Part I: The Intensive Summer Beit Midrash

At Fuchs Mizrachi School, we are privileged to have a Judaic faculty who love to think, collaborate, reflect and innovate. We have worked individually and in groups, through meetings and professional development days, to develop meaningful projects, powerful co-curricular programming and a shared set of skills/standards we hope our students will develop. At the same time, it has been challenging to bring individual teachers’ work together to develop a more systematic approach that insures both consistency and continuity for our students.

We needed to find a way to ensure that a cycle of action, reflection, and improvement became part of our teachers’ and school’s culture.
— Rabbi Yehuda Chanales

As open and reflective as our teachers may be, they still often find themselves in the daily grind of preparing lessons and marking assessment as they also try to build relationships with students outside the classroom and manage their own families’ needs.  We, therefore, wanted to find a way to build more systematic, year after year cycles of improvement into our school culture. We didn’t want to build one specific curriculum or implement one particular pedagogic tool; we needed to find a way to ensure that a cycle of action, reflection, and improvement became part of our teachers’ and school’s culture.

With this in mind we proposed-- and were excited to receive a grant from JEIC to support-- a different approach to teacher collaborative time. The Teacher Torah Collaboratory program will fully begin this summer with an intensive Summer Beit Midrash for Fuchs Mizrachi faculty. We believe that dedicated intensive time outside of the regular school year for faculty to learn and think deeply together can alter the lonely cycle of Judaic teachers individually preparing curriculum and planning meaningful activities from day to day. Through reconnecting with their passion for Torah learning, teachers will also be given the time and space to approach familiar texts through new lenses -- considering what both they and their students need in today’s world. Through intense learning, curriculum development and broad conversations about needs, priorities and next steps, teachers will be better positioned to build off of their comradery and shared work for next school year.

Last summer, we piloted a smaller, more condensed version of the Summer Beit Midrash to learn from the experience and be better poised for success this upcoming summer. Eight Gemara teachers spent four days together. In the morning, we learned in chavrutot the Masechet we knew we would be teaching this year. In the afternoons, we spent time working collaboratively on broader issues. We developed consensus around a set of core standards and skills we wanted our students to develop. We also used a design thinking protocol to discuss what prevented our students from engaging and succeeding in gemara learning. The protocol helped us prioritize by uncovering what we believed to be the lever that could impact our students’ challenges.  We hypothesized that by helping students see their skill development, they would be more likely to view themselves as “gemara learners” thus strengthening their sense of connection with and meaning from their learning. We finished our mini-Summer Beit Midrash experience with excitement about continuing to explore our theories together.

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While the collegial energy during our time together was powerful, we were not able to build successfully on our learning and conversations during the school year. When our High School Principal moved into the Head of School position in November, the Assistant Principal for Student Services and I essentially became acting principals. This constrained my time to lead Gemara Department meetings personally and develop proper accountability systems ensuring our discussions impacted teachers’ classroom practices.  Additionally, I learned that our four day Beit Midrash was not enough time for the team to reach a critical point in our planning process. We had time to think big picture about priorities and goals but did not have the time to work on what this meant for daily teaching and learning in the classroom. What types of activities would help students develop the skills we outlined? How would we assess student progress and provide feedback that would allow them to grow? How would we measure the impact of student growth on their attitudes toward gemara learning?

Ultimately, we recognized the value of intensive time together, and we learned that we needed more time and structure to reach a place upon which we could continue building all year. This summer we will utilize our JEIC grant to spend even more intensive time together--  two weeks focused on Tanach and two weeks focused on Gemara. Some teachers will participate in both groups. During those weeks, we will dedicate mornings to text study of material we will be teaching next year in ways that deepen our understanding of that material and push us to approach familiar texts in different ways.

During our Gemara Beit Midrash we will host a Scholar-in-Residence, Rav Ori Lifschutz of the Lev Lad’at Project associated with the Ministry for Religious and Education and Herzog College. This project seeks to equip teachers in Israel with the skills to facilitate students’ engagement with the ideas and values that emerge from the study of Tanach and Gemara. In our first week together, Rav Ori will lead shiurim/study sessions and model alternative approaches to teaching Gemara focusing on expanding our toolbox as teachers and learners. Later each day, teachers will individually prepare a suyga/unit on their own, utilizing a common template with coaching from Rav Ori and me. During the second week, teachers will take turns presenting the unit they prepared with their fellow teachers acting as students. Time later in the day will be dedicated to providing feedback, fine tuning and providing additional ideas. Together, the group will walk away from the two weeks having discussed the same units, approaches to teaching and a shared sense of how we expect students to develop skills and find meaning in the texts.

In a future blog post, I look forward to sharing details about the differing needs of our Tanach Summer Beit Midrash and the follow up strategies from our summer work using collaborative team meetings and select protocols. Please share your comments and questions!