Monday, February 2, 2015

Teaching character

In December and January I took an online course in character education. The course was designed for teachers in secular, public and private, schools, and offered by the Relay Graduate School of Education. Relay has provided training for teachers in charter schools in New York City, where much of the emphasis on character education in secular schools seems to be taking place.

A religious school like ours is arguably in the business of character education. That may be why I found the course somewhat unsatisfactory. Specifically, it emphasized just a few character strengths—such as persistence and optimism—that have been shown to contribute to success in school.

At its best, Jewish complementary education (that’s the formal name for Hebrew school) contributes to students’ general education and to overall success in school. But success in secular school is not really a goal of Hebrew school, and it shouldn’t be.

First, we place becoming a good person above earning good grades. This is one of the reasons that we don’t use the standard grading scale. Some of the charter schools in which classes were filmed for the online course give “character growth” report cards with numerical grades. 

In fact, that reminded me of the time that a Hebrew-school committee in another city asked me if there was an organization like the Iowa Tests that we could invite in to test all our students every year. 

There isn’t, baruch Hashem. To a student who received a low score, it might have seemed like failing at being Jewish. Our tradition teaches us, “Do not think of yourself as a bad person,” a reason not to grade character.

Second, the qualities that have been shown to contribute to secular school success do not entirely match those that we most want to develop. While persistence is undeniably helpful in, for example, bar/bat mitzvah preparation, another of our goals is to encourage love of [Jewish] learning. Too much persistence in academic drudgery might have the opposite effect. 

Finally, although most Hebrew schools are modeled more on secular schooling than on, say, Christian Sunday school, the direction in which secular education is moving is wrong for Jewish religious education. 

For example, more and more schools expect students to be reading in English by the end of kindergarten, even though it does not lead to their being better readers in upper grades. It is conceivable that we could push students hard enough in Hebrew to have them ready for a bar/bat mitzvah ceremony at the age of 11 instead of 13, but that doesn’t mean that they would be ready to assume responsibility for their own religious lives at the ripe old age of 11.

It was never completely clear why Relay chose some of the specific character strengths that it did. Some of them contribute to academic success; others probably don’t. 

The only one that would have had equal standing in Jewish education was gratitude. Gratitude contributes to psychological well-being but not directly to academic success. It may have been chosen only because it’s possible to promote in the classroom.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Mr. Gradgrind and Jewish education

Education researchers in secular settings give a lot of attention to how (or whether) K-12 schools prepare students for college. In particular, they look at the extent to which high school prepares students for college, middle school prepares students for high school, and elementary school prepares students for middle school.

While the best students are invariably well-prepared for college, other students who may have the potential to succeed in a community or four-year college don’t always have the background.

Their recent work found that the goals of K-12 schools don’t completely align with those of colleges. For example, high-school English classes often spend more time on literature than on expository writing, but colleges all require expository writing and many don’t require any literature courses. 

From a strictly utilitarian point of view, the literature part of high-school English might appear to be a waste. 

English teachers—and I used to be one, albeit at the college level—would argue that the ability to understand works of literature contributes to a satisfying life. They might even argue that, if students aren’t going to study literature at all in college, they should certainly study some in high school.

We see a similar dynamic in Jewish education, where the utilitarian, reductionist question is, “What is necessary for bar/bat mitzvah?” 

To a Jewish educator, this is a confusing question. On one hand, the technical requirements for the service that commemorates becoming bar/bat mitzvah are simple enough to state. 

On the other, a young person becomes bar or bat mitzvah upon attaining the requisite age, whether there is a special service for it or not. At that point, the young person is responsible for managing his or her own Jewish life. This includes choosing the role that Judaism will have in adult life.

So the more important question is not what’s required for the ceremony, but what learning will contribute to a satisfying Jewish life. That learning isn’t limited to a certain set of synagogue skills: while the ability to participate actively in worship services is certainly desirable, synagogue services aren’t the entirety of Jewish life. 

Furthermore, Hebrew school isn’t the entirety of Jewish learning. Research that Prof. Sherry Israel of Brandeis University conducted in the 1990s found a strong correlation between taking Hebrew and Judaic studies courses in college and Jewish identification after graduation. The correlation was as strong as for Jewish day school, Jewish summer camp, and time spent in Israel. 

So what prepares a student for Judaic studies classes in college? Having a bar or bat mitzvah ceremony is hardly relevant at all (except to the extent that it contributes to total Jewish education). Because most students who take Judaic studies classes in college will do so in non-Jewish institutions, good secular education is essential. But secular education is largely outside the purview of Hebrew school.

What seems to matter most is learning that there is something to learn. In that respect, encountering challenging ideas is more important than mastering specific skills. This is why we want our students to have more Jewish education than the minimum for the mitzvah ceremony.

There is one skill that I think does matter. We are often asked why we persist in teaching Hebrew script writing: “If a student isn’t going to study or live in Israel, what use is it?”

Now, I don’t think we can predict in the third or fourth grade whether a student might eventually study or live in Israel. I hope that all of our students might have at least the opportunity to study in Israel for a semester of high school or college.

But script writing is also essential for taking Hebrew classes in college. When I worked in higher education, I met many Jewish students who shied away from a Hebrew course because script writing would be required.

That’s not a realistic fear, because there are almost always students in the class who aren’t Jewish, never studied Hebrew at any level before, and have no experience with script writing. Somehow, they manage to learn it within the first few days of classes. But it’s still a significant deterrent for Jewish students, who feel that they should know script writing, but don’t.

Students who learned script writing in Hebrew school may not be comfortable either writing or reading script Hebrew by the time they enter college. The difference, however, is that having learned it once leaves them with confidence that they can learn it again.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The good, the bad, the weird

A few recent good news–bad news items:

In Jerusalem, the Women of the Wall successfully conducted a bat mitzvah ceremony at the Kotel, including having the young women chant from a Torah scroll.

That’s the good news. The not-so-good news is that it was a very small Torah scroll, smuggled into the women’s section  under a coat, because the authorities would allow the women neither to use one of the sifrei Torah kept at the Western Wall, nor to bring in a full-sized scroll.

The Women of the Wall have also  begun advertising the opportunity for bat mitzvah services at the Wall on buses in Jerusalem. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the buses are being vandalized. 

Bad news: the rabbi of a prominent Orthodox congregation in Washington, D.C., was accused of placing a camera in the synagogue’s mikveh and photographing women as they undressed.

Relatively good news: the congregation placed him on leave and made no attempt at a cover-up. Some Orthodox authorities called for women to serve on boards that supervise mikvaot. 

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach wrote, “Few stories over the past years have been as serious with regards to male religious violation of women and action is required. A comprehensive review of male access to the female mikveh must be undertaken so that all women feel and know that the mikveh is an inviolable place of religious privacy and spiritual security.”

He also wrote, “This sorrowful story also highlights the need to accelerate the establishment of female Halakhic (Jewish legal) authorities so that women can increasingly regulate private feminine Jewish matters.”

Reb Shmuley, whose new book has the title Kosher Lust, also made a starting defense of voyeurism—but only within marriage and only with consent.

Good news: also in Washington, D.C., the National Cathedral (Episcopal) hosted a Friday jummah (Muslim prayer service) on November 14. This was widely reported, even by Ha’aretz in Israel.

Bad news: the service was interrupted by a protester. Slightly better news: there was only one protester, but that’s because admission to the cathedral was tightly controlled.

The service came about through a suggestion that Ebrahim Rasool, the ambassador of South Africa to the United States, made at a memorial service in the cathedral for Nelson Mandela. Ambassador Rasool gave the sermon at the jummah.

Some reports mentioned that the Islamic group that organized the service routinely holds services in one church and two synagogues.

Mixed news: Temple Emanu-El in New York City plans to hold a mock trial of Abraham for child endangerment. U.S. District Judge Alison Nathan will preside; Eliot Spitzer will prosecute; and Alan Dershowitz will lead the defense.

The not-so-good part of this is that the idea itself isn’t news at all. Sixth-grade classes in Hebrew schools everywhere have been doing this for years, albeit without the celebrities. This may turn out to be a great event for the congregation, but it seems a bit opportunistic.

Weird news: Rabbi Ted Riter, in Jackson, Mississippi, reported that he was ordered to leave a Greek restaurant after the owner learned that he was Jewish. As the rabbi tells it, the he ordered a salad and the owner asked him, “The regular size or the Jewish size?” and then denounced Jews as parsimonious.

The owner says that he asked whether the rabbi wanted a Greek salad or a Jewish salad. The latter is supposedly a regular item at the restaurant but it doesn’t appear on the menu. He says it was all a misunderstanding and offered to name a salad after the rabbi. No indication of what the ingredients of a Riter Salad would be.