Thursday, November 5, 2009

Two Lenses: Jewish and Educational

I. JNF is sponsoring Project Baseball, an effort to create up-to-date baseball fields for kids in Israel to play on. I can't think of a better fit for a tzedakah project for someone who loves baseball - especially now, after the excitement of the World Series!

Can you picture a donation made by your class in honor of the Yankees to Project Baseball?

After all, although "you don't have to be Jewish", as Levy's Rye Bread famously stated, but on the other hand, it's possible to be both Jewish and a fan!!

II. Ron Blomberg, former Yankee, wrote a book about his experiences titled Designated Hebrew, an allusion to the fact that he was both the first designated hitter in the American League and also a Jew. Your baseball fanatic (5th grade and older) might enjoy reading it.

III. While we're on the topic of baseball, what about how fans feel about Alex Rodriguez now? Can this be a trigger for discussing teshuvah with our learners? Did A-Rod do teshuvah after his having used steroids? What is your evidence? Was it complete teshuvah? Explain why or why not.

IV. If you didn't see it already, Zits on November 3rd was as perfect as possible a recommendation of hands-on learning. Doing, not listening, is the answer for many of us and probably most of our learners.

Monday, November 2, 2009


We learned a lot about the power of words in the first few portions of the Torah. We learned that words can create whole worlds, that they can harm, they can confuse, they can clarify, they can be a source of unity or of divisiveness. This parasha can be seen to expand on that theme.

Words can change the world, as suggested in this commentary from the Jewish Coalition for Service.

Words can be only the surface - real meaning involves deeper listening, as you can read here. What does it mean to really listen?

Words can be misunderstood, as suggested in this commentary from United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. What if Abraham didn't hear God correctly?

Finally, back to the power of words, what can we learn from the use of the phrase "lech lecha" here, when God is telling Abraham to take his son to Moriah? Haven't we heard this phrase before? Where? Compare and contrast the two places it is used.

Once again we are faced with a parasha which could easily be studied over the course of weeks. If you are teaching parshat hashavua in you classroom, which of the stories in this parasha will you choose? Why?

Better Jewish Educators=Better Jewish Education

Arne Duncan, secretary of education, has some interesting ideas about the problems in teacher education.

Susan Engel, senior lecturer in psychology and director of the teaching program at Williams College in Massachusetts, offers some suggestions in this article.

As you read the article at the link, think about which of the ideas might be relevant to the improvement of Jewish educational practice.

I certainly agree that "...future teachers should continue studying the subject they hope to teach, ... It makes no sense at all to stop studying the thing you want to teach at the very moment you begin to learn how."

And surely it would be wonderful if "...young teachers, like young doctors, [could] work side by side with skilled mentors, getting plenty of feedback, having plenty of opportunities to observe and taking on greater and greater responsibility as they improve."

What if "...young teachers [were encouraged] to record their daily encounters with their classrooms and then, with mentors and peers, have serious, open-minded conversations about what’s working and what isn’t."?

And who could argue against the suggestion that "Teachers must also learn far more about children"?

Few of our schools have the size or resources to "... hire these newly prepared teachers in groups of seven or more" to create their own supportive community. But we know from other sources that collegial reflection and learning among teachers is one of the most important roads to improvement, and I'm sure that it doesn't have to be a community of only new teachers to be effective.

We in Jewish education don't have to re-invent the wheel. The wheel exists. It's been 'rolling around' for quite a while now in general education. Some wheels are expensive, but some just take a few people with initiative and motivation to bring them into a school.

What we are doing as Jewish educators is important. Let's act as though we believe that.

What are we teaching? What are they learning?

Although I'm not sure I understand the metrics of the study, it is still interesting if the Big Idea is that those students majoring in social sciences (including anthropology, economics, human geography, history, linguistics, political science, psychology, and similar disciplines which examine the social life of groups) are likely to be less 'religious', however one defines that, at the end of their studies than when they begin.

The summary of the report on this study in the Education Life section of the NY Times on November 1 suggests that the cause is "postmodernism, the staple of humanities classes, with its notions of relative truth (opposed to religion's absolute truth and questioning authority."

How does this relate to what we are teaching in Jewish education? Are we teaching absolute truth? Are we encouraging questioning? I believe the answer to the first question is more 'no' than 'yes', and I sincerely hope the answer to the second is resoundingly 'yes'.

Let us hope, then, that our students will not find that higher learning negates what they have learned while in our educational settings, but rather will see themselves as continuing to use the critical thinking skills that they have already exercised while learning with us.