment:

  • Our “Big Ideas” for the class included 1) teaching-as-relationships; 2) articulating and sticking to your big idea; and 3) reflective practice.
  • Even as late as the day before the first class, we were uncertain how many participants there would be – ten had expressed an interest, but only four had RSVP’d at that point.
  • Consequently, we fleshed out the first two sessions pretty thoroughly, including a wide variety of interactive, different-style strategies. We were less thorough in outlining the last two, largely because there’s a world of difference in what you plan for four people instead of for ten people.
  • The topics listed above were fairly “interactive” by their very nature.


We forgot one of those core truths we know so well and espouse all the time – even while we were teaching the above topic: LECTURING DOESN’T WORK. It doesn’t work for kids; it doesn’t work for teachers; and it doesn’t work for my colleague and me. IT DOESN’T WORK. Period. Full stop.

In my/our rush to convey as much “content” as possible, we forgot that core truth.

Within three minutes of beginning my intro to Learning Centers, I knew it was going poorly …. and I knew what I should have done instead. I was explaining (instead of showing) a technique to people who had no framework to put the information into. Given that the overwhelming majority of learners are visual (60% by some accounts) instead of auditory or kinesthetic – what was I thinking of?!? I cut my presentation short… and bounced the topics back to my colleague.

Now he “does” rubrics really well and is great at cooperative learning…. but our participants weren’t with us – they’d already checked out. From a vibrant, alive, energized group the preceding week, they had become transformed into a group of unresponsive chairwarmers, who kept looking at the clock. So very sad.

And we (my colleague and I) had turned them off ALL BY OURSELVES. We cut the class short – distributed evaluations – and barely waited until they were out of the room before we debriefed. We read their evaluations of the session - they were right on key.

The question rapidly became – how do we address this next week? Keeping in mind one of our Big Ideas was that reflective practice is key to improving one’s ability to “reach and teach,” we knew that we needed to open the following class with an admission of what went wrong, taking ownership for our mistakes, AND show how to handle a class that “flumphs.”

So we did. The next week, I brought in the worksheets, instructions, center signs, support materials and check lists for two center programs I’d worked on within the last year (one for 3-5 grade students; one for a family education program). I spread the materials out on the table before the students arrived. Their eyes lit up when they walked in the room.

We began the class by saying, “We blew it last week – we talked instead of showing you. So this week, we brought in materials to show and do.” One student asked if the evaluations they filled out had indicated that there was too much talking and not enough doing. I said (honestly), “No, I knew within 5 minutes of beginning that I’d made a mistake; but your evaluations confirmed specifically what that mistake was and how to rectify it.”

They had a chance to handle materials, ask questions, see how things fit together. I reminded them that I hadn’t provided six or seven centers with multiple activities when I first began using centers. I plucked out the single art, game, and writing activities I might have used at the very beginning. Their questions clearly indicated they were engaged with the activity.

My colleague led the next exercise showing how cooperative learning can be used. He lead a “Stand-Up; Hands-Up; Pair-Up” activity and when we were done, we demonstrated how to “coach” participants into coming up with an answer (instead of telling them what the answer is) and talked about a variety of ways in which this technique could be adapted. Nodding, eager heads let us know the message had been received! We then followed up with a couple of team-building exercises (round-table where they wrote “A Love Poem to Shabbat”), and had them reflect on how they thought the activities had gone.

As a final piece of our final class – we reviewed some of the planning materials in their session folder. For each session, we had provided a folder of materials/resources that they could explore at their leisure. This final folder, however, was somewhat different in that it included a number of suggestions for planning for the year, materials they should get from their director before they start teaching, and ongoing ways to stay on top of their game during their first year.

This session was a vast improvement over the one we'd “fumphed” the week before. I’m glad we ended with this one. I never would have intentionally “fumphed” a lesson, but there was merit in showing how you can recover from a “fumph” – and also in showing that all of us “fumph” at some point or another, no matter how long we’ve been doing this.

A final note: there are some very lucky kids in our community who will have the opportunity to learn with some great adults who are committed to their own Jewish learning, and to making a difference in the lives of our Jewish kids. May they continue to go from strength to strength.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Update on the "Wanna-Be's"

So here we are, more than four weeks after the last post. The class is finished …. and how do I think it went?

First of all, a couple of corrections: Three of the eight participants were already teaching before the class began. An additional one had a job lined up for the fall. Two were considering career changes (into education) and thought this would be a way to gain information on the way to making an informed decision. The remaining two participants were interested in the topic – had not decided whether they were going to teach in congregational/supplemental schools or not.

So, how’d it go? Overall, really well – with one big “fumph” in the middle (more about that later).

My colleague and I had decided to be as interactive in our teaching as possible – our goal was to model the “how-to” as well as share the content information.

We began with a session on Mind-Mapping, as a “getting to know you” activity. After they explained their maps, we posted them in the room each time we met. I’m going to introduce this technique in a class for teens I’m teaching this fall!

Our next activity asked them to take a quiz to determine where they fell on the list of multiple intelligences – and then to work with a partner to suggest an auditory, visual, and kinesthetic activity they could incorporate in a lesson to teach a topic of their choice. The quiz was “okay” – next time we might ask them to select from a variety of activities those that are most attractive to them and get at the MI approach in that way. The A-V-K activity was enjoyable – and productive. Just need a larger board to write their responses on.

My colleague does this wonderful piece on introducing the concept of “Big Ideas,” which he defines as an over-arching idea that will guide your teaching for the year. It provides a focus, and helps ensure that activities that you choose for the class to engage in are chosen because they support the “Big Idea” – not just because they are “fun to do.” He provided a couple of different scenarios and had the participants determine a) whether there was a big idea that was apparent to them; and b) whether the activities supported the big idea. Fascinating conversation – I’m always thrilled when students see something in the material that I haven’t seen. This activity got high marks from the class. When I plan for my fall class, I’ll need to specifically articulate a “Big Idea” – what will be guiding my teaching; what do I want them to learn; what’s the relevance?

Classroom middot/values and their effect on establishing a learning environment that’s safe and respectful for all was next on the list. I could tell it was a “new” topic for many of them, not surprisingly. Many new teachers – as well as many with a lot of experience – approach classroom management issues from a “discipline” [read “punishment and rewards”] perspective. That’s never worked really well for me. I’ve found instead that respect and safety, with a gentle insistence on those two characteristics, often get me results where I spend minimal time dealing with obnoxious behaviors. I shared with the class, the list of middot I’ve shared here, as well as my earlier post on Values-Based Decision Making. After we all talked about the values on the list, I handed out three dot stickers and asked them to “spend” their dots on the three middot that they felt were crucial in their classrooms-to-be. Feedback on that exercise was very positive, both that week and subsequently. Now I’m wondering how I can integrate this activity into my teen classroom this fall. I know I can use it in the teacher training workshops I’ll be doing. But in the classroom….? Not sure – comments/suggestions would be welcome here.

One evening I brought a wide variety of resource books in – many from the ARE “Teaching….” series (now available from Behrman House); some great new publications from Torah Aura (Active Jewish Learning is my new favorite, along with the Artzeinu Teacher’s Guide). They *LOVED* the chance to browse and pull out ideas. We’ll definitely do that again.

A final piece that worked really well – my typical four-question evaluation sheet distributed at the end of every class:

  1. What one thing did you learn during this session?
  2. What did you think worked particularly well?
  3. What needs to be improved next time?
  4. Other comments:

Not only did it help them begin the reflective process – it provided us with the necessary information when things didn’t go well….. More about that in my next posting!