Letter from the Editor

by: Zvi Grumet

I have never met a parent who wasn’t thrilled at their baby’s first steps or first words. I have also never met a parent who wasn’t terrified the first time their child walked to school by herself, rode a bicycle to a friend’s house, or took the car for the first time. Empowering children is what parents do. It can also be quite frightening. We cannot possibly count the number of stages between the first steps and taking the car keys, and each step involves an element of support, course correction, and letting go. From the child’s perspective it involves the same things, but from the other side of the mirror. Watch a child who has just mastered crawling. He will quickly scoot away from the parent, and then look over his shoulder to make sure she is watching.

Jewish educators struggle with the same issues, but add an additional layer of complication. On the one hand we want to empower our students. What Jewish educator would not delight at a student reading Hebrew, mastering Humash or being able to study a page of Gemara on his own? I used to tell my students, and their parents, that my goal in teaching their children was to become obsolete – that they should no longer need me. But empowering students means giving up an element of control, and Jewish education expects that, at least on some level, students remain within the fold. The most liberal of Jewish educators would be less than thrilled if a student used their empowerment to work against the Jewish community. And as we slide along the scale of tradition, the more traditionalist one is the greater the concern with deviations from that tradition.

As a day school leader I instituted in my school a senior project. Seniors finished most of their coursework about two-thirds into the year, and in the last few weeks they had an opportunity to explore anything they wanted, with adult supervision but not control. One student’s experience with that project recently raised for me a myriad of conflicting feelings. He had explored an artistic passion of his and learned considerable skills. It was now ten years later, and he had dropped out of medical school to pursue that same passion, crediting his senior project with encouraging him. He was thrilled, but his parents much less so. He had become empowered, but was violating some of the unwritten rules of his family and traditional community in doing so.

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This issue of Jewish Educational Leadership explores the question of empowerment. Why? How? What are the boundaries? What are the benefits and dangers? What does empowerment look like in a Jewish school? In Jewish studies? The Research section includes articles by Moshe Sokolow; Steve Bailey; Debbie Niderberg, Rona Novick, and Karen Kruger; Moshe Krakowski, Juli Kramer, and Naomi Lev; and Ken Firestone. Sokolow explores empowerment of students in learning Tanakh, Krakowski and colleagues examine Problem Based Learning in Jewish studies, Niderberg and colleagues describe the theory behind their Hidden Sparks program – designed to help students be aware of and overcome their own learning challenges, Bailey reflects on empowerment on a school-wide level, and Ken Firestone delves into hevruta learning as a model of empowerment.

Our Applications section opens with Tikvah Wiener’s description of how a club she opened in school is opening new horizons for student self-learning. Maccabee Avishur and colleagues describe their school’s initiative to include student independence as one of the standards to which teachers are held. Hana Bor describes empowerment programs in a congregational school. Allen Saks reflects on his personal transformation in the classroom by empowering students. Daniel Rothner describes how Areyvut’s programs have student empowerment built in. And most appropriately, we have a student’s perspective on his own experience in a school which empowered him.

In our Features section we are pleased to present a piece by noted author and educational thinker Alfie Kohn. His words are sure to spark interesting discussion. Levi Cooper’s From the Classics sheds light on practices in the traditional European yeshivot in which students were empowered in ways that would make many contemporary teachers uncomfortable. Finally, Ismar Schorsch honors our Perspective column with his thoughtful words.