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Education Matters - One Head of School's reflections on education, Jewish education and the Jewish world

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Ritual and Observance as Education

The late Harvard University Professor of Philosophy and Education, Israel Scheffler, purposes that the rabbis saw Judaism's rich symbolic system of ritual and holiday observances as containing educative potential. The rituals themselves are an educational experience for those who perform them. Scheffler says that rituals perform three symbolic functions.

Denotation: First, rituals pick out various events and aspects of life associated with Jewish history and each with distinctive associated values. By repeated occurrence, the rituals and observances bring participants into continual contact with these values.

Expression: Ritual actions, according to Scheffler, have a second function beyond denotation. Just as a painting may express joy or nostalgia while denoting a landscape, a rite may express a feeling or attitude while portraying a historical event. For example, Pesah, brings with it feeling the bitterness of slavery and the joy of redemption. The repeated exposure to such symbolized values shapes the character and sensibility of the participants over time.

Reenactment: Ritual performances allude indirectly to previous performances. Each new Seder calls to mind Seders past. Each Passover Seder, in effect, alludes to previous performances while at the same time portraying the Exodus and expressing the joy of liberation. The repetition of the rites also serves another purpose beyond shaping individual perceptions – that is the development of tradition – the sense that with each repetition of the ritual, we are doing a repetition.

As Rosh Hashanah approaches, we have an opportunity to experience these days using Scheffler's three symbolic functions as a framework to assist us in making sense of our experiences and tapping further into their meaning. However we celebrate Rosh Hashanah, either in synagogue, performing rituals at home, or together with friends and family, our observances denote specific ideas and values that express feelings or attitudes. As we perform these rituals and observances, we are connected both to the ideas and feelings that lie behind these rituals and to our previous performances of these rituals. Each experience with ritual and observance conveys meaning and connects us indirectly to our past performances
A Caring Relationship is at the Center of Outstanding Teaching

With schools beginning this month across the United States, I have been focusing on what intentions educators have as they enter the academic year. People choose teaching for many reasons and I believe that, universally, teachers care about their students. I have been privileged to work with hundreds of educators who are passionate about what they do. Nel Noddings, the Lee L. Jacks Professor of Education, Emerita, at Stanford University, asks teachers to think beyond "care" in the sense that they conscientiously pursue certain goals for their student and work hard to achieve those goals. When Noddings speaks of "care," she is arguing that educators establish relationships of care and trust.

The relational sense of caring forces us to say that it is not enough to hear the teacher's claim to care. Does the student recognize that he or she is cared for? Is the teacher thought by the student to be a caring teacher? In this relational sense of caring, we need to look at both what teacher's intentions are and how students experience those intentions.

In her work "Caring and Competence" (1999), Noddings suggests that caring relationships provide the foundation for successful pedagogical activity. When we listen to our students we gain their trust, and in an on-going relationship of care and trust, it is more likely that students will accept what we try to teach. Building this type of caring relationship allows students to see learning as cooperative with the teacher rather than teaching as something we do to students.

After gaining their students' trust, Nodding's second stage of care is for teachers to engage those students in dialogue. Teachers learn about their students' needs, working habits, interests, and talents. Knowing the student in this way enables teachers to plan for their individual progress.

According to Noddings, the final area of concern in building caring relationships is related to what she calls competence. As teachers acquire knowledge about their students' needs and realize how much is needed beyond the curriculum, teachers are inspired to increase their own competence. Teachers who live in caring relationships with their students aspire to greater goals with their learners.

The writer and educator Parker Palmer tells of the time he walked into a college classroom during his third decade of teaching. He went into the classroom grateful for the opportunity to teach but when he came home that evening he was convinced that once again he would never "master this baffling vocation." Annoyed with his students and embarrassed by his own "blunders" Palmer wondered "might it be possible at my age, to find a new line of work, maybe even something I know how to do?"

Palmer, like Noddings, concludes that education is ultimately relational and that beyond the techniques and strategies he has at his disposal, he must be authentic with his students. For Palmer, that means a strong sense of self. Only by knowing yourself can you connect with students, and connect students to your subject. For Noddings, a caring relationship with students is at the core of pedagogical success. This is the message I shared with my faculty as we head into the school year.

This blog is based on part of the welcome address Rabbi Malkus delivered at the start of CESJDS Staff Week on August 21, 2017.

Some Guidelines for Parents and Educators on Charlottesville

When neo-Nazis demonstrated in a University town, in broad day light, and perpetrated violence, I was personally disgusted and troubled. I also needed to formulate a response as a parent and an educator.

For generations of Jews of who have borne witness, it is painful. It is particularly painful to witness this awful display of hatred at a time when we thought our country had moved beyond such expressions of hatred. I was shocked at the overt racism of the KKK and white supremacists and the brashness they displayed in shouting slogans like "Jews will not replace us."

As a parent, I have values that I hold dear and that I want to impart to my children. I believe all people are equal and deserve equitable opportunities to live a meaningful and secure life. I would like to prepare my children to live in a diverse world while being secure and proud of their own identity. I value living in a democracy where people are free to express their opinions and beliefs, even when they are abhorrent to me. I believe that as people learn about each other, they see our shared humanity, and use this recognition to address bias, stereotypes, and yes, hateful tendencies that are often emanate out of ignorance.

For parents, I think it is important to speak with our children directly about the incidents that took place in Charlottesville. Children need to hear from us that they are safe, and they also need to hear what we value and hold dear. Childhood psychologists contend that discussing difficult topics that hit close to home in age-appropriate ways is good for children's social and emotional development. Finally, it is a good practice to ask your children questions about what they know about Charlottesville. Knowing what your children know and how they are feeling enables parents to speak directly to their needs and fears.

Over thirty years ago, in Skokie, Ill., members of the Nazi Party of America sought to march in a community where 40,000 of the approximately 70,000 residents were Jewish. While the march never actually took place, my father took me to a huge counter rally in a neighboring town. I will always remember being there, a little scared of the emotionally charged environment, but empowered that I was part of the response to the hatred that was proposed. That was one of the most profound experiences I have ever had and it taught me to not be afraid to speak up, despite the fact that I was just 12 years old at the time.

As an educator, I believe that we should be addressing political issues directly. While I hold steadfast to the principle that educational institutions and teachers remain non-partisan because of the unequal power dynamics that exist in K-12 environments, research shows that students who participate in political discussions are more likely to engage as citizens when they are older. In a values-based environment, it is also essential to live and teach by the principles we espouse.

I am committed to creating learning environments that embrace differences of opinion and foster civil discourse. Teachers have a powerful role to serve by modeling positively how to have conversations. I am particularly insistent that history be used to ground those discussions; this is something that is essential for learning. Classroom communities also need to establish shared norms by discussing and setting clear rules and expectations for participation. Lastly, I feel it is important to prepare students for the conversations they have, and for educators to provide multiple modes for learners to participate in discussions and to reflect on both their ideas and views they do not share.

Our children and students are looking to us as parents and educators to see how we are responding to the hatred that was revealed in Charlottesville. We have an opportunity to teach students about their values, and to model a civil discourse that is all too infrequent in our society.

My Summer Reading List
Rabbi Mitchel Malkus
Rabbi Mitchel Malkus

The past few years I have been sharing my summer reading list as a blog. In addition to forcing me to collect these books (yes, I still like to have print editions – better for the beach!), I have benefitted from people sending me recommendations after seeing what I am planning to read.

As I share each year, before I was a Head of School, I read Roland Barth's Run School Run. Barth, who founded the Harvard Principal's Center, shares in his book that he would keep a box under his desk where he would collect books to read over his summer vacation because he found he did not have the time during the school year to keep up with his reading. For the last sixteen years, I have adopted Barth's practice adding articles and academic journals to my box under my desk.

Below you will find a list of the books I plan to read this summer. As always, I look forward to comments and to further suggestions from you of additional reading material.

My Summer Reading List

You Don't Have to Be Wrong for Me to Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism by Brad Hirschfield. Through personal stories, biblical and rabbinic texts, and with a grounding in history, Hirschfield explores issues of pluralism, diversity, and inclusiveness. This book is the CESJDS school-wide read for 2017-18.

CATCH 67 by Micah Goodman. This book only available in Hebrew argues that Israel today finds itself trapped between surrendering the West Bank which would be to take an unacceptable risk to the country's physical survival and not to surrendering the West Bank which entails an unacceptable risk to the country's moral survival as a democratic Jewish state.

Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World by Adam Grant. Grant shares his research about the mindset and skills that are required to develop creativity and original ideas. He suggests that this mindset is one that we can all develop and is essential in the 21st Century.

Probing the Ethics of Holocaust Culture edited by Claudio Fogu, Wulf Kansteiner, and Todd Presner. Admittedly heavy reading for the summer, this volume investigates the debates and controversies that have shaped Holocaust studies over a quarter century though chapters by both the founding generation of Holocaust studies and a new generation of historians, artists, and writers.

Learn Better: Mastering the Skills for Success in Life, Business, and School, or, How to Become an Expert in Just About Anything by Ulrich Boser. I found this book through NPR which blogged about how Boser challenges the conventional wisdom on how humans learn by mapping out a new science of learning.

Things That Happened Before the Earthquake by Chiara Barzini. This is Barzini's literary debut that follows the travails of Eugenia, a privileged Roman teenager whose free-spirited parents move the family to L.A. right after the 1992 riots and then watches her navigate her new life, with the 1994 earthquake as catalyst.

Dangerous Sisters of the Hebrew Bible by Amy Kalmanofsky. Kalmanofsky is an outstanding teacher and scholar of the Hebrew Bible. In this study, she explores the role sisters play in Biblical narratives. This is a carryover from last summer that I did not get to.

I hope that some of these may be interesting to you and look forward to hearing your thoughts as well as recommendations for other books (or material) you are reading.

Follow Mitch on Twitter @MitchMalkus.

Parent Perspectives on Jewish Day Schools and Disabilities
Rabbi Mitchel Malkus
Rabbi Mitchel Malkus, CESJDS Head of School

For at least the last decade, there has been increasing conversation about how to broaden inclusion in Jewish day schools, so a greater number of students with disabilities have access to serious Jewish education. Some of this conversation is about the challenges schools face, how day schools have failed children with disabilities, and what practices support inclusion. Yet, until recently, no research had been done that explored the experiences of parents of a child with disabilities in a Jewish day school setting.

Dr. Abigail Uhrman recently published the findings of her study on the parent perspective of disabilities and Jewish day schools. Uhrman found that parents of students with a disability:

  1. Chose Jewish day schools because they were looking for a warm and nurturing setting that supported their Jewish/religious commitments.
  2. Felt that, with a few school exceptions, day school teachers and administrators were generally lacking in providing guidance and support around disabilities.
  3. In cases where the students had mild to moderate disabilities, parents found parent-school communication to be positive, while parents of children with more severe disabilities felt the schools were insensitive and ineffective in their communication.
  4. Noted that there were few alternatives to a serious Jewish education and that the broader Jewish community was generally unaccepting. These families experience feelings of aloneness and marginalization.
  5. Overall, the parents in the study paint a "grim portrait of their interactions with individuals and institutions within the Jewish world" (day schools and others).

While Dr. Urhman's study is limited in scope and was conducted in only the New York/New Jersey region, she writes that the findings mirror those found in non-Jewish schools. Jewish day schools are, therefore, not alone in the inadequate experience parents feel as they support and advocate for a child with disabilities.

As my concern is the Jewish day school world, I will focus on the implications of Dr. Uhrman's study in that context. As Dr. Uhrman notes, "Schools should be more transparent about the resources they can provide and the needs they are able to successfully accommodate." Having a greater awareness both from schools and parents around supporting students with disabilities can alleviate some of the feelings of aloneness that parents experience.

A second implication is that schools need to understand better that parents of a student with disabilities do not expect schools to solve the challenges themselves but "to be part of the team that ... [is] working on the problem." Parents of a child with disabilities want and need to feel that schools are in this with them.

Another implication Urhman suggests is parents of a child with disabilities are incredibly open and willing to help school teams better meet their child's needs when they are asked compassionately. How schools explicitly engage parents, elicit their advice and a support, and manage parent conversations is essential.

Beyond expanding resources for broader inclusion and developing greater awareness of the challenges students with a disability face, Uhrman's study shows that Jewish day schools can work to better engage, communicate, and form stronger partnerships with parents of a child with disabilities. Being part of the Jewish community demands that we make central the experiences and feelings of parents of a child with disabilities.

Follow Mitch on Twitter: @MitchMalkus.

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