Tuesday, October 6, 2009

What Should We Be Teaching Our Children?

Shalom Berger of the Lookstein Institute asked me to respond to a posting to the LookJed list by Richard D. Solomon based on his reading of Understanding by Design from my perspective as a congregational educator. Richard and I are cross posting the discussion and I hope it will include other responses as well. If you have a comment, please make it below and I will share it with Richard.

Richard D. Solomon's original posting on LookJed:


Dear Rabbi Berger,

According to *Wiggins and McTighe (1998) in order to decide what (Judaic) knowledge should be taught in school, the following three categories or priorities of knowledge should be determined:

First priority: Knowledge that is enduring, essential information that students must know.

Second priority: Knowledge that is important, but not essential for students to know.

Third priority: Knowledge with which students should be familiar.

A graphic organizer of the three different types of knowledge appears at right (originally in Richard’s blog post richarddsolomonsblog.blogspot.com:80)

I believe that it is the responsibility of the Jewish Professional Learning Community to determine what is enduring Jewish knowledge, important Jewish knowledge, and knowledge with which an educated Jewish person should be familiar. So as we begin a new year, here are a few questions that Lookjed educators may wish to ponder.

1. What is enduring Jewish knowledge from your perspective?

2. Where specifically can a mentor or a teacher find enduring Jewish knowledge?

3. Is all Jewish knowledge enduring?

4. What is "not enduring" Jewish knowledge?


Shavuah tov,


Richard Richard D. Solomon, Ph.D.


* Wiggins, G. & McTighe, J. (1998). Understanding by Design. Alexandria, VA. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

My response:

Richard D. Solomon asks four intriguing questions based on his reading of Understanding by Design by Wiggins and McTighe. I think he is on point in how he phrased the questions. In trying to address them, one risks falling into the trap of E.D. Hirsch, author of the “What Every … Grader Should Know” series. It is very easy to list specific content goals, lean back and congratulate oneself on a job well done. We all know (I hope) that such lists only scratch the surface of essential learning.

That caveat given, what about his questions?

Eight years ago, the Reform Movement began to publish its CHAI Curriculum. It is constructed around the organizing principles of Understanding by Design (UbD). I refer readers interested in their process to begin with Torah At The Center[1] which introduced the concept to Reform educators. Additionally there is a web page for the curriculum at http://chai.urj.org/ which has a great deal of information about the curriculum and how it adapts UbD.

1. What is enduring Jewish knowledge from your perspective?

To address Richard’s question, I look at the two central goals I have for my school (a congregation-based “complementary” school, where children attend for 1.5 – 3 hours per week, depending on their grade):

We seek to help families raise children to become functionally literate adult Jews – that is, Jews who can walk into a synagogue, camp, committee meeting, community center or communal organization or any other Jewish milieu and feel like a sabra, not an oleh. Given our time constraints, will they be able to lead traditional or conservative style davening as shlichei tzibbur? No. Will they know how to pray, what they are praying and what it means to them? Yes. And they will know what they don’t know, and how to go about learning what they don’t know if that is of interest to them.

We seek to help families raise children who have a strong sense of Jewish identity, identification with the Jewish people and Eretz Yisrael and who feel that being Jewish is central to who they are. The test is when they grow up—will raising Jewish children be a priority for them enough to say to a potential spouse: “You may be ambivalent about raising children who have a strong Jewish identity and connection to God, but I am not. If that doesn’t work for you, maybe we should see other people.”

So what is enduring Jewish knowledge from my perspective? Enduring knowledge is whatever makes me – the learner – come back for more.

For me personally, history is a huge draw. I once visited the JTS library and archives as part of a CAJE conference chavaya, and was allowed to touch some of the Geniza fragments Solomon Schechter had studied, and hold in my hands a Lucite encased letter written by Rambam’s scribe Baruch and signed by Rambam’s own hand, inviting various Jewish communities to contribute to a campaign to ransom the Jews of Jerusalem during the third crusade. I still get chills when I recall it. For me it is travelling in Eretz Yisrael with a knowledgeable moreh derekh and learning about what happened in the spot where I am standing. For me it is the experience of being a camper, counselor, unit head and faculty member at our Reform Jewish summer camps—and in this case it is not a single datum or concept, but the whole gestalt of the experience, which speaks to all of my learning modalities.

I see our role as educators as helping our teachers get to know each of our students well enough to learn which understandings will be enduring for them and then designing the learning to meet them where they are. As I often imagine John Dewey[2] saying (I am a bit free with his words): we cannot bring the child kicking and screaming to the curriculum. We have to bring the curriculum to him. I do believe there are commonplaces that every Jew should learn about: Hebrew language and literature; the land, people and state of Israel; times and seasons; the Jewish life cycle; Torah and texts; history; God/theology; comparative Judaism and comparative religion; Mitzvot and Midot; Kedushah and Tefillah. The extent to which we focus on each is determined by the community and deeper focus may be indicated by learner needs and interest.

2. Where specifically can a mentor or a teacher find enduring Jewish knowledge?

Find yourself a teacher; get yourself a friend[3]. I am not sure I can improve on Pirkei Avot on this one. I have served as a mentor in the Leadership Institute for Congregational School Educators at HUC-JIR/JTS for the past five years. The mentors and the fellow have learned at the feet of some outstanding teachers focusing on leadership, pedagogy and Jewish learning. There are resources in most communities and on line. At the end of the day, I have learned much from all of them, but more I have learned from my fellow mentors as we have processed the work we do with one another and discussed our needs as professionals. And from the fellows, our students, I have learned most of all. Hmmm. Seem to be falling back to Avot yet again…speaking of enduring understandings[4]!

I think ultimately your question is not where can we find enduring Jewish knowledge, but how can we make knowledge enduring for our students. Again we have to look at context. In my school, a lengthy exploration of Kashrut does not make educational sense until students reach adolescence. When they begin experimenting with what they imagine their adult life to be, they are ripe for a conversation about eating deliberately. This is the time when many choose to be vegetarians—at least for a while—in response to their reaction to where meat comes from and their compassion for living beings.

This is an ideal time to talk about how Kashrut takes the same approach to eating deliberately and bringing the idea of God, mitzvot and holiness to the table as valid rationales for decision making. In a community where Halakhah is a core value, Kashrut makes sense much earlier, because the conversation is about how as much as about why, if not more so. Those children return to Kosher homes, while most of mine do not.

To make it enduring then, requires more strategy and forethought than just putting the “most enduring stuff” out there for them.

3. Is all Jewish knowledge enduring?

I will not belabor my previous point. I believe it can be, depending on the needs of the individual and the community. On the other hand, the teachings of the Karaites seems to have limited appeal and applicability for many today. I wish I had been taught about the halakhah of war and the idea of Just War when I was a young teen during the days of Viet Nam. I was grateful to be able to bring teachers to my school who were well versed in it during the current war in Iraq.

Back to Avot: Ben Bag Bag[5] said that everything is in it (the Torah). It is our job to make it enduring. Will I spend a lot of time on the laws of sacrifice in a post-Bayit world? No, but it is worth teaching about sacrifice from an historical perspective and to connect forms of worship from then to the present day. In another part of our community, I will see great disagreement, with colleagues who believe that it is all Torah and all valuable and central to understanding everything else. They are not wrong for their schools. I am not wrong for mine.

At the end of the day, I believe all Jewish knowledge is valuable, but given the constraints of time, interest and attention span, we need to start in places that make learners want more, and then drill down and give them as much as they can take. Not a very UbD approach, and I suspect not exactly what you are looking to hear, but there it is.

4. What is "not enduring" Jewish knowledge?

Again I turn to Pirkei Avot: Any conversation that is for the sake of heaven endures. Any that is not does not endure[6]. So long as we as educators and communal leaders strive to disagree like Hillel and Shammai, who struggled from different perspectives to help their community find the right way to confront a changing world, so should we. When find ourselves becoming like Korach and his company, trumpeting “the right way” or “THE enduring understanding” we get into trouble. And Korach ended up with much worse than a bad reputation.

I look forward to reading other responses and perspectives.

Moadim l’simcha!

Ira



[1] Torah At The Center, Special Edition, Volume 5, No. 2 • Winter 2001 • Choref 5762.
[2] My Pedagogic Creed, by John Dewey, School Journal vol. 54 (January 1897), pp. 77-80.
[3] Pirkei Avot 1:6
[4] Actually Ta’anit 7a, but referred to in Kravitz and Olitzky’s Pirke Avot: A Modern Commentary on Jewish Ethics, URJ Press, 1993, page 102.
[5] Pirkei Avot 5:22
[6] Pirkei Avot 5:17

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