11/23/2010

Three Notes on Education

A. Ethical Issues in One-Year Programs
 
It started as a Lookjed thread, but was then picked up by the Jewish Week (and Orthonomics). Apparently, some one-year programs use underhanded recruiting practices, but the vast majority do not.
Most of these programs can only take in a limited quantity—either due to finite resources or in order to maintain a good balance with other, generally Israeli, components of the school—so their recruitment efforts are based on quality, on being “top tier.” The past few years has seen a proliferation of “boutique” yeshivot and seminaries that are not interested in taking more than 25-40 students per year.
There are, however, a handful of schools, mainly men’s yeshivot, that want to and can take in larger numbers, 100 students a year and more. From my experience, these are the schools whose recruitment efforts leave something to be desired.
I was an RA at MTA (TMSTA-YUHSB) during the 1997-98 academic year. My floor consisted of high school juniors and seniors, enabling me to get a good look at recruitment practices in a large school. One yeshiva, while not offering a “bribe” per student, hired an MTA rebbe to be their US-based alumni coordinator. That particular rebbe also happened to teach the class from which the yeshiva was trying to draw recruits; the conflict of interest was known and discussed then. Another yeshiva set an earlier deadline for students to commit or lose their places. This put extra pressure on the students, some of whom committed to that yeshiva even before they heard back from their first choice.
In sum, sleazy recruitment isn’t new and is limited to a handful of places, but I’m glad it’s finally coming out.
Regarding the badmouthing of yeshivot, this was a pet peeve of mine when I taught high school. A student would be considering yeshivot A and B. One rabbi would badmouth A, the other would badmouth B, and the student would end up in community college. Well done, fellas. As b. Shabbat 34a says, even prostitutes know that the mutual badmouthing is bad for business.

B. The Judo of Education

The Japanese martial art of judo is known for using the opponent’s strength against him. Though teachers and students should not be thought of as opponents, there are certainly confrontational elements in the relationship. Sometimes a teacher has to directly challenge a student with disciplinary action. Far preferable, though, is when the teacher enlists and integrates (or “sublimates”) the source of distraction or disruption into the educational environment. Two examples from this past week:
As noted in Sunday’s New York Times, in the latest of a string of articles that discuss how social media and hand-held devices are rewiring our brains and driving us to distraction (story of my life),  it’s becoming increasingly difficult to hold the attention of students whose attentions are seriously divided. My wife came up with a pretty good idea for certain occasions. She introduced her students to certain search techniques, and now she encourages them to find relevant “intertexts.” She gives questions like “where else in Tanakh does this word/ theme appear,” and they’re off. And this generation is quite adept at making associative connections—lateral thinking.
The other example involves my first grade son. Thank God, he’s a bright boy, but sometimes needs to escape to disengage. We’ve given him paper and markers so that he can disengage without being disruptive, but he’s proud of what he draws and feels a need to describe it to his friends during class. His teacher called last week at wit’s end. I suggested that the main thing was to avoid confrontation, which my son has a tendency to escalate. I suggested that if they’re learning, for example, about Noach, let my son draw a scene from the narrative and then describe it to the class. Yesterday, my son came home with a 4-panel magnum opus on the rivalry of Cain and Abel, with a glowing note from the teacher about how he presented his handiwork to the class. Teachers can be taught, too.

C. Teachers Paying House Calls?

My daughter attends a school that’s part of the Shas network. The network recently issued a directive that homeroom teachers must visit each student at home, so the teacher came by tonight. I’m frankly fascinated by this idea, and I think it’s brilliant. First the negative—they do not provide any means of transportation for these teachers, and not every student is easily accessible by public transportation; we had to pick the teacher up from the other side of town. This bit could have been thought out better. Overall, though, the idea is an entirely positive one. Obviously, a few minutes in the student’s home can’t tell you everything, but it can tell you a whole lot: the student’s status within the family, family dynamics, the family’s socioeconomic and religious status, and so much more. It’s a window into the student’s world, and it can only help the teacher do her job. Kudos to Shas for this wondergful initiative.
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