Frostbite and Recovery

I had no business being outside without my arms covered.

But Stu and I needed to run. Clearly. That’s what we’ve always done together.

Stu packed smarter than I did. He brought a hat, gloves, and fleece to Waynesboro, PA. And whatever room in my own suitcase that these useful layers might have occupied was taken up with a winter coat. I didn’t know that long corridors would join the conference rooms to the dining hall. So I’m equipped for a dog-sled race through the Tundra, but not for a run, even a half hour run.

Now, I’m in my room, admiring the naked trees I was just running beneath, and the line of pines just beyond, and it all seems very cozy, and I can relax, as the symptoms of what I feared was frostbite have subsided. From this vantage point, warm and looking out at the cold, I feel very much in solidarity with the educators at our Pardes “Spring Ahead” conference.

While Pardes educators are reknown for their fiery passion for teaching and learning, and while the schools that employ us are warm, welcoming, and community oriented, the “practice” of teaching can at times be very cold. And while the school day sprints by (teachers are the only people in the building who look at the clock and wish it went slower), the school YEAR can be like a long, slow, well — dogsled race. Through a blizzard. Uphill both ways.

It’s easy to have the spark extinguished – a kind of numbing can settle in (like the one my hands are just recovering from). At the same time, the spot under my icicle of a watch was pink and raw. And every teacher knows how some days can leave you touchy and irritable and the next student who puts up his or her hand for help before trying to solve the problem is going to get “differentiated” – (sounds threatening, doesn’t it? Not sure what it means).

Colleagues are great. Supervisors are great. That little voice, the internalized Camp Counselor, who once told you how brave you are for making it through the 2 hour hike — the one who now speaks in your ear when you wipe-out — all these are great. But nothing takes the place of leaving it behind. Frosty emails. Icy looks of aggravated adolescents. That frigid feeling when you try something new, something exciting, and it’s met with a yawn…or gets smashed to smithereens because the wifi went out. Those ice-cold feelings need a warm place in order to desfrost.

Gathered around the fireplace, here, I’ve seen people sharing warmth. Courage. Passion. Kindness. And I know we are re-kinding in each other the sort of fire that made me decide to be a Pardes Educator in the first place.

My wrists and hands and ears are fine. But my heart? It’s never been warmer.

Reflect-Re-reflect and Re-Reflect…and Re-Reflect

face to face v2Students who learn together in pairs can accomplish great things: as a pair, they can be more creative, more flexible, and can push each others’ ideas further. Partner learning (called Havruta, starting back in the ancient Jewish Yeshivas, and continuing to this day) is the original crowd-sourcing!

A crowd of 2!

But chevruta can also be a place of “lowest common denominator” thinking, where students tune out – they might not feel accountable. Or might not care. Or might not even have the kind of basic listening and articulating skills that grownups who talk and listen for a living take for granted.

Dr. Orit Kent knows more about Chevruta Learning than anyone. She did her Ph.D. on the topic. She isolates a number of different actions that take place: listening, articulating, challenging, synthesizing, and wondering. I’m a huge fan.

But when I tried to teach all these, it flopped. How do you make a 15 year old challenge an idea when he didn’t follow his Havruta’s point to begin with?

My solution comes from my training in conflict mediation and compassionate listening. I call it reflect-reflect.


Person 1: Speaks.

Person 2: Listens. Then reflects back not the WORDS, but the most important core-idea.

Person 1: Acknowledges, “Yes. That’s what I meant.”

If person two needs correcting or clarification, the cycle goes around. And around. Sometimes three or four or five times. No one is allowed to “like” an idea, or “disagree” or even “agree” until the two minds meet in one space.

Guess what happens then?

Challenging…wondering…pushing…synthesizing: they emerge ON THEIR OWN. 

They are the natural, human response to a new idea entering the shared mind-space.

The teacher’s job is to offer the Havruta a task where there is sure to be different opinions. And then, to relentlessly, tirelessly, endlessly prompt students to reflect and re-reflect and re-reflect.

The process looks like this: both in Wolk’s Class, and in my actual class.

Design Thinking Solutions: Flowcharts for Managing Student Workflow

flowchartOne of the most challenging aspects of managing a Design Thinking project: you will have students who are on schedule and you will have students who are behind. Sometimes, they will have missed a deadline due to time management, and sometimes, a student will need special help to get on track. This means that in a single classroom, you have 2-4 different instruction sets to give.

Multiply the instructions: visual learners, auditory learners, those who follow better when you present, and those who follow better when they can read and reread instructions.

Q: How is one teacher to manage so many steps, so many types of students?

A: Flowchart.

Sure, you could open Google-draw, create a hundred boxes, and wrestle with filling them with content and arranging them in a clear way.

Or you could use MindMeister, which has an intuitive interface, rich features, and even builds in a presentation mode.

Start class with a walk-through for two minutes. Post the link on the class calendar or with the URL shortened and written on the board. When students get lost and raise their hands (or devolve into non-productive behavior) remind them to consult the flowchart.

To look at a live and working Mindmeister, designed to help students through the prototype phase of their project, click here.

It seems to me that while my students may benefit from my pre-designed idea map, the next step is teaching them to create a map for this project and others.

And the step after that? Adopting a visual, special, info-graphic approach to all instruction.

Design Thinking in the Jewish Studies Classroom

image“Design Thinking” is at once delightfully simple and deliciously complex.
Simple: rather than learn by reading or writing, students learn by complaining, dreaming, planning, researching, prototyping, pitching, critiquing, revising, and reflecting.
Complex: exactly.
Each of these phases is its own world of inquiry, practice, and expertise.
What I love about Design Thinking is that while I’m explaining or modeling a step in the project, to misquote Gertrude Stein, “there’s a there there.” There’s a “thingness” to it that no essay or test can match. And while students are working, alone or in groups, there is excitement to their process as they explore models they’ve chosen and researched and applied to their work.
One tricky element of Design Thinking is that it shines most brightly when the complaint or dream that inspired the project is “real.”
Example: design a classroom more conducive to your learning style. Or: design a beit Midrash for the 21st century.
But when you’re teaching a Tanach course, what is the “real life” complaint which generates the creative process?

My suggestion is that every narrative depicts characters who may have existed long ago, but who experienced problems very real and very applicable to our lives. If students can learn to empathize with characters’ situations, analyze the root causes of their problems, and evaluate the contributing complications, then they have both gained a deep understanding of the text and also taken steps towards a Design Thinking approach to solving the problem.

Example: Shmuel Chapters 1-4 depict one of the most promising arrivals of a leader since Joshuah. Shmuel seems poised to bring light and hope to a nation suffering from darkness and spiritual blindness. Despite this, three chapters later, the Israelites lose 30,000 soldiers in one of the worst military defeats in the Tanach. The Ark of the Covenant is captured. The leadership is slain.

Rather than assume that we can determine the exact cause for this loss, let us consider it a symptom of a larger disease. Can this disease be eradicated? Can the illness be contained? Healed? And what are the implications for “real life?”

In my class, students read about the birth of this auspicious child and then read about the defeat. Then, the project launched.

Unit 1: theorizing about contributing or root causes.
Unit 2: distilling “real life” analogous situations corresponding to the theorized root-case / problem.
Unit 3: researching / interviewing “real life” experts and situations to gain a more informed, nuanced understanding of the root cause / problem.
Unit 4: researching / interviewing “real” life experts and situations on potential SOLUTIONS to the root cause / problem.
Unit 6: pitching the solution to a student team for feedback and critique.
Unit 7-9: prototype 1-3

At this point, students have designed and revised a solution product. It could be a course on effective oration for new leaders, a PR campaign to inform the public of proactive ways to stop scandal, or an interventions for troubled families. All three of these are “real-life” solutions for what students identified as root-cause problems.

The next step is to design a creative depiction of the textual characters utilizing this intervention: a style tableaux showing Eli’s family in a special therapy, thus preventing the disaster. A video-montage showing Shmuel in a special Outward-Bound program to make him a more confident agent of change, BEFORE it’s too late for the house of Eli. An interactive video game for teaching the Israelites about the dangers of a leadership allowed to run unchecked by society.

Again, students do numerous prototypes, and finally, we take a trip to a nearby Senior Center to meet with residents, share the projects, and use it as a conversation piece for the themes of the project…or wherever it may go.

Design Thinking is time consuming and has many moving parts, but is has an energy that can make even these ancient texts feel alive and electric.

How Not to Cook From Scratch: Templates

templateCooking from scratch is great when you’re baking a pie or making marinara, but lesson planning from scratch is inefficient and ineffective.

When was the last time you forgot to make an important announcement in class because you got carried away by your lesson plan? Or when you forgot to remind students what the homework would be because you were busy giving instructions?

Create a template that will contain all the essential elements of your class: 5 or 6 sections, infinitely variable, and yet complete.

You can keep this template in Google Keep (like I do),  Evernote, or any other platform that is easily accessible.

This template contains space for me to write:

  • Tabs for students to open at the start of class
  • Reminder about what the homework was and a reminder to grab a “pass” if the homework isn’t complete (Students get 2 per quarter, and then it begins to affect their grade)
  • The link to my Schedule Once auto meeting-maker and my “Back Channel” for various tech or personal crises, so I can deal with them one at a time.
  • First Things Work
  • Anchor Work (what to do anytime the current task is completed)
  • Homework
  • What to do if you miss class
  • Students I need to see

I open it, paste it into the class Google Calendar, and begin to fill in the various elements from class. When students arrive to class, they:

  • Open computers
  • Check the class calendar, and get to work.
  • 7-10 minutes into class, I give a one minute warning, and we do intro discussion and “housekeeping”
  • Then, the flight plan is all ready for them to follow!

I recommend using a template like this for other common teacher tasks, as well. For example, I have a Google Keep Template for

  • The top 10 Grammatical Mistakes students make with a link to a mini lesson. I can cut and paste from Google Keep into  a comment in Googledocs.
  • The names of each student in class for fast Googledoc Sign-Up Lists
  • The 7 things I need to schedule into each week (and will forget if I don’t have them in a handy list
  • The 6 students who will likely not advocate for help; I will check in with all 6 each week.