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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?)

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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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Send me your feedback and Jewish education stories at shalomstacy36 (@) gmail.com

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