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The Jewish of Jewish Day Schools at the Prizmah Conference

Posted by: Deborah Fishman

March 6, 2017

The Prizmah Jewish Day School conference on February 5-7 in Chicago was a strong manifestation of the energy and excitement around the birth of Prizmah, the new central address for Jewish day schools, which staged this impressive gathering of more than 1000 stakeholders in Jewish education. The conference featured innovative shared experiences ranging from interactive improv workshops and custom sketches of Jewish day school life by Second City Works to a keynote lecture by world-renowned game designer and author Jane McGonigal, who encouraged the audience to consider: Why don’t our learning platforms work more like a game? In addition, constellations of learning enabled attendees to choose their own learning adventure through an almost overwhelming array of sessions, built around the running conference theme: the power of story. This personalization was especially accommodating for diverse subsections of conference-goers, such as the substantial group of lay leaders and those from small schools and small communities.
Amidst all of this activity around Jewish day schools as a path to build a strong Jewish future, the question naturally arises: What is the “Jewish” of Jewish day schools, and how are schools working to bring it to life?
One trend I observed is a growing emphasis on standards for different aspects of Judaic studies. I attended sessions on: “Crafting Israel Education Standards” with the iCenter; “Why Jewish Fluency Matters”, where Lisa Exler presented the standards and benchmarks she compiled for fluency in Jewish studies at Beit Rabban Day School in conjunction with Mechon Hadar; and “Tell Me Your Torah: Reading Sacred Texts with Multiple Lenses,” where Charlotte Abramson and Rabbi Sheryl Katzman used protocols from The Legacy Heritage Instructional Leadership Institute (formerly Jewish Day School Standards and Benchmarks Project) of the Davidson School at JTS.
Israel education, tefillah, Rabbinics and Jewish practice are all areas where using standards is a novel approach. Standards do not mean standardized learning; rather, they describe a way of approaching learning. The term is used in different contexts in different ways. With the Legacy Heritage Instructional Leadership Institute project, it is based on an outcomes-based approach to teaching, where first the overarching standards are set, and then benchmarks, instructional methods and performance assessments are selected to meet those standards. To take an example from that project, one of the eight standards about developing “an appreciation for the sacredness of Tanakh as the primary record of the meeting between God and the people of Israel” and another is about “the role of mitzvot in the shaping of the ethical character and religious practices of the individual and the Jewish People.” You can teach any text through the lens of: How does it help students develop an appreciation for the sacredness of Tanakh as the primary record of the meeting between God and the people of Israel and as an essential text through which Jews continue to grapple with theological, spiritual, and existential questions? Or, you could teach it through the lens of: How does this influence our understanding of the mitzvot? Each standard will cause you to focus or emphasize in a different way. (These examples are based on the Tanakh Standards which can be found here.)
On the other hand, the standards compiled by Lisa Exler at Beit Rabban have more to do with what specific content should be covered to achieve fluency than with the process or overarching standards.  These standards offer a road map for content, so students who graduate from day school at 8th grade should be fluent in certain texts, similar to fluency in a language. That will enable them to make connections between the different texts they read and become more independent learners.
At first glance, it may seem challenging enough to create standards within one school, as in the case of Beit Rabban, let alone across schools with different perspectives. But there is much to be said for the collaborative process among schools, as I experienced in the room of the Israel education standards workshop – through which new insights can emerge not only through understanding other approaches, but also about oneself. It remains to be seen how the idea and practice of writing and using standards will revolutionize the field, but much success has been had already, for instance, in the twelve years of the Standards and Benchmarks program.
This is just one example of the rich content that the Prizmah conference brought to life. Stay tuned for additional posts here on the AVI CHAI blog with more about the “Jewish” of Jewish day schools at the Prizmah conference.
Attendees have now returned home energized and armed with new tools, ideas, and connections to continue their important work of securing the Jewish future. We can’t wait to see how the field continues to grow with Prizmah’s support and resources – and to take in those new developments when the next conference comes around.

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