Monday, February 23, 2015

February - Jewish Disabilites Awareness Month - What we all lose when we don't include.

February is Jewish Disabilities Awareness Month.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if every school and institution believed that every child deserved a place in a Jewish school?

As a child, I was fortunate to attend a day school that believed in inclusion. Students who were blind, deaf, confined to wheelchairs or who had Down’s syndrome called my school home just as I did. The students with disabilities were not kept to themselves and then paraded around to make the other students feel good about themselves. They were integral parts of each class and part of school life and learning like any other student.

Having students with profound physical and cognitive disabilities must  have been challenging for the administrators and teachers in my school. It is hard enough to meet the needs of so many students, but how to teach and include those who can’t hear or grasp a pencil?  How many meetings, how much experimentation, patience and creativity must this have called for? How much soul searching must the faculty have gone through every year to determine which students to accept and who they could not accommodate? Yet, I never saw frustration with the added responsibility or self-righteous arrogance because of their decision to include. I saw pride on the face of the principals and teachers that our school loved every Jewish child and determination to be sensitive and accommodating.  

The presence of students’ with obvious physical and mental disabilities helped me in many ways. Their presence taught me that I could respect and trust the administration and teachers in my school even as I felt wronged by some of their decisions. I knew that they were elevated individuals who were trying their best. I saw that my teachers and administrators believed that every Jewish child was entitled to a Jewish education and I felt safe because of that. I experienced  that the adults in my school building believed what they preached – they were willing to sacrifice their time and resources to teach any child if it was possible.  

As a selfish child, I wanted to believe that including those who were less able would slow me down and rob me of the Jewish education to which I was entitled. I was fortunate that my school did not let me entertain this notion. They taught that the value of my Jewish education was not what I learned intellectually but what I did with that education. I was expected to demonstrate strength of character and sensitivity to others, and I was given opportunities to do so in a setting that mattered, not as an extra-curricular activity meant to entertain. I learned to be patient and think about other's needs even when it felt unnatural and awkward to do so.

As an adult, I am grateful that the school I attended believed in inclusion. The value of every human life and of a Jewish soul is seared into my consciousness simply because I attended an institution that valued every Jewish child. This lesson has shaped the way I parent and teach. It has made me more patient and empathetic.

It is no coincidence that when I look at my classmates and fellow alumnae, I encounter individuals who have a broad vision and sense of responsibility for the Jewish people. When we chat, there is still an idealism and a disdain for superficiality that I don’t always encounter in other communities.  

Making a decision to be inclusive requires faith. With limited resources, why use scarce funds on a handful of students when so many could benefit? Why divide a teacher’s attention from those who will be the most successful? Yet isn’t a religious education a lesson in faith? I learned from being in an inclusive school that if we do what is right, we can have faith that G-d will provide the means. I learned from being in an inclusive school that our job is not to worry about outcomes and results but to do the right thing. The results are G-d’s domain, our job is to care about the person sitting next to us. This simple faith has served as an anchor that has made my life richer and safer in good times and bad.

As February and Jewish Disabilities Awareness Month comes to a close, the question should not be whether we will include those who need our assistance, it should be what are we losing when we do not.

Monday, November 3, 2014

From "No Rescue" Parenting toward "No Need to Rescue" Parenting

I was avoiding work by looking at my facebook feed when I saw a link to another parenting article. I clicked, I read, and I sighed. I felt sad as both a teacher and parent.

There is a new parenting paradigm out there meant to address helicopter parenting. It is called “no rescue parenting.” The writer of the original blog post that coined the phrase was featured on a segment of the Today Show and received a lot of support.

At its core, no rescue parenting seems to make sense. If a kid forgets something, rather than rushing in to save them from consequences or discomfort, the parent stays home. Forget your cello at home and today is band practice? Too bad, too sad. Forget a notebook, oh well, next time – you will remember.

The idea is to promote self-sufficiency and responsibility in kids who perennially forget their stuff. This tactic, the Mom explained, was not for the kid who is generally responsible and forgets his stuff once a year. It is for the kid who always seems to leave his notebook on the counter when the bus comes.

The “no-rescue” ideal seems to have the full support of King Solomon in Proverbs. There he decries the character trait of “Atzlut” laziness which leads to poverty, illness and spiritual shallowness. The commentators, such as Rabbeinu Bechayei and the Mesilas Yesharim, write about how and why this character flaw undermines any growth a person can achieve. Atzlut, as described by commentators is allowing others to do for us what we can do for ourselves.

As parents and teachers, we don’t want to promote Atzlut. We shouldn’t do for our students or children what they could do for themselves. Removing all obstacles and allowing them to become lazy and forgetful will not make them happy or successful people in the long run.

It sounds good and the intentions are in the right place, but as a Mom and teacher of kids, I’m not sure it’s the best tactic. Why did I sigh when I read the article and watched the video clip? Because, maybe, and quite likely, that child who keeps forgetting his notebooks needs education and not judgment.

I’m sure you can think of the kid who we envision needs a little of that “no-rescue” mentality. He’s the one whose papers are crumpled at the bottom of his backpack, who needs to borrow a pencil at the start of every class and doesn’t hand in his homework assignments. Why shouldn’t a little tough love straighten him out?

If a kid doesn’t understand fractions and fails his tests, we wouldn’t judge him as being lazy. If a child who needs glasses can’t see the board, we don’t tell her to try harder. We teach them differently, and we give them the tools to be successful.

When kids are disorganized, they don’t know how to organize their stuff. What does “no-rescuing” do? It makes them anxious. It shames them. It reinforces the message that there is something wrong with them, that they are lazy and irresponsible.

What doesn’t “no rescuing” do? It doesn’t teach them how to do better. It doesn’t teach them what they did wrong. It doesn’t give them tools so that as adults they will meet deadlines, manage their paperwork and organize their stuff.

I had a student who did his homework and forgot to hand it in on a regular basis. He wanted good grades. He did his work at home. Somewhere in between home and school, he got distracted and forgot what he needed to do when he got to school.

Another student took his work sheets and unless I was standing next to him, would stuff them into the front pocket of his binder. So what is the matter with these kids? Why are they being so irresponsible?

Many bright, capable children lack executive function skills. As described by the National Center for Learning Disability (NCLD), , they have trouble managing their time, their things, multitasking and remembering details.

What is a teacher or a parent to do with this kid who can be more frustrating than a child with an obvious learning difference? It is November, and he is still not writing his name on his paper! How many times have I announced to the class that all papers need to have your name on top! -5 points!

Kids with executive function disorders can be taught. It is just as much our responsibility to teach them these skills as how to read and write. Here are some strategies that work:

  1. Checklists – Anything that can be described sequentially can go on a checklist.

    Is getting out the door each morning a daily struggle? Work with your child to make a list of the steps. Don’t expect the child to remember it from day to day. He needs as much working memory available to remember where he keeps his socks. Better yet, label the sock drawer too. Forcing him to juggle everything in his memory will ensure least one thing will be forgotten at home. A written list saves on anxiety and time and breeds success.

    In school, come up with a checklist of the things that your student is forgetting often. Every student is different, and a personal checklist works better than a generalized one, according to Bonnie Glick, an educational consultant .
  2. Reinforce routines – Transitions require a lot of mental effort. Having routines helps all children relax and flow from one activity to another. Homework should be done at the same time and same place daily. Students should have a consistent place to write down their homework and assignments. Teachers should likewise write down the homework in the same place every day. How class begins and ends can be standardized to help students learn what is expected of them. While this takes away some of the creativity and spontaneity that we teachers enjoy, it is better for our students’ learning.

  3. Use color and other visuals – Think of color and visual imagery as a parallel to auditory instructions. Visuals can be referenced later while auditory information cannot. In the younger grades, the ELA folder and notebook should be the same color for every student in the class while Math should have its own color. If we expect our students to differentiate between vocabulary and content, ask them to use a different pen color or highlighter at the beginning of a section. Have a picture of an assignment with all the proper elements in the right place such as name, date and spacing for students to reference.
  4. Work with the other teachers in your school –There is a vertical curriculum for all subjects. A chumash teacher looks at the previous years’ expectations and methodology to plan this year’s curriculum. Executive function skills should be no different.

    In which grade do students learn how to use a planner? When do they learn how to use their binders? When do they learn how to plan for long term projects? Schools need curriculum for these soft skills as much as for the things that get the standardized tests.

    Building on previous teacher’s methodology means that students can develop new executive function skills in subsequent years. This is especially true if we are using strategies to streamline the classroom activities. A common occurrence for example is the third grader teacher using the yellow notebook for ELA while the fourth grade teacher uses it for math. Everyone ends up frustrated that the students are taking so long to find their notebooks. Organization systems are great but having to relearn them yearly is wasteful and stressful. Talking it over with other teachers helps make it easier on everyone.
  5. Ask, don’t tell – Verbal instructions can be long and daunting – “take out your science book, turn to page 35 and do problem 1-10.” This seemingly simple instruction has multiple parts that can get overwhelming. The student looks defiant when he doesn’t start when he really just feels stupid. Go over to the child and ask. “It’s science time – what do you need on your desk to do the assignment?” Reinforce the positive steps “Great, you got out your notebook and book, how will you do the classwork written on the board?” Let the child develop his own self-monitoring so he learns how to unpack your instructions and gain independence.
These strategies are just the tip of the iceberg of how we can help those disorganized, frustrating kids be the bright, capable students they are. When we give children the tools to overcome their weaknesses, we are getting rid of the anxiety and shame which can cripple them for life.

We are not rescuing our kids, we are building them. We are parenting using the "No Need to Rescue" Parenting system. We are setting up our kids to lead happier and more productive lives.

If you have a student or child who fits this profile, please take the time and read the many wonderful websites that outline strategies to help:

Saturday, May 31, 2014

My Terrible/Horrible/No Good/Very Bad Day.

If I write about IT will I seem pathetic? Do I write about IT and try to seem wise?  Do I avoid writing about IT and try to seem super-together and expert-like?  Or do I just quit blogging????

 This is what has been running through my mind ever since I agreed to write a blog post this week.

 Because more than any other topic, I have been wanting to write about my Terrible, Horrible, No Good/Very Bad Day.

 Yeah, I know, blogs on education websites are meant to be inspirational, educational and/or motivational. Hopefully, authentic will pass muster and will help out my fellow teachers as we do our best with the best that we have.

 How Terrible/Horrible/No Good/Very Bad Days have I had this year?  For the first time in all my years teaching, I struggled to connect with the students and teach the material in a fun and engaging way that I enjoyed. This threw me for a loop because until this year, I was the teacher whose classroom was inviting and exciting. I was the teacher whose curriculum got downloaded from websites and was blogging about creative ways to reach each student. This year was very different. So many factors aligned to make this year challenging. Every teacher has those things that are challenging. I just had a lot at once but these individual challenges is not what is important to focus on.

 So why do I want to write about Terrible/Horrible/No Good/Very Bad Days if I am not going to analyze how to prevent them or have the fun of gossiping, blaming or being defensive? I'm writing about it for the teacher who thinks they are the only one who can't seem to pull off a collaborative group activity that combines spirituality and literacy while fostering social skills and classroom culture in an appropriately differentiated lesson.

 I'm also writing this for the co-teachers and administrators who see a colleague struggling with a class and want to reach out rather than isolate and judge.

 There were a few people who were very helpful and I hope we can all aspire to provide that support for our friends.

 One day was a doozy - I was just ready to cry. There were so many factors outside my control and nothing would be different the next day.  I talked it over with a colleague, but we both realized I was not yet ready to hear practical suggestions nor would any make that much of a difference. The advice she offered turned out to be the most practical and useful advice I have ever received from any education professional. It is worth repeating to anyone who will listen and implementing every day.

 My colleague asked me if I had prayed before I entered the classroom. When I heard this advice, I was taken aback. After all, I was the Orthodox Jew teaching religion while she was the non-Jewish secular studies teacher. She repeated the idea and told me that some days that was the best and only thing she could do to reach a hard class.

 What awesome advice! I preach all day about the power of prayer but never thought to do it myself. For all my training and creativity, I had forgotten about bringing G-d into my classroom and my work. Recognizing that it is not all up to me and there are factors that are outside my control has been a powerful spiritual experience. And so I have begun praying to teach, to reach and to educate. Because it's really not about my skills and training after all.

 The second colleague who helped me told me about batting averages. I shared with her a lesson where I felt I failed. Struck Out. I couldn't believe how badly the lesson had gone. When I shared with other people, their reaction just reinforced my shame since they NEVER had such an issue. This colleague thankfully took a different tack. She told me that batters are considered super-stars if they have over a .300 average. That means that seven out of ten times they strike out. Rather than harping on failures, I should look at the long term. Every day won't be a home run. But if I was able to keep working at it, I would still be in the game. Everybody has bad days, great days and mediocre days. Anyone who says otherwise is lying or in denial. We need to focus on successes and learn from our mistakes and keep moving.

The third person didn't even realize he was motivating me after a hard week. We hosted a scholar-in-residence for dinner. This scholar really lived up to his title; he is a recognized super-genius who is well known for his brilliance. I had a hard time arguing with him, which came in handy as you will soon see. We were talking Jewish education, and I, parroting the doomsday talk that I read, was bemoaning the state of Jewish education. The scholar looked at me and said that he thought we were doing pretty well on the whole. Our communities have so many Day School Graduates who are Shomer Shabbat and Kashrut, far more than could be imagined a generation ago.

I countered with some negativity that is featured regularly in the popular Jewish media. He repeated his assertion that on the whole, the sky is not falling and we are doing OK.

How refreshing it was for me to hear! There is so much negativity about the work we do that it can be draining. Having a positive perspective made the job so much more hopeful and enjoyable. True, there are problems, nothing is perfect, but challenges are very different from crises. Surprisingly, the positive outlook helped my teaching improve far more than the critiques that we are accustomed to sharing.

 So IF you ever have a Terrible/Horrible/No Good/Very Bad Day, before you do anything else remember
 1. Pray
 2. Nobody's Perfect
 3. As a whole, we're doing Pretty OK
and most importantly
 4. Reach out. Everyone has Terrible/Horrible/No Good/Very Bad Days. The more that teachers support each other, the better the next day will be.

 And, finally, because it is June, use the next few months to recharge and refresh for a Wonderful/Fantastic/Awesome/Very Good Day (Week,Month,Year) in September.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Opening the world of Torah Learning to our Children

Part 1: Biographies wanted

Last week, one of the greatest Torah sages of the last few generations, Rav Ovadiah Yosef, died. As my husband described him, Rav Ovadia zt"l was a cross between Albert Einsten and Martin Luther King Jr, whose genius was unmatched and who elevated the lives of an entire ethnic group in Israel.

I wanted my third graders to have a taste of Rav Ovadia zt"l's greatness so that they could be inspired to work hard and  to appreciate the greatness & uniqueness of our Torah giants.

For the last two year, I have been presenting a Torah personality to my class once a week. Our gedolim unit is consistently the favorite period of the week for my students and myself. This past week, I presented them with the biography of Rav Ovadia Yosef. We watched a video of his funeral, saw pictures from his life and then I read a biography I had written for the occasion.

I could tell the biography truly resonated when one of my students, who happens to be my son, insisted that he read the biography aloud to the entire family at both Shabbos dinner and lunch.

Another student came in on Monday and asked if we were learning another biography that day. When I told him that we only discussed the biographies on Friday, he looked crestfallen. He said to me, "But Mrs. Hochheimer, I can't find any gedolim biographies written for my reading level!"  Sure enough, the books I found in the school library and in my home were either a compilation of stories that lacked historical context or were too long to hold the interest of a third grader. My student had already read the graphic novels of the life of Rashi, the Rambam, Rav Shmuel Hanagid, and he wanted more.

What my student wants is the Jewish equivalent of  the David Adler's Picture Biography series that includes major highlights in a person's life with some illustrations. There is a Jewish biography series with beautiful pictures, but these books focus on one or two stories and leave out the biographical data that illustrate why one gadol is different from the other and how he was a product of is time period.

Part Two: Halacha Books needed

My husband is teaching fifth grade and want to integrate Halacha and Ivrit. He felt his students were ready to write "teshuvos" where they respond to halachic questions proving their opinion by citing research from relevant seforim and books. For the project to work, the books and seforim need to be able to be understood by the students independently. This has not been a simple task. Books that have the appropriate content are written on an adult level, and the books written for children are superficial and lack the necessary information. Putting together source books for this creative project has proven more challenging than anticipated.

Part Three: Trade Books

Contrast the time invested in creating a halacha project with the resources available for a social studies project.

Today, my co-teacher showed me her fifth grade's projects. Groups of students are researching the Western Hemisphere to create annotated maps which they will present to the class. After being taught some background knowledge by the teacher, and being given supplies and access to two dozen trade books, they were set free to do the project on their own. The kids are enjoying owning their learning and discovering new information independently.

The reason this project is successful is because the students have access to appropriate trade books that doesn't frustrate them when they are learning. Trade Books, which are books found in the children section of a library, are very helpful in contrast to textbooks which had been the mainstay of classroom learning. As non-fiction literature has taken a more prominent place in the core curriculum, trade books have become an important part of the secular studies classroom. Unlike textbooks, trade books are written in a human voice, will explore a topic in depth and allows students to read different books about the same topic so that they can learn from multiple perspectives.The kids enjoy these books more than reading their textbook since the books are authentic literature and geared to their reading level. Students discover that they can learn on their own without a teacher as long as they can open the pages of a book.

Part Four: Problem Defined

The Jewish nation IS the people of the book. Yet, our students don't have access to enough Judaic trade books so that they can learn Torah without adult participation. Our students need books with pictures, simple sentence structure and complex information written appropriately  for their cognitive level. Each topic needs to be explored in  multiple books so that our students can learn how to research and synthesize new information into a cohesive whole.

There are some great children's books that teach Torah in an engaging and age appropriate manner. My book shelf at home is full of them, and my own kids have learned so much Torah from these books. However, there are just not enough of these books so that our students can begin to research and learn in our classrooms without adult help.

Judaic Publishing is a not a financially lucrative business. It would be impossible to expect publishers to publish books that schools, which are going broke, can't afford to buy anyway. So what can we do? How can we stock our classroom shelves so that our students who love to read can choose to learn about cities in Israel instead of about life in Ancient Greece? How can we gather research materials for our Torah projects without investing hours and hours of time?

Part Five: Solution

The question is how do we create literature written for kids on a wide variety of topics while keeping costs down?

Unfortunately, my question is better than my answer.  Ill offer my ideas, and I'd love to hear yours as well.

1. Our community has some great clearning houses for Jewish curricular material. has the archives for the over 50 years of Olemeinu magazine online. The Olemeinu Magazine has some great reference articles about Judaic subjects that are age appropriate. Please let me know if there are other affordable content sources out there that I could make available to my students in my classroom.

2. On Jewish education websites, teachers generously share worksheets & project ideas. What if teachers would start to create books that other teachers could print for their classroom?  So many of us teachers love to write. We can self-publish and help each other. Let's get some books out there.

3. Who else can we get to write these books?  Well, middle school & high school teachers . . . here is the challenge. Your students are doing research projects anyway. They are using the internet, seforim, and research books to write about Torah topics for your classes.  What if, as part of their research projects, they had to write a children's book as well? You could teach them how to find images online that are not subject to copyright, and they could learn how modify their writing based on their audience. Knowing that their work is going to be used by other kids to learn will also motivate them to do their best.  Their hard work won't disappear once it has been graded and will provide a real service teaching Torah to other Jewish children.

4. Let's talk about the need to expand our classroom libraries. When we acknowledge the problem, solutions present themselves in unexpected ways.

Part Six: Conclusion

I started by describing the greatness of Rav Ovadiah Yosef and his impact on the world of Torah. He delved into the world of Torah as a child and never left.

Each of our students has unlimited potential. What a six year old learns will never leave him. Our students love to read. They love to explore. Let's make sure that if our students want to learn more, they have what they need to do so.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Biography of Rav Ovadia Yosef

Rav Ovadia Yosef was niftar this past Monday. I spoke to my class today about him as our first biography of the year. It is hard to capture the greatness of a man who was one of the biggest geonim of the generation but was also the greatest civil Rights leader of Israel who tranformed the lives of 50% of the Israeli population who faced discrimination, poverty, hopelessness and spiritual ignorance. Zechuso Yagen Aleinu.

Some videos & Links of Interest Rav Lau (who visited Rochester last year with Rav Ovadia)
4 minutes in the day of rav Ovadia
CNN reports on his funeral -
pictures from his life -
Pictures from his Funeral -

RAV OVADIA YOSEF  (born 1920-2013 )

On the 3rd of Cheshvan, Rav Ovadia Yosef was niftar. By that evening, over 800,000 people streamed into Yerushalayim for the largest funeral in the history of the State of Israel. 1 in 10 Israelis came to the funeral. There were sefardim, Ashkenazim, rich and poor, religious and secular and the greatest Gedolei Torah and the most unlearned Jewsl. There were so many people that the police warned that the buildings were in danger of collapsing.

What made Rav Ovadia Yosef so loved by so many people that they dropped everything to come to a funeral with only 4 hours notice? The reason they came is because of how much Rav Ovadia had meant to each one of them

Rav Ovadia Yosef was born in Baghdad on September 23, 1920. In 1924 he immigrated to Yerushalayim with his family. His family was very poor. His father was a grocer and worked hard to provide for his family, but they often went hungry.

As a teenager, Rav Ovadia studied at the Porat Yosef Yeshiva. He was in the top class taught by the Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Ezra Attiya (1885-1970) a gadol from the Sephardic Jewish world.

Rav Attiya made sure that the young Ovadia would stay in yeshiva. One day, Rav Ovadia stopped coming to yeshiva. Rav Attiya went to his home to find out what happened. The Yosef family was shockingly poor.  R’ Ovadia Yosef's father said that he needed his son to help him in his store. The next morning, the father came to his store and found Rav Attiya there with an apron on. Rav Attiya volunteered to work for free as long as R’ Ovadia could return to yeshiva. “Your son's learning is more important than my time!" Rav Ovadiah Yosef was allowed to return to yeshiva.  

When he was in yeshiva, the dorm counselor noticed that his room always had light coming from the door. Even after all the other students  had gone to sleep, Rav Ovadia kept learning.

When R’ Ovadia was 17, Rav Addia asked him to teach a nightly class in a Persian shul in the Bukaharan Quarter. The people who came were local workers and did not know much Torah. At this time, Sefardim were treated very poorly and were poor and unlearned. They were used to learning a little halacha. Rav Ovadiah Yosef, who was already a Talmid Chacham, taught these people on their level so they would come close to Torah. He wrote that he would study each halacha until he understood it very well. He taught the halacha according to Rav Yosef Karo, the author of the Shulchan Aruch. There, he began a life long mission to “restore the glory of Jewish tradition” to try to have all the Sephardic Jews in Israel follow the halacha according to Rav Yosef Karo.

At the age of 20, he was given semicha to be a Rav.  In 1947,Rav Ovadia Yosef went to Egypt to be a Rebbe in the yeshiva and to be the head of the Beis Din and assistant Chief Rabbi of Egypt. After several years, he returned to Israel.

When Rav Ovadia first got married he was very poor. His wife had worked to put aside money to buy a closet where they could store their clothes. One day, he mentioned to his wife how he had written a sefer. She took all the money she had saved and used it to publish his seforim.

After that first sefer, Rav Ovadiah published many seforim including his important set of halacha sefarim “yabia omer” Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach wrote in the introduction to the second volume that Rav OvadiaYosef is "one of the greatest Torah scholars which have risen in Israel in recent generations.” At the time, he was only in his thirties. These sefarim have answers to many halachic questions people have asked him. It is considered very special because he included almost every source regarding a topic from very rare sources. Rav Ovadia acted like an encyclopedia for all Torah for Klal Yisrael.

When Rav Ovadia was a young man, he began to go blind, an effect of the poverty of his youth. He went to the Kever of Rav Yosef Karo (who is called Maran by Sefardim) and davened that he still had much of the Torah of Maran to teach. Baruch Hashem, his vision was saved, but for the rest of his life he wore glasses to protect his eyes.

When Rav Ovadia was in Eretz Yisroel he became a Dayan in the Yerushalayim Beis Din, then a higher level Beis Din in Yerushalayim before becoming the Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Tel Aviv and finally of Israel.  As a Rav, he took responsibility to help many people who were in difficult situations. After the Yom Kippur war, many men went missing and their wives were agunos. He learned many seforim until he could find a way so that each woman could remarry.

Rav Yosef’s biggest goal was for Sephardim to come back to Torah and Mitzvos. When the Sefardim came to Israel, they were very poor and didn’t have yeshivos. He founded school systems, yeshivos and Beis Yaakovs so that all Sephardic Jews could come close to Torah. He provided hot lunches so that the children wouldn’t go hungry. He gave shiurim every night with humor and love. He was warm and friendly to all. When two boys were left as orphans, he brought them to shul and sat with them. Despite his amkus B’Torah, he related to each Jew with joy so that they would love Hashem too.As a result of his decades of work, there are now great Rabbanim and Poskim, and many families who are Shomer Torah and Mitzvos.
After being the chief Rabbi in 1983, Rav Ovadia founded a political party which had representatives in the government. He was respected and had great influence on the government of Israel. Because of his work, the oppressed Sephardim were accepted by the other Jews in Israel and were able to have good schools and get good jobs.

Rav Ovadia continued to teach Torah until the end of his life. Even though he was one of the biggest Torah scholars of our generation, he taught Torah to whomever wanted on their level. He told stories and taught Torah so that everyone would understand.

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef lived Har Nof in Yerushalayim until the end of his life. He was buried next to his wife Margalit, with whom he had eleven children and numerous grand and great grandchildren.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

What does my classroom Feel like?

This year, like most teachers, parents and students, I was lucky enough to have TWO first days of school. At least that was what it felt like. My first, first day was Thursday before Rosh Hashana. We had a total of eight school days interspersed over the course of 3 weeks with frequent breaks for secular holidays, Jewish holidays, and erev holidays.

This Monday was my second, first day. Come Friday (if I make it Please G-d), I will have taught my first full week of classes this year. So, although school began over a month ago, I figure I can write about some things that teachers think about during the first few weeks of school.

This year, I hope to write about how to improve learning in the classroom. But, before we can even begin to discuss the nuts and bolts of pedagogy, Ed-Tech, or PBL, we teachers need to figure out what our classroom culture is going to be like.  Planning how our classroom feels emotionally is just as important as planning lessons and learning content. 

Here are a few principles that have worked for me and are easily transferable to all grades.

1. Develop a relationship – Teaching a child is not the same as programming a computer. The child has this funny thing called "free will." No matter how well a teacher teaches, the student needs to want to learn. One of the biggest motivators for a student is their relationship with a teacher. 

How does a teacher purposely develop a relationship with students? Rabbi Noach Orlowek says, "If it is important to you, it is important to me” When I care about my students' interests and lives because they are interested in them, I create a bond. 

If they like baseball, I better know who won the game last night. My students know I don't care about baseball. But they know that I know that they care about baseball. If they are absent, sad or distracted, I let them know I notice and care. 

Goal for the year: Try to make a connection with at least 2 students a day about something that is important to them. 

2. Each student is his own world - Students want to know that a teacher sees them as individuals. Our students are in big classes and come from big families. They want to know that someone gets who they are as a person, not as a member of a group. During the first few days, I try to do ice breakers and have the students tell me about themselves. As I learn more about them, I direct comments to them in and out of class to let them know that I know them for who they are as important individuals in their own right. 

Some teachers ask students to write numbers on their papers for ease of sorting. What a shame! Our students are not just a number in our classes. They have dignity - they have a name! We need to use their names when speaking to them and when writing comments to them. During class, I also direct comments to them as individuals. 
"Shimon, I know you are a lefty, so just listen to this pasuk in Navi" 
"Kiryas Arbeh was  a city of GIANTS, no Akiva not THAT kind of GIANTS"  
"Leah, I know you are the class expert on sweeping, can you help us out by teaching us how to do it better?"  

When students feel proud of who they are as an individual and not just as part of a group, they take pride in what they do, become independent thinkers, and are more thoughtful in their choices.

Goal for the year: Reinforce that each student is an individual by addressing each student by his name at least once a day.

3. Fix myself first – I have expectations for how my students act, talk and treat others. I want them to respect themselves, their time, other people and other people's property. I can’t teach respect if I don’t practice respect. 

To model respect, I need to be thinking about my own character. I'm not perfect, and have plenty of flaws that need to be improved. When I focus on my own character, I am less critical of my students' mistakes and have more patience to help them improve. Self-improvement also sets an example for the class that learning and growth are life-long processes. Students don't feel threatened when they realize they are not perfect because they have a model of how to accept their process of growth as a positive rather than being embarrassed that they are not perfect. 

One day, a colleague commented how calm I was when some students were acting like children. I was surprised at his assessment but also proud. I have a tendency to get emotional. I had been working on my own emotions so that I could deal with classroom interruptions calmly. It was gratifying to hear that a colleague perceived me differently than my inherent nature. 

Goal for the year: Pick character goals of my own, and reflect on them on regular basis. Think aloud about self improvement to model the process for my students. 

4. Plan routines – Things go smoother when the transitions and common tasks are on auto-pilot. Getting students into routines at the beginning of the year means that I don’t constantly have to be involved in negative interactions by constantly correcting and being critical. I can focus on the positive and the learning instead. 

Routines don’t just happen though. They require time, planning and reinforcement. At the end of the summer, I thought of classroom events that happen regularly. How will my students hand in papers? How will they line up for recess? How will I get their attention? What happens if a student bullies? It takes a lot of time to  to practice the routines but it is  well worth the pay off after a few short weeks.

Goal for the year: Spend the first few weeks practicing routines even if students learn less content. If there are times of chaos in the class, think of systems and routines that could improve the situation.

5. Plan well – I try to stuff my classes with as much learning and engagement as possible from bell to bell (and beyond if possible). Human beings want to improve. It’s part of what improves the universe. I have confidence that if I give opportunities to learn, my students will try to grow.  I try to make these learning opportunities active and student-centered with multiple learning modalities so every student has a way to access the learning if they want. 

Goal for the year: Review my lesson plans nightly for multiple learning modalities and active learning. Look for down time and incorporate learning of some sort. 

6. Humor and Positivity Students are more engaged when they are relaxed.  They can focus on learning when they feel comfortable and there is a light atmosphere of good cheer rather than pressure and stress.  You can do serious work even if the mood is not serious. 

As a teacher, I set the mood in the room. I force a smile on my face even if I am tired. My students are looking at me all day. Looking at a sour face is a real downer. In my classroom, I need to be a positive person and to use humor to diffuse many difficulat situations.

Goal for the year: Smile. Get enough sleep so that I can find humor even in tough situations. Bring humor and joy into the learning. 

7. Teach optimistic thinking– on the top of my tests, I write “The best you can do is to do your best!” I encourage my class to recognize that they are special, that nothing is ever the end of the world (except perhaps the end of the world) and to believe in themselves that they can be successful . 

Some of our students grow up in critical homes and need to learn how to view the world more optimistically. They need help retraining their thinking from highly critical to self-nurturing. When students are more forgiving of themselves and celebrate their successes, they don’t need to engage in negative conflicts for attention.

The first weeks of school is an important time to reinforce this message. Kids don't want to make mistakes. They are scared that they will be mocked by peers and lose the respect of their teacher. I always try to celebrate mistakes that come from hard work and effort so students learn that hard work, effort and perseverance is more important than getting it right.
Goal for the year: Praise effort over aptitude.

8. Realize no one is perfect, not me and not them – sometimes I have a bad day. Sometimes, they do. Rather than letting that set the tone for the rest of the year, I need to be able to let the day go and start over the next day. 

Goal for the year:  Reflect on the many positive parts of my day and let go of the negative. Problem solve rather than getting annoyed.

With these few tips, I hope that my classroom will be one of joy, learning and cooperation. I hope to enjoy myself this year and I hope that my students do as well.  

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Chinuch Energy: The Importance of friends in the teachers' room

Every other Wednesday, I post ideas about how to improve the learning going on in the classroom. There are so many buzzwords and great ideas floating around about what could make education better: blended learning, 1 to 1 education, media labs. It would take 30 hours a day to get schools to be perfect and for teachers to prepare the needed lessons to implement these ideas. Yet, even if all these innovations were implemented, I'm not sure these ideas would improve the learning drastically without addressing a more fundamental issue. No matter how much research and effort we put into improving education  there is still one factor that impacts all teachers, young and old, novice and expert that can turn an excellent teacher into a burned out one. That factor is what it's like to work in a school.

Teaching in Isolation

Teaching can be an isolating job. As a teacher, I am often all alone in a classroom facing a room full of kids.  I love them, I adore their energy, and I understand that each one has unique challenges and gifts. But like parenting, if I have to do it  by myself, it gets tough. Technically, in a school, no teacher is ever alone. The building is full with other adults: teachers, administrators and staff. However, there are schools where each man is for himself, and schools where everyone is part of a team. 

I have taught in both kinds of schools. There were some schools where going into the teachers' room left me feeling queasy. In other schools,  I felt emotionally respected and professionally invigorated. When the environment was stressful, my energy was spent worrying about politics rather than my students. When I felt like a respected part of the team, I was able to give over that feeling to my students and their learning improved. 

The Role of the Adminstration

A lot of the emotional feel of the school, its collegiality and culture, come from the top. The administration sets the tone by how they communicate, how they accept and give influence and what behaviors are allowed. So if you are an administrator - your school culture is huge and needs attention.

What's a teacher to do?

But, I'm a teacher, so I can't make these global decisions.  But I am someone else's colleague. The only one I can work on is myself. So what can I, a teacher, do to improve the culture in my school? Because, just as much as anything else, improving the culture in the school improves the learning in my classroom

Today, in the teacher's room in my school I asked my colleagues for help with writing this blog post (Go Team!) We came up with a few suggestions:

1) Be kind - If there is a chance to help someone else out, do it. Today, a faculty member, Dr. E., came into the teachers room with arms loaded with packages. Mr. P  jumped up cleared a spot on the table and helped put all the stuff away. Mr. P is in grad school and this was his prep period, yet he spent those moments being helpful rather than thinking about himself. Two years ago, when I needed more space in my classroom, Mrs. R and Mr. F spent their prep time  problem solving to come up with a solution that inconvenienced them but helped me. "How can I help?" is a phrase that turns a roomful of strangers into friends. 

2) Be gracious - Give with good humor and humility. Receive with a smile and a sincere thank you.  Today, Dr. E brought lunch for the staff because there were difficult  meetings that lasted all day. She didn't announce, as I have heard in other schools, that she provides lunch to improve the school morale or that she does it even though no one ever appreciates her efforts. Instead, she sincerely thanked us for all our hard work and encouraged us to enjoy the lunch. When I give a compliment to another teacher, I love hearing a thank you rather than a self-deprecating comment.

3) Be positive - Cheerful energy spreads. Negative energy spreads, too. Try to leave wherever you are a better place than it was before. Today, I was leaving the teachers room when Rabbi C. called out when looking at the lunch spread "This is the best place in the world to work!" Those kind of positive messages are infectious and frame the day with joy. I couldn't help but go into my classroom in a better state of mind. Spread positive messages about your school to others and tell them to yourself too. In another school,  teachers spent their lunch breaks criticizing students, other communities and the administration. It was hard to appreciate my students and their gifts after hearing so many put downs..  

4) Be forgiving - All teachers, kids and administrators (yes even administrators) are doing the best they can with the tools they have. If they could do it better and become perfect, they would. If you can help improve the situation while being kind, gracious and positive, go for it. Otherwise, realize that hostility and judgement just makes the other person defensive. As teachers, we are trained to analyze and notice. We need to train ourselves not to notice when it leads to negativity and despair. 

5) Problem Solve - Teaching has its challenges. For some reason, the children and adolescents in my school  insist on acting childish and adolescent. I'm assuming the same is true in your school. As a result, teachers all over the world have days where they want to tear out whatever little hair they have left. Rather than getting stuck on bad feelings, try to move the issue into the problem solving stage. Identify and label the problem and then think about possible solutions with your peers. Be the kind of colleague that doesn't judge someone else for having a bad day. Encourage your colleague and support them when they are down. A few weeks ago, I had a tough day. I called my colleague, and she reminded me that I'm a good teacher and we all have hard days. Her positive, affirming messages, together with some good suggestions helped a lot

6) Have integrity - Be a trustworthy person. Don't try to get a colleague to do your work for you. Leave the copy machine area the way you found it. Don't gossip about co-workers, students or parents. Treat the new staff with the same consideration as you do the old-timers. Keep the private lives of students and their learning struggles confidential. When you have integrity, colleagues trust you and feel comfortable around you.

7) Learn together - Find like minded staff and talk ideas (as long as you can stay kind, forgiving, and positive) so that you grow as professionals together. Don't use your interest in education as an excuse to put down other teachers though. Share ideas in a positive way so that you feed each others' creativity. 

The Culture Killers

There are a bunch of ways that make a teachers room into the worst kind of prison. Watch out for  Gossip, Sarcasm, Snobbishness, Resentment, Judgementalism, Inconsideration, and Negativity from creeping into your interactions. If you find that these habits are sneaking in, it's time to take a break and refuel your energy before you burn out and burn out others. Look around your school for people who don't share these characteristics and start sharing the 7 positive relationship building tools mentioned above with them.

As a teacher, what would you like to see in your school?  I'd love to hear your thoughts!

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Common Core Judaics: The Six Steps of Academic Vocabulary

The Common Core

I don't know about you, but my school has been living and breathing the common core over the last few weeks. Although as a private school, we are exempt from the 3-8th grade testing requirement, my school administered the tests anyway to help provide benchmarks for the General Studies program.

So we lived through the state exams. Our students did really well, and I got to feel good that I'm  not the only one who has trouble making assessments that capture the vibrancy of  the curriculum. An important lesson. But, even more important, I learned that there are some great techniques and research being used to teach the Common Core that we should make our own in Judaic Studies.

Academic Vocabulary - the key to learning 

A major part of the common core is a focus on teaching academic vocabulary from grades K-12.

Research has shown that students who are academically successful  have broader and deeper academic vocabularies.  And while students who read more often have better academic vocabularies, forcing students to read more won't increase their vocabulary. We need a system to teach vocabulary if we want all our students to be able to learn and read.

As a result, the 6th shift  for the ELA standards is toward vocabulary learning.
Students constantly build the transferable vocabulary they need to access grade level complex texts. This can be done effectively by spiraling like content in increasingly complex texts (
Teachers from K-12 are now focusing on teaching vocabulary and developing systems to do so. They are  teaching academic vocabulary in all subject areas to make sure that students can read the required texts in each discipline.

So what is academic vocabulary? Non-academic vocabulary is vocabulary you learn in daily life such as "My mother went to the store yesterday". Academic vocabulary is denser and is not generally used in life. Example: We will need to examine more data before we can make any conclusions (  Academic Vocabulary are the words that are prevalent in written text which may not be familiar to the students,

But I teach Ivrit B'Ivrit, or Mishna do I need to worry about Academic Vocabulary?

The answer is a resounding yes. No matter the language of instruction, all students need to be learning vocabulary. 
  1. If students don't understand over 90% of what they read, they are not reading for meaning. 
  2. They won't learn the language just by reading words in context. 
  3. Biblical Hebrew, Mishnaic Hebrew, and the Hebrew of the commentaries differ from modern and spoken Hebrew. The different idioms and grammars must  be taught explicitly.
So, if you teach Ivrit B'Ivrit,  or advanced Chumash in high school, you can still benefit from the information I'm about to present. Modify your exercises so they resemble the vocabulary instruction done in the General Studies classroom but please still do them.

What is the Academic Vocabulary in Judaics?

  • During Chumash, the high frequency words and the common grammar forms are the academic vocabulary. In later grades, new words and grammar constructs would be the academic vocabulary.
  • In Mishna, there are key words that appear throughout that should be taught until they students know them  automatically
  • Gemara, has key words that indicate logic and text structures. Plus, of course, Aramaic is its own academic vocabulary with new grammar, high frequency words and other common words.
  • Halacha has its own vocabulary: whether it is concepts like בטל בששים or just terms לחתחילה and בדי עבד 
  • Holidays: קְעָרָה and הֲדַסִים are academic vocabulary for the holidays
  • Rashi: The hebrew of Rashi is different than Biblical Hebrew. There are idioms that convey meaning such as the shoresh א.מ.ר means a quote, אֶלָא, וּמִדְרָשוֹ, etc.  
  • Other Meforshim: The Ramban, Ibn Ezra etc all use vocabulary specific to their time. Their structure is also dense and needs to be unpacked. Students need to be guided in how to unpack and read these very academic texts.

Vocabulary instruction must be systematic and explicit to work.

Robert J. Marzano, in his book Building Academic Vocabulary outlines 6 steps to help students learn vocabulary. While each of these steps can be used individually, they are most powerful when used in sequence and together. 

The Six Steps

Step 1:  Teacher will give a description, explanation, or example of the new term.
Step 2:  Linguistic: Students will restate the description, explanation, or example in their own words.
tep 3:  Non-linguistic: Students will draw a picture, symbol, or locate a graphic to represent the new term.
Step 4:  Students will will participate in activities that provide more knowledge of the words in their vocabulary notebooks.
Step 5:  The learner will discuss the term with other learners.
Step 6:  The learner will participate in games that provide more reinforcement of the new term.

On to vocabulary instruction . . . . 

Step 1:  Teacher will give a description, explanation, or example of the new term.

First,  describe the term. Act it out. Draw it on the board. Tell students a story with the word. Just giving a definition isn't helpful because that's not how we learn language. 

Use both verbal and non-verbal communication to explain the term to help the learning and to prepare the students for the next step.

I have pictures I use for each shoresh, I draw on the board and I do charades for many terms. This makes it fun and helps the students learn the new words in the most natural way possible.

Step 2:  Students restate description, explanation, or example of the new term in their words.

Having the student use their own words is very important. Make sure they understand the idea and haven't gotten confused. By taking ownership of the explanation, the students take ownership of their learning

I have the students write the definition in their learning log which is very useful. In this example, I was able to spot the spelling mistake and correct the error.

Step 3:  Students will draw a picture, symbol, or locate a graphic to represent the new term.

Drawing pictures and symbols forces the student to process the information in a different way. For some, this is the way they love to learn, and they brighten up after being forced to read, read, read. They finally get to doodle!  Other students find this very challenging and need help to come up with their own pictures especially for abstract ideas. After a while, they get it, and they enjoy a chance to use their creativity.

I also have students draw their own picture in their learning log.

Step 4:  Students will participate in activities that provide more knowledge of the words in their vocabulary notebooks.

In this step, the students use the words in context and out of context. Have them look for prefixes, and suffixes and roots. Record antonyms and synonyms.

In Chumash class, I ask the students to locate the shoresh in the pasuk and write the phrase in their log (see above image). When possible, I ask them to translate the phrase. At the beginning of the year, I had them highlight the prefixes and suffixes using different colored highlighters for עבר, הווה and עתיד. Now, this step is unnecessary and we review this information verbally.

Some other ideas: ask students to list שרשים that are synonyms or antonyms or ask them if they have seen this word in other contexts: תפילה, previous פרשיות etc. This is very exciting for  students when they remember pesukim they learned in the beginning of the year and they connect their learning to previous learning.

Step 5:  The learner will discuss the term with other learners.

When students interact with others their learning is deeper and more memorable. I have my students explain their drawings to their friends, have chavrusas while reviewing the pesukim and describe when they may have experienced the terms in their life or use the term in a conversation with the partner.

Step 6:  The learner will participate in games that provide more reinforcement of the new term.

Marzano has found that games motivate the students to learn and forces them to use the new terms in context and out of context and with friends.

I have  a word wall in my classroom that changes for each perek.  It was very inexpensive to create. I put up large pieces of felt that I bought at a craft store, and bought 1000 velcro hook dots and stuck them to the back of all my laminated vocabulary word cards. Now I can use the cards for many different games and activities to help reinforce the learning and to keep track where each student is holding.

One of my students favorite games is "airplane". They line their seats up into airplane style rows in front of the felt boards. I give the students tickets, 3 green, 3 orange, and 3 yellow. Each row get to take a trip to the board. Each students takes down a word from the board that matches a ticket in their hand and translate the words. If they get the translation right,  they put their name on the ticket and it goes into a raffle. Otherwise, I get the ticket.

Generally, Orange is shorashim, Yellow is high frequency words and Green is new vocabulary. Everyone has a chance to be successful and reviews all their vocabulary multiple times.

I look forward to hearing how you teach vocabulary in your classrooms and any games you may play!

Other Resources about Academic Vocabulary:

There are a lot of websites out there but these are some I used to help me