The Margolin Hebrew Academy’s Curriculum 21 Initiative: Reflections from the Side of the Road
[eJP note: This article is part of a series focusing on new ideas emerging from the day school field with relevance for Jewish professionals in Jewish education and beyond. The post contributes to the conversation on the topic of 21st Century Education.]
by Rabbi Dr. Gil S. Perl
The odyssey now known to our parents and faculty as our C21 Initiative began almost four years ago. Like most journeys of this kind, the path from where we started to where we stand today was far from a straight one and it was in the dips and the bumps, the wrong turns and the unforeseen curves, that the most institutional learning happened. And while we are still quite some distance from our destination, and probably will be for some time, we’ve learned enough from our progress to date to step to the side of the road for a moment in order to share some insights and suggestions with other schools that may be embarking on similar journeys of their own.
This story is not about the efforts of any individual. What we’ve done, we’ve done as a team. It’s critical to note, though, that the team is far leaner than some might imagine. Today our educational leadership team consists of an Early Childhood Director (Mrs. Charna Schubert), a Lower School Principal (Mrs. Sandy Gersten), an Upper School Principal (Rabbi Uriel Lubetski), an Assistant Principal for Student Support and Professional Development (Mrs. Melissa Perl), and me. We have no curriculum coordinators, no 21st Century Learning specialists, and until this year, we did not even have an educational technologist on staff. What we do have is a talented and dedicated faculty who have become learning partners with our admin team as we brave what are completely new waters for us all.
This was our point of departure. Five years ago our school was woefully behind in technology integration so we sought out donors who had an interest in helping us in that domain. Once a donor was located and secured, the question became how best to spend the limited dollars we now had at our disposal. It was in investigating this question that we discovered our first mistake. We were asking questions about hardware and gadgetry when we should have been asking about education and learning. A fortuitous trip to Jacksonville, Florida led to a meeting with my (now) friend and colleague Jon Mitzmacher. He was kind enough to introduce me to Sylvia Tolesano who, in turn, shook my world by suggesting I read “Curriculum 21“by Heidi Hayes Jacobs. That was our school’s gateway into the global conversation about 21st Century Skills.
21st Century Skills
Though already a bit anachronistic in 2013, this remains one of the great buzzwords in education today. Our leadership team learned fast, though, that until we defined exactly what we meant by the term “21st century skills”, we couldn’t honestly hope to integrate them into our curricula. Following in the footsteps of Daniel Pink, Tony Wagner, and a host of others, in its most rudimentary form, 21st Century Skills for us meant the skills which our students are going to need to succeed in the world they are headed for, rather than world we are coming from. At first, we seized upon the phrase used by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills’ “The 4 C’s”: Communication, Collaboration, Creativity, and Critical Thinking. While that was easy to remember and began to give meaning to the erstwhile amorphous term – meaning that didn’t include sitting kids in front of computer screens and subjecting them to the same frontal lectures and rote memorization we had been doing for a century in person – it wasn’t enough. It wasn’t enough because each of the 4 C’s meant something slightly different to everyone; because it was too easy to look at those four words and say “yeah, I do that” without seriously reflecting on our own practice; and because when it came to the realm of Judaic Studies, while the 4 C’s certainly had a place, they didn’t begin to scratch the surface of the skill set we felt our students would need to successfully navigate the particular challenges which 21st century realities would pose to them as practicing and committed Jews. Therefore we eventually turned to two different resources. For our General Studies faculty we looked at NAIS’s “A Guide to Becoming A School of the Future” and to ISTE’s NETS Standards. For our Judaic Studies teachers we looked inward and asked ourselves what we believed to be necessary for our kids to live successful religious lives in the world they are headed for. The result, after three years of conversation – frustration – and study, was the adoption this past winter of our MHA / FYOS C21 Standards. What lies ahead is to map our current curricula to these standards so that we can see which of them we are meeting and where we are falling short.
Perhaps the most important lesson we took from Heidi Hayes Jacob’s work was that real, systemic, and lasting change has to happen on the level of curriculum, not with individual classes or particular teachers. That made sense to us. To really become a 21st Century school we needed to look at our current curricula and decide what stays, what goes, and what needs to be added in order to be properly preparing our kids for their future. There was one slight problem, however: we didn’t really have a curriculum. To parents that sounds shocking. To educators outside the public school world, though, it probably doesn’t. Of course we had “programs” we were using – a math program, a reading program, a science program, a Hebrew Program, a Chumash program, etc. – and of course in our High Schools we had an articulated course of study and textbooks which went along with it, but that’s not the same as a document which precisely outlined the content and skills we were teaching in all classes at all times. And so we faced the rather daunting realization that if we wanted a 21st Century Curriculum we were going to have start with a curriculum. Period.
As a relatively small school with a small budget, we couldn’t afford to purchase brand name curriculum mapping software in which to conduct this massive project. We also didn’t have a curriculum coordinator (or two or three) to do the heavy lifting of entering each class’s material into some master document. So, instead, we went with more of a home-made remedy. We created a wikispace (in hindsight, a similar type of site better suited for inputting and organizing large amounts of information would have served us better than wikispaces.com) with a separate page for every class we teach and a table with columns labeled: Unit, Duration, Essential Questions, Content / Concepts, Skills, Texts, Supporting / Supplementary Materials, Assessment, and Standards. We then had the unenvious task of letting our faculty know that we were going to have to fill it all in (though we initially used the same set of columns for our Early Childhood classes, we later determined it was a mistake and created a completely different, more thematic-based structure for their curriculum maps). This is tedious and tiresome work. It takes a long time and it’s not much fun. We learned along the way, though, that if we want to make real progress on it we have to create school time for teachers to work on it and not expect them to do it at home. So we carved out portions of in-service days for “wiki work” and we even got subs for teachers for a few hours so that they could work on it for a stretch of time instead of teaching their regular class. We created the site on December 2, 2010. Today it is roughly 80-85% complete.
Foundational as this work is, I think it was critical that we didn’t wait for it to be completed before we started experimenting with real-world classroom strategies for bringing these skills to life. The tedium and theoretical nature of curriculum mapping could have – and nearly did – quash any and all faculty enthusiasm for the project. On the other hand, nothing gets teachers more energized than learning a new classroom technique or pedagogical approach, implementing it, and watching it work.
That brings me to the last, most critical, and most difficult element to date of this journey: getting the faculty on board. Let’s start by stating the obvious: your faculty is your school. You can have a run-down facility with no technology, no curricula, and no extra-curriculars but with a great group of teachers and you’ll have a very good school. So what does a great 21st Century teacher look like? First of all, we learned that it’s not necessarily the teacher who tweets the pics uploaded to her Instagram account from her iPhone and remixes 3D animation with Khan Academy videos and soundtracks ripped from YouTube, then Snapchats herself doing it. It’s the teacher – whether new to the profession or seasoned veteran – who recognizes that the world is changing and that teachers ought to be on the forefront of understanding that change. It’s the teacher who has a burning desire to learn more and do more, while being open to reflection and redirection. It’s the teacher who encourages his students to take intellectual and emotional risks and models such by extending himself beyond his own comfort zone. It’s the educator who embraces the idea that her job is not to teach, but to help students learn.
Those are the prerequisites. Even if every faculty member had them all, however, there still is so much to learn. And managing that learning process, as a leadership team new to this world ourselves and only one step – at most – ahead, yielded yet another set of lessons we learned the hard way. Here are some of the takeaways, of which we have perfected none, but which we at least now recognize are vitally important to this process:
- When teachers are learning, they are students. And, like all students, if they are going to learn effectively, the instruction must be differentiated. In our case, differentiating for teachers who taught different age-groups and who came into the sessions with different levels of readiness were the two areas that proved most crucial.
- Ride the early adopters. Publicly celebrate their successes and encourage them to share with their peers.
- Tell teachers that to try something new and fail is not just OK, but good. And then show them that you mean it.
- Know the difference between overwhelming and really overwhelming. To be overwhelmed by the prospects of all that there is to know and to learn is part of the new normal. Teachers will feel it the minute the school embarks upon a serious program of professional growth. But at the same time, to prevent that feeling from becoming paralyzing requires triage and the decision, at times, that vital as some topic or approach may be we’re not going to go there because our faculty already has more on their plate than they can handle.
After cynicism and fear of change, the next biggest hurdle in school change is time. Many teachers will genuinely want to learn, explore, and experiment if only they could find the time to do so. And if this is a challenge in schools everywhere, in a dual curriculum school it is all the more so. The only answer is to create more time. While we can’t add hours to the day, we can add in-service days to our calendar (even at the short-term expense of instruction), we can find ways of relegating administrivia to email so that meeting times can be spent becoming better at our craft, and we can find ways to better utilize the summer (through assigned reading, conferences, or paid collaborative planning time) to advance professional growth.
So, after four years and lots of bumps and bruises is the Margolin Hebrew Academy / Feinstone Yeshiva of the South a 21st Century school? No. But there are exceptional examples of 21st Century learning in all divisions and across all subjects. There is a growing understanding of what 21st Century learning means and why it is important for our children. There are new paradigms emerging for what classroom instruction ought to look like and how best to support it. There is a curriculum that is close to completion and awaiting alignment to 21st Century standards. And there is a culture which now permeates the administrative and faculty team that is focused on constant learning, reflection, and growth. So no, we’re not there, but standing now at the side of the road I think we can safely say that we’re on our way.
Click here and here to view videos that highlight Margolin Hebrew Academy’s Curriculum 21 Initiative and here and to see examples of assignments and student work in Judaic studies about teaching ancient texts in the 21st century.
Rabbi Dr. Gil Perl is the Dean of the Margolin Hebrew Academy / Feinstone Yeshiva of the South, a Prek-12 Modern Orthodox Day School serving the Jewish community of Memphis. He earned his Bachelor’s Degree from the University of Pennsylvania, his Masters Degree and PhD in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations from Harvard University, and rabbinical ordination from Yeshiva University. He writes and lectures widely on topics relating to the history of Modern Jewry and contemporary Jewish education and is the author of the book The Pillar of Volozhin: Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin and the World of Nineteenth-Century Lithuanian Torah Scholarship recently published by Academic Studies Press.