The Budowsphere #3
I have been immersed in Hebrew day schools for most of my life- as a student at Yeshiva of Hudson County, the Jewish Educational Center in Elizabeth, NJ, and Ner Israel Rabbinical College- and then professionally working for a year at Torah Umesorah, teaching in Richmond, VA and at JEC, and finally as the director of Abrams Hebrew Academy in Yardley, PA.
During my many years at Jewish day schools and Yeshivot I have witnessed the “fads” in educational pedagogical approaches that come and go through the years. When I was a student in Hudson County in the ‘60s I was introduced to “New Math,” a concept that you can Google. The result of this approach to mathematics was that I was completely confused, and by the time I finished 8th grade the schools had dropped the curriculum. This was a costly experiment- not only did it cost the school districts time and money to implement the program, but I lost two years of math education.
The latest education fad is “blended learning.” It has been touted as the solution to the affordability problem, allowing schools to hire fewer teachers to teach the same number of students, emphasizing on-line teaching over in-person classroom teaching. I believe this is a fad that will produce questionable results.
Do not misunderstand me- I am a huge proponent of technology, and I want every one of our Abrams’ teachers to use technology as one tool in her/his bag of tricks. I just don’t want it to be the only trick, nor do I think it replaces hands-on, personal, one-on-one classroom experience.
Russel Neiss, Jewish educator, technologist, activist, and the coding monkey behind PocketTorah, the AlephBet App, and a myriad of other Jewish educational technology initiatives, wrote a blog for PEJE, an organization that promotes Jewish day schools, in which he says, “No amount of artificial intelligence or blended learning or Smart-this or i-that is going to be able to replace the pedagogical benefits of a highly trained educator who can help students gain and apply knowledge (Judaic or otherwise) to help them make sense of the world in which they live. Trying to harness technology to supplant these professionals in search of some perceived vast savings that has yet to be realized is a fool’s errand.”
In my role as director of Abrams Hebrew Academy the most important thing that I invest in is attracting and keeping the best teachers. However, just having the best teachers is not enough. If there are too many learning differences among the students in a class the teacher is unable to be all things to all people, becomes frustrated and cannot succeed. So, we are committed not only to hiring great teachers, but in placing them in situations where they can teach without frustration.
For example, our middle school math department divides students within a grade so that a smaller group of advanced students learns separately from students who are not as far along. In fact, Abrams divides the middle school students in almost all subjects, offering advanced classes in language arts, Hebrew language, and Chumash. The result is satisfied teachers who are able to tailor their teaching to each small group, culminating in success for all. All of the students are engaged- the higher level performers are challenged to push themselves, and the lower level students are not getting lost and are being brought up as far as possible.
I truly believe that this concept of how to achieve success is one of the key foundations of our school and answers one of the most important questions of “How does Abrams survive?”
P.S. I will be at the National Jewish Day School Conference next week and plan to attend workshops on blended learning with an open mind.