Getting A Handle On Educational Change
Tue, 01/10/2012
Special To The Jewish Week
Jane Slotin
Jane Slotin

At PELIE, the Partnership for Effective Learning and Innovative Education, we receive a great many calls from people asking about best practices, effective models, new innovations, current trends, and investment advice in the field of complementary (part-time) Jewish. What is the best methodology? Best curriculum? How can we most effectively invest our time and money?

One call may be from a parent who says she represents a group of 11 families who want to start their own Jewish after-school engagement program; another call from a synagogue layperson or Bureau of Jewish Education (BJE) professional looking to reinvent his or her institution; and another call comes from a funder wrestling with whether to invest in his grandchild’s school or a new educational innovation. Ultimately, they all want to know what will have the greatest positive impact on their kids, communities and/or institutions.

Our conversations generally cover the fact that: 1) there are no silver bullets; 2) the “field” of Jewish education outside of the home is relatively new given our 5,000-plus years as a people; 3) “one size does not fit all” in terms of method, model, or how a child learns; and 4) educational initiatives are long-term investments and given the lifelong nature of education, not easily measurable. We also speak about the amount of creativity and change happening in the arena of Jewish engagement.

Still the questions come in search of some constants and guarantees that will give insight to the parent, funder and/or innovator that their efforts and investments will be meaningful, lasting and have an impact.

PELIE’s work involves partnering with local funders on systemic change and educational initiatives, publishing EdJewTopia, a newsletter focused on changes in the field, offering technology fellowships and regional conferences focused on technology skills and helping schools assess their strengths and weaknesses. We have that regardless of what model, method or organization is in question, for any educational initiative or investment to have an impact, six components must be present. And not only present, but present and aligned. 

These universal components: leadership development, professional development, family engagement, content/curriculum, assessment/measurement and organizational development need to be aligned by informing one another. Each and all components must be focused around what your family, organization and child want to gain from a Jewish education.

For this reason, one of PELIE’s initial investments was training cities like San Francisco in the NESS process. Developed in Philadelphia, the Auerbach Central Agency for Jewish Education realized that working expertly with any one component improved only that area, but not the overall school or child’s enrichment. Like any well-run business, all departments must align with one another and continually check in with one another to continue to serve their consumer — in this case our kids.

And with kids as our consumers, technology is another constant.

In education, technology is often equated to a “tool” as a means to an end. It can be seen as a tool that delivers content in more compelling and interactive ways like using a Smartboard instead of a chalkboard; as a collaborative tool joining learners from around the world to look at issues and share ideas as with the ePals Global Community; as a content-generating tool allowing students to create movies, comic strips and musical compositions for publishing online; and providing venues for teachers to share their learning through The Educator’s PLN, The Jewish Education Change Network, Twitter feeds and a variety of blogs. And the uses of these tools are only limited by our imaginations. Our kids are way out in front.

Chris Lehman, principal of the Science Leadership Academy, has an equally important analogy. “Technology should be like oxygen: ubiquitous, necessary and invisible.”

To our kids, technology already is oxygen.

To most adults, technology is an all-encompassing word that tends to overwhelm. It is hardware and software, apps and clouds, computers, iPhones, tablets, gaming and socializing. One can tweet out, link in, mash up and download. And if the terminology and learning curve of the newest program is not enough to grasp, technological changes happen at lightning speed.

As we — professionals, parents, funders and innovators — continue to shape, create, modify and reinvigorate Jewish education regardless of the method, model or setting, it is important to consider the alignment of the key components that make up effective engagement while “breathing” technology into every part of the conversation.

And if you are feeling educationally or technologically challenged or even merely uninspired in this rapidly changing world, just breathe — and ask a kid for help.

Jane Slotin is the executive director of PELIE, a champion for complementary Jewish education and advocate for successful educational experiences.