Don’t Drive Into the River

Growing up in Riverdale, N.Y., I attended Salanter Akiba Riverdale Academy, known as SAR, a private Jewish modern Orthodox day school. The school is built on a hill overlooking the Hudson River, and, in a manner somewhat similar to step farming, is composed of various levels, on and between which there are no walls. I remember taking a test in eighth grade, and doing my best not to be distracted by the first graders learning the difference in pronunciation between the Hebrew letter vav with a dot on top (they all touched their heads and screamed – oh!) and the letter vav with a dot near its center (they grabbed their tummies and screeched – ooooh!). When my father drove carpool in the morning, and we began the descent down the big hill, the glistening river looming in the near distance, we’d yell – don’t drive into the river!

A lot has changed since the late 1970s, when SAR knocked down school walls, got rid of report cards in favor of anecdotals, and built a learning institution on a precarious hill at the edge of a great river. What do our structures look like now? And who is knocking down the walls? PEJE, the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education, is gearing up for its 2010 Assembly for Advancing the Jewish Day School Field. In a sense, it’s convening thought-leaders from across the spectrum of Jewish day schools to continue to try and ensure that, as a community, we don’t drive into the river.

UpStart Bay Area works with Jewish innovators within and beyond existing institutions to identify the greatest challenges facing our community today, and to imagine creative approaches to meeting them. Here, in my opinion, are some of the most important challenges facing the world of Jewish schools. We need innovative thinkers and actors to help identify the problems, and to imagine and act on creative solutions to address them.

  1. After-Hours
    Research done by Brigid Baron at Stanford University has shown that children spend only 18% of their time at school. That means that 82% is spent outside of school, many hours of which they are online or in front of screens. How can our Day Schools collaborate creatively with parents and others to create a wider-reaching learning environment for children, which extends not only beyond the school’s walls, but beyond its hours? How can existing communal structures, and new ones, work with schools to meet the learning needs of children outside of school?
  2. Competitive Edge
    What can our schools learn from the best innovative practices of other institutions? Jewish day schools need to think hard about their competitive edge. The New York Times magazine recently published its education issue, the cover article of which focused on a teacher at a New York City public school offering a “Sports for the Mind” class, in which students designed their own video games. The article notes that in this class, students receive grades like they do at the end of a game, like “novice” or “expert.” The kids also experience setbacks differently: “they play for five minutes and they lose … they play for ten minutes and they lose. They’ll go back and do it a hundred times. They’ll fail until they win … failure in an academic environment is depressing. Failure in a video game is … completely aspirational.” Do our schools have “Sports for the Mind” classes, or their equivalent? How are we motivating students to be excited about school, to keep school relevant and interesting? How are we challenging the notions of what a learning environment should be? Which of our day schools are held up as models for the rest of the country, and perhaps the world?
  3. Innovative Models
    We have tools at our disposal that are both ancient and innovative, like, for example, Hevruta learning, the Talmudic method of Torah study. Today’s educational research reveals that cooperative learning yields curious, engaged, knowledgeable students. How can we harness the unique tools at our disposal to create innovative, replicable learning methodologies?
  4. Purpose
    Finally, and perhaps most importantly, what is the purpose of a Jewish day school education? The indo-european root of the word “purpose” is pur, which means “fire.” Our schools need to think hard about the passionate goals and values that are their foundations. What are the lessons behind our lessons, the meta-lessons, that Jewish Day Schools, and no other learning environment, can provide our community’s children? And what is the relationship between those lasting values and passions? Is the goal of our schools’ secular educational component getting kids into a good college, and fostering a strong candidate for a competitive work force? Is the goal of our Jewish educational components fostering faith? Teaching practice? What else is at play? How do the two realms interact, and for what overall purpose? Can we create a Jewish community of highly aware, passionate, curious, creative individuals who share powerful common values, respect differences, and interact in a global environment with holiness and integrity?

This is a timely point in the Jewish calendar to be grappling with these issues. We are emerging from the cocoon of the New Year’s holiday cycle. We have been involved in deep personal introspection, and communal celebration. It’s time to get back out there, and get to work. Sukkah City recently sprung up across Union Square in Manhattan, with untraditional, wild structures, which challenge the way we think about what a Sukkah is. Let us be inspired to re-imagine our schools, to take risks in building learning environments that may, at first, seem to totter at the edge, but which, in the long run, will prevent us from ending up in the river.

Maya Bernstein is Director of Education and Leadership Initiatives at UpStart Bay Area, a San Francisco-based nonprofit whose mission is to advance early stage non-profits that offer innovative Jewish engagement opportunities.