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

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HOS Blog: Mazal Tov, Class of 2018!
Rabbi Mitchel Malkus

The following is an excerpt of Rabbi Malkus' 2018 CESJDS Commencement address.

This commencement ceremony is a chance to reflect on what comes next. And what comes next is big. It's new. It's exciting. But I can also imagine it makes some of you a little anxious. And that's understandable. The world beyond JDS can sometimes be an intimidating place. Especially these days, when the world feels more and more polarized. We see it manifested in government dysfunction at the highest levels. We hear it in conversations in living rooms and around Shabbat tables. We experience it when neo-Nazis march in Charlottesville and those from other countries or different religions are demonized.

Today, divisions are deeper—between political parties, between nations, within religious denominations and in the Jewish community. Certain subjects feel off-limits in mixed company. Information that conflicts with strongly held views is dismissed as "fake news." And sometimes, those divisions come to our doorstep, as it did this time last year when a bomb threat was called into our own beloved school. We later learned that threat came from within the Jewish world.

Faced with these divides, it's hard to know how to proceed. And I don't pretend to have all the answers. But as a rabbi and Jewish educator, I look to our tradition for some guidance. So there is a famous passage in Eruvin, in Talmud Bavli, that some of you may have come across in your Rabbinics classes. We read that for 3 years, Beit Hillel and Beit Shamai were arguing. It was a simpler time, so they weren't arguing about tax policy or a two-state solution. While we are not sure exactly what the argument was about, it comes within a section of the Talmud that looks at what makes a sukkah kosher. Like I said, simpler times.

And in the midst of their argument, they suddenly hear a bat kol—the voice of God—declaring, "Elu v'elu divrei Elohim haim," "Both these views represent God's will." But then—and this is what I've always found fascinating—the bat kol goes on to say, "...but the halakhah is in agreement with the rulings of Beit Hillel."

Now, if you're anything like me the first time I read this, you might be wondering, "Wait a minute. If they're both right, then why is the law according to Hillel?" Well, the text goes on to explain that the law goes according to Hillel because while Shamai didn't try to understand the other side, Hillel tried to appreciate and articulate Shamai's position. Hillel even went so far as to mention Shamai's arguments before his own. In other words, the Talmud teaches us that it's not about who's right, it's about who's listening, there is a tremendous benefit to listening to other peoples arguments when they disagree with what you believe.

And here's the part where you should be feeling pretty confident. Because JDS has prepared you to do exactly that. Class of 2018, you're not only baseball stars and cross-country champions ... You haven't just won science prizes ... and written for an award-winning newspaper ... and sung with Shir Madness.

You've also learned to respect and listen to opposing views. Both Jewishly and in general, you're leaving JDS with the ability to hear different sides of an argument, to absorb opposing ideas, and to look at what you believe critically. It's one of our school's core values and maybe even the defining characteristic of JDS. In short, pluralism is in your DNA. Think about it. Here at JDS, you've studied the Arab-Israeli conflict from multiple perspectives, seeking to understand the different narratives. Through JSA and debate team, you've discussed and debated everything from NATO to net neutrality to whether NCAA athletes deserve to be paid.

And I think back to October, when the Upper School had the privilege of hosting our district's Congressman, Representative Jamie Raskin, in the Feith Beit Midrash for Mr. Bregman's Contemporary Issues class. After Representative Raskin spoke, Mr. Bregman invited students to share their views on issues that they disagreed with the Congressman about. And it won't surprise you that the class readily obliged.

So you had a liberal Democratic Congressman ... speaking in a Beit Midrash named for a prominent politically conservative JDS family ... asking students to challenge him on areas where they disagreed. Why? Because listening to other opinions and arguments sharpens your own position and, even some times, opens you up to revisit or change your approach. It creates a healthy distance between who you are and what your ideas are. As our text in Eruvin makes clear, the halakha goes according to those who are not locked in their position.

Is there anything more quintessentially JDS than that? As one of your classmates, Hannah Wandersman, wrote in a wonderful post I shared online, "Pluralism at CESJDS has allowed me to explore my own Jewish identity and has given me the option to explore different denominations and values." And you've done it studying with classmates from more than 50 zip codes ... representing countless different backgrounds and Jewish practices ... whose ideas and experiences you will carry with you on the next step of your journey.

And on that journey, I hope we all have the courage to follow the example of a young college student named Matthew Stevenson when he met another student named Derek Black. Derek was a proud and prominent young white nationalist. His father had founded Stormfront, the first and largest white nationalist website. His mother had been married to David Duke, who was Derek's godfather. Derek went away to college in Sarasota, where his fellow students were unaware that he was considered a leader of the white nationalist movement.

Eventually, his identity was discovered and the campus turned on him — until Matthew Stevenson, the only Jewishly observant person on campus, emailed Derek and asked, "What are you doing Friday night?" Derek began attending Shabbat dinners with Matthew and a handful of other students. Little by little, Matthew and Derek became friends, even shooting pool together at a local bar. Those conversations led Derek to start questioning the white nationalism he had grown up with. And because a young Jewish student approached someone whose views he considered repugnant, a young man who was the heir to the white nationalist movement—someone who had once warned of a "white genocide" and said that "Jews worm their way into power"—wrote an open letter to the Southern Poverty Law Center renouncing his hateful views.

The challenge Matthew Stevenson took on was much greater than what most of us will ever face—in college or beyond. But his open-mindedness should inspire us all. Graduates, as you begin this next adventure, you have an incredible opportunity to take what you've learned here and engage others. I know we can count on you to listen to those you meet thoughtfully and respectfully, in the best tradition of Beit Hillel and CESJDS. Let those discussions sharpen your own opinions, so that you can better understand and explain what you believe and why you believe it. Remember that the different views you encounter—on some level—represent God's will ... and don't forget to have fun!

Mazal tov, Class of 2018. We're so proud of you.

HOS Blog: What Do We Mean By Active Learning?
Rabbi Mitchel Malkus

As much as my work demands that I look at the broad and strategic outcomes of learning, I have always been interested and have training in the details of instructional strategies and learning theories. I want to connect a big idea in education, that students should be actively engaged in their learning, with a few strategies that have been shown in the research literature to be significantly more effective than passive approaches.

A number of recent studies indicate strongly that things like quizzing, explaining, and enacting lead to more successful outcomes in learning than passive approaches. The conclusion these studies put forth is that learning is a generative activity and that we gain expertise by actively producing what we know.

Logan Fiorella and Richard Meyer have shown in numerous studies that when we actively produce what we know, we will learn it more successfully. Meyer says that when we push ourselves to make a mental image of what we are reading, what he calls a "mind movie", we are building cognitive connections and making our learning more durable than it would be if we were to just re-reading a book or text. The same is true for preparing for an exam, just rereading through our notes will not be as effective as using doing something specific with the material as we prepare for a test.

Why is active learning more beneficial? Another researcher, John Dunlosky has conducted studies in this area. As an example, Dunlosky looked at highlighting as a learning technique. He found that highlighting and re-reading were weak approaches because they do not engage our brains in enough "doing". Instead, his research indicates that techniques like self-quizzing and self-explaining are far more effective because the learner is working with the material. Experts describe these approaches as "mental doing".

When educators speak about active learning, we are looking for activities that engage students in mental doing in order to facilitate the type of cognitive activity that leads to measurable outcomes.

What Parents Can Do to Support Their Children
Rabbi Mitchel Malkus

Over the past two weeks, the Washington, DC community has experienced the tragic deaths of four teenagers. Schools and community organizations, including CESJDS, responded quickly to support young people and their families with resources, gatherings and discussion groups.

For anyone who works with teens, is a parent, or has responsibility for the well-being of children, news of the death of an adolescent is devastating. Since I heard the news of these deaths, I have been asking myself what more I could do to respond to the crisis among our teenagers. Research indicates that over the past five years, the number of U.S. teens who felt useless and joyless — classic symptoms of depression — surged 33 percent in large national surveys. Teen suicide attempts have increased 23 percent during this time-period.

CESJDS, like many other schools, runs ongoing wellness and prevention programs for students. We have structures in place for students to report concerns about their peers to adults, and we have developed strong partnership with families in our community.

One action item I gave myself after the recent deaths was to collect a short list of the best wisdom about what parents can do to support their children, and to share that widely both within and beyond our community. Below is a list of advice I have compiled from local schools, principals and organizations.

What can Parents do to Support their Children:

  1. Tell your children that you love them and that you are there to support them.
  2. Make time to speak with your children. Talk to your children about has happened and listen to their responses. Don't allow your child's concerns or fears to snowball.
  3. Normalize your children's feelings – We all feel sadness, anger, confusion, anxiety, guilt, and other feelings. These are normal feelings and teens should know that they are not alone in having these emotions. Normalizing our feelings enables us to better cope with and address these feelings.
  4. Monitor what your children are watching and doing – online, on television and with their friends. Parents need to give their teens appropriate space and independence, but you also need to be aware of what your children are experiencing.
  5. Discuss with your children all of the available supports and adults who are there for them. Teens need to know that there is a network of support at home, in school, and in their lives if they are feeling overly stressed, depressed or anxious.
  6. Don't be afraid to speak with children about suicide. If you as a parent are not speaking with them, someone else is.
  7. Embed yourself in a caring community. Whether that is school, a synagogue, or another community, our communities can provide strength for both teens and their families. When students and parents feel connected to a network, it reduces the isolation that leads to troubling behaviors and it provides the support we all need.
  8. Make sure you and your teens have access to the suicide hotline and text number: 1800-273-8255 or text HOME to 741741.
  9. Reach out to your school's guidance and professional staff if you have questions or are struggling with how to speak with your teen. Schools are partners with families in supporting our young people and they can be a fabulous resource as parents address this serious and difficult issue.

Follow Mitch on Twitter @MitchMalkus.

How do Schools Achieve Excellence in Teaching?
Rabbi Mitchel Malkus

Schools and parents all want excellent teaching. However, how do schools create and support an environment to bring about outstanding teaching? There are a number of tools that are essential for schools to develop and use if they want to make excellent teaching part of their cultures.

If we care about excellence, we have to define what it means. Different schools with different philosophies or with different student populations will have different views of what constitutes outstanding teaching. Schools should consider developing a Characteristics of Professional Excellence document that articulates how they view inspired teaching.

A Characteristics of Professional Excellence document is a list of specific behaviors, values, and attitudes that illustrate how its faculty acts to meet the school's mission and helps develop its intended graduates. Each school's document is central to its unique mission, culture, and values. In this way, each school has unique attributes for its faculty to strive toward. Usually, there are between 5–8 characteristics that answer the question: What does a great teacher look like at our school?

Once a school has a characteristics document, the school can use that articulation to drive interview and hiring decisions, inform teacher orientations, develop mentoring programs, plan professional development and to align its evaluation systems with what it articulates as excellence.

The second major tool for inspiring excellence is a Supervision and Evaluation Protocol. This protocol lays out a regular schedule and approach to providing teachers with feedback in a formal manner. Aligning supervision and evaluation with the characteristics document provides a clear and consistent message about what excellence is and how a school will monitor progress in this area. Since achieving excellence is an ongoing process, both novice and veteran teachers alike benefit from an evaluation system that is tied to how a school defines good teaching.

The third area that is critical to excellence in teaching is robust professional development. Just as professionals in all areas do, educators need ongoing opportunities to develop and further their practice. When professional development emerges from both evaluation and a clear vision of excellence, it will reinforce each school's vision of outstanding teaching.

When a school aligns it's characteristics document, a formal evaluation system, and a serious commitment to professional development, it can begin to develop the foundation for a culture of excellence. None of these documents alone constitutes a culture. However, when these tools are related, they create the conditions to identify, supervise and grow excellent teachers who in turn build, reinforce and foster a school's culture of outstanding instruction.

Follow Mitch on Twitter @MitchMalkus.

Should Our Children Trick or Treat?

I am not aware of any Jewish day schools that celebrate Halloween, Valentine's Day, or St. Patrick's Day and students are usually not permitted to come in costume or bring candy for these days. While this practice is generally not in question in schools, I am often approached by parents about whether and how they might celebrate Halloween.

Life in an open and pluralistic society presents us with many opportunities and challenges. Most Jews chose to integrate ourselves into the modern world, we strive to find a balance between emphasizing our Jewish identity and benefitting from what the larger society has to offer. If anything, the philosophical approaches of our civil society are more understandable to many of us than the values and practices of our Jewish tradition.

A few years ago I observed an online discussion between a group of rabbis across the country about whether or not they trick or treat for Halloween with their own children. The discussion began when one participant posted that her son challenged her on their own family's policy of not trick or treating. This child argued that Halloween, as practiced today, is devoid of its historical meanings and is really about having some good-natured fun. This child also said there were so many times he could not participate in things because of being Jewish, that why should their family add another. It is true that in the neighborhoods where many of us live, Halloween is often a mechanism for community building, and we recognize that many of our students have strong family traditions of decorating their homes, dressing up, and going trick or treating.

In another post, one of the rabbis remarked that his children do not trick or treat because it was not the habit of his spouse to do so when she was growing up as an observant Jew. Yet, this rabbi wonders aloud how to justify this to his children based on religious reasons. He suggests that while the origins of Halloween are pagan and predate Christianity by more than a thousand years, there are numerous Jewish customs which have their own origins in pagan practices as well. He feels that rabbis should be as aware as anyone that the meaning of rituals changes over time.

As third rabbi in the discussion offered the opinion that the issue is about how Jews fit into the larger culture in which we live. For this rabbi the question is how to interact with the secular society that we live in and how to also maintain our Jewish identity. This rabbi asks "How do we give our kids their separate Jewish identity and not have them resent it?" This rabbi is particularly concerned about the fact that many of his young congregants know more about Halloween than they do about Purim. Ultimately, the rabbi concludes his post writing that "I feel we need more of a siag la-torah (a fence around the Torah) in our world today where so many lines are being blurred, that this is a good one to have."

A final post comes from a participant who wrote that as a child Halloween used to be considered unsafe and that today it seems more and more of a positive neighborhood occasion. In terms of the death imagery and the occult, this rabbi writes that Judaism has it's share of ghost stories too. The rabbi wonders if there is some principle upon which to avoid Halloween or is it just built into our sense of being separate.

These posts left me with a number of questions that I want to share and that I have found to challenge my own thinking. Maybe Halloween is the October Opportunity that one rabbi writes (taking a page from the December Dilemma of Christmas) is not at all a dilemma for his family. It is a chance to mine the Jewish value of emphasizing the neighborly aspect of the holiday over sugarlust. Fun instead of meanness. Sharing (and giving to tzedakah) over hoarding your own candy.

All of the school parents who I have spoken with about Halloween said they understand and support why the school does not celebrate this day and yet that does not mean that they don't question how they should approach it with their children. Parents who prize both the American society in which we live and our Jewish tradition strive to balance these commitments as best we can. Choosing whether and how to celebrate Halloween with our children is a choice that we all have to address. It is also an opportunity to consider how we participate in American society and how we value our Jewish heritage and tradition.

Follow Mitch on Twitter @MitchMalkus.

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