Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Teaching YK - to First Graders????

Many of us struggle with how to make the "big themes" of the High Holidays relevant to students in the early childhood years (PreK-2nd grade). We're not quite sure how to move past the "birthday of the world" or "sorry for what I did wrong" stage. Both of which, to be sure, have their place, but.... the holidays are about so much more.

Homeshuling (a blog I read daily) had a wonderful post on how to convey the concept of the "Book of Life" to her first grade students. With her permission, I share it with you.

Kol haKavod, Amy - may you continue to reach and teach!

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Reflections of This High Holiday Season

Shortly before Rosh Hashanah, I had an email exchange with a dear friend and colleague. An organization to which we belong is preparing to engage in a discussion of guiding principles behind some of its practices. My friend articulated the specific steps that would guide this process of re-examination and asked for comments. I responded by sharing that I had once belonged to a 12-step group in which the discussion leader frequently used the phrase “the best of me connects with the best of you.” My friend's leadership in clearly articulating the respectful process to be used, I said, would allow the best in each of the participants in the discussions to rise to the occasion.

He responded by thanking me for my comments and then posed the following:

“I have to admit it sometimes feels harder to maintain my equanimity. Maybe I’m getting older and have been doing this too long??”

There have been several instances in the last year, where I’ve found myself asking the same question. The same – or similar – issues seem to recur in a variety of setting. The first time the situation comes up and I’m called upon to provide the guidance (generally in the form of establishing a process for the resolution of the issue), I’m able to do so with a sense of calmness and patience as we (the group and I) establish the ground rules for discourse, decision-making, resolution, whatever. By the fifth or sixth time a variation on the same theme occurs, a change in my response occurs:

  • I find myself making certain basic assumptions about the process and group interactions – and assume that we’re all starting at the same place.
  • I am less likely to explain the guiding principles that have informed and shaped the recommendations I’m making.
  • My explanations become a little more clipped – my tone a little more abrupt.
  • I feel a sense of weariness, frustration, sometimes futility - and I begin to wonder if it's worth it.

And, like my friend, I begin to wonder if the difficulty in retaining my sense of balance is because I’m getting older and have been doing this too long?

So, his question rang true.

Coming, as it did, right before the beginning of the ten days of introspection between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I’ve found myself reflecting on it frequently. I didn’t answer then, but here’s what I’d say now:

“Too long” is hard to define. I think there comes a point at which the guidance we’re being asked to provide is so second-nature to us that we forget that many of the people we work with have not reached that point of automaticity in their problem-solving responses. Especially when we end up working with the same group of people (or similar groups of people), we expect that because we’ve laid out the information before – they get it. They remember. They’ve seen it work. Our street “cred” is good. It hardly bears repeating.

What we forget is that even when the organizations are the same, the people we’re interacting with at this point are not. They may not have participated in earlier problem-solving opportunities – either because they weren’t part of the group then, or because it wasn’t “their” issue.

What we forget is that in many environments or cultures (workplace or volunteer), the goal is “winning” – not necessarily coming up with a solution that “everyone can live with.”

What we forget is that often the goal of so-called “discussions” is really to convince others of the rightness of our viewpoint, instead of encouraging individuals to really listen and hear what the other is saying.

Perhaps part of the solution might be to recognize what we forget. Another part might be to try and approach repeating situations as new. Yet a third part might involve finding someone safe to discretely vent to – without a safety valve, it’s hard to prevent frustration from seeping out. Another suggestion might be to remind ourselves that our approaches have resulted in positive outcomes in the past – and that the guidance we provide helps keep the discussion focused on the issues instead of deteriorating into personalities.

And part of it might be forgiving ourselves when we feel frustrated or impatient. And remembering that feeling impatient is different from acting impatiently.

May the year ahead be filled with blessings and growth for all of us.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Get Set....

Wow: two weeks plus since I posted last. The time has flown by, with some wonderful experiences between "then" and "now."

Two of the most energizing involve my work with madrichim/teen aides.

The first (on August 27th) was a new leadership training module I developed and used in working with a group of teens whose assignments are different from our typical "classroom aides." Typically, most of the training I do is with teens who work under the direction of a teacher or group leader. The adult is present to give direction, refer things back to, and adapt the daily plan to what actually occurs.

This particular group of teens, however, has the responsibility for Shabbat morning programming for students. The plans are developed by the director or his assistant, but the teens run the program from start to finish.

Clearly, my standard workshop focusing on "teacher-in-the-room, watch-for-cues, be-responsive-and-anticipate-teacher/student-needs" wasn't going to cut it.

Fortunately, the University of Florida has a wonderful series on youth leadership developed for their 4-H teen leaders. It has some fantastic material on leadership focus, and styles of leadership. Combining that material with some of the Jewish values material I've developed and used over the years gave us a wonderful program. The students were engaged, asked great questions and were able to apply the content to examples in their own lives -- and see how it could be relevant for their work this coming year. We ended the session with a work period in which they were able to "block out" their first session of the school year.

This was a new area of focus for me -- and I'm thrilled it worked out as well as it did!


August 30th was the date of the "1st Annual NoVa Madrichim Training Course" - a five-hour program designed to provide classroom madrichim with some basic skills in

  • clarifying their roles and identifying their responsibilities
  • teaching to different learning styles
  • respectful classroom management

In addition to the "general" program, we offered a simultaneous program for more advanced madrichim who wanted to increase their knowledge and skills in working with students with special needs. The SNAP (Special Needs Assistance Program) component was led by a colleague from the Partnership for Jewish Life and Learning.

As the first program of this nature, we had high hopes, but no track record to guide us in planning.

The end result was fantastic: we had 85 teens from nine congregations participate in our day's training. In addition to the SNAP Program Facilitator, we had eight facilitators who led small groups of 8-10 teens in three 50-minute workshops. We had bagels and cream cheese... and pizza for lunch: 35 pizzas, to be exact. We sang some songs, did some text study, and guided students through the reflective practice that we hope will be part of their professional lives.

But the best part? (Other than the 85 kids!) They filled out evaluations! I'd worked with a specialist at the Partnership to devise an evaluation that would both provide quantifiable data and be open-ended enough to "take a pulse" of what the madrichim were thinking.

The results were stupendous: 75% said they'd recommend the training for new madrichim; and 75% said they'd return next year, if we expanded upon existing content or added additional content. Additionally, they provided such suggestions as "break us into groups according to the age student we'll be working with," and "all madrichim should have some knowledge of working with kids with special needs," and "can we do 'a life in the day of a madrich'?" It'll take a while to organize all the information we received. I'm really glad that I got help with the evaluatation form - the info I received was more complete than I would have gotten otherwise.

One more critical piece of information to share with you: this program was funded in part by a grant from our local Federation, which provides cluster grants for "Innovations in Congregational Education." Thanks, Federation!


So, school's drawing nearer - the pace is accelerating.... Are you ready?