As a foundation supporting Jewish day schools and overnight camps, AVI CHAI has always been eager to see the maximum number of participants enroll in our various professional development programs. “Filling the cohort” would obviously benefit a large number of institutions, thus increasing the impact of our philanthropy among Jewish youth. But cohort-based learning is not merely a matter of numbers. Early on, we learned that fashioning a group of professionals into an “intentional learning community” profoundly deepens the learning and enhances its durability.
Take, for example, the Day School Leadership Training Institute (DSLTI) at JTS’s Davidson School of Jewish Education. The program includes two immersive, 3-week summer sessions and several 2-3 day retreats over the span of 15 months. While its curriculum on how to run a school Jewishly is extremely comprehensive, DSLTI works hard to create a learning experience rooted in the group. This is not just the familiarity bred by many shared experiences; the program’s leaders and mentors go about developing an “intentional learning community,” complete with its own norms (arrived at by consensus), a unique language and particular processes and rituals of learning. Taking advantage of the longer time frame, DSLTI gives participants the opportunity to reflect intentionally on every aspect of their own learning, from evaluating each session in real-time, discussing both the content and the learning strategies employed, and even developing new components, such as the “spiritual check-in” and book clubs. In this way, whatever is being presented or discussed each day depends less on the presenter and much more on the receiving group that, armed with its unique communal norms and attitudes, is able to take the material, work with it, probe it, digest it and then apply it in their actual contexts. Furthermore, the tightly-knit communities continue way past the end of the program, offering insight and support to one another for years.
The presence of intentional learning communities has become characteristic of many of the leadership development programs we support. For over 20 years, AVI CHAI has been sponsoring day school leaders to attend one of two Summer Institutes at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education Principals’ Center. These weeklong institutes, studded with world renowned educational researchers and thinkers, quickly develop their own powerful learning cultures. When AVI CHAI’s Trustees decided several years ago that the Harvard program should focus more on lasting change at participants’ schools, we added nightly sessions for the day school leaders, facilitated by Educannon Consulting, to eat together, learn together, and establish their own discourse, their own language, and their own unique culture to piggyback on the much more diverse learning community established during the day at Harvard. And even though they are together only a week, these learning communities remain active for months, in some cases years, after they leave Harvard.
Similarly, Prizmah’s YOU Lead (originally “YU Lead” at Yeshiva University’s School Partnership) offers a year-long online curriculum for aspiring day school leaders, but incorporates two meetings together over the year to afford all participants the chance not just to meet face-to-face, but to form their “intentional community” that enhances and deepens the weekly learning that was either virtual or asynchronous. While many different platforms can support content-driven learning, and cohorts or affinity groups can certainly create a sense of camaraderie and shared interests and experiences, forming an intentional learning community does much to ensure the depth and sustainability of what is being learned.
Obviously, not every ‘intentional community’ is identical, but from our perspective, they do share several characteristics:
(1) participants taking the time to establish their own norms related to confidentiality; being present, engaged and prepared; and what sorts of responses will be acceptable;
(2) implementing those norms and determining consequences of failure to uphold them;
(3) developing a distinctive learning culture, which typically includes not only attitudes but ‘rituals’ and practices as well, that are rehearsed and respected;
(4) actively respecting, caring for and supporting one another’s learning and growth; and
(5) designing methods of inducting new members into the culture, thus ensuring its continuation.
Over time, we at AVI CHAI have seen these elements of intentional learning communities show up, to varying degrees, in virtually all of the most powerful professional development programs we’ve sponsored, be it in the study of Hebrew (e.g., TaL AM/iTaLAM, Bishvil Ha-Ivrit – formerly NETA-CET), blended and personalized learning (e.g., BetterLesson), or Israel education (e.g., Write on for Israel). Their power lies not only in what they unleash in participants during the program, but in the lasting effects as well.
This feature need not be reserved for programs external to schools. Indeed, many of the academically strongest day schools throughout North America work hard to develop their faculty into intentional communities, whether by department (e.g., Hebrew, Social Studies) or more broadly (e.g., all Judaic Studies, or whole school faculty). In the AVI CHAI-sponsored “Tanakh Standards and Benchmarks” project (now the Legacy Heritage Instructional Leadership Institute), schools with several Tanakh educators deliberately form them into a working and learning community, incubating an effective culture for the development and implementation of curricular goals and how they will be achieved.
Aside from the benefits with respect to increased teacher effectiveness and improved children’s learning, these tightknit learning communities also help retain teachers who find great personal and professional satisfaction being in such an environment. And the virtuous cycle continues, as the intentional learning community attracts talented teachers to join the team and stay for many years. Over the years, I’ve visited several day schools that fostered such vibrant communities. When speaking with teachers, it doesn’t take long to discern this unique culture. It’s literally palpable.
Leadership development programs have figured something out that can and should trickle down to our schools. If schools are all about learning, it’s an activity we should want everyone in the building doing, not just the children. Of course, developing such intentional learning communities among staff demands the most precious commodity we have – time – but it will ultimately accrue to everyone’s great benefit. Leaders who’ve successfully fostered such communities among themselves are in the unique position to spread the wealth, implementing the methods they’ve learned and raising the tide for every staff member in their schools.