Participants in the Matan Institute for Congregational School Teachers in Montclair next Sunday will have plenty of ways to take in the schedule.
They will have a handout. It will be projected on the wall. And it will be announced orally.
What might seem like communications overkill is designed to illustrate an important principle for religious school teachers, according to Dori Frumin Kirshner of Closter, Matan’s executive director. “You need to make sure every time you’re teaching a concept that you’re using all those different ways of presenting the material” to engage students with different learning styles, she said.
The institute aims to “empower the teacher with real tools for how to plan lessons that will impact all kinds of learners,” Kirshner said.
One of Matan’s central goals is promoting the inclusion of all students in Jewish education. The organization’s upcoming day-long institute in Montclair, presented in conjunction with the NewCAJE conference on Jewish education, is in part the result of a grant from the Adler Family Innovation Fund of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey.
“We’re going to include strategies for how to plan lessons so that all types of learners can get the same information but just take it in different ways. Most of it will be tachlis, practical tools they can utilize in their classrooms without having to get a masters in special ed,” Kirshner said.
Among those planning on attending the Montclair seminar are more than half of the faculty of the religious school of Temple Beth Or in Washington Township.
Irene Bolton, Temple Beth Or’s director of lifelong learning, attended a March seminar put on by Matan for heads of congregational schools. She has been continuing with webinars and personalized mentoring to develop special education awareness to bring to her school.
This too is part of the Adler grant.
Bolton said the ongoing program is making an impact on her synagogue’s 200-student school.
“It helped our congregation understand that special needs is really an important part of the educational work we do, to provide a Jewish education for all children and families,” Bolton said.
Even before the Matan program, last year’s school theme had been set as sensitivity to disability. But Bolton attributes her training with Matan as leading Temple Beth Or to establish a resource center and hire a special needs teacher and consultant.
Rabbi Shelley Kniaz, director of the 230-student religious school at Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley in Woodcliff Lake, has been taking part in training from Matan along with Bolton.
Temple Emanuel already had a special education program, which it calls Chai. The program, funded in part by the Jewish Federation, features a teacher certified in special education and is open to non-synagogue members.
Kniaz said that Matan is helping her teach all of her teachers create inclusive classrooms.
“Inclusion is this new thing that used to be called mainstreaming, that combines children of different needs in one classroom where there’s support for the teacher in how to meet the needs,” she said.
“In a religious school setting, there’s no doubt that the approaches you use for children with learning disabilities, with attention deficits, who are on the autistic spectrum – they work well for everyone, particularly for religious school where they’re coming after school and are tired. And because we want to create an emotional attachment, we’re not just teaching information, we need to be far more experiential.”
Simple changes in a classroom can make a big different, Kniaz said.
She gave the example of a child with a card on his desk. The card is green on one side and red on the other. “When it’s green, he can raise his hand and add comments. When it’s red, he has to wait,” she said.
“These kind of things are basic and necessary for our children, but we don’t think that way.”
Kniaz said the Matan training is encouraging her to reach out to special education training programs at area colleges to find trainers and mentors for her teachers.
She hopes that parents whose children have an Individualized Education Program in their regular classroom will bring that information to their children’s religious school too.
“I’m hoping they’re seeing that we have lots of kids who have different kinds of accommodations. Everyone should get what they need. It’s not shameful by any stretch of the imagination,” she said.
Kniaz said there have been times where parents have pulled their children out from the school when she assigned them to the Chai program or to a smaller Hebrew group.
“There’s a lot of denial going on. I understand it to a certain extent because it’s painful to face it, but it’s better to face it and do what your child needs. It’s not about you. It’s about your child.
“On the other hand, some people jump at the chance for a special program,” she said.
Kirshner said the Jewish community is growing more aware of the existence of students with special needs ““ and of the responsibility and possibility of helping them.
“It no longer as much taboo,” she said. “There is more diagnosing going on because many more people are aware. By the same token, because it’s being discussed, it feels like it’s much more prevalent.
“The Jewish community unfortunately had too many families who were turned away from Jewish life. Families and leadership in institutions are saying that’s no longer acceptable. I’m hopeful that the Jewish community is becoming much more aware that we have a responsibility to educate Jewishly every single child.
“I always say to the education directors and the teachers, you don’t have to solve all the problems, but you have to be able to have the conversation and strategize toward solutions, even if the solutions are beyond what your institution.”