Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Why General Studies Matters in a Yeshiva and Why it Needs to Rock

You would think this has already been said many times over.  You're right, I know that.  I'm sure anyone who has seriously thought about it knows general studies matter.  You might be of the argument its needed for students to be able to get jobs when they graduate or you might argue it's the Torah ideal.  Whatever the reasons, it's necessary.  I'm just arguing they matter more than most people realize.  I'm arguing if you want to really have a great yeshiva,  you have to give the students there a world class general studies education.  I'm also arguing that it's entirely possible despite the fact that we have about 1/3 of the time to teach general studies as non-yeshivas do.

I will openingly agree that a dual curriculum is anything if not challenging.  Yet, almost miraculously, we all know of graduates who have fared just as well, if not better than students who learned in public/private schools. I'd argue though that this needs to be the norm.  So the questions out there concerning these highly successful graduates often go along these lines:  Is it that these students were just naturally smart? (Some might be, others might be delightfully and wonderfully "average" in your classic sense of the word)  Is it that they worked a bit harder? (I'm going to bet anyone who is ever successful long term in life works hard.)  Did they get extra tutoring? (Perhaps some, perhaps others no.)  If not, what did that school do right, and how should other schools copy it?  Good question.  If someone out there is doing something better than I am at my school, I want to know about it, learn from it, and take it, tweak it, and make it my own.  Make it something our students can benefit from.  It certainly is not a bad idea to look to graduates of a school when choosing one.  I'd like to think the graduates of a school can be a school's best ambassadors.  Yet, the real crude fact exists that not every yeshiva student across the world graduates with what could and should a top notch general studies education.  I'd argue its because the school's priority was not to do so.  And, I'd argue schools that don't prioritize secular education are doing a disservice to their students long term.

I am not going to argue with the fact that that the basis of a yeshiva education is Judaic studies.  You will never receive any argument from me about this.  In fact, it's why I send my kids to a yeshiva rather than a public school.  I want my kids to be immersed in the Torah experience.  To walk away enriched forever by the lessons of Bible, commentary, law, and stories of our sages.  I send my kids to yeshiva to surround themselves with others who hopefully share our family's values, traditions, and perspectives on the Torah's primacy in our lives.  Yet, what actually makes the yeshiva a "school" in the classic american sense is that it has a general studies curriculum.  I'd argue, if done right, teaching general studies enhances the religious lives of the student body as well.  I'd argue that any good yeshiva prides itself on each and every course that comes out of it, especially core classes of general studies.

A woman this past year visiting from an out of town yeshiva came to Magen David and toured with a group of educators.  I spoke with her.  I will never forget her remark.  It went something like this, "It is very rare to find someone deeply religious and also so into secular education."  I honestly looked at her like she was from Mars.  To me, to be a religious Jew means to help students, all students learn.  I find teaching general studies to be incredibly rewarding.  I find it to be meaningful.  In fact, I actually believe it is one of my main purpose in life.  I am helping kids grapple with complex ideas, wrestle with conflicts in supportive Torah friendly environment and, build the skills they need to succeed well beyond the walls of the yeshiva.  I am actually helping them be better learners of any subject.  I am helping them contribute to their communities long term in more than one way.  

I'd also like to argue that it is entirely possible to produce a top notch secular education in a yeshiva, despite the time crunch.  Progressive educators often use a phrase I actually hate.  "Less is more."  It's something I've heard time and time again.  In the 90's the phrase came to be used to signify the growing number of 2 parent working households.  There was a need to say that while we spend less time with our children, the time we spend is more quality than quantity.  I disagree, and I am a member of a two person household.  I think that largely depends on the parent.  So too, less is more, largely depends on the school.  Less is usually never more.  If I have less money, I don't have more of it. If I have less vacation days, I don't have more of them.  If I have less time to read books, I don't read more books no matter how many speed reading courses I take.  Yes, the simple fact is most public schools spend 2 hours a day on reading when yeshivas are lucky to spend 1.  The simple fact is that most public schools get 180 continuous teaching days to teach an AP class when many NJ high schools are lucky enough to get 127.  So yes, in terms of the minutes allocated for instruction public schools will beat yeshivas every time.  Yet, somehow, my yeshiva kids always did better than my public school students on the AP.

This is because time is not the only factor.  I'd argue though we can teach smarter.  We have smaller class sizes (ours are on average 18, theres are often 35).  We have a student body that is largely self selective (our parents chose to send and invest in their children, their students are a real mix).  We have people in our schools who are part of our community (public schools hail teachers from all over often with strikingly different values).  We have a warmer environment (no matter how large the school).  We have the will.  They have the secular culture to compete and often clash with their school's agenda (Hollywood, teen pregnancy, drugs). We, hopefully, have less or none of those distractions.  We also have a different goal and those goals shapes every aspect of what we as educators do.  Our main goal is to have our students walk out stronger, firmer, more grounded in what and who they are so that nothing that ever comes there way will ever alter that.  With that goal in mind, I'd argue our education on the general studies side can be even better than any public school's.

I'm not going to argue that because of this we replace the need to teach as much with the need to teach skills so students can learn anything on their own.  Although I think skills based education is imperative and having students be able to learn on their own is crucial.  I'm not going to argue we throw out content.  I actually think content is EXTREMELY important.  Its probably 40% of learning on the general studies side.  I'm also not going to argue that there is a ton of information that public schools spend time teaching their students that are not really relevant to the average student, although I think this is true.  I'm going to argue that we prioritize.  I'm going to also argue that many of the skills that students need to acquire on the general studies side, that so many public schools spend so much time on, are actually reinforced effectively, or can be, on the Judaic studies side.  Hence, instead of looking at the day as totally a time split, I look at the student as a whole.

I look at the school as a whole.  What does the school impart on the student as a whole.  If the school effectively imparts something that someone needs to know on the general studies on the Judaic studies side, it just reinforces my role as a general studies teacher and reinforces the content/skill I taught.  It also enables me to teach it in less time, since the time is already being used on the other side.  For example, critical thinking.  Any student of mishnah or gemara learns critical thinking.  Any student of Nach can spot an inference or a detail and explain how it contributes to the passage as a whole.   It's crazy to think that literacy is only being taught once a day for 60 minutes. I'd argue it's probably being given more time than at public schools.  Listening and speaking also are profoundly impacted by the dual curriculum.  In addition, and even more so over the past ten years, writing has become a focus on the Judaic studies side.  And, certainly not least of all, rigor.  In fact, some schools even encourage constant learning and have school on Sundays.  I cannot think of a greater environment for a serious student of general studies to be immersed in.  This is why our kids graduate often better than their same age peers from public school. So, that 60% of learning, the skills based education, we yeshivas are rocking without really doing anything differently.  However, could we be doing more?  Yes.  And we will.

Let's begin to utilize more data analysis.  More research based strategies experimented with in the classroom.  Let's try more professional development and supportive team structures for teachers of all levels of experience.  Let's create environments where teachers can research best practices out there and the greatest techniques.  I want to see more differentiation of students in meaningful ways that target all students.  Yeshivas seem to all have remediation programs, but enrichment programs are never built out like our public school peers do.  Think about creating a culture of passionate learning among faculty and students alike in general studies.  How amazing would it be if the "frumest" Rabbi in our school sit down with kids in a cafeteria and work with them on math?  What if we did interdisciplinary projects between Jewish and General studies that break down those walls infusing the general studies programs with a richness to them not yet seen?  Why not consider allowing students to specialize in content at younger ages and providing them with the tools they need to do so?  Why not consider introducing real labs and inquiry based lessons in elementary school?  Why not experiment with different ways to teach math and consider pushing in more advanced math earlier?  Why not look to what other countries are doing effectively rather than only looking at what other local yeshivas are doing?  Conversely, why not create a network of yeshiva educators across the world struggling with the same thing and give them online PD or a twitter network?

One of my crowning achievements this year has been talking a Gemara Rebbe at Magen David into teaching an engineering course.  After getting to know him this year, I found out he was actually a certified engineer. The boys in the course, most of whom knew nothing about the topic nor did they have parents who went to college, gained so much from the course.  They walked away really appreciating what you needed to be an engineer.  They learned some basics about the field of engineering, but what did they really learn that they will take with them for life regardless of what field they went into?  That their Rebbe supported their interest in this career.  That he himself was an engineer.  That it was not a conflict to be a serious Jewish person and also a serious worker in a highly specialized field.  That is the life lesson.  That is a lesson we need to impart in our children.  I doubt any of the boys in the class will become Rabbis.  I also think probably only one or two will even try out engineering in college, but I can bet you they will look at becoming highly skilled in a different light.  I will bet you they will begin to realize it is possible to be both a member of their community and a successful person in a profession.  That is the accomplishment precisely because for all of our kids, we want them to feel good and be good at whatever profession they choose to enter.  Exposing them to options early on is never a bad thing, especially when the person exposing them to it is such a role model already.

I will confess this is the impetus behind my next big project- aligning the Common Core and Bloom's Taxonomy to Judaic studies skills rubrics.


 It will essentially prove that students at Magen David are learning essential skills, skills that their peers in public school may be spending more general studies hours learning, but they are already spending time on it in Judaic studies courses.  It will prove that their education on the Judaic studies side has a tremendous impact on their performance in general studies classes.  It will also show us areas we need to further focus on in general studies that are not really covered in Judaic as well.  So wondering why our students graduate often much more successful than their public school peers is no joke and is a great thing to ponder, but it's also definitely not being left up to chance.  And yes, we can do better and we must.