Parents Are Teachers Too - PATT Schools

The Challenge: Improve Religious Schools

Why aren’t Jewish supplementary schools better than they are? For the past 30 years, Jewish communities and organizations across the United States (to the tune of tens of millions of dollars) have attempted to improve the effectiveness of supplementary schools. And we have. We have improved every facet of supplementary schooling. There isn’t a school in this country that can’t point to dramatic improvement in its administrators, teachers, lay leaders, curriculum and school facilities. Yet none of these improvements have alleviated the severe criticisms. In fact, so severe have been these criticisms that many people have given up on Sunday schools.

Not me. I am a firm proponent of religious schools if for no other reason than three quarters of our students attend these schools (and this figure is even higher if we exclude the NYC area). I am also well aware of the three primary criticisms of religious schools, which are:

• Not nearly enough talented/trained teachers

• Too little time to teach too many subjects resulting in shallow learning

• What is taught at school is disconnected from what happens in too many of students’ homes

Anyone who has been in Jewish education for a decade or longer knows that every few years we come up with yet another “new initiative” to solve these problems. We have tried increasing the number of hours of instruction; expanding programs to beyond-the-classroom; offering a wide range of parent and family education programs; and even mentoring parents on how to “be Jewish.” Obviously these efforts have not succeeded well enough and this failure has led some educational leaders and foundations to stop trying to improve supplementary schools.

Re-Conceptualizing Supplementary Schools

Jonathan Woocher understands the futility of doing the same old, same old while believing we are doing something “new.” This is why he has repeatedly urged us to RECONCEPTUALIZE Jewish education. This means developing a new concept of what the supplementary school is, as opposed to thinking of ways to improve the old concept. Ironically and problematically, our present (old) concept of religious schools is that they are, in fact, fulltime schools operating on a much-less-than-fulltime schedule. We expect religious schools to include in their K through 8 (or 10 or 12) grades of instruction all of the subjects, topics and types of experiences that constitute Jewish life. Simultaneously we also expect them to address contemporary issues through the lens of Judaism; to become agents of tikun olam; and to provide family and parent education as well!

Do we wonder then why our schools do not have enough talented and trained educators? Most Jewish universities would be challenged to find enough talented staff to teach all of Jewish life, its values and the nuances of how these values play out in today’s ever-changing world. Is it surprising that schools do not have enough time to use engaging, innovative and experiential techniques that enable students to access deeper levels of learning? Creative teaching requires far more time than speaking AT students.

I want to propose an elegantly simple--albeit radical--conceptual solution that will require some complexity of implementation and a high degree of faith in our parents. I propose that we reconceptualize supplementary schools as, well, SUPPLEMENTAL –that is, as schools which are not responsible for teaching about all of Jewish life. We must rebalance the school curriculum by removing portions of it and putting these portions back into the home for parents to teach. I call this new kind of school a PATT School - Parents Are Teachers Too. While we must have further discussion about what is best taught in a school setting and what is best learned at home, it feels right to me that we shift into the home setting such topics as Jewish holidays, life cycle events, many current issues and even the Holocaust. This latter topic involves such a wide range of personal, as well as Jewish values, that parents are the only people who, it seems to me at least, should be deciding which messages and values they want their children to learn (and at what age).

Once we have identified the areas of curriculum to shift into the home setting, we must develop easy-to- use teaching resources for parents and mechanisms for training parents to use these resources. These resources must include the widest selection of Internet, print and multi-media selections (and means for parents to use social media to share what they are doing) such as YouTube clips, FaceBook, television episodes, movies, documentaries, oral histories, Wiki articles, selections from the online Encyclopedia Judaica, etc. We will encourage and reward parents for discovering new resources and developing creative and effective ways of using them. It will not take long before we have a comprehensive, experiential curriculum made by parents for use by parents.

The advantages to PATT Schools are multiple. A few of the more important benefits are:

• No longer a disconnect the size of the Grand Canyon between school and home

• Parents who are honestly empowered to learn about Jewish life and to teach their children

• More teaching time for fewer subjects in school, allowing teaching to take place at deeper and more innovative levels

Our renewed religious schools will now be able to devote far more innovative and creative time toward the teaching of Jewish texts, our Written and Oral Traditions; toward the performance of community service and tikun olam projects; and toward the development of a school community of students and parents that recognizes that what they share in common is far more important than what makes them different from one another.

We need to come to grips with the fact that no type of Jewish school can succeed without parents becoming co-teachers. Without parental support, no Jewish schools (not even day schools) can be effective or highly successful in instilling in their students the ultimate value of Jewish life. I invite your responses and your ideas about how we take the first step to determine areas of home study and to develop the teaching resources parents will need.

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