Beyond Denominations: Expanding Pluralism in Day Schools

At the heart of a pluralistic Jewish community day school is the vision of Jewish children from an assortment of denominational and ideological upbringings learning and working together, building a stronger Jewish community. The definition of pluralism in our schools and our communities has generally focused on developing the worthy qualities of respect, tolerance and an appreciation for different types of Jews. What vision offers more hope than that of our children coming together and recognizing that, despite our differences, we are one people?

While admirable, this practice of pluralism is limited in scope. It overlooks other important areas of difference save for Jewish observance. We must recognize that children differ not only in their religious understanding and practice, but also in family makeup and history, socioeconomic standing, political worldview, and more. These, and all, children remain underserved so long as we engage in a one-dimensional view of pluralism.

The hit television sitcom Modern Family has done an excellent job of helping Americans change their perception of the traditional family unit. In the show there are three distinct family types, including a traditional family with a mother, father, and three children. The other two family units are what one might call nontraditional. One family is two fathers and an adopted child from Vietnam and the other is a divorcé remarried to a much younger woman from South America who has a child from a previous relationship. Similarly, in our schools we have a growing number of families made up of parents who fall into an array of categories such as married, single, divorced, or partners.

Furthermore, we have students whose parents or who themselves might be heterosexual, homosexual, or transgendered. We have also seen an increase in families who are adopting children, many from countries with different ethnic backgrounds. And as is the nature of the community school, we have a very broad socioeconomic population. Why is it important to raise this issue? While we have been struggling to meet the needs of the diverse Jewish hashkafot (ideological perspectives) that comprise our pluralistic communities, we have not been sensitive enough to meeting the other cultural needs of our students. After several decades of focusing on attending to a broad spectrum of hashkafot it is time to turn our energies toward our students’ other cultural needs.

There are many ways to define the word culture. In his book, Choosing Democracy: A Practical Guide to Multicultural Education, Duane E. Campbell enumerates a plethora of items that comprise one’s culture: ethnicity, country of origin, socioeconomic class, religion and family traditions, to name a few. He also defines the word pluralism as one type of democracy where people believe that there is more than one perspective or opinion. He argues that pluralism needs to be taken one step further to create cultural democracy. “Cultural democracy,” Campbell explains, “argues that our society consists of several cultures. In this multicultural society, each culture has its own child-rearing practices, languages, learning, and emotional support systems. ... Culture, gender, and socioeconomic class overlap within the home to produce behavior patterns, attitudes, and values.”

What does this mean for us as Jewish educators? We need to take into account cultural characteristics beyond religious ideology when creating our curricula. At the very least, each student’s ethnicity, country of origin, family unit type, and socioeconomic status also need to be considered when choosing what and how we teach.

There are two main reasons for why we need to extend our definition of pluralism. First is the underlying fact that children come to our schools with their own understanding of the world and their families’ place in it. The phrase “funds of knowledge,” developed by education professor Luis Moll, refers to the wealth of information, practices and traditions that each child is taught through his or her culture at home before ever entering the classroom. All children bring with them a set of knowledge and skills that have been transmitted by their family.

When teachers recognize that their students come to class with these funds of knowledge, the teachers can set their students up as cultural resources. This acknowledgement that a student does not enter the classroom as an empty vessel is key because it sends students an important positive message: each student is an expert in something valuable and each student should have an opportunity to teach peers about his or her expertise. This can build confidence in individual students and put them in greater esteem with their peers while simultaneously increasing student engagement in the classroom.

The second reason we need to broaden our definition of pluralism is related to the term “culturally responsive teaching,” which is currently featuring as a central issue in general education community debates. Culturally responsive teaching aims to create curricula that take into account the cultural backgrounds of the students for whom the curricula are being designed. Though it is primarily focused on enhancing education for students of color, it should be considered an educational desideratum.

Geneva Gay explains that knowledge of these cultural differences allows teachers to make their curriculum more personally meaningful to their students which in turn will lead to greater student engagement and overall academic success. It is important that students see themselves and their experiences reflected in the curriculum they are learning because it provides them a context for relating to the material. Educational research has shown time and again that when students can use concrete examples from their own lives to make sense of what they are learning, they grasp the material in a more meaningful way and understand it more deeply. This is the same concept as having social studies teachers infuse the traditional American history narrative with voices of women so that female students can see themselves in our nation’s story.

According to Gay and Campbell, teachers need to know how their own culture affects their pedagogy. By having teachers “understand how their own cultures affect their lives, their teaching strategies, and the lives of their students,” in Campbell’s words, teachers can better recognize where their curriculum might need to be supplemented or reworked to meet more of their students’ cultural needs. It is important that our curricula reflect the students whom we are teaching.

The same way we need to choose a plethora of assorted Jewish texts and media in our courses to represent the array of Jewish denominations we serve, we must choose a range of general media that speaks to all cultures represented in our student population. Our intentionally pluralistic schools are focused on fostering respect, appreciation, and tolerance for diversity. Gay writes, “Building community among diverse learners is another essential element of culturally responsive teaching.” Students should be considering cultural issues that affect them, their classmates and those who are not represented in our schools.

In order to meet the cultural needs of our students our teachers need to be better prepared. Future teacher professional learning communities or communities of practice should dedicate time to building teachers’ awareness of their own individual cultures. Teachers could work together in teams to create cultural maps of their classrooms. These maps would identify both the similar and unique cultural characteristics of the students in their classes. Students could be involved in this process by being asked to submit essays or graphic representations of what they think is important to know about their families and heritage.

Using these cultural maps, the teacher teams should review their curricula to identify potential opportunities for increasing content or instructional methodological diversity that better reflect who their students are. A wider range of Jewish sources as well as general materials that represent a broader range of socioeconomic class and cultural diversity should be included. School leaders also need to ensure that their teachers feel confident in meeting their students’ varying cultural needs. For example, this might require that administrators work with several advocacy groups to help train teachers on how to meet the needs of children who might be struggling with sexual or gender identity, adoption, etc.

Administrators might also create teacher-parent advisory groups that are responsible for helping teachers identify ways to best meet the needs of children in their classrooms and in the greater school environment. Parents should be used as guides for how teachers can meet the needs of adopted children, children of nontraditional family units, children who are questioning their sexual or gender identity, and children who are questioning their Jewish identity.

School communities where cultural pluralism is vibrant have teachers inviting the students and parents into classrooms to engage their community members in sharing cultural knowledge. Teachers in these schools support this sharing by ensuring that their curricula reflect their students and that all students see themselves and their peers as experts of cultural knowledge. In an era where we are attempting to meet the needs of the whole child, our intentional pluralism needs to incorporate a broader cultural pluralism that considers all of the foundational pieces contributing to our children’s beliefs, behaviors and learning. And to ensure that our students can continue building a strong, vibrant, and diverse Jewish community we must build awareness, appreciation, respect and tolerance for the myriad cultures within our community, not just our Jewish ideologies.♦

Eliana Lipsky is a curriculum and instruction EdD candidate at Loyola University Chicago, focusing on student empowerment in the Modern Orthodox Tanakh class. She can be reached at [email protected].

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HaYidion Bold Ideas Summer 2013
Bold Ideas
Summer 2013