Spending Wisely in Difficult Times

We’re hearing from a lot of schools that the difficult economic situation is having a profound impact on Jewish education. Synagogues are being forced to slash budgets, staff are taking pay cuts, and jobs hang in the balance.

With all these challenges, choosing books and curricular materials can be an especially daunting job. How can you make a shrinking amount of money go even further? Where can we “trim” without sacrificing the excellence in education that students and their families have come to expect? How can you drain a bit of the metaphorical bathwater without losing the baby?

We want to help you think about the choices you are going to have to make. We know you’re probably going to have to make cuts, but we want to help you keep the baby. Here are some thoughts.

Curricular materials are worth buying when:

1. They are books of texts. Ask yourself, “Are there words in these books (not just information) that are worth knowing?” Texts have a special role in the process of Jewish learning. We are a people of “quotations.” We learn not only with words, but we learn words. Text study invites a process of interpretation. To make sense of a text, a learner must choose its meaning. The process of studying texts is a process of deciding what they mean to the individual learner. In working with them, learners come to affirm what they believe is Jewish—and to draw the limits of what they believe is not Jewish, or not their Judaism. Text study is a process of saying “yes” and “no.” Text study is a process of identity formation.

Texts are conversations. They are chances to state, “To me this text means x,” while another student gets to say, “To me the text says y.” In bouncing meanings off of each other, students get to clarify their own understandings while building connection to those involved in the dialogue. Dialogue over texts builds community. People share intimacies. They feel closer. Talking together leads to more talking together. The end result of good conversation, conversations about meaning, is a sense of community. Texts create shared experiences.

Texts bring the past into the future. They are valuable relics of the past that we can carry forward. But unlike a Bronze-Age pot, texts also have a future. They teach us not only about their original context, the time and place where they were created but they also help us build the future. Texts’ meanings continue to evolve as we develop. A text doesn’t only have one meaning. Texts are stronger than memories because texts continue to offer a chance to choose and apply understandings. Texts are truths that travel and grow with us, and give us a chance to root an evolving Judaism in our ancient tradition.

Simply put, textbooks are worth buying when they are books of good texts.

2. They are filled with experiences. There are experiences and there is busy work. The key question is not if a book offers “seat work” that keeps kids busy. The question is not how much drill and practice a book offers. (And that is not saying that drill and practice isn’t valuable but drilling is one of the things you can do without textbooks.)

The core question needs to be: What kind of interactive and memorable learning does a book facilitate?

If a textbook involves reading and writing, that’s not enough. Either one of those alone is certainly not enough. But, if a book facilitates small group work, if it demands inquiry, if it leads to debates or theater or art or original discoveries, if its product is active learning… then it is worth having. Then you need it.

You have to ask yourself a few questions. Without these materials, would a classroom look different? Would it be difficult for a teacher to invent a memorable classroom without curricular resources? Would it be difficult for students to make authentic Jewish meaning for themselves without a textual foundation?

A good textbook should provide the resources for a classroom adventure. Textbooks are not for reading aloud. They are not to be lectured about. They are not a resource for word puzzles and self-evident questions, or a replacement for information that is easily found elsewhere. If a textbook is going to be worthwhile, it needs to facilitate great (not just adequate) learning moments. If your textbooks don’t do this, don’t buy them again next year.

3. They grow a teacher’s skills and abilities. It there is nothing that brings new insights to the table — if a textbook doesn’t enable a teacher to explore new kinds of activities and expand their teaching vocabulary — then save your money. A good textbook brings resources to the class that teachers would not or could not find on their own. It involves teachers in creating classroom moments that they would or could not create on their own. After using a book, a teacher should grow in their understanding of the content, expand in their relationship to the material, and move into classroom tools that are new for them. Good curricular materials are not about repetition. Rather, they should be vehicles for innovation. They should challenge both students and teachers and allow both to soar.

Research has shown that new teachers do better with the traditional combination of textbook, workbook, and teacher’s guides. The researchers suggest that it is the structure that provides success. Rather than worrying about what to do, the teacher can focus on how to do. For new teachers, books offer a path to success that is a helping tool. That would be a good enough reason to purchase a textbook for a new teacher. But the right book provides the foundation that lets a teacher improvise and improve. Rather than defining textbooks as millstones, think of them as stages on which teachers can perform.

4. They are necessary for effectively teaching Hebrew and Prayer. Language work is different. While oral-aural Hebrew can be taught somewhat successfully with limited print material, visual learners need resources that enable their success. But the core issue that needs to be addressed is whether there is real benefit to the Hebrew-Prayer materials you are using. The question that you must start with: “What do your students learn that they wouldn’t learn from just using the siddur itself?” A good Hebrew primer enables success that lasts. Think about how many of your students retain their mastery of the alef-bet. When it comes to the siddur, think about what your students learn. If they are just mastering the performance of the prayers, save your money and use the siddur. A good siddur curriculum should go into the meaning and kavanah (spiritual purpose) of the prayers, enable an understanding of the placement and sequence of each prayer in the siddur, and should grow students’ ability to understand the Hebrew of the siddur through mastering and applying language structures.

You’ll notice that lots of Hebrew-Prayer materials are quietly getting more expensive. Make sure that you are getting true cost-benefit from your Hebrew-Prayer resources. Are your students learning twice as much? Are more of them coming to services? Are your teachers inspired to make their classrooms interesting places? If you don’t have three “yes” responses, consider switching your curriculum.

The bottom line:

Even though we are interested in selling you books, we’re interested in you spending your budget wisely. School educators and principals tell us that they are first-and-foremost interested in two outcomes: happy kids and happy parents. Until those two are satisfied, you can’t get to the real work of ensuring a Jewish future. You need resources that excite students in class and that get the most out of your teachers.

For a book to be worth the money, it has to come off the page. It has to become conversation (not just short answers). It has to be meaningful (not just entertaining) to students and parents, because novelty doesn’t last long. A book should make a connection with eternity, with learning that is not only for the moment, but will last a lifetime.

We believe that Torah Aura Productions offers affordable excellence. Call us. We’ll be more than happy to help you make choices within your budgetary limitations. We are committed to work with you and to help you succeed.