Sunday, April 23, 2006

Time Wars Episode IV: A New Beginning?

In the late 80's I helped research an article by Joel Grishaver called Time Wars. In it he explored ways in which educators had succeeded in overcoming the shrinking amount of time available for religious school. There were some very creative solutions that in retrospect may have only been possible in the places where they functioned. Over fifteen years later the challenges have continued to mount. I would like to explore the role of time in Jewish education and issue a challenge to my colleagues.

Eight Days A Week — I Lo-o-o-ove You...
I was recently asked to consult with a colleague at a Conservative congregation and members of her school board. They were interested in how we had managed our curriculum review several years ago and wanted to explore how to go about their own. When we sat down, one of the first things the vice-president for education said was: "There are families that would like us to go from three days a week to two days. Can you help us?"

This was a very different question from the one I thought I was coming to address, and at the same time it was the same thing. The concern of the leadership was the overall quality of the education each child receives. It had been the belief of this congregation that there were a variety of essential skills and body of knowledge each graduate should possess—and that led to the schedule they currently had. Some members felt that their children could be given a proper education in two days.

As I see it, the two groups are answering different questions. The leadership was focused on the learning outcome. Those advocating a schedule change were focusing on the number of days per week. I believe both have some validity. The leadership, through a review of both the curriculum and of actual classroom practice needs to determine whether the time they have is being well used. Then they need to decide whether they need the time they have to meet their revised learning goals. They are at the beginning of the process. I suspect they will raise the bar on their goals and their faculty and will need the time they have. Because they have always had it, and because there has not been a huge groundswell opposing it, I suspect they will keep the three days.

The twice-a-week advocates do have an important point. As a school, we have an obligation to make good use of our students' time. The demands on an eleven year-old have increased massively over the past 30 years. There are many sociological reasons, none of which I will address for the simple reason that Jewish educators can't change them. They merely are. How we each deal with the many parents seeking an exception to the norm to accommodate their child's special interests (dance, musical instruments, choirs, elite sports teams, etc.) varies from educator to educator and case by case. The one thing I continue to observe as I speak to parents and colleagues is that the demands on us to reduce time decrease as the children's reports of enjoyment and good use of time increase.

So it seems to me the questions are:

  1. How much time and frequency do we need to meet our educational goals?
    (This assumes we have developed goals that are in concert with the mission of the synagogue.)
  2. How well do our parents and students understand our educational goals, and how bought into them are they?
  3. How well are we using the time we have?
  4. How do our students and parents perceive how well we use the time we have?
The Challenge—What Would Walt Do?
Walt Disney Imagineering is the master planning, creative development, design, engineering, production, project management, and research and development arm of The Walt Disney Company and its affiliates. Representing more than 150 disciplines, its talented corps of Imagineers is responsible for the creation of Disney resorts, theme parks and attractions, hotels, water parks, real estate developments, regional entertainment venues, cruise ships and new media technology projects.

In 1957 a man named Richard Sailer wrote an article entitled "BRAINSTORMING IS IMAGINation enginEERING." In that article he coined the term imagineering, which became the cornerstone of the Walt Disney Company's design concepts and eventually the name of the part of the company that creates the rides and so much more.

When asked how someone should prepare for a career as an imaginer, Doug Wolf a Project Manager with Walt Disney Imagineering said:

"Dream and pursue your imagination and goals. Do anything that stirs your
creativity—read, write, draw, observe and travel. Learn what you enjoy and excel
at, whether it be model-building, drawing, writing or construction. See if
there's a fit. Most likely there is since Imagineering encompasses almost
everything imaginable. But above all, enjoy what paths your life travels and
learn from each experience." (

A number of years ago, I wondered how we could apply the principles of Imagineering to Jewish education. I invited some colleagues to join me in developing a CAJE module where we each presented some ideas for re-imagining the religious school experience. The participants used those ideas as a jumping off point.

So let me issue a challenge to you, my colleagues. The question is time. I am not asking how many hours or days per week are optimal. I am sure we could all answer that, and whatever our answers were, they would be right for our own setting and wrong for someone else's. Instead, I want to ask you to consider the many demands upon our students' time and upon their parents.

Think about the time our teachers have available and how we compensate them. Take as granted that less is not more when it comes to time. Imagine how we can reasonably or unreasonably bring our students to spend more time at the task and joy of Jewish learning. Don't just think outside the box. Toss the box aside. I look forward to your responses.