Prioritizing Learning

[This article is the seventh in Advancing Jewish Leadership: A Series on Jewish Context and Professional Practices. Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership is currently marking its 90th anniversary with the launch of the Center for Jewish Leadership. In this series, faculty, mentors, graduates, and staff of Spertus Institute’s graduate degree, certificate, and professional programs share valuable insights relevant to all those working for and with Jewish organizations.]

By Karin Klein

A master’s degree in Jewish Professional Studies from Spertus Institute includes a great deal of coursework in Jewish history and current Jewish culture, as well as instruction in leadership, organizational management, and philosophy. As a middle school science teacher at Solomon Schechter Day School, it may not be obvious why these topics would enhance my day-to-day professional work. However, I have found my new knowledge to be invaluable in making me a better teacher.

Teachers have a nearly impossible job. A wide variety of students with an array of different learning styles show up in our classrooms. We are tasked most broadly with preparing all these young people to lead successful lives in the future – even though the skills and knowledge they will need are changing rapidly and are hard to predict more than a few years ahead. In this dynamic environment, teachers make hundreds of decisions an hour as we work in the classroom. To be effective as a middle school science teacher, I prepare lessons carefully. But I must always be ready to shift focus, reassess needs, and grab a teachable moment whenever it presents itself. Because time in the classroom is necessarily limited, and there is much to teach, this often means focusing on one concept, skill, or idea at the expense of others.

I must decide minute by minute what to prioritize. In science, this has always been a fairly straightforward task for me. My background, with a PhD in molecular biology, gives me a broad and deep understanding of overarching science concepts in many areas. I know what the critical building blocks are. I am familiar with the central concepts that underlie the study of science.

However, I am not only a science educator. I am a Jewish educator. I teach in a Jewish day school in suburban Chicagoland. In addition to teaching science, I am tasked with preparing the students in my classroom to lead successful Jewish lives in their future. So how do I prioritize what they need to understand in order to be successful Jewish adults? My studies of Jewish history and culture have allowed me to contextualize the current lives of my students and, hopefully, envision their future needs as Jews in the wider world.

It is possible to teach students science content directly from a textbook. They can learn the facts they need to know very efficiently. It is tempting to create neat, easy lessons in that way. But a Jewish life is a complex one – enhanced by an ability to negotiate the significance of many different ideas and values. If I guide my students’ learning, by insisting that they learn science facts analytically rather than by rote – by comparing their ideas with each other, by listening to others’ opinions, by asking thoughtful questions, by consulting sources and arguing respectfully for what they think makes sense – they will learn their science facts. It will take a little longer. But they will also learn how to weigh options and examine others’ opinions critically. They will learn to disagree respectfully. They will learn to navigate complex ideas.

When we study evolution in 8th grade biology, a student inevitably asks how it is possible to believe in evolution and still believe in the Torah. Rather than dismissing the question as not having anything to do with science, I know that this is a place to stop and wrestle with the contradictions. Science and religion need not be in conflict. Rather they can be understood as teaching us different ways of comprehending and interpreting our environment and experiences. As modern American Jews, both science and religion will play a significant role in their understanding of the world. Taking the time to learn something about how to balance these ideas and see the value in both viewpoints is important to my students’ future. A discussion of the meaning of B’reishit does belong in a day school science classroom.

Understanding the significance of these activities and conversations for a rich Jewish life allows me to prioritize them appropriately and integrate what matters into what I do in the classroom. It helps me get closer to the goal of educating our students to their highest potential as both Jews and Americans. It empowers them to enrich our world; which will soon be their world. It makes me a better teacher.

Dr. Karin Klein is a science teacher at Solomon Schechter Day School of Metropolitan Chicago. She holds a PhD from Northwestern University in the field of molecular biology and human genetics and a Master of Arts in Jewish Professional Studies from Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership.

Previous articles in this series include:

Series Introduction: Insights from the Field and the Classroom by Dr. Dean P. Bell
The Building Blocks of Jewish Education by Dr. Barry Chazan
Timeless Lessons of Mentoring by Ellen Spira Hattenbach
Why is this Degree Different? by Aaron B. Cohen
The Important Role of Newcomers to Jewish Communal Service by Brian Zimmerman
Professional Education Can Be a Game-Changer for Your Community by Michael B. Soberman