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The Classroom is a Community.

Over the years, parents are always shocked when they hear me say that we have kids in our classrooms for less than two average work weeks (80 hours).

Unless your child is immersed in Jewish Day School, which quite frankly is not even an option where I live, that’s the deal.

So every minute in the classroom is precious. And every minute, it is tougher to keep our students’ attention as they are pulled in a zillion different directions.  Soccer. Swimming. Dance. Baseball. Marching Band.

You know the drill.

So how do we keep kids motivated to learn Hebrew and Jewish studies? How do we make our students feel connected to what we are teaching them?  It’s not always easy, especially when its 75 degrees outside and they seem physically and intellectually drained from the previous six hours in school.

But there’s no need to raise the white flag.  Religious school students are far more likely to become engaged if you keep a few core principles in mind:

1. Immediately establish that the Classroom is a Community. I have had tremendous success in motivating students by treating them respectfully and by genuinely caring about who they are in their entirety.  I tell them that being with them and teaching them is the best part of my day.  I also let them know that inspiring them to love Jewish learning is the best job in the entire universe.

And then I prove this to them by showing them. We must get to know our students and let our students get to know us.  It is incumbent upon us to build connections between people and create environments that allow for our students to know and respect their peers; we must build community. It is then that we know that God is present. Kehillot Kedushot are purposely and lovingly built. (See Martin Buber’s “I and Thou.”)

2. Remember “Relevance” and “Relatability.” And I say this not only because I happen to love alliteration. We all make snap judgments about people and kids are obviously no exception. Teachers who quickly set a tone that their lessons are relevant to life today are setting themselves up for a successful school year.

Don’t arbitrarily toss out references to the Jonas Brothers or the Red Sox just to prove you know who they are. But in a discussion about worshipping false gods, bringing up our celebrity-obsessed world is extremely relevant. Connecting Jewish lessons to contemporary pop culture – in the appropriate context – will separate you from the stereotype of the so-called “boring teacher.”  But of course, only share examples of what you truly know. Kids can always smell a faker.

3. Engage different learning styles in each lesson plan. Sometimes it’s difficult to fit in activities for all the learning styles, but if plans are always aimed at visual or audio learners, then you’ll lose the kids who are kinesthetic learners and/or experiential learners. While planning lessons, it’s crucial to consider multiple learning styles/intelligences, and make sure you hit all the learning styles over two class periods.

Students can and do learn in more than one way. In fact, students actually learn better if they process the material in several different ways. (See Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligence theory).

4. Bump up the praise — and ditch the High Five! Positive reinforcement is an invaluable classroom and parenting skill. But be sure to use specific praise.  “Good job” just doesn’t cut it.  And my least favorite “communication tool,” the HIGH FIVE, needs to be retired.

Instead, choose direct communication that shows our kids that we are truly listening to what they are offering. We need to push students to develop their ideas:

“Ira, I really like that you are thinking about how a new immigrant who wants to feel as though they belong in the “Golden Medina”  might change their outward appearance….Now please give us an example of such a change.”

In educational circles, there are now lots of debates about rewards.  Most educators believe that rewards don’t really work for all students, and if they do seem to work, it’s fleeting.

In a well-functioning classroom community, we should set community goals that foster cooperative learning and effort.  Kids experience that they are part of something bigger than themselves, offering a greater sense of belonging.  This is big-picture “Am Yisrael” stuff.  Judaism is relevant because each student is a vital link in the chain.

5. Forget about bribery. I do appreciate an intermittent hafta-ah katanah (small surprise) for the whole class, but constantly giving out candy turns kids into lab rats. It creates the expectation that every time kids breathe, they will get a reward.

Bribes, sugary or not, melt away motivation.  Constantly answering the question “What do we get if we do…” eats away at motivation.  Kids no longer want to be successful; they want a treat.

Creating an environment in which kids are not competing against one another, but are striving for their personal best, will propel even the most reserved kid to jump head first into the learning.

6. Classroom discipline should NOT be punitive. Sure, there will be times when your students won’t deserve any praise, let alone candy. When it comes time to reprimand, classroom discipline is most successful when students are guided and directed, rather than scolded.

Establish a code of conduct, a “covenant,” with your students at the beginning of the year. Set expectations for communal behavior and reinforce a classroom culture where students are lauded for respecting your shared goals and each other.  When the time inevitably comes that a student misbehaves, firmly explain to him or her why their actions violate the class covenant and ask how they intend to get back on course.

Positive peer pressure alone can often sway students to behave like mensches.

7. You are NOT teaching Bible trivia. Of course, facts are important. But just memorizing the names of the first few kings of Israel only provides the answers to future crossword puzzles. We can’t stop there. It is crucial that students develop an enduring understanding of the material we present them.

For example, what is the historical context in which the monarchy came into existence?  How have Kings Saul, David and Solomon shaped our history?  And for that matter, why don’t the Jewish people have a king or queen anymore?

8. Create a strong Classroom-Home Connection. While we are motivating our students, we need to also focus our attention on motivating families.  As in all learning environments, parents are our partners in Jewish education, too.  Without the support of families, our goals and objectives become nearly impossible.

If children feel that their parents are ambivalent about Judaism in general, and Jewish education is viewed as a non-priority to be shifted around like the little squares in one of those sliding tile puzzle games, then we are toast.

Let’s face it: There are lots of Jewish parents out there who send their kids to us to be educated, but who, for a variety of reasons, are not so connected to Yiddishkeit themselves. Parents need to see the relevance in their own lives and pass on that love of Jewish learning to their kids.  We can help parents achieve this through both formal and informal Jewish family education efforts.

Family Education makes a lasting impact in the everyday classroom!

Yes, even with this model, we might feel resistance from our students to be motivated to learn Jewishly.  And conversely, occasionally we witness children who soak up “the Jewish” like sponges, even though their parents are not overtly interested and connected themselves.

Bottom line: As education directors and teachers, we need to be an endless source of motivation, energy and ideas for inspiring our communities to become lifelong Jewish learners!

(Fellow educators: What tips do you have for keeping students engaged in the classroom and for motivating parents to extend our lesson plans into the home?)


The New York Times recently dove into the world of religious fight clubs

Wow. The New York Times just ran a riveting story on the growing use of kickboxing and violent cage fighting (as opposed to the gentle kind) to lure young men into church. One Tennessee church called “Xtreme Ministries” follows up Bible class with lessons how to beat the crap out of each other.

The school’s slogan: “Where Feet, Fist and Faith Collide!”

The Times says the fights are “part of a larger and more longstanding effort on the part of some ministers who fear that their churches have become too feminized, promoting kindness and compassion at the expense of strength and responsibility.”

For the record, I believe that Hebrew Schools and all religious education programs should just stick to the kindness and compassion stuff.

You can read the full martial arts story here.

Magen David tower fashioned out of Kapla building blocks

This is how you can tell who is the Jewish educator’s kid… Dump a crate of blocks on the playroom rug and see what the children come up with.

This Star of David tower was built by my 7-year-old son, Ari. He likes to take pictures of his creations because he hates to put the blocks back in the box and “ruin” his artistic vision. Perhaps the Louvre will call when they set up a religious symbol exhibit.

Or, maybe Ari will eventually pursue Jewish themes with his LEGOs, in the same spirit as this guy who is recreating the Bible in plastic bricks.

These images are from the wickedly clever web site, The Brick Testament:

Adam's rib before it becomes Eve - from The Brick Testament

Cain and Abel - The world's first premeditated murder from The Brick Testament.

Israelite spies penetrate the walled city of Jericho with help from an unlikely ally (go read the story again) -- from The Brick Testament.

Artist Brendan Powell Smith, who is not Jewish, also builds scenes from the Christian Bible. Most fascinating to me are the warning labels he slaps on the books of the Bible like the motion picture ratings.  There’s N for nudity, V for violence, S for sexual content and C for cursing.

You don’t realize how child unfriendly the Bible actually is until Smith smacks you over the head with it.  After all, there is always someone “smiting” someone or sleeping around in those stories.

Although I classify myself as a non-violent person, I love the word “smite” for some reason.

Anyone have any Jewish or Bible-themed block creations in their playroom?  Any thoughts on the LEGO version of the Bible — even though the toy company obviously has nothing to do with it?

Drew Barrymore at the 2010 Golden Globes

Nope, Drew Barrymore has not converted to Judaism. Not to my knowledge, anyhow.

But she did set up one of the best unrehearsed lines from last night’s Golden Globe Awards at the Beverly Hills Hilton.

Barrymore, extremely nervous on the Golden Globes bimah as she accepted her trophy for the “Grey Gardens” miniseries, apologized that she did not know award show etiquette regarding where to walk. Ironic, she noted, because “I’ve been meeting with the Hollywood Foreign Press for like 97 years and I’ve been in this room since I was seven years old.”

An obvious reference to “E.T.”

That set up the punchline for “Mad Men” creator and executive producer Matthew Weiner, who later accepted a Globe for Best TV Series Drama.

Bar Mitzvah Party Flashback

“I, too, was in this ballroom when I was seven years old,” Weiner said. “It was for a Bar Mitzvah!”

The audience gave his laugh line a loud applause. Mazel Tov, Matthew!

Back to Drew Barrymore, her Greek goddess gown was absolutely gorgeous. But what was that silver, sparkly rodent on her shoulder?

By the way, if you want to wear Meryl Streep’s or Amy Pohler’s Golden Globe gown for Purim, they’re now up for auction with the proceeds to benefit the Haiti earthquake relief effort.

Not sure I can afford it on an educator’s salary, but if Barrymore’s dress also goes on the tzedakah auction block, my bid will be competitive!

If you need to use coloring books to keep kids' attention while teaching about the Holocaust, then maybe the kids aren't ready to handle it.

Nothing surprises me anymore. I recently stumbled across this Anne Frank dot-to-dot on my local newspaper’s education page. Aside from the fact that it is a ludicrously designed dot-to-dot — I mean, why not just draw more of her face and body and leave nothing to connect — this is not the best way to introduce the Holocaust to children.

I have no doubt that the Universal Press Syndicate’s Mini Page has the best of intentions to share Anne’s life story. However, to toss it in the mix with peanut butter pudding recipes, word searches and other activity book games and puzzles only trivializes the tragedy.

Perhaps the most outrageous part of this “Fun Page,” is the Holocaust Word Search. Hey kids, can you find the phrases FINAL SOLUTION, GENOCIDE and DEATHCAMP? Are you kidding me?

Holocaust education is not supposed to be fun. If you have to placate kids with coloring books and puzzles, they are probably too young to learn about it in the first place.

What do you think? When and how should kids first be introduced to the Shoah? And are dot-to-dots and word searches offensive in this context or am I the one who is off-base here?

Happiness is a Dreidel Sippy Cup!

We all know that Chanukah is NOT the Jewish Christmas, it’s NOT about stimulating the economy, and it’s NOT even about gorging on fried food. It’s all about religious freedom and how this freedom ironically empowers us to also abandon our religion and culture if we so choose.

But it’s also a heckuva lot of fun, and eight days give us eight times more opportunities for learning, laughter and light!

Associated Press writer Lisa Shapiro Flam recently explored how more Jewish families are breaking up Chanukah into theme nights (Game Night, Tzedakah Night, Environmentalism Night) after lighting the candles. I think this is a phenomenal way to create and foster new family memories — while diluting our “gimme, gimme” culture of consumerism.

I’m not against presents, mind you. I fondly recall receiving “Anabelle,” a red-yarn-haired doll that doubled as a pajama bag — given to me by my Uncle Harry and Aunt Myrna.  I also still cherish a decorative tile of a slender young girl that my mother said reminded her of me. But wonderful shared experiences will last longer than any gifts.

So, in the spirit of Chanukah, I asked friends and family to share their favorite holiday traditions. The best of the best are included below, along with a few Google-mined gems and some bonus original thoughts!

The Asparagus-Tomato Menorah by Jennifer Traig

Isn’t this asparagus menorah platter simply gorgeous? It’s from crafts guru Jennifer Traig’s hilarious book of Jewish projects, Judaikitsch. This concept is easily replicable with other pictures and vegetables. Carrot stick dreidels are just delish…. How about Stars of David from pickle spears!

In Israel, jelly donuts have been mixed with peanut butter, halavah and even vodka. Russian olim don’t fool around with Manischewitz wine pastries. And in Chelmsford, Mass., teacher Margi Loyer delights crowds with her Rainbow Latkes. Forget about chintzy food coloring. Margi uses the full color spectrum of vegetables to get her latkes to be luminous. Her recipe is here.

Wrapping up, Laurie Tischler Mindlin from the Merrimack Valley Jewish Federation proposes a “Maalox & TUMS Night” for those of us who have problems limiting ourselves to just one platter of latkes per sitting.

Judah Maccabee Potato Head: Can you find the mistake in this picture? (Source: New Hampshire Magazine)

CHANUKAH IDEA #2 — POP CULTURE FEST: I confess that I wish the Charlie Brown specials had a Lubavitcher Rabbi to balance out the Born Again Christian messages of Linus. But for now, the best cartoon we have is the Rugrats. Those kids seem a little bratty to me, but my sister-in-law, Kelly Garnick, swears by the pro-Jewish content in the Rugrats Chanukah special.

Personally, I believe the earthy messages of “It’s a Wonderful Life” transcend all religions. If it snows this week, try running downtown in an exasperated, drunken manner and yell out holiday greetings to buildings and town landmarks. “HAPPY CHANUKAH, CREDIT UNION!  HAPPY CHANUKAH, YA OLD HARDWARE STORE!”

Yes, the celebrity-laden Adam Sandler Chanukah song is priceless, but for a more subdued dinner soundtrack go with “Hanukkah Blessings” by the Barenaked Ladies. Or really stir things up in the living room by participating in the latest Chanukah dance craze. The AMAZING thing about this YouTube “Flash Mob” dance is that it is sponsored by an Israeli Aliyah advocacy group. Their marketing has come a long way from Jaffa oranges and cute chicks in Kibbutz hats…


Julia Greenstein's Gingerbread Sukkah: Why not a Temple Mount?

My friend Deborah Solomon tells me she just bought one of those gingerbread house kits for the first time and that she plans to decorate it with Jewish icons. How about some gingerbread Maccabees and some gingerbread Assyrians battling it out on a gingerbread Temple Mount adorned with gingerbread statues of Greek gods?

The scene might be a little more complicated than the Manger, but there will still be a role for gumdrops and NECCO wafers.


Jackson Pollock in Action

Rhode Island’s Alisa Kotler-Berkowitz knows how to keep preschoolers busy. She unrolls a huge strip of paper and has the kids spin their paint-dripped dreidels on the canvas until there’s a print worthy of hanging at the Smithsonian.

Make sure you spread lots of newspaper on the floor for this one. The kinetic energy of dreidels creates lots of splatter action.

Also, Alisa advises that you either give the kids candy cigarettes or skip the tobacco products altogether.  In this regard, Jackson Pollock was not the ideal role model.

CHANUKAH IDEA #5 — INVITE THE NEIGHBORS: It’s almost selfish to keep those delicious latkes to ourselves. Pick a night to have “Show & Tell” with your neighbors or your children’s non-Jewish friends. New Hampshire’s Stacy Milbouer has discovered that her son Sam’s Christmas-celebrating friends love the opportunity to experience a hardcore cross-holiday immersion.

“These kids look forward to Chanukah at our house so much, that if I try to skip a year, their parents call and tell me their kids are heartbroken,” Stacy says. “So on each of our eight crazy nights, with the exception of the last which is reserved for family only, we have a new friend over. They always watch Sam light the candles and I give them copies of the prayers in English and phonetic Hebrew so they can follow along. I also give them the words to ‘Chanukah, Oh Chanukah!‘ and we all clap and sing along after the candles are lit.”

“And we have enough yarmulkes for everybody,” she adds. “Then each kid gets his or her own dreidel, or in years past we’ve made them, and gelt and we play. Sometimes we give them all a little gift, but it’s always something we can play together that night. We eat jelly donuts and that’s it for the friends. They love, love, love the holiday and now it’s become a tradition for them!”

New Hampshire’s Eileen Shapiro Hirsch has a family tradition that the delightful creature above would find totally en-DEER-ing. To be honest, this Magen David Deer has absolutely nothing to do with this post, but I love this picture and wanted to fit it in somehow.

Back to Eileen…. For the past seven or eight years, the Hirsch, Eisenhandlers and Weintraub families have gotten together one evening and their kids have linked together a large paper chains made from blue and white construction paper.  Every year, it has grown larger and larger and is now too big to fit in an oversize garbage bag. And, of course, it would take longer and longer for the kids to hang it in the house of the host family.  The New Hampshire trio took a break last year, but plan to bring out the chain again for 2009.

Go for it, Eileen!  I would love to see this paper chain continue to expand for generations till it spills out the windows and wraps around the block.  You could call it the Chain of Jewish Continuity and note how each link is symbolically fragile and must be maintained for strength.  And how the Jewish community is only as strong as its weakest link.

And if you get tired of manufactured symbolism, then you could also shoot for a noble secular goal.  HELLO, Guinness Book of World Records!

Pocket-sized Menorah for Chanukah revelers-on-the-go

CHANUKAH IDEA #7 — MENORAHS GONE WILD: The variety and imaginative scope of today’s Menorah market continues to astound me. The portable matchbox menorah above, which eliminates ALL excuses for not lighting the Chanukah candles, is brilliant.

If you want to give off a pro-recycling vibe, there’s also the trendy used bicycle chain Menorah and even a plumbing pipe Menorah.

But if you are really daring, you’ll try my Olfactory Overdose Menorah, which is comprised of 9 large Yankee Candles — scents are your choice, of course. Just like the Jelly Belly jelly bean flavor mixes, every untried combo has potential risks and benefits.

Have the children choose their Tzedakah cause so they feel a stronger connection to the Mitzvah!

CHANUKAH IDEA #8 — TZEDAKAH NIGHT: Your mailbox is likely stuffed with solicitations from charities, so you likely don’t need any suggestions from me about where to send your money. A great educational exercise would be to set aside the same amount of money for each child and have them pick one of five or six pre-selected causes. Or if their Tikkun Olam issue isn’t on the list, you can always research charities on the Internet together.

Some worthy tzedakah causes to get you started:

MAZON, the ongoing Jewish battle against hunger.

Heifer International gives kids a fun way to send cows, goats and chickens to impoverished villages around the world.

Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, a way to say thanks to Righteous Gentiles who risked their lives to save Jews from the Holocaust.

MooreMart is a civilian-based effort to send care packages, school supplies and sports equipment to American soldiers bonding with children in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kosovo.

Friends of the IDF gives Israeli soldiers a pizza, soft drinks, coffee, Bamba, and just a sense that strangers care about them and their mission.

88 Bikes spreads happiness one kid at a time, one bike at a time, to orphanages around the world.

Also, have your children make their own colorful Tzedakah boxes and make this a lesson that lasts all year round.


Ah, Yes, we finally get to the subject of the blog headline tease… And given that this is a family-friendly operation, you will not be reading about what Judah Maccabee did when he Let the Lights Go Out.

Our “Naked Time” story comes courtesy of Colorado’s most vivacious Jewish folksinger, Rachel Cole (you MUST hear her version of Lo Yisa Goy):

“When my kids were really little, they loved to run around naked (as most little kids like to do).  Well, we used to have ‘naked time’ in the house right before bath time, where the kids would run and dance around free from the encumberment of those pesky clothes we made them wear.

“So one time, I’m pretty sure the kids were around three and four, we were visiting my parents over the holidays and the whole family was there (aunts, cousins, etc.) and it was time to light the Chanukah candles.  And we told the kids specifically that after we lit the candles, it was bath time and then straight to bed.  So we lit the candles, said the prayers, and afterwards my aunt asked the kids, “Now, what is it time for?”

She expected to hear a joyful yell of “PRESENTS!”  Instead, what the family got to hear was my three-year-old son jubilantly exclaim, “NAKED TIME!!!!” and proceed to start yanking off his shirt. We stopped him, quickly, and he was placated with a present or two, and thankfully that night’s naked time was confined to the upstairs bathroom….but that’s definitely my all-time favorite Chanukah story!”

Rachel has a knack for appreciating the spontaneous joy in life and our youngest kids tend to express it best — regardless of what they are wearing. If your kids are still in the phase of loving a cardboard box and wrapping paper as much as the gift inside, hold on to that moment. It won’t last forever.

CHAG SAMAYACH, EVERYBODY!   Anybody try any of these before?  What are some of YOUR ideas to jazz up the Festival of Lights?

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This blog is dedicated to preventing another generation from dreading Hebrew School. I seek to exchange stories, ideas and tips with other parents, teachers and everyone who shares my love for Jewish history, culture, spirituality, arts, and Israeli produce. Care for a pomelo, anyone?

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