Hands-on, Inclusive Education: Building a New Future for Jewish Day Schools

Andrea Rose Cheatham Kasper

The Jewish media reports regularly about the lack of inclusion within the Jewish community. February was Jewish Disabilities Awareness Month and the coverage made it painfully clear that as a community we have failed a large segment of our population. Sadly, Jewish education has reflected this same failure, excluding an even larger segment of our community than those labeled “disabled”; it has also excluded a wide variety of students who simply don’t thrive in the dominant model of schooling. We need to reimagine schooling so that it serves the totality of our diverse learning community. It is time to build Jewish schools that educate the whole child in the vision of past progressives, to develop a pedagogic vision that integrates across subjects and intelligences, that folds manual skills into the general curriculum and that, as a result, is accessible to more of our students.

Jewish education has a lot to learn from the MIT Media-Lab, where researchers from diverse disciplines come together to “design technologies for people to create a better future.” The first lesson is that we are all disabled, just at different levels. Special education teachers have known this for decades, and their expertise and knowledge have slowly leaked into mainstream education, spawning buzzwords such as scaffolding and differentiation. Many Jewish day schools tout small class size and the ability to provide individual attention to the growing needs of each child. The emphasis has been on molding the children to the predominant pedagogical expectations rather than molding the pedagogy to the children. So while committed teachers work to scaffold and differentiate appropriately, they do so for a limited range of abilities.

The second lesson is that there is no such thing as a disabled person—what is disabled is the technology that is supposed to be serving the community known as “disabled.” Applying this idea to the classroom means that our pedagogy is disabled, not our students. Jewish educators should reflect on current pedagogic assumptions and ask whom we have excluded from our institutions. The third lesson is an “anti-disciplinary ethos,” where issues are explored in “wildly different ways from the past, unencumbered by preconceived notions of what is possible or what the solutions ‘should’ look like.” This concept allows educators to recreate and reimagine day school education, where they can directly addresses issues of diverse learning needs, subject integration and 21st century skills. Howard Gardner helped educators classify multiple intelligences, but the Media-Lab has successfully modeled how cross pollination and application of various intelligences to different disciplines results in exciting learning, critical thinking and problem solving.

Jewish education has embraced the development of the intellect, and many in the Jewish community have been successful at harnessing this focus by becoming leaders in academic and professional fields. However, it is time to expand our focus beyond academic achievement, beyond those within our community who can achieve within this narrow definition. The Jewish community lacks options for many of its students, especially in the high school years. Jewish community high schools are simply not appropriate to all of our learners, and leaders in Jewish education must address this issue. They must offer new modalities of learning, which aim at intellectual and cognitive development through hands-on skills and applied learning—to build a school that welcomes and honors diverse learners, looking for new ways to engage in Jewish education.

The Vision

A Jewish Academy of Applied Academics provides a new kind of Jewish high school offering a balance in Jewish education by stressing the link between the production of the hands and the stretching of the mind. The school community is guided by the following question: How does direct application of knowledge and ideas help me engage in the world, strengthen collaboration, expand my thinking and find new connections to Judaism, humanity and the world? This kind of school fundamentally challenges the status quo by expanding Jewish education’s focus on intellectual creation to include physical creation of the hands.

This shift in pedagogical ideology and application makes school more accessible to a wide range of students with dissimilar learning needs. An emphasis on hands-on education and physical creation expands learning by providing opportunities to connect the learning to concrete skills. While direct application and clear applicability of knowledge to “real” life is particularly important for students struggling to make abstract connections, it is equally powerful for all. Students in this school will learn a variety of skills allowing them to participate professionally in a wide array of work within their communities, including green construction, agriculture, welding, textile-making, culinary and fine arts. By providing multiple pathways to success, this school naturally honors the wide array of abilities and interests within the Jewish community.

Naomi Brunnlehrman, cofounder and executive director of the Jewish Deaf Resource Center, explained that the Jewish deaf community has been shut out of Jewish life and parents do not consider a Jewish day school education for their hearing impaired children. Deaf students, she explained, would feel welcome in an environment where there is little, if any, frontal classroom teaching but continual occasions to learn visually. Arlene Remz, Executive Director of Gateways, states that a holistic approach to education which focuses on various tasks and allows for non-college bound students to succeed is especially appropriate to many special needs students. Many students on the autism spectrum will find the small group work and ability to move in and out of individual work a successful platform to both grow and share their talents alongside their peers.

Guided by Jewish values, applied Jewish education is appropriate and open to students of all backgrounds and academic abilities, and offers them a full range of career options. Imagine a thriving year-round school community working to redefine Jewish education that is founded on past wisdom yet unencumbered by old assumptions. Most importantly, it could offer a new learning paradigm for Jewish students who do not fit into the traditional structures of our educational system.

Let’s build schools that offer a new educational model addressing system-wide change within the context of both the American educational system and Jewish education in the United States schools that rethink pedagogy, student body, applicability of Jewish education, hands-on work and production, faculty roles, age-based groupings, cognitive and intellectual development, work-based learning and preparation, and the appropriate methods to most effectively meet the needs of students. The educational vision of such schools incorporates and integrates practice and theory, providing a powerful and obvious answer to the question “why do I need to learn this?” Using a project based approach, students move from application to theory in a cyclical pattern to enhance their understanding of both, all the while focusing on how to better understand and make efficient their skills of production. Each project focuses on the Jewish, academic and production aspects of the work. Reflecting on kibbutz life, visualize redefining Jewish literacy through hands-on and practical knowledge grounded in physical creation.

This educational philosophy posits that in-depth, long term emphasis on a project will result in educational engagement and profound learning. The pedagogy focuses on a method that grounds learning to a specific project. Rather than learning subject matters in a way that is disconnected, students experience the connection between all academic and religious subjects as they are all grounded in the project. Furthermore, learning with this method allows for more complex understanding and intense subject concentration. This methodology presents an alternative way of learning and alternative curricular development based on student interests, self-discovery and exploration. Hands-on work provides students with essential instant feedback and the safety of working in a medium, similar to technology, that has no judgment. In this alternative learning environment, teachers work with students both in small groups and individually to help them gain the necessary skills to succeed in each of their projects as well as develop skills in critical thinking, collaborative and independent work and cross-discipline problem solving.

You walk into these schools and see a group of students, two freshman, two sophomores, one junior working as an assistant advisor, working together guided by a faculty collaborator with the goal of building a table and chairs to be reproduced for the dining room. They compile a list of essential questions that draw from a range of disciplines: mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, literature, history and Judaism. Here are questions the students begin to explore:

  • Where in Jewish literature is wood discussed, for what purposes? How do Jewish sources connect our learning to other disciplines?
  • What is the purpose of this furniture, both literally and metaphorically?
  • What properties of wood must we understand in order to build them?
  • How do forestry, reforestation, sustainable wood and wood imports/exports affect our choices?
  • How do wood properties affect the physics and design to assure strength? How do various designs affect weight distribution?
  • How has furniture use and design developed throughout history?
  • How do the environment, soil chemistry and ecological systems affect tree growth?
  • How do lumber costs, energy costs, man hours and projected revenue factor into the manufacturing cost of the furniture?

Meeting with the Jewish studies collaborator, the students begin by exploring the Tanakh and other texts for the use and mention of wood. Bereshit provides them quickly with areas of exploration from creation of growth and trees, their stated purpose in Gan Eden, the building of Noah´s ark from gopher wood (a species still contested by scholars), and in Shmot the use of wood for the building of the mishkan, especially the ark. The students learn about atzei shittim (acacia wood) which leads them to learn of its 1300 species and understand its properties for building, medicine, resistance to fire (an especially interesting understanding when they discover that some believe it was the burning bush). They also discuss and explore language associated with wood and trees (the Tree of Life) and consider why a wood box was constructed to be placed between two gold boxes to house the broken tablets from Sinai (a subject of interest for many rabbis and scholars). This method enables the students to make connections from the Jewish sources to their studies in chemistry, mathematics, physics, biology and ecology.

The students meet with the rest of faculty from various disciplines to refine the questions and gain a deeper appreciation of how each of these areas expands their understanding of the process they must undertake. The team determines individual and group responsibilities required for the following three to six months to complete the project. Throughout the entire process students work in several writing styles to express and present their ideas, information found and data collected. They practice scientific writing, prose and creative writing, reporting of primary and secondary data collection.

The students are charged with the learning in these areas as well as building several prototypes for comparison, data collection, analysis and final recommendations. The project culminates with a presentation and workshop for the rest of the school community as well as an objective measure of whether they succeeded in building a satisfactory prototype for use in the school. This powerful combination provides an important balance between the learning acquired and the complex variables involved in building a useable, aesthetically pleasing and durable product that is put to use. It also reflects what Frank Moss, the director of the MIT media lab, terms “hard fun.”

At the heart of the Jewish community is a sense of social justice and inclusion that must move into action on behalf of our diverse students. This action must challenge the dominant image within the community and allow each and every member to thrive and contribute. This is not about building a special needs Jewish day school; it is about building a Jewish day school education that is fundamentally inclusive by offering the appropriate pedagogic model. Jewish educators desire to create community, connection and opportunities for relevant learning. We have the tools, the resources and dynamic models; now it is time to act.♦

Andrea Rose Cheatham Kasper is an EdD student in Jewish educational leadership at Hebrew College and Northeastern University. She can be reached at [email protected].

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HaYidion Bold Ideas Summer 2013
Bold Ideas
Summer 2013