Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Building blocks for the future

I've written a lot over the last year and a half about creating a Jewish  tomorrow. Cyd Weissman, Director of Innovation in Congregational Learning at The Jewish Education Project recently posted a piece entitled "inspired by a student: an article about new models" on her blog Cyd Weissman Takes LOMED Challenge.  In it she presents eight building blocks that she urges be considered as foundations for new models in congregational school education.  

When Cyd speaks, I listen. 

In the summer of 2006 I invited her to take part in a think-tank about Jewish education in the 21st century (some of you reading this were there). This was in preparation for the CAJE 32 conference that I chaired in 2007.  At that discussion, Cyd taught us that the term "education" is outmoded in the contemporary Jewish context.  Learning Judaism is not just something we derive from books: It's living it, incorporating it into our daily routines, being engaged  in Jewish life and learning. She introduced us to the idea that what we need to do is to foster an environment that will engage our students, whether they be children, teens, young adults or seniors. The idea of  Jewish engagement needs to be the framework within which we create Jewish learning environments.  

Since that hot summer Queens day (at St. John's University of all places) in June of 2006, I've looked at my profession differently.  It's not that I'm teaching my students something static like trigonometry  (my apologies to math teachers, please!  I guess that comment is a reflection of how I was taught that subject.)  My goal is to teach how to live a  life (a halacha if you will) that is defined by simply being Jewish - by "seeing the world through Jewish eyes". Cyd taught me that. 

So I present to you what Cyd Weissman calls the "Architecture of Jewish Education" for the future.  I think we can learn much from it.

Eight Building Blocks for New Distinctive Architecture

1. Regular engagement of parent/caregiver as well as the child
Parents and families are essential to a child’s life journey according to designers who use this building block. Regular engagement (e.g weekly learning at synagogue, home or other settings, socializing, using daily life as a classroom) of families most often includes a combination of adult and family learning and Jewish living. Engagement includes time for praying, learning, socializing, and action. This building block contrasts with programs that offer additive family programming (e.g. parents attend programs a few times year). Family engagement becomes regularized. The whole family, not just the child is considered the focus of engagement.

2. Learning in real life settings
Emphasis is placed on the lived experience of Judaism. Focus is on doing and being Jewish instead of a classroom experience that teaches about being Jewish. Instead of preparation for a “someday” event, this building block emphasizes the lived experience of doing and being Jewish. Shabbat, holidays, home, and tikkun olam action are examples of the lived experience that becomes central with this building block. While the lived experience is central in this model, most often it is book-ended with pre-learning that enables rich participation and post-learning that enables meaningful reflection.

3. Integrating children’s Jewish learning experience with the larger congregation’s values and practices
Recognizing the influence of a “norming” community, this model situates a child’s experience within the prime activities of the larger congregation. A “norming” community models “what is learned is lived.” It provides a living context for content. This contrasts to models where children’s experience is physically separated from the central activity of the congregation (e.g. in the basement), separated in time (e.g. on times and days where the larger congregation does not gather) and or separated by core activities (e.g. children study content areas, while the larger congregation is deeply engaged in acts of gemilut chasadim).

4. Making connections with the larger community
This building block assumes the benefit of cluster experiences where a child has multiple Jewish experiences in multiple settings over the course of time. This building block recognizes that the congregation is not the only effective way to engage a Jewish child. When applied, this building block links the child’s regularized experience to resources in the community such as summer camp, museums, Israel, and youth organizations. One can imagine a model where learning during the year is linked to visits to Israel and/or camp. Next step models might include year long experiences that are more like being in Israel or camp than in a classroom setting.

5. New Teacher roles and expectations
Just as the traditional classroom model, even if it has engaging activities, will not reach the goals set by the congregations, neither will traditional teaching. Congregations build regular time (e.g. twice a month) for teachers to learn how to create powerful learning aligned to their learner outcomes (e.g. Learners will be on a journey of applying Torah to daily life). Hired staff, teens and adults in the community learn together, and review one another’s practice within their own learning community. They learn from one another to shift teaching practice from a focus on covering material to creating learning that is a) life centered, b) relationship focused, c) makes rich content accessible and d) enables inquiry, reflection and meaning making. When this building block is established, congregations transform the traditional “teacher” role to facilitator, counselor and/or mentor.

6. Relationships among peers and across generations
Peer relationships, teen role models and intergenerational connections are viewed as essential to raising a child. Accordingly, this building block ensures that a child develops relationships with peers, teens, and adults in the larger community. An example is a model that has seniors and teens meeting weekly for Jewish learning and living with children and families. With this building block, children’s experiences are situated in multi-aged havurote (learning partners/groups). Another adaptation of this building block is a model that prepares adults in the community to act as mentors for children and families.

7. Choices for the learner
According to this building block, one Jewish learning plan does not fit all.. The system of Jewish education that emerged in the US in the 1950’s had each congregation offering one model of learning, x number of days and with specific subjects to teach. Now congregations are empowering learners with bolder choices. Families choose programs or learning plans. Or individual learners can shape or choose their method or area of learning. Choice for the learner also impacts the nature of learning where the learner drives inquiry and exploration.

8. Other
Additional building blocks were noted in the first decade models created in NY that were used, but have not yet been widely implemented. An example of this is the use of technology. For example, congregations are recognizing that decoding skills, although important, can be achieved at will online, or through skype with a person.

Next decade designers will create models based on these eight building blocks and ones yet to be articulated. New models will engage young children in ways that they enable them to construct lives of meaning and purpose, because of the deep connections they have made with Judaism and the Jewish people.

Those are blueprints.  Let's start building.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Tinkering With Tomorrow

When I was a kid I loved tinker-toys. I would spend hours constructing skeletal looking and what I thought were futuristic buildings.  I never knew what the outcome would be, I didn’t know if what I was building would stand up to the forces of nature or my brother’s kicks, but I had fun.  I just built and then decided if what I created was worth the effort. That was then, this is now.

I bring this up as I finish watching the videos from the recently held Jewish Futures Conference that were just posted for all of our viewing pleasure and edification. Go here to watch the presentations yourself. I’m also in the midst of reading a fascinating collection of essays published by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, entitled Curriculum 21: Essential Education for a Changing World, edited by Heidi Hayes Jacobs. The book and the conference videos are serendipitously providing me an opportunity to think about how we, as Jewish educators and futurists can tinker purposefully with a Jewish tomorrow.

What will we want our children, our students, to know when they emerge from their Jewish educational cocoon?  What will the Jewish curriculum look like tomorrow?  In one of the pieces in Curriculum 21, Jacobs suggests that we ask three guiding questions as we reevaluate curriculum and content in secular education. Let’s consider them within a Jewish context:

1.    Within the discipline being reviewed, what content choices are dated and nonessential?  In our world of Jewish learning, this question can be considered heretical.  Isn’t it all sacred?  What isn’t essential? How do we evaluate that? Who makes that judgment call?
2.    What choices for topics, issues, problems, themes, and case studies are timely and necessary for our learners within disciplines?   What is happening in the Jewish world NOW? How does Jewish practice and interpretation reflect life in the 21st century? What are the roles of Israel and the Diaspora; of men and women; of interfaith families in Jewish life?
3.    Are the interdisciplinary content choices, rich, natural, and rigorous? What does it mean to engage in Jewish life, learning, and spirituality? What are the different ways of creating meaningful Jewish experiences?

Among the winners of the Jewish Futures Competition, a contest for the most “forward looking” Jewish educational thinkers and doers that was featured at the Jewish Futures Conference, we find Charles Schwartz and Russel M. Neiss, the creators of MediaMidrash.org. In their submission to the competition they posited a paradigm for future Jewish engagement resting on four guiding principles:  

1.    Jewish resources need to be open, discoverable, and accessible. The body of Jewish learning needs to be available to all who seek it - free and non-proprietary.
2.    Remixable. Jews need to be provided the tools and opportunity to transform and reinterpret Jewish tradition and life. 
3.    Jewish education needs to be meaningful and relevant, providing the learner with a context in which to construct a Jewish life that matters.
4.    Meaningful Jewish life needs to continue to incorporate a process of community building, recognizing new definitions of affiliation and belonging, both face-to-face and virtual.

The way Jewish knowledge WILL be acquired tomorrow is different than the way it WAS attained yesterday. David Bryfman once wrote about the 19th century revolution in general education revolving around the new fangled tool called the chalk board.  We are in the midst of a similar phenomenon, this time being driven by digital and social technology.  Learning is becoming non-linear. It is more and more a social process, driven by demand and developed by a community that is linked in synchronous and a-synchronous environments, both present and remote. For better or worse, education is turning into an even messier affair than it already is.  This is what will drive us to answer the questions of what to teach. The structure will be more fluid, transparent and flexible. Stephen Wilmarth writes in Curriculum 21 how education has been a cathedral, an elegant top-down process designed by “wizards and experts”.  The future reality can be described as a bazaar, a market place that is noisy and unpredictable, a result of uncontrollable forces.  Knowledge will be open to all, redefined and remixed when appropriate so as to become personally and communally meaningful in contexts of yet unimagined social networks, creating new types of communities.

Jonathan Woocher, in his closing remarks at the Jewish Futures Conference notes that there is no one Jewish future.  It can’t be pre-determined.  There are multiple possibilities. Schwartz and Neiss retell the midrash of Moses visiting Akiva’s classroom of the future, not understanding a word, even though his teaching is the lesson being taught.   If we were to step into H.G. Wells’ Time Machine and be transported into a Jewish learning environment of the future, what would we find? Would it be alien to us?  Should it be?