A blog by Avraham Wachs Cashman
Judaics teacher, Ner Tamid Community Day School
I’ve never had a parent ask me if their child is on “grade level” in Judaics.
We do not have the same level of formal assessment in Judaics that we have in reading and math because frankly it would be absurd to report to a parent that their child is failing religion. Rather, we stress the different levels of understanding. Pshat, drash, midrash, and commentary are skills we can teach, but these skills requires a certain level of cognitive growth. Parents in day school seem to get this. “He’s only understanding Rashi at a 5th grade level” would be comical to read in a progress report and no one has asked me to compare a student’s d’rash writing to those across same grade students in the Commonwealth.
I can recall back when I was in third grade coming home from my Jewish day school and sharing some tidbit I learned that day and my Abba, a rabbi and scholar, responded, “I did not learn that until I was in rabbinical school.” I think of Rabbi Akivah learning his Aleph Bet with the small children, or the teenage sage Rabbi Elazar, the son of Azariah, wise as a seventy year old. Jewish learning does not follow a grade leveled scale.
When the Jewish Theological Seminary published its standards and benchmarks, I was partially pleased to have a scaffolded list of skills and content that a Jewish day school graduate should have. There even seems to be a recognition of multi age progression as it covers blocks of ages at a time. But another part of me cringed; I don’t believe a student should ever be held back simply because they progress more slowly in Tanakh or Toshba.
I remember having a conversation with my Abba in recent years comparing some congregants to parents. Some of his congregants were in religious school up until Bar/Bat Mitzvah then stopped coming until they had children of their own. Their concept of God may have evolved as they aged, but their knowledge of Jewish Halacha and religious content was that of a young teenager. Likewise, a parent’s concept of elementary school is decades old and is likely warped by time and memory. While most parents are strong believers that education today should be “better” they may not have a clear picture on what that is or how to talk about it. We can be ardent supporters of any of the progressive buzz words today our schools are trying to promote. We, as Ner Tamid members, speak amongst ourselves, friends, and acquaintances about the amazing benefits of personalized/integrated/flipped classrooms but may struggle in actually defining any of these in detail to those whose pedagogical language is outdated. I recall speaking to a family friend about personalized education for fifteen minutes; the conversation ended when they asked if this helped them perform above public school grade level. This can no longer be the language we use. When it comes to their children we do not want our community regressing back to the same vocabulary of education yesteryear.
The vocabulary for personalized education is different. It focuses on the growth and progress of a student compared to himself, not in comparison to others. If we want the true concepts of our teaching practice to be adopted by our community, we must abandon the concept of the strict twelve-month incremental grade. The Talmud teaches “Teach each child according to his own way”. As a Jewish day school, we already have accepted this mindset in Judaics. We must grow our beliefs to encompass the other half of our children’s learning. This by no means suggests we reject standards, but we view them as milestones for each child to be challenged by when they are ready.
One of the reasons I joined Ner Tamid and have enjoyed seeing it flourish is our commitment to our personalized learning creed. In every subject, students see how our personalized approach to teaching is not lip service, but the brick and mortar of our classroom culture. As a community, teachers, students, and parents can help educate our larger community about how our model creates the safe space where our children flourish in all they endeavor.