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!