Thursday, February 27, 2014

Oy, The Whole Shebang!

In a rather different - and rather entertaining - twist on our annual drama productions, the Boys High School,  under the masterful direction of Mrs. Renee Brame, presented two short plays this week by Jewish playwright Rich Orloff:  "The Whole Shebang" and "Oy!".

The former used used metaphor, satire, and irony to explore the relationship between man and God while challenging the audience to think both about our limitations and potential in this world.  On a much lighter note, "Oy!" presented a series of vignettes which employed the genre of Yiddish theater and humor to poke good-natured fun at some of the peculiarities of American-Jewish culture. The cast, which included several boys from 8th grade, did a wonderful job keeping the audience thinking and laughing throughout.

For pictures and some video clips from the production, click here.

IDF Visits the High Schools

Thanks to the initiative of 11th grader Sophie Ostrow and 12th grader Gabe Goldstein, our high schools were visited by members of the Israel Defense Force this past week.  Both Sophie and Gabe were selected last summer for the highly regarded Teen Internship Program run by StandWithUs, an international Israel advocacy group.  Leveraging their connections with the organization, Sophie and Gabe arranged for Memphis to be a stop on this year's Stand With Us Israel Soldiers Stories Tour.  Together with a representative from the organization, former members of the IDF travel the country as part of this tour, talking to audiences about what it is really like to serve in the Israeli military, the unrivaled moral code which permeates everything they do, and their refusal to lower their ethical bar no matter what tactics are used by their enemies.  In addition to an evening event at the JCC, the ISS group came to our high schools and not only spoke of their experiences but showed videos of enemy targets identified by the IDF which they were prepared to attack but which they abandoned due to the fear of civilian casualties.  Although our students knew much of what they had to say beforehand, hearing their stories - up close and personal - from the people who lived it, was a whole new experience for many of them.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Reflections on "Work" in Jewish Education

The following post is based on the Message from the Dean in this week's MHA/FYOS newsletter. Current and previous editions of the newsletter can be accessed here.

At the closing plenary of the first day of the Martin Institute’s Project Zero Conference, Ron Ritchhart related that a British researcher sat in on a random sampling of classrooms in order to measure the number of times the words “work” and “learning” was used by the teacher.  What he found is that for every one mention of “learning” there were 48 mentions of “work.”

Project Zero is a research group based in Harvard University’s School of Education which has been studying the essential aspects of human learning for almost fifty years.  Ritchhart, who began his career as an elementary school math teacher, has been a researcher with Project Zero since 1994 and his book entitled Making Thinking Visible may be the group’s best known product, second only to the work of Howard Gardner.  Thanks to the Martin Institute, based out of PDS here in Memphis, ten members of our administration and faculty were amongst over 700 educators from across the globe who had the privilege of hearing from Ritchhart this past Thursday about his work on creating cultures of learning in schools.

Amongst the points which Ritchhart emphasized was that schools aren't simply places where students learn.   They are places where students learn about learning.  Learning has a story: what it looks like, how it’s done, what it’s for – and every school communicates that story to the children who pass through its classrooms and hallways.  According to Ritchhart, the story of learning being told in most schools today continues to hearken back to the Industrial Age.  It’s a story of success and failure, of winners and losers.  It’s a story of products rather than process, and – most of all – it’s a story of work: homework, class work, workbooks, worksheets, quiet work, group work, showing your work, and finishing your work lest you have to take it home.  It’s a story about penalizing kids who just “get it” but don’t do the work and rewarding the kids who do the work but don’t really “get it.”  What would it look like, he wondered, if instead of being about “work” the story our children were hearing in school was about “learning?”  Home learning and class learning. Learning books and learning sheets.  Quiet learning, group learning, showing your learning, and never finishing it.  Would we see a mere shift in vocabulary or a sea change in what our children do in school?

I wondered as I listened whether the equation of school with work has implications for what happens once our children leave school as well.  That is, if learning is the work that people do when they are in school, are we implicitly telling our children that when they leave school and enter a new occupation the learning stops and a new – more worthwhile – form of workbegins?  Is the vocabulary we are using suggesting to studentthat unless they choose research or teaching as a profession, learning is something that has a finite time and place and with the flip of a tassel it mercifully comes to an end?

Sad as it might be that our emphasis on school “work” may result in children never opening another book of history, reading another classic of literature, or keeping up with developments in science post graduation, the implications for the Judaic side of our curriculum are all the more daunting.  If learning Chumash and NaviGemara and HalachahMussar and Machshavah, are seen by our children as mere “work” to be completed upon graduation, the very essence of our heritage is put perilously at risk.  Jewish educators today, though, find themselves in a bind.  On the one hand, we want our students to see their Torah learning as a lifelong endeavor – one that is joyful, inspirational, and never limited by time or place.  Yet, on the other hand, we fear that disassociating talmud Torah with the “work” which defines today’s schooling culture, may lead parents and students alike to deflate its value, rather than inflate it; to take it less “seriously” because the amount of “work” isn’t the same.  

It didn't used to be this way.  Jewish education has always had its challenges and for most of our history, rigorous Torah study was the provenance of small and select few.  But for all of our controversies through the ages over what to learn and how to learn it, one thing has always been true: Torah study has always been about learning and never about "work". 

So perhaps it’s time for our schools to begin telling a new story of learning.  And perhaps Torah-based Day Schools should be leading the way.

Model UN

Congratulations to our high school Model UN teams who made our schools proud with their performance at last week's annual YUNMUN event in Stamford, CT.  Headlining that performance was Aaron Knobel who was awarded an Honorable Mention for the work he did in his committee on curbing discrimination against women.

This weekend it's time for our athletes to shine as our Girls High School varsity basketball team competes in the Miami Tournament and our Junior High boys take on national competition in Chicago.  Best of luck to them both!

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Thoughts on Mercava

The following post appeared as the Dean's Message for the MHA / FYOS school newsletter last week.  Previous newsletters and messages can be accessed here.

The future of Jewish education is here.  Without it, we will lose at least an entire generation of Jewish children.  With it, we’ll unify the Jewish people and change the world.
These are some of the lofty promises made in a promotional video that has been viewed some 19,000 times since it was posted on YouTube six weeks ago.  Its creators are an Israel-based group called Mercava who, according the video, include “Executives who brought you Facebook, creative minds behind Disney, and pioneers of 21st century education from Pearson Education.” They believe that the Digital Age, with its barrage of high-speed, high-definition, interactive and immersive media experiences - coupled with the seductive allure of social media - have created a challenge for Jewish educators unlike any we’ve ever seen before.  Jewish children today, they say, need their information delivered on demand, in hyperlinked text, with stunning graphics, integrated video, and digital animation.  Jewish children today, they say, need our Torah texts instantly translated and brilliantly brought to life by the creative minds that brought us Toy Story, Tangled and Wreck-It Ralph.    Without it, our children will be distracted, uninterested, and unengaged.  With it, we’ll save a generation.  This is “the cutting edge.” This is what Mercava has set out to do.
Readers of this column, readers of my blog, and those generally familiar with our school, know that over the past five years our faculty and administrators have spent countless hours reading about, thinking about, and discussing the unique set of challenges posed to our children by our rapidly changing world.  You also know that technology integration is something we have embraced across all grade levels and disciplines.  Yet, when watching this video from Mercava I couldn’t help but feel disappointed.  Disappointed not in the quality of their proposed content or in the elegance of the tools they are building to disseminate it.  Disappointed, rather, by a sense that their truly laudable efforts on behalf of Jewish education hardly scratch the surface in addressing the most significant challenges facing our children and their future.  
As part of our efforts to adjust our curriculum so as to best prepare students for their future rather than our past, our faculty adopted a set of “C21 Standards” a year ago which list the capacities we believe our students need to succeed in the 21st Century.  These standards are broken down into five categories: Analytical and Creative Thinking, Digital and Quantitative Literacy, Global Perspective, Adaptability Initiative and Risk Taking, and Religion and Modernity.  In all, there are fifty standards which our PreK-12 faculty felt accurately portrayed the additional skill set which our students will need in order to effectively navigate this brave new world academically, professionally, socially, emotionally, and religiously.  Sadly, I count only five of those fifty - and only one in the category of Religion and Modernity -  which this new platform heralded by Mercava as the future of Jewish education, will help our students to address.  
Perhaps more significant, though, is the fact that this platform, if overused, may make some of our other standards more difficult to achieve.  For instance, standard 5c, under Religion and Modernity, calls for our students to “Distinguish between reliable and unreliable sources of religious information on the web.”  Mercava’s tools, with its crowd-sourcing approach and its use of digital animation to reimagine stories in Tanakh, may well blur the line between fact and fiction rather than help our students to delineate it.  Standard 5j reminds us that in this world of sound bytes, video clips, and tweets of a 140 characters or less, one of our objectives as Torah educators must be to help our students “Demonstrate the capacity for sustained textual analysis.”  While Mercava’s model of making 1,000 classical Jewish texts available for free in fully searchable and fully hyperlinked format may certainly help to encourage Torah learning be-iyyun, its promotional video clearly suggests that we ought to give in to contemporary society’s propensity for quick, instantly accessible, and therefore often shallow, messaging rather than fighting it by helping our students to taste the exhilaration and sense of accomplishment that comes with struggling through a thorny text and ultimately arriving at its true meaning.  Perhaps most glaring is the potential impact which Mercava’s project may have on standard 5i which calls for students to “Understand and appreciate the value in ‘powering down’ on regular occasions.”  If even Torah learning can’t be done without high-def and surround sound, I fear what will become of Shabbat and Yom Tov in the world of children and our children’s children.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’ve already registered for an account on Mercava’s site and I’ve taken their Daf Yomi app for a spin.  If the rest of their “product line” develops as they describe it, I certainly see myself using it and encouraging its use, under the right circumstances, in some of our classrooms.  What is critical, though, is that the world of Jewish education not see in this exciting tool a panacea for all of the very real challenges which we face in the years ahead.  Far more important than creating digital tools for the classroom, will be cultivating teachers with the skills to effectively use them and the flexibility to replace them when the next new thing comes our way.  And just as Rav Chaim of Volozhin did in his day, Rav Hirsch did in his, and Sarah Schenirer did in hers, it will be up to the educators of our day to constantly find new ways of bringing Torah to life, of demonstrating its continued relevance, of modeling its unrivaled beauty, and of inspiring its continued study even in the face of the monumental challenges posed by the Digital Age. 

Siddur Presentation

Kitah Aleph brought the house down with their singing, dancing, and speaking at Sunday's siddur presentation. The program, designed and directed by Morah Debbie with help from Morah Gila, Cantor Samberg, Morah Chany, and Morah Yehudit, opened with a first-grader's piano rendition of Hatikvah and culminated with Mrs. Gersten's presentation to each student of a beautiful siddur, hand decorated by each student's parents.

The variety of songs, speaking parts, and choreography set a new standard for what a Siddur Presentation can be and for what first graders can do!  Pictures from the incredible event can be accessed here.

Medicine and Halacha

The high schools had the privilege last week of hearing from Professor Yonatan Halevy, Director General of Shaare Zedek Hospital in Yerushalyim.  Professor Halevy shared with them his rather unique insight into the interplay between modern medicine and Jewish Law which comes from his decades at the helm of the world's only modern hospital that operates fully in accordance with Halacha.

From stem cells to end-of-life issues, Professor Halevy sensitized the students both to the difficulty of the dilemmas that arise from time to time, while emphatically stating that there has never been a conflict between accepted best practice in modern medicine and the demands of Torah law that the medical experts and halachic experts couldn't jointly resolve.  In fact, he noted that some of the policies created at Shaare Zedek under the guidance of their poskim have been adopted by hospitals worldwide due to the sense that they best reflect ethical standards for medical practice.  In doing so he heightened the students' appreciation both for the work of Shaare Zedek and for the place of Halacha in the modern world.