HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal


Innovative Curriculum and Scheduling for Students’ Benefit

by Dr. Shimshon Hamerman Issue: The Whole Student

A senior day school administrator encourages schools to design schedules that not only impart a range of content but address student needs with balance and creativity.

The Jewish day school experience is not an easy one for students. It is obvious that by enrolling a child in a day school, that child is going to add another tier of disciplines to his or her course of studies. Montreal Jewish day school students have the additional challenge of a trilingual curriculum, with French language study and instruction making up, by law, between 14 and 20.5 hours per week. Even the two periods of physical education must be offered in French. Day school students are in class for some 34 hours a week. The school day is long (8:00 AM to 4:05 PM), and in the winter months, students are dismissed when it is already dark outside.

As a result of recent Ministry of Education mandates, most Montreal day schools were compelled to reduce their Judaic studies programs. Solomon Schechter had to cut Jewish studies from 11:15 to 10 hours per week, a 10% reduction. While it may seem like “just” one hour, to many, the concept of reducing Judaic studies is a slippery slope and a dangerous precedent. Should the cuts be in Hebrew language? Bible? Experiential activities? These are almost existential questions that will generate deep reflection and debate.

We decided to use the challenge as an opportunity to reassess our curriculum from the students’ perspective, and consequently, we adjusted our Judaic studies contents to make them more creative and more fun. While the innovative response of Solomon Schechter Academy is one that works for its students, the paradigm shift is one that others may wish to consider.

The Innovative Program

Rather than merely reduce Judaics hours and eliminate some aspect of limmudei kodesh, we decided to rethink the school’s schedule in a way that takes account of the students’ stress at the burden of requirements.

A new early childhood education construction project in the school allowed the reconfiguration of some classrooms for special programs. The new SMAART floor was retrofitted for S—science; M—instrumental music; A—art; A—computer animation; R—robotics; T—technology. Courses were divided to two pairs, animation with music and art with robotics. The pair would be offered at the same time, so in mid-year the teachers would switch but the class schedule would remain unchanged.

Of the 75 minutes reduced from Judaic studies, 45 were set aside for the SMAART programs while the remaining 30 minutes were added to physical education. The total phys ed time was divided to three weekly periods.

Because the time for the new courses came from Judaic studies, there was an attempt to retain Jewish content even if it was not classical texts. The art class is taught by the Judaic studies director and is based on Jewish arts: papercuts, illuminated manuscripts, copper embossing, etc. The music program is using Hebrew songs for instrumental practice. Animation and robotics will attempt to use some Jewish content once the technique and assembly will be completed.

The Benefit For Students

The introduction of a third period of physical education per week, a class in one pair of the components of music, art, animation or robotics, and a class in computer studies allow students to have a period per day in a non-classical or non-academic format. This has turned out to be a huge emotional gain for students. It is equivalent to one daily free period where students can talk to a neighbor in class, walk around and have a period with no homework, no grade and no exams. Students have described the program in their language: cool, awesome, you rock!

Then there is the covert curriculum taught during those classes that cannot be overlooked. The same students who have no difficulty with iPhones, iPods and iPads found the assembly of the robot quite a challenge even if they were created from such children’s favorites like Lego. The comparison to a parent would be the assembly of a piece of furniture from IKEA. Students found the sequential following of directions challenging, and the assembly that was expected to be completed in two sessions took 4-5 sessions to most students. That challenge is more than compensated when the student sees the inanimate object (the golem) following directions—moving in the direction instructed and even making sounds or music as requested. The robotics also make math concepts much more real when students need to calculate such concepts as radius, circumference and distance.

Depending on the evolution of the program, parents will be invited to an exhibition of the accomplishments of each of the SMAART rooms in the school. The PR dimension with the possibilities for recruitment cannot be overlooked.

Costs

The reduction of hours compensated for the additional costs of instructors for the new programs. However, the displeasure of the Judaic studies teachers needs to be reckoned with. Teachers teaching two classes lost a little over two weekly hours or approximately 10% of their income with little possibility of gaining hours elsewhere. The reduction of hours also had a direct impact on the pension plan of each Judaic studies teacher. Other than the cost of the retrofitting the rooms, the added cost was in the equipment needed for each of the rooms: robots, computers, musical instruments and art supplies.

Making Lemonade from Lemons

A reduction of time allocated to Judaic studies is always unfortunate. While more is not better, in this particular case the loss was translated to a benefit for students creating some needed down time in an oversaturated day. At the same time, it exposed students to some new and important disciplines. Our experience might reinforce the old saying that we teach students and not subjects. As such, we have obligations and opportunities to make the life of our students much more pleasant while opening new horizons.

In view of our experience, we must be honest and ask ourselves some questions: What is the essential Judaic studies curriculum, and how many hours do we really need to transmit it? Is Jewish studies only a matter of hours, or is quality of instruction equally important? Can and should some time from an exceedingly overcharged curriculum be altered to offer innovative programs to students?

Our school was presented with a challenge by our Ministry of Education. We decided to use this challenge as an opportunity to reassess our curriculum from the students’ perspective. We made the curriculum more innovative and more fun, and we reduced some of the stress of the day for our students. The nature of school is that we all have challenges. Perhaps we should consider the students as we attempt to find a solution.♦

Dr. Shimshon Hamerman is the head of school at the Solomon Schechter Academy in Montreal. He can be reached at shamerman@solomonschechter.ca.

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