Pictures from elementary and middle schools taken about a century or so ago (not that they were called that then, of course) are shocking.
The children sit in rigid, grim rows, staring at the camera with what looks like resignation. The black-and-white of the photographs looks less arty than simply bleak.
As the century progressed, and then the millennium turned, children, now in color, looked brighter, happier, less rigid. Educational theory, too, changed, going from the idea that children should learn information that they could parrot back, and each set of information should be kept rigidly walled off from the next set, to the belief that each child learns differently, that repetition and understanding are not synonymous, and that no fact is an island, entire of itself.
For years, the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County in New Milford has used an inquiry-based, child-centered approach to learning. Now, it is going beyond that, working for accreditation by the International Baccalaureate organization’s new middle school program, and complicating, enlarging, and enriching it even further by the Jewish lens that is built into every look the school takes at the world.
Ingrid Goldfein is the school’s IB coordinator. (That’s one of her many jobs at Schechter; she also develops the school’s Shoah curriculum and she teaches in middle school, but right now her focus is on IB, she said.) The IB program for middle school is unlike the better-known 11th-and 12th-grade program, which is an academically rigorous program that some schools offer to some students. This one, which will be phased in over three years, is an integral part of the curriculum from which all of Schechter’s middle-school students learn.
It’s all about connections — between various subjects, between students and their community and the rest of the world — Jewish, non-Jewish, American, non-American. It’s about connections between past and present as well.
“It’s a very student-centered approach,” Ms. Goldfein said. “At the heart is a learner profile, with 10 character traits or attributes for us as learners.” According to the IB, students should be caring, balanced, open-minded, knowledgeable, communicators, risk-takers, principled, reflective, inquirers, and thinkers .
But Schechter is a Jewish school, so there is an 11th attribute toward which teachers must teach and students must strive. Each community member also should be a rodef shalom — someone who pursues peace. “That’s about how we relate to one another in our classrooms and playgrounds, and the way we think about the world,” Ms. Goldfein said. “That is what we want our kids to take with them when they graduate. We want them to see that they have an important role to play in this world.
“It’s not just about learning. It’s about taking action. This fits so beautifully with our mission, because the IB promotes making learning into action, and as a Jewish day school we value chesed and tikkun olam” — lovingkindness, and the imperative to fix the world.
Now, in the program’s first implementation year, following a year of theory and planning, some of the IB’s program has been put in place. So far, it’s being used in three classes; by the third year, it will be part of each class offered in the sixth, seventh, and eighth grades.
“It’s the first time I’ve been in a school where I have been involved in such a whole school-whole child approach,” Ms. Goldfein said. “I have been in schools that included some of it, but never before the total package.
“The other piece of it is global awareness,” she continued. “We are striving to address this amazing Jewish idea that simultaneously we have to both care for our own, for ourselves, and also for the other, for everyone else. We have got to figure out how we can learn about the rest of the world in a way that is meaningful, and come out with pride about who I am. That’s another part of being rodef shalom.”
Ruth Gafni, Schechter’s head of school, said that the idea to become part of the IB grew organically out of work the school did on its Holocaust curriculum. “Because of our work with the USC Shoah foundation, we were invited to visit Rwanda for the twentieth anniversary of the genocide there.
That was in 2014. “I didn’t know much about the genocide in Rwanda then, and I thought that if I as an educator, if we as educators, didn’t know very much about it, then our community probably didn’t know much about it, and our children didn’t either.” But the more she learned about it, the more she saw “the commonalities of how things are allowed to happen, that ended in our Holocaust and their genocide.
“There are differences, but there are universal principles that guide evil actions and good actions. It is our responsibility to broaden our students’ horizons and make connections that are global and relevant to them.
“And because we are a Jewish day school, we want to do it through a Jewish lens.
“What do our sages say? How are our stories guiding our lives today? What are the connections?
“‘Why should I do this?’ ‘Why is it relevant to me?’ ‘Why should I care?’ ‘Why do I have to learn it?’ Those are typical middle-school questions,” Ms. Gafni said. “That’s especially true when it pertains to Judaism — when you are looking at learning Aramaic or Rashi or Bible stories. By making it relevant every day for students in every area, if we can get them to engage in a deeper and more thoughtful way, if you can think about marrying both sides of the curriculum through one lens, then the impact on the learner is huge.
“Students today have information at their fingertips” — Google is their very good friend — “but they have only a marginal sense of making connections through it,” Ms. Gafni continued. “It is only through a cohesive, unified approach that they make those connections. And how wonderful it is to broaden the connection to understand that what happens in the world today matters to me.
“And there is a call to action in it — if I learn about it, and that means that I know about it, then what am I compelled to do.”
Stephen Taylor teaches science at Schechter, and Dr. Jenny Labenz teaches Talmud. Both are using the IB approach. “Yesterday, our kids were learning how to classify minerals,” Mr. Taylor said. “The IB focuses on global context. The students had to read up a little about the mineral lapis, which has ethical ramifications. They learned about the concept of conflict minerals. So now kids will have to think about whether or not lapis is a conflict mineral. Why or why not?” (Conflict minerals are substances that come from war-torn parts of the world, most particularly in Africa, and that the U.S. Secretary of State has determined are used to finance conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo or an adjoining country.)
“Science is value-neutral, so we are trying to bring in Jewish values, ethics, and morals to science.”
Yes, many schools, including Schechter, have tried to do what is called “teaching across the curriculum” before, he added, and yes, it is valuable. But it’s hard, and the IB “is a very rigorous technique, where all the plans are written and organized and there are standards to be met.
“The framework comes from the outside,” Mr. Taylor said. “It is not grade-oriented, but it is goal-oriented, and the goals can be measured. I can have a whole lesson where kids are expected to bring a Jewish moral and ethical view to examine the ramifications of a new technique for editing DNA. The IB framework allows me to set these goals.”
Dr. Labenz also is enthusiastic about the IB framework. “The idea is to focus on big ideas, and to help them use Talmud study as an avenue into all sorts of issues and ideas and considerations that they wouldn’t necessarily otherwise have been exposed to.”
Two of her students, eighth-graders Naomi Fox of New City, N.Y., and Jesse Scherl of Tenafly, are enthusiastic about the way Dr. Labenz paired study of the talmudic justice system with a look at the American system. “We found out about the different death penalties and punishments, and about how they wanted not to have cruel punishments, and how they carried it out,” Naomi said.
“We also learned about the appeals system, and how it is harder to get an appeal now than it was then. Now there has to have been a mistake in the trial; then there didn’t have to be.”
“We looked at the mishnah from Masechet Sanhedrin, and compared that to the American system,” Jesse said. “The mishnah said ‘Give them a good death.’ That is kind of an oxymoron. We compared it to what the U.S. system does. They are trying to make a good death also. They carried it out in different ways, but tried for the same end.”
A talmudic execution could involve being pushed off a building, Jesse added. “If he lands on his side, then you have to stone him, because the fall wouldn’t kill him. If he lands flat, you don’t have to, because he’d already be dead.”
“This unit was augmented by two speakers, Rachel Wainer Apter, a parent in our school who recently argued in front of the Supreme Court, and Chief Justice Stuart Rabner,” Fred Elias, the school’s rabbi, added. “They both did a great job in explaining the process.”
“We looked at less this year, but we looked into them more,” Naomi said. “We go into things a bit deeper.”
When you look into the texts more deeply, Jesse added, “it connects us to the people who wrote it. We know that we are two different cultures, but knowing that they had the same thought process about cruel punishments — the same good mindset — kind of makes them seem more like real people, instead of just the people who wrote the texts.”
“Another eighth-grade unit is in Masechet Yoma, about Yom Kippur,” Dr. Labenz said. “One of the running issues is how to prioritize conflicting needs and commitments. So you fast on Yom Kippur, but what if you’re sick? It gets pretty complicated pretty quickly.
“And then there are the three sins that you allow yourself to be killed instead of committing,” she continued. “The most powerful passage is an anecdote where someone is threatened” — if he doesn’t kill someone else, he’ll be killed. “He goes to his rabbi, and says ‘What do I do?’ and the rabbi says ‘You must let yourself be killed. Who says your blood is redder than his?’
“So we talked about the Black Lives Matter movement. What does it mean? Do some lives matter more? What about All Lives Matter? How do we rank it?
“I also talked about prioritizing their own commitments. Imagine situations where your priorities would conflict. How do we navigate that?
“There are some concepts that the IB doesn’t necessarily have, but they are central to Jewish studies,” Dr. Labenz continued. “I don’t think personal responsibility is in the IB, but it is central to religious studies. I am transforming a unit to bring out personal responsibility as a key concept, and show them how the mishnah and the Talmud have examples. If you stick someone with a hot skewer, for example, how do you take responsibility for it?
“The real goal is to help them see so many of the issues that talmudic literature is trying to work out.”
The three-year IB accreditation process “isn’t a change, but an intensification of what we’ve always done,” Ms. Gafni said. As the school has increased its eighth-grade students’ understanding of their connection to the world, “we have seen so many more acts of chesed this year.” Students also are connecting to their local communities. “They’re running a lemonade stand to donate to federation” — that’s the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey — “for school supplies for kids who need them,” she said. “Our kids volunteer at the food bank in Bergen County, and they visit the Jewish Home at Rockleigh and Hackensack Hospital. We created a live streaming celebration at school so that the Jewish Home and other homes for the elderly across the country could see our Yom Ha’atzmaut celebration and our Chanukah zimriyah. It brought joy, and you could see it on the faces of the elderly who were watching it. The impulse is to spread beyond the school’s walls.”
The IB accreditation process is a painstaking one. It took buy-in from staff, parents, and even students. “What we are most proud of is we had a children’s group weighing in,” Ms. Gafni said. The accreditation is prestigious, she said, but the commitment is a large one, and it could not be made without the enthusiastic approval of all constituent groups; it does not cost much money, but it does take a lot of time, energy, and attention.
Schechter already has two accreditations — the New Jersey Association of Independent Schools and the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools. It is the only Jewish school to pursue the IB accreditation — the program itself still is new, and the rethinking it demands is formidable. But, Ms. Gafni said, “we cannot teach skills and knowledge and values in isolation. There has to be a way to take the connection to the world, and act on it.”
In a year and a half, an IB team will visit, “and see if we have done what we said we would do,” she added. The assessment involves a “peer-to-peer review of a student project that is not ordinary regurgitation.” The school has to come up with assessment tools to gauge their own work — it will be judged both on the work and on the tool. And it will have to send three tiers of student work — from high-, standard-, and low-achievers — to be judged by a panel assembled by the IB.
“The chiddush” —the new twist — “is that we are doing this with Jewish studies too,” Ms. Gafni said. “We will be putting together an outside panel of Jewish experts to check if we have done it right. The whole process is engaging and exciting to everyone.”
Although she cannot and will not be certain that the school will gain its accreditation, “if you put in the grit and perseverance, and if you are paying attention to the details and implement it as intended,” it’s likely that it will happen.
She is excited about the changes the IB already has begun to bring to the school. “You teach Mishnah or you teach social studies, and it is very rare for the two to meet,” she said. Now, they can meet often.
Everything connects, in school and in life, in the Jewish world and outside it. The more students are allowed to make those connections the more likely they are to see the sparks at the intersections, and to have their imaginations and intellects catch fire.