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Thoughts from an Educator: Nancy Parkes

By Nancy Parkes, Temple Israel Center in White Plains, New York


The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s Centennial Conference was held from October 13-15.  Over 1,100 people attended and participated in workshops and lectures focused on the “challenges and opportunities we encounter as we reimagine our sacred communities for a changing Jewish world.”  I was honored to speak on a panel with David Bryfman and Jonathan Woocher, two renowned leaders in Jewish Education, about the process of change in Jewish education in the congregational setting. The following are my comments:

The first thing I want to say is that many of my colleagues are making incredible changes in the education taking place in their synagogues settings.  I have and continue to learn from them each and every day.

I was asked to speak today about the process of change, not necessarily the specific changes that have taken place at Temple Israel Center, because those changes are specific to our community.  However, if we have time and there is interest, I am happy to share what learning used to look like and what it looks like today.

So, let’s talk about change.  After all, everyone’s talking about it.  As scary as change can be, I actually think it is very exciting to be in supplementary education now precisely because people are experimenting and implementing new initiatives, and reimagining what education can be in the congregational setting.

But that doesn’t mean that change is easy or that this is about change for the sake of change.  The cost of change is too high for there not to be a very compelling reason to change.  In fact, that reason and the belief that change is necessary and doable needs to be so compelling that it keeps all those involved focused and inspired through all the difficulties and frustrations that are inherent in any change process.  Because change is hard– and it’s not for people who are afraid to take risk and possibly fail.

So what motivated us to start the change process? The first thing I want to say is that it wasn’t because we believed the system was broken or ineffective.  Our learners were learning.  We changed because the world has changed; families have changed, and the way some families connect to Judaism has changed; and education has changed. Those are the core variables that we were responding to. However, there were other motivating factors to change, as well.  For some members of our board, it was financial- our enrollment was down; for the parents, it was about the realities of life- people and children being pulled in too many directions because of the focus and pressures of secular school; for the educators, well, we had to take a good hard look at not only what we were teaching, but how we were teaching it, and whether this really aligned with how learners learn best and what our priority goals were for our school; and I would be remiss if I didn’t also admit that we were feeling the pressure of the change in structure that many supplementary schools were making around us.

So where did we begin?  The first thing we did was listen, listen to what our learners had to say; what they wanted, what they were interested in; how they learned best.  I am using learners here in the broadest sense- parents, teens, even children in some of the younger grades.  Don’t underestimate your younger learners. It’s amazing what they will tell you when you ask them.  And parents, we didn’t just ask them what they wanted their children to know, but what were their Jewish hopes, dreams, and wishes for their children.  Did you ever notice that in the word, “Jewish,” if you put the parenthesis around the “w” and the “h”, the word, “wish” is in between?  Well, we wanted them to tell us what those Jewish wishes were.  We listened by engaging in one-on-one and group conversations and through surveys.  It soon became very clear that their dreams and wishes were very similar to ours as educators, and that if we wanted to help those wishes come true, we were going to need to change the way we were “doing” education. That meant that both the content and the structure needed to change.

By the way, when you ask parents about their Jewish wishes or dreams for their children, they do not tell you that they want them to be a doctor or a lawyer. Or that they want them to know how many sides a sukkah must have according to halakha.  Yes, you do hear, “I want them to marry someone Jewish;” “I want them to have a strong Jewish identity;” and “I want them to continue our family’s traditions.”  But you also hear very passionately, “I want them to be kind;”  “I want them to make a difference in this world;”  “I want them to be happy.”  So why not teach in a way that shows parents that Judaism, Conservative Judaism, can do all that and more?

The question we had to ask ourselves as educators was, “Is Judaism something that we teach for knowledge alone, or do we believe that we teach Judaism because it will add meaning and value to someone’s life?” Since the latter is the case, we knew we had to teach differently.  We had to engage not only the head, but the heart; we had to engage the entire family and community; we had to create experiences, not programs; we had to extend where learning took place beyond the walls of the classroom; and we had to redefine who is the learner, the role of the educator; and what success looked like.

The first thing I want to say is that we did not do this alone. We were fortunate enough to work with LOMED.  LOMED is an initiative through the Jewish Education Project that guides synagogue schools in the creation and design of new kinds of learning experiences.  It challenges educators and their communities to clearly articulate their vision and goals, and this was also a crucial step in the change process.

So we made changes. We began by making small adjustments and testing the waters sort of speak.  And slowly, as we began to feel more comfortable with change, we made significant changes, dramatic changes. This change was in no way easy.  There were many obstacles that we anticipated, and even more that were unexpected.  For instance, we quickly learned that our learners were not used to being active learners; that is, they were used to being passive recipients of information.  It actually took some time for some of our learners to understand that there was an expectation that they would have to participate in their own learning.  There was a learning curve for the parents, too.  Many parents would peak in the classroom and report that the classroom was noisy or chaotic.  In fact, it was simply a change from “traditional” passive individual learning (the image of the child sitting at a desk and doing a worksheet) to active, learning, which was more often than not, done in havruta and small group learning, and required the learners to move around the room or the building.  This was something we never expected, and something we quickly realized had to be addressed by educating both the learners and the parents about what learning could look like.  And let’s not forget the educators.  This, too, required a change in thinking, and a new definition of learning.  And to Jon’s point, we had to fight against the notion – both from parents and educators- that fun and learning are not mutually exclusive;  the belief that if their children were engaged and having fun, it wasn’t “serious” learning.

We also realized that we had to use a whole new language to describe what was taking place.  There were too many old associations with words like, “school,” “classroom,” “teacher,” and “student.”  This language, and people’s associations, were actually preventing people from thinking differently about how and where learning should take place.

So we began using new language, such as “learning space,” “educator,” and “learner.”  And the word, “school,” does not appear in our descriptions of our high school program, and this year we are transitioning into a new name, Shorashim, for our K-6 grade program.

All the change that has taken place at TIC was about aligning the design and settings of learning, the role of the educator, and the language that we use to our vision and priority goals.  And that is crucial in any change process- defining what your priority goals are.

That takes time, too.   But it’s a step that needs to be taken at the beginning of the process.  Your priority goals will be your compass throughout the process as you ensure that the changes you make align with them.

Our priority goals are building community and living Jewishly.  To build community, relationships had to be at the center of everything we did.  As educators, we know just how important the educator- learner relationship is; however, there is a big difference between knowing it and being intentional about it. The same is true for building relationships between learners.  Creating a safe, non-judgmental environment in which ideas and questions can be explored in depth means that there must exist relationships between learners. And that means that the space in which learning and exploration takes place has to be designed differently.

To live Jewishly meant that creating relationships with parents and families was crucial.  We also knew if we wanted what we were teaching to be lived, we needed to take learning outside of the four walls of the classroom.  Where and when learning took place became the focus of many of our discussions, and important decisions and changes followed.

What we have noticed is that these changes have positively affected so many aspects of our educational process- even our Education Council, and the way meetings are run, looks different.  But, do not underestimate how hard the change process is.  It takes a lot of time and energy from everyone involved. It takes patience, soul searching, and help from experts in the field.  It takes a Rabbi that views himself as my partner in this process.   It takes a group of talented and dedicated educators, who view themselves as a team.  It also takes a community, one that I am blessed to be a part of, that is willing to take risks.  All I can say, is that it is worth it- because as Conservative Jews we need to respond to the world in which we live and it is changing.  And so must we.

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