The start of the school year typically presents a challenge with balance. Fall brings us an often-appreciated change of weather, and we shiver a bit from the chilly mornings and sad sight of our slowly shriveling much-loved gardens. Rosh Hashanah’s festive feel includes sweet foods and celebratory meals with family and friends, and it also serves as a time of judgement in determining our fate for the year. And in the same spirit, Simchat Torah represents the culmination of reading the full Torah, and then we find ourselves beginning all over again with the very first word.
This balance between the present and the future, the jovial and the austere, the culmination and beginning might seem contradictory at first, but it is a key part of our annual transition, extending to any time of transition or creation. Similarly, in creating our new Jewish day school, Einstein Academy, we wrestle with making sense of these seemingly-contradictory concepts every day.
I have a new hero, and it’s a bit embarrassing.
Embarrassing to admit that I’ve studied and taught this character for decades and always assumed he was the anti-hero, the person we shouldn’t become, the epitome of someone who was impelled by a mistaken zeal to lead a mistaken life.
My anti-hero has become heroic.
I’m talking about Jonah.
I have a bad habit of assuming that whatever I have loved or enjoyed other people will also love and enjoy. Sometimes this assumption sends me down the wrong path, but in the case of my Jewish literature course for high schoolers, it led to the development of something beautiful and enduring for my students.
Creating this course was a dream of mine since falling in love with a Jewish Literature course in my freshman year of college. I was transformed by the class, and all I could think about throughout that year was: Why didn’t they teach any of these texts to me during my twelve years of Jewish education?
When I began teaching high school English in a Jewish day school bringing Jewish literature into my classes was a priority. The students came from a broad range of backgrounds and many felt detached from Jewish learning through ancient texts. Teaching Jewish literature was an opportunity to broaden their understanding of their religion, culture and what constitutes a Jewish text.
Having been involved in Jewish education for many years as both a student and a teacher, I have often felt perturbed by the attempts to professionalize and academize the field. Rubrics, curricula, assessments, and so on were vigorously studied with the hope of full implementation. In a field like Jewish studies, educators, schools, and parents often wonder: what is success? When does a parent or a school know that they have done well with the Jewish education they provide to children? I would strongly argue that academic measures are the last place to look.
Recently we hosted a meeting with a small group of Korean Christian ministers and students. They drove a long distance to meet with us to explore the promise of havruta, specifically for their Korean cultural and religious context. While this group gained helpful insight about havruta, our own gleanings from this encounter were unexpected and even a gift. Explaining the meaning of havruta to people outside the Jewish community required us to share more than just the history or mechanics of studying in pairs. We felt compelled to convey the deep Jewish sensibility that learning in our tradition is often inherently rooted in the personal relationships we build and nurture.
Have you ever experienced an “aha moment” when what seems to be an array of disparate parts all connect and form one cohesive whole?
Let me introduce you to a cornerstone of Montessori educational philosophy called cosmic education. Cosmic education emphasizes the value of imparting to our students a more comprehensive and holistic picture of the world and its manifold facets. It begins with learning about how the universe came to be, and continues with a “zoom-in” on the respective parts of the whole, which include but aren’t limited to history, geography, science, communication, and relationships. Ultimately, it describes the role of education as “to encompass the development of the whole person within the context of the universe.’
Visitors to Schechter Manhattan often comment to me about how engaged and happy students appear. They notice how the students are busy at work, focused on the learning activities at hand. Sometimes I am asked, what motivates our students? Why do they choose to do hard things in order to learn?
Motivating students, and people, in general, is a challenge faced by all educators, and Schechter Manhattan is no exception. After all, our students don’t get a choice about whether they come to school, the adults in their lives insist. And, at Schechter Manhattan, like at most schools, we adults have made decisions about what content, concepts, skills, and values to include in the curriculum of study- things we think are really important and expect all students to learn. Add to that our approach to assessment and reporting, which includes lots of feedback but no grades or other such external motivators, and the question becomes even sharper. What motivates students to try?
Take a look at the image above. What do you see? Do you see children who are distracted, lazy, or perhaps even addicted? If yes, you’re not alone. In fact, many parents and educators feel that our children are unable to balance the advantages of technology and that it does more harm than gain. Many seek to blame our children for their reliance on technology and believe that the current generation is deteriorating and incapable.
To be honest, I strongly disagree with this perception and hope the rest of this article opens conversation, dialogue, and perhaps even debate so that educators will stop and think about technology’s implications in the world of chinuch now and in the future.
When an organization is facing a big change - the arrival of a new leader, a shift in strategy, rapid growth (or decline) - one often hears the well-worn reminder that “change is not an event, it is a process.” Well-intended advice, perhaps, but not helpful. It is not helpful because when change is at hand, hard work is needed, not sage advice. It is not helpful because with all new pressures, we have to focus on the work, not words.
And it is not helpful, most precisely, because it is not true.
The darkness of our times feels particularly difficult for me. Gratefully, Hanukkah this year reminded me that even one small light can brighten a relatively big space and more significantly, one small light (the shamash) can extend its power.
In an era when there is much justified conversation about the fragility of day schools, it is easy to succumb to the dark conversations about our future. I, however, prefer to see the rays of light, the schools whose trailblazing initiatives illuminate the larger field and serve as models from which we can learn. In my visits to these schools and conversations with their professional and lay leaders, eight principles emerge that characterize stronger schools, often defying demographic odds:
There is a frenetic pace that has taken over Jewish education, and education in general. Maybe this is a result of the flood of offerings on social media promoting how to be a #betterschool or the latest technology you must have to be #cuttingedge. Perhaps it comes from a feeling that in order to retain and attract students schools can’t stop moving, training, improving, innovating. This is overwhelming educators and is having a ripple effect into all aspects of Jewish Day Schools. We are losing talented teachers and school leaders who want to keep up, but the speed at which things move may be too fast for even the most dedicated educators.
Let me be clear, I am not saying that training or improving or innovating are bad. In fact, they are a must if we want our children to excel and be engaged citizens who see the world through a Jewish lens. Our students need exposure to a variety of disciplines and skills, and they need to master them. However, what I have felt, seen and heard is a growing grumbling from teachers and leaders alike who are grabbing at the next best thing that is just out of reach. Whether it’s a 3-D printer, a new STEM lab, the latest coding software, SEL curriculum, personalized learning – schools can’t stop figuring out what they are missing. But, perhaps, they are missing the point of day school education in the first place.
The trust-fall — it’s the quintessential team-building go-to game. I love feeling exhilarated and terrified all at once! The key to its success is obvious; you must trust that people will actually deliver on their promise to catch you. It’s not enough just to hear, “We’ve got your back; we won’t let you fall.” Action transforms a promise into proven trustworthiness.
Trust in school leadership is important to productivity, innovation, loyalty, positive morale, and more. There is no shortage of research and opinion pieces citing the ways leaders can earn trust. Clarity, consistency, contribution, compassion, and other traits that don’t begin with a C are essential for building leadership trust.
A slightly interesting twist in the trust game surfaces in a recent article about trust in leadership in the Harvard Business Review by Holly Henderson Brower, et al. “Trust begets trust,” the article’s authors noted. To build trust FROM others, leaders need to show trust IN others.
Jewish education is the most important gift we give our children and our communities. This is not because Jewish education supports continuity. Judaism, a religion of growth, of personal evolution, forward movement, Tikun Olam, must grow students, not so they can mirror the present, but so that they can shape the future. We should not be satisfied with an educational system that merely holds the line or allows continuation of Judaism as we know it. Jewish education is the key to fulfilled Jewish learning and living that builds beyond where we are now. It is the most powerful guarantee of a generation that will advance Jewish life and help advance the world in important ways.
My commitment to Jewish education drives my work, my philanthropy, and my passions. Among my proudest efforts was helping to create the Jewish Community Day School of Greater Boston (JCDS) over two decades ago. The school’s founding was rooted in core values that were surfaced from visioning exercises and conversations among a committed and passionate group of day school parents.
We began with “artifacts” (as defined by Edgar Schein), reacting in some ways to what we didn’t want and then flipping the lens from complaining to envisioning. In fact, at an early convening, we set rules giving everyone two uninterrupted minutes to speak with a limited time for complaints and a request to focus most of their time to describe the ideal. We recorded everything we heard; we clarified with each person the essence of what they shared. We asked everyone to listen deeply to each other and got a sense of the varying perspectives in the room. It was a long night. There were over 100 people in the room.
After a long, and at times, arduous three-year process, the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County became an authorized International Baccalaureate (IB) World School for the Middle Years Programme. As the first Jewish day school in this Metropolitan area to become an IB school, we join a short list of three Jewish schools in North America to have achieved this prestigious accreditation (with the others in Toronto, Mexico City, and Palm Beach Gardens, Florida) and six secular schools in New Jersey. Our Schechter school now ranks among 1,500 IB Middle Years Programme schools around the world. What's more, we are proud to lay claim as the first Jewish day school to tailor this gold-standard educational framework to our Judaic studies curriculum. This means we are creating a uniquely Jewish experience for our students to connect their Jewish learning to the world around them and to turn their learning into action. We chose the IB because it offers a powerful lens through which we can better integrate and teach general studies and Jewish text, traditions and Hebrew language. The journey has been demanding and has called for the support of our teachers, students, parents, and board; it has paid off.
We have achieved the first big milestone in this process of school change; however, we recognize we are still at the beginning of a journey. Our success will depend on our continued commitment to full implementation of all aspects of this program. We have documented a few key lessons we have learned along the way that we believe would help any school embark on a similar school-change initiative.
I had the privilege of attending the Jewish Education Innovation Challenge (JEIC) 2018 Retreat –a wonderful gathering of educators, investors, and leaders in the world of Jewish day school education. Over the course of the retreat, we were asked to think deeply about the purpose of day school education. We were asked to reflect on our own values, and how we would bring those values to life in a school setting. And we were asked – in an uplifting keynote by philanthropist and visionary leader, Manette Mayberg – to consider the importance of distinctiveness as an enduring Jewish spiritual value.
Her words brought to mind one of my favorite midrashim – a rabbinic commentary from Vayikra Rabbah inspired by a verse from this week’s Torah portion, Acharei Mot-Kedoshim: “You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt.” [Leviticus 18:2]
This past summer, driven by a desire to create a sustainable system of innovation in our school and supported by a grant from the Jewish Education Innovation Challenge, Akiba-Schechter began the process of creating the first Research & Development Department in a Jewish Day School.
The Akiba R&D Department studies, develops prototypes, researches, and scales new teaching and learning approaches, practices, and systems that advance relevant learning for our students and the field of education. Our R&D system ensures new programs, models and ideas are thoughtfully studied, implemented, and sustained. In many companies, R&D departments play an integral role in the life cycle of a product. For us, at a Jewish Day School, we believe the R&D Department plays an integral role in the lifecycle of teaching methodologies and student learning.
The R&D Department researches and develops approaches, practices, and systems that:
are driven by global trends
have a strong relevance to our school’s mission and core values
have potential to significantly transform teaching and learning
have sudden urgency or meet unexpected needs
The R&D Department focuses on five areas:
Research for new programs or models
Development of new programs or models
Updates in existing programs or models
Quality checks on existing programs or models
General research on educational trends and innovations
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.
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.
Giving students the right to make choices in their education is not a new idea. In fact, it is one of the foundational ideas of Maria Montessori’s and John Dewey’s systems of education. Over the years research has also confirmed (Goodwin, 2010) that giving students a greater role in directing their own education increases motivation and student learning outcomes.
While in secular education progressive educators have long been moving in the direction of increasing student choice, Jewish education has been slow to adapt.