Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Avatar and Jewish Education??

You can enter the words "Avatar" and "Jewish" in a search engine and find numerous discussions of the content of the movie and its Jewish underpinnings (or not!).  It is of no concern to me whether James Camaron had Jewish thoughts in his head when he created the movie or not.  It simply is not an issue for me as a Jewish educator.  What does matter is how the viewer understands the movie.  Our learners are going to see this movie.  Is Jewish thought a factor in how they  understand it?  That's my issue.

Big Idea:

  • Everyone sees and understands the world through his or her own perspective.
  • Most of our students have already or will soon see the movie Avatar.
  • As teachers we have an obligation to be familiar with the culture within which our students live.
  • As Jews we have a Jewish lens with which to understand the world.

Questions to guide your thinking:

  • What did you see in the movie that appeared to you to reflect Jewish thought or wisdom?
  • What did you see in the movie that seems to contradict Jewish thought or wisdom?

Learning Activities:

  • The Talmud says the following:  "We do not see things as they are.  We see them as we are."  How does this statement relate to your ideas about Avatar? (Note:  I've seen this quotation many times (even here!), but don't have a proper source.  Perhaps a reader can help me.)
  • There is a website, Jewish Wisdom Quotes, that lists dozens of sayings with Jewish origins that you are welcome to visit.  Choose a topic that interests you from their list of possibilities, and explain how it applies in your life.
  • You may want to encourage your students to choose a wisdom quote each week and find examples in the news of its application in the world
  • When this idea of using a Jewish lens to see the world is learned, you can challenge your learners to apply Jewish wisdom to any and all issues that arise in class.
  • A personal note:  I love reading comics.  Most days I can find a comic strip that either reflects or contradicts Jewish thinking.  Suggest this to your students.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Rewards in Education

Every teacher in every school has faced the challenge of motivating students.  Some of our learners are easy - they seem to motivate themselves.  Others are not so easy - seeming to "dare" us to make them care about what they are learning.  The problem is perhaps even more visible in congregational religious schools.  We are asking our students to learn things that by no stretch of their imaginations add any value  to their lives (aside from the value of Bar/Bat Mitzvah celebrations and presents).

What are we to do?

According to a recently published book - "Drive" - by Daniel Pink, we have good reason to think carefully about how we respond to student effort and achievement.  According the the research he describes, rewards may be counterproductive - students come to value the reward over the accomplishment, and to demand ever bigger and more costly rewards for their work.  An article in the NY Times about the book explains his thinking.

This is not a new idea.  Alfie Kohn, a well-known educational thinker, has long been writing about the negative aspects of reward, as you can see by reading his articles about the subject on his website.

For those who struggle with motivating a group of students, or with responding to disruptive classroom behaviors, this may sound at best idealistic and at worst impossible.  After all, what's wrong with a few chocolate kisses if they lead to better performance and improved behavior?

Here are a few links to articles which may suggest alternatives:

  • Education World Professional Professional Development Channel provides links to a variety of resources on reward
  • One Question a Day is an article that describes one school that decided to experiment with making reward more intrinsic than extrinsic by inviting students to answer questions about their behavior in different situations.
  • Rewarding Systems is an examination of the advantages and disadvantages of both intrinsic and extrinsic rewards, and concludes that there are points to be made in favor of each, but with cautions about both that should be noted.
As usual, the challenges are many, the solutions varied, and the decisions to a certain extent personal.  The most important thing is to learn as much as we can - from both research and experience - and to use what we learn thoughtfully and responsibly.  


Monday, January 25, 2010


Big Ideas:

  • It takes repeated experiences to internalize learning.
  • People need to learn to take an active role in their fate, not depend totally on intervention of others - even when the "other" is God.
  • In some situations people are unable to solve their own problems - they require the assistance of others
Questions to Think About and Try to Answer:
  • How is it possible that the Israelites were still complaining after what God had already done for them?
  • Why would God choose a route for the escaping Israelites that avoids confrontation with potential enemies?
  • What do you think God expects of these former slaves?  Is God's expectation reasonable?
  • In your opinion, do the Israelites live up to God's expectations?  Explain why you think they do or don't.
  • What is Moshe's role at this point in the story?  Do you think God is satisfied with Moshe's actions?  What is your evidence?
  • What are the implications for our lives today?
  • Is there anything in this parasha that can help you make sense of the tragedy in Haiti?

Learning Activites:

  • has an interesting focus for this week's parasha.  Watch the video for a thoughtful explanation of why the Israelites complain so much, and a perspective about the nature of their complaints.
  • The New York Times had an article about Israel's response to the earthquake in Haiti.  You can access the article by typing "For Israelis, Mixed Feelings on Aid Effort" in your search engine (Google or other.  Be sure to use the quotation marks around the title to find the article easily).  On the one hand there is praise for the speed and expertise that was evident in the way the Israeli team is working to save survivors of this tragedy.  There is also reference to a criticism within Israel - why is it that Israel can respond to the suffering in Haiti and not in Gaza?  Compare and contrast the situations by answering the following questions about each place:
    • What is the nature of the problem?
    • What are the causes for the problem?
    • Who is responsible for the problem?
    • Who is able to solve the problem?
    • Who is responsible for the solution?
    • What are the obstacles to a solution?
  • There is a midrash that says Yam Suf only split after the Israelites stepped in and the water came up to their nostrils.  What do you think that midrash wants us to understand?
  • Learners should be able to summarize the parasha
  • Learners should be able to apply the Jewish wisdom in this lesson to their own lives
  • Learners should be able to articulate some of the complex issues in the relationship between Israel and Gaza.
Note:  This parasha and others make a good case for the idea that everything - both good and bad - is intentionally caused by God.  The thought that our One God is responsible for everything has been an issue that Jews and those who follow religions based on Judaism (Christians and Moslems) have struggled with for as long as these religions have existed.  The issue is called "theodicy", a Greek term summarized by the following question:  If God is all-powerful and also good, why is there evil in the world?  You may want to read more about theodicy and how different Jewish thinkers respond to this tension.  I particularly recommend the book Sacred Fragments, by Dr. Neil Gillman.