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Malkie Herson's Blog

Thoughts from Malkie Herson

Why send your child to Hebrew School?

As I meet prospective Hebrew School families, I pose this question: “Why send your child to Hebrew School? What is it that you hope to accomplish?”
Each family answers in its own unique way, but the core idea is always the same, “My child is Jewish and I want him/her to connect with his/her identity.”

Each family might define connection and identity differently, but the fundamental goal is the same – a goal that we at Chabad Hebrew School take very seriously.
To connect with an identity, a child’s toolbox needs three broad categories of tools:

      1.    Knowledge
2.     Skills
3.     An openness (‘disposition’ in pedagogical language) to learning and positive associations with the object of their study.

A curriculum needs to include a balanced combination of all three components. The last one, the disposition for learning, is the most important – for it fuels the other two. It is the ‘disposition for learning’ that gives the knowledge and skills the legs to move forward. Yet, ironically, it is the one that is most frequently omitted from educational agendas (across the board, not just in Hebrew Schools).

That is why, in the design of our curriculum, we place tremendous emphasis on the positivity and the joy of Judaism – on creating dispositions for learning – in addition to skills and knowledge. For, what good would it do to train the child with the skill to read Hebrew (for example), if we don’t expend equal attention on creating the want (the disposition) to read Hebrew. Or, the knowledge of a holiday’s customs, without the affinity for its message, etc.

At the end of school day, I overheard a parent say, “They always seem to be baking or cooking here.” Let me share with you the context for why we include baking in our curriculum: The sense of taste and the sense of smell are internal (we ingest the food and the smells, unlike sights, sounds and touch). That is why smells and tastes of our childhood can be accessed long into adulthood. Since Chabad Hebrew School focuses so strongly on positive associations, cooking the holiday foods (for example) is a great means to accomplish that goal.

That sense of positivity, balanced with a curriculum of skills and knowledge, provides the child with a toolbox that truly has the potential to meet the goal that you, the parents, have expressed: “My child is Jewish and I want him/her to connect with his/her identity.”

INTEGRATED EDUCATION; INTEGRATED LIVING

  Last week, I went to visit my parents and walked into my childhood bedroom. I was nostalgic as I opened some drawers still full of my childhood treasures.

And there I found the book.

It was not any book; it was - as I remember - my absolute favorite book of my childhood. “The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins.” I opened it up carefully. Its drawings brought the whole story back to me. I was a child once again. And I couldn't wait to read this book to my own children.
So, that Friday evening, after I lit the Shabbos candles, I cuddled with my son. I was so excited to read the story to him. I knew my memories were not going to disappoint me. It was a long book; took me over twenty minutes to read. But I was invested. And, by the faraway look in my son's eyes, I knew he was too.

Finally, we finished. We went downstairs to join my husband and my guests who were waiting patiently at the Shabbos table. I apologized for my delay. "But," I explained to them, "it was for a very good reason. I was reading, for the first time as an adult, my absolute favorite book from my childhood."
I started to read it to them. Again, I really got into it. And, from the look in my guests' eyes, I think that they, too, felt the wonder in that story.

Suddenly a thought occurred to me. Dr. Seuss, the author, managed to integrate so many skills, so many values, so much information into that story, without ever compromising on the fantastic.... There was counting; there was causality. There was alliteration; there was assonance. The vocabulary was sophisticated, yet I never felt compelled to replace with simpler words. Laced into the story were values and lessons. Yet, it never seemed contrived. The story never seemed try-hard or artificial. Even though, in this story, Dr. Seuss embedded so many lessons, skills, and information, it was all so seamlessly woven.

To me, that is the definition of authentic education. Moreover, that is the definition of authentic living: Integration. Wholeness. Rather than seeing skills and knowledge, values and behaviors, home and school, splintered into compartments - math divorced from language,  separated from motor skills, unrelated to social and emotional development - we need to realize that each is but a detail of the bigger picture: The development of the whole child.

We treat education like the six blind men and the elephant. So, when we are in the shiny tusk mode, we cannot even fathom that there is a fluffy tail...that is one and the same as the leathery skin...which is connected to the source of the fanning ears...which is the very same body as the shiny tusk. Keeping the whole 'elephant' in mind, seems, well, too big to handle.

Over the last few years, we at Chabad (with the guidance of Dr. Naama Zoran) have been on an intense journey towards the best practices in education. We found our answer in the concept of Integration.

We spent a long time exploring the vertical components in the development of a child, and the horizontal aspects. But, most importantly, how each component interfaces with the other. Simultaneously. Consistently. Dynamically.

We studied the child's social and emotional development, and its inextricable tie into the intellectual and motor growth. We studied the affects of space, of time, on the child.

We discovered how our endeavor is to create a disposition for life-long learning. And, how much deeper that is to merely collecting information.

We came to realize how infinitely competent the child is, and by way of that, came to appreciate our own competence.

We saw how we must be as intentional in what we choose not to teach as in what we choose to teach.

We saw the absolute necessity to provide transparency to our learners, and to their parents. And how that transparency scaffolds the growth of a seemingly unrelated population, people with no connection to our preschool. They just happen to walk the halls of our building.

We realized that documentation is a great strategy in accomplishing all this, but – moreover - we saw how documentation is a Value. In Chassidic lingo, documentation is Cheshbon Hanefesh, the tool for self-analysis and growth.

And, by studying each of the above, we realized how they were really all just different perspectives of the same totality, authentic living. In our school, we have begun to taste that Oneness. We have begun to taste, what is referred to in the famous Shmah prayer, the "Echad".

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