Weekly Message 12-7-12

7 December 2012 
23 Kislev 5773  

Differentiated Education and Chanukah 5773 

Shalom Chaverim,  

As part of Gann’s ongoing strategic commitment to improve teaching and learning, yesterday our faculty spent half the day in professional development with a focus on what has become a buzzword in education: “differentiation.” This is essentially a code word for effective teaching: maximizing the learning of all students at all times through a range of pedagogical tools, techniques, and modalities.  

Teaching is an extraordinary combination of science and art, and the work of teacher development, like any form of adult learning, is complex. Changing behavior and improving teaching practice are so often accelerated or hindered by our hidden beliefs—about ourselves, our students and children, education, and the world.  My belief is that we do not speak enough about the beliefs and assumptions that underlie the choices we make as individuals, both in and out of the classroom, as teachers, as parents, and as a school. Moreover, we need to take the time to reflect on the experiences we have had in our own lives as learners that have shaped these beliefs. 

For this reason our Dean of Students often begins parent meetings by asking parents to reflect on their experiences in high school.  So, we began yesterday’s professional development program with one of our students’ favorite Shabbaton activities that we affectionately call a “fishbowl.” Teachers divided into small groups, sat in circles, and listened to each other’s stories of their experiences as learners. I asked them two questions that I invite all of us to think about, as well:  

  1. Share a time/an experience when you felt seen, known, or met as a learner by a teacher/educator.  
  1. Share a time/an experience when you did not feel seen, known, or met as a learner by a teacher/educator.  

During our discussion one teacher noted that, when asked to think about a teacher who he felt really knew him, he immediately thought of a teacher who affirmed him as a learner; yet, many others in his group shared stories of teachers who pushed and challenged them. This reminded me of the powerful words of one of my colleagues, who shared the following story: “As an undergrad I was asked by a teacher to clarify an answer I had given, and I responded, ‘I don’t know.’ So many teachers would have accepted this answer and looked to other students to answer. Instead, she looked me in the eye and said, ‘You must know.’ I’ve never forgotten that moment.” 

This story resonates with me as I think about the concept of differentiation. Some people believe that differentiating is a code word for lowering standards, making all students feel good or covering up a student’s authentic challenges and difficulties. On the contrary, differentiating instruction for different students means holding them—and us—to higher standards. It starts with the belief that all students can learn, must learn, and will learn if we seek to really know and understand our students as learners and as complex human beings and when we break down the dichotomy between challenge and nurture. 

As we prepare to light the first candle of Chanukah, I am reminded that, when the Pisceszno Rebbe defines education in his book Chovat HaTalmidim (A Student’s Obligation), he connects the root of the Hebrew word for education, chinuch, with the word Chanukah, which means dedication, or rededication (of the Temple).  He explains that to dedicate a building, a vessel, a child means to prepare it for the actualization of its potential. To educate a child, therefore, is to light the candle, so to speak, of that child’s soul.  

May we have the wisdom and the skill to combine affirmation with accountability and care and compassion with high standards of excellence. And, in doing so, may we ignite the divine sparks and unleash the God-given potential of all of our children. 

This is our sacred Jewish educational mission as teachers, as parents, and as a school. 

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Chanukah, 

Rabbi Marc Baker   

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