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The State of the Obvious Joel Grishaver

Tuesday, July 5, 2022 2:28 PM

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February 17, 2016

The State of the Obvious 

Joel Grishaver

koren_matovu_062909_380pxHebrew School is supposed to teach Hebrew. For a short period after the 6-Day war and in sporadic occurrences Hebrew Schools have tried “Modern Hebrew.” Now Hebrew has mainly meant “Prayerbook Hebrew.” The most recent, most successful, and currently popular of these modern Hebrew programs that came out of Cleveland (thank you, Nechama and Lifsa) is called Hebrew Through Movement and is pedagogically sound. However “Prayerbook Hebrew” is still granted the most favored nation status and there is a logic to this.

Once there was a battle between the Sunday school (the synagogue) and the Talmud Torah (community education). This war was ultimately played out between urban communities and the suburbs. Synagogue won the suburbs, the Conservative movement allowed driving on Shabbat, and non-demoniacal cross-communal education was driven out of business. Modern Hebrew (and hardcore Zionism) lost and the conjunction between Hebrew school and bar/bat mitzvah was established, leading synagogues to believe their own claim that Hebrew school really was to prepare for bar/bat mitzvah.

A lot has happened to that Hebrew School over time. Chuck Berry is retired, and the rest of the fifties, for the most part, are dead. Hebrew schools, as the survivors of the fifties, don’t remotely look the same. But “prayer-book Hebrew” has remained a major concern. While it is still called “Hebrew School” it is a sub-context of religious school or religion school and its Zionist connection has for the most part been dismissed along with most of the Israeli teachers who dedicated their lives to it.

For a long time, the major activity of Hebrew school was reading Hebrew aloud (fifth seat, fifth line…). The wisdom of this can be questioned, but it played to parent assumptions and clergy prejudice, and it seemed both organic and achievable. Today, as part of a former-student parent revolt that is amplified by the new zeitgeist, Hebrew schools are under attack and their future is uncertain.

Hebrew Schools represent a contract in which Jewish parents turn over their children in exchange for the synagogues providing a coming-of-mitzvah ceremony. The commitments have changed and this is certainly not a one-size-fits all partnership, but basically, the school gets extra time to work its influence into the student body while the child is entitled to one coming of age ritual. Yes, some money exchanges hands, too. Neither side either demands or promises Hebrew as an outcome. For the synagogue, the best part of the deal used to be pressured membership, and now is extra time for friendships and relationships to gel. The truth is, there are now way too many ways for kids to get “mitzvad” without the synagogue so what is being sold needs to be new. Just like in-marriage doesn’t work anymore at all, “mitzvah” isn’t a strong hand against two-of-a-kind.

This means that we are now conjuring a whole new kind of Hebrew school—if there is to be a more than a one-time-a-week commitment. There are a few trends out there, and “not attending” seems to be leading the pack.

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November 20, 2003

Jewish Classroom Management: A Good Offense (part two) 

by Joel Lurie Grishaver

(To read Part One of this series, click here.)

Last time we talk about “sever panim yafot,” greeting students with a cheerful countenance. We talked about how a simple greeting can set a tone for a relationship with each student. In this unit, we are going to talk about extending that sense of greeting throughout the lesson by focusing on Kavod ha-Talmid, the honor of each student.

A Prologue

Begin by reading this reflection by the Rav, Rabbi Yosef B. Soloveitchic.

Whether you are indebted to me as your teacher is a separate question. But I certainly am indebted to you as a teacher more than you are indebted to me as my students. Do you know why? Because a teacher always acquires more from his students than the students from the teacher. Our sages long ago declared: “I have learned much from my teachers, and from my colleagues more than from my teachers, but from my disciples more than from them all: [Ta’anit 7a]. Maimonides explained that just as “a small log can kindle a large one, the young student likewise enables the learned teacher to enhance his wisdom” [Hilkhot Talmud Torah 5:13].

…Quite often, when I prepare the shiur, I cannot find the right approach. I sit with the Gemara, but it is a difficult sugya [subject for study]… Sometimes, at night, I am completely in despair. When I come into the classroom and sit down with my students, I slowly begin to analyze the sugya. Suddenly a light goes on, like a light from some mysterious source, and I begin to understand why it was so difficult for me to prepare the shiur the night before. Somehow, my students always inspire me. Many of my shiurim are products of this consultation with my students…When I was young I used to compete with my students. The shiur used to be more of a symposium than a lecture. I let every student express his own understanding of the sugya. Many times I admitted in the classroom that the student was right and I was wrong. All this sharpened my mind and turned the study of Torah into a romance. (Related by the Rav in response to a presentation in his honor at the Yarhei Kallah, Boston, Mass., August 25, 1981.)

Honoring Students is a biblical mitzvah. Exodus 17.9 says: And Moses said to Joshua: “Choose for us men, and go to fight with Amalek” (Shmot 17:9). Rashi comments: “Choose for us,” that is, for me and for you; Moses treated Joshua as an equal. From here the Sages have said, “Let the honor of your student be held in esteem by you as your own honor” (Yorah Daiah 242:33).

Two stories make this clear: When Rabbi Akiva Eiger’s children were preparing his responsa for publication, Rabbi Eiger wrote to them: “Among the responsa, you will undoubtedly find many letters to those who have studied in my yeshiva. Please do not refer to them as my students, for I have never called anyone my student. How can I know who has learned more from whom?” (Introduction to Tshuvot Rav Akiva Eiger)

A teacher once came to the Hazon Ish and asked his advice about changing professions. S/he wanted to become a diamond polisher. “Aren’t you already a diamond polisher?” asked the Hazon Ish. (Biography of Hazon Ish, p.229)

Laws of Teacher Love

Here are some practical steps for showing respect for teachers.

1. If students do not understand, a teacher should not get angry—rather the teacher should repeat the lesson as many times as necessary until they understand. (Yad, Laws of Talmud Torah, 4:4, Yoreh De’ah 246:10,11)

2. A teacher can act angrily if their lack of learning comes from laziness. A teacher should be able to instill fear when necessary. (Ketubot 103b, Yad, Laws of Talmud Torah, 4:5, Yoreh De’ah 246: 11

3. A teacher must be interested in more than the subject matter. A teacher should also be interested in the student’s welfare. A teacher should help students with personal problems. (Shivti b’Bet ha-Shem pp. 16, 30.)

4. A teacher should be impartial. (Shabbat 10b, Shivti b’Bet ha-Shem p. 33.)

5. A teacher should admit his/her own mistakes. (Zevahim 101a, Shivti b’Bet ha-Shem p. 22.)

6. A teacher should not make promises or threats that will not be kept. (Sukkah 58b, Shivti b’Bet ha-Shem p. 35.

7. A teacher should not use sarcasm or ridicule. A teacher should discipline in a quiet, dignified, and positive manner. (Bava Metzia 58b, Shivti b’Bet ha-Shem p. 32.

8. A teacher must constantly learn (Rashi on Sh’mot 4:1-3)

So think about making your teaching a romance.

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Jewish Classroom Management: A Good Offense (part one) 

To be a little crass, classroom management has both offense and defense. Defense is when we are forced by a situation to create a response. The offense is the atmosphere and framework we set up in class to encourage participation and to set limits. Classical teacher wisdom states, “a teacher should start strict and then loosen up as the year goes on.” Jewish wisdom will teach,” start cheerfully.

A Case Study

This letter came to us via e-mail from a teacher who taught in a one-room schoolhouse with fourth to seventh graders in the same class.

The class was looking and acting tired so I had everyone pretend to go to sleep and then say the Shema, provided they wake up and sing Modeh Ani to get them moving. They were mostly excited and into it, but a few kids basically didn’t get up when the “alarm” rang. So 75% of the class was singing Modeh Ani, and the others were lying on the floor being difficult. The whole class was looking at me to see what I’d do about it. My instinct was to be hurt and angry that they had taken advantage of my flexibility in lesson planning, but then I tried to smile and ask someone to tap them gently. Eventually they got up but I ended up feeling embarrassed, like I had lost face.

I often bring this case into workshops and ask people to suggest what this first-year teacher should do. The single most popular answer is “chocolate.” Many teachers are into bribing the students who respond positively. The next most popular answers all have to do with other (non-food) modalities of positive reinforcement for the students who are behaving. When I got the letter I ask just one question, “Were the problems the twelve-year-old boys?” I got back a diatribe on all the things these boys and their families do to make this particular teacher’s life uncomfortable. I sent my diagnosis that I will share with you now. “Greet all students at the door as they come in every day.” This may seem over simple, but I will explain. The problem here is a relationship problem. Until she fixes the relationship issue with this group of students one incident after another will occur. But to explain how saying hello fixes things, let’s start with some Jewish thinking.

In Pirke Avot, 1.15 Shammai says: “Make of thy Torah study a fixed practice; say little and do much, and greet all people with a cheerful countenance.” We care about “the cheerful countenance part.

In Avot d’Rabbi Natan, a commentary on Pirke Avot we are taught, “And receive all people with a cheerful countenance” teaches that if one person gave another all the good gifts in the world with a downcast face, Torah credits it as though nothing was given. But if one greets another with a cheerful countenance, even though nothing is given, Torah credits it as though that person had given the other all the good gifts in the world. (Avot d’Rabbi Natan)

I once abused this insight while trying to teach it. I was giving a 200-teacher workshop and there were two who were constantly talking. I told everyone quietly over the wireless mike that I was going to demonstrate how this works. I then walked over to these teachers and screamed at them, “I think you are wonderful.” The words were a compliment but the tone was one of anger. The two stood up and yelled back at me. “They told me I had no right to speak to them like that.” “I asked if they had heard what I said,” they responded that “No one has the right to speak to a student in that tone of voice.” I had made my point but lost the war, and the two of them started to walk out. I spent the next twenty minutes apologizing to them while teaching the importance of teachers apologizing when they are wrong.

Here is a simple truth. Students read our tones. Students read our emotions. And that is the content they drink. Until this teacher can like some aspect of these kids, until they know that, she will have a hard time getting them to respond in any positive ways.

The tradition teaches these three responses to the question “Why greet people with a cheerful countenance?” [a] Let a person show a happy face to others so that they will be pleased with her. (Rabbi Jonah) [b] Even if your heart does not rejoice when another arrives, pretend to be cheerful; let the other thing that your face lights up with joy at his coming. (Meiri) [c] Shammai is here urging three things that are interconnected. They are about three human areas…wisdom, strength, and riches…. He tells us to greet people with a cheerful countenance because it helps you to be strong by mastering anger. We are taught “Who is mighty? One who subdues his/her evil impulse.”…A cheerful countenance is the opposite of arrogance and anger. (Shimon ben Zemah Duran) This last insight by Rabbi Shimon ben Zemah Duran, is the reason that classroom management begins at the classroom door. As each student arrives, the teacher needs to think of something they like or respect about each one. They then smile and greet in a sincere way. Classroom management begins by reminding us and our students that we like them. That is the beginning of a great offense.

All for One! The Wonder of Communal Art…

Friday, May 20, 2022 3:49 PM

Laurie BelletCollaborative, community art experiences are time-consuming, complicated, pressure laden, and exhausting. So, why do I love to undertake them?

It might be for the challenge, for the excitement of seeing the final piece come to successful completion, or for the joy I feel in watching the student's investment in the undertaking. Whatever the reason, it is something we do, in a big way, at Oakland Hebrew Day School each year, to celebrate Yom HaAtzma’ut. In fact, walking through the school corridors, you get a comprehensive view of school-wide, Israel education spanning the past 10 years. Typically, Yom HaAtzma’ut culminates in the completion of a dramatic art piece that resonates with the touch of every student’s hand.

To begin these large art adventures, I always start with the overarching lesson idea to be taught. This year, I focused on Israel’s national anthem, HaTikvah. Over the course of the past 67 years, many Jewish students have sung the soul-stirring lyrics of this song, yet few ever learn what the verses mean, beyond The Hope.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESI had only a vague idea of the art we would design when we began our study. After parsing the text, I asked my middle school students to select a few of the major themes (heart, soul, hope, gazing, land, Zion, and east), and submit an original sketch to me that would visually demonstrate their understanding of the song. I repeated this exercise in the form of a classroom discussions with students in grades K-5. Added to my own ideas, we had the basis for what would become 2 magnificent pieces of art.

At OHDS, my student artists learn about Israeli textile artist Bracha Brym Lavee, in the 3rd grade. Building on this knowledge and experience, artists in grades 4-8 worked on a giant (4ft by 6 ft approx.) textile interpretation of HaTikvah. Using the student sketches and ideas generated from the discussion, I sketched the basic design and accumulated the fabrics we would need. Because we sing the HaTikvah every morning with the raising of the flag, we utilized the flag as an underlying structural motif. To control the quality of the final product (necessary for installation art), I coded each part of the art (we worked on 13 canvasses, 16”x20” each) with the fabric which would ultimately, fill the space. To proactively ease the potential craziness associated with 4 groups of 14 students each (30 minutes per rotation), I put the necessary fabric in baggies and taped each to its associated canvas. (*Important note….I also previewed the activity with a few 5th and 8th-grade students to identify weaknesses in my plan. Even then, I missed a few necessary instructions!)

When each group of students came to work, we reviewed the learning together, and the students were able to see their contributions to the design. The basic process was quite simple. While some students cut the fabric into small rectangular mosaic pieces, other students brushed the canvas with a coat of Mod Podge. They laid the fabric pieces and covered them with another, even, coat of Mod Podge.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESDestined to hang on the eastern wall of our multi-use room, the completed art was spectacular! During the remainder of the day’s events, students asked if they could go into the Art Studio to see the final result. Their faces glowed with proud amazement at what they had accomplished together.

The younger (K-3) students also worked on smaller pieces that would become integral art pieces. Prior to Yom HaAtzma’ut, I previewed this art experience with my 3rd-grade students, again to discover any pitfalls I had not considered. I took note of the design ideas generated by these students (the oldest in their rotation cohort) Then, on Yom HaAtzma’ut, in each group of 18 students (grades K-3) we reviewed the lyrics of HaTikvah and studied a page of the picture prompts offered by the 3rd grade. Some of the images, such as the Hoopoe bird and the calanit flower (national symbols) are challenging to render. I copied outline drawings of these and some of the more difficult ideas and cut them out for the children in the event that they wanted to color these to glue onto their final piece. Then, working in pairs, on giant ((12”x12”) jigsaw puzzle pieces from, the children (18 children in each of the 30-minute rotations) rendered their visual imagery. Those who wanted to include some of the more difficult images embellished the prepared cutouts and glued them on the puzzle piece instead of drawing freehand. We used Crayola “color slicks” (a kind of compressed tempera) to ensure large and boldly colorful drawings. Working hevruta-style enhanced the exchange of ideas and interpretations while reinforcing the collaborative nature of the work. As the jigsaw pieces were completed, the young artists added them to the growing puzzle. The effect was magical. Prior to lunch, some of the first rotation artists came running in to see the final product. As students walked around the puzzle, commenting on the collective imagery, I felt the satisfaction of being present to authentic learning.

So, a quick recap. For a successful community art piece, you need a big idea that leads to compelling learning; an art plan that intrigues the students and that will lead to success; quality materials that will add to the learning and enhance the final product; comprehensive planning, preparation, and practice; stamina! Challenging day? Yes! Exhausting? Indeed! And it all was so worth it!

P.S. This morning, the day after, my 1st-grade students came in for class. I had the art5 piece done by the older students set out for all to see. Magically, as the 6 and 7-year-olds spontaneously linked their HaTikvah learning to the art created by the older students, they burst into song. You guessed it…HaTikvah!


Friday, May 20, 2022 3:46 PM

Overwhelmed: How to Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time

Vicky Kelman

Overwhelmed: How to Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time,
Brigid Schulte

Vicky KelmanIt’s pretty easy to describe the stressed, hurried, and always under pressure lives of today’s overwrought families. We recognize these people. We ARE those people! (As Walt Kelly, creator of the Pogo comic strip, wrote many years ago; “We have met the enemy and he is us.”)

It is a lot easier to describe the swamp Schulte calls “the overwhelm” (the “crazy jangle of modern life… that everything all at once feeling”) than it is to figure out how to help people find their way out.

In fact, I got a little overwhelmed just reading the book.

One of the dangers of “The overwhelm is that it keeps us from having the time to imagine a way out.” (p. 158) Reading the book will get you thinking about it (if you can manage the time to actually read it).

Overwhelmed is a very interesting book, chock full of statistics and interesting case studies chronicling the various ways in which parents (mostly mothers on whom much of the burden of the overwhelm falls) have struggled with the overwhelming and tried to extricate themselves from it. However, most of us will not find ourselves working for Patagonia or LL Bean or 3M or Google (which are among the forward-thinking companies about work-life balance) . Neither are we likely to find ourselves in a position like that of Michelle Flournoy who, when considered for the second job in the State Department, could actually say to her boss-to-be “I will work my ass off for you and do my best but I need flexibility.” (She needed to be home for bedtime.) If you are a CEO or COO, reading this book may provide some helpful ideas as to how things might be re-imagined to keep your employees helpful, happy, productive, and balanced.

If you would like to know more about how we/you / the culture we live in has reached this impasse, I highly recommend the book. The data and the vignettes are compelling. Expect to gain more understanding of the how-we-got-here but don’t expect so much help on the how-do-we-get-out-of-here side of things. Prepare to feel a bit overwhelmed as you read.

A few helpful insights from Schulte that most of us can manage as we strive for less stress and more breathing space:

About work:

  • “Choose ONE thing that’s most important to do every day.
  • Chunk your time. Multitasking makes you stupid. (“Dumber than getting stoned.” [p. 65] says a British study Schulte cites.)
  • “Technology spins the overwhelm faster. “ (p. 26) Set reasonable parameters. (p 282)

About love:

  • Park the helicopter. You don’t have to do everything on your own and better than anyone else…’Love your kids, keep them safe, and Accept them as they are. Then get out of their way.’” ( p 283)
  • Teach your children to count their blessings, and to be grateful.
  • Give your kids time and space to do nothing or just notice the shape of clouds..” (p 284)

About play:

  • Understand that for women, there never has been a history or culture of leisure or play, unless you consider sweeping, making cheese, churning butter, quilting, and knitting your kind of fun. It will take effort and strain to allow yourself time to play
  • Remind yourself that play is useful
  • Shorten your time horizon. What if we really did live like we’re dying? (pp 285-6)

Once upon a time, the following conversation took place at a professional development workshop for teachers at a synagogue in Salt Lake City:

Participant: The Mormons are SO lucky.

Facilitator: why?

P: They have “family home evening” every week.

F: We do, too.

P: We do???

F: We have Family Home Day.

P: we do???

F: We call it Shabbat.

P: OH!

As Jews, we already hold the antidote to the overwhelm.

Shabbat provides wrap-around healing for the overwhelmed. Add some Shabbat to your life. Or add to your current practice. I don’t refer only to the rituals ( the lighting candles, eating challah, going to shul part [although I highly recommend that as well.]) When the sun sets on Friday evening, power everything down (phones, computers, TVs) and leave it all down, for as long as you can bear it when you are starting out (and then see how long you can go without as the weeks go by). Play checkers or chess or Settlers of Catan . Take a walk around the block. Invite friends over for ice-cream sundaes. Think of this as following Schulte’s admonition to play, to breathe, to do one thing at a time and to spend some time doing nothing.

Say berakhot: this is the Jewish system for teaching gratitude. Seen a rainbow? Smelled some fragrant grass? Eaten a slice of bread? Jewishly speaking all of these are occasions for gratitude. Practicing the berakha system enables us to become aware of the many gifts that surround us. The new field of “happiness” studies has documented the positive impact that keeping a gratitude journal (writing down 3 instances each evening or even each week) can have on a person’s level of contentment. If we do it with our children, we are all learning to be grateful and focused on the riches we can enjoy together in the current moment.

Ben Hunnicutt, one of the ‘leisure researchers’ that Schulte consulted with said, “Leisure is being open to the marvel of the present. The Greeks called leisure scole. Like school they considered it a time for learning and cultivating oneself and one’s passions.” ( p 51)

Try it, says Schulte. You and the others you share your life with might just like it!

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