Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The REAL Questions We Should Be Asking

Many religious schools I know are struggling to retain teens as part of their educational programs, once they pass the bar- or bat-mitzvah milestone.

They’re trying
  • more content
  • less content
  • more frequent meetings
  • less frequent meetings
  • retreats in lieu of some classes
  • retreats in addition to class
  • to give “credit” for volunteer work, youth group activities
  • to make programs more rigorous
  • to make programs more “social”
  • making meals part of the program (If you feed them, they will come!)

What I seldom hear is a discussion articulating the relevance of the program offerings.

We talk about what teens will learn. We spend a great deal of time deciding who will teach them. We seriously consider methodology. We evaluate the structure in an attempt to meet their scheduling constraints. "Who, what, where and when" - that's our focus.

But, do we tell them why it’s important to learn what we want them to know? Do we specify the connection to their daily lives?

My friend and colleague, Marc Kay, challenges us: “So what?” Why does what we are teaching matter? What's the relevance?

We may have (in our own minds) an answer to that question, BUT do we share that insight with our students?

I remember asking Mr. McNaughton, in advanced algebra (back in the dark ages), why we needed to learn how to operate a slide rule. “At some point,” he assured us, “we’d need to be able to do complex calculations and this was the most accurate way to do them.”

(Does anyone out there even remember a slide rule? Or how to use it?)

Hopefully, the knowledge, values and experiences we’re trying to get our teens to grapple with have relevance for them in their lives TODAY, as well as in the future.

"So what" should be the first question we ask, not the last.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Empowering Teens

There's a delicate dance we do, when we work with teens who will end up working under the direction of classroom teachers (...or group leaders...or coaches... or...).

Our goal is to help them be assistant teachers, capable of acting on their own initiative to teach, modify, intervene, support and encourage.

The challenge? None of the teachers has the same style, the same pacing, the same needs for assistance. Some teachers want their aides to step in without being told what to do or how to handle a given situation. Some want their aides NOT to intervene (because the teacher may have “spoken” to the student a few moments ago, because the teacher has a need to control the classroom interactions, because the aide has overruled the teacher’s instructions previously, because…)

The challenge? For many of our aides, especially the younger ones, this is the first “job” they will have, regardless of whether they are paid or volunteer. They haven’t yet learned things like showing up on time; turning iPods and cell phones off; how distracting their whispering can be in the back of the classroom while the teacher is trying to teach….

The challenge? The age disparity between the aides and the students they’re working with is often not very wide, again especially for our younger aides. Each one will handle this challenge a little differently: some will try to assert their authority in counter-productive ways; others will try to befriend the students they’re working with; still others will refuse to engage with the students because they’re uncertain and don’t even know how to phrase the question:
“How do you want me to handle things?”

The challenge? Teachers are often rehired because they’re “good” with the age student they’re teaching. Their madrich/aide is several years older than their students – and is often at an age the teachers are uncomfortable with. Quite simply: they may not know how to talk to teens!

The challenge? Other than routine administrative tasks (photocopying, delivering materials to the office, setting up for snack), teachers don’t know how to use their aides effectively. Many of them seldom provide their aide with specific instructions: “Please listen to their practice reading. Each student should read three sentences accurately. You may help them by correcting their pronunciation after they’ve made an attempt. If you do, then have the student read the word/phrase/sentence that they stumbled on three times accurately. This will help them practice it correctly and aid in fluency.” Instead, we say, “Listen to them read.”

The challenge? Our aides don’t often know how what they’re doing fits into the big picture – how does it relate to the rest of the lesson? Last week’s lesson? Next week’s material? And let’s not even mention “assessment” – a good many of our teachers have difficulty with assessment and consequently can’t guide their aides in this direction.

Overcoming Challenges

One of the most important paths to overcoming some of these challenges is professional development. Many communities I work with are cognizant of the need for madrichim/aide training. Training is critical and a good facilitator can help the teens address a number of these challenges, and more!

But an equally critical component is professional development for the teachers. Through workshops, classroom observations, and mentors, teachers can be guided in ways to improve their communications with their aides, incorporate the aides in their planning, and determine whether their expectations are realistic and appropriate.

Reflective practice for both teachers and madrichim/aides can help each gain insight into their own actions, responses, and expectations – and help make changes for future situations.

Directors AND teachers need to be willing to invest the time and energy in developing these bonds with the teens in their program.

The Payoff
  • Teens who continue to remain involved in Jewish education.
  • Teens who model the “coolness factor” of remaining involved, post bar- or bat-mitzvah.
  • Extra hands, eyes, ears, and hearts to help educate the next generation of students.
  • One-on-one assistance for the student who’s floundering.
  • Feedback for teachers who truly don’t “have eyes in the back of their heads.”
  • An entrance into the world of Jewish communal work for our teens.
  • Beginning training for the next generation of teachers.

Classroom aides/madrichim can make a critical different in "reaching and teaching" our students - if we provide training, encouragement, meaningful evaluations for both teens and teachers!

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Do Small Things

Last month, we had the pleasure of another Soup and Song Home Concert at the home of Charlie and Marilyn Bernhardt. The month's artist in residence was Steve Eulberg. I last blogged about Steve almost two years ago. In the intervening period, we have listened to his music as we drove out and about on road trips.

I was absolutely delighted when he opened the evening with "A Ship May Be Safe." It is one of the songs that I've begun to use as a reminder when I'm contemplating whether to step off the beaten track and try something new, or remain in my comfort zone! Later in the evening, he and Charlie again sang "We Are An Answer to a Prayer." I thought again about all the students I've taught through the years and how they, too, have become an answer to our prayers.

The "old standbys" (the songs I've listened to again and again on my iPod or on the CD player in the car) were like old friends. But Steve brought along some "new friends" as well. There were three in particular that I enjoyed immensely, each for a different reason. Here they are!

They shall not hurt/they shall not destroy in all my holy mountain
For the earth shall be full of the knowledge of God/as the waters cover the sea
(Holy Mountain)

The melody is catchy and upbeat - the message articulates that all of the earth is "sacred space" (not just synagogues or churches) and that "hurting" and "destroying" have no role in sacred space. The allusions are to the animal world (The wolf shall live with the lamb/and the leopard shall nap with the kid/the calf and the lion make friends/by a little child they'll be led), but it's not too difficult to see directives for our (human) behavior.

The second song evoked images of "back in the day." Steve sang about the pace on a lazy Sunday afternoon, when there was all the time in the world. The song's not yet been recorded, and I don't remember either the title or the specific words. But the memories it brought to mind were both familiar and distant: the never-ending boredom of a "sitting-around"-Sunday afternoon in a small town, back in the days of "blue laws" (when retail stores weren't open on Sundays); of Sunday afternoon naps, boring television (if you were lucky, you got all four channels: ABC, CBS, NBC and public television), and hours of unscheduled time.

Our pace of life is much more frenetic these days - even if one chooses a day of rest (Shabbat, or Sunday), it tends to be in isolation from our neighbors' practice and not in connection with them.

Finally, my new favorite-of-favorites:

Maybe I can't do great things that will move earth and heaven above
But I can surely do small things and do them with great love.

I can surely do small things and do them with great love.

No one can do everything
but everyone can do something

Someone who's faithful in small things can be trusted with things much bigger.

In introducing this song, Steve talked about someone (perhaps himself?) who once asked Mother Theresa how she managed to do such great things. Mother Theresa's response was that she didn't do great things - she did "small things with great love." From that response, came the song.

I find myself humming it at random times... and being willing to consider anew what "small thing [I] can do with great love."

And I haven't even touched on the amazing tones Steve coaxed from his dulcimers... or the feelings of spiritually and community shared by all present that evening.

My thanks to Steve Eulberg and Soup and Song Productions for an evening that's already had a ripple effect in my life.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Establishing A Madrichim Program

I had the privilege and honor last month of being asked to present two workshops at the Annual JEA Conference. The second one was entitled "Madrichim: They're Not Just for Photocopying Anymore!"

As with any good program plan, we set the framework out at the beginning:

· Define your program objectives

· Establish criteria for participation

· Overcome barriers

· Assess and amend


It’s well worth expending some serious time to figure out exactly what you’re looking for in this program (eg, classroom assistants, one-on-one tutors, service leaders, teachers-in-training, etc.) The skill sets vary somewhat from category to category, as do the job requirements.

Your program will also vary depending on the needs that you’re trying to address. Some of them might include the following: teachers who need an extra set of hands; students who need some one-on-one assistance or attention; teens who need to fill a meaningful role in congregational life; teens that you’re trying to keep involved post-b’nai mitzvah for whom taking classes just won’t cut it. In most of our programs, we try to address several needs. That’s okay – but you should identify for yourself what your primary need is. That will help with marketing the program.

Finally, your approach will be different depending on whether you begin a new program or modify an existing one. Each presents challenges, but each has specific advantages, too.


Here are some questions you’ll need to think through in the early stages of planning your program:

1. Who is eligible to participate? (consider: teens, teachers, students)

2. What availability is required? (during sessions, outside of the school “day”)

3. Is there an application process?

4. Is there a selection process? (is it fair and how is it communicated to applicants)

5. What skill set are you looking for? How much flexibility are you willing to give?

6. Is training required?

a. Pre-service?

b. During the year?

7. Who will make the assignments?

8. Who will supervise/assess the madrichim?

In smaller schools – or sometimes with beginning programs – this work is initially assumed primarily by the Education/School Director. I encourage you to collaborate with either another staff person or a member of your school committee in the planning process. They can be of immense help is seeing things that might not otherwise be on our radar.

BARRIERS TO OVERCOME (aka “Things I’ve learned the hard way, so you don’t have to!”)

For many teens this is a first job (regardless of whether they’re being paid or volunteering)

What does that mean? It means they may not know about proper dress; about showing up “on time” – or a few minutes before class starts; about turning the phones to “vibrate;” about not texting during class; about taking the ear plugs out of their ears (even when the iPod is turned off!; about signing in when they arrive; about filling out paper work; about accepting directions gracefully; about how to talk to kids, their classroom teacher, and parents; about….. you get the idea! Two pieces of advice on this barrier – 1) don’t skip this step in training; and 2) catch them on infractions early and consistently, so they understand that you’re serious. Written, explicit job descriptions, incorporated into madrichim job contracts help. Contact me for a sample, if you’d like.

Teachers’ inexperience – or unwillingness – to work with madrichim

Many teachers simply don’t know “what to do” with these extra, often-significantly-larger bodies in their classrooms. We select our early childhood teachers based on their ability to connect with students in grades PreK-2 – and now we’re asking them to work with high schooler? Some of our teachers are intuitive and have difficulty articulating what they’re doing with their students and how an aide can help. Some are not very well organized and can’t do the extra piece that provides meaningful work for madrichim. Some simply don’t want to bother. Training here can be really helpful – training with teachers alone (perhaps before the year begins); joint training with teachers and madrichim together (on the topic of working together – shortly after the year begins). Also joint professional development (on lesson planning, working with students with special needs, etc = whatever area your school needs to address) helps foster a sense of “teamness.”

Parent support - or lack thereof

This is critical, since oftentimes our younger madrichim don’t drive. Are parents willing/able to bring the madrichim when we need them? Are the family issues that complicate things (shared custody, for example)? Are there extra-curricular activities that might make it difficult for a madrich/ah to participate regularly? Planned absences – a football schedule or dramatic performance – are one thing; waking up in the morning and deciding it’s more fun to sleep in is entirely different.

Budget Impact

You probably should have a line item in your budget – to allocate costs accurately. Regardless of whether your madrichim volunteer, are paid entirely by the school, or the pay is covered half by families and half by the school – there are costs incurred. Food and materials for training sessions; communication time and vehicles (a weekly newsletter – hardcopy or email), supervision time, classroom observations, mailboxes/bulletin board space; holiday “thank yous” (especially if you provide them for your teaching staff), etc.

One school required students to wear school-provided polo shirts, with a logo that identified them as participants in the madrichim program. Another school provided baseball shirts for their madrichim and also required them to wear them. The madrichim in both cases weren’t thrilled at the idea, but over time became to realize that there was merit in being identified as a staff member.

Perhaps the biggest budgetary impact will be for the time of the person who is coordinating/supervising the madrichim program. This can be a shared responsibility, but the dollars allocated do need to be considered in your planning for the entire budget.

Ongoing training and assessment

Just as we plan for professional development for our teachers and ourselves, so must we plan for professional development for our madrichim. Identify who will do the training. What topics will be covered? What reflective piece will be included to determine if the training session met your goals?

The amount of training and the areas that you’ll cover will depend on the goals of your program. The session about On-The-Job training and expectations should remain constant despite the variations in your program. When you plan your training sessions, make sure you cover information that will enhance their skill set for the particular program you have on your site.

Provide feedback for your madrichim informally, when you observe them incorporating new information or strategies. Make yourself accessible so that they can ask you if they have any questions or concerns.


Just as we must do this for teachers, so must we establish a formal procedure for our madrichim. Consider who will do this, how it will be done, and make realistic projections for how much time it will entail. If you’d like a sample evaluation form, please let me know.

I used to promise my madrichim I’d write them recommendations (for jobs or for college) if they performed well as madrichim in our program. It made it easier for them to understand and accept the assessments of their performance, especially since I provided areas in which they could improve.


Leave a comment and I’ll address them as soon as I can!

Thanks to the JEA for the opportunity!

Wednesday, January 13, 2010


I've been heavily involved in a number of "professional development" endeavors this fall. Many of them focus on topics such as "enduring understandings," or "student engagement," or "deep learning." We've talked about "backwards design," "strategies for diverse learners," "ongoing assessment" and "evidence of learning."

About midway through the fall, it occurred to me that there is/was a key element that wasn't being mentioned in these discussions. I'm still not sure whether in our search for something that will work, it was overlooked entirely or it was an unarticulated assumption. I'm hoping it was the latter; I'm suspecting it was the former.

What AM I talking about?

The keystone we need to remember in working with learners of all ages is the importance of the personal relationship the teacher/facilitator must establish with each learner in his/her group, as well as the relationships the individual group members must establish with each other.

We often get so focused on our content that we lose sight of the individuals in front of us and who they are as people - not just in their role as learners.

We try to cram so much in that we neglect to take the time to establish a relationship.

My experience indicates that by trying to "save" time by jumping into content without building the relationship, the content remains disconnected from the lives of our students.

I've done a number of training sessions in the last six months - some have been part of a series, some were single-session events. In both cases, when I have compared notes with other presenters (at single-session events, for example), one thing stands out. In the groups where the presenters have taken the time to establish a sense of community and relationships, the quality of interactions and the quantity of knowledge (measured in depth instead of breadth) are increased markedly. This shows up in exit sheets or session evaluations.

In situations where the relationship is on-going (e.g., a class or series of workshops), establishing a relationship is the first critical piece in making the environment a safe one in which people can ask questions, express their own opinions, and be open to looking at information in a new way.

I'm teaching a class of madrichim - a great group of young people. After a three-week hiatus for winter break, I wanted to provide an opportunity for us to re-connect with each other. I introduced an activity I've used with other classes, which we've typically called "Roses and Thorns." Each participant shares one positive thing that happened since we've seen each other last - and one challenge or difficulty they're dealing with. My hesitation was that sometimes this exercise can expand to fill the entire class time. And we did have so much we needed to cover that day!

I decided to use visuals as a means of helping keep us focused. However, in my stash of materials, I couldn't find a fake rose. So I used an "apple" and a "lemon" - fake food items used in decorating my succah in years past - and renamed the activity "Apples and Lemons." Students were given an option to share their thoughts or to pass. Most chose to share.

It was a wonderful experience. Holding the objects seemed to keep us all focused and our comments relatively brief. We all learned more about what's going on with each other in our "real lives." Our subsequent discussions and learning also seemed to be better focused and less "frantic." We've spent time on previous occasions sharing information with each other - but this opportunity exceeded my expectations. We'll definitely do it again.

I also taught a group of a adult learners, about half of whom are beginning their Jewish teaching experiences. The remainder of the class has significant years of experience. The challenge was to establish a sense of community so that our learning experience together is enhanced and personal. As I searched for a new "ice breaker," I settled on a think-pair-share activity in which partners described both their favorite teacher ever - AND their least favorite teacher, providing reasons for each selection. Each person shared their partner's responses with the group.

This experience, too, was a profound one for the group. Individuals connected with each other and talked one-on-one about successes and failures they'd experienced in a classroom. Partners shared abridged information with the whole group, uniformly treading gently and respectfully as they shared about their partner's difficulties with their least favorite teacher. The class as a whole learned that they share a value for certain characteristics in educational leaders - and grimmaced in empathy as people discussed the characteristics of their least favorite teacher. Subsequent discussions reached an honest depth that often doesn't occur with a group that's just beginning its work together.

Taken together - what do these experiences reinforce for me? That it's critical to spend the time developing relationships with the individuals I teach.

The old adage rings true: They [students] don't care how much you know, until they know how much you care.

Only after they know how much we care, can we help them "engage" in "enduring understandings" and "deep learning."

Friday, January 1, 2010

Sh-e-e-e-e's B-a-a-a-ck!

It's been a long time since I posted regularly - a couple of postings on Torah study sessions I facilitated this fall, but nothing regular since mid-October. If you've been checking regularly without seeing a new post, thanks for coming back. I'll see if I can post more regularly in the months ahead.

Here's are some of the topics I hope to address (in no apparent order!) in the weeks ahead:
  • Relationships with learners
  • The biggest challenge in establishing a madrichim program
  • Is there a place for "frontal" learning?
  • "Celebrating Calm" - Kirk Martin's approach to working with "intense" kids
  • Book Reviews
  • Using technology effectively
  • "Schools that Work"
  • Building community
  • Professional development

Aren't we lucky? We get TWO new years to celebrate each year - a second chance to pull things together and get back on the path we'd like to be on. So here's to new beginnings!