Thursday, June 13, 2019

My Closing Physics Lesson

By: Yarone Tokayer, Physics Teacher

At the end of each year in my physics classes, we spend a few minutes reflecting on the year: what we have learned and where it can take us. In closing, I share the following 5 points with my class, which I believe have broader relevance beyond physics. Points 1, 3, and 4 are modeled after a similar talk that my mentor and colleague, Mr. Ron Zamir, gives to his students. I attribute many of these ideas to him.

1. High schoolers and physics. According to the American Institute of Physics, just over one third of high school students in America study physics. Among those, just under one quarter have teachers with formal physics (or physics-related) backgrounds. Multiplying those together, we find that only 1 in 12 American high schoolers graduate with exposure to a physics course on any level taught by someone with direct experience in the field. Our students are privileged to be part of that group. Every student at SAR takes physics, and our faculty—in science as in all departments—bring formal training, expertise, and experience in their subject areas to their teaching. SAR students should understand that they are provided with a top quality education. They should feel empowered by what they learn, and should recognize the opportunities that their knowledge affords them.

2. Women and physics. I went to an engineering school where for every 7 men enrolled, there were 3 women. There we were told that in the field of engineering, the ratio is 9 to 1. Perhaps it is even more striking that interest in STEM fields among girls seems to diminish with age. Taking computer science as an example, according to Girls Who Code, 66% of middle-school girls in America answer “yes” when asked if they might be interested in pursuing a computing field. Among high-schoolers that number is 32%, and when college freshmen are asked, only 4% of young women say that they want to pursue computer science.
I do not share these statistics to be alarmist, nor do I think that students should make academic and career decisions solely for the purpose of changing statistics. Rather, I believe that at SAR we are close to being successful at creating an environment in which our female students can take for granted that they are perceived, by themselves and by others, as belonging to STEM in a way that is equal to their male counterparts. I am proud that we teach in coed classrooms that make explicit the message that the same opportunities for growth and success are accessible to all of our students. In particular, the young women in our classes should recognize themselves as capable and important potential contributors to physics and physics-related fields.
3. Why study physics? As a class, we come up with a list of reasons to study physics. Each class’s list is different, but some of the frequent suggestions are:

  • Physics helps us understand the world 
  • Physics helps us see beauty and structure in the world 
  • Physics is useful: with it, we can predict how things behave 
  • Physics provides necessary background for others areas of study (e.g., medicine, engineering, philosophy) 
  • Physics ideas are part of the common knowledge needed to understand references in popular and academic culture 
  • Physics can have religious meaning: it helps us understand God’s world and our place in it 
  • Physics sharpens broader cognitive skills 

Now that students have gone through the curriculum, they are in a position to make a case for the value of physics.

4. Goggles. Every time we learn something, we acquire a new pair of goggles, a way to see the world. For example, two years ago, when our robotics team went to Israel, we took a walking tour of Jerusalem’s Old City, with a focus on the 1948 War of Independence. Luckily, I had walked those streets many times before, but I saw them in a totally different way during that walk. I suddenly noticed little plaques memorializing casualties of the war. In an unremarkable wall that I had always overlooked, I could now see a crack that young soldiers used as a peep-hole. That tour gave me and my four students a new pair of goggles to wear whenever we are in the Old City.
Physics is a profound pair of goggles. One that comments on everything we experience, from the jerking of an accelerating subway car to the sight of an eagle gliding in the sky on a calm summer day. With it, a concert of numbers and vectors, of particles and waves, of order and chaos, is superposed onto our world.
For me, this technical knowledge does not detract from my everyday experiences, but enhances them. Physics provides us with a language. One that helps us communicate our experiences of the world in objective and precise terms. In this way, otherwise intangible parts of life find meaningful expression. Our students will live in the physical world for their entire lives, and they now have another lens through which to see it.

5. Academic love. I was first exposed to physics 11 years ago in Mr. Zamir’s class. That was where I discovered my first academic love. The material we learned felt so natural, as if it had implicitly been with me my entire life, and was only now being manifest. I remember the first time I had the giddy feeling of being part-way through a problem, and seeing a clear path to the end. I knew that this field would follow me through life.

Physics is an academic love for me, but it is obviously not everyone’s. I believe that everyone can find an academic love. It seems that many people, especially in the early stages of their adult lives, make the mistake of pinning all of their happiness onto one thing, be it a satisfying career, money, a romantic relationship, clothing, or sports. The reality is that there is no ingredient for a happy life. It’s more like a recipe. And each person’s will be their unique blend.
My message to students is: make learning a part of that. Be open to discovering your chelek, your piece, in learning, and dive into it. Find it in yourself and find yourself in it. Let yourself be fascinated by it and be emboldened to contribute to it. Challenge it and let yourself be challenged by it.

Teach it.

That love can be incredibly gratifying and enriching.

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Comfortable Limits

By: Yarone Tokayer, Physics Teacher (HS '09)
“SAR High School is a Modern Orthodox co-educational community of learners dedicated to challenging each learner to move beyond his or her comfortable limits”
This second line of SAR High School’s mission statement has always struck me as powerful, but somewhat vague. What exactly are our “comfortable limits” and what attitudes and practices do students that “move beyond” them exhibit?

Any meaningful learning is a journey beyond a student’s self—by its very nature it is an act of expansion beyond his or her current knowledge and abilities. In high school, students moving beyond their comfortable limits usually translates into things like struggling through difficult problem sets, drafting and redrafting papers, enrolling in classes they haven’t been exposed to, and being open to new people, ideas, and opinions. But I think it can mean even more.

This year, I have the privilege of teaching both Physics and Machshevet Yisrael (Jewish Philosophy) at SAR High School. While the two fields aren't typically associated with one another, I've found that they are intimately related, especially when it comes to moving beyond comfortable limits. Both subjects force students to reconsider their assumptions about the world: in physics, about the physical world, and in philosophy, about the world of ideas. This can be a challenge for students—it is hard for students to see new perspectives and even harder for them to challenge their own—but I would like to suggest the following encouraging approach.

Physics consists of two things: (1) a description of what is in the world, and (2) how those things behave. The former is called “ontology”: what exactly is it that makes up our world? We actually begin this inquiry as early as preschool in the classic Sesame Street sketch “Who are the people in your neighborhood,” where we go out to find postal carriers, bankers, and grocers. In ontology, we broaden that line of questioning to “What are the things in your universe?” Taking the Sesame Street approach, we can go out into the universe and find things like oceans, a moon, etc. Wilfrid Sellars, a 20th century philosopher, dubbed this the “Manifest Image” of the world. It consists of the things that we know about from our direct experience. It is how we grow up seeing the world, and it is the ontology that we have developed in order to survive as a species.

The problem with this naive approach to our question—the Manifest Image—is that the world as we experience it can be deceiving, and it’s not exactly right. For example, when we see a table, it looks solid all the way through, and so the Manifest Image says it is. In reality though, the table is made up of an untold number of atoms, each of which is mostly empty space (for those who remember their chemistry, this was the famous “Rutherford gold foil experiment”), and this plainly contradicts our Manifest Image of the world. Similarly, there are all sorts of things that science claims exist that humans never directly perceive. We mentioned atoms, but forces, radiation, and electric currents would all fall into the same category. So it seems that the “Scientific Image” (as opposed to the Manifest Image) of the world tells us that the “people in our neighborhood” are much stranger than we first thought. In particular, it claims that our world is replete with imperceptible entities that exist among us.

The purpose of scientific study science then (and, I suppose, my purpose as a physics teacher) is to modify a student’s Manifest Image of the world with the Scientific Image: to tweak each student’s prior conception of the universe into a more complicated, less intuitive, and very mysterious one. But why bother? They can operate just fine within the dalet amot (four cubits) of their Manifest Image. In fact, it’s probably more practical than the arcane chalkboard world depicted by the Scientific Image. Why should students be interested in twisting their minds to comprehend the strange objects postulated by science teachers when generations of people before them got along just fine without knowledge of electrons, quantum wave functions, or electric fields?

For many, the answer is that the Scientific Image has proven to be incredibly successful, despite its lack of intuitive appeal: much of electrical technology and modern medicine is thanks to the depth and intricacy of the Scientific Image. Personally, I think something much deeper is going on (after all, we do not teach science just in case a student becomes a doctor, the same way we do not teach ancient history just in case a student becomes a historian)—and it gets to the core of what SAR’s mission statement is about. To explain, I turn to one of my early Machshevet Yisrael lesson plans from the 1999 classic movie, The Matrix.

Neo, a reclusive computer hacker, is told that everything he has ever known is a lie. He is living in a dream world that was built to hide the fact that he is a slave. Neo is offered two pills. A blue pill will allow him to forget what he has learned. With its ingestion, he will live the rest of his life in blissful ignorance of the unfortunate reality of the world, and it won’t make the slightest practical difference that he is a slave. He will only ever experience his dream world, as he has for his entire life until now. However, if Neo takes a certain red pill, he can wake up. He can, for the first time in his life, experience the real world, but as a miserable slave in perpetual war with robot overlords.

Why does Neo take the red pill? Not for money or any other practical reason, but for a deeply spiritual one. Neo isn’t satisfied with the world as it is given to him. He has always sensed an emptiness to his life and he desires to live an exalted existence. He could never articulate precisely what it is he has been searching for his entire life, but now that he has learned about The Matrix, Neo knows that he has found it.

The good news is that while The Matrix’s world is deeply upsetting, the world that we offer students in our classes is sublime and exciting. That’s the power of the “Scientific Image.” Each time we expose students to part of that less comfortable picture of the world, we lift one more veil off of their reality. Thus, students of science are given the opportunity to lead richer, more informed, and more truthful lives with a greater appreciation of the world and their place in it. It’s less about preparing them for careers and more about preparing them for life.

Brett Stephens expresses this well in his New York Times article entitled “Useless Knowledge Begets New Horizons” (thank you to Ms. Rebecca Wolf for sharing this with the SAR faculty):
in being the kind of society that [pursues science with no immediate application] we also discover the highest use for useless knowledge: Not that it may someday have some life-saving application on earth, though it might, but that it has a soul-saving application in the here and now.
And what about Machshevet Yisrael? Students enter with their “manifest” notions of faith in God, commandments, and morality. It can be profoundly threatening for them to learn about all the ways in which their thinking may be contested, or even be internally inconsistent. So why do it? Why don’t our students take the blue pill, and live with the peace of mind that an unreflective approach to Judaism offers? Because we want them to build a more gratifying and honest worldview. The red pill is harder, but it is deeper, and we have a faith that it ultimately strengthens religiosity.

My suggestion is that “challenging each learner to move beyond his or her comfortable limits” is not only a fundamental part of learning, but an effective and powerful tool that we give our students to set them up for meaningful lives. It’s an attitude toward the human experience and a disposition toward deepening it. It is a yearning for divine truth אֶת־פָּנֶ֖יךָ ה’ אֲבַקֵּֽשׁ (Tehillim 27).

To me, the message of SAR’s curriculum is a reflection of its mission: take the red pill. Once we do, there is no turning back. We cannot unlearn things, and the enlightened thinker is rarely complacent with reverting to an unreflective existence. Especially for young students, for whom learning is “ink on new parchment” (Pirkei Avot), the Scientific Image is not easily erased. In this way, our classes have the power to take root deeply in the minds and souls of our students.


Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Voice and Choice: Empowering Students in Tefillah

By: Ms. Lisa Schlaff, Director of Judaic Studies

As adults, we take for granted the opportunity to craft our own tefillah experiences. Some of us prefer the quick hashkama minyan. Some of us prefer the “ruach” minyan with more singing that is, well, less quick. Some prefer a minyan that is absolutely silent, and some prefer a minyan tolerant of a little background noise. Each of these settings can provide meaningful tefillah experiences, and as adults, the very act of choosing can be a religiously defining moment. And yet, in our schools we tend to provide students with “one size fits all” tefillah experiences. We do this for good reasons, some theoretical, such as the desire to create a unified school community, and some practical, such as staffing limitations. But as educators we need to ask ourselves whether a “one size fits all” model of tefillah in high school is best serving our students’ long term religious growth.

If a group of students are moved by song, why not provide a tefillah experience that speaks to how they best connect? If a group of students would benefit from explanation of the words they recite each day, why not provide it? And if a group of students would prefer to slow down the pace and focus on each word, why not just slow down? As occurs daily in any well-functioning classroom, teachers of tefillah can be charged with considering the needs of different groups of students and creating structures that at once conform to norms and allow for individual expression. Such an approach entails knowing our students well and seriously considering their voices.  

When we allow students to choose among various tefillah experiences, we are entrusting them with some autonomy over their religious lives. Perhaps most significantly, such autonomy communicates that teenagers can and need to actively own the decisions they make around tefillah. What helps me focus in tefillah? What type of davener am I? These are the types of questions we want students to deeply consider as they mature. When we began offering a few different types of minyanim at SAR High School, we knew a portion of students would appreciate tefillah with explanation, or tefillah with learning, or tefillah with ruach. What surprised us was how much students appreciated just having a choice - the sheer significance of the autonomy itself. Most surprising is to hear from students who do not attend a specialty tefillah - the majority of our student body - that the choice itself communicates that there is more than one way to be a “good davener.”  In affording students some choice around tefillah, we tell students not only that their individual voices matter, but also that there are many paths to avodat Hashem.

Empowering students as shapers of their religious lives entails not only offering choice, but allowing students to take meaningful leadership in tefillah. Conventionally, this means that students lead tefillah and serve as gabbaim. We can expand these roles to include giving divrei Torah, making announcements, and ensuring that the space itself is ready and organized for tefillah. These are roles that can be shared across both sides of the mechitza. In addition to male gabbaim, we can appoint female gabbaiot who can set up a rotation for divrei Torah, make announcements, and model active engagement on the women’s side of the mechitza. We can empower seniors to take leadership roles in freshmen minyanim and work with individual students who would benefit from practice with an encouraging peer before they lead tefillah.

Many years ago I was involved in starting a minyan with a group of friends. It wasn’t glamorous.  We did a lot of schlepping, setting up and taking down. But I will never walk into a shul again without a realization that someone put the machzorim on the shelves, straightened the tables, and made sure the tissue boxes were full. As they mature into members of a community, this is a realization I want my students to have, and can teach towards by letting go and giving students responsibilities. Two years ago, we were approached by a group of students who wanted to start their own minyan with minimal faculty supervision. They would run the davening, manage the space, and ensure each member of the minyan had a “job.” Students in this minyan work hard. They also know that tefillah is not just another area of their life run by adults and are proud of the environment they have created.

Lastly, and perhaps most significantly, we need to build in time for students to reflect on their own tefillah. We need to communicate that tefillah is not something we just do, but something we actively think about and work on. We can ask students to set specific goals for themselves in tefillah, write them down and return to them regularly. Encouraging students to set their own goals reinforces the idea that tefillah is not about adults telling kids what to do, but about kids stepping up and owning their tefillah lives. Along these lines, we can invite students to wrestle with the big picture questions embedded in the communal tefillah experience. How can we best engage those to whom tefillah does not come naturally? What is the appropriate balance between explanation of tefillah and tefillah itself? How can we ensure that tefillah is held to a high standard, while also affording a wide range of students the chance to lead, learn and grow? Teenagers have a lot to say about these questions, and they should be heard, be it through the medium of student government, or a special Vaad Tefillah established for this purpose.

As we strive to help teenagers become lifelong daveners, we need to create different experiences for different students, provide students with meaningful leadership opportunities, and communicate that tefillah is something we actively work on. With that in mind, we beseech “shema koleinu Hashem Elokeinu,” that Hashem listen to our voices and accept our tefillot with compassion.