A Yankee Master’s Vision of Excellence in Jewish EducationPosted on February 1st, 2010 No comments
What does Judaism offer as a vision of education? What does excellence in education look like? Is it possible to achieve excellence in education in the realm of supplemental schools? Day schools? Camps? These were some of the substantive questions be posed, last week, to a diverse group of Jewish educators by Ron Berger.
Berger, a veteran educator and the author of An Ethic of Excellence, believes that all children can achieve excellence in education. Moreover, he does not distinguish between excellence in academic achievement and excellence in character building and moral development. Indeed it is the integration of ethics and learning that Berger, himself not Jewish, sees as a model for educators of all religious backgrounds and institutional affiliations.
Berger’s vision of excellence comes from his years teaching in the small school in Shutesbury, MA. He taught children of all ages and abilities to strive towards excellence by employing a projects based approach that stressed individual contributions, critique and revision, and the creation of products that were of value in the world. Now working with Expeditionary Learning Schools Berger has brought this approach to school across the US, many of them with limited resources, and achieved amazing results both in terms of academics but also broader community engagement. On display were high quality educationally significant posters, books, calendars, field guides, trading cards, greeting cards and other final products made by children as young as 5 years old.
Some in the room drew a parallel between inner city schools who struggle with limited resources and synagogue schools, where commitment of students and parents as well as money is in short supply. Parents, for example, could be drawn in to donate skills with computers or design to create the means for producing calendars that a class learning about the holiday cycle might create. Such engagement would both involve parents and help add to the financial and classroom resources available to teachers.
Berger’s insistence that the final product of projects be of value to people in the community means that the students can see the importance of their contributions. Rabbi Shoshana King-Tornberg walked away from the workshop dreaming of having her students write a guide to the service at their temple. Not only would it help the children learn more about the customs and culture of their community, but the final product would be of great use in building a sense of openness to newcomers. Others were dreaming of famous Jews trading cards. Still others of Hebrew language books written, illustrated and produced by students in higher grades for those in the lower grades
Feedback is a key element of Berger’s philosophy. In order for work to be excellent, it needs to go through drafts, to receive critique not from adults but from peers. The process, which teaches children to give kind, specific, and helpful feedback is an opportunity to think about how to be in community with each other, a model if you will of responsible and effective tokhekha.
By the end of the afternoon, we were all inspired towards a vision of excellence that focused on the engagement of children and their ability to produce materials
The program was presented by HUC-JIR in conjunction with DeLeT, the BJE and the Union for Reform Judaism.
To get a sense of how the process works, I would recommend the following two YouTube videos of Berger, explaining his approach:
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