Showing posts with label John Dewey. Show all posts
Showing posts with label John Dewey. 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.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Five Things That Marketing And Business Can Teach Jewish Teachers

I wrote this for one of Carol Starin's FIVE THINGS EXTRAVAGANZA'S at the 2005 CAJE conference in Seattle. I am happy to find that I still think it is relevant. I do think that in the last six years I have found at least five more things, but let me share these first and invite you to share some of your own! Shavuah Tov!


  1. Create Purple Cows – In his book Purple Cow: Transform Your Business By Being Remarkable, Seth Godin discusses the need for businesses to distinguish their products and services by making them stand out. To prove his point, he gave away copies for the book to people who e-mailed Fast Company Magazine. My copy arrived in a purple and white, ½ gallon milk carton.

    What can we learn? We need to use and create materials, projects and activities that WOW our students. Our 5th graders prepare a presentation on their Jewish heroes. We let them determine the medium, so long as they are not merely reading from a paper. So now we get web pages, power point presentations, videos…
  2. Watch for the Tipping Point– In The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, Malcolm Gladwell describes “a new way of understanding why change so often happens as quickly and as unexpectedly as it does. For example, why did crime drop so dramatically in New York City in the mid-1990's? How does a novel written by an unknown author end up as national bestseller? Why do teens smoke in greater and greater numbers, when every single person in the country knows that cigarettes kill? Why is word-of-mouth so powerful? What makes TV shows like Sesame Street so good at teaching kids how to read? I think the answer to all those questions is the same. It's that ideas and behavior and messages and products sometimes behave just like outbreaks of infectious disease. They are social epidemics.”

    What can we learn? We need to be students of the culture in our classrooms and schools. Do behaviors by both students and teachers correspond to the values you are teaching? Are we teaching “Thou Shalt Not Steal” using pages photocopied from a textbook or music from a cd that was burned from someone else’s copy of an album? Do we reward tardiness be recapping what latecomers missed (and punish timeliness by making those students sit through it again)? Do we schmooze with colleagues at the back while students are singing or praying or dancing with a “specialist, or are we singing, praying and dancing with our kids, modeling the behavior?
  3. Design Matters – Go to Fast Company and read about why design matters. The articles range over a variety of businesses, from the cap on a detergent bottle to cell phones to Old Navy Pajama Bottoms to OXO Easy Grip kitchen tools to architecture and beyond. In each case, they discuss how the design of the product or its packaging influences how much people like the product.

    What can we learn? How much attention have we paid to design in our classrooms? The walls, the layout of the furniture, the materials we distribute and our lesson plans all send messages to our students. What message do you want to send: “I’ve been doing this so long that I don’t need to plan anymore” or “I want this to be as fresh and interesting for me as it swill be for you!” “Yeah, we’re all stuck in a nursery school room, just grin and bear it?” or “You know, if we paint the ceiling tiles as a class project or create bulletin board that will be hung over the nursery posters when we are in session, we can really create our space among the toys!” Oh, and spelling and grammar do count for teachers, both in the classroom and in progress reports.
  4. Spread Idea Viruses –Seth Godin’s The Idea Virus takes The Tipping Point a step further, suggesting that ideas can be spread like viruses. “At the core of any ideavirus are sneezers – the folks who tell 10, 20, or 100 people about some new thing, and whom people believe. There are two basic kinds of sneezers: promiscuous sneezers and powerful sneezers. Promiscuous sneezers are folks like your dear Uncle Fred, the insurance salesman. You can always count on Fred to try to "sell" his favorite ideavirus to almost anyone, almost anytime. You know what Fred's up to when he starts to pitch whatever it is that he's onto now…

    Compare that with the influence of powerful sneezers. Go back to the early 1980s. The hat business is near the end of a decades-long downward spiral to total irrelevance. Each year has brought worse news, with one manufacturer after another going out of business, and most towns left with one haberdasher – if they're lucky. All of a sudden, in the midst of all of this dismal news, from out of nowhere, a hero bursts onto the scene: Harrison Ford. Carrying a bullwhip. Wearing a hat. Like the Marlboro Man, Indiana Jones had an enormously positive impact on sales of Stetson hats. Why? Because Harrison Ford is cool, because he has the influence to set style, and because his appearance in a movie in which he wore a fedora coaxed millions of men who wanted to be like him into buying one for themselves.”

    What can we learn? Who are the “vectors” – the students who tend to spread the word? Which are promiscuous and which are powerful? The ones who spread everything will keep your idea (say for a special class project, or a tzedakah recipient) out there in front of everyone, and you can enlist their aid. The powerful ones need to be won over, but when they pronounce their support for your idea, it will become reality. We began our retreat program as an idea virus, using one kid to infect another, until most of the kids were going. Then we used those kids to convince the next group to go using younger siblings. Of course, your idea needs to be a good one! Go Fast Company (again) for a two-part article by Godin on the idea virus.
  5. Bring the Curriculum to the Student – In his seminal work My Pedagogic Creed," John Dewey said "I believe that the only true education comes through the stimulation of the child's powers by the demands of the social situations in which he finds himself...The child's own instincts and powers furnish the material and give the starting point for all education. Save as the efforts of the educator connect with some activity, which the child is carrying on of his own initiative independent of the educator, education becomes reduced to a pressure from without... If it chances to coincide with the child's activity it will get a leverage; if it does not, it will result in friction, or disintegration, or arrest of the child nature." (First published in The School Journal, Volume LIV, Number 3, January 16, 1897.)

    What can we learn? Okay, Dewey was a teacher not a marketer, but he understood how to draw lessons from the students’ perspective, which is the trick that all good marketers have mastered. So what are kids interested in? If you teach 3rd – 5th grade, check out a show called “The Fairly Odd Parents.” It is the hottest show on cable and your students watch it (or it was in 2005. What do you think is hot right now?). And Sponge Bob Squarepants. And some of them like magic cards and Lindsay Lohan (clearly the mojo has moved to the likes of Justin Bieber, the Jonas Brothers, Miley Cyrus, etc). If we know where they are spending their time, we can make better connections. The movie Mean Girls is full of opportunities to teach Derekh Eretz!(Still true, but there are other newer aawesome films!)