Friday, May 16, 2014

Public Service Announcement

Please take a look at the following press release from the Jewish Education Innovative Challenge. It is nice to see an example of significant financial support to promote innovation in Jewish education. V'chein yirbu.

What Happens at Camp Doesn't Stay at Camp

Our last discussion began with a survey, so this one will begin with a trivia question: Who are the role models that have the most intense exposure to children at one time? If you said parents or teachers, you are close, but wrong. The correct answer to this question is sleep-away camp counselors. Think about it: Parents send their kids to school for most of the day, and teachers interact with individual students for a maximum of three hours or so. But counselors spend every waking hour with their campers (minus a break period or two), and every sleeping one as well. As astounding as this fact may be, do we ever stop to consider it? Perhaps if we did, we might view things a little differently.

I got to thinking about this topic after coming across my old color war hat. The hat is covered with signatures from friends and staff members alike. Most who signed simply felt their signatures alone were enough for posterity. However, there were also a few more lengthy messages, some of which are not appropriate for this article. At least one of these less-than-tactful proclamations was from a counselor (not necessarily mine). Not exactly what should be expected of a role model.

Signature hat aside, it has been a while since I have attended sleep-away camp, so I am not in position to generalize about staff members in camps nowadays. However, I can confidently say that when I went to camp, a large percentage of the staff members could be described as setting examples that weren’t exactly ideal. This doesn’t mean that they were bad counselors overall, but I can still identify certain staff members by the “great things” each of them taught me.

To be fair, a large percentage of my counselors were very good role models. I can think of a few who had a very positive impact on my life in many ways. Some of these counselors have gone on to successful careers serving the Jewish community, a testament to their excellent characters. Either way, whether good or bad, the impact is compounded when you think about how much time is spent with the bunk. A good role model is having a positive influence on your child 24/7 and the inverse is true as well.

So what does this all mean practically? (I will pass on the abuse-related issues here - it is for those with more expertise to discuss.) First of all, it means parents should talk to their children about when to (and when not to) learn from someone’s behavior, and about what the proper reactions are if they feel a role-model is not acting properly. Also, parents might want to learn about their children’s counselors, both before and during the summer. If someone is with your kid all day every day, you have a right to know who he or she is.

Aside from what parents can do, camps should be proactive as well, and hire the best staff members they can. However, as someone who has been interviewing potential (day camp) counselors for five years now, I can honestly say that camps don’t always get enough ideal candidates to fill all the counselor spots. Most of the counselors I have supervised over the years have been great, but not all. Sometimes a bad counselor comes as surprise, and sometimes not. The “not” situations usually come about when we have no choice because we need bodies in camp. So what is a camp to do? I have one suggestion.

I think that working as a camp counselor is an excellent opportunity for someone who is looking to get some basic experience working in Chinuch. A counselor is required to motivate children in a positive manner, model proper middot, and find the proper balance between being an authority figure and a “friend.” All of these skills are essential to being a good teacher. Counselors can also conduct learning groups for their campers instead of (or in conjunction with) a full Chinuch staff. Put all of this together, and camps can provide a forum to train young educators, all while employing these older and more mature young men and women as staff members. In this way, everyone can benefit - parents, camps, future teachers, and our children.

Whether this suggestion is practical or not is a side point. The most important thing is that our summer camps function to provide positive Jewish experiences for our children. So ask yourself: what do you want written on your child’s color war hat?

(Originally Published in the Jewish Link of Bergen County

Friday, April 11, 2014

There's Learning and Then There's Learning

Time for a quick survey. How many of you have ever had a teacher that was basically the human embodiment of a textbook? You know the type, standing (or sitting) at the front of the room and just listing off facts for you to write down and memorize for the test. The best type of this teacher at least puts notes on the board or projects a powerpoint onto a screen (or the wall if you are less lucky). The worst type of this teacher actually reads the textbook aloud and you are expected to follow along. Does this sound familiar? Okay, You can all put your hands down.

Now a follow-up question: what is the worst part of teaching this way? If you said the biggest issue is that it makes learning boring, you are wrong. Boring is definitely not good, but truthfully, a teacher can teach in this manner and be very exciting. A history teacher might present the subject as an epic tale, captivating the audience from beginning to end. But even the most engaging “textbook teacher” is holding something back from his or her students.

Before directly discussing this manner of teaching, let’s ponder what learning truly means. According to educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom, there is an entire hierarchy of skills and accomplishments that  constitute learning. Known as (the updated) Bloom’s Taxonomy, it begins with the lowest level of “knowledge” and peaks with “creating.” The philosophy behind Bloom’s Taxonomy is not complicated. It simply argues that true learning involves understanding every idea or set of facts with a depth that enables the learner to utilizing knowledge to “apply,” “analyze,” “evaluate,” and “create” (the top four tiers of the Taxonomy).  

Thinking about the ultimate goals of learning has impact here as well. What do we want our children to able to do with what they learn? Get on Jeopardy? Impress people at shul dinners with interesting facts? Maybe. But this is not the vision of success for most parents. We want our children to understand life in a profound way, appreciate G-d’s universe, succeed at their jobs, and make their mark on the world. These goals require the skills and creativity that transcend simple knowledge of facts.

(To be fair, knowledge is the essential element for all learning, and teaching information is therefore essential. Knowledge itself is also empowering and ennobling. Not all information can be gleaned by simply reading books, and many concepts available in books need experts to explain and clarify them. A teacher who does none of this is hurting his or her students as well. Additionally, for many students, the lower levels in Bloom’s Taxonomy might be exactly what they need at this point in their learning.)

Getting back to our “textbook teachers,” the biggest disservice they do their classes is to restrict their ability to partake in higher-level learning. Their students can become conditioned to think learning is rote, static, and yes, boring. These children then miss opportunities to acquire and sharpen the skills needed to make meaning out of knowledge. But don’t jump to blame the teacher. It has taken time for new models of learning to take hold, and many teachers are simply following in the footsteps of their own teachers or mentors.

So, if want to know why your daughter has to memorize Civil War battles for a test, you aren’t crazy. And if it bothers you that your son’s Chumash notes consist solely of questions and answers of commentators, you have a point. Knowing history is great, as is memorizing comments from Rashi and Ramban, but this information should be seen as a means and not an end. Plenty of avenues exist to bring more profound learning experiences to the classroom (maybe we can discuss a few in future articles). With openness  a new definition of learning, our children can benefit from opportunities that many of us never had.

(Originally Published in the Jewish Link of Bergen County

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The Seder Night: Teaching by Example

Originally Posted on the SAR High School Faculty Blog

While learning the laws of Shabbat with one of my classes, I encountered the following challenge: As important as it is to discuss the values behind and purposes of certain mitzvot, what happens when many details of a mitzvah don’t support its purpose (or at least not in an obvious manner)?  I didn’t want my students to get the impression that halacha is disconnected from and ignorant of the purpose of each mitzvah.

For example, we learned in class that an essential part of Shabbat is shifting our focus from what we create to focusing on simply being. This accounts for the definition of melacha (literally: “work” - the word used by the Torah for the actions prohibited on Shabbat) as being creative activity, and not simply hard work. However, refraining from ripping toilet paper doesn’t exactly scream “existential awareness,” and sorting a pile of socks does not exactly come across as creative. To many students, this might mean that Hilchot Shabbat are as “out of touch,” and “outdated” as the Rabbis who initiated them. Although we might intuit that this critique is unfair and untrue, how do we properly defend the detail-oriented practice of Halacha?

I presented two solutions to my students. I would like to share one of the answers here, as it is intimately connected with the chag of Pesach.

An intriguing aspect of the Pesach Seder is the encouraging of kushyot. As opposed to presenting questions asked out of curiosity, the required reading of the night challenges the practices of the seder. When we ask why this is night different, we are actually asking “why would we act this way if it’s out of the norm and seemingly senseless?” The four questions challenge us to defend the mitzvot of the night and explain the purpose of our aberrant behavior. Is this really a prudent approach to promote among our youth?

Going back to our first example, imagine if I were to walk into class, hand out slips of paper, and tell my class the following: “Today we will begin our study of Hilchot Shabbat, but we cannot begin until you all read aloud from the paper in front of you.” Then, the class announces with perfect unity and clarity, “why do we need to learn the laws of Shabbat? They don’t make sense!” I’m not sure how long I would keep my job if I taught this way. So why is this the plan at the Seder?

The solution to this problem provides us with an critical aspect of chinuch. Namely, if we teach by example, we need not fear challenges to faith; if such is the case, we can actually encourage kushyot.  

To me, teaching by example is the number one pedagogical lesson of the Seder. The Haggadah is replete with examples. We eat marror to teach about the bitterness and we recline with wine to demonstrate freedom. Our actions represent both slavery and freedom because the transition from one to another is the story. These represent just a few instances; viewing the rituals of the night through this lens helps us appreciate the meaning behind a number of the parts of the Seder.

If we teach our students and children by showing them the beauty of a life of Torah and Mitzvot, the positive effects should be numerous. We will not only demonstrate how to act, but we engender positive feelings. A deep sense of respect and appreciation for Judaism is essential to remaining a committed Jew. Additionally, a cycle of positive outcomes is at play here; when we set the right example, it strengthens our own commitment and creates an even more powerful example. This is exactly why the knowledge of the participants is irrelevant at the Seder. The Haggadah is about strengthening our own appreciation for becoming God’s faithful people; the goal is not to simply learn what happened.

Now we can solve our original problem. How do we expect our children and students to appreciate intricate halachot with such a wide gap between each detail and the overall mitzvah? One solution is to help them develop a general sense of appreciation. Understanding the meaning behind each detail should then become irrelevant, or at least less essential. When you know that something works, you don’t need to concern yourself with asking “why.” Or, if you do feel the need to ask, not finding the answer shouldn’t derail your faith.

So, before discussing Hilchot Shabbat, I asked my student to raise their hands if they were happy to have Shabbat in their lives. Every single student in the class concurred and provided reasons other than not having school. If their appreciation for Shabbat is a given, they should have a resulting respect for all the laws that make Shabbat what it is. Moreover, whether or not someone living in a halacha-oriented community keeps all the laws of Shabbat is not essential to appreciate these laws. The conscious and unconscious impact the laws of Shabbat have on each individual and the community as a whole is immeasurable. We may not understand how it all works, but we can still trust that a certain seder exists.

At this point, the lesson is clear. For our children and students to appreciate the rituals and beliefs of a Torah lifestyle, we must first demonstrate to them the beauty of such a life. Understanding this principle can help us turn contentious discussions into edifying experiences.  A life full of faith-challenges can become a nuanced and meaningful existence. As success in this endeavor is crucial, we all - parent and teacher alike - should feel responsible to set the right example.

Friday, March 28, 2014

You Can't Have Your Cake and Smicha Too

A young teacher (YT) is interviewing with an assistant principal (AP) for a job teaching Tanach:
AP: Tell me, what do you believe are some goals of Jewish education?
YT: Well, there are a number of ideas that drive my teaching. First of all....
AP: Actually, forget that. Answer me this: A woman living in Florida loses a parent who lives in New York. The parent is being buried in Israel and the daughter in Florida can’t make it to the Holy Land. Oh, and this woman is adopted. Does she sit shiva and if so, when does she start?

I hope this interview scenario seems absurd to most people. After all, what does answering a question about aveilut have to do with being able to teach? Yet, this analogy is a somewhat-accurate depiction of what goes on in our schools. Most males who teach Limmudei Kodesh in Orthodox Jewish schools are trained Rabbis, educated in fields and methods that have little to do with formal Jewish education. It is almost as if this is required. Yes, many Jewish educators are also trained educators with Masters degrees, but is learning for Smicha really the best use of time for a future m’chanech?

To be sure, Smicha can be valuable for a Jewish educator. A teacher ideally should feel confident and connected to their field, not simply familiar with the material he or she has to teach. Receiving Smicha and the resulting authority to decide (certain) halachic questions definitely goes a long way to creating this sentiment for the Musmach. Additionally, there is something nice about a shul rabbi or assistant who is also trained as an educator and teaches in the local school.

Even after taking all of this into account, I still cannot see the argument to encourage Jewish educators to study for Smicha. Imagine if all that time spent studying was divided among more relevant pursuits. Imagine a future educator spending three years studying Tanach, Gemara methodology, Jewish history, relevant ancient history, archaeology, and geography. This same educator might also choose to spend some of this freed-up time getting experience in a classroom and preparing for his or her career. All of this is should be more important to a Jewish educator than the halachot of basar b’chalav.

Although all of this seems obvious (at least to me), the opposite seems to be promoted by our community in general, at least passively. It is basically expected that a male Jewish educator is also a “rabbi.” Our post high-school institutions are bifurcated; the Torah curricula operate with one set of goals while the graduate institutions operate with another. How great would it be for Yeshiva students with an interest in education to start learning relevant material in an organized and directed manner right away? Does anyone really think this is a bad idea? You still want to grant the title “rabbi?” Fine. Have a Smicha program for educators. They can take tests on more pertinent material instead.

Chinuch is not a career for those who want to keep learning. Nor is the purpose of Jewish day schools to provide day jobs for local Rabbis. Jewish education is crucial to our continuity as a people, and should therefore be treated with the utmost seriousness. This means future educators should be learning with one goal first and foremost: how to be the best teachers they can be. You have a question about this? Ask your local Orthodox rabbi.

(Originally Published in the Jewish Link of Bergen County

Friday, March 14, 2014

The Soul Truth

Songs are often more than music, but also the embodiment of ideas and ideals. We can all think of such works. Some inspire us, while others simply tell the story of a certain time or people. The most powerful songs do both. In this light, let’s look at a verse from a popular Jewish song from a generation ago and at the educational idea it contains. Feel free to sing along.

“But dear malach’l no, I don't want to go,
there is so much pain and evil, upon the earth below.
Let me stay here up in heaven, where it’s safe and I'll be pure,
please don't make me go away, can't you see I'm so afraid.”

The basic message of these lyrics, taken from the Journeys song “Neshomele,” is an important one. Life is full of experiences that desensitize us to spiritual pursuits and that make living a purposeful life challenging. On the other hand, life presents a tremendous opportunity to accomplish, grow, and live purposely. Being aware of this tension is essential, and our job is to be sensitive to both aspects of spirituality.

However, with apologies to Abie Rotenberg, I think the lyrics of this song (when taken literally), contain a potentially risky depiction of the Jewish soul. To be clear, my goal here is not to criticize a beloved song or songwriter. As I mentioned earlier, the message of the song is paramount (and also based on statements from Chazal). However, for many of us, the imagery used by the song is identifiable as part of our education and by extension, part of our consciousness (whether we know this song or not). The place of the “Neshomele Parable” in chinuch is what I’d like to discuss.     

Educators and public speakers commonly present the Jewish soul as a gift that comes with instructions: Keep pure, wash with teshuva and mikva water, and return to God when finished. We are expected to keep our souls as pure as possible by avoiding exposure to anything that isn’t holy. Any experience involving “impure” elements damages our souls, and therefore represents an attack on our responsibility to God.

I believe that this representation creates unrealistic expectations and ignores other aspects of human personality. If one is so concerned with the purity of my soul, what happens when it gets dirty? What if it gets filthy? The amount of guilt and despair that a person might experience is scary. How can you live with yourself if constantly carrying around your failure to protect your soul? One cannot unsee what has been seen nor unexperience what has already been experienced. Makes it easy to give up trying.

Additionally, when viewing the soul through such a lens, actions and experiences become binary; either something is good for your soul or it isn’t. Thinking this way is not healthy. Sometimes you need a movie to wind down or to hang out with “old friends” because you miss them. Yes, these experiences might make you feel spiritually desensitized, but they also might make you happy. General mental health should be an important value to everyone, a value that is challenged if you view every moment as carrying the weight of the world.

Yes, we are all fortunate to have souls; they steer us to want to be good God-fearing people. Some experiences will dull this desire, and some will enhance it. However, protecting our sense of the divine cannot be the overwhelming concern when making decisions. Ultimately, our actions define us, and our actions are products of factors of which the “cleanliness of our souls” is but one. Let’s give a break to ourselves, to our family members, and to those who look to us for guidance. We all may actually turn out to be holier for it.

(Originally Published in the Jewish Link of Bergen County

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Teaching Tolerance

 In case you didn’t hear, an Orthodox high school in New York permitted two girls to wear tefillin at school (this also happens to be the school where I teach). The firestorm following this decision focused on a few major issues, with both participants and observers alike compelled to take a side. Although debating right and wrong is important (if done respectfully), such argumentation usually leaves the sides looking at each other solely through a black-and-white lens. This is unfortunate, as the participants in any debate should be asking themselves “is there anything I learn from my opponent?” In this case, there are a few things to think about; I’d like to discuss one of them.

The arguments against women wearing tefillin have been straightforward and without apology. The dialogue has been strong, but mostly respectful. Some have expressed admiration for the candor and humility with which SAR presented its decision, whether they agreed or not. It was encouraging to see people on one side complimenting those on the other. I would simply like to add one more item of food for thought for everyone involved: the importance of teaching Ahavat Yisrael through tolerance. Whatever side you are on, this controversy provides an important forum for evaluating the degree to which our schools and communities teach this value.

The perceived educational danger of allowing girls to wear tefillin, even as an exceptional situation, was a large part of the discussion. Such arguments have been generally of two types: The first type claims that students will start thinking that halacha is something to modify at will. The second type argues that Orthodox schools have a requirement to uphold Orthodox values and practices at all costs. However, I think both of these arguments are incomplete and missing an important nuance.

Granted that if one had to choose all-or-nothing between teaching two educational values, a large majority of Orthodox Jews (myself included) would take mesorah over tolerance. But this doesn’t mean that mesorah should always be the overriding educational value at all costs. From tzitzis and skirt-length checks to halacha tests and extra emphasis on Gemara, no dearth of opportunities exists for teachers to model and teach the importance of keeping with our traditions. Respect for mesorah is definitely a major highlight of all Orthodox Jewish education.

This considered, I don’t think we need to fear that a few instances of tolerance will completely throw off the educational balance (especially if the reason for the exception is clearly explained to the students in the school). On the contrary, many students often feel burdened by the tradition-oriented presentation of Judaism, reacting negatively to a perceived lack of flexibility and tolerance. Maybe a show of tolerance or two would be beneficial to these young men and women.

Tolerance is a Jewish value. Whether or not one agrees to the degree to which tolerance is practiced in modern society is one thing. However, the messages of v’ahavta l’reiacha kamocha and (hocheiach tochiach et amitecha) v’lo tisa alav cheit cannot be ignored. So why is it that we are so quick to put down those who disagree with us? Why is it so easy for many in our communities to make racist comments and jokes? We need to ask ourselves whether we teach and model “respect for the other” enough. The more we think about it, the more we may not like the answer.

So, to those against the decision because Orthodox schools have the responsibility to teach Orthodox values: are we not responsible to teach tolerance and respect? And to those who argued against exposing students to flexibility in Jewish practice: is it really so bad to teach about it once in a while? This is not to claim that one side of tefillin debate is right and another is wrong (and definitely not to claim that tolerance should automatically override all halachic concerns). However, even if you disagree with the decisions made, please realize that teaching tolerance is not poison to our students, and to many, it might be exactly what they need. Whether you are a teacher, rabbi, or parent, at least think about it.

To conclude with a story: A friend of mine told me about an experience he had when speaking with his class about davening. The conversation quickly turned to the compound challenge of tefillah length and finding meaning. My friend told his students that he might encourage an individual to take tefillah slowly, skipping certain parts at the outset if necessary, to build towards a complete and meaningful tefillah. After making this point, one of his students stood up, slapped him five, and gave a genuine “thank you.” Although this is simply a story, it must make one think: maybe a little well-placed tolerance can go a long way.

(Originally Published in the Jewish Link of Bergen County