By: Leah N. Meir
The AVI CHAI Foundation is committed to Jewish day schools as a vehicle to foster vibrant Jewish engagement in the next generation. To achieve this vision, it is not enough for day schools to simply exist: they need to be excellent, providing a first-rate education in both general and Judaic studies. We believe a three-pronged approach is necessary to create strong ties to Judaism and Jewish life. First, students must be inculcated in Jewish literacy so that they know how to engage with Jewish texts – not just in school, but for the rest of their lives. Second, students must be instilled with a deep feeling of connection to Jewish living and values. Finally, a strong, ongoing connection to Israel is necessary for students to feel a sense of Jewish peoplehood.
What can help achieve these aspirations for our students? AVI CHAI’s work in Day School Teaching & Learning endeavors to answer this very question. The programs we fund fall into three strategies: 1) Providing resources to teachers, including curricula and professional development; 2) Developing standards and benchmarks for Judaic studies (currently focused in Tanakh); and 3) Enhancing learning through introducing new teaching models. Here are some lessons we have learned through this work:
- Professional development is key: While we began with work on the content and curricula of Jewish education, and continue to believe that that is important, we realized that the success of the learning is also dependent on the teaching of it. Therefore, we have also invested in the professional development of teachers, both to teach specific curricula as well as overall. For instance, the Foundation believes that Hebrew language skills are essential to becoming a fully literate Jew able to read and appreciate our texts in their original form. Two AVI CHAI-supported Hebrew language programs – TaL AM and NETA-CET – provide students with carefully developed, sequential Hebrew language curricula, and educators with the professional development necessary to build and hone their skills in teaching Hebrew. Additionally, we support Ivriyon, a summer Hebrew immersion program for Judaic studies teachers. Another area we find critical in teacher professional development is the recruiting and training of educators interested in becoming Jewish day school teachers (addressed by the Pardes Educators Program) as well as increasing the effectiveness and retention of new teachers through intensive mentoring (in the Jewish New Teacher Project, JNTP).
- Both professional development and content need to be constantly renewed: In order to produce the desired effect of lifelong Jewish engagement, we have found that the content itself as well as teacher knowledge and skills need to be current to address the needs of today’s students. Our programs have sought out and incorporated opportunities to improve upon existing teaching and learning in several ways. For instance, two of our programs, TaL AM and NETA-CET, are undergoing a transformation to become digital and interactive, capitalizing on new technology as well as trends toward project-based learning. In another example, we have partnered with Mechon Hadar to bring their model of chevruta partner learning into the day school classroom. This partnership not only enhances learning through the application of a tried and true Jewish learning model, but also introduces students to Mechon Hadar Fellows, Yeshiva students and potential role models for students.
- Successfully upgrading school teaching and learning requires all parts of the school to be behind it: The AVI CHAI teaching and learning programs ostensibly deal with one particular area of the school, such as Hebrew language instruction or the teaching of Tanakh. Yet the reality is that this kind of disruption in the classroom requires strong support and reinforcement throughout the school. When the Judaic studies head and school leadership give the sense that it is a collaborative effort, the change in teaching is much more likely to succeed. In essence, projects such as Jewish Day School Standards and Benchmarks Project (for Tanakh) or JNTP become mechanisms for effecting school change, which pervades multiple aspects of the school staff and environment.
Day school teaching and learning is a complex and rich area of work. At times the challenges loom high, for instance: How can we increase teacher retention rates? How can we find and inspire new and qualified educators to embark on day school careers? How can we have the maximum impact on what and how students learn? Yet the potential payoff – a new generation inspired by and committed to Jewish life, learning, and engagement – is priceless.
Leah N. Meir is a Program Officer at The AVI CHAI Foundation.