Gen Ed Torah is a blog series by Rabbi Lee Buckman, in which he reviews current literature in education and applies it to the world of Jewish education.

Preparing for the First Day of School

by | Aug 13, 2019 | Blog, Gen Ed Torah | 0 comments

What does the first day of school look like for your students? Does it involve reviewing the rules, reading a syllabus, and filling out some forms?

It may be appropriate to start that way. Many teachers focus on building relationships and trust. After all, we are taught “aseh l’cha rav, ukneh l’cha chaver” (Avot 1:6). Learning is at its core a social endeavor.

However, one question to consider is how to prime our students to embrace our subject matter and leave class with an eagerness to return the next day.

One veteran public school teacher gives some good advice that’s applicable to limudei kodesh teachers, the gist of which is to make sure to address on Day One the “why” of the course:  Why is this course in Jewish history or Talmud or Ivrit or Tanach important?  How is the subject matter relevant to the students’ lives?  How does the class enrich their sense of Jewish identity?  

If our students didn’t take this class, in what way would they be impoverished–intellectually, religiously, Jewishly?  What meaning can the course add to their lives today, and how does it build on what they’ve learned previously and prepare them to learn new things in two or four or six years? What questions will your course be dealing with that will arouse their curiosity on Day One and will stay with them for the rest of their lives?

These are likely some of the most challenging questions we have to answer as teachers, and to the extent, we can formulate meaningful and satisfying answers, we stand a better chance of capturing our students’ minds, hearts, imagination and desire to return the next day.

In a 2016 article in the Teacher division of Education Week Teacher, veteran and now retired teacher Nancy Flanagan describes ten non-standard ways to prepare for the first day of school. Here are five that have the potential to be game changers.

Don’t work too hard on unimportant things like fancy bulletin boards. “The most important thing you can do before school starts is think about the curriculum and the kids you’re teaching,” she says.

Plan grandly, not precisely. “Think about the things students need to know for the next decade, not the next standardized test or unit quiz,” says Flanagan. “What do you want your students to take away, forever, from your teaching? Which big ideas? What critical skills?”

Tie your classroom to the world. “Help your students analyze issues or find role models,” says Flanagan, “because that’s your job.”

Don’t make Day One “rules” day. This is especially important for middle and high-school students, who will probably march through a succession of Teacher Rules on the first day of school. Flanagan advises taking care of systems and strategies a few days later, when students are more likely to remember them and the practice will be more meaningful.

Instead, give students a taste of disciplinary knowledge on the first day. “Teach something, using your most engaging instructional techniques,” she advises, “perhaps a game, a round-robin, a quick-response exercise with no wrong answers…” ideally something that involves physical movement. “Beware of empty ice-breakers or team-building exercises,” she continues. “Your goal is to have students going out the door saying, ‘I think this class is going to be fun, and I already learned something.’”

Read all ten of Nancy Flanagan’s Ten Non-Standard Ideas About Going Back to School” in Education Week Teacher, August 6, 2016, http://bit.ly/2b30btd

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Rabbi Lee Buckman

Rabbi Lee Buckman

Rabbi Lee Buckman lives and works in Jerusalem. He is the Executive Director of JEDvision, which provides educational services, consulting, and executive coaching to Jewish organizations and institutions globally. Prior to making aliyah, he served as Head of School at three institutions: TanenbaumCHAT, the Greenfield Hebrew Academy, and the Frankel Jewish Academy. Lee has been a Lookstein Center contributor for more than 10 years. He can be reached at lee@jedvision.com.

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