Learning about Learning

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

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The Blessing of Relationship

By Ziva R. Hassenfeld

My toddler and I were outside of our house, drawing on the sidewalk with chalk, as we often do while my husband puts our baby to sleep. Out of nowhere, after weeks of drawing tic-tac-toe boards and hopscotch courts, my daughter drew two circles, connected them with a line, and said, “Look, Mama! It’s a car!”Child's drawing of a car

In that moment, I experienced a new kind of parental joy.  My child, unprompted, had reproduced a key illustration of my most beloved scholar’s work, an idea which sits at the center of my research.

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Pedagogy of Partnership and the Power of Relationships

By Orit Kent and Allison Cook

What do we mean by teaching and learning? What do (we want) people (to) learn? And how do they learn both subject matter and values, ways of being in the world?  Orit Kent and Allison Cook, co-founders of Pedagogy of Partnership, look at how teaching and learning happens in relationships — particularly in the context of student relationships and Torah learning. They aim to expand our understanding of what education is through the process of relationship-centered learning.

Two boys studying textImagine the following day school scene:

Morah Rebecca: “OK guys, time to wrap up your discussions!”

Fourth-graders shouting: “No! We are having SUCH a good Torah discussion. Can we have a few more minutes? Pleeeeaaase?”

Morah Rebecca: “This is the third time I’ve tried to wrap up. It is wonderful the discussions you are having. I’m hearing some great theories on the possible meanings of the word ‘yifga’enu’ [He will strike us] and who exactly the ‘us’ can be referring to and also about Pharaoh’s possible motivations in these psukim [Torah verses]. I’m putting on a timer: two more minutes, and that is really it! We have to come together to do the wrap-up and then you have to go to gym.”

This scene happens often in this fourth-grade Jewish studies classroom. Amazingly, these fourth-graders do not want their Torah discussions to end — they will choose to miss parts of recess, lunch and gym so that they can have a few more minutes in class. They have been learning Torah through the Pedagogy of Partnership (PoP), a student-centered approach for developing specific attitudes and skills to learn in relationship with Torah and with peers.

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What Happens in Text Discussion

By Ziva R. Hassenfeld

In her recent piece on Mechon Hadar’s new Standards for Fluency in Jewish Text and Practice, Lisa Exler advocates for an approach that emphasizes student collaboration when studying Jewish texts in havruta. She suggests that the standards, alongside appropriate teaching techniques, “can transform classrooms and schools, empowering students to own their relationships to Jewish texts and to one another.” This is a powerful and compelling vision of successful Jewish text education, but even as Exler emphasizes the importance of collaboration, she ultimately treats the process of textual interpretation as an individual project. In her view, havruta is a sounding board one uses to clarify one’s own ideas.

But discussing texts with peers is not simply an opportunity to exchange interpretations, rather it is an opportunity to construct interpretations. Ideas about text come into being through talk, contingent on the dialogue that unfolds, and collectively constructed and reconstructed in the course of discussion (Aukerman, 2015).

I saw this in action in a second grade classroom I observed recently. Continue reading

When General Education Research Informs the Teaching of Sacred Text

By Rafi Cashman

We in the Jewish education community are really beginning to dive into general education research when it comes to teaching (and learning) sacred text. The Mandel Center’s recent two-day conference on developing independent readers of Tanach was a wonderful experience of how productive such a gathering can be—especially when conducted with a group of talented, thoughtful and committed educators. I entered the conference having spent the last three years with the Tanach PLC at my school trying to use the research on early literacy and reading complex texts to inform our teaching practices in the middle school. But our group felt as though we were doing this work alone, and encountering a larger body of research that we weren’t always sure how to apply. I left the conference with deeper knowledge, a series of new questions, a new community of practice, and new ways for thinking about the relationship between literacy research and the teaching of Tanach. Continue reading

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 multiple understandings. Yet when asked what understandings they prioritized in their teaching, almost everyone emphasized promoting an understanding of rabbinics as a model for reasoning and ethical decision making. Continue reading

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