All success begins with some failure . .
I have written about my fun few years in the web
industry during the dot-com boom. I had a grand time and enjoyed
feeling like my stock options were worth something before the
market crashed. Then came 9/11, and I decided to devote myself to
doing something meaningful like teaching our holy Torah to the
next generation. Honestly, I didn’t have such a grand time for
the first few years at all.
Kids and classes do
not come with instruction manuals. I was never quite sure what I
was supposed to be doing and how to judge if I was achieving it.
There was content, skills, relationships, professionalism . . .
I was sucked into the never-ending list of what teachers should
do and trying to pretend like I knew what I was supposed to be
teaching and why.
When I moved to
Rochester, I started a certification program to become a school
administrator. The first course I took was “Literacy as Social
Practice.” What I learned changed how I taught and transformed my
attitude from just trying to get by to helping my students take
on leadership roles in our community.
A Different view of education
The course began with an overview of the
socio-cultural historical theory as described by Lev Vygotsky
Barbara Rogoff. While it sounds complex, the premise is that
a child learns by being an active member of his culture. He
learns by working together with adults to improve their community
together. In this theory, less accomplished team members must
work together with more accomplished team members to create
something bigger than the both of them.
This model of learning was always used to train carpenters,
glaziers and blacksmiths by matching apprentices with master
craftsmen. Both the apprentice and the master worked together to
create art, each learning and growing at his own level. Through
communication and example, the apprentice learned and became a
master in his own right. The results of the master/apprentice
relationship are the great works of art that have stood the test
To make this model work, the apprentice in the relationship must
be provided with scaffolds to help him accomplish more than he
would have ever been able to do on his own. The Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) is the
difference between what a learner can do independently and what
he can do with help.
The Good old days of Jewish
I realized that Jewish education was also
premised on this master/apprentice relationship. In the good old
days (circa 0 CE and before), Jewish children learned how to lead
Jewish lives from their parents. There were no formalized
schools, and they were not home schooled in the sense we describe
Children learned through hands-on activities and were gradually
integrated into communal life and leadership. Boys would work
along side their fathers in the fields, come home at night and
learn Torah with their fathers. Girls would help their mothers
with their tasks and learn Jewish law and morals through
discussions with their mothers. The children would learn the
values, content and skills they needed to continue the Jewish
heritage. As they proved their reliability, they were given
increasing roles in their families and society so that the
values that the community cherished would continue to the next
During the mid first century CE, this all changed. Some orphan
boys were no longer being taken in by complete families to be
apprenticed as had been done in the past. Yehoshua ben Gamla
started schools for children as young as 6 to ensure that
everyone would be educated even if it was done in a less ideal
Girls were fortunate to maintain their original educational
system until the 20th century when they too had to be subject to
a factory style education. Today, all boys and girls learn about
their rich, experiential heritage while sitting in desks and
filling out worksheets.
The Pesach Seder
Even after the institution of schools by Rabbi
Yehoshua ben Gamla, this master/apprentice learning was never
completely removed from Jewish life. Jews were given the
commandment to teach their children at the Seder using this
At the Seder, parents have multiple mitzvos that they must
fulfill. They are enjoined to discuss the Exodus with as much
thought as the great sages Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva. They
must eat matza and marror and read from the Hagadda text. They
must drink four cups of wine and sing Hallel. At the same time as
they are fulfilling their own obligations, they are commanded to
teach their children about the Exodus.
We don’t run a model seder and then have the adult seder after
the kids go to sleep. Instead, we say kiddush and wash our hands
without a bracha. The kids get curious. We eat a bite sized
vegetable. The kids get even more curious. We then play ‘now you
see and now you don’t’ with the Seder Plate. The kids are finally
so curious that they burst forth with questions, each according
to his own level. A conversation is begun, and the children are
active and central participants of every mitzvah fulfilled that
night. As the adults analyze, discuss, learn and grow, so do
their children, together with them.
Our Classrooms As Factories
industrialized model of schooling rather than to our own model of
the Seder. Schools became more institutionalized and lost the
vision of apprenticing our children into our cultural and
religious practices through hands-on, authentic learning.
Jewish education is far more than learning how to add or read.
While we want our students to be able to translate the Torah, we
also want them to be passionate, independent, life-long learners.
We want them to infuse their lives with spirituality and take
responsibility for ensuring that our way of life thrives in the
future. We want our students to live as Jews rather than just to
learn about Judaism.
Informal Education is not Enough
The structured model of education, while
necessary for an institution to function, has inhibited the
natural transmission of Jewish values and separated the emotional
elements of religious life from the intellectual.
Schools have tried to compensate by adding informal education to
their programs. However, these activities are a small and
contained part of the school experience rather than being
characteristic of the entire school day. With informal education,
we are still treating our children as subjects to be influenced
rather than as important members of the larger society.
We give them their own minyanim, their own groups, and their own
activities hoping it will inspire them. We continue this model
into adulthood as we found Young Leadership Boards and separate
minyanim to attract young adults. While these groups may provide
a sense of belonging, they don’t allow the younger generation to
learn from and with the older generation.
The youth misses
out the chance to meaningfully impact the whole group. They are
also not trained to take over when the experts retire.
Invariably, there is conflict between the younger generation and
the older generation in managing communal affairs. The younger
group has ideas that they feel are not being heard, and the older
group feels that the younger members are not respecting the
history and culture of the organization they are trying to
change. These conflicts would not occur if the younger generation
had been naturally eased into their role in communal life having
learned how to work their way up by proving their commitment and
Changing Our Mindset and Our
In my “Literacy as Social Practice” course, I
discovered that there is a different model to use if we can
change our mindset. For the past seven years, I have been using
the socio-cultural historical theory with great success in
elementary school, high school and even with adults. I have
blogged about my techniques
here. The main premise is that the less experienced learner
needs to be involved in authentic activities together with the
I didn’t change what
I taught; I still teach the same subjects. What changed
was why I was teaching and how I defined
the learners in my classroom. I began to
think of myself as a master and my students as apprentices. With
this idea, I’m able to teach any students whether they are
kindergarteners or PhD candidates. Instead of teaching, I began
learning with my students and trying to make the experience as
authentic as possible so they could become
masters. Class is the journey I take with
my students to greater expertise for both of
For students to act
as masters would, they need supports. These supports have
differed for each age and level. All my students have needed some
kind of language support since Biblical Hebrew is not their
native tongue. Some students have learning disabilities, and I
provide them with supports so they can engage with the rest of
class . Other students, while strong academically, have trouble
staying organized or focused. Before, I ignored these issues
because they didn’t impact test scores. Now, I realize that a key
function of my job is to help my students develop in all areas so
they can mature into the successful adults they dream of
Examples of Authentic Learning
In the Classroom
How can Torah learning be made authentic? It’s
not a question of making abstract concepts in Torah relevant to
21st century ethics. As adults, Torah scholars don’t read
emotional poetry to understand a Ramban. Torah scholars debate
and innovate. They reflect and learn with chavrusas. They
Kids love to do
this kind of real learning. They thrive on reading the text and
arguing over its meaning no matter their age. Unfortunately, most
of the time, they don’t have the maturity or language skills to
do it. As the master, it is my job to provide them with the
Hebrew reference materials and teach them social skills so that
they can learn the texts independently every day.
Last year, I had
two students who really took this to heart and viewed themselves
as budding Torah scholars. Together, they started a notebook
which they headed with the words “the R”AYH and the R”AK.” I
asked them what that meant and they told me that the seforim of
Rashi, and the Ramban are called by the authors’ initials. The
boys were writing a sefer together, and the title came from their
initials. Every day on the bus, they were writing down the
questions they had in Chumash class and trying to think of good
answers before discussing the ideas with their parents. These
students were 9 years old at the time. I can’t wait to get my
hands on the next sefer they publish.
for a Chumash lesson, I ask “What is the Zone of Proximal
Development (ZPD) for this lesson? What do my students need so
they can learn Chumash as authentically as possible as they would
when they are adults?” The tools I provide are different for each
class and age. I imagine my students as accomplished adults and
then provide them with everything necessary so they can act like
that now. Like apprenticing craftsman, there is a lot of
monotonous work. However, the students know the goal is one they
appreciate, and they do their drills because it is allows them to
do what they really enjoy.
Jewish Communal Activisim
Another great example of training apprentices
came in the area of communal responsibility. We all want our
children to feel responsible to help the Jewish community. How do
we get them from being takers to being givers? The answer is to
get them involved and get them involved when they are
One day, my son
came home from kindergarten and told me that he and his
classmates had planned a carnival for the first day of summer
vacation. They wanted to make some MONEY. The plan, hatched by
the finest 5 year old minds, involved shuttling kids between the
various houses since the kids couldn’t figure out how they would
carry the supplies across the streets.
The other parents
and I recognized a golden opportunity. The kids had great ideas.
I called a meeting in my house for all the kindergarten kids and
acted as a secretary to write down all their ideas. (They hadn’t
yet learned their long vowels, so writing ICES would have really
stumped them) They divided up the tasks, and the kids set to work
making their carnival. They used their best literacy skills to
write the signs, and their math to keep track of ticket
The carnival was a
huge hit. There were relay races, a bounce house, a lollipop game
and they even made food to sell.
Here are some pictures of these kids during
|Entrance table manned
by Ester Tova who really wanted to be in charge of the cash.
Notice the sign for frulowups. She was aided in her task by a
helpful high school sophomore.
|Pinny (standing in the
back next to the laundry basket) coordinated the relay and
balloon races for the big kids.
|Preteens taking a shot
at “Flour sifting for pennies”, always a big hit. The manager of
this table is the girl with the orange shirt.
|Kids helping an adult
play “find the boat with the dot.” Her wallet is out! Hurray!
This table is manned by Chana, the young lady in
The day went really well. All the neighborhood
kids showed up to see what these kids had put together. In the
end, the class made $43 which they proudly donated to their Day
School. They felt like they could do anything.
Would you be
surprised if I told you that this class has organized class
fundraisers whenever they are given the chance. Last year, they
earned enough money to go to the Corning Museum of Glass. This
year, they have been working all year to save up to go to Niagara
In Jewish Communal Life
witnessed in my shul on the Shabbos following Simchas Torah. I
generally am not there for Maariv so I can’t tell whether this
happens in all the shuls across the US or if this is something
special about my shoul.After Maariv, a few
fathers stood around shmoozing, trying to look nonchalant. Their
bar mitzvah age sons were busy around the sanctuary taking the
colored paroches and coverings out of the closets. The boys then
went up to the white covered bima, and proceeded to fold up the
covering while giving a running commentary to their younger
brothers how to do the task. At one point, a boy went over to his
father so he could help him change the paroches which was still
to tall for the boys to take care of independently. When the job
was complete, everyone smiled, wished their friends a good night,
and headed out for a sweet new year.
When I saw what had
just happened I wanted to shout “SOCIO-CULTURAL HISTORICAL
THEORY!!!!” Okay, maybe not. But what I saw was really cool and a
great example of how a community survives. Each generation was
teaching the next how to take care of the shared experiences they
hold dear by giving them responsibility. The younger boys
understood that not only could they care for the shul, but that
they were also responsible for training the next group of boys to
take over from them when the time came.
Some Tools to Use
learning in your classroom and integrating your students into
Jewish community life?
- Begin by reminding yourself that while you
are the master, your job is to become irrelevant
and then ask yourself the following
- “What do I want my students to be doing in
this area when they are 35?”
- “How can I have my students do that behavior
- “Are they learning and working with experts in an authentic setting, or are they doing the activities by themselves?”
- “What tools are they missing so they can
live full Jewish lives?”
- What tools can I provide?
and they want to matter. When Students are involved in real
learning, they are motivated and view their learning as an
extension of their lives rather than as an academic subject. They
learn skills and knowledge at a quicker rate than they would
otherwise. Most importantly, they are actively forming a
religious identity that involves community life and a commitment
to Jewish learning.
Next time . . .
untapped experts on what good teaching looks like and how you can
improve. No, these experts are not the administrators or the
teachers. They are sitting in your classroom – the experts on
good teaching are your students.
will discuss how to use get effective feedback from parents and
students to help with innovation and professional
See you after Pesach