Learning about Learning

Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education, Brandeis University

Learning How Jews Think: How Educators Conceptualize the Study of Rabbinics

By Arielle Levites

As part of a larger study of student understandings of rabbinics—what it is, how it is learned, and what it’s for—it was clear to the research team that it would be important to include the voices of day school educators who teach rabbinics. We interviewed ten educators, including those who teach rabbinics and those who supervise its teaching. We sought diversity by denomination (of the school and its students), geography, perceived sophistication of the school’s curricular approach by the standards and benchmarks team, and the educator’s pre-service preparation (rabbinic ordination, graduate level study of education, academic study of rabbinic text). We asked them how they conceptualized rabbinics and what understandings they wanted to develop in their students.

The educators we spoke with respected the complexity of rabbinic texts and the possibility that one could teach for a multiplicity of understandings. Yet when asked what understandings they themselves prioritized in their teaching, almost everyone emphasized inculcating in students an understanding of rabbinics as a model for reasoning and ethical decision making. Continue reading

Creating a Pedagogical Vision for Tanakh Education

By Ziva R. Hassenfeld

This year marked the beginning of an exciting new chapter in Jewish education. A few weeks ago, Prizmah, a new organization comprising the five major day school networks, held its first conference. Thousands of educators from across the country gathered to compare notes, share best practices, and chart the future of Jewish education in North America.

This moment represents an opportunity to take a fresh look at what day schools, regardless of their particular ideology, share: the study of Jewish texts, however defined. For the last 15 years, the Jewish Day School Standards and Benchmarks, developed by the William Davidson School of Education at JTS, have offered a clear picture of what it looks like to read Tanakh successfully. The first standard, for example, states that students will be “independent readers of the biblical text.” They should notice textual details and ambiguities, and will be able to “cite a text to prove a point opinion or claim.”

But how do we get students to that point? Continue reading

How Day School Teachers See Their Working Conditions, and Why This Matters

Research shows[1] that school contexts influence teachers’ career decisions and their effectiveness. From the mid-nineteen-seventies to the present, researchers have examined how the organizational contexts of schools support and constrain teachers and teaching. Based on extensive observations and interviews as well as large-scale surveys, a robust body of evidence challenges the belief that teachers’ career decisions and success are mainly related to the students they teach rather than the conditions under which they work.

We know, for example, that teachers who work in supportive schools stay longer and improve faster than teachers in less supportive schools. In supportive schools teachers can count on regular opportunities to collaborate with colleagues, receive feedback and instructional guidance from administrators, and experience an orderly school environment. This is especially true for beginning teachers who leave teaching at alarmingly high rates, often before they have a chance to grow into effective teachers. We know that principals play a critical role in creating these conditions.

So how do Jewish day schools stack up? Continue reading

Passion in Religious Education

Do we need to cultivate the inner spiritual life of our Jewish educators, as Aryeh Ben David claims? Certainly we do. But as Ziva Reimer Hassenfeld has argued in response, based on recent empirical research at the Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education at Brandeis, many teachers already bring a passion for Judaism to their teaching. Passion is not enough. What those teachers need, she continues, is “the professional development necessary to foster skilled, reflective practitioners.”

I agree with Ziva’s argument, but I’ve also been thinking recently about another aspect of the issue. Sometimes passion is not enough—but sometimes it is too much. When a teacher demonstrates passion, when a class seems to get drawn into a focus on the teacher’s persona, does that inevitably threaten the boundaries between teacher and student? Does it interfere with learning? Is it simply too dangerous? Continue reading

Great Teaching Takes More Than a Great Jewish Journey

By Ziva R. Hassenfeld

Many believe that being a great Jewish educator is, above all, about being a passionate and spiritual Jew. But decades of education research have shown that good teachers are made, not born.  Ultimately, an inspiring Jewish journey can only take an educator so far.  The best Jewish educators need to have deep knowledge of how to teach as well.

Aryeh Bendavid recently argued that without the “white fire” of a teacher’s spiritual journey, the “black fire” of Jewish learning lacks intensity. This notion of teaching and Jewish studies teachers is what Jewish education scholar Alex Pomson called “the teacher as Rebbe, the oldest and most powerful archetype of Jewish teaching.”[1] Bendavid concludes by arguing that professional development for Jewish educators should focus on cultivating their inner spiritual life.

But in research that I’ve conducted at the Mandel Center, I’ve found that Jewish studies teachers from across the Jewish educational landscape already place a high priority on their own spiritual life as a key factor for success as Jewish educators. One teacher told me, “Either you’re a teacher who’s living by this stuff, or, at the very least, you have some connection to this stuff. That’s why you’re teaching this.” He paused and concluded, “My passion for Judaism just innately comes through when I’m teaching.”

To be sure, powerful role models are a key ingredient for successful Jewish education. But being a good teacher requires much more. Continue reading

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