Thursday, October 29, 2009

Serious Approaches to Learning

My friend Josh Mason-Barkin gives a great review of the new Coen Brothers' film A Serious Man from the perspective of a Jewish Educator. I found one section particularly relevant given my experience this week with the Jim Joseph Foundation Fellows and my previous post. Read Josh's whole review at (Full disclosure-Torah Aura Productions publishes some of my work from time to time, and is owned by people I consider to be part of my family. That doesn't make them wrong!)

Jewish schools need to strategically and thoughtfully integrate technological tools into their classrooms, and publishers need to create materials that are congruent with these efforts. For the past several years, Jewish educational publishers (ourselves at Torah Aura included) have been trying to offer computerized tools that are basically digitized (or computer-gameified) versions of textbooks. Furthermore, publishers have seen educational technology as the next frontier in publishing, a new way to make a buck by selling software that claims to make Jewish learning “exciting.” That’s the wrong attitude. Instead of trying to use software to answer the same old questions (“How do I get kids to properly decode Hebrew?”), we need to be asking a new set of questions.

How can we utilize new technologies like Google Wave, twitter, and YouTube to allow for collaborative (hevruta for the new generation!) learning? How can computers help us to maximize our financial resources? How can the internet help us engage (and empower!) parents and families in new ways? How can we use technology to open up the world of Jewish education to better integrate the arts, science, and communication?

Lots of smart people are thinking about these issues, and we (both publishers and our customers, Jewish schools) need to listen. A bureau executive told me recently that Jewish education is miles behind secular education in these fields. That must change, and we as publishers must be leaders, not followers. We need to help teachers and students think about using tomorrow’s technologies, not provide them with hokey and simplistic “educational” games or digitized flashcards for iPhones.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

In sunny California, tweeting and surfing (web, not waves)...

So I am sitting in a room at the Brandeis Bardin Institute in Simi Valley California. The weather has been in the 80's for two days. I am over the jet lag. I and 13 other Jewish educators are the Jim Joseph Foundation Fellows - Leading Educators Online at our first f2f (face to face) retreat with the staff of the Lookstein Institute for Jewish Education in the Diaspora at Bar Ilan University in Ramat Gan.

The program goals are to:
  • Identify, direct and empower Fellows to develop and lead online collaborative communities in their professional fields.
  • Provide leading edge professional development to outstanding Jewish educators from formal (e.g. supplementary, congregational, and day schools) and informal Jewish education settings (e.g. camps, youth groups, community centers).
  • Advance new ways of learning and working together to bring about qualitative changes in the way Jewish educators work with others as they learn.
  • Guide Jewish education to the forefront of 21st century education.
What does that mean? We have had a few months of intense, threaded conversations in a Google Group about creating a Community of Practice (CoP), and spent much of the last 36 hours exploring how to become one. We have learned from one another about how we have used various Web 2.0 applications in our work as educators. And we have told stories.

This is the early stage of what promises to be an amazing journey into the Next Level. I will share as often as seems relevant. In the right hand column of this Blog I have added a section called Next Level 2.0. It is a list of Web 2.0 applications that might help all of us take Jewish Learning and our own professional growth to the next level. Most of the apps listed were suggested by the fellows, and we all thank Barry Gruber for compiling the first iteration of the list. The current version (as of this posting - it will grow) reflects that first compilation and places I have learned about this week in California.

OMG. Twitter??!!??
I tried twitter a few months ago, noodling around trying to see what it might do. Yesterday, Esther Feldman from the Lookstein Center told us all to sign up and log in. Many already had been tweeting. My previous impression (and I said as much) of Twitter was that it was a slick way of having People Magazine open all the time. I remember Kevin Spacey Tweeting on the air while he was on Letterman. Ridiculous.

Then we all began tweeting among ourselves. During presentations. It seems a bit like passing notes. Rude even. But the content of the tweets actually enhanced the conversation once we got used to it. We were tweeting our thoughts while listening. Not everyone got a chance to speek aloud, but we all had an opportunity to express ourselves to one another about what was happening. And we were creating a record of the learning at the same time. I had twitter live on the left side of my screen and Word on the right for note taking.

We went a little viral. Lisa Colton of Darim Online follows the tweets of one of the fellows. So she began to follow our conversation. (You can do that because we were attaching a hashtag that identifies the conversation thread!) She began to comment with us and share the conversation with those who follow her. At the moment that is 561 people.

Ellen Dietrick, one of the fellows, is the director of the Synagogue Early Childhood Program at Congregation Beth Israel in Charlottesville, Virginia. She is way ahead of the curve on all of this stuff. She has put a netbook in every classroom. Her teachers take some time everyday to post a very brief (4 -5 sentence) update about the happenings in their room and a photo (they digital cameras, too) to the schools Blog on Blogger.

Only those who are invited may see the blog (sorry, I do not issue the invites) to protect the privacy of the children and their families. But the parents (and grandparents who might live far away) can get a glimpse into their child's day and even ask their children better questions than "what did you learn/do in school today?" They can ask about the art project or the challah they baked! Every class posts each day. Wow.

And Twitter? Forget about it! Teachers will hand Ellen a note at random points in the day. A tweet can only be 140 characters, so it is very short. It says something specific about something wonderful that just happened. Ellen tweets it from a Twitter account that only the parents can follow (security again!). They might have their twitter feed tied to their phone or Blackberry. It might appear in a window on their iGoogle desktop or as an e-mail. The point is that they will get a nudge and a note moments after the event. I haven't spoken to any of the parents in Charlottesville, but I bet they love it! Did I mention she does school registration and sign ups for activities online using Google Docs? And that's only some of the work of one of the fellows.

So I have totally changed my mind about twitter. I don't think anyone wants to hear what I am ordering for lunch. Bit it is a pretty cool way to have a brief conversation, share a resource or create a backchannel for making meaning of something we are experiencing.

My twitter name is @IraJWise. What's yours?

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Words DON'T Know The Way -- You Have To Take Them There!

Eric Schor and Eliot Shapiro are two guys I have known since I was a boy. We all grew up at the same synagogue and camp. Today they are the principals of EMS Communications, a company that trains people to be effective speakers. The describe their mission as being "to rid the world of boring presentations, one speaker at a time." This posting is their cutting edge analysis of the presentations of the Olympic City bid teams form Chicago and Rio de Janero. I have learned a lot about my teaching from their analysis. Unfortunately, when I posted it to my Facebook page, some of my FB friends focused on the polititcs of President Obama getting involved. They miss the point of my posting it. The Next Level learning here is about how we present ourselves, and therefore the Jewish people. This is from their monthly speaker's digest which you can receive by e-mail. The original and the subscription form can be found on their web site:

Less than two weeks ago, the attention of many Americans—and others around the world— turned to Copenhagen, Denmark, where the International Olympic Committee met to choose the host city for the 2016 Summer Olympics. We were initially surprised that Chicago’s bid ended faster than the Chicago Cubs last two playoff runs, but when we watched the presentation delivered by the Chicago team, we saw a presentation which failed to capture the excitement of our city. Read on while we share our perspective on this missed opportunity of Olympic proportions, and how Rio truly SOLD IT!


Chi-town Lands with a Thud

Like many of our neighbors, we were blown away when we learned that Chicago was the first city to be eliminated in the quest to host the 2016 Summer Olympics. How could our fair city compare so poorly with the others that were competing for the honor?

Then, we watched the Chicago team’s presentation, in which a group of leaders of the Chicago 2016 Olympic Bid Committee paraded in front of the IOC in Copenhagen to show why Chicago should be the host city, with Michelle and Barack Obama anchoring the hour-long relay.
Watch the Chicago 2016 presentation by clicking here.

We can’t explain exactly why Chicago ultimately failed in its bid to secure the nomination, but we can say that the speakers representing our team delivered a flat, stale, lifeless presentation. It was punctuated by repetitive video footage that sought to portray the human side of the city, but didn’t effectively capture Chicago’s uniqueness.

Several times during Chicago’s presentation, speakers referred to the city as a ‘fun’ place to hold the summer Olympics. But there was little evidence that anyone on the team was actually HAVING fun. They came across as intense, tight, and stiff, and not very well qualified to pull off that theme.

We were led to believe that our presenters were well rehearsed and well trained, but as a group they didn’t move, didn’t smile, and didn’t look enthusiastic:

IOC member Anita DeFrantz, batting leadoff, seemed proud, but her effort to portray Chicago as fun was less enjoyable than snow in October.

USOC president Lawrence Probst looked serious and even worried, with the same stern expression plastered on his face throughout.

Committee chair Pat Ryan, a former Fortune 500 CEO, relied on repetitive, unnatural looking gestures, appearing way too serious along the way. He almost smiled--once. He concluded his remarks by saying “Our people are warm and welcoming, and best of all, you’ll have a lot of fun.” Yet he delivered the line in a way that looked as if he had just come from a root canal.

Mayor Richard Daley, while appearing more comfortable than we usually see him, repeatedly used the phrase “your games.” (We heard it five times.) While he probably meant it to sound respectful, it came off as alienating.

By the time the Obamas came in to close the deal, there was little for them to save.

Here are some other observations:

Can you say “unnatural?” It was clear that Chicago’s presenters were coached. (Not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s one thing to BE coached, and another to LOOK coached.) They brought similar styles that emphasized short phrases, frequent pauses, practiced gestures, and volume turned on high. But because they didn’t vary that volume, and relied on those practiced gestures, they looked uncomfortable, unnatural and—unfortunately—unbelievable. It was painful to watch.

Where was Michael? Showcasing past champions, Brazil brought Pele, a worldwide soccer icon, along with other young, energetic athletes. Chicago showed the headstone at the grave of Jesse Owens, and the not-quite-household name Bob "I'd like to buy a vowel" Ctvrtlik, an IOC member who won a gold medal for Volleyball. We needed more splash.

Too much hedging. Listening to the Chicago presentation, we heard Mayor Daley use messages such as “we want to be” and “if you award us” instead of “we WILL be” and “by awarding us.” Ryan fell into the same trap when he said “Chicago would be the right partner” instead of…Anybody? Anybody? That’s right—"Chicago WILL be the right partner.”

Had we seen this presentation before learning of the decision, we wouldn’t have been very surprised about the final outcome.


Rio Rocks It!

Compared to the Chicago 2016 team, the group of presenters from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil came out expressive and passionate, which was probably hard considering that they weren’t speaking in their native language. The high energy, facial expressions and body language of their speakers more than overcame their difficulties pronouncing English words as they showed off Brazil’s beauty, culture and plan to host the Olympic Games.

Presentations really DO make a difference. In this case, Rio delivered a better presentation across the board. Setting the stage, Carlos Nuzman, the president of Rio 2016, was charming and engaging. He opened effectively and he ended convincingly, saying “Today, Rio stands ready to serve the Olympic movement and start a new journey of celebration, discovery and transformation.” His smile and his manner showed both confidence and humility, not an easy thing to do. He really SOLD his message!

One way Rio 2016 out-presented the Chicagoans was through visual aids. One graphic in particular was tremendously effective: a world map, dotted with locations of all the previous host cities, emphasized that Europe and North America had hosted dozens of Olympic games, while South America hadn’t hosted any. It was a simple image which made a compelling point.

In addition, the video footage brought by the Rio team did a much better job of capturing the flavor of their city. They relied on great graphics to show how the Olympic venues would fit into their city. And they successfully showed off the city’s breathtaking combination of mountains and ocean.

Another thing we noticed, although it may seem small: the presenters from Rio introduced themselves to their audience, which we thought was a nice touch. It helped them establish rapport and engage their listeners.

Hosting the Olympic Games provides a big stage, and there was a lot at stake at these meetings in Copenhagen. Many Chicagoans, like us, were excited about the prospect of bringing the Games here. But while our presenters TOLD people why Chicago WOULD be a great host, Brazil’s team SHOWED people why Rio DESERVED to win the bid. They were selling it, we were telling it.

Bummer. We were looking forward to 2016.

Here are links to Rio’s presentation, broken up into five segments. Be sure to watch Part 1 and Part 5 to see a Carlos Nuzman’s memorable opening and emphatic ending.

Rio Part 1

Rio Part 2

Rio Part 3

Rio Part 4

Rio Part 5


Presenting as a Team: Tough to do Well

It’s so hard to present effectively as a team. How does one assign tasks to the right people, handle transitions, or build on previous performers?

With awkward moments between speakers (do we hug, shake hands, kiss or what?), the Chicago presentation demonstrated the challenge of team presentations. It’s clear that they wanted to give different officials the honor of speaking on behalf of the team, and they probably needed to make sure they didn’t leave people out.

But they brought up too many speakers—and not enough effective ones. It added to the stiffness.

That’s a frequent problem with team presentations. When you choose speakers in order to honor them, instead of choosing ones who will make your presentation stronger, then you’re diluting your message. And the logistics of the transitions require more choreography than most teams plan for.

That’s why we say: less is more.

Do you and your colleagues present to clients as a team? When it’s your time to go for the gold with a team presentation, don’t go in without a strategy. For expert coaching designed to put your speakers on top of the podium, give EMS a call!

For more insights into delivering team presentations, click here to read our June 2003 Digest, which focused exclusively on that topic.


Pass it on!

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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

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 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!


[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