Learning about Learning

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

Reframing the Conversation on Jewish Learning

Cover of the book Advancing the Learning Agenda in Jewish EducationA few years ago, Brandeis professor Jon A. Levisohn and Jewish Theological Seminary professor Jeffrey Kress began a conversation about what Jewish education might look like if educators shifted the focus to students’ learning, rather than teachers’ teaching. Levisohn is a philosopher; Kress is a psychologist. But together, they wondered how to shift the focus of discussions about Jewish education. How might those discussions pay more attention to shaping character, creating meaning, and making connections, and less to what teachers say or do?

If the goal of Jewish education is to help Jewish people live better lives, they thought, we need to think harder and more critically about the desired outcomes that support this flourishing. That conversation led to a 2015 conference at Brandeis that brought together researchers in Jewish and general education, from Jewish studies and the learning sciences, for an unprecedented exploration of how Jewish education can be expanded and enriched through a focus on learning.

Now selected essays from conference participants have been collected into a new volume, Advancing the Learning Agenda in Jewish Education (Academic Studies Press, 2018). It offers creative and critical perspectives on unexamined assumptions about learning in Jewish education, and promotes the idea that learning is never only about subject-matter knowledge but is always at the same time about the learner’s relationship to the subject—an idea that has taken hold in the science learning community.

Levisohn, director of the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education, said that the project was prompted by “a concern that Jewish educational processes built around outcomes that are too flat (such as learning facts) lead to alienation. It comes at a cost. There are too many cases in which students learn the material that teachers teach—but find it utterly irrelevant.”

Levisohn, Kress, director of research at the Leadership Commons at the Davidson School of Education, and their collaborators wanted to ask deeper, harder questions about student learning, such as, Kress said, “What frameworks for understanding and being in the world emerge from involvement in Jewish education? What would Torah learning look like if it were framed as socialization into a community?”

“We were dissatisfied with conversations about outcomes that seemed too narrow or too cognitive,” Levisohn said. “We need to focus on bigger, broader goals of meaning, connection, and flourishing. People need to have homes—within communities, traditions, and discourses. Jewish education can help to provide that home.”

Advancing the Learning Agenda in Jewish Education provides a fresh set of perspectives on a new set of questions about Jewish education. It offers new ideas, Kress said, “about what it means to be a learned Jew, and how Jewish education can inform multiple elements of the human experience.”

Talking about Race in Jewish Day Schools

Due to a last-minute conflict, Yavilah McCoy of Dimensions Educational Consulting was unable to attend the recent Mandel Center conference, Inside Jewish Day Schools. Instead, she graciously pre-recorded this stirring framing statement for our panel entitled  “Embracing Diversity, Teaching Equity: Race and Ethnicity in Jewish Day Schools,” providing a context and a rationale for centering race and ethnicity in our conversations about teaching and learning and school culture in yeshivas and Jewish day schools.

 

 

 

The Impact of a Conference

by Elliott Rabin

IJDS Conference | April 30, 2018

Last week, I had the luxury and privilege of spending a couple of days with some 70 educators, administrators and professors at a remarkable conference on Jewish day school education, Inside Jewish Day Schools, hosted by the Mandel Center at Brandeis. Many things about the conference felt fresh, even pathbreaking to me. The focus entirely on day schools, within an academic setting. Attention paid to challenging subjects from contemporary society that rarely get addressed in the day school context: race, gender/sexuality, class. A screening of excerpts from the movie Race to Nowhere, with frequent interruptions in which we grappled with questions about homework. The framing notion of the “grammar of day schools,” component features that are accepted as a given. Addressing some of the big, catbird-seat questions about Jewish studies.

. . . the barrier between “academics” and “practitioners” of Jewish education appeared, for two days, entirely permeable . . .

But what struck me as most special and unusual about the conference was that the barrier between “academics” and “practitioners” of Jewish education appeared, for two days, entirely permeable. This conference was set in a magical kingdom where Continue reading

Continued Reflections from IJDS Conference: Creative Tensions Around Pluralism

by Rabbi Judd Kruger Levingston, Ph.D.

“Rabbi Lev, how come we have to go to Shaharit services?  It’s a pluralistic day school!”
“Rabbi Lev, why can girls wear leggings, but the boys have to wear khakis?  It’s a pluralistic school!”
“Why do boys have to wear a kippa in Jewish studies classes?  Can’t it be optional?  Isn’t this a pluralistic school?”
“Shouldn’t we be hearing more from the pro-Israel community?”
“Why don’t we hear more from the left?”

Attending this conference, Inside Jewish Day Schools, brought a welcome immersion in Jewish day school dilemmas, tensions, successes, and questions, some of which greet me every morning when I walk into my classroom.  Participants came to the conference from universities, professional training programs, and from classrooms and administrative wings of Jewish day schools throughout the country. Each session provided opportunities to hear about research and practice; to question whose voices are loudest; and to consider whose voices from among our many stakeholders might go unheard and stay silent at any given moment.

As the Director of Jewish Studies at Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy in the Philadelphia area, I oversee the Jewish studies curriculum and Jewish life at our 6th-12th grade pluralistic school, and each day brings questions that call us to take seriously our commitment to pluralism:

Should we emphasize depth or breadth?

Should we continue to emphasize the teaching of Jewish texts in the original Hebrew or should we provide more materials in translation?

When our students say that they love our school because it feels like camp, should we take them seriously and loosen up a little?

Alternatively, when our teachers say that they wish our Jewish studies classes were more like AP Chem, because then our students will take our classes more seriously, should we take them seriously and toughen up a little?

A single conference can’t answer every question, but it certainly validated that my colleagues and I at Barrack Hebrew Academy are not at all alone in wrestling with these questions.

Continue reading

Inside Jewish Day Schools: Initial Reflections from Conference Participants

Jon A. Levisohn

At the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education at Brandeis, we’re used to hosting conferences of various sizes. At least once a year and usually more often, we bring together groups of scholars, practitioners, and other stakeholders to share ideas and learn from one another. But each time, those first moments catch me off guard. After all the planning, all the coordinating and communicating, all the preparation, people show up on campus and this thing—which had been abstract and conceptual—emerges into a concrete existence. It’s kind of miraculous.

Our conference this year, chaired by my colleague Jonathan Krasner and me, focused on Jewish day schools. But more specifically, we wanted to draw attention to questions of teaching and learning. Hence our title: “Inside Jewish Day Schools.” Some of our plenary sessions explored questions of race and ethnicity, class and economic justice, and gender and sexuality. Other sessions focused on pluralism, teacher preparation, and teachers’ conceptions of purposes, as well as on the teaching and learning of classical Jewish texts, Hebrew language, and Israel.

In the coming days, we will share some reflections from conference participants, cross-posted with our colleagues at Prizmah. Today, we offer two: one from Dr. Sarah Levy, Director of Jewish Life and Learning at Denver Jewish Day School, and a second from Rav-Hazzan Dr. Scott Sokol, Head of School at MetroWest Jewish Day School in Framingham, MA.

. . . these sessions focused on some of the biggest challenges in American education today and highlighted that day schools, while unique in the educational landscape, are not unique in other ways . . .

Sarah wrote:

After the first roundtable, a session called “Embracing Diversity, Teaching Equity: Race and Ethnicity in Jewish Day School” … it seemed as if we were left with lots of questions and no answers. And that was the theme of the afternoon as a session about gender and sexuality was followed by a session about privilege and class, and a session about the emotional climates in Jewish day schools ended the day. During each session, the conversation focused on challenges that are prevalent in Jewish day schools, but not the kinds of challenges that are usually the focus of day school conferences. We didn’t focus on the questions that tend to occupy our daily thoughts in the world of practice such as meeting our fundraising goals, lowering attrition, raising the bar for academic excellence and supporting our teachers in 21st century methodologies.

Rather these sessions focused on some of the biggest challenges in American education today and highlighted that day schools, while unique in the educational landscape, are not unique in other ways, and these are all topics that need to be addressed in our schools. Equity in education is something to discuss, even amongst our population, as race and ethnicity impact our students both inside and outside of our buildings. Questions about gender and sexuality concern our students, not in spite of the fact that they are Jewish, but sometimes even more so because they attend Jewish day school. Economic and class distinctions impact the nature of our schools and who attends our schools. Sure, we’re not driven by standardized testing in the same way as public schools, but the pressure to succeed is just as high, if not higher.

Instead of going to bed depressed, however, Continue reading

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