Editor’s Introduction to The School as a Learning Community
My first year as a teacher was a deeply challenging experience. Armed with a rabbinical degree and a few graduate courses which provided me with some knowledge of educational theory, I found myself having to make it up as I went along. I made lots of mistakes in those early years and covered them up (along with my badly bruised ego) with a stiff upper lip, a preparedness to learn from my mistakes, and the boundless energy of a young teacher. The experience was profoundly lonely, despite the moral support from some friends and colleagues. Respite from that loneliness came from a program which allowed us to visit classrooms of veteran teachers in a variety of schools. Those site visits opened my eyes to different ways of teaching, but when funding for that program ran out I was returned to the solitude of my own classroom.
As I write this I contemplate how fortunate I am today. I have found invaluable the feedback I welcome from my own graduate students as part of my reflections on teaching, and I am fortunate to see them teaching and to visit dozens of classrooms each year. I am convinced that I have learned at least as much about teaching from observing them and discussing with them as they have learned from me.
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One online dictionary provides the following two definitions for community: a) a group of people who live in the same area (such as a city, town, or neighborhood), or b) a group of people who have the same interests, religion, race, etc. Many Jewish communities fit both definitions – they are comprised of people who live in the same area because they share similar interests, religion, or destiny. Let us then imagine what a learning community is – a group of people, either living in the same area or sharing similar interests, who have decided to learn together. The shared learning is not only a reflection of what brought them together but a willingness to explore deepening those bonds through meaning-making, shared experience, and engagement.
This issue of Jewish Educational Leadership is devoted to the idea of the school as a learning community. As you will see inside, there is no singular definition of what this could mean. It could refer to the idea that the school should become the learning center of a community, that the school should be viewed as an integral part of a community and where community is built, or it could refer to the internal workings of a school and how it functions as a community of learners. Not surprisingly, none of these are mutually exclusive and there is no single or right model for a school as a learning community. What they all have in common is that they challenge some of the traditional isolationism – or what has been called ”silos” – of the educational world. They seek to break down the walls separating schools from the communities in which they operate, between teachers within a school, and between the distinct members of the environment – students, teachers, administration, staff, parents, board members, etc.
The journal you are reading is different from many previous issues we have published. It contains seventeen articles, eight of which are linked. The Mandel Center for Jewish Education at Brandeis University has been helping a number of schools to develop their cultures of ongoing professional development. Sarah Birkeland of that center collaborated with Vivian Troen and Eran Tamir, respectively, to write two of the research articles describing the principles guiding their work. Two schools which have been working with them, the Gann Academy (Waltham, MA) and the Frankel Jewish Academy (West Bloomfield, MI) each contributed three articles describing their processes from different angles. The emerging picture is rich and filled with possibilities from which other schools can learn.
The Brandeis model is not the only one. Barry Kislowicz describes the process he has been shepherding in his school, Jeffrey Schrager describes the work that his principal has been doing, while Wendy Grinberg and Hana Bor each share professional learning practices in congregational schools. Amy Ament and her colleagues from the Jewish New Teachers Project describe the transformative work they have been doing with teacher induction in schools across the continent, and Susan Wall discusses what goes into creating and maintaining a cross-school learning community of alumni from the Pardes Educators Program.
In our Features section Levi Cooper describes an early Hasidic approach at creating community through learning, and our Perspective column highlights the thoughts of Eric Grossman on change as a value.
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For nearly two decades The Lookstein Center has dedicated its efforts to creating opportunities and promoting ongoing professional growth and building virtual communities for educators. The topics discussed in this issue are at the core of our work.