Though I started working at Vassar Temple five years ago, I first heard about the place two years before that from my colleague and dear friend Rabbi Shoshana Hantman. “They’re a really nice group of people,” she was fond of saying about Vassar Temple.
With only a few exceptions, she was absolutely right.
And I say that having observed or consulted to hundreds of schools on five continents (soon to be six!). In fact, when I would tell my colleagues where I was working, the single most consistent response mirrored Rabbi Hantman’s remarks: “That’s a nice congregation,” frequently followed by a kind reference to Rabbi Arnold and Rabbi Golomb, and, most recently, Rabbi Berkowitz.
As I look back on five years, I certainly don’t want to minimize our technical accomplishments together. We built a thriving Hebrew school that draws members from neighboring congregations. We quadrupled the size of the post-bar/bat mitzvah Wednesday evening program. We grew the overall school by eight percent year over year when most religious schools are losing students.
Those feats, noteworthy in themselves, are also good for the financial heath of the congregation: good for the Jews and good for the bottom line, one might say. Or, as Rabbi Stuart Geller observes: the religious school is the financial engine that pulls the synagogue train.
So I don’t want to make light of bringing in new members or of increasing enrollment. But neither are these statistics the things that stand out most in my mind.
Rather, I remember non-tangible manifestations of a holy community.
For example, when our last Hebrew-school session of the year for grades 5-7 came to an end at 6:00pm on the Wednesday before Passover, the nearly 20 students in attendance refused to leave. Instead of bolting out of the school — as children so often do in other settings when class ends — they stayed behind, savoring a few final moments with each other and their Hebrew teachers. Surely this is what the Rabbis had in mind when they inserted the line into our morning liturgy, “make the words of your Torah sweet to us.”
When four Sunday-school teachers called in sick at the last minute last year, the remaining, healthy teachers jumped into action to run a constructive program together. One high school-aged teacher offered to teach a different class, improvising as she went. Another agreed to teach alone, though she had planned to work with a partner. And so on down the line. Though extreme, that day was hardly atypical, as teachers regularly volunteered to help each other out, never losing the smiles that came to symbolize our time together on Sunday mornings. What better way could there be to realize the Rabbis’ hope that we serve God together in joy?
The list goes on: Sixth graders who eagerly anticipated their opportunity — though at least two years away — to teach in the school. Middle- and high-school students who insisted on starting each class with, “How was your week?” Grade-school students who were so proud of their work that they begged me to come into their classrooms for a closer look. Students who complained when I canceled class for snow that never arrived. Teachers who focused not just on what we were teaching but even more on who we were teaching.
In Pirkei Avot — “The Sayings of the Ancestors” from almost 2,000 years ago — Rabbi Shimon declares that the world is sustained by three things: Torah, service to God, and kindness. Later, still in the spirit of groups of three, he enumerates three crowns: the crown of monarchy, the crown of priesthood, and the crown of Torah. Then, having listed three, he adds a fourth, a crown that outweighs the other three: the crown of a good name.
More than a millennium later, Ovadiah ben Avraham of Bartenura wrote about this, suggesting that the crown of a good name refers specifically to a good reputation for doing good deeds.
Taken together, Ovadiah and Shimon tell us that being known for the right things is more important than royalty, more important than religious leadership, and even more important than Torah itself.
And this is what I will remember from my five years running the school at Vassar Temple: students, parents, teachers, leaders, and rabbis who in overwhelming majority are deservedly known for the way, through personal example, that they model the three things upon which the world stands: Torah, service to God, and great kindness.
Blessed is God, who crowns us with glory.
[An abridged version of this piece first appeared in the Vassar Temple June, 2016 bulletin.]
A child visits our Sunday religious school planning to stay as briefly as possible. Once in class, she finds she likes school so much that she begs her parents to let her stay until the end.
A Hebrew school student on Wednesday afternoon spontaneously covers the whiteboard with graffiti: “I love this class.”
A student e-mails me to lament a canceled class.
A student guesses the password to my computer because I used a Hebrew word, and he knows it thanks to the effectiveness of his teachers.
A group of students asks if we can please extend the school year because they don’t want classes to end.
These are a few scenes out of many that remain prominent in my mind as I look back on the year now ending. They are, of course, just the tip of the iceberg.
I know. It’s a cliché. And “good writers” don’t use clichés. But I like clichés, because they tend to encapsulate important truths. In this case: the part you see is supported by a much larger part that you don’t.
Much of my job is putting in place the parts of the school-iceberg that you don’t see. The staffing (rare for a religious school, we have a waiting list of teachers who want to teach here), the training, the ambiance (treat everyone with respect), the policies (only make rules about things that matter), the materials, the schedules, the vision. It’s on my mind, because summer is when I focus most on these things.
I’ll meet with the heads of the textbook publishing houses to ask, “what’s your absolutely best material?” I’ll plan content that best matches our faculty and student body. I’ll ask what I can learn from the other religious schools that I’ve visited during the past year. I’ll revisit everything that didn’t work to see if we can do better. I’ll solicit direct feedback from students, teachers, parents, and the leadership. I’ll apply my experience and training to make sure all of our ducks are in a row.
I know. It’s another cliché. But three paragraphs later, I still like clichés. In this case, it may not matter which way any particular duck faces, but they do have to be aligned (for travel and for sleep, it turns out). In terms of our school, we face dozens of seemingly arbitrary decisions, but even though each one admits of many successful resolutions, they still have to work together to further a single vision: “Giving students a Jewish future.”
For instance, there are lots of good 4th-grade text books. And lots of people available to teach 4th grade. But there are fewer successful combinations of books and teachers. Our incoming 4th-grade, too, is unique, different from last year’s or next year’s; its particular nature further limits our choices. And the 4th grade has to take its place in a progression from kindergarten to 12th grade; that limits the choices even more. The 4th-grade school duck has to line up with all the other ducks.
In this regard, it’s important to focus on the vision — giving students a Jewish future — and ignore the Siren song of programming.
Yes, I did it. Another cliché. The fabled Greek Siren, half bird and half woman, sang beautifully sweet songs that lured sailors off their safe sailing paths and into destructive island reefs. Many new programs are the same. Though individually attractive, their value is dubious if we let their beauty distract us from our vision. Or to look at things differently: Does a new program bring us closer to giving children a Jewish future? If not, our resources and energy are probably better spent elsewhere.
So even though I’ll examine dozens of new ideas, my enthusiasm will be reserved for a tiny fraction of them — the few programs or undertakings or materials that support the iceberg that lines up our ducks that point away from the Siren song. As I work on next year this summer, that will be my litmus test.
(Okay. So it’s four clichés.)
Originally published in the Vassar Temple monthly bulletin.
I think that mediocrity is easy to measure while excellence is not, which creates a dilemma in the current era of objective assessment: when we insist on objective metrics of success — grades (for children), evaluations (for teachers), quarterly profits (for companies), recognized rules of writing (for authors), etc. — we motivate people to chase mediocrity.
For example, high schools in this country have been on a steady path toward more objective standards (starting with “No Child Left Behind”), while university professors, once they achieve tenure, are essentially accountable to no one. As a result, I believe, U.S. high schools fare terribly compared to the rest of the world, while our universities are arguably second to none.
Indeed, Forbes reports that “70% of engineers with PhD’s who graduate from U.S. universities are foreign-born.” These engineers come to the U.S. only for the education system that has no objective metrics of success, and, similarly, U.S. high-school students are unprepared for graduate work after their educational path based on test scores.
In the completely different realm of fiction, best-selling author Lee Child critisizes the writing industry for focusing on objective criteria of good writing, starting with the most well-known rule: “show don’t tell.” Writers follow the rule, Child says, because they’ve been “beaten down.” They are chasing mediocrity.
The now-defunct Bell Labs had a well funded department of researchers whose only job was to tinker; they were not required to demonstrate that they were earning their salaries. The department developed the transistor, the solar cell, the laser, and the first communications satellite, among many other innovations. Freed of objective metrics of success, the researchers were able to thrive.
The highly coveted MacArthur “genius” grants, officially the “MacArthur Fellowship” stipends, come with no strings attached and make no reporting obligations on the fellows, because, the foundation believes, the fellows “are in the best position to decide how to allocate their time and resources.” They don’t want to push their fellows toward mediocrity.
The catch is that I think there’s a place for mediocrity, because sometimes the alternative is ineptitude. Or to look at it differently, “mediocrity” is sometimes “competence.”
I’d rather have a mediocre airplane pilot than an inept one, for instance, so I’m glad the FAA requires (14 CFR 121) pilots to undergo “check rides” to demonstrate their continuing competence.
So we seem to have two approaches: an objective-assessment model that pushes people from ineptitude up to competence, but also pushes people down from excellence to mediocrity; and a more flexible model that allows people to excel but also to fail.
The trick, I suspect, is knowing when to apply each one.
At a National Jewish Book Award ceremony not so long ago, an award recipient took the stage, smiled broadly, and told the audience that “it’s nice to get a prize.” Then she added, “the last time I got a prize was in Religious School…” — for what? — “…for being quiet.”
Yes, she was awarded a prize for simply being quiet, the bar in her school sadly having been set so low that by doing nothing she was already outperforming her peers. (Rabbi Larry Milder expresses a similar sentiment in his song about his experience teaching Religious School: There’s a Riot Going On in Classroom Number Nine.) Equally unfortunately, most of the audience at the award ceremony chuckled in solidarity, probably remembering their own not-so-different experiences in Religious School. Some of them may even have thought, “so you’re the goodie-goodie who got us all in trouble when we were pasting our yarmulkes to the wall.”
How did this happen, and what can we do about it?
Many Religious Schools seem like case studies in institutional bipolar disorder: children must attend but nothing should be required of them; or everything should be required of them and there should be no consequences for not fulfilling the requirements; or the consequences should be so severe that everyone hates being there; or loving Religious School is so important that the school is turned into a playground where nothing is taught; and so forth.
Hidden in this list of institutionality-disorder symptoms are three of the elements that I believe are crucial to a productive Religious School: content, connection, and compassion.
I think we have an absolute obligation not to waste the time of the students who show up to Religious School. After all, they aren’t allowed to leave. If I go to a lecture and I’m bored, I can walk out. But we don’t give children at Religious School (or public school, for that matter) this prerogative, so I think we have to make sure that their time in class is well spent by giving them challenging and engaging content.
Having fun also seems like a good idea. And some people believe that the best way to have fun is to turn learning time into game time. But I disagree, because, fortunately, children naturally love learning. So I think that by providing a stimulating environment we will also create a place where children enjoy themselves. Schools that dumb down their curriculum to make the place more enticing have it backwards.
Having fun also contributes to my second element of Religious School: connection. If the only point of the school were to convey information, we could distribute textbooks, offer a yearly exam, and do away with the weekly gatherings. But Judaism is not merely a collection of facts to be learned. It is also a sense of connection — to our history, to each other, to the Jewish people, to Israel, and to the synagogue.
Thirdly, I think our school has to offer compassion to people — children and parents — whose lives are increasingly lacking that vital component. Too many parts of our lives are uncompromising and rigid, forcing us to adapt to them rather than letting us be ourselves. Our school can offer an island of relief against this troubling trend.
Taken in isolation, any of these three aspects — content, connection, and compassion — can lead us astray. If we focus only on content, our Religious School will lose its soul. Connection by itself won’t work, because we have to offer something to be connected to. And compassion alone threatens to make the school irrelevant to people who are already thriving.
But in combination, I think these three goals can help provide the foundation of a school worthy of the collective energy we all invest in it.
[Reposted from the Vassar Temple Blog, in turn reprinted from my article in the Vassar Temple January, 2012 bulletin.]
In addition to my academic work and other writing, I teach children in the afternoon. And I let them use their cell phones during class.
Here’s why. (You may also want to start with a summary.)
Setting the Stage
It seems to me that the three questions to ask regarding any policy are:
1. What are the benefits?
2. What are the drawbacks?
3. Is the trade-off worth it?
Just to be clear, what I let my students do is use their phones for anything except actually talking: text messaging, Facebook, Internet, etc. are all allowed, because these activities, unlike talking, do not interfere with other students. And the phones have to be set to “silent.” (“Vibrate” doesn’t quite do it. On a metal desk, a vibrating phone can practically be heard throughout the building.)
Having discussed this issue with dozens of school principals and other educators, I know people have strong gut reactions to cell-phone use, and they often have misleading intuitions. So in addition to my own experiences, I’m including an extensive list of research-based resources that provide insight into the benefits and drawbacks of cell phones, and, more generally, technology and multitasking.
Many of the perceived drawbacks of cell phone use come from misunderstandings, so I think it makes sense to start there.
This is a summary of a longer post about why I allow cell phones in my classes. That post contains extensive references to research, supporting information, and many more details. And that post, unlike this summary, also has comments enabled. So if you want to weigh in — and I hope you will! — that’s the place to do it.
My basic point is fourfold:
Most of the perceived drawbacks of cell phones are based on misunderstandings or partial understandings. Cell phones are not generally distracting for the children who use them — certainly adults tend to be more distracted by multitasking than children — and the phones may even make it easier for children to concentrate on class.
Second, letting children use their cell phones in class demonstrates an appreciation of who they are. They feel validated. They feel accepted. And this creates a better learning environment.
Third, cell phones augment the social experience of being in class. We don’t usually isolate children on purpose, but keeping them away from their phones is a kind of isolation.
Finally, cell phones are fun. Why wouldn’t we welcome this sort of enjoyment in class?
At any rate, I have more in the complete post, and I’d love feedback.