HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal


Bridging Vision, Curriculum, and Student Learning

by Charlotte Abramson and Alex Sinclair Issue: The Educated Jew

The Jewish Day School Standards and Benchmarks Project, funded by AVI CHAI and run under the auspices of the Melton Research Center for Jewish Education of the Jewish Theological Seminary, has worked with more than thirty-five schools since its establishment in 2003. The Project is rooted in two core beliefs about vision. The first core belief is that vision is critical and the second, vision alone is insufficient.

Vision is Critical

The problem with vision, though, is that it often remains just vision. Without being enacted, without being translated into curriculum, without curricular manifestation, visions end up in documents gathering dust on bookshelves, or in the “about us” sections of websites, clicked-on occasionally but seldom put into practice.

The Jewish educational world has been enriched by discourse about “vision” since the publication in 2003 of Visions of Jewish Education (Fox, Scheffler and Marom). We are certainly persuaded by the importance of vision in education, and are inspired by Fox’s statement (in Vision at the Heart, 1997) that “education that is essentially pareve—that’s neutral and doesn’t take a strong stand—has little chance of succeeding.” At Jewish day schools, where the teaching of Bible and other ancient Jewish texts is core to their school’s curriculum, students need to fully understand why we ask them to spend so much time studying them. Too often, they see the study of these texts as irrelevant where meaningful connections between the text and their lives are not made.

Our first challenge to a school that wishes to participate in the Project is think about your school’s vision, and how the teaching of Tanakh is related to that vision. What should your graduates know and be able to do? Why is Tanakh important to you, as teachers, as a community, as a school? Why should it be important to your students? Why are you studying this text? Schools that have clear and compelling answers to those questions will be in a position to develop a well articulated and coherent curriculum where its goals for teaching Tanakh are transparent to teachers, students and parents. Students at schools that have clear and compelling answers to those questions will thence be more likely to have greater mastery of and connection to the study of Tanakh.

Vision Alone is Insufficient

The problem with vision, though, is that it often remains just vision. Without being enacted, without being translated into curriculum, without curricular manifestation, visions end up in documents gathering dust on bookshelves, or in the “about us” sections of websites, clicked-on occasionally but seldom put into practice. It might be argued that one of the reasons that the Visions of Jewish Education Project, while recognized as immensely valuable and significant by members of the research community, has not gained as much traction on the ground as might have been hoped, is because it did not focus on the crucial questions of how vision becomes embodied in curriculum. The Jewish Day School Standards and Benchmarks Project makes precisely that move.

Standards and Benchmarks are the Instructional Manifestation of Vision

The formal definition of a standard is “an overarching learning outcome exhibiting a synthesis of knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors.” Benchmarks are more specific learning outcomes within the standards; what students will be able to know and do. If you look at the list of Tanakh standards (see sidebar; benchmarks can be found online at http://www.jtsa.edu/standardsbenchmarks.xml), you’ll see that not only do they fit this definition, but, crucially, the different standards are rooted in different visions of the study of the Tanakh and its place in Jewish identity and life.

Imagine, for example, a school whose vision understands contemporary Jews as being modern-day links in a 3,000-year-old interpretive chain. For such a school, immersion in the interpretive act is the defining characteristic of Jewishness. With apologies to iPhone fans: there’s a standard for that! Standard 2, and the benchmarks within it, describe learning outcomes that learners might be expected to achieve at different points in their school career. In the early grades, students will demonstrate mastery of a benchmark such as “Understands that some questions have more than one answer.” Later on in this school’s curriculum, students will progress to other benchmarks, which include “Articulates elements of Rashi’s commentary on the Torah text.” And in high school, students will be able to “Analyze various art media as biblical interpretation” or “Apply inner-biblical interpretation to texts.” These and other benchmarks are the learning outcomes in which students will be asked to demonstrate mastery or excellence.

Consider, on the other hand, a different school, which sees the study of Jewish texts as presenting continual opportunities for existential and philosophical grappling with the ultimate questions of human life. Again, there’s a standard for that: Standard 6. A student at a school which takes its Jewish educational vision seriously and translates it into curricular manifestation would be asked to demonstrate mastery of the following benchmarks: in his or her early years, “Appreciates that all people are created b’tzelem Elohim”; in middle school, “Discusses kedushah in its various contexts”; and in high school, “Views the Tanakh as a source for developing and articulating a personal theology.”

The school’s vision informs its selection of standards; conversely, discussion about standards can help a school articulate its vision. By focusing a school’s Tanakh curriculum on its selected standards, and by having students explore biblical texts in depth through the lens of those standards during the course of their careers at the school, it is much more likely that deep learning and critical thinking will occur.

Standards and Benchmarks as the foundations for Curriculum-writing

Once teachers and school leaders have made decisions about which standards and benchmarks to focus on, these standards and benchmarks become the foundations of curriculum design: the development of assessments and learning activities that are also rooted in the school’s vision. This curriculum-writing process is the work that teachers do collaboratively in order to ensure that there is alignment between the vision and what students are learning. Teachers develop big ideas and enduring understandings—aligned with the standards—that help students make meaningful connections between the study of Tanakh and their own lives; standards-aligned essential questions that provide curiosity and motivation for students to engage in learning; and standards-aligned authentic performance assessments that require students to synthesize skills learned and knowledge attained.

Standards and benchmarks are, then, critical bridges between a school’s vision and its actual curriculum. Without standards, vision talk and curriculum planning are two separate enterprises. Standards help teachers align the lofty statements of educational vision with the daily work of what goes on in the Tanakh classroom. Standards and Benchmarks are Visions of Jewish Education meets Understanding by Design. It’s a powerful combination of educational theory and practice.

Standards and Benchmarks Develop Collaborative Faculty Culture

By developing a shared vision for the teaching and learning of Tanakh, and committing to working together to embody this vision in practice, teachers and Judaic studies leaders suddenly find themselves planning curriculum together in teams; using protocols to tune and aid each other’s work; observing each other’s teaching; studyingTanakh together; and engaging in professional learning- all hallmarks of effective professional development. Through their work together, teachers develop common language about their shared vision and professional practice. Ongoing collaboration provides teaches with an opportunity to learn from one another while increasing individual teachers’ instructional skills. Faculties participating in the Standards and Benchmarks Project soon become “professional learning communities” which Michael Fullan has verified improves student learning.

Standards and Benchmarks beyond Tanakh

While the Jewish Day School Standards and Benchmarks Project has thus far concentrated on the teaching of Tanakh, it has implications for the way we teach other Judaic and secular subjects in our Jewish day schools. What would it mean to create standards for a rabbinics curriculum, or a Jewish history curriculum? How would we translate a school’s vision of Jewish education into instructional manifestations in the learning of Talmud and Midrash, or modern Israeli history and sociology? Or, thinking more holistically, how might a school’s Jewish vision infuse the learning outcomes we seek in social studies or language arts? Once you start thinking in the language of standards and benchmarks, previously fanciful statements such as these become within curricular reach.

Standards and benchmarks are not a panacea for education in our schools. But our experience with schools which have gone through the Project over the last few years does indicate that it can be an extraordinary way to enhance instruction and improve student learning in Tanakh. Ultimately, what it has taught us is that vision and curriculum can and must be bridged. ♦

TaNaKH Standards

Standard 1:

Students will become independent and literarily astute readers of the biblical text in Hebrew.

Standard 2:

Students will be engaged in the learning of ancient, rabbinic, and modern modes of interpretation of the biblical text and will see themselves as a link in this ongoing chain of interpretation.

Standard 3:

Students will appreciate TaNaKH as a multi-vocal text with a complex history of development.

Standard 4:

Students will view the TaNaKH as the formative narrative of the Jewish People--past, present, and future.

Standard 5:

Students will, through the study of TaNaKH, understand and value that the Land of Israel informs and shapes the historical, theological, and sociological experiences of the Jewish People.

Standard 6:

Students will develop an appreciation for the sacredness of TaNaKH as the primary record of the meeting between God and the people of Israel and as an essential text through which Jews continue to grapple with theological, spiritual, and existential questions.

Standard 7:

Students will understand, through the study of TaNaKH and its interpretations, the role of mitzvot in the shaping of the ethical character and religious practices of the individual and the Jewish People.

Standard 8:

Students will develop a love of Torah study for its own sake and embrace it as an inspiring resource, informing their values, moral commitments, and ways of experiencing the world.

Copyright © 2003 The AVI CHAI Foundation

Charlotte Abramson is Director of the Jewish Day School Standards and Benchmarks Project of the Melton Research Center for Jewish Education at the Jewish Theological Seminary. She can be reached at chabramson@jtsa.edu.

Dr. Alex Sinclair is Lead Researcher for Makom, the Israel Engagement Thinktank at the Jewish Agency, an adjunct assistant professor of Jewish Education at the Jewish Theological Seminary, and a consultant for the Jewish Day School Standards and Benchmarks Project. He can be reached at dralexsinclair@gmail.com.

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The Educated Jew

The authors here are engaged in an argument leshem Shamayim, for the sake of Heaven, over the question of what should a Jewish day school produce. Some emphasize cultural knowledge: Hebrew fluency, tefillah mastery, literacy of core texts in the Jewish library. Others view middot as central: ethics, commitment, curiosity, caring; while yet others choose social action as the goal.

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