Sunday, November 23, 2008

Shabbat School

My only direct experience with Shabbat School was as a student some 40 years ago, and based on that, I would say that there are potential problems that proponents of it will tend to understate. There are also potential advantages but not all of them are to the students.

I grew up in a Reform congregation (so there was no issue with writing, cutting, pasting, etc.) that had Shabbat school for the upper grades – the primary grades met on Sundays. One potential advantage of this was that students were there for the Shabbat morning service. We also had a service attendance requirement on Friday nights, and the result of this combination is that I still know most of the English text of the Union Prayer Book from memory. I find that I know quite a lot of useless stuff and that is one of the most conspicuous.

Having the students there on approximately 30 Shabbat mornings a year – instead of the 10 or so you might get for Junior Congregation – would seem to be an advantage if teaching the Shabbat morning liturgy is an important goal. But unless you have three days of school a week (two weekday afternoons and one weekend morning), it will be a strain to get both enough prayer time and enough class time. When I have supervised Junior Congregation it ran either 1.5 or 2 hours; in a 2-day school we could not afford to lose that much class time, nor would I have been satisfied with only one hour for Shabbat tefillah.

It seems to me that one of the reasons that Shabbat school is proposed is to eliminate the need to bring children an additional day for Junior Congregation, but I am skeptical about whether it would improve attendance. In my experience, both as a student (back in antiquity), and more recently as a teacher and principal, there are even more activities competing for students’ time on Saturday mornings than on Sunday mornings.

Also, here (this morning especially) the greatest problem with Sunday attendance is family vacations. We had about 50% absence this morning even though the public schools that most of our students attend are in session Monday through Wednesday, because families are blowing off not only religious school but also three days of regular school in order to take a 9-day family vacation only a month before the winter break! Those who want “family time” on Sundays may want it just as badly on Saturdays.

One potential advantage, which I've seen as a visitor to a Reconstructionist congregation that has Shabbat school, is that if school hours are synchronized with service hours, the attendance at the main service may improve – that is, instead of dropping children off, parents attend the regular service. This is indirectly beneficial to the students through the parents’ example.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Script writing

I am going to make a radical suggestion: don't teach printing. It takes up far too much time, it's tedious and laborious for the students, and the students will never have any occasion to use it.

The truth is that there is so little Hebrew writing to be done at all in our schools that time spent learning to print block is wasted. This is particularly true if we introduce it in kindergarten or pre-K, where the children haven't yet developed fine motor skills and it's harder to learn, but it applies in any and all grades.

On the other hand, I am in favor of teaching script writing in the elementary grades. Not because we have always done it that way – I didn't learn it until I was over the age of 40 – or because it is allegedly a hallmark of Conservative education – it's really school-specific.

I'm in favor of it because I believe that our job is to educate students for Jewish life, and in particularly for lifelong Jewish learning. We all face pressures to emphasize what is strictly pragmatic and utilitarian, to the point that anything else is completely excluded, but we are supposed to be educators, and that includes advocacy for what is in the best interests of our students. It also includes educating parents and lay leaders about what that means.

So here is why I support teaching script writing.

In the mid-1990s, Professor Sherry Israel at Brandeis University did a study for the Combined Jewish Philanthropies in Boston, which had established a Commission on Jewish Continuity. By that time everyone knew that the Jewish population study of 1990 had found three factors that contributed markedly to adult Jewish identification: day school, summer camp, and peer-group tours to Israel. (By the way, these results have often been misused to claim that Hebrew school had no effect, but if they show anything of the kind, it's that Hebrew school doesn't have *enough* effect.)

Students in our religious schools generally aren't attending day school (not an option at all in this community), but we all know that we should do everything possible to get students into Jewish summer camp and then into USY (or other) tours to Israel.

Israel's study found one additional factor that was as powerful as the other three: taking Judaic studies or Hebrew courses in college. That makes a great deal of sense in developmental terms, because college students are beginning the process of choosing adult values and self-definition, and voluntarily enrolling in a Judaic studies course represents a big positive step in that.

So I believe that we should also try to position our students to take Hebrew and/or Judaic studies in college (and, therefore, encourage them to choose colleges that have such courses). Above all, that means including enough intellectual content for students to see that there is something worth studying at a higher level – sometimes we focus so much on skills that ideas get short shrift. But if we hope that students will study Hebrew in college, we should teach them script writing in the elementary grades.

Now, I worked for 20 years in secular higher education, the greater part in colleges with Judaic studies programs and substantial Jewish enrollments. In college Hebrew courses, even Hebrew 101, script writing is required from the first day of class (well, maybe the second). I saw a lot of Jewish students who were afraid to enroll in Hebrew courses because of that – they had developed a mental block about it.

This wasn't a realistic attitude, because no background in Hebrew is required for Hebrew 101 and the classes almost always include non-Jewish students, but college students aren't always realistic.

In our school we teach script writing even though we know that the students won't really master it in the time we allocate to it. We require the (rather small) amount of written work that students do in Hebrew to be written in script. We don't try to achieve good handwriting - recognizable is enough. I'm not so sanguine as to believe that most students will retain script writing very well through high school, but it's sufficient that they have become comfortable enough to know that they can re-learn it easily.

And we don't teach printing at all. In pre-K, kindergarten, and first grade, we don't have the students do any writing at all. We start to introduce script writing in second grade, but it's in third grade that the students really start to practice writing.