AVI CHAI concluded its general grant making on December 31, 2019.

Bringing Harvard Home: Building PLCs and Using Data to Help our Students Learn

Posted by: Guest

February 26, 2019

In 1997, The AVI CHAI Foundation began sponsoring day school leaders to attend one of two week-long summer institutes at The Principals Center, a division of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.  Many of the 566 participants who have attended since then found the institute to be among the most transformative professional development experiences of their careers.
Beginning in 2013, the Foundation built upon the Harvard experience with a specific focus on helping leaders enhance their schools’ Jewish mission.  This involved adding several components to the program, including evening sessions at Harvard, coaching, check-ins throughout the following year, and networking with one’s cohort.  As part of the application process that begins today, we are featuring various alumni who will share their own stories and how this program helped them achieve their goals.  Hopefully, this will give those considering applying a taste of what’s possible within the context of this incredibly catalytic program. Applications for Harvard Summer 2019 are now open, deadline March 15! See here for more details.
This week, we hear from Rabbi Yehuda Fogel, Associate Principal for Limmudei Kodesh, Hebrew Academy of Long Beach, New York.
Rabbi Yehuda Fogel
AOL 2015
Associate Principal for Limmudei Kodesh, Hebrew Academy of Long Beach, New York
When I started teaching middle school limudei kodesh (Judaics) in 2006, I thought I had faced my greatest challenge – classes full of pre-teen and young teen boys learning Chumash and Gemara.  Fortunately, I was among several helpful colleagues who were master teachers, and I learned so much from them, to the benefit of my students.  But my leap into administration in 2013 broadened my view, and I realized that as positive as our students’ experience was each year, the three-year division experience was not truly integrated or coordinated.  My goal was to develop a comprehensive Judaics curriculum for our middle school, and so in 2015 I excitedly went to Harvard to help me achieve that goal.
It goes without saying that the Harvard presentations were incredible, the learning groups stimulating, and the AVI CHAI cohort unparalleled.  Within a day, I was convinced that something great would come from this, but I could not have anticipated how it came about.  While I went to Cambridge presumably to learn about curriculum development, to my surprise my plan emerged from two totally other presentations – one on professional learning communities (PLCs) and the other on the use of data – that educators from Texas and New Jersey in my Harvard group shared with me and how they used them to coordinate curriculum at their schools. With Jonathan Cannon’s help, I went back to my school determined to do something big.
And big it was.  Returning to HALB, I shared the ideas with our most veteran and experienced Judaic Rabbis and we developed a step-by-step plan for implementation. We started organizing PLCs by electing veteran Rabbis to lead each grade’s team, adding to their visibility and prestige. Then, we worked on shifting our instruction towards a data-driven model.  This novelty required daily collaborative meetings in which I participated.  Initially, I set the schedules and agendas of the meetings, guiding the coordination of skills and concepts across grades and tracks, but over time, the faculty began to take on more and more responsibility.  Discussion of curriculum led to the Rabbis to develop and assign standards, which in turn led naturally to analysis of their pedagogy.  Now our teachers seek out and share teaching techniques, materials and methodologies that help students achieve the specific goals laid out in the curriculum’s clear and detailed standards. Lastly, the synergies within the PLCs are a delight to observe, as more experienced teachers share their teaching with their newer colleagues, and younger teachers introduce 21st century technologies to more veteran teachers.
The focus on data organically led to changes in grading. Instead of overall grades in a subject, students are graded on each skill or concept.  We worked closely with an educational software company to develop a standards-based gradebook appropriate for our students, in which students can see almost nightly how they are doing and where they might need help on specific skills and plans for them so they can develop those skills. Students (and their parents) are grateful for knowing where to focus their energies, and teachers are thrilled to be able to offer individual students either additional support or modified curriculum or assignments based on their individualized strengths and challenges – not to mention having a tool to more accurately analyze their own teaching.  Without a doubt, the vehicle of regular, collegial and collaborative PLCs created an environment that enabled the turn to data to be so effective at our school.  Any other top-down approach I know would have taken many years more.
This transformation, nearly complete after three full years, is groundbreaking for our school.  Whereas Judaics faculty used to meet rarely, now they all – veteran and novice teachers alike –eagerly look forward each week to working within their PLCs to study the data and advance student learning.   At the same time, all students – regardless of skillset or training – now enjoy the limmudei kodesh learning much more because they know where they are succeeding and they know where to put the emphasis for growth.  It’s a win-win for everyone- and all from conversations I had with teachers from Texas and New Jersey one day at Harvard.

AOL 2015 Jewish Day School Cohort

The author’s Harvard cohort

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