How to make learning meaningful and personal for our students

For years, the Mayberg Foundation and the Jewish Education Innovation Challenge (JEIC) have helped the Jewish world think differently and more broadly about Jewish education. So, when Sharon Freundel, their managing director came to us and asked if we wanted to co-produce a film on Jewish education, we knew the answer had to be yes.

Here is the film:

The goals of this film are to provoke each of us to think differently about Jewish schools; inspire us to make Jewish education more meaningful for our students; and help us imagine how Jewish education could look different in the next 10 years from how it has looked in the past 10 years.

The goal of this film is to help ensure that each and every school administrator and teacher considers why Jewish education is personal for them. 

In today’s Weekly, which is sponsored by JEIC, we want to provide framing and tools to accompany this critical film.

There are so many ways to use this. You can watch this with your board, your administrators or colleagues. And, if you’re super progressive educationally, you can even watch this with your students and ask, “What’s one thing we can do based on this film that might look different?” 

Beyond that, here are six critical tools we collected to make Jewish education meaningful for you and your students. Plus, we invite you to join the conversation on social media using #ThisisPersonalJDS (see the instructions below).

With the combination of phenomenal educators like you and an innovative way to think about education like this, all of us can help make Jewish learning and education the most meaningful and personal it can possibly be.

With appreciation for everything you do,

Noam and the UED team

Elul: A time to reflect on Jewish education

Start a discussion among any group of Jewish communal leaders today and it will invariably lead to the importance of Jewish education.

For centuries, Jewish education has been seen as the best way to produce engaged, passionate, and textually-literate young adults, committed to Jewish values and involved in their communities.

In fact, the Jewish educational system goes all the way back to Talmudic times when Rabbi Yehoshua ben Gamla saw that Jewish children were falling through the cracks, with only those with learned parents receiving a Jewish education at home.

Much has changed since Rabbi Yehoshua ben Gamla established the first Jewish day school, but the central importance of Jewish education in our communities remains the same.

This coming Sunday is the beginning of the month of Elul, a time for introspection and reflection leading up to the High Holidays. It is an opportunity to pause and think about ways in which we could do better.

This Elul, let’s ask ourselves what’s working in Jewish education and what’s not working. What models and approaches are working well with our students? Are there new models and approaches we might consider for this coming year? 

What innovations have we introduced that are working? And what continues to hold us back from doing things differently?

We’re proud to share this video that our team at OpenDor Media produced with JEIC that raises these important questions. After watching the film, use the suggestions below to reflect on these questions with your colleagues and students, be intentional about the coming year, and make Jewish learning more meaningful and personal.

1. During the month of Elul, reflect with your colleagues on what is working as well as areas for growth.

Find time during your orientation with teachers to show the video, “This is Personal” and have this discussion. Reflect on the following questions and discuss them with your colleagues:

  • Why is excellence in Jewish education important?
  • What methods are we using in the classroom? Are these methods meeting our goals? Are they effective with our students and working for them?
  • What have been our greatest “wins” in the classroom? Why was this successful? What do we want to repeat this coming year?
  • What could we be doing differently with our students? What has stopped us from implementing these changes in the past?
  • What are ways we have helped students internalize what they are learning? How could we make learning more personal for them?
  • What digital tools are we leveraging in our classrooms? Which digital tools have worked to enhance students’ learning? What other digital tools will we experiment with?

2. Invite your students to be part of the discussion. 

Our students have excellent ideas about how to improve their education and it’s important that they are part of the conversation. This does not mean inviting students to complain. Instead, it means giving them an opportunity to share their thoughtful and constructive feedback. To engage your students in a productive discussion, ask them the following questions:

  • What do you most enjoy about learning and school?
  • What areas are the most difficult?
  • What is your favorite Jewish topic to learn about and why?
  • Are there ways you wish it were taught differently? What suggestions do you have?
  • What is an area related to Judaism or Israel you would like to learn more about?
  • What do you wish your [Judaic studies/religious school] teachers knew about you that would help them understand you even better?
  • When do you feel most connected to Judaism?
  • What would make learning about Judaism more meaningful and personal for you?
  • What would make learning about Judaism more enjoyable or fun for you?

3. Use the “3 C’s” framework (challenge, curiosity and choice) to increase your students’ intrinsic motivation.

One powerful way to help students develop a personal connection with Judaism and Israel is to increase their intrinsic motivation to learn.

In their book, “Motivation in Education,” Dale Schunk, Judith Meece and Paul Pintrich define intrinsic motivation as “the motivation to engage in an activity for its own sake.” 

Extrinsic motivation, on the other hand, is “the motivation to engage in an activity as means to an end.”

The question we ought to ask ourselves is, how can we create a culture and classroom experience that does not rely on grades to motivate? How can we increase intrinsic motivation and rely on the learning itself to motivate?

To do this, use the “3 C’s” of intrinsic motivation which many educational psychologists have suggested, as your framework. Give each student an appropriate level of challenge, spark their curiosity, and empower them with some control or choice in the learning.

Challenge: Challenge students’ skills with activities of intermediate difficulty. Make the task challenging but attainable. People feel bored when their skills exceed their opportunities for using them; they become anxious when they believe that challenges exceed their capabilities.

Curiosity: To pique your students’ curiosity, present ideas in a way that is slightly discrepant from their existing knowledge and beliefs. Incorporate an element of surprise and variety into each lesson. Tell a joke or story, show a visual image, or explore the content from a different point of view.

Control or Choice: Give students a choice in activities and a voice in formulating rules and procedures. Let students choose how they are assessed or how they want to assess themselves. Allow students to choose which texts or topics they want to independently learn.

4. Make learning about mastery as opposed to performance.

There is a theory called goal orientation theory, which describes two different ways students can approach their learning. Eric Anderman of the Gale group explains that students can hold performance goals or mastery goals:

“Students hold performance goals when their goal is to demonstrate their ability compared to others. They are interested in competition, demonstrating their competence and outperforming others.”

“Students hold mastery goals when their goal is to truly understand or master the task at hand. They are interested in self-improvement and to compare their current level of achievement to their own prior achievement.”

With a performance approach, a student’s goal in Hebrew class is to demonstrate to her teacher and to other students that she is better at speaking Hebrew than many of her classmates.

With a mastery approach, her goal is to become fluent in Hebrew because she is interested in the language and wants to be able to converse with Israelis and read Hebrew literature.

The major difference between the two is that the performance approach is essentially a zero-sum game. “The more I have, the less you have. The more you have, the less I have.” Mastery, however, allows each student to achieve success, satisfaction and happiness.

While the performance approach leads to short-term interest and success, the interest and desire of these students eventually peters out. Compared to the performance approach, the mastery approach is more likely to yield lifelong learners.

One way to encourage your students to adopt a mastery approach is to give them specific feedback for revision and allow students to revise their work until they “master” it. 

You can give your students grades of “A,” “B,” and “Not yet” with an opportunity to revise. This helps students focus on developing their skills and knowledge as opposed to short-term achievement. Never should a child say, “I am a C+ Jew.”

5. Give your students opportunities to connect with Jewish wisdom and spirituality.

Many students are craving opportunities to connect authentically with Jewish texts, internalize how they apply to current issues, and “make it personal.” They want to engage in deeper discussions about Judaism and how it intersects with their lives and the world around them.

This year, commit to meeting your students’ desire for Jewish wisdom and spirituality and find space for it in the curriculum.

When a student asks a burning question, seize the moment to close the text and engage them in a discussion. It’s easy to lose sight of the forest from the trees amid the pressures teachers face. Don’t let that happen this year.

6. Use reflection as a critical tool with your students.

You can memorize as many facts as you like, but unless you’ve had the opportunity to reflect on what you learned and think about what it means to you, then you really haven’t internalized it in a meaningful way.

The philosopher John Dewey put it this way: “We do not learn from experience…we learn from reflecting on experience.” It’s critical that we give our students a baseline level of literacy in Israeli history and culture, and it’s also critical that we create opportunities for reflection.

We ought to teach our students about different types of Zionist thought and how different Jewish leaders have understood Zionism. And we also ought to ask students to reflect on what Zionism means to them.

We ought to teach our students about great leaders in Israeli and Jewish history. And we also ought to ask them what each leader means to them and the kind of leadership they think the Jewish world needs today.

As we often say, “learning without reflection never happened.” The same is true for Israel and Zionist education. When we incorporate opportunities for reflection, we are helping our students create personal connections with Israel and internalize what it means to them.

Join the conversation using #ThisisPersonalJDS

Join the conversation on social media and share why you think Jewish day school education is important. Create a short video or write a post answering the question: “Why is excellence in Jewish day school education important to you?”

Speak from the heart and tell us a 30-second story about why improving Jewish day school education is of personal importance to you.

Please begin your video clip or written post with the statement, “Excellent Jewish day school education is important to me, because…” Use #ThisisPersonalJDS in your share.

Starting on August 29, follow the #ThisisPersonalJDS campaign (and look out for your video or post) on Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram.

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