Sunday, April 13, 2014

Passover Based Learning

First, an acknowledgement: this post was inspired by my colleague Tikvah Wiener's mention of a piece by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks about Passover.
Second, an admission: I am writing this while sitting at a table which has not yet been cleaned for Passover -- that doesn't make this an exercise in procrastination, but I just want to put out there that I am piecing this together from memory as I don't have my haggadot out yet.

On Facebook, Tikvah Wiener mentioned the Rabbi Sacks piece opening as a defense of the rasha, the "evil" son who asks about the "avodah" (either the sacrificial service or the work required for a Jew). I very quickly saw that the evil son was just like the student who, in his group work setting, gloms off of the sweat of others and takes his final grade while diminishing the effort that others put in on his behalf. He excludes himself from the process but reaps the benefits at the end. The evil son is, after all, sitting at the same seder and enjoying the same "freedom" that the Exodus afforded all Jews.

From there, I began to think of the other 3 sons and I wondered, "how is this story unlike others in the seder or elsewhere?"

1. It creates a group which, metaphorically represents an entire people.

1a. Yes, but the same symbolism is applied to the 4 species on Sukkot.

2. It, in meta-fashion, looks at the retelling of the Exodus as the event to be discussed, not just the Exodus, itself.

2a. So does the story of the Rabbis in Bnei Brak.

3. It sets the stage for educational groupwork importable into the day school setting.


So if the rasha is part of the group, who are the others (and all you teachers out there, let me know if this sums up some of the challenges of creating groups for class). The chacham is the kid who works hard and, especially in a homogeneous classroom stands out as either not belonging or acing every assignment. He isn't necessarily popular but when it comes to group work, everyone wants to be in his group. So you, as the wily educator, place him with a motley collection of students to try and raise them all up.

The rasha, as mentioned, doesn't intend to do any work but will take what others achieve and make it his. His question looks intelligent and looks like it almost mocks the chacham's question (in that they both use a second person, seeming to exclude themselves -- but the teacher knows the intent of the asker and answers in kind).

The tam, the simple student looks at the assignment and says "what's this?" Overwhelmed by the assignment he sits there and doesn't know where to start. So the teacher points to the title and the underlying facts and reminds the student what the ultimate goal is.

And the one who doesn't know to ask (or how to ask) needs the female touch of the teacher who needs to be told that he is as valuable a member of the learning community and that in not asking, he is still performing a valuable function. His inability comes soon after 2 stories of grand rabbis -- one in which the biggest names in the business sat around doing the same group work and one in which a rabbinical master admits his own inability to understand until someone else explains it to him.

This last son got me thinking about inclusion. The group is populated by 2 students who understand traditional pedagogy and are self-motivated, one by the urge to understand, one by the will to get a grade. The third son knows he is supposed to know but can't see the process at all. He needs to be brought in to the group and pointed in the direction. He might be a very concrete learner who has to be shown the value of creativity. And the one who doesn't know to ask might be one whom we are currently labeling a student with special needs (excuse my wrong label if that is not in vogue when you read this...maybe the exceptional learner or whatever). His learning style is so not attuned to this class, or project, that he can't even see that educational path being laid out.

From there, I began to look at the entire of the haggadah and it dawned on me that the whole evening seems to be a final project put together after a teacher handed out the following assignment.

Create a multi-disciplinary and integrated program which will, intertextually, allow every stakeholder to participate in and fulfill the obligation to discuss the Exodus. Include a rubric, address modalities of learning, and provide fruitful content which will inspire participants to continue to create levels to the material so that future iterations cannot become stale.

The seder has a rubric -- we learn that anyone who has not discussed 3 things (The Paschal offering, the matzah and the bitter herb) has not completed the assignment. We establish a transparent order at the beginning so that everyone knows what we are up to and where we are headed. Big questions are set out at the top so that we know what we have to cover. In terms of resources, we rely on biblical and post-biblical texts. There are historical passages for those who love history, stories of miracles for the literary minded, math and computation for those who love numbers and measurements (eating only the STEM of the karpas? Just kidding), abbreviations and word games for the puzzle maniacs, songs from beginning to end which serve as memory aids for those who learn via repetition and rhyme, and which tell other versions of the central story of salvation so that students can compare and contrast. Hierarchical levels of learning are addressed -- recall, analysis, inference and ultimately synthesis.

There is real life application as we point to the objects on the table in front of us. There is mystery (why do we keep taking the plate off the table or covering parts up? Why are you hiding that matzah? Why are there nuts on the table?). There is symbolism and the identification and exploitation of experts. We learn to invite the poor and improve our world. We show faith and trust in our fellow man as we open our doors to all comers and our faith in God as we open that door and tell the world who we are. We look backwards at the traditions of our forefathers and towards the future as we aspire to greater religious heights. We use multiple languages so that the story is not frozen in one place or time, but grows with us.

And, through all the questioning, we are told over and over to go out and ask even more -- to write our own seder, and find new answers to all sorts of mysteries so that next year, we can become the teachers who help those in that new group to understand why we are here. And at the very last, we hope that our academic work at this seder can be turned into a reality next year in a rebuilt Jerusalem; we aren't learning just to learn, but because we want to be ready to understand and to do.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Passover - almost a religious experience

I am really looking forward to Passover.

I know. No one in the history of the world has ever said that before. I get the sense that even the Israelites, in Egypt, when told that along with freedom, they will have to give up Oreos for 7 days said "Hey, let's not be too hasty about this." But I? I can't wait for Passover to come.

I have been spending most of my time recently depriving myself. It isn't enough to give up junk food. The only way I have been able to control my weight and neck size has been to go on an extreme Atkins-type diet. I try to eliminate as many carbs as I can from my diet (I average -6 per day). Yes, I know it is unhealthy. Yes, I know it reflects a poor body image and creates the false sense of security because it sacrifices overall health for loss of pounds. Yes, if feeds into my fantasy world in which I can consider typing this blog entry as an exercise regimen. But hey, it works.

But on holidays, man do I cave. And Passover is an even specialer case. I celebrate FREEDOM. Freedom, as we all know, is best exemplified by carbs. So I look forward to the cakes and cookies (while avoiding cottonseed oil and anything hydrogenated...I may be on Atkins but I don't have a death wish). I can't wait to have some fruit and starchy veggies. But you have no idea how excited I am at the prospect of matzah.

Matzah and cream cheese. With herring and cream sauce. Dipped in soup. As the crust in a pizza, fried as matzah brie. As a plain crunchy snack. A layer in lasagna. An edible Frisbee. I am going to gorge on matzah. I await all the concomitant physical dysfunction; I will wear it as a badge of honor: "I ate a whole box of matzah and all I got was this crippling constipation." Bring it on.

I believe that this is in the spirit of the holiday. We are commanded not to eat matzah during the weeks before the holiday so that we can enjoy and truly appreciate the special nature of the commandment to eat it on Passover. I haven't had anything with more than 4 carbs in it for months now so I'm gonna appreciate the hell out of that matzah. Repeatedly. Then I'm gonna appreciate some cake.

After that, we count the Omer (which is Hebrew for "detox") and I look forward to the Cheescake Deposits on my Hips that define Shavu'ot.

Friday, March 21, 2014

None of my Business world

A former student wandered into school today. I am not sure if he was in my class when he was here, but certain students befriend me and we talk and forge a relationship even if they aren't in my class. Come to think of it, that seems to happen on if they aren't in my class. So anyway, I went over to this young man and I asked "what are you up to these days?" I was expecting him to name a college, maybe a graduate school and some sort of career aspiration. I can handle that. We graduate them and they move on but at a rate we can deal with. Just last week, I ran into a student from 15 years ago and he introduced me to his eldest child. Eldest of 5, that is. So, sure, sometimes it is a shock, but I have learned to deal with the fact that I am the Dorian Gray of my world -- they age and I'm perennially in high school.

This student who came by, what did he say? "I have a job with IBM." I took a pause. Hell, I took two pauses. I asked "You mean a job, for reals and everything?" He looked at me, smiled and said "Yup, for reals and everything." They enjoy torturing me like that. He continued, "I'm also 24." That, I can accept. So I asked "What is your job?" He said "I am a consultant at IBM." "No offense," I responded, "but who would consult you about anything?" He told me to ask the people he had a meeting with yesterday who wanted his advice about running a particular project I didn't mean to insult him and he didn't take it that way but let me explain.

He is 24. He finished school. He has yet to run a business of his own. Why would a 50 year old who already has a business and somehow succeeded at reaching age 50 need the help of someone who hasn't proven himself in the world? What is the nature of consulting that you don't graduate into it after a lifetime of experience and a track record of success? Is this how a little child shall lead them? When I was 24 I was on the cusp of becoming a full time teacher. I had read some of the books I was to teach and I was older, by a few years, than my students. They were coming to me because I had made it further along the path that they were still on but I still knew that I knew nothing.

And the real kicker? I looked at this kid (yes, kid) and I admitted "I bet you are very good at it." He smiled and I felt more of my ever thinning hair turn gray, and not the Dorian kind.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

A "P" Course is Today

Note -- the following is Purim Torah. If it crosses the line into being offensive then that is only because that's what I intend to do. If you take this seriously then that's your fault. I will be raising points and questions to which there are loads of real answers and explanations but that's not my area of expertise -- specialize in being difficult for difficulty's sake. Purim Torah, people. Lighten up, Francis.

This morning I will be live blogging my shul's megillah reading so as to explicate the various lesson's it is imperative that we, as good Jews and sometimes people are supposd to glean from its text. This is an exciting time as, only after 2300 years have we truly begun to appreciate precisely what normative behavior was intended by this moving story of a man and his airplane. I will start at the beginning and make my way haphazardly towards the end. There will be no order, rhyme or reason. Any similarity to rhyme is purely accidental.

1. Women, listen to your husbands. Look at Vashti and what happened to her.
2. Men -- women, right? I know!
3. Kids, sometimes mommies and daddiss fight when they drink but just because daddy "sends mommy away" doesn't mean he won't then bed every woman in the kingdom in order to find someone else who can ignore you.
4. Young ladies, if your uncle says "sleep with the king and marry him" do it. If your husband says "don't tell him your background" keep that secret! Secrets are important for a healthy forced marriage. If your uncle says "now tell him who you are and save your family and people" then you argue.
5. Wise men, if you hear about a plot to kill the king, make sure you keep that leverage so you can score a horse ride later on.
6. If you want to be attractive to your husband for fear that he might kill you otherwise, fast for 3 days.
7. To be emotionally manipulated and threatened by your uncle who happens to be wearing a potato sack is a good and righteous thing. (In Latin, it really flows; a Dulce et Decorum Est reference for my Lit type buddies).
8. If your husband asks you what you want, ask for a party with a short guest list. No, we don't have to invite the whole world -- just that one creepy guy.
9. One party is never enough. Nothing says "my nation is to be killed" like 2 parties!
10. If the dad is bad, also kill all the kids. Not the wife though. Every pot has a lid that you keep after throwing the pot out, just in case it fits another pot.
11. Always ask permission before attempting acts of mass self defense and self preservation.
12. When in doubt, raise taxes and invent a holiday.
13. Ultimately, Jews do control the government and kings are stupid heads.

I hope you are now educated.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Alumn in my Throat

She was mysterious. I later found out that mystery she was wrestling with is “Why am I taking a class that starts so early?” but all I saw was a beautiful, mysterious woman habitually late for English 11A. When we finally, officially met, it wasn't fireworks but laughter; it was shared TV time and Shabbat meals; it was long talks between friends and it didn't become anything more for a while. There was no sweeping off of feet or whirlwinds (romantic or otherwise). There was the marriage of true minds. The compatibility borne of conversations sans romantic subtext. Two friends, busy with our lives, but willing to take the time to share a story or provide a sounding board.

Julie and I found each other because we weren't looking for anyone. There was no pressure because there was no agenda. I like to imagine that that’s how it was with my parents (themselves a Brandeis couple) but who knows. Maybe we stumbled on a formula that others weren't fortunate enough to find. Maybe my parents had their own kind of magic. I try not to think about it…that’s icky.

From the info booth to the radio station, BEMCO to Boris. From unnatural triples to singles to suites. From Sherman to The Snackerie. Julie and I grew together before we knew that we were even doing so. The decision to date was easy because when we finally realized that there was something there, we were already beyond that. There and back. And we’re still there – 20 plus years later, still watching TV together, doing crosswords as a competition and making each other laugh. Sharing our lives on a satellite Brandeis campus we have made for just our family.

And Julie? Still mysterious, still habitually late and she still hates mornings.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014


I found myself reading the newest edition of Brandeis Magazine (otherwise known as "Look at what all your friends and fellow alumni have accomplished while you sit there biting your toenails Magazine") and I stumbled upon an article. No, not the one about the graduate who wrote a book about the Pope and Mussolini. Not the one about the current track star who survived growing up Sierra Leone. Not even the one about the U.N. Undersecretary or the one about the doctor from the class of 1973 who also won the lottery. This is a small article (page 39) about a manuscript by Herbert Marcuse.

Please excuse my ignorance. In my extensive world travels (Israel and Florida) I have never run into any mention of Prof. Marcuse. His name has never come up over dinner, or even after dinner. But, hey, he must be somebody important because there it is, his long forgotten manuscript recently found, gracing the pages of my University of You Suck at Life alumni mag.

But here's the thing. Why is it worthy of note? Is there something revelatory about the content? No. Does it change the way we live our lives now? No. Do we have to rethink our approach to Hegelian philosophy because of it? Well, I'll give it a try. What's Hegelian philosophy? Time to check the google. BRB.

That's it? Transcendental idealism? Why didn't you just say so. No, no change.

Anyway, do you know what the big deal is about this manuscript that garnered it two thirds of a page while my recent cold didn't merit a mention?

They found it.

Yup. That's it. They found a manuscript. It had been placed in a box and the box had been stored "off site" (which means "in my mom's attic and she finally told me to clear out my junk") and now it has been found. It was so important that when they got it they put it in a really secure box and then forgot about it for 50 years. Big news...we screwed up 50 years ago and now we found it so, yay. Should I be burying my pearls of mediocrity in the hope that in 50 years someone will "find" it and it will then be considered genius?* Should I be mailing my words to the most irresponsible person I can imagine so that when his heirs come to their senses and finally pry the top off the coffee can in the crawl space, they will "discover" my work? Aren't we just rewarding the sloppy record keeping of the previous generation? This shouldn't be an article but an apology. What kind of confidence can I have in an institutional library that lost something which is supposedly so essential to its collection? What else have they lost that we get to celebrate when we get lucky and find it? Maybe we should stop looking for things so that we don't find them for another 50 years. Then that would be really neat.

So congrats to the university library for undoing a 50 year old error which has no real consequence other than make me think that the hiring standards for librarians were ridiculously low. Good job taking pride in admitting that you can't keep track of what people give you. Kudos to the magazine for spinning what should be an embarrassment into something to crow about. I'll keep my Gutenberg Bible and my First Folio until you people get your act together.

*It is genius now. If you can't see that, maybe it isn't my work which should be forgotten about for 50 years. Nyah nyah.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Self Help

I have decided to write a self help book. I encourage you to go out and buy many, many copies.

I often stumble upon truths which, if widely disseminated, might help avoid conflict and line my pockets with royalties and I would like to start listing some of these truths.

As I stated on facebook recently, the thing that gets men in trouble with women is "adjectives." Tell a man to do something using nouns and verbs and BAM, it gets done. When you start describing details, that's when things get dicey. And adverbs? Chuck 'em. Don't tell us how to do it because that will just ensure that we do it wrong since men and women speak different languages. Raking the leaves is quite different from "rake the leaves well" and that "well" is different to a man and a women.

Also, women, understand that men don't feel the need to wash clothes that they just bought before they wear them because they don't buy clothes to take home, wear and return. We buy the stuff we want. If it is in the store, odds are, no man has tried it on. So when I decide on it, I can be pretty sure it is clean. Women use the store as a warehouse and the bedroom as a dressing room to try on 10 dresses for their friends and decide on 1. They then return 8 because they might change their mind about the block one with the lacy thing on. Damn adjectives.

It is completely impossible to share a tube of toothpaste with someone without one of the involved parties being unhappy with the way the tube is handled or used. To avoid conflict, keep separate tubes of toothpaste.

If you were on Atkins, you wouldn't care about why hot dogs and hot dog buns have different numbers in their packaging. Simplify, man. Simplify.

Every person is required during his lifetime to buy 12 pens. After he meets that quota he is allowed, nay, expected to pick up any pen he finds on the ground and use it until he forgets it somewhere and someone else picks it up.

The following things only matter if they are followed by a particular phrase: furniture, paper weights, rental cars, turtles, diet salad dressing. The required phrase is "when they explode in a movie."

Professional athletes, movie stars and political figures have a job to do. Pay attention to the job they do and not their personal habits. Your life will be much less cluttered.

Emotional baggage should have wheels. [I'm still working on that one]

Child safety caps for pill bottles wouldn't be necessary if we developed the habit of putting pill bottles away someplace where kids don't play. Putting a safety on a gun encourages us to leave the gun on the dining room table.

Squirrels are just so damned cute. If you think otherwise, you are wrong.

Pie is not easy. If it were easy, it wouldn't be pie. It would be a piece of cake. A piece of cake IS easy. That's why it is a piece of cake and not pie.

Girls always tilt their heads to the side when they get their picture taken. Girls also like The Kiss by Klimt. Now you know why.

It's a cell phone, not a life support system. Your social life should not demand that you interrupt your social life to be anti-social and check your phone to comment on your social life.

Left turns use more muscles than right turns. If you want to lose weight, make more left turns. And frown. Frowning encourages weight loss because no one asks you out to dinner.

Children are a gift. When you leave the hospital, keep the receipt.

These will be in my self-help book. By buying it, you will give me money and that will be a help to me, myself. I hope you didn't think this was an "Other Help" book. Charity begins at home. My home.