- Why follow the unknown, rocky path?
A blog by Amanda Behen
General Studies Teacher at Ner Tamid Community Day School
Five months ago I was at a fork in the road and was faced with the challenge of choosing which path to take. Both paths were unknown, however one was smooth and safe while the other was rocky and dangerous. Despite advice from friends and family, I was drawn to the dangerous rocky path. As a teacher I have a desire to challenge myself and continue to learn and the rocky path provided that. So, instead of taking the job at an established school, I wandered down that rocky path to help create Ner Tamid, a new multi-age Jewish Day School. Since then I have often been asked why I made that choice, why I took that risk. It is hard to explain, but the simple answer is I had a feeling that by taking that risk, I would have the opportunity to create something magical. By taking the rocky path, I was given the opportunity to continue my work in multi-age personalized learning.
Multi-age learning is not a new concept in and of itself, for decades children learned in one room schoolhouses, but it is a model that has been shied away from in recent years. In today’s education model, people question how 6th graders and 1st graders can learn in the same classroom. At Ner Tamid, each child has a personalized education plan guided by their academic levels in each subject, social- emotional readiness, and personal learning styles and passions. This allows a 6th grader to work on content at their personalized level while the first grader works at their level. All the while, the 6th grader is setting an example for some of the younger students. The amazing thing is, it’s often the case that the younger students will step up and be the role model for the older students. This helps to foster a sense of empowerment and responsibility in all students.
It is magical to stand in my classroom and see children spanning 6 years in age sitting next to each other talking, laughing and working together. It is rare that a 12 year old has the opportunity to work with a first grader, and even rarer that they are willing to learn from that first grader. At Ner Tamid, we have fostered a community where each child has the opportunity to be a teacher, a community where students are willing to ask questions, to make mistakes, to learn in a way that is best for them, and to advocate for themselves both socially and academically. This is why I took the rockier path, to have the opportunity to develop a school based around multi-age classrooms that fosters confidence both academically and socially. I can’t wait to continue to share our journey over the coming months.
- It Takes a Child to Raise a Village: Educating a Community
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.