Choosing to educate one’s children in a day school demands a set of compromises made in the interests of cultivating within them religious and cultural literacy, and a sense of collective belonging. Beyond the impact of day school tuition on the family budget, an oft-cited drawback by prospective day school parents is the lack of cultural and socio-economic diversity. Research conducted by Steven M.
HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal
Jewish Literacy and Curriculum
When formulating a vision of what they want their students to learn, day school educators need to start with a shared understanding of Jewish literacy. This issue explores the connections between a vision of Jewish literacy and a Jewish curriculum. Authors consider the purposes and goals of literacy; suggest ways that Jewish sources can serve as an educational framework; advocate for various subjects, curricular emphases and pedagogical or delivery methods; and share specific initiatives that they have developed.
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Jewish literacy and curriculum require a tremendous amount of thought and work by day school faculty and administrators, day by day, year by year. In this article, we asked four recent alumni to look back over their day school experience and summarize what remains with them now. What lessons, skills, examples, practices or texts that they learned in school do they find still relevant, still playing a role in their thoughts, studies and pursuits today?
Can the students in your school name Israel’s capital? Its most populous city? A way it has brought technological advancement to the world? The religions that view Jerusalem as holy? When students can correctly answer these factual questions, it is often assumed that they have achieved Israel literacy. But there’s a big difference between knowing facts about Israel and knowing how to participate in its present and future.
Scholars of English literacy tell us that it’s a difficult subject to pin down: does it refer to the ability to read a Stop sign, an income tax form, or a sonnet? Jewish literacy is even more multiform and elusive. So what does it mean to be literate in “Jewish”?
The entire first floor of The Weber School is a Women’s Gallery, displaying the lives of close to a hundred women along its art-lit hallways and alcoves. These are not the photographs of donors or past presidents. Rather, the lives we celebrate along this floor are ordinary Jewish women who have led often unheralded lives, each interviewed by individual students who then translated their lives into the vocabulary of conceptual art—using metaphor and juxtaposition, texture, color, and symbolic object, using the mixed media tools of the conceptual artist.
Jewish day schools are in a unique position to transmit the Jewish tradition to their students in an environment that is nurturing, inquisitive and embedded with elements of excellence. If we were successful in this transmission and linked our chain to the Torah that was revealed to Moshe and transmitted to Joshua, etc., we would have fulfilled our duties and we could collectively say “dayyenu.” However, it is not enough. We would not be preparing our students for the challenges that await them on campus and in the workplace.
In Spanish, the word for “illiterate” is analfabeto—one who does not have an alphabet. Yet having an alphabet does not make a Jewish person literate, as can be attested to by thousands of Jewish teens and adults who know the alefbet but not much else. What makes a person literate in a Jewish sense?
It has been an honor to serve as the chair of RAVSAK’s Board of Trustees for almost three years now. Our board is a trusted and trustworthy group of individuals, cultivated to provide expertise in many areas of Jewish day school leadership, finance, law, organizational behavior and good common sense. I have learned so much from each of my colleagues on the board, mostly about their steadfast resolve to put the needs of our constituent schools as the north star of our work.
In 1969, University of Chicago Professor Joseph Schwab famously declared the field of curriculum “moribund.” Textbooks and lists of great works alone did not adequately construct well-designed architectures for teaching and learning. Educational theories deriving singularly from academic research in psychology or philosophy in Schwab’s view underserved curriculum development, leaving the enterprise “desperately in search of new and more effective principles and methods.”
I know how critical the relationship between the head of school and the board chair is to the success of the school. I have not yet been able to create this kind of positive and respectful relationship. Are there tried-and-true actions that build good relationships between the lay and professional leaders of the school?
Literacy has always referred to the ability to read, to decode and make sense of written texts. More than a technical skill, the ability to read provides a person with a gateway into whole worlds beyond their immediate experience, worlds into which they otherwise have no access. But in 1987, E. D. Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy changed how we think about literacy in fundamental ways. His argument was straightforward. In addition to decoding, readers need to understand a text’s cultural references to make sense of that text.
Many day schools boast creative and innovative programs that excite students about Judaism and produce graduates who continue their affiliation with the Jewish community. Yet many of these same students and graduates cannot independently navigate our core texts or comfortably and confidently practice Judaism. They may be enthusiastic about their Jewish identities, but they lack the skills, knowledge and experience to be the bearers and transmitters of Judaism into the next generation.
“Literacy is about more than reading and writing—it is about how we communicate in society. It is about social practices and relationships, about knowledge, language and culture.” UNESCO
What’s the difference between the following two sets of questions?
Who was the first Prime Minister of Israel?
What is the first of the Ten Commandments?
Why has Israel always been important to the Jewish people?
I don’t believe in God. Can I still be Jewish?
It is challenging to design curricula for a pluralistic school. Central to the concept of pluralism is the belief that there is no one correct way to “be Jewish.” When it comes to behavior, no pluralistic educator would say, “This is how a student should behave.” Yet there does not seem to be the same reluctance to say, “This is what a student should know.
Over the last several decades, many authors have attempted to define and assess Jewish literacy and identity. Jewish day school teachers find themselves at the forefront of these conversations every day, as they craft their curricula and interact with students.
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