The $36,000 questions

The $36,000 questions

Unlocking the secrets of Moriah’s prize-winning Talmud curriculum

Rabbi Yoni Fein leads a class of eigth-graders at the Moriah School in Englewood.
Rabbi Yoni Fein leads a class of eigth-graders at the Moriah School in Englewood.

Rabbi Yoni Fein believes in data.

Rabbi Fein, who is assistant principal of Judaic studies at the Moriah School in Englewood and teaches Talmud to a class of eighth-grade girls there, says that when they are crunched properly, the numbers on students’ tests can help him teach them better and help them learn better.

And now there’s a big number validating his approach — 36,000. That’s the number of dollars he was awarded by the Kohelet Foundation as one of the six winners of the foundation’s prize for excellence in Jewish day school education. This was the first year the prize was offered; Rabbi Fein won in the category of differentiated education.

But let’s back up.

Before there was the prize, which is not for the school but goes to Rabbi Fein personally, there was the project: a personalized, data-driven Talmud curriculum.

And before that, there was a major grant from the Avi Chai foundation, which enabled Moriah to introduce personalized instruction in all its classes.

With personalized instruction, “Instead of teaching 20 kids at the same time, we get real-time data on students and create learning pathways for them. There might be three or four stations set up in a room. A teacher will have a collaborative station, an independent station where people are reading and working on activities, a digital station, and a station where a teacher can target three or five kids in a small group.”

Throughout a 40-minute class, groups of students will rotate between the stations.

“We are fully personalized in the lower school,” Rabbi Fein said. “The data is showing a double-digit percentile improvement in proficiency. If a child is not proficient in a specific skill, he or she is not moving forward to the next unit.”

Bringing that philosophy to bear on the Jewish studies component of the curriculum was a much harder task, however.

For one thing, there is no infrastructure of off-the-shelf computerized programs to match students to curriculum to learning goals to standardized tests to benchmarks.

Not only is the Jewish educational market a tiny fraction of the general education market, but “even the top schools with the best reputations don’t really have clear standards and benchmarks in Judaic studies,” Rabbi Fein said. “Oftentimes the goal is to inspire kids, or to finish a tractate, or to teach vocabulary, or to have them want to learn Gemara. These are not all academic goals.”

Some of them also are hard goals to validate with data.

But as Rabbi Fein says, “How do you know you’re successful in what you do unless you can prove you’re successful? How do you know students aren’t falling through the cracks?”

As he worked with his faculty to bring personalized learning to their classrooms, the meetings sometimes became heated. He had his teachers tell him what their definition of success in the classroom looked like. Sixty percent said they wanted their kids to be inspired.

He told them: “That is not a goal.”

“They yelled at me. They screamed at me. ‘What are you talking about? We want to inspire the kids!’

He responded: “Tell me what inspiration looks like. How do you achieve it?”

Not that he was opposed to inspiration: “Inspiration should happen every day with your interactions with the kids,” he told his teachers. “You can inspire them, they can learn to love Torah, through working on academic skills and achievement.”

He walked his faculty through the process of thinking about what constituted mastery of Talmud study. There’s learning the Aramaic vocabulary. There’s knowing the content of the Talmud passage they’re studying. There’s being able to read the text (which, like the text of a Torah scroll, lacks vowels and punctuation). And there’s understanding how certain words in the Talmud indicate the structure of the 1,500-year-old dialectical arguments, asking a question, introducing a proof, or giving a second opinion.

At last, there were concrete goals.

And then came the innovation that was simple in hindsight, relatively simple in execution, and made all the difference.

He had the teachers break down the questions on their tests into the three categories of content, vocabulary, and understanding the structure. With help from friends who work in finance and are proficient in spreadsheets, he created an online grade book so teachers could record each student’s results in each category.

This gave a precise measurement of students’ strengths and weaknesses. It revealed that for many students, a single numerical grade was disguising specific problems. “Three quarters of my class was incredibly advanced in two categories but low in another,” Rabbi Fein said. “There are students who are getting 95s who are getting hundreds in two domains but 70s on the third.

“I had students who were getting 70s and I was able to look at them and see that in vocabulary they were getting 100 and tell them ‘You’re not a horrible Gemara student.’”

This differentiation enabled him to personalize instruction. He knew which students needed to focus on which skills.

In his class, “50 percent is whole group instruction, 35 percent personalized rotation, and 15 percent is a passion project,” he said. The passion project could be making a song, a skit, a website. “I’ve seen some very creative work,” he said.

The Talmud chapter his eighth-graders are studying deals with returning lost objects. So one student put together a website to help students see what’s in the school’s lost and found box. “The pile in the box is getting smaller and smaller,” Rabbi Fein said. “The child learned about web development, taking a leadership role, and teaching practical halacha. I did nothing.”

Does his approach work?

“I can actually prove it,” Rabbi Fein said. “I can see the data. There is not a single student in my class who is not fully at grade level right now. Everyone is caught up to speed, which is rare.

“How many schools are using data to answer that question?” he continued. “I have a student I was told was the weakest student in the grade. She is excelling in the class. She does fly under the radar. She has a lot of capability, but was never given the individual instruction she needs.

“In a class where people ask kids to raise their hands to thrive, she doesn’t thrive.”

Moriah students have one thing going for them that helps Rabbi Fein immensely in personalizing his instruction: Every student has his or her own Chromebook laptop computer. That means that Rabbi Fein can create online worksheets and even solicit instant feedback at the end of a class. “Tell me three things you learned, two things you feel you’re not so clear on, and one question you might have,” he asks. He can look at the responses on his computer at home and adjust the next day’s lessons for each student.

Rabbi Fein said that one of the successes of his approach is that it has reduced the stress of his students, who are anxious about their grades and worried about the high school application process, which they are about to begin.

He’s proud of his team’s work — so proud, in fact, that he split some of his prize money with its members.

“We broke every myth,” Rabbi Fein said. “We took a relatively low-tech team and in just six months we turned that into an exciting educational culture around personalized learning. We were able to take something that every school in the country was doing the same way for twenty years, change it, and show it can be replicated with free technology. You don’t need to change everything you’re doing; you just need to be more focused on specific skills. You just have to input numbers on a spreadsheet.”

read more: