Learning about Learning

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

A Culture of Teacher Learning

Post-doc Tsafrir Goldberg

This guest post is by Shira Horowitz, a field instructor and longtime mentor in the DeLeT MAT program at Brandeis. She was for many years a kindergarten and first grade teacher at a Jewish day school. She leads the Teachers’ Summer Institute

Imagine a room full of teachers in the middle of July. They are teachers who chose to spend a week of their summers learning, working and developing curriculum to take back to their classrooms. They are willing and eager to share ideas, resources, critical feedback and supportive suggestions. This was the atmosphere at the recent DeLeT Teachers’ Summer institute, held at Brandeis each July.

This year, 14 teachers from six different schools attended. They came together with two purposes in mind: to work on individual curriculum projects or research questions; and seek support, collaboration and feedback from colleagues.

The excitement in the room was palpable as teachers entered our sunny workspace, far away from the distractions of their usual settings. Some came alone, others with a team. Some planned to create a new unit, while others wanted to revise curriculum they had taught before. Some came in with crates full of resources they wanted to wade through, while others came in search of new materials and ideas. What everyone shared was a thoughtful, open, intentional approach to teaching.

Throughout the week, participants brought questions, dilemmas, or challenges to the group’s “collaborative conferences.” Using structured protocols and acting as “critical friends and colleagues,” others in the group were able to ask questions and provide thoughtful feedback to the presenters. People gently pushed each other to consider new perspectives and different possibilities, while encouraging each other to continue excellent work. One of the interesting outcomes of having teachers from wide-ranging grade levels (K-8) and many different content areas (math, social studies, Judaics), was discovering issues of pedagogy that cut across our different settings.

During the week of the institute, teachers reviewed principles of Understanding by Design, by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, and thought about big ideas and essential questions. They created and revised assessments that would answer the question, “How will I know if my students have learned what I wanted them to learn?” They created, they documented, they revised. But most importantly, they thought deeply about their work and shared those thoughts with others. At the end of the week, one participant wrote: “I discovered so much about who I am as a teacher and who I strive to be… I am sure that I am, today, a much more focused, informed, and more passionate teacher than I was Monday morning.”

As the facilitator of this group, I was amazed by this group of teachers. Their willingness to come together as a new community and share challenges, ideas, connections, and questions made the week a productive one. Their openness to new ideas and dedication to learning and developing as teachers, whether they’d been teaching one year or twelve, was an inspiration to me. When I envision teachers immersed in a culture of learning, this is what it looks like.


  1. Sharon Feiman-Nemser

    August 13, 2012 at 12:42 pm

    I’m so glad that Shira wrote about the DeLeT Summer Institute which I also found quite inspiring. I especially valued the fact that there were teachers with a wide range of experience — from 3 to 10 or more years of teaching experience, all learning with and from one another. To date we have not charged for the summer institute. It is one of the ways that we continue to support and develop DeLeT alumni and build a professional learning community.
    When I described the institute to a funder, however, I got a different perspective. Why should such a high quality experience be free? Why not charge participants? I would be interested in hearing what others think about this? Should day school teachers have to pay for every advanced learning opportunity, even one provided by the institution which prepared them for teaching? Under what conditions should such opportunities be free of charge and when should teachers be expected to pay for their continued learning? I hope others will share their views.

  2. Jane Taubenfeld Cohen

    August 15, 2012 at 8:59 pm

    Shira, when ever you described this summer institute, I wanted to be there. I love the energy around ideas and development (and, of course, the collaboration).

  3. I was there, too, and yes, it was inspiring and energizing. The teachers in attendance engaged in the intellectual work that is at the heart of what teachers – plan for excellent teaching. I loved hearing the common language that we learned in our initial DeLeT fellowship year alive and well in the work of real teachers planning for real students.

    I also loved the ways that DeLeT alumni are still so closely connected to the DeLeT program, its philosophies and its people. By choosing to attend the Summer Institute, not only did these alumni refine their own practice, but their work will benefit more than just themselves and their students. Some alumni brought colleagues who had not graduated from the program along with them, and those teachers learned new protocols and models for curricular design. Others described how they would bring the work they did back to their teaching team or their administration when the school year started.

    Talk about return on investment! By providing a free week of focused work time and opportunities for critical collaboration, there is now a cadre of thoughtful, passionate teachers who are connected and empowered. They will go back to their schools with great lessons and a really great learning experience under their belts. Maybe they’ll share the process with others, keep in touch with their colleagues from the Institute for support and ideas, or even use the Summer Institute protocols as a model for curricular design in their own schools.

    I’d hate to see a fee be a barrier for such high quality learning that has the potential to make such an impact on the Jewish Day Schools that send their teachers. I hope the Mandel Center continues to offer this wonderful opportunity, and I hope the DeLeT Alumni Network can be even more involved in making it thrive!

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