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