Showing posts with label Hebrew College. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Hebrew College. Show all posts

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Waiting for Superman: New CAJE, Old Battle

Another great piece from eJewishPhilantrhopy! Sadly NewCAJE comes when I serve at Eisner Camp, so I was not able to be there. Sounds like it was excellent. I truly appreciate and agree with David Steiner's conclusion, and would have loved to have been in the room! Thoughts?


by David Steiner

Conflict is the gadfly of thought. It stirs us to observation and memory. It instigates invention. It shocks us out of sheep-like passivity, and sets us at noting and contriving … conflict is a sine qua non of reflection and ingenuity.
John Dewey

The highlight of NewCAJE #4 held at Nichols College, just west of Boston, was not the exemplary learning or rich celebrations of Jewish culture. It was the “Rumble in the Jungle,” the debate about the nature of Jewish education for the 21st century, which was set up like the famous heavyweight championship fight between Mohammad Ali and George Foreman in Zaire and played out like the battle of the Mitnagdim and the Hassidim.

Dr. David Bryfman
In one corner, there was Dr. David Bryfman, Director of the New Center for Collaborative Leadership at the Jewish Education Project in New York, and, in the other was Rabbi Danny Lehmann, President of Hebrew College of Boston. The room was packed, the stakes were high and, in place of a referee, Rabbi Cherie Koller-Fox moderated. There were no KO’s, but the crowd, passing judgment with the SMS app on their smart phones, gave a lean victory to Dr. Bryfman with the cellular poll asking which speaker would be most accepted by the audience member’s congregation or school board.

Rabbi Danny Lehmann
What were the stakes? The debate was set up to address the future of Jewish education. How important is Jewish literacy to the 21st century learner? What is the importance of Judaic text-based education in experiential learning? What is the importance of recreation (a sense of fun and belonging) in a Jewish education context? These were the questions, and if you removed references to the 21st century and experiential education, you might just think you were transported back to the era of apostasy following the false messiahs of the 17th and 18th centuries.

Standing in for the Hasidim was Dr. Bryfman, a new Baal Shem Tov, hoping to convince the crowd that the individual experience of a child, at the center of Jewish education, is best served with “positive Jewish experiences,” while his opponent, the Mitnaged, standing in for the Gra, Rabbi Danny Lehmann took the position that positive experiences are not a substitute for engagement with Jewish texts, which is at the center of Judaism.

To help decide whose vision of Jewish education is more appropriate for the 21st century, this writer turns back to the first century of the Common Era when a similar battle was being waged. In preparation for the Jewish people’s departure from their home turf in Roman occupied Palestine, Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiva argued the question: “Which is greater, education or action?” Tarfon insisted on experience, while Akiva defended learning. In the end, the rest of the rabbis settled the dispute by saying: “Education is greater because it leads to [proper] action.” Notice that education comes first, and, more importantly, not all action is proper.

In making his case, Dr. Bryfman delivered a body blow with an anecdote. He told the story of a woman who remembered the food she ate to break her fast on Tisha B’Av over two decades earlier at a Jewish summer camp. His point, we remember and identify with the world we experience. But Rabbi Lehmann, the southpaw, came back with an upper cut by lamenting the lack of substance and asking what is the benefit of an identity which is hallow? He asked why should we remain Jewish if it doesn’t stand for anything. Essentially, he was saying that there are many identities out there, and educators help to define Jewishness so young Jews will choose our identity.

Experiential education, John Dewey’s brainchild, was the centerpiece of the New CAJE debate, but there was a distinctly non-Dewey feeling in the air. Experience was being touted by Dr. Bryfman as a panacea for the ills of a religious school system that was failing our youth, while Rabbi Lehmann sounded like the naysayers of Progressive education. Both thought their educational philosophy is a natural outgrowth of Dewey, who would respond to them,
“[A]ny movement that thinks and acts in terms of an ‘ism becomes so involved in reaction against other ‘isms that it is unwittingly controlled by them. For it then forms its principles by reaction against them instead of by a comprehensive, constructive survey of actual needs, problems, and possibilities.” 
It reminds me of the joke about the two scholars fighting over the true meaning of the Rambam.

“My Monides is right.”

“No, My Monides.”

Remaining loyal to Dewey, we can say that, “There is no such thing as educational value in the abstract.” Kal v’chomer, if this is so, then how can there be a panacea.

In my session, Exposing the Gorilla’s in the Complimentary School Classroom (and thinking about what to feed them), a group of religious school directors introduced themselves by telling each other where they are from and the particular challenges of their schools. We looked at this question through the lens’s of geography, demography and finance. What we discovered was just how complicated our situation is.

The problems of Jewish education are numerous but not uniform. (Repeat 3x) Like the seventy faces of Torah, each educator faces different challenges. Some of us are in big cities with large Jewish populations. In these cities, day school becomes an option, most often, when the public school system is failing. The consequence tends to be two forms of day schools; Jewish day schools and private schools for Jews. In all densely populated Jewish communities, the synagogue doesn’t need to be the center of Jewish life and bagels at the local deli may satisfy families’ needs for Jewish community and ritual.

In small towns, isolation from highly trained teachers can be a major obstacle. One participant in my session told me about the positive role the Institute for Southern Jewish Life has in supporting these schools. Many are limited by finance. They can’t afford professional development for their teachers, and some even need to draft unpaid teacher volunteers. ISJL supports these schools through conferences, teacher mentorships and ongoing support.

I could go on about the challenges of the various religious schools, but my goal is not to make lists. I want to direct the reader’s attention to the fact that discussions about the nature of religious pedagogy, whether it is experiential or more like a traditional beit midrash, mislead us into believing that we can find uber remedies. In American public education, this is called “Waiting for Superman.” It doesn’t work.

For millennia, Jewish communities have been led by the mara d’atra, usually rabbis, but essentially the “teacher of the place” whose charge it is to serve as a facilitator of Jewish knowledge and practice. Left to it’s own devices, this system wouldn’t work because the communities would eventually become so disparate in there beliefs that they would not find a common core.

This is why they chose a big Jewish library of content to stand at the center of the curriculum. Each mara d’atra would have his favorite books and ways of teaching and expertise, but they would all emanate from a common set of constantly developing knowledge, an oral Torah. Left alone, this wouldn’t work either because some communities allowed their Torah to include false messiahs and unaccepted revelations.

This is when the librarians came in and said, as I learned from my teacher Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman, there need to be some borders for Judaism. This is where our system of checks and balances comes to play. We are pluralistic because we want the entire family at the table. It also teaches us to be humble and not assume that we have the monopoly on what’s right. We are tolerant because we stand for something, which means that not everything goes, i.e. we cannot have people at our table that will not sit with everyone at the table.

And we allow some deviance because the best laid plans of mice and men sometimes go askew, and we have to address issues that we never thought would come up, like we do in conducting wars against terror or finding ways to accept the sexuality of all our family members.

Rabbi Lehmann is right that we have to look to our own library and grind our teeth in pursuit of these answers, and Dr. Bryfman is right in our need to create laboratories, a term I borrow from Dewey, where Jewish students can have Jewish experiences that make them want to be members of the tribe, and both of them are wrong if they think that theirs should be the dominant paradigm of our religious schools.

In Hebrew, we have three letter roots for our words, and often they become the source of a system of binary thinking that can be wonderful and terrible in the same moment. The root, shin, chet, reish, can create the word shachar, dawn, the beginning of light, and shachor, black, the absence of light. This gives us a spectrum on which to find ourselves. The same can be said for pey, shin, tet, which can create pshat, the simple or literary meaning, or moofshat, abstraction. Again, a binary. It’s the same idea that Bialik wanted us to learn in his brilliant essay, Aggadah and Halacha, Legend and Law. Each is the side of a coin. They cannot exist without the other. Think heaven and Earth, water and land, the workweek and Shabbat.

There are, however, other paradigms in Judaism. Seventy faces of Torah is a three dimensional paradigm. It recognizes the limitations of spectrums of thought. Seventy faces of Torah is why we need more organizations like New CAJE because Jewish educators need to come together and discuss our challenges and constantly brainstorm their solutions and share what works and what doesn’t. This is why I went to New CAJE, not for the heavyweights and their rumbles, not to make choices between mitnagdim and Hassidim, but to be in the company of my peers and colleagues and to face the challenges of the 21st century without waiting for Superman.

David J. Steiner, Ed.D. is working to complete his rabbinic ordination. He has been a congregational director of education for both the Reform and Conservative synagogues, and he recently returned to America from a fellowship at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Remarketing Jew Education

This week the Jewish Educators Associatian (JEA) is having their annual conference. This coming week, I will be joining my colleagues from the National Association of Temple Educators (NATE) at our  annual conference in Seattle. Both the Conservative JEA and the Reform NATE conferences are making technology and futuring the centerpiece of their learning. It is very exciting. 

In The Networked Non-Profit, Beth Kantor and Allison Fine point out that when it comes to Social Media, the important word is SOCIAL not MEDIA. In other words the technology is a tool for bringing people together, and in our case, making Jewish learning happen.

Joel Grishaver has posted what I think is a very interesting idea about futuring on his blog, The Gris Mill, and I am glad he wrote it now so I can think about it while I am learning in Seattle.

Remarketing Jew Education
by Joel Lurie Grishaver

We are at an interesting moment in the world of parenting. This parenting chaos directly impacts the way we present ourselves as Jewish “schools.”

The first voice is Amy Chua, author of  "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,"  who says give your child no room to do anything but succeed. The other voice is Wendy Mogul, whose long overdue second book, “The Blessings of a B-Minus,” cajoles us to accept our child as human beings. Both books are now coming to prominence. One is about high achievement, the other is about resilience. Both take a swipe at the long over emphasized issue of self-esteem.

Chua wants us to be tougher on our kids and demand “perfection.” Mogul understands that “failure” is a useful growth opportunity. Both of them wind up as commentary on new reports about the failure of American schools to even teach the difference between facts and opinions and the overall failure of American Universities to make any impact on the learning of many of their present students. Richard Arum, lead author of the study, “Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses” (University of Chicago Press) came out in January, too, is the third voice putting the foundations of the way we parent at risk.

Believe it or not, all this comes back to the role and optics of Jewish schools, particularly Jewish supplemental schools. Who we are as a school has a lot to do with what our parents believe a school is.

We are simultaneously being told be like regular schools and become technological. At the same time we are being told, don’t be like a school at all (we’ve had enough of that) be a camp or a program or something interesting (and do that using a lot less time). What is common knowledge every where but in our classroom, is the universal belief that the present Jewish schooling system is a total failure.
Here is a radical idea. We ought to play to our own strengths. We know that the Jewish tradition centers on learning how to close-read texts. (Think reading comprehension!) That we use a thing called “Talmudic Logic” that teaches you how to evaluate evidence, reason, and know the difference between fact and opinion.

Jewish schools can and should do camp pretty well. We need to get better at technology. For sure, our tradition centers on building both self-esteem and resilience. But, what Judaism really is good at is learning—deep learning.

In the future, when the alternative (for example) is 10 minutes of Skype a week plus one informal event a month probably involving families, we will brag:  “We help our students become better learners.”
Camp will do camp better than we do. Other schools will always have more money to spend on technology than we do (and Web 2.0 apps only go so far). But what we can really brag about is “let us teach your children the Jewish tradition and they will do better in life.”

We will incorporate the camp selling point: “You children will make friends to last a lifetime.” We will have the technological appeal: “We allow your children to remix the Jewish tradition.” But our unique promise is about learning skills. Right now we teach not language but mechanical reading. Language provides useful insight. Mechanical reading is self-serving. We are geared to teach names and facts, but “meaning” and “insight” are what are precious. We have to work to make our classrooms both challenging and responsive, and those are goals we can achieve. It is perhaps the only truth that will keep us in business.

To stay on the weekly schedule, to make it worth the carpool time, Jewish Schooling has to have advantages. The good thing is that we own them: Friends, Remixing, Creativity, Resilience, and Academic Excellence. We know how to do this—we simply need to become good Torah teachers and not a pale imitation of secular schools.

Cross posted to The Gris Mill and Davar Acher.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Students, please turn your cell phones...on!

Two weeks ago I was telling my wife and my faculty that we were only a year or two away from asking our students to turn ON their phones at the start of class. This article was pointed out by several people on twitter, and it turns out I have no sense of timing. It was written by Rabbi Karen G. Reiss Medwed and was posted on the Hebrew College Blog.

Hebrew College Blog
Why My Students Were Texting in Class…and Learning
Posted by Guest Blogger on Mon, Nov 09, 2009 @ 12:32 PM

Picture this: You walk into a Prozdor classroom of ninth graders and see them all texting on their cell phones while the teacher is writing on the board. "So sad," you think, "another case of teaching gone bad." In fact, I was the teacher (filling in as a substitute), and I was encouraging the students to text during an introductory class about mitzvot. How did I come to design a class using text messaging as my active learning experience? And why do I think this was a successful and effective class?

In designing my lesson plan, my hope, as a constructivist educator, was to create an active learning experience that would engage the students by using tools that were familiar and comfortable for them. At first my plan was to play a game, something like "Mitzvah Jeopardy." But I needed something different, something new, which would push my boundaries as an educator. Answering a text on my phone in the midst of my planning, I found my inspiration: text messaging in class as a tool for collaborative learning.

"How many mitzvot are there? Let's text a sister, a friend, Dad, as many ‘lifelines' as we want." My students eagerly clicked on their cells, and the numbers started coming in. "Do we have to fulfill all the mitzvot?" A quick yes/no text poll of everyone sparked an engaged conversation about the different understandings of commandment as obligation.

Comments from our lifelines punctuated our conversations: "My mom thinks that the mitzvot we fulfill are about making our lives feel more connected to other people." "My dad thinks we can't do mitzvot that have to do with the Temple." One friend remembered that there was "something about Israel" and how that changed which mitzvot we do. Our conversations became multidirectional--we were conversing around our text and around our texting, and we were conversing with one another and with our lifelines, who were conversing with us and with their texts (at least one parent was on Google and another on Wikipedia).

The students loved this lesson. They loved using their phones, but more than that, they loved the learning. Our classroom discussion was rich, full of personal connections and probing questions. While I have no empirical evidence that it was the medium that provided this depth, as a teacher, I had the clear sense that the conversation was informed by the medium. The explicit and implicit integrated curriculum brought it all together. An added benefit was that parents loved this lesson. It provided a rare window into their kids' experience at Prozdor without having that awkward car conversation: How was class? Fine. What did you learn?


It is time for Jewish education to engage 21st century technology, to connect with our students using the media that are such an integral part of their daily lives. This is an educational imperative for formal as well as complementary Jewish education, and it is a valuable pedagogy for experiential education, as well. Texting is only the beginning. Distance learning courses, wiki building for Jewish teen education, YouTube instructional videos, Twitter for Jewish education, fantasy world gaming meets the Bible--all this and more are the next steps in today's Jewish educational teen curriculum.

As for me, I can't wait to hear from you--how are you using technology in your Jewish educational venue? I want to know before I have to substitute for my next absent teacher.

--Karen Reiss Medwed

Rabbi Karen G. Reiss Medwed, PhD, is Assistant Professor of Jewish Education at Hebrew College, where she is Dean of Faculty of Prozdor, Director of the EdD in Jewish Education Leadership and Coordinator for the Pardes Educators Program. This spring she will be teaching a distance learning course at Hebrew College, Theory and Practice of Jewish Education, where she will explore theories such as constructivist education, and practices such as collaborative education and technology in Jewish educational venues.