Friday, November 2, 2018
Monday, October 15, 2018
By: Rabbi Avi Bloom, Director of Technology and Dr. Gillian Steinberg and Ms. Shira Schiowitz, Professional Development Coordinators
One of the biggest questions in educational technology today is whether the education or the technology drives our decisions. As educators committed to integrating technology into our pedagogy, we sometimes fear that technology will be the driver, usurping or distracting from our educational goals. During this past summer’s ISTE (International Society for Technology in Education) conference in Chicago, we were inspired to see most tools presented with a primary focus on pedagogy. In fact, many speakers and sessions only mentioned technology tangentially, in service of educational goals.
Why, then, is technology so important in education in 2018? Beyond efficiency, how does it open educational opportunities? Technology affords us the ability to make students more active, hands-on, and generative. Students can be creators instead of simply responders. David Eagleman, neuroscientist and author and a keynote speaker at ISTE, encouraged the audience to embrace the realities and opportunities of technology instead of fearing or resisting change. Instead of becoming repositories of information, our students have more opportunities than ever to analyze, synthesize, and deepen their understanding with information available at their fingertips.
Students feel empowered by seeing connections among their disparate
classes and recognizing how they can share their learning. Students today can consider not only how they absorb information but also how they share it with their classmates and their teachers. We’ve begun thinking, for example, about how to include genres like podcasting and video production in the study of literature, not just to maintain students’ interest but also to recognize that literary interpretation can meaningfully include visual and auditory media as well. By recognizing the ways that certain skills translate across fields, we can offer students a more comprehensive education for the modern world while also demonstrating for them the synergies across various disciplines.
We can also reframe our assignments so we aren’t just thinking about the location of information -- how students “do research” -- but also about the quality of the information. Doing so allows students to be more active in their learning. In every class, we can redirect students from merely locating information to evaluating its reliability, bias, and comprehensiveness. Teaching students to be critical consumers of information is essential to their skills in every field, from their study of the history of slavery in America to the effects of clinical depression to contemporary theologians’ views on this week’s parasha.
As students transition from passive listeners to active learners, and teachers shift from information presenters to learning facilitators, students feel empowered and motivated by the collaborative opportunities that technology affords them. Students work together, both in person and remotely, to solve problems, share ideas and demonstrate mastery creatively. Whether writing on a shared Google doc, crafting interactive presentations, building a website, editing a movie, programming a robot, drafting a digital music score, exploring virtual reality and augmented reality environments, shared creative expression deepens student understanding, creates meaningful connections to knowledge and to their learning communities, and prepares them for life beyond school.
When used well, technology can widen the scope of our students’ knowledge, provide more opportunities to collaborate, and enhance their ability to share ideas. As educators, our challenge is to capitalize on these opportunities by encouraging our students to be discerning, analytical and thoughtful with all of the tools and information around them.
Sunday, September 2, 2018
While the Torah implores us to pursue tzedek, telling us to chase after it (תרדף), over these past several months I have found myself running from it. Allow me to explain. Every year SAR High School has an educational theme which guides our educational programming - the schoolwide Shabbaton, Macabee (Color War), and several theme programs interspersed throughout the year - and this year’s theme is tzedek. Toward the end of our last school year and throughout the summer I, along with the rest of the administration, have been working with our educational programming team to plot out this year’s course of action. From the very beginning, it became abundantly clear that this year’s theme would require more careful navigation than last year’s theme of tikkun hamidot, character refinement. For the tikkun hamiddot theme we were anchored by Rabbi Yisrael Salanter’s 13 admirable character traits. Students learned about the different middot through experiential and educational programming including a Martin Luther King Jr. Day program and the popular “middah moments” where students emailed in examples of their peers displaying exemplary middot; this was capped off by Rabbi Harcsztark’s weekly announcement of the “middah moment of the week”, which was so popular and impactful on school culture that it will continue and become a permanent fixture of pre-Shabbat announcements.
But tzedek is different. It is most commonly translated into English as social justice and when we speak about social justice it is difficult to avoid becoming entangled in partisanship. One option would be to avoid the topic altogether - why get involved in something so fraught with disagreement that has the potential to be alienating? I think this would be the wrong course of action; tzedek is not a partisan ideology that one chooses to ascribe to based on political ideology - it is a Torah value, which God implores us to carry out. Social justice might also be an inaccurate definition of tzedek. Consider, for example Dyonna Ginsburg’s definition of tzedek as she put it in her Orthodox Forum paper, in which she defines tzedek along with tzedakkah, chesed and tikun olam. She writes:
This summer in reading to prepare for our theme, I came across two pieces that I found helpful in answering these questions. The first comes from the Jewish German-American philosopher, Michael Wyschogrod, who explains why teaching tzedek is a necessity. In the essay Wyschogrod rails against the notion that the essence of Judaism is its ethics (the essay can be found in a collection of essays edited by Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter in memory of Rabbi Dr. Leo Jung). He writes,
While this would make it seem that Wyschogrod’s feelings are more in line with those on the so called “right”, it is what he writes next that I found particularly striking. He concludes,
According to Wyschogrod, Judaism cannot be reduced to a religion of ethics. The essence of Judaism is in the ritual, but the ethical is also necessary - “feeding the hungry is more important than feeding God.” Yes, to reduce Judaism down a religion focused exclusively on ethics is a secularization, but to not focus on it at all is also a distortion of God’s will.
The other item I read over the summer that will guide how we teach tzedek came from a collection of sermons from Rabbi Shai Held. In a sermon on Parshat Re’eh, Rabbi Held takes a deeper look at chapter 15 of Sefer Devarim, which details many of the tzedek related laws (shemitah, tzedakkah, treatment of a Jewish bondsman). Rabbi Held notes that Torah repeatedly refers to the poor as “brother” (see 15:2,3,7,9,11,12). Certainly this teaches us that we should treat those who are less fortunate as family, to act generously and with empathy. But Rabbi Held goes further and writes:
This past week during teacher in service, Rabbi Harcsztark led a learning session with the entire faculty about our theme, opening a conversation about how to educate toward this important value. What emerged from that discussion is the need for civil discourse amongst teachers, students and the entire SAR High School community surrounding our theme. Teachers pointed out that we will need to teach students how to have respectful conversations when we disagree with one another by learning and practicing how to listen to one another. We should seek to understand the viewpoints of others, even, or especially, when we disagree. Come Wednesday, and when we officially kick off our theme on Tzom Gedaliah, this conversation will expand to include over 560 unique voices. We will learn together that the Torah calls upon us to perform the ritual and cultic along with the ethical and so it is incumbent upon us to practice tzedek by pursuing justice through systemic and structural reform. As educators, we have the obligation to create space for all students in this pursuit and I look forward to an enriching year, where we examine together ways in which we can make our community and world an even better place.
Wednesday, June 27, 2018
- The numbers suggest overall decline in the number of Jews ages 30-69 in the coming decades.
- In the Pew data, the number of nondenominational Jews aged 20-29 is much larger than those 30 and above. That number then gets much smaller for those below 20. That suggests that Jews are becoming unaffiliated and then not reproducing themselves.
- The number of Conservative and Reform Jews ages 30-39 are about half of Conservative and Reform Jews ages 60-69. Together, that means that the Non-Orthodox community in America is going to decline precipitously in the coming decades.
- In contrast, Orthodox Judaism in America is growing very rapidly: as of the 2013 data, there were 40,000 Orthodox Jews in their 60’s, 120,000 Orthodox Jews in their 30’s and 230,000 between 0 and 9 years of age. That is enormous growth.
- There will be more Orthodox Jews in America than Reform and Conservative Jews combined in about 40 years, and more than all of non-Orthodox Jewry in almost 70 years.
- The overall number of Jews in America will decline over the coming decades.
- The number of Non-Orthodox Jews will decline dramatically.
- The Orthodox population in America will increase significantly in the coming years.
1 Professor Steven M. Cohen is Research Professor of Jewish Social Policy at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, grandfather of Yair Wall, class of 2021. Professor Eidieal Pinker is a professor of Operations Research and Deputy Dean at the Yale School of Management. He is also the father of of Zev Pinker, SAR HS class of 2021. Dr. Mickey Gussow z”l served at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.↩
2 https://forward.com/opinion/382564/does-orthodox-explosion-signal-doom-for-conservative-and-reform/?attribution=author-article-listing-2-headline; https://forward.com/opinion/382962/how-the-non-orthodox-can-boost-jewish-demographics/?attribution=author-article-listing-1-headline ↩
Wednesday, May 16, 2018
At the climax of The Miracle Worker, Ms. Sullivan succeeds in training Helen to sit at the dinner table with proper manners. The parents are thrilled, but Ms. Sullivan is dissatisfied. She continues to expect more of Helen. She believes that Helen’s education must continue beyond behavior, into an ability to understand and communicate with others, despite her disabilities. Had Ms. Sullivan been content, it would have undermined her entire approach: her goal was not to raise the bar that separated Helen’s abilities and inabilities, but to remove the bar entirely. Imagine then, the possibilities for our students, who are so apparently talented and capable. When we look at them, do we take what’s in front of us at face value, or do we see what’s still unlocked? We should aim to strike the right balance of understanding, nurturing, and demanding, to open up worlds of possibilities for our students during these formative years of their lives.
Tuesday, April 24, 2018
I’ve been a high school teacher in Orthodox high schools for around twenty years now, and I have my own “hu haya omer”--the thought that I repeat often, a distillation of my years of experience. When I began high school teaching, I had no children. Then I had young children (and distinctly remember once, at a Parent-Teacher conference, when a mother asked for my counsel in dealing with her teenage son, thinking, “My oldest is 6. What do I know about parenting teenagers?”) Now I am the mother of three teenagers, and while I find this advice far harder to live by and implement than it is to dole out, it is no less true for that.
The most frequent parenting and educational problem that I see takes many guises, but it has one common root: the inability to accept that our children are the people they are, not the people we might have designed them to be. Our kids come to us not as mini-mes or projections of our hopes and dreams, but as bundles of DNA, further shaped by their epigenetics, their environments, and their experiences. And for all of the power of parenting, and of education, we can’t make them be anything other than what they are.
I have seen this play out in a host of ways: in parents or educators disappointed by their children’s levels of academic ability, interest in their schoolwork, choices about where to go for college or yeshiva, religious inclinations, or other personal characteristics. Conveying to our children that we are disappointed or dismayed by who they are or who they’ve become--because they’re too religious, or not religious enough; because they don’t want to go the college we went to or because they don’t want to go to the college we wish we went to; because they have academic or emotional health challenges; because of their sexual orientation--won’t change any of that. That’s simply not within our power. All it will do is make our children sad, angry, or alienated.
That is not to say, of course, that we don’t get to set boundaries or parameters. As parents, we can and should do that, saying for example that I will only financially support your choice of college if it meets certain standards for Orthodox life. But even then, we should be prepared to honestly face the reality of who our children are and what they need, and adjust accordingly. You might have hoped that your child would go to Yeshiva/Stern, or Harvard, or your alma mater. But look at the person in front of you. Does that make sense for your child? And even if you’re sure it does, is it what your child wants?
Sometimes, when we get caught up in the strength of our vision of what our kids need, of what’s best for them, an outsider can provide a needed reality check. “I know you want your son to be an engineer. But he loves history and literature.” “I know you want your daughter to be a doctor. But she loves learning Torah.” Sometimes our children themselves provide that reality check, if only we’ll listen: “I don’t think that academic program/yeshiva/career path is the right one for me, and here’s why.”
It can be hard to hear sometimes, that the dream that we always had of the path that our children would take in their careers, in Judaism, in life, isn’t going to be what we anticipated, or planned for, back when our kids were theoretical constructs and not real people. But they are real people, with their own identities that we cannot change. What we can do is understand the particularities of who they are, their strengths, the areas in which they need to grow, and do our best to help them develop as people and as Jews along their own paths.