Wednesday, August 21, 2013

RS Religious Identity: Some Elul Thoughts

As we approach the High Holidays, we want to contemplate the thoughts of various thinkers on why religion and the Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe) should matter to us. Here is Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks in his Introduction to The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning:

Science takes things apart to see how they work. Religion puts things together to see what they mean. Both are necessary, but they are very different. . . . Whole civilisations made mistakes because they could not keep these two apart and applied to one the logic of the other.

When you treat things as if they were people, the result is myth: light is from the sun god, rain from the sky god, natural disasters from the clash of deities, and so on. Science was born when people stopped telling stories about nature and instead observed it; when, in short, they relinquished myth.

When you treat people as if they were things, the result is dehumanization: people categorised by colour, class or creed and treated differently as a result. The religion of Abraham was born when people stopped seeing people as objects and began to see each individual as unique, sacrosanct, the image of God. 

One of the most difficult tasks of any civilisation -- of any individual life, for that matter -- is to keep the two [science and religion] separate, but integrated and in balance. . . .

. . . [N]eo-Darwinian biologists and evolutionary psychologists have focused on the self, the 'I.' 'I' is what passes my genes on to the next generation. 'I' is what engages in reciprocal altruism, the seemingly selfless behaviour that actually serves self-centred ends. The market is about the choosing 'I.' The liberal democratic state is about the voting 'I.' The economy is about the consuming 'I.' But 'I,' like Adam long ago, is lonely. 'I' is bad at relationships. In a world of 'I's, marriages do not last. Communities erode. Loyalty is devalued. Trust grows thin. God is ruled out completely. In a world of clamorous egos, there is no room for God. 

So the presence or absence of God makes an immense difference to our lives. (2-5)

Friday, August 16, 2013

Failing Fast and Forward

As the Sandbox participants know, I [Tikvah Wiener] hopped on a plane to Israel right after the Summer Sandbox. However, I didn't stop thinking about the wonderful three days of big dreaming, hard fun, and iterative prototyping we'd done together, and I also continued to think more deeply about the many rich and meaty discussions we'd had about education and the practices we wanted to keep or change in our classrooms.

One thing Penina, Akiva, and I spoke about right after the conference, as we were loading up my car with leftover M and M's and the Keurig machine that had been so popular, was that we hadn't had time to have participants write on the Fail Wall we'd created. We'd failed to share our Fail Wall.

Now the reason for that was we'd decided to mimic a real inquiry-based classroom at the Sandbox, and so when participants showed a desire to go deeper into a topic that we'd allotted a specific amount of time for, we quickly adjusted the conference schedule so we could allow a longer discussion to take place.

We weren't sorry about that decision, and it confirms for us the idea that failure shouldn't be seen as a negative and demoralizing word but rather one that reflects a process on a journey toward accomplishment and greater self-awareness. We've had discussions about this in JEDLAB, where we've debated whether the word failure needs to be replaced with something else or whether we -- as educators in particular -- should use it, in order to de-stigmatize it.

So one of the things I boarded the plane contemplating -- aside from what kind of dinner ELAL was going to serve (pasta and meatballs at 2 AM, if anyone needs to know) -- was failure. And that idea was with me in Israel as I . . . learned to surf for the first time.

In Haifa, about to fail spectacularly at surfing!

Now I know the big question is: how did a California girl manage to avoid a surfing lesson for 43 years, and I have no easy answer to that, I'm afraid, but I will say it was a lot of hard fun and a good lesson in failure. While my nine-year-old daughter, five nieces and nephews, stepbrother, and sister all managed to get up on the board at least once if not multiple times, my brother-in-law and I didn't get up. Not once. (At least my brother-in-law has the excuse of being English; I grew up in LA, swimming non-stop.) Our utter lack of success didn't stop us from trying repeatedly, however, with my brother-in-law commenting, "You know, it wouldn't be so hard if the water would just stop moving underneath the board."

I ended up swallowing about half the Mediterranean, getting whacked in the jaw by my or someone else's board (I still can't be sure whose), and getting tossed about the sea like a piece of flotsam. I can't remember when I've had so much fun. And I can't help thinking how glad I am not to have succeeded. Putting myself in the position of inexperienced learner was great: the surfing teachers were constantly coming over to help me, desperately trying to make me get up at least once before the hour was over. But though I really wanted to stand on that board, I didn't mind in the end that I hadn't.

I think it was more important for me as teacher and lifelong learner that I could be open to a new experience, work hard to master a new skill even though I didn't succeed at it, and feel what it was like to struggle as a student. In fact, I hope all teachers spent part time of the summer trying something new and feeling the insecurity of failing.

I also don't think all my surfing efforts were in vain. I know the next time I try the sport, I'll be further along in the process than I'd be if I'd never attempted it.

My thoughts on failure took another turn as I worked on two articles over the course of my Israel vacation. One, for The Jewish Week, was about RealSchool and the Sandbox and can be found here. The other was one I wrote with JEDLAB colleague Andrea Cheatham Kaspar for RAVSAK's journal, Hayidion. About getting started with PBL, it will appear around Rosh Hashana time. I'm an English teacher, so I'm usually the one suggesting edits and tearing apart student papers, but when I handed in the articles, it was me being told where I had "failed" to convey an idea properly. It was Julie Wiener at The Jewish Week, and Elliot Rabin at Hayidion, as well as Andrea, pushing me to clarify, refine, and hone my thoughts. And again, it was really good to be put in my students' shoes -- not only to taste what "failure" felt like but to have a chance to improve and so rethink what failure means in the first place.

I don't much care whether we think up a new term for failure or simply re-imagine it. I just think we have to be comfortable as educators with being in positions of vulnerability, not only so that we ourselves grow as people but also so that we can empathize with students about their growth as learners.

That was confirmed for me again once I returned from Israel and met with Frisch English department colleague and Sandbox participant Daniel Rosen. As we procrastinated, I mean, took a much-needed break from planning our sophomore PBL year, we scrolled down his Facebook page and found this, posted by another Frisch colleague, Rabbi Neil Fleischmann:

'Nuff said. 


It's not too late! We can still post our summer failures, and now even those who didn't attend the Sandbox can join us. Feel free to post your summer failures:

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Guest post by Peter Eckstein: Bringing the Sand Home: Reflections on the RealSchool Summer Sandbox

Three days of  hardfun and rewarding work. Three days of creation.  Three days of collaboration.  That’s how I’d describe the recently concluded RealSchool Summer Sandbox conference. As I wrote  here,   prior to travelling to this event in Teaneck, NJ I had no idea what to expect, or if  it would be worthwhile at all.  As I look back though,  I have to say that I got  a lot out of it.  It was a rewarding risk worth taking.
I was the only congregational educator in attendance.  The rest of the participants consisted of a  group of Jewish day school teachers and representatives of various national Jewish organizations.  This didn’t put me off, because I came with a specific agenda. I wanted to explore linkages between the world of Jewish day school and congregational education.  I also was looking forward to learning more about digital badges.  Most importantly however, I yearned for tachlis – for something real and concrete to come out of all of  this. I’ve had enough with theory. I wanted to bring something home with me.
When I arrived (late – the vagaries of air travel strike yet again!) I walked into the middle of a process that had begun that morning.  Participants were breaking into smaller cohorts, each of which focusing on a specific question, problem or project. Each group would explore an issue and ultimately create a learning experience that could be implemented in their specific environment.  What would be produced in The Sandbox was the first iteration. Everyone understood that the final product might very well look different. The idea, simply put, was to throw spaghetti at the wall and see what sticks.  I wandered around, observing this process and ran into Tzi Daum, (a fourth grade dayschool teacher, the founder of and in the twitterverse known as @torahskills). He and I’ve had had a cloud-based collegial collaboration for the past few years via twitter and Facebook.  This was the first time we had met on earth.  We sat down and began to talk.
Peter (left) and Tzvi Daum begin having "hard fun" at the Sandbox!
Tzvi and I shared two interests. One was exploring themes and questions that Jewish day  and congregational schools shared. We discovered a common challenge: Connecting what the kids learn in school with their home and family life. How do we get what the kids learn in school to be relevant to them, their parents and families at home? The other interest we shared was online and blended learning.  We both have worked with the Moodle learning management system, so we decided to create our project using it as one component of  our learning experience – an experiment in blended learning.
In the project we began to design, our students and their parents will be charged with determining how funds raised in a class tzedakah drive would be allocated.  The families have tasks that they need to fulfill together – both in class as well as online.  They will need to research causes and organizations and learn about the difference between tzedakah (righteous giving) and g’millut chassadim (acts of loving kindness). Most importantly, parents and kids will together reflect on this process of discovery and family education, submitting these thoughts in writing, via the moodle platform.  The culmination of this project consists of both digital and physical presentations, focusing on the family’s choice of who would receive the funds, and the reasons why. In the final assessment, one of the criteria will be the level and type of parental involvement. Tzvi and I are still working on this project – fine tuning the moodle-based lesson so that it would be appropriate for our specific learning environments. Our hope is to pilot it in the fall.
Peter and Tzvi doing "iterative prototyping," that is, planning out their PBL unit
My second goal – learning about digital badges – focused specifically on how they can be used as a tool in part time Jewish learning environments.  I first heard about this idea of cloud based reinforcement and  credentialing from Sarah Blattner  (founder and executive director of Tamritz and known on twitter as @tamritzlearning), who is doing amazing work integrating the use of digital badges in a number of Jewish day schools. I was excited to be able to learn more from Sarah, (albeit remotely – she skyped in her session). I had learned the theory back in May at Edjewcon, now I had the chance to learn more about the nuts and bolts.  From Sarah I learned what tools I would need as well as ideas  about how to  link the badge to a student’s e-portfolio – creating an added level of engagement in Jewish learning for the student AND his or her parents and family.  As a result of this experience, I have begun the process of applying the use of digital badges into my congregational school.
Peter and Tzvi present their work
I attended The Sandbox to experience a practical type of professional development that focused on practice. As I wrote before the conference,  I wanted to immerse myself in a climate of experimentation, hard work, and fun. I wanted the freedom to try something new, and to “see what happens”. But there was one more thing I was searching for: A professional development experience that I would like to try in my community, both in my congregation as well as with my colleagues from other institutions. If we truly are striving to transform part time Jewish education, then we need to also transform how we as learn, and how we teach. Playing in the sandbox might be the answer.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

"I'm Just Not Coin-Operated, Bob"

This summer, we're reading Tony Wagner's Creating Innovators, which is, of course, full of ideas we agree with. One of them is the notion that people get more satisfaction out of doing things when they're internally motivated to do so.

Wagner claims that the Millennials, as they're called, are actually motivated in different ways than those from previous generations, and he quotes Bob Compton, his collaborator on the videos for Creating Innovators, on this topic. Here is Compton, who is a high-tech venture capitalist and graduate of Harvard Business School, on working with today's twentysomethings:

Managing and motivating this cohort of young employees is almost overwhelmingly frustrating. All of the tools and techniques I learned at Harvard Business School, and all of my training and experience since, are ineffective at best. What's worse, traditional motivators -- stock options, commissions, bonus payments -- are often counterproductive with this generation. They take offense at being managed. As one of my young employees remarked when I offered stock and bonus payments as incentive for accelerating product development, "I'm just not coin-operated, Bob." Not "coin-operated"? Well, how are you "operated"? It is still baffling to me (page 19-20).

If this is true of twentysomethings, then we need to consider that traditional notions of grading in school are insufficient ways to motivate students. Grades are, after all, the carrot often dangled in front of students.

So how can we shift education so that it provides intrinsic motivation rather than extrinsic motivation for kids to succeed? Another point Wagner makes in his book is instructive here. He quotes Keith Miller, who works at 3M Corporation as manager of environmental initiatives and sustainability [RS Health and Environment is a fan of that position!]: 

Younger employees at the company want to have meaning in what they are doing. . . . It's a huge challenge for my generation. I came up through 3M when you had to put in your time before you got the good projects. You had to prove yourself. This generation comes in wanting to have an immediate impact. The challenge is to connect them with projects that have value and impact for the company (page 21).

What Compton and Miller are noticing in today's young work force is really inspiring and exciting, and it seems to us, something that should be deliberately cultivated in our schools. Our classrooms need to be places where students can find meaning, value, and purpose other than good grades. 

Additional Resources

Here is more information about people's desire to be intrinsically motivated:

On people's natural desire to have autonomy -- self-direction --, mastery, and purpose, take a look at Daniel Pink, author of Drive, in this RSA Animate talk:

Here's an engaging blog post from edutopia on unleashing student's intrinsic motivation.

Finally, here's Tony Wagner on Play, Passion and Purpose: