It All Began With a Movie

by Nancy Seifert Gorod

“Educate the youth according to his way; even when he grows old, he will not stray from it” (Mishle 22:6) Wisdom from our Book of Proverbs provides simple instruction as to how to best create and implement a Supplementary school learning experience for our children. B’nai Torah Congregation in Boca Raton, Florida has accomplished just that.

The impetus for the change in curriculum was the screening of the documentary “Race To Nowhere” for the parents at B’nai Torah. The film had a profound impact on both Cathy Berkowitz, Director of Education and Rabbi David Steinhardt. The documentary, directed by Vicki Abeles, shed light on our culture of testing and learning and the resulting stress on our children. Their thought was “Why should Hebrew school add to the burn-out, the stress, and the anxiety that children’s regular schools were purporting to create in their lives?”

Thus began the initial conversations and brainstorming that took place amongst key lay leaders and staff to create a new model of differentiated learning. The program has entered into its second year of implementation, and is gaining national recognition and praise.

Differentiated learning is defined as the right of each pupil to be taught in a way specifically tailored to his or her individual learning needs. Each learner comes to school with a different set of learning needs, examples of which include differing educational and social proficiencies and varying degrees of academic skill development. The new differentiated Hebrew program at B’nai Torah is based on this model of learning.

During its first year, the Mirochnick Religious School’s Hebrew program transitioned from a one day per week school, where all the students enrolled in the 2nd through 5th grade attended at the same on the same day, to a four day per week program allowing parents to select their preferred day and time slot. An early and late time slot was offered on each of the four days allowing for the greatest flexibility. Parents select one of the eight offered time slots and in so doing customize a schedule that meets their individual needs. The teacher to student ratio is 1:6. Teachers are assigned specific students to document progress towards goals. The groups are based on skill level, not grade level.

In practice, students arrive at their selected time and pull their personalized portfolio which has been previously reviewed by a master teacher. The portfolio contains individual work assigned for that student. Once the individual work is completed, a master teacher will meet with the student and direct them to one of the five learning centers, i.e. board games, manipulative center, individual games, dictionary center and audio center, to reinforce and enhance the learning experience. Each learning center has activities geared toward the different lessons. In addition, since the levels are geared toward the educational needs of each student, the age of the student does not factor into student progression and students of varying ages might be working together at the same center.

The program allows for 20 levels of Hebrew! At the beginning of each new level, students receive an instructional contract which outlines what must be accomplished in order to progress to the next level. Assessment of each student is conducted by the director or designee before a student is permitted to advance. As each level is completed, a certificate with the goals of the level is sent to the parent. Parents are notified if a child is not progressing the way he/she needs to, and provide suggestions for accelerating achievement of agreed-to goals.

A Snapshot

Walk into the Mirochnick Religious School at B’nai Torah Congregation on any given day, and you will be in a large room with about six tables, each with a teacher and a group of students engaged in reading, sounding out, chanting or writing. Not quiet decorum, but loud, engaged learners, practicing reading with either a peer or a teacher. There is an informal atmosphere to the school; with students feeling comfortable getting up to move if they are kinesthetic learners, or singing, if they are more auditory in practice. There are some students who are on the floor involved in any one of numerous learning activities that integrate the lesson they are currently working on. There are secular board games where before a turn; each player must read the prayer or the line on their page. There are also Hebrew word games where a student must unscramble the words of a prayer. All the words are laid out on the floor and the student must put them in the correct order.

Flexibility, differentiation, and smaller teacher student ratios are goals that many schools strive for. Through this new model, each of these goals has been met.

At the beginning of the year, families were able to choose which of the 10 time slots would best fit the rhythm and schedule of their family. Suddenly, mid-week Hebrew school is not all or nothing if you have a conflict or are sick, it became a relief for parents as they learned there is a choice. And if there would happen to be an occasional conflict with an assigned day, making a change on an occasional basis is never an issue, as long as there is space. This aspect alone has changed the tenor and atmosphere of the school to a more relaxed, less stressful one. One parent was quoted as saying “there is no excuse not to come now”.

Where there is less stress, there is less anxiety. The children arrive at school ready and willing to get to work. The work is self-paced. Each student is responsible for his or her own portfolio. The relaxed entry and the self-directed learning is a welcome transition from their intense, fast-paced, fully packed day at their respective schools where they are “racing to nowhere.” The environment creates a desire to perform.

The differentiated learning is an enormous benefit of the new model. The program allows for better matching of students and teachers. In a typical Hebrew school classroom, students are grouped to grade level, which inevitably creates a large curve of learning in a classroom.

There have been a few unintended positive outcomes as a result of the new model. The synagogue is saving money in maintenance costs because the changeover is not labor intensive. In the old model, each classroom had to be quickly changed over between preschool and afternoon religious school which created stress and sometimes shoddy work due to time constraints. With the new program, only one room (and two on Tuesdays) has to be set up with large tables and a computer station. This allows for more time for maintaining the building.

A second unintended positive outcome is professional development for teachers. Novice teachers get “round-the-clock” professional development from the veteran teachers. Because of the culture of the school, and the way Cathy has grown her staff, the novice teachers feel comfortable watching a master teacher show a method or strategy by using that method or strategy on a student while the novice looks on. This model creates more opportunities for teacher growth as they are continually observing other teachers, because they are in the same space.

As the primary consumers of this new product, the students at the Mirochnick Religious School are satisfied customers. A common refrain from parents and teachers alike is about the attitude of the children. Right from carpool, there is a burst of energy that, according to most people, had not been there before. They come out of their cars, enter into the room, and direct themselves to where they need to be. Routine was established early on. The amount of structure and informality is a healthy combination.

To add to the voices in the conversation that have appeared frequently on the pages of this publication about which model is best – formal or informal – the program at B’nai Torah Congregation has a winning combination of both. This program and its implementation illustrate that the supplementary Hebrew school is alive and kicking, and in fact is producing enthusiastic and motivated learners.

Nancy Seifert Gorod, MA, CJE is the founder of YourJewishLife, which provides customized learning and resources for individuals and families as well as support, consulting, and program creation for educational organizations and institutions.