Learning about Learning

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

Category: Learning (page 1 of 5)

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.”

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

Stephen Colbert and the Goals of Jewish Education

by Ziva Hassenfeld and Jonah Hassenfeld

Rose McGowan and Stephen Colbert

Stephen Colbert and guest Rose McGowan

It’s not every night that Stephen Colbert talks Tanakh. Last week, in a somewhat unusual interview, actress and activist Rose McGowan brought up the biblical story of Jonah to explain her distaste for organized religion.

“There was a dude in a whale’s stomach that talked for three days or so. Then he got spit out because of Jesus. Am I following that correctly?”

“You… are not,” replied Colbert.

“I’m not?” McGowan seemed perplexed.

Colbert fills in some details of the story, but McGowan was already moving on: “It eventually gets to Jesus, right?” “Eventually, everything goes to Jesus,” he agreed.

As hilarious as this exchange was, there’s something worth lingering on here. Continue reading

Imagination and Interpretation

By Ziva R. Hassenfeld

The painting "Pharaoh Gives Sarah Back to Abraham," painted by Isaac Isaacs in 1640My students and I were in the middle of discussing Genesis 12:10-20, the story in which Abraham asks Sarah to say that she is his sister as they descend to Egypt. The Torah, however, does not record any dialogue when they arrive in Egypt, so that we don’t know what, if anything, Sarah said. Later, when Pharaoh, who took Sarah as his wife, discovers that she is indeed a married woman, he asks Abraham why he said she was his sister.

Saul, a passionate and excited student, raises his hand with a possible resolution.

Saul:  Okay so I think it’s possible that no one said anything and when people saw him–like Avram just walked up to Mitzrayim. And Sarai didn’t introduce herself as his sister and Avram didn’t say anything about that and they just assumed “Okay she’s his sister, let’s take her to Pharaoh.”

Jane calls out: They didn’t lie but they didn’t say anything

Saul: And they didn’t lie but they didn’t correct. And then the courtiers went to Pharaoh and were like, “Oh ya, there’s this girl she’s Avram’s sister.” So then Pharaoh assumed that Avram told them that Sarai was his sister.

Ziva: Love it! Stronger with textual evidence. I think–textual evidence  doesn’t have to be spelling it out for you. This is literature. This is Torah. There can be hints.

There is an interpretive activity that lies at the heart of “advanced” literary analysis as well as rabbinic hermeneutics. It focuses on the details in the text–the words, the syntax, sometimes even the individual letters–in order to make meaning. This privileging of the smallest units of analysis guides new criticism’s close reading and often directs the flow of a daf of Gemara, so that every letter, every seemingly superfluous word, every missing word, teaches us something.

For most of my career as a Jewish studies teacher, I held this type of interpretation up as the gold standard. The value of Saul’s interpretation would stand and fall on whether or not he could make a textual case for it. I wanted to teach this style of interpretation because I believed it prepared my student for both literary and religious text study.  When I was a high school Tanakh teacher, many of my students rose to the challenge and met my expectations. They made meaning out of extra vavs and repeated phrases. They juxtaposed subjects called by proper name and subjects called by pronouns. Some of my other students did not care for it and eventually found themselves utterly uninterested in the study of biblical texts. It was with these students in mind that I entered my doctoral program in curriculum and teacher education.

Five years (and one doctorate) later, I am back in the Tanakh classroom, this time in an elementary school. Immersed in the study of biblical texts with these younger students, I am noticing something I never experienced teaching high school. Continue reading

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