Thursday, June 25, 2009

STW: Professional Implications

So, aside from the personal vindication I’ve felt since reading Supplementary Schools That Work, does this study have any relevance for us professionally?

I believe it does.

But not necessarily in the way that most of us seem to be connecting with initially.

It is absolutely a delight to see that A) there are schools that are successful; B) there are specific characteristics that can be attributed to successful schools; C) that those characteristics are not automatically outside our grasp; and D) that *all* schools, including successful ones, struggle to overcome the same barriers to success.

Those are important factors to consider as we look to objectively assess our programs, to build on the successes we’ve had, and to continually strive to improve.

But they’re not enough to ensure success…. Unless the foundational pieces are in place. Wertheimer calls these the “enabling factors.”

The report cites four conditions that need to exist if a school is to move into the “successful” category. In brief, they are as follows:
  • Vision
  • Collaborative Culture
  • Communal support
  • Lay involvement
As I’ve turned this report over and over during the past month, and examined it from multiple angles, it occurs to me that there are at least two levels on which these enabling factors can be examined: on the congregational level and on the school level. Ideally, the school is a subset of the congregation, so we visualize them as concentric circles, as below:

Let’s start with the outside circle and work our way to inner circle.

Congregational building pieces: Questions to answer
Does the congregation have a vision or mission statement? Does it include a description of the type of culture the organization hopes to create? What types of diversity are included in this description? What work will the community become involved with? Is the word “community” even used? How frequently are the vision statement and the goals of the congregation re-examined?

What evidence can one see to support the cultural goal of collaboration within the congregational community? [NOTE: to me, the word “collaboration” connotes a respectful exchange of ideas, mutual support for the tasks of individuals, and a willingness to establish a safe environment in which disagreement about ideas/practices/etc doesn’t become “disagreeable.”] Does that collaboration cross the lay-professional line? Does it occur within each constituency: lay leaders, professional staff, parents, etc? Is there evidence of reflective practice – individually and collectively – without blaming or finger pointing?

Is there a sense of being part of a “larger whole?” Does the congregation connect with others outside its walls? Is it affiliated with a movement? Does it engage in local and national Jewish communal work (ie, of the Federation, Jewish agencies, educational programs, youth groups)? How is it involved with Israel? Is it part of the local scene on both a Jewish and a secular level? Do the individual committees and affiliates act as if they understand how their involvement intermeshes with the goals and activities of the entire congregation? How are potential resources (internal and external) identified? Is this an ongoing endeavor process?

How are lay leaders groomed? Is there a “leadership track?” Is leadership training available? Are new members actively encouraged to become involve in leadership positions? Are their comments, observations, questions solicited and addressed respectfully? Do they understand the scope of the “job” they are being encouraged to undertake? Are they provided with the necessary supports as they begin to assume their responsibilities? Are lay leaders empowered to take ownership of the challenges involved in running a nonprofit organization? Are they empowered to actively search for solutions along with professional staff? Are there accountability measures in place?

School building pieces: Questions to answer
(many of the questions cited above also apply to schools within the congregational framework. Here are some additional ones to consider.)
Does the school have a vision or mission statement of its own? Does it refer back to the congregational statement? Are they aligned? Does it include desired outcomes? Methodology?

Is there a culture of collaboration among teaching staff? Professional staff and the education committee? Among professional staff and parents? Among classes? Among students within individual grades or rooms? Are individuals vested in the success of the entire school, and not just their particular students, grades, courses, etc? Is there opportunity for regular reflective practice by administrators, teachers, students, committee members, parents? Is the environment a “safe” one in which to ask questions or express a difference of opinion?

Is the school connected to congregational life? In ways that go beyond participation in services or consecration and b’nei mitzvah? Is there a congregational board liaison? Does that liaison have credibility with the larger board or is he/she seen primarily or exclusively as someone whose focus is limited to the school only, without being able to see the bigger, congregational, picture? Is the school connected to other religious schools – locally, nationally, within the movement or outside? Is it connected to other youth activity endeavors (youth group, etc)? Do teachers and administrators engage in regular professional development, both on-site and off? Are resources – specifically time and money – allocated to professional development?

Most lay leaders (although not all) initially get involved with the school because of a specific issue related to their child. However, are they eventually able to widen their focus on what’s beneficial for the entire community? Are they willing to offer specific talents and skills to support the educational program? Are they able to comment on the positives they/their children see or experience as well as address issues that need improvement? Are they in tune with the mission goals and objectives of the school? When a problem arises, are they willing to help search for solutions?

What happens if the congregation and school are not in harmony?
Then, I would suggest, there’s a mismatch.
Not every educator will work well in every congregational setting.
Not every congregation will remain consistent in its answers to these questions.
The guiding principle, I believe, must be a shared vision about what’s best for the kids: What kind of Jewish adults do we want them to grow into – and what do we believe is the best way to get there, given the constraints of time, energy, money, personnel?

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

STW: Personal Reaction - Part 2

As I shared last time, my adamant negation of the belief that “all-kids-hate-religious-school” was my introduction to formal Jewish education. In the period between the time we removed our kids from one religious school and enrolled them the following year in a different school, we made the decision that I would homeschool them. My purpose was to ensure that they understood that our dissention was with the individual institution, not with Jewish education or supplemental schools. Learning would take place regardless of the venue.

As I’d prepare each week for the next week’s lessons, I met a wonderfully helpful person at the local Board of Jewish Ed, who pointed me in the right direction for resources, answered questions I had, and was extremely supportive. As time went on, we got to know each other. In addition to her job at the BJE, she was also the part-time director of a religious school. After some time passed, she asked if I’d be interested in teaching in her school, explaining that she thought I’d be a good teacher because I was willing to ask questions, search for information and try to pull things together in an age-appropriate manner. After several conversations, much thought, and a visit to her school, I decided to accept her offer.

That was the beginning of my involvement as a Jewish communal worker.

Over the course of time, I became an even better teacher. It was Elissa who taught me about educational objectives and how to measure them; about reflective practice; and – most importantly – that it’s our work that should be taken seriously, not ourselves.

I tried to integrate the lessons I’d learned from my own children:

  • that kids learn best by doing instead of sitting;
  • that variety spices things up again;
  • that transitions are difficult;
  • that a classroom should be a safe place;
  • that for most of us, hearing alone isn’t enough – we need to see, smell, touch, and taste, too!
Along the way, I continued to learn as much from my students (probably more) than they learned from me. There were transitional issues, to be sure (the “I don’t want to GO to religious school…”). However, once they crossed our threshold, for the most part, they were active and engaged (“but I don’t mind BEING there.”) In reviewing the list of characteristics that Wertheimer cites as indicative of successful schools, I see that all six of them were present in our classroom over the years: Together, my students and I
  1. developed a community
  2. took Jewish learning seriously
  3. engaged in experiential Jewish education
  4. aligned all of our efforts with our goals for the year
  5. valued ourselves
  6. regarded our families as allies (and, on my part, as clients – I was always conscious that their parents could have taken them to another school, but chose to enroll them in ours)
How do I know we were those things? Because each year, it was our practice at the end of the year to dissect what we had done, piece by piece. Because our classroom was a safe place, my students felt secure in offering honest feedback that, in turn, helped form my plans for the class following them. I still have the notes from those evaluation sessions. In reviewing them recently, I was struck anew by how many of them helped address the areas listed above.
I subsequently became a director of two different schools. At each school, we had a strong level of lay involvement and input. One program evolved into a successful one, by Wertheimer’s definition, while I was there; the other did not. What made the difference?

In one environment, the “enabling factors” – those foundation pieces that need to be in place in order for a school to be successful -- were firmed embedded in the practices of the organization. Those factors, again, are as follows:
  • a clear vision and a path on how to achieve that vision
  • a culture of collaboration and self-reflection
  • the school and the synagogue worked together – neither was isolated or detached from the other
  • lay leaders were involved cooperatively with the school and worked collaboratively with their professional staff to refine the objectives of the school.
Defining the characteristics of a successful school is important in being able to articulate why an institution is successful.

However, in my mind, the most critical part of Schools That Work is the identification of the foundation necessary in order for a program to be successful.

It answers some very basic questions about why a once-successful program sometimes becomes less successful over time or when there’s a change in leadership. It points out the difficulty of systemic change when two groups of key players (the lay leaders, and the parents) are frequently in flux. I believe that when these enabling factors are weakened or disappear, the likelihood of a school being able to maintain its innovative zest for learning becomes compromised. The school tends to slip back towards the more familiar middle-of-the-road because that’s a more comfortable place to be – for the administrators, teachers, lay leaders, and parents. I doubt that it’s more comfortable for the kids.

Next: professional implications for our schools/communities.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Schools That Work: Personal Reaction

My first reaction to Wertheimer’s Schools That Work was a delighted “YES” (accompanied by a pumped fist). “Finally,” I told a colleague, “SOMEone thinks that we’re not all failing.”

I had become thoroughly sick and tired of articles about supplemental schools being awful and behind the times; of discussions in which the main theme was “Everyone knows that religious schools are a dismal failure;” and of matter-of-fact statements to the tune of, “Well of course my kid hates religious school: all kids do.”

I first discovered this “of-course-all-kids-hate-religious-school” when our now-27 year old son entered fourth grade at our local synagogue school. He had been an eager participant until that time. He'd get into the car eagerly and come home to enthusiastically share stories about what they had learned and classroom antics. He liked playing soccer and climbing on the geodesic dome in the back yard better, but then recess was his favorite part of his secular school day, too.

In fourth grade, things began to change: classroom demographics changed; his teacher had difficulty with classroom management issues (kids were allowed to tease each other, because “that’s how kids are”); and he was beginning to struggle with some significant but-as-yet unidentified learning disabilities. In less than a year, he went from an eager Judaics and Hebrew student to one who tried to run away when it was time for religious school. He’d scream, “You can’t make me go.” I could and I did – but it was a painful experience.

I spoke to relatives, friends, other parents, the principal. All of them assured me that “Of course, he hates religious school – all kids do.” Other parents said, “I suffered through it and was miserable. Now it’s my kid’s turn to be miserable.”

As a convert to Judaism, I was appalled. The more answers I tried to find, the more frustrated I became. The situation, which was already intolerable for my son, rapidly became unacceptable for me. And so we began to look for alternatives.

We tried first to work with the school…. And were met with a shrug of the shoulders and the implication that perhaps I was ambivalent about or deficient in my attitude towards Jewish education. If I “got with the program,” my son’s problems would probably go away.

Things were complicated by the fact that my husband had found a community in which he was comfortable and we decided that we were unwilling to leave the congregation. I ultimately met with our rabbi and asked him what alternatives were available. By that time, we had pulled both of our children out of the religious school and I was homeschooling them in Hebrew and Judaics while we searched for viable options. My request was simple: I wanted a solution that would be a better match for my kids and fulfill our synagogue’s requirements for bar and bat mitzvah.

There was a community school nearby that fit the bill. I met with the Education Director, and shared our experiences, concerns, and hopes. We made a plan to integrate both children into their program the following year. I continued to homeschool our kids for the remainder of that academic year as we planned for that transition.

It was a much better fit for our son – and not a bad fit for our daughter.

End of the story? Not quite.

A year or so later, the kids began to complain vociferously about the commute to religious school. I’d drive them to school three times a week, listening to moaning and complaining the whole trip (30 minutes, now, instead of 10 minutes the year before). My stomach would be in knots the entire time they were in school, and I’d dread their return home. Finally, they’d walk in with their dad – laughing and giggling and practically bouncing in excitement. “What’s for dinner, Mom?” they’d shout.

One day, I couldn’t stand it any longer. “What gives?” I demanded. “I get the tsoris/grief and Dad gets the nachas/joy. Not fair.”

My kids grinned at me. “Oh,” they admitted, “We don’t like GOING to religious school, but once we’re there, we don’t mind BEING there.” An important distinction – and one that I later used when I began to teach OPK – Other People’s Kids.

Next up - more personal reflections about my teaching and directing experiences.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Ahavat Olam

The following is an interpretative version of the ahavat olam prayer, found in the Kol Haneshamah siddur (published by the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation). It’s been echoing in my mind since my mother died earlier this month:

We are loved by an unending love.
We are embraced by arms that fund us
even when we are hidden from ourselves.

We are touched by fingers that soothe us
even when we are too proud for soothing.
We are counseled by voices that guide us
even when we are too embittered to hear.
We are loved by an unending love.

We are supported by hands that uplift us
even in the midst of a fall.
We are urged on by eyes that meet us
even when we are too weak for meeting.
We are loved by an unending love.

Embraced, touched, soothed, and counseled…
ours are the arms, the fingers, the voices;
ours are the hands, the eyes, the smiles;
We are loved by an unending love.

Blessed are you, BELOVED ONE, who loves your people Israel

(Rami M. Shapiro, adapted)

It has been your arms, hands, voices, eyes and smiles that have comforted and sustained us during this period.

We are deeply grateful to be part of our communities.

Shabbat Shalom.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Baruch Dayan HaEmet

I had planned to spend the next couple of postings reacting to and reflecting upon the information in Schools That Work (Wertheimer). However, my mother has died: after a long illness, her death has been a release we are grateful for.

Funeral tomorrow - shiva through Tuesday evening.

Postings will resume the week of June 22nd.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Schools That Work: Enabling Factors Graphic

We began this series with a discussion of the factors that need to be in place in order for a school to be successful.

Here's the graphic that illustrates that discussion:

Reactions/reflections next time!

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Challenges Faced By STW: The Graphic

And here's a picture of the challenges facing all supplementary schools, including Schools That Work:

Given all these stresses, it's a wonder that even the mediocre schools manage to do as well as they do.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Challenges Faced by Schools That Work

The following excerpts are taken verbatim from pages 5 and 6 of Schools That Work: What We Can Learn from Good Jewish Supplementary Schools, written by Jack Wertheimer and published in March 2009 by The Avi Chai Foundation. See earlier postings on 5/31/09, 6/2/09 and 6/3/09 for discussions of "enabling factors" and characteristics of successful schools, as described by Wertheimer and his team of researchers.

A number of intractable challenges are endemic to the field [of supplementary Jewish education], and even better schools are not immune to their impact.
  • There is a scarcity of teachers well-versed in Hebrew and Judaica who have the skill to transmit their knowledge to students.
  • [T]he real challenge lies in implementing them [curricular materials] properly in the classroom. Some schools are forced to rely upon teachers who lack content knowledge and/or pedagogical skills.
  • Directing a school is a demanding job, which can lead to burn-out....Most schools have a shallow bench so that pinch hitters do not come to the aid of directors.
  • With the large majority of students attending school for a handful of hours each week, whether once or twice a week, schools are severly constrained. Remaining mindful of the time constraints under which they operate, they do not promise more than they can deliver. The question is whether this hard-headed approach to time, results in too low a set of expectations.
  • [S]upplementary programs find themselves in a heightened time-bind, creating a dilemma about what to emphasize and what to omit. Schools must make trade-offs between subject matter...and also between content knowledge and community building or other affective activities.
  • A particularly difficult curricular choice relates to Hebrew language instruction. Many schools are unclear about what to teach and toward what end...
  • There is little doubt that many parents and chuldren regard the end goal of supplementary school to be the bar/bat mitzvah....Effective schools...explicitly downplay their role in preparing children, and most try to retain students well beyond 7th grade.
  • With a range of other activities beckoning to children, supplementary schools must compete for the attention of families. Jewish education, then, is merely one of many supplementary programs. Compared to the recent past, Jewish education now must compete with far more options -- and often loses out.
These circumstances encumber all supplementary schools. They are built into the current structure.


Depressing to think about, isn't it? But it's a fairly realistic picture of the challenges facing supplementary schools -- the good schools as well as the mediocre ones and the poor ones. Oftentimes, we spend so much time focusing on the challenges facing us that it's easy to get lost along the way.

When I was growing up, my father kept a reminder on the wall in his office, which he could see when he sat at his desk. It read: "When you're up to your @*# in alligators, it's hard to remember that your objective was to drain the swamp." It was significant for two reasons: 1) We simply didn't use language like that in polite company when I was growing up; and 2) My Dad explained how difficult it was to avoid getting caught in a reactive mode, in which all one did was respond to the crisis du jour.

More reactions/reflections when this series is done.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Characteristics of STW: The Graphic

So, here's the graphic that shows what the words said in the last blog.

As a visual learner, this helped me see the whole picture at one time. Remember, Wertheimer says no one characteristic is more important that the other - all are necessary in a balanced way.

Next up? Challenges facing supplementary schools

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Characteristics of Schools That Work

The following comments are taken verbatim from pages 4 and 5 of Schools That Work: What We Can Learn From Good Jewish Supplementary Schools, written by Jack Wertheimer and published in March 2009 by The Avi Chai Foundation. See the posting on 5/31/09 for a discussion of the "enabling factors" that Wertheimer and his team of researchers define as being necessary for Schools That Work.

Jack Wertheimer, with his team of 9 other researchers, has discovered that there are six Noteworthy Characteristics of the Schools:
  1. Good schools intentionally work to develop a community among their students, staff and parents.... [T]he community fostered by the school not only is warm and hospitable, but also establishes norms explicitly identified as distinctly Jewish.
  2. Good schools place an emphasis on taking Jewish study seriously....[R]egardless of the emphasis, good schools have developed a sophisticated curriculum that goes beyond rote learning, examining Jewish content so that it "sticks."
  3. Moreover, good schools create opportunities for students to engage in experiential Jewish education....This experiential component, in tandem with formal learning, is vital, as it provides students with the opportunity to live their Judaism and not only to learn about it.
  4. Good schools understand the need to align all their efforts with school goals. School directors, clergy and lay leaders often play a critical role in clarifying the school's goals and working with teaching staff to align what goes on in the classroom with the broader objectives of the school.
  5. Good schools value themselves and their students. In most of the schools under study, discipline was achieved primarily by attending closely to the needs of individual children and engaging them with compelling materials.
  6. Good schools regard families as allies and also clients. Involved parents can become important models for their children and will encourage children to take maximal advantage of their Jewish educational experiences.
The work of building an effective supplementary school is not only to actualize each of these aspirations so that they become real, but also to hold them in balance. No single one alone will insure a strong program. It is the combination of traits that forges a strong school.
Plenty of food for thought. Reflections/reactions at the end of this series.