By Amian Kelemer
I love words. This fascination led me to a minor in linguistics and, more practically, a weekly bananagrams game with my neighbor.
Tonight, my attention turned toward our construct of “school.” The word school as we know it is derived from the Greek word “schole,” which means leisure. When most of us think of school, we do not think of leisure. Now imagine the life of a Greek scholar — to sit in contemplation, to perform mental gymnastics and to pursue the ephemeral truth — that all connotes time and opportunity. In fact, the Sophists practiced the art of argument for argument’s sake and were praised for being able to convince the listener of their perspective and then use the same skills to convince the listener of the opposite.
Any student of Jewish thought knows that we also maintain a tradition of intellectual pursuit and that the intricate machinations in a passage of Gemara require wit and mental acuity. However, that is not why we do it. We study, not for study’s sake, but for the elucidation of text and its practical application to our lives. Our schools were not established as schole, but Beit Rabban (house of the teacher), Beit Talmud (house of learning), Beit Midrash (house of text) or Beit HaSefer (house of the book.)
Teaching in a global pandemic requires finesse. And it requires us to go back to our roots, and the Jewish tradition of learning. Here are four opportunities we need to act on in order to recalibrate as a result of the pandemic.
First and foremost, we need to reenergize the homeschool partnership. In the pandemic, the parents are true partners as they manage behaviors, print out worksheets, troubleshoot technology and share workspace with their children. We need to make sure parents know the “why” behind what we are teaching and are able to support their children. In the Beit Rabban model, the community teacher was only employed when a parent could not fulfill the responsibility of educating the child. How do we teach the parents so they can be our partners and how do we listen to parents so we can be better partners for them?
Second, we need to reconsider what it is that students should learn and carefully chart a course to that destination. In other words, we need to teach things worth knowing. Of course, we should have always done that, but times are different now and we need to reestablish our Beit Talmud. I recently read an opinion about not teaching our children anything they can ask Siri or Alexis. So if we are not teaching for pure intellectual pursuit, and we are not teaching for rote memorization and fact, what should we be teaching? How do we identify the enduring understandings in this fluid environment?
Third, schools need to collaborate more effectively. There are fewer available teachers and certainly fewer career-track highly qualified ones. There is less money and more pressure for time and attention. We need to share teachers, design initiatives that coordinate our efforts effectively, come up with systems to maximize collaboration and minimize concerns over market share. The more schools work together, the better all learners will be. We need to see ourselves as one big Beit Midrash where we have respectful and honest dialogue about what really matters to our community’s learners.
Finally, we need to help our students look beyond themselves. The recent trend of “personalized learning,” where education is customized for each student, can have the detrimental effect of overemphasizing the individual and ignoring the aspect of community we want our children to embrace and support. Rather than focus on themselves, they need to look outward and engage in chessed (loving kindness), thinking about what they can do for others. We also need to send them outside! Scandinavian culture teaches that “there is no bad weather, only bad clothing.” Our American sensibilities need to shift in order to provide our students with the feeling of owning their own world. In this world, we learn lessons about perseverance and impermanence. And they need to read; read real books printed on paper and lose themselves in the written word. The Beit HaSefer started students out learning the basics — who am I in relationship to the world.
In a Beit HaSefer, the children were instructed from the beginning of the Torah — with the very first verse which begins with the letter “bet.” This letter bet is the first letter of the word “bereshit” — “in the beginning.” The letter bet looks like a bayit — it has a solid foundation, wall and roof. In this pandemic, may the foundations of all of our houses — the ones we live in, study in, pray in and more, become stronger. May we discover new beginnings together!
Amian Frost Kelemer is the CEO of the Louise D. and Morton J. Macks Center for Jewish Education.