One Size (Never) Fits All

by Nitzan Resnick, Ph.D.

Many tales have been told and retold since the days of Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov (1700-1760), and this one resonated with me from the time I was a child. It is a story about a boy who did not know how to read or write, who came to the temple on Yom Kippur accompanied by his father. Around him he saw men praying and crying and he longed to be part of the community too. Not knowing how to read he asked his father if he could play his little flute, but his father of course forbid him. In was evening and the time for Neilah prayer, and Rabbi Baal Shem Tov’s face was solemn. He felt that the doors of Tshuva are about to close upon him and his community and yet his prayers were not heard. All of a sudden, impatiently, the little boy took his flute and started to play. Everyone around him froze in horror, but the Baal Shem Tov turned around and his face was shining – “Finally”, he said “finally, we were saved and our prayers were heard. The boy is the Tzadik in the room”.

In recent years a painful debate struck many Jewish communities concerning the future of Jewish education in general and more specifically the future of Jewish Day schools. In the September 18th edition of the eJewish Philanthropy, Bill Zarch wrote a wonderful article on the communal financial responsibility that we face in order to sustain Jewish Day Schools.

As an educator and a co-head of a Jewish Day school I would like to suggest that we, Jewish educators, should not and can not wait for the community to solve our financial problems. Rather, we should take the responsibility in our hands, turning our schools to more meaningful and innovative institutions. How? you might ask, and my answer is, by recognizing that one size never never fits all.

In the tale, the Baal Shem Tov acted in a powerful way – not only did he acknowledge and embrace the fact that the boy was different than the rest of his community, but he celebrated and elevated it!

Our answer to the declining enrollment should not lie on financial support alone. We, as educators, need to be responsive to the call to initiate changes in the 21st century education system, especially in the Jewish education system, recognizing and celebrating the unique spark in each of our children, building upon it using Jewish values and taking advantage of the unique ways by which the traditional Jewish scholar learns.

In 2012 Rabbi David Paskin and I became the co-heads of a small Jewish Day school in Norwood, MA. The school underwent a major financial and educational crisis that was accompanied by reduced enrollment and decreased retention. Even before we came to be the co-heads of school, on a bus ride back home from our Israel trip, Rabbi David and I toyed with the idea of opening an innovative school where learning would be purely personalized, a school where teachers would not teach curriculum, rather, they would teach students. A year later, we are proud to say that our school, took major strides towards fulfilling this vision.

What is personalized learning? What does it look like in the classroom, and how, in particular, does it translate into a classroom in a Jewish Day school? Two pillars underpin the vision of personalized education:

  • First, students should never be guests in their classroom. They should own their learning and become equal partners in designing it.
  • Second, students should never drift. Their learning should be targeted towards achieving goals on a continuous and a spiraling path.

To enable students to become independent learners starting from a young age, they should be taught and acquire habits of mind (HOMs) or Midot. These are celebrated at Kehillah Schechter Academy by being introduced and repeated in each and every class; by making them visible on the walls, hallways, shelves and stairs; and by our teachers modeling habits of mind in their teaching and conduct.

Imagine a group of 5 and 6 year old children mixed together, stepping into the classroom, independently reaching to their cubbies and pulling their lesson flow chart, visualized in words for the readers and in pictures for the younger ones. Each child persistently works on his/her personalized steps in the flowchart and at the end of each step accurately and honestly comments on the chart on the quality of his/her work. Imagine a multi-age group of 5-7 year old students working on a task to determine if a worm is an insect; helping each other define, categorize, compare, contrast and analyze; building upon collaborative efforts and the strength, skills and knowledge of each student.

Each of these students (as well as our older students) is assigned goals that are cross curricular and relate to five school wide competencies – communication (reading/writing/speaking and listening), analytical reasoning (problem solving), quantitative reasoning (numeracy/value/measure/time), social reasoning (ethics/diversity) and personal reasoning (habits of mind or midot). The goals are collaboratively created and tracked by the teachers of each of our students as a team. Parents and students have a voice in the process of goal setting and tracking. Each student is assigned an advisor who coordinates the effort and advocates on behalf of the student.

Personalized education requires that the teaching and learning be collaborative and experiential bringing the learning to life in real-world experiences and challenges. Personalized learning is also best implemented when educational technology is used as a tool to individualize the teaching and the assessment.

In Pirkei Avot (4:1) it says: “Ben (the son of) Zoma said: Who is wise? He who learns from all people, as it is said: ‘From all those who taught me I gained understanding’ (Psalms 119:99)

It is therefore a must that, in our Jewish Day schools, the artificial separations between administration, parents and educational staff be eliminated. At KSA, our building manager is our engineering teacher, our administrative assistant is in charge of a few recess periods, and our receptionist is our habits of mind expert and the coordinator of our homework club. Our parents and alumni run professional clubs such as financial education, computation, media and health. Scientists, economists, artists, authors are also constant guests in the school. Last but not least, our students learn and collaborate not only within the walls of the school, often in multi-age groups, but also with students around the world – a school in Haifa [Israel], Jewish Day schools in Australia and in Argentina and others, while tracking scientific data on clouds, water, birds, and contributing to a global data source. This is why our students feel comfortable and confident when visiting scientific labs, museums and theaters, asking questions and contributing their ideas.

Collaboration is a pillar for our teachers too. Each weeks our schedules allow teams of learning communities to meet twice, in order to plan curriculum and discuss students and their progress towards achieving their goals. many of our teachers from lower to upper grades teach in teams, modeling collaboration and allowing students to integrate multiple subjects in their learning.

Technology is used as a dual tool – teaching independence and allowing students to progress based on individual competencies, learning style, pace and passion. If you step into our middle school science classes you will notice the minimal involvement of the teacher. At times, students will enter the class (or stay in the hallway) with their personal Chromebooks and work on learning flow charts that were designed via MentorMob. The charts take into consideration each student’s learning style (reading, videos, audio, hands-on), learning pace and individual passion, so similar concepts are introduced from different angles. At the completion of each step the students are assessed online and the data and its analysis stream to the teacher.

Sometimes students enter the classroom and in teams design and execute their own labs. When they run into difficulty they communicate with each other, their teacher or scientists or engineers in nearby academic institutes, that volunteered to serve as a support/resource center for our students. In such a setting the teacher is merely a window, allowing the students to try, experience and master the skills and the knowledge independently.

A similar scene happens in our Beit Midrash, where middle school students learn in Chavruta. Their learning (a mixture of online and printed) is based on habits of mind and midot that they need to master. These were chosen by the students, and the teachers craft the learning texts around these HOMs. In pairs they study texts until they show mastery of the texts and mastery of the HOM they chose to focus on. During the class while the students are learning, their co-teachers do just the same.

Is the above description the ultimate way to structure or restructure our Jewish Day schools? Of course not. Remember one size (never) fits all. However, it is our duty, the educators, and community leaders to revolutionize the system. This philosophy of personalized learning will allow almost every Jewish child, regardless of his/her “level”, needs, passion or pace, whoever desires to have a Jewish education to become a successful student. It is not enough for our graduates to be “menches” anymore. Rather, they need to be skillful, open minded, problem solvers; creative, bold and daring, while maintaining their Jewish values and Midot so they are ready to face their future successfully.

Nitzan Resnick PhD is Co-Head of Kehillah Schechter Academy in Norwood, Mass.