Monday, May 3, 2010

Learning To Read All Over Again: Part 2

# 1. Our task as Jewish educators is to prepare and motivate students to use their power, talent, and passion to build their own Jewish lives, rooted in who they are and what they consider important. When through this individualized Jewish exploration, am’cha leads themselves into their own dreams, they will contribute in new and beautiful ways to the diversity of Jewish life. Even in these challenging times, there is no greater investment we could make. (Beth Cousens:

#2. The core of any mature tree is old wood. The old wood is crucial to maintaining the tree’s structure, its ability to withstand the changing winds, but no growth is going on there. The living processes that are the growth of the tree, its message to the future, take place only in the tree’s newest and outermost ring. We today are that outermost ring, and the growing is up to us. (Rabbi Zalman Schachter Shalomi, quoted in Contemporary American Judaism by Dana Evan Kaplan)

#3. One Book, One Twitter: What the hell do we do now, #1b1t? (@crowdsourcing)

#4. Chester Middle School Principal Ernie Jackson… challenged reading and social studies teacher Mel Wesenberg to find ways to use text messaging to teach poetry. The results were surprising: Kids who used their cell phones to boil down the main points of the stanzas got 80 percent of the questions about a poem correct on a state test. Kids taught the same poem in the traditional way – reading, reciting and discussing – got only 40 percent of the questions right. (

In my last post I pondered the concept of cultural and technological literacy, and how it applies to the craft of Jewish teaching. I just read an article written by Beth Cousens, (see #1, above) that articulated the need for personal ownership of knowledge. Learning needs a heart to be real. Without belonging to the student, it becomes sterile, and ultimately besides the point. But wait…there’s more.

I’ve just finished Contemporary American Judaism by Dana Evan Kaplan. It’s a fascinating read that describes how we ended up where we are today. Reb Zalman’s musings on the relationship between tree growth and the Jewish tomorrow (see #2) struck a chord in me, articulating the dynamic between the past, the future and today’s students. Jewish learning is a force that connects all generations. This linkage, by necessity, leads to an obligation. We are each responsible, one for the other – including teaching those who have not yet been born. The meaning we create leads to conceptualizations that have yet to be grasped. But wait…there’s more.

I imagine you’ve all heard of the concept of “One Book, One Community”, where a whole community reads and discusses a book - all in “the real world”. Wired Magazine’s Jeff Howe (@crowdsourcing) has gone one step further, proposing and making real an idea so simple in its elegance: a community in the twitterverse will read one book and then discuss it “one tweet at a time” (#3). Thousands of “tweeps” (denizens of the twitterverse) will exchange ideas about a piece of modern American fiction (in this case American Gods by Neil Gaiman). The kehillah, the community, is redefined, giving birth to new modes of interaction. A new type of learning community is born. The revolutionary Talmudic trans-generational conversations of the past have led us to digital discussions in virtual time. But wait…there’s more.

A New York State middle school has made a successful step in integrating the way 21st century technology can be used in a language program, using cell phone texting as a teaching tool (#4). The initial results seem positive, the validity of state testing as a valid measure of student achievement being in question, notwithstanding. The implications of this lead us to consider the creation of a new form of midrash, reflecting new forms of realities and unthought-of technologies.

Where does this lead us?

The new language in which we need to immerse ourselves to reach our students is a tool that forces us to encounter a world in which poetry and novels can be interpreted in 140 characters. It’s a world where the mechanics of learning are newly defined in the contexts of digital brains and the ability to hyperconnect: to actively participate in an interactive virtual world where information from a myriad of sources is assimilated, translated and reduced to bits and bytes that are easily manipulated by these 21st century minds. When we build our new models for learning and teaching, we need to understand the hardwiring in our students’ heads, taking advantage of its schematics as an opportunity to grant our students the gift of creating personal meaning as they initiate their own Jewish explorations.

As a tree grows it adds new rings on old; its roots grow deeper and its branches longer and higher. It expands in all directions, taking nourishment from the earth, the air, and from itself: old wood feeding the new. Reb Zalman is right: We are currently the outermost ring; it’s up to us to provide the sustenance that will nurture the next one.