Beyond Parallel Play: Systemic Collaboration Across Disciplines

Laurie Hahn Tapper and Zvi Weiss

Jewish day schools claim that they offer the best of both worlds: a stellar secular academic education combined with a meaningful and intellectual Jewish education. However, at many schools those two educational tracks often operate independently of one another. Two separate faculties, separate learning blocks, separate staff meetings, separate educational goals and sometimes even separate classrooms. Two parallel lines stretching out next to each other, never intersecting. But what if they did? What if we made the intersection the founding principle of our schools?


In his 1958 essay “The Non-Jewish Jew,” Isaac Deutscher wrote about influential scholars such as Freud, saying that “as Jews they dwelt on the borderlines of various civilizations, religions and national cultures. They were born and brought up on the borderlines of various epochs. Their minds matured where the most diverse cultural influences crossed and fertilized each other. They lived on the margins or in the nooks and crannies of their respective nations. … It was this that enables strike out mentally into wide new horizons and far into the future.” He claims that it is precisely because of the Jew’s ability to both “absorb and transcend” the limits of the particular and the universal that great learning and new ideas can emerge. If applied to our schools, dare we say that not collaborating is actually doing a disservice to our students? That perhaps we are obligated to find models for integration and collaboration in order to provide our students with an adequate education and that anything less is not an option?


Jewish children in America in the 21st century are the Jews Deutscher describes; they stand with feet firmly planted in multiple communities, real and virtual. Boundary crossing and self-identifying with multiple identities has become commonplace, so why not in our education? Over the course of the past two years, the educational team at Yavneh Day School has been experimenting with adopting such an integrated and collaborative approach as a founding principle.


Imagine a science teacher asking the students to find their lab chavruta.


Imagine a grammar lesson on the semicolon producing an original and innovative interpretation on Mordechai's motives for “adopting” Esther.


Imagine two eighth grade girls facing each other bent over two texts, analyzing Maya Angelou’s Phenomenal Woman and Eshet Chayil, exploring the text-to-text-to-self relationship.


Imagine a student trying to interpret the Torah text that has become known as the commandment for tefillin as if seeing it for the first time, and through applying the engineering and Design Thinking process creating a prototype for what this mitzvah could look like.


There is a process to overcoming two major mental hurdles in taking this new approach. The first involves rethinking specific pieces of curricula that have become commonplace and are assumed to be essential, and instead focusing on big ideas and questions for inquiry. The second involves breaking down the false dichotomy of ownership of different subjects that often results in a war over who gets more time to teach their subject. Rather than compromising over subject air time, the focus should shift to creating a learning experience for the child that is crafted by collaborative teachers. Traditional approaches to Jewish education may have focused on basic literacy through study of Chumash-Navi-Mishnah-Gemarah. Other approaches might put the emphasis on exploration through the lens of Jewish history or thematic units based on a mixture of themes learned in each grade.


Standard attempts to create collaboration often are reminiscent of parallel play—that is, teachers in various domains agree to teach aspects of their respective subjects in ways that mirror some aspect of what is being taught in another subject. For example while, a US History teacher might be teaching about the American Revolution or the War of Independence, Jewish studies might be focusing on the Touro Synagogue or great Jewish heroes of the period. Similarly, a unit on immigration to the United States might parallel a Jewish studies class on aliyot to Israel. While the history teacher might be teaching World War II, the Jewish studies teacher may teach the Shoah and the English Language Arts might decide to read The Diary of Anne Frank.


The experiment that we have undertaken involves evolving from a place of parallel play to one of collaborative play. In this new model of systemic collaboration, we are experimenting with schedules that are based on teamwork: collaborative prep time and collaborative teaching. The model entails taking big ideas and using them to build units that are actually co-taught by two expert teachers from different domains in the classroom at that same time. The teachers themselves, many of whom have been trained in hevruta study/Pedagogy of Partnership through Mechon Hadar, use these methods in their own study and as they prepare with each other. They then use these same principles in the teaching of all subjects, promoting collaboration as a method as well. Furthermore, we have made an explicit effort to reframe the answer to the question “What do you teach?” Our teachers don’t teach “third graders,” nor do they teach “math” or “Jewish studies.” They teach children. By placing the child’s learning experience at the center and as the goal, the teachers have the freedom to collaborate together in the best interest of the child’s learning goals, intertwining the subjects as relevant and needed.


Faculty are increasingly placing emphasis on creating connections and relevance. The creativity of this approach is contagious; when teachers collaboratively begin building one unit, they suddenly see possibilities of connections anywhere and everywhere. As an example, in preparing for the study of Megillat Esther the planning between the Jewish studies expert and the language arts expert led to a deeper literary analysis unit co-taught by both together that was then extended into a social-emotional advisory unit on temper. An added bonus to this collaborative model is not just a more enriching learning experience for the students, but a more rewarding working environment for the teachers as well. One teacher shared with us that teaching this way is so enjoyable because she is learning so much more herself through collaborating with other teachers.


At its core such a model requires conscious, intention-driven, systemic collaboration by teachers. So how does one get to this point? So far, some of what we have tried includes:


Schedules and staffing built from the ground up to be conducive to co-planning, co-teaching and co-reflecting.
Educational thinking that intertwines particular skills and objectives with greater purpose.
Taking time to build a caring community among the faculty to create trust between team members.
Hiring and retention of individual teachers who feel competent and confident as experts in their own field and have a stance of openness and excitement about learning.
Stance of the whole child at the center.
Design thinking workshops: learning through questions and guided inquiry.
Jewish studies-focused workshops for teachers of secular studies (e.g., Mechon Hadar, American Jewish History Museum).
Secular studies workshops for Hebrew teachers (from Singapore Math and Math Talks).

One of our main goals as a Jewish day school is to build and reinforce Jewish identity within our students. Thus, inevitably, the hub of collaboration stems from Jewish studies. The greatest amount of co-teaching energy is centered around finding Jewish relevance within secular subjects as well as finding secular relevance with inherently Jewish topics. By now, this way of thinking has become so prevalent that the presence of a Jewish studies teacher is no longer necessary to spark these connections in teachers of secular studies.


What are we losing by teaching this way? While there is still time put aside in our schedule to celebrate the concept of Torah lishmah, it is clear that by using this approach, we may not teach every item that was previously in our curriculum. Students may not graduate knowing the same things that prior generations of students were taught. They will graduate having learned different concepts, but in a way that is more relevant and connected to the rest of their education. Creating a collaborative curriculum is reflective of the human we aim to help shape: a whole person whose lens is one of Jewish texts and values, who identifies as a member of the Jewish people, and who uses Jewish values and identity as a lens through which to explore the world. As Abraham was proclaimed an “Ivri,” a boundary crosser, so too should our students be encouraged to cross the various domains of their identity and like Moses, Freud, Einstein and Abzug, become contributing citizens of the human race. What we have observed is that, through the collaborative effort of teachers and students, these boundary crossings produce “wide new horizons” for the teachers and students alike.

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HaYidion Collaboration Fall 2016
Fall 2016