Thursday, June 27, 2013

Making the Grade

As I finish up the last of my report cards, I can’t help but thinking about the value of grades. Do the letters on the spreadsheet really tell the story? How can one or two characters explain growth, struggle, apathy, or determination? The classic grading system seems to assume that the answer to this question in the affirmative. We give numbers for test grades and letters on report cards. Although we have a section to elaborate on each student’s performance, everybody knows that it is the number or letter that we use to define success. This system is imperfect, and may be contradictory to what true learning is.
Learning, like intelligence, has many different facets and definitions. One person’s picture of a genius might be Albert Einstein, the man who understood the laws of the universe like few others. Someone else’s paradigm might be Steve Jobs, master visionary. The list might also include Maimonides, Bob Dylan, Oprah Winfrey, the Rogachover Gaon, or Pablo Picasso.
Applying it to education, one can take many angles to define the goal of education. Life skills, universal knowledge, philosophical inquiry, problem solving, reading, writing, and other goals are all part of how we define “education.” Each has merits and each are represented in some way in almost every educational setting. But which talents are represented most in classic testing practice?
It seems that memory is the branch of intelligence most represented by current testing. Tests are generally culminations of large portions of material, with the majority of questions asking for students to recall content. To be fair, these questions often require more than rote memorization. To explain how two Talmudic sources contradict one another or how a quote from a story represents a certain character’s mindset requires a deeper understanding of the material and the ability to put those ideas into words. However, these ideas are usually taught or discussed in class first, and therefore don’t show any degree of innovation.
Which brings us back to the definition of learning. If somebody can recall information, especially while explaining the underlying theory, evidence of learning has been presented. However, is this really the ultimate goal for learning? Focus should be placed on what the students can do with the content than on the content itself. In life, success is not about what you know, but what you can accomplish with what you know (exception: Jeopardy). It doesn’t seem that our grades always reflect that.
Then, we have to discuss the purpose of grading. Hopefully, most teachers’ educational goals aren’t limited to helping high schools and colleges decide who to accept. However, the classic grading process is often no more than that; it simply describes and defines a student based on their past performance.
The evaluation process has the opportunity to be so much more for our students. The key word is “feedback.” Grading should be an opportunity for teachers to understand the areas in which each student is succeeding or struggling. Teachers could then communicate this information to each student while developing targeted interventions or enrichment to their students’ needs. This way, grading becomes a useful tool to understand where students are at, and what can be done to help them improve.
To reach this goal, a monumental shift in two ways is required. First, educators need to create more short-term assessments. The more frequent the assessments, the greater the opportunity to learn about the students, and to intervene in their best interests. Secondly, the assessments must be skill-focused. Teachers can only provide constructive feedback if they are assessing areas that can be remediated. Telling a student “you knew this, but you didn’t know that” is simply an assessment of memory and understanding, but nothing more.
As a teacher, thinking about making such a shift makes me nervous. It requires a complete change in educational approach, and a lot of added work. My personal approach is to try to incorporate some of this into my teaching practices, which is more easily accomplished in smaller classes. To make a move in a different direction organizational and cultural change is needed. This would require focused leadership.
The potential benefit here is tremendous. Consistent skill-assessment and feedback can help our students grow in ways they haven’t previously. The stronger students can be enriched and the weaker students assisted. We shouldn’t be waiting weeks until a test to find out where student are holding, only to immediately move on to the next unit. Education should be a partnership between teacher and student, and this is one way such a union could be achieved. Finally, we might be able to move past reducing our students’ achievements to letters and numbers and view them within the greater picture.
(Originally published in The Jewish Link of Bergen County

Monday, June 17, 2013

Whose Responsibility?

For better or for worse people often identify themselves with their alma maters. The association can be as simple as an adult asking another where they went to high school, and can be as intense as college graduates that have not missed a home football game in 25 years. We feel a certain kinship with meeting fellow graduates, and can talk about old camp stories for hours.
The connection to the places that we have spent so much of our time is a natural one. We feel eternally a part of places and events that have had major impacts on our personal development. But what about when we associate others with their schools? Is that normal, healthy or smart? Is it proper to view people through the prism of their institutions?
Let’s use a test case to address this issue. When we see a bunch of kids from a school misbehaving in public, we wonder what kind of messages the school is or isn’t sending these kids. My high school actually didn’t allow the sports teams to have jackets (back when it was actually cool). This was partly because they didn’t want any negative public behavior to be associated with the school. Is this fair? Should schools be judged based on the behavior of their students?
First, a distinction should be made between bad influences and bad behavior. If students from a certain school exhibit “at risk” behaviors, then we have to bring the school into the picture. If you wouldn’t want your children associating with such kids, you need to know where the problems are. The actions of a few don’t always reflect on the many, but as they say, where there’s smoke, there’s fire.
However, if you see a group of kids acting rowdy, I wouldn’t start looking at the school. It’s normal for a large group of kids to get wild in public. Nobody’s perfect, and neither are kids, so to look for someone or something to blame might be a bit unfair. Think about your children. Imagine if you had 25 sons or daughters the same age. Would expect them to behave every time they are together in public?
But let’s say we are dealing with a pervasive behavior problem. A student or a group of students are consistently rude to teachers, wild in public, and cruel to other students. This goes beyond “kids will be kids” behavior, and moves towards being a concern. Who do we look to for answers? Is it fair to look at this group and say “Oh, so that’s how Yeshivat HaYeshiva students act? I’m never sending my kids there!”
I think the answer here is pretty clear: It starts at home. Instilling midot in children cannot happen in an artificial environment, which is exactly what school is. Some schools do a better job of making school feel like home, and others do a better job of giving real-life experiences to their students. Either way, when it comes to learning how to be a good person, there is no substitute for what is learned at home.
So what can schools do? First of all, they can and should keep talking and teaching about midot. The fact that home is most significant doesn’t make what happens at school inconsequential. Secondly, schools can work midot into the “real-life” aspects of the day. Midot must be embedded into the school culture. Teachers should be extra-careful regarding how they act and speak around and to students. Mantras about bullying, kindness, respect for others’ property, and other important concerns should be posted around the school and used by faculty and students alike. Students should know that obnoxious comments and wild behavior will never be tolerated.
Most importantly, all this needs to be made obvious to the students. Teachers should be open about certain things they say or do. Besides making the students aware of their values, the teacher’s transparency carries the benefit of fostering honesty. Honesty has a very powerful effect with children. When students and children think that teachers or parents are being “real” with them, they will be 100% more receptive to their message. Also, being open allows students to look at teachers as role models. Not being upfront usually breeds within students a feeling of being manipulated, no matter how pure the teacher’s intentions may be.
The key is to take midot from being the “what” and make them the “how.” As much as we’d like it to be true, learning Pirkei Avot will not change behavior as much as reading about how doing a triple-bypass can make someone a great surgeon. Midot need to be part of the casual conversation, and something that all teachers must include in everything they do. Proper behavior can only be taught with proper behavior.
Getting back to the original point, this explains why what happens at home is so much more powerful than what happens at school. Midot represent proper behavior in everyday life, and nothing is a better example of real-life than real-life itself. School has the power to make a difference in how kids view proper conduct, but only to a certain extent. Parents should take responsibility for teaching their children proper midot, and more importantly for modeling good midot. This way, when children learn about midot in school, they will get affirmation for what happens at home. There aren’t many things more powerful than that.

(Originally published in The Jewish Link of Bergen County

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Don't Say "Lashon Hara"

Asking somebody to stop gossiping to can get awkward. On one hand, you don’t like what the other person is doing. On the other hand, you don’t want to act as if you are better than your friend. So you can say something, you can try and ignore what is being said, or you can run away screaming “my neshama! my neshama!” Assuming you want to choose the first option, I have some advice for you: don’t say “lashon hara.” I’ll explain.

Ironically, halacha can present a major impediment to properly conveying Jewish values. This results from the ritualistic nature of our halachik practice. Every-day halacha encompasses a large part of our lives and therefore doesn’t come with the excitement of one-time events. Additionally, halachik decisions and discussions involve mostly “legal” matters. Many authorities have expressed caution at learning the reasons behind mitzvot. The argument is that learning the reasons may cause a person to make decisions based on the reasons alone. But if our primary sense of responsibility comes from saying na’aseh v’nishma, comandedness is where our adherence should begin and end.

Despite the benefits of observance for observance’s sake, many pitfalls accompany this approach. If the value behind a certain mitzvah or set of halachot are ignored, relatability is compromised. Many people are looking to see how mitzvot fit their picture of what Judaism is about, and that gets lost in the “because Hashem said so” approach. This is not to suggest a subjective version of shmirat mitzvot, but rather that human beings have a natural desire for meaning. Without this need being fulfilled, observance can become difficult.

To make this tension practical, let’s talk about how we talk. When we express a important concept (whether it be Jewish or not) to our  friends, students, congregants, or children, do we make sure emphasize the value? It’s not that hard, actually. Instead of saying “enough with the chutzpah!” you can say “speak respectfully to mommy and daddy, they do a lot for you, and deserve more respect.” This way you are not only addressing the present behavior; you are also helping your children understand. Sure, they might not get it right away, but over time, you will be doing them (and yourselves) a big favor.

In terms of chinuch, I have found this to be very important, but also for an additional and very powerful  reason. When we use terms like Avodat Hashem, Shomer Negiah, and Kavod HaTorah without emphasizing what they truly mean, they completely lose their nuance. This results in our children and students being unaware of the different degrees and types. Just as serving God has numerous models, being Shomer Negiah has many degrees to which it can be kept, and the Torah can be given honor in many ways. This can easily get lost in the lack of translation.

Furthermore, turning important and nuanced concepts into catchphrases often results in an all-or-nothing effect. Meaning, if different degrees and modes or observance do not exist, those who can’t “do it all” will do nothing, which is, by definition, the only other option. Additionally, when multiple concepts are lumped together in the box of Jewish cliches, kids can say “well, I  just don’t do those things.” Then questions like “are you Shomer Negiah?” don’t seem absurd. You either are, or you are not, and there is no in between. Important answers like “I am trying” or “in some way, but I am trying to improve” are now impossible. Either you are in the club of Shomrei Mitzvot or you aren’t.

So, instead of telling others that “Hashem loves you,” try saying “God is aware of all that happens, and He wouldn’t let things go if they went against a greater plan, of which you are an important part.” Yes, this doesn’t sound as charming, but it’s probably closer to the truth. And when your subject has a really bad day or week or year, they won’t think “how can someone who loves me do this to me?” Instead, they will have something realistic to hang on to.

(Obviously, every situation is different, and different people need different things. I do not mean this propose this as being the authentic way of thinking or educating. For some people, ideas work better, and for some faith works better. Everyone must find their own balance.)

Now, back to our original scenario. If you say “don’t say that; it’s Lashon Hara,” what will the reaction be? “Sorry, you’re right, I shouldn’t be doing that?” Maybe. But you also run the risk of your friend thinking “well, I spoke Lashon Hara ten minutes ago, I’m not on the Anti-Lashon Hara team.” Or you might get the classic “what, you’re more religious than me?” response.

However, if your standard reaction is “sorry, I’m uncomfortable talking about other people,” you avoid these problems. You might encourage other people to think about why Lashon Hara is a problem. You also might get them to stop gossiping. It’s important to teach each other that Judaism is not all or nothing, and that there is always room for growth. Let’s not turn Torah and Mitzvot into a bunch of cliches. It’s so much more than that.

(Originally published in The Jewish Link of Bergen County

Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Crisis Crisis

There’s nothing like a crisis to get people talking. Be it tuition, abuse cover-ups, the internet, or shidduchim, major dilemmas in our community are usually what attract the headlines and inspire conversation. This behavior is natural, of course. We generally have a desire to discuss things that are meaningful and relevant, and we also like catastrophes. Therefore, stories that affect our community in real and sometimes frightening ways, attract our attention. Despite the explanations, this practice exposes something problematic.

The perfect introduction to this conversation is to remember the adage in Pirkei Avot that equates wisdom with foresight. The logic is clear; if a person only considers the present when planning, organizing, and making decisions, then only short-term success is guaranteed. So when problems come up, the only option might be to scramble for solutions. By waiting for crises to dictate our next move, we find ourselves restricted to damage-control.

The “crises” that our communities are faced with provide good examples. As opposed to Yosef, who had the wisdom to save during times of affluence, we spent, and now we are paying for it. Many in our communities have expenses that are difficult to cover, most famously among them, Yeshiva tuition. Foresight may have told people to save, to choose smaller homes, and to skimp on the vacations. Schools may have planned their finances or structured their personnel differently.

Another example is the what is known as the “Shidduch Crisis.”  Online dating sites, pay-for-shidduch initiatives, and closing the age-gap, are just a few of the proposed solutions to increase the number of married couples in the Orthodox world. But what if this issue could have been avoided altogether? Maybe we could have been more cognizant of how our communities were developing. Maybe we could have identified the problematic mindsets and tried to change them. Maybe some foresight would have helped.

(This is not to pass judgment or claim that I know exactly what could have been done to avoid these problems. Perhaps they were unavoidable. I am just trying to point out that all crises have causes, and that these factors could be addressed in advance.)

To pin down the main factor that prevents foresight is impossible. Human nature is complicated and varied and cannot be explained in a few sentences. However, I’d like to mention two possibilities, and the reader can decide if they resonate.

The first cause relates to being self-centered. I don’t mean this to be critical, but rather to be descriptive. Being self-centered is a big part of Orthodox Judaism, and particularly today. “Connecting with G-d,” “Becoming a Bas-Torah,” and “Growing in Learning” are a few of the popular goals that m’chanchim  set for their students, and individuals for themselves. Of course, these are all meaningful pursuits. However, when growing as individuals becomes the totality of  Avodat Hashem, we don’t really think in terms of community, the future, and definitely not out of the box. We look at ourselves and ask “how’s everything going?” And if the answer is  “pretty good,” we smile and keep moving along.

The ones most affected are those on the fringe. Not everyone can connect to things the way they are. Those that leave due to a lack of diversity or flexibility, are often viewed as unfortunate casualties, as opposed to signs that we are missing something. To look at it from a chinuch perspective, every school has a small demographic of students for whom the classic Yeshiva Day School format “doesn’t work.” This group includes (but is not exclusive to) students with learning and differences and cognitive weaknesses, those that are exceptionally bright but need to be challenged, and those that just aren’t into the whole learning thing. It would be unfortunate for the needs of these students to be overlooked because overall we are “doing fine.”

Another potential factor that limits our foresight is our conservative nature. Orthodox Judaism puts a large emphasis or tradition, for good reason. Our reverence for tradition is pervasive, going beyond halacha and affecting many aspects of our non-ritual lives. Granted, there is a wide range in terms of accepting novel ideas. However, uniformity of practice is a pretty fair characterization of most Orthodox communities.

Our traditional nature makes us wary of innovation. Our Rabbanim generally use prescribed modes of deciding halacha, our smachot generally looks the same, and many of our schools rely on age-old methods. Novelties like academic Talmud study, creative Rabbinic solutions to permit agunot, and women’s tefilla groups make many of us uncomfortable, and we often paint those efforts as being beyond the pale, or having less-than-noble intentions. Some of this may be our honest feelings, but some of it is a visceral reaction to change.

In general, our schools are thriving, in conjunction with our communities. For the most part, our children are learning, they stay within the fold, go to college and have successful careers; things are  looking bright. Ostensibly, this should give us a sense of comfort that our educational methods do not need change.

However, general success should not make us complacent. We should constantly be asking ourselves if our students are being taught in the optimal way. Can our schools adjust or rethink their approach to reach more students more of the time? Can Talmud Torah become more meaningful to our students? What is the future going to look like and how can we prepare our students for what they will face? These are some of the questions, if addressed properly, can help us avoid the next crisis.

(Originally published in The Jewish Link of Bergen County

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Taking Ownership

Your children’s school is not educating them properly. Our yeshivot are shortchanging their students with administrators and faculty that settle for mediocrity.

Such accusations are, of course, not true. Our schools are full of devoted, caring, and motivated teachers who work hard (in school and out) to provide for their students as best as they can. School leaders dedicate all their energy to promote excellence in education, and to foster nurturing and growth-oriented environments for your children. Educators are working harder than ever, and you and your children are reaping the benefits. Don’t worry, things are great.

But would you know if they weren’t?

A quick look through current Orthodox publications and websites will demonstrate that Chinuch is not really on the public agenda. Yes, when something new comes out, it sparks interest and conversation. Of course, there is everyone’s favorite topic, tuition. But what about the day-to-day conversation? Do parents talk about what goes on in the classroom? At the Shabbos table, is there discussion of educational philosophy and what we want for our children in terms of Chinuch? Look at the OU website. You’ll see tabs for “Torah,” “Life,” “Holidays,” and “Tuition Affordability,” but nothing regarding Chinuch. On YUTorah, the shiurim classified as “Chassidut,” out number those labeled as “Chinuch” by 32. This is not meant as a criticism of these institutions, but rather to point out that they reflect the societal reality.

This phenomenon should not surprise. After all, how do you expect parents who have no Jewish-education training to have opinions? Teachers and administrators have dedicated their careers to chinuch, giving them an expertise that cannot be expected from parents and other community members. The community must have trust in our schools to do their very best to educate the next generation.

This approach is not completely wrong. Parents cannot be expected to have “expert” opinions, and many (probably most) lack the time and resources to develop any degree of expertise. We can also invoke the saying “a little information is a dangerous thing.” Imagine the nightmare for a Head of School if the parent body suddenly starts occasionally reading about education: “Excuse me Dr. Principal, but  I read on that teachers need to be doing more projects, why aren’t we?” “ My sister thinks that my son might be a Kinesthetic Learner, can we meet to discuss that?” Arming parents with a few facts and expecting them know when and how to intervene may not be the best idea either.

On the other hand, parents can, and should, develop an idea of what ideal Chinuch looks like for their children. What are the skills that you would like your children to develop? Is there a specific environment you would like your children to be a part of? Do you have a vision of what discipline should look like? What type of knowledge is important for your children to learn in school? How should tefillah be treated? These are just some of the questions parents could be pondering.   

Discussing chinuch is not meant to be only a philosophical exercise. Discussion brings about awareness, and awareness brings about action. If there is one lesson to be learned from today’s society, it is the power of people uniting for a common goal. But we don’t need to run into the streets and storm the gates to reach our goals.  An informed public can be very powerful in creating a forward-thinking atmosphere that can naturally nurture and motivate our schools. When this atmosphere does not exist, change only comes about in reaction to crisis and involves tension and conflict. The alternative is much better.

Yes, our schools are doing a great job. Our children are learning, growing, and truly flourishing. However, we cannot settle by saying we have succeeded, because success is not binary. Progress should be a significant goal, whether or not we define progress the same way as the rest of the world. Our goals in Chinuch must adapt in order to meet our children’s changing needs. If we truly believe in the credo of “chanoch l’naar al pi darko,” then we must be open to rethinking and adjusting our teaching goals and methods. This progress can only happen if we make Chinuch a topic of communal discussion.

So let’s do our best to start taking ownership over our children’s Chinuch. We can read articles, start conversations, and talk to friends and relatives who are involved in Chinuch. If that seems too much, start with simply thinking about it.We are waiting to hear what you have to say.

(Edited version originally published in The Jewish Link of Bergen County


Monday, May 27, 2013

Back (for now)

I started writing articles The Jewish Link of Bergen County (new local jewspaper - I'm going to cross-post here for those who don't live in Jersey and for those who want to comment. But it's mostly because I need attention. Enjoy.