Friday, October 9, 2009

Israel is Complicated

Israel is always in the news, out of all proportion to its physical size and probably also out of proportion to its real impact on world events. One can read articles suggesting that unconditional support of Israel and all its policies is vital to her survival, and one can read articles suggesting that it is precisely such support that is the cause of all the world's problems.

More troubling to many Jewish educators is the fact that many of our students are not sufficiently engaged in thinking about Israel at all to have formed meaningful opinions. They just don't care. To paraphrase a popular phrase, "They're just not that into Israel!"

The Jewish community has tried in many ways to engage American Jewish young people with Israel. We write curricula, we sponsor trips, we show movies, we bring speakers - the list is endless. Some techniques work for some people, others for other people, some better, some not so well.

One thing is for sure - there is no single magic trick that will work all the time for all the learners. This post is one idea among many that you may want to try.

If it works, please leave a comment so others can benefit from your experience.

If you have another idea, please share it with other readers.

If the suggestion falls on its face, perhaps you have an idea for making it better.

Good luck, Shabbat Shalom and Hag Sameach.

Big Idea:
  • The relationship between American Jews and Israel is complex but important
Essential Questions:
  • How do American Jews create/sustain/change/understand/express their relationship to Israel?
  • How can we as Jewish educators engage our learners in serious analysis of their relationship to Israel?
Learning Activities:
  • Compare and contrast the two articles at the links here. One is by Jay Michaelson, and is entitled How I'm Losing My Love for Israel. The other, a reponse to Michaelson's essay, is by Daniel Gordis, entitled No Right to Exhaustion. What do these two authors have in common? How do they differ?
  • Read Deep Denial, by Michael Oren, Israel's Ambassador to the United States, and read Jonathan Sarna's article in HaAretz, Why are American Jews Abandoning Israel? What do these two authors have in common? How do they differ?
  • JStreet and AIPAC are two organizations which state their support for Israel. Go to each of their websites at the links here. What do they have in common? How do they differ?
  • Write to one of the authors of the articles above explaining why you agree or disagree with his expressed opinion
  • Create a visual display that illustrates one of the articles you agree with. You may want to work with a partner to do this.
  • Follow reports on Israel for one week, either in a newspaper, on TV, or on other media. At the end of the week, create a timeline of events that you learned about.
  • Formulate a statement that articulates the way(s) in which you expect to learn more about Israel in the future.

At the end of the period during which you and your students are together, they may or may not come to the same conclusions about Israel that you have.

Hopefully what they will have developed is an interest in being actively engaged with Israel.

Hopefully they will care about Israel.

Hopefully they will continue to struggle with the challenge of being American Jews in a relationship with Israel.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

An Advantage Jewish Educators Have

Constructivist teaching is an exciting, engaging way of supporting student learning. You may be interested in reading about a teacher's experience with constructivism in her classroom here.

Teachers in general education are often challenged by the necessity of adhering to curriculum that is designed to improve outcomes on high-stakes tests. Because of this they may find it difficult to honor the principle of allowing the learner to set the agenda for learning.

In Jewish education, I would suggest, the situation is different. While there are set curricula that schools adopt and/or create, there is a great deal more flexibility in desired Jewish learning outcomes than is generally the case in the general educational world. There are - at least in the congregational or complementary schools I am familiar with - no universal desired outcomes for students learning (one might argue about the requirements for performance at Bar/Bat Mitzvah, but that is a whole other story, one I hope to address at length some other time)

The outcomes we hope for are broad, deep, and often difficult to articulate.

Certainly we want to encourage subject knowledge. One would be hard-pressed to argue against a shared body of Judaic content knowledge. What should be included in this body is of course open to discussion.

We want the products of our education to participate in Jewish life. In what ways? Again, open to discussion.

We want our learners to go further - to believe that their Jewish learning is not complete when they finish the learning programs we provide for them - that they can and should be learning Jewishly during the rest of their lives.

That last outcome is one that I believe constructivist teaching can support in a powerful way. If our learners are given the autonomy to learn what interests them, and surely there are enough options within the body of Jewish content to support many different learning streams, then I believe they will see Jewish learning as something that has the potential to meet their actual needs.

Learners flourish when they have control of their learning. In Jewish education we are in a unique position to encourage and support this kind of learning - and to hope it will lead to a lifetime of self-motivated Jewish learning.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Things that Matter

The new head of the National Institutes of Health, Francis Collins, rides a Harley. He also believes in God.

What in the world does this have to do with Jewish education?

Here's what I thought when I began to read about him: Here's a fellow who believes in God, considers himself religious, and sees no conflict between his theology and his science. I like him already.

But then I went on to read about how he dresses, and how the previous two heads of the NIH dressed, and how their appearance and demeanor have affected the way their policies were viewed by the public.

Again, what does this have to do with Jewish education?

I think the big idea here is that while it may be that what's inside is what really counts, the real world often says otherwise. We tend to feel comfortable with people we can identify with. And one of the ways in which we decide if we can identify is through commonalities. We can better get to important ideas if we can start with shared experience and realities.

Do you know what TV programs your students watch? Have you ever watched them? What about music? Movies? Fashions?

I'm not saying we ought to be acting like teenagers or like kids. And I'm not suggesting that we emulate their taste in popular culture! Far from it!!

But I do think that we should be familiar with the culture they are immersed in.

Do you know what the current most downloaded song is?
Do you know what movie opened this past weekend that most if not all of your students saw?
Do you know what they watched last night on television?

These are ways to open conversations.
Take advantage.

And then get to the important stuff.

Like, how do we teach B'riyat Ha'olam to kids who know the Big Bang Theory?

Monday, October 5, 2009

V'Zot HaBrachah

This parasha, as you no doubt know, is the last segment of the 5 Books of Moses. We have read the entire Torah at this point, and it is really interesting to see how it all ends. Personally this parasha was a welcome relief to me, and not because it's finally over! Let's examine why:

Big Ideas:
  • People remember beginnings and endings, often better than what is in the middle
  • An author often uses an ending to express a summary of ideas contained within the entire body of writing
  • Some people choose to write a document called an "ethical will" for those who survive them
  • Endings are often beginnings of something entirely new.

Essential Questions:
  1. What appears to be the emotional setting for this parasha?
  2. How do the emotions expressed in this parasha compare to those in the rest of D'varim? in the other books of the Torah?
  3. Whose voice(s) do you hear in this parasha?
  4. This parasha is never read at a regular Shabbat morning service. What is the context for reading this parasha?
Learning Activities: Choose
  • Compare and contrast Moshe's blessing with that of Yaacov at the end of B'Reisheet
  • Compare and contrast this parasha with the rest of D'Varim.
  • Read about Jewish ethical wills here and/or here.
  • Read an example of a Jewish ethical will written by a not-yet-mother here
  • Read Rabbi Oren Hayon's commentary on this parasha . Explain how you understand this passage in his essay:
"When, at last, Moses dies, his soul departs al pi Adonai, literally, “by God’s mouth” (34:5). Mouth to mouth, the breath of Moses is drawn in and subsumed into the breath of God. God tenderly inhales Moses’s final breath and then pauses. As we begin our cyclical reading of Torah once more, God exhales, filling Adam’s nostrils and giving life to all creation."
from Moses's Death,God's Breath, Oren J. Hayon.

Assessment Activities: Choose
  • How did this parasha affect your understanding of Moshe? of B'nai Yisrael? of the Torah?
  • Illustrate your understanding of this parasha, either in words or pictures.
  • Explain what it means to you to begin immediately re-reading the Torah after you have just finished it.
  • You read an ethical will written by a women whose child was not yet born. She explains that she will update it as time goes on. Even though you will probably live a very long time, try to write a first draft of your own ethical will. Who are you writing it to? What will you say? Explain when you think you will want to update it and why.