Saturday, July 25, 2015

עַל-אֵלֶּה אֲנִי בוֹכִיָּה

I apologize in advance if anyone in particular is offended by my feelings here. It is not my intent to hurt, only to vent.

Tonight begins the Jewish fast of the Ninth of Av. It is a 25 hour fast coupled with prayer and introspection as we mourn the loss of the temples in Jerusalem, and with them, the national identity and cohesion which held sway to one degree or another, while they stood. By forcing ourselves to suffer a little (through not eating, drinking, bathing, or sitting in regular seats) we share in a tiny fraction of the suffering the people of that time went through and we remind ourselves that we are missing something in our lives. For years, I have tried to get myself to feel sad for the loss of a building, and the concomitant way of life. But even though in my prayers I look forward to a third temple and the return of a theocracy and a priestly system, I can't really feel bad. I live the good life in a great country; I practice my religion freely. I don't feel the loss and void that I am supposed to.

But today, I heard someone say something which made me feel very alone, and very sad. During prayers, we read the phrase "the four corners of the earth." The person sitting next to me, a respected community member and someone I am happy to call a friend, mumbled "I wonder what they said when they realized that the earth doesn't have corners...this is all BS." Then he continued to pray, out loud, in a lovely voice, with what looked like fervor and intent. He wasn't making a joke and if he was lashing out at his religion because of troubles in his personal life, it still hurt me to hear it. He knows as well as I that the use of that phrase need not be seen as a relic of a flat-earth world view. It can be seen as reflective of the four cardinal directions, the historical necessity and convenience of using a 2-D map representation of the world, or a literary construction not intended to present a realistic vision of the world. Instead, he looked at it as literal and let his anger show, and then kept up with what was now clear to me as a charade of practice. And he isn't alone. I am surrounded by people who practice the rituals of Orthodox Judaism because they are the accepted social conventions or comfortable vestiges of an upbringing which didn't really sink in, but who lack any actual faith. They don't seriously believe in any of it, and what they do accept is so compromised and watered down by their shame at being believers that it is a shell of what the religion could be.

Now, please, don't assume that I am a zealot. I am a child of my age, and one who embraces the world around me. I watch movies and TV, listen to decadent rock and roll music, value secular knowledge, and have a reasonably wide awareness of the world and its cultures. I am neither a luddite, nor an isolationist. But it seems that all the people who are equally comfortable with the modern world, have not compartmentalized their approaches and have let that modern rationalism destroy any deep seated faith in perfect and mysterious divinity and (for example) textual infallibility. I work hard to straddle the line between the two often opposing understandings of the world and the more I listen to those around me, the more alone I feel. I am a believer often even in the face of rational argument. And I value rational argument, because it can help bolster my belief. I am happy with the contradictions it creates and comfortable with the reconciliations of those contradictions which have, to my mind, stood the test of time for centuries and which are being expanded every day by leaders who stand on the shoulders of giants and make religious law relevant and consistent even today.

On this Tisha B'av, I mourn the widespread loss of traditional acceptance of faith and belief as bedrocks of my religion. I mourn the loss of the sense of solidarity and unity which comes from being able to share a love of religion with others who are equally idealistic about it (especially when they can be idealistic while not sequestering themselves in a ghetto). I mourn the loss of a temple for what it represented -- a central authority which was respected and which worked hard to maintain that respect. I sit on a low chair, I deprive myself and I do feel tears well up because I see that we, though numerous and economically powerful, and politically positioned, are dying spiritually and the only alternative for many is to swing to the right and deny the utility of anything not explicitly within the religious realm. The notion of "Modern Orthodox" as a group which sees value in both the religious and secular world, is not working out. People are either adopting stringencies and freezing out any innovation and evolution of the religion, or are pushing boundaries with such force because they are willing to give up central faith-based tenets which are supposed to provide limits and structure. And I feel like I am alone, stuck in the middle, trying to negotiate a middle path on my own and having to apologize and justify myself to those on either side of me.

I mourn because I see the daily destruction of the land and nation of Israel even if not physically and only metaphorically. I see the constant loss of the temple through the loss of interest in what the temple stood for. I weep for the loss of kindness and compassion which should be a natural consequence of a strong faith. I mourn a religion which will end up with as many sects as we have people because each person will decide to pick and choose and rationalize in a unique and personal way, making his vision of Judaism distinct from and even incompatible with that of others around him. I mourn because it seems that every day, more and more, we are not just "Jews" any more. We are so busy crafting our own particular paths that we fail to stick together as a people, and that's sad to me. The external threats which didn't care what we believed and just oppressed us for the label "Jew" failed. But we are succeeding because we are destroying that label from the inside. For this, I cry.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Tyrannosaurus Dan

I am a dinosaur. Not the kind that makes it into movies, or into Far Side cartoons. I'm just the kind that refuses to change because change leads to things like extinction level events and the rise of mice as the dominant species. And mice, though cute, are not nearly as cool as dinosaurs.

I'm especially a dinosaur in the classroom. Now, please understand -- I'm no Azendohsaurus or even a Mussaurus. That'd be crazy. I am much more a Chinshakiangosaurus or maybe even an Ampelosaurus. [note, though probably lost on everyone but the 10 year old boys who follow my blog hoping for dinosaur references, my point is that I am not an early dinosaur, but a later one, reflecting some allowance of change and adaptation but still afraid of big rocks falling from the sky] I still enjoy school bells, I still take attendance, and often present material. I give all sorts of assessments and try to encourage my students to explore in the classroom. I'm a teacher. Sometimes a facilitator, sometimes a mediator, even occasionally an observer, but always a teacher.

The issue of technology, therefore, is one with which I have had to wrestle. How much can a dinosaur embrace change in the classroom and still be a dinosaur and not some psammobiid bivalve? I know, right? So I have, indeed, adopted certain methods. I have a laptop in the room with a projector and a Smart Board (TM, no doubt). Students use computers to take notes, write essays, watch the NCAA March Madness games and shop for sneakers during class. I post homework on a website, along with salient complementary material and messages to students, and I keep an online calendar with due dates and test times. But I am still the teacher. Yes, whenever I say something, students double check my facts and then shoot more back at me. Yes, when I teach something in print, it is helpful to present audio, video and crowdsourced background to the masses so that they can ignore the text in a variety of ways. But I am the teacher.

So what's my job, that I hold on to the title so dearly? I try to effect learning. That's not so easy sometimes, and when I get it right, it feels great. So when new pedagogical models are presented I assess whether, simply put, they stand a better chance of accomplishing effected learning than I would (not than I do, just than I would).

I have written about bits and pieces of this in the past (and will resist the temptation to link to earlier can look for them; trust me, they are there) but some new issues popped into my mind. Let me start off by copying over something I posted on someone else's blog about tech in education (I will delete the parts not relevant, but trust me, they were awesome):

Learning is what it has always been — a combination of various orders of thinking to acquire facts and skills and the sense to know when and how to use or not use those facts and skills. It is impacted by interest, relevance, utility and necessity. It does not need technology to be effected. And if it is still within a system of established curriculum, standardized testing and a higher education model which seems to be working (and which parents want their children to continue in) a divergent and disruptive approach seems like so much curmudgeonly narcissism...[G]ood teaching is good teaching, and, we hope, what might inspire some measure of learning (which is, ultimately, out of our control).

Learning is about building knowledge. It is about making memorization stick and mean something. It is about turning recall into application. It is a complex process which can be shepherded through the active process of teaching. Sure it can happen without a guide especially when one of the other motivators is present, but it cannot be checked against an established norm that way. Formative assessments (formal and informal) give the teacher the ability to provide the proper guidance.

One things which therefore is not so necessary is the frontal lecture. Reciting a fixed text so that students swallow it and can spit it back is not, in and of itself, about learning. It is all about teaching, regardless of outcome on any level beyond the lowest regurgitation. Which is gross. Because I am, as I speak with my class, constantly assessing the learning via body language, responsiveness, questioning and eye contact among other things, my content is always changing. Handing the reins over to a canned lecture available online (via Khan Academy, or even a lecture which I create for my class) is still subjecting students to that lecture without the benefit of dynamic spontaneity which makes my classroom a classroom. Flipped classrooms miss out on what turns teaching into learning. Their pedagogy is no different from assigning students to read from a textbook -- no questions, no explanation, and no one making sure that the student isn't actually asleep. A computer and a teacher can teach a rule, but a computer can't figure out when it is proper, appropriate or necessary to break the rule. When I walk around through my classroom and discuss literature, I am performing 25 different classes/videos at the same time, each one changing depending on the background, momentary needs and environmental exigencies of each student and the class as a whole which cannot be predicted. That's what good teaching is.

So technology cannot replace the teacher in the class (and the bedroom/livingroom/other place cannot replace the classroom), but then what is the power of technology in terms of access to facts? Technology does present facts to students -- anything all the time. Anything. Right or wrong. Unlike students 100 years ago, our students can get misinformation, or incomplete knowledge 24/7. What a joy. Who vets the data? Who selects the data which will be useful for the class discussion the next day or two weeks later? Who selects facts which reflect a tangent the class went yesterday? Who changes the data set midstream if the student interest moves in a different direction? That's what good teaching is. Students have had access to myriad facts for a long time. We called the repositories "textbooks" or "encyclopedias". A student could go home and open a book up to a topic the teacher said he was going to cover, read the entry and all related entries and know pretty much nothing and everything at the same time. The good teacher, knowing that drinking from the fire hydrant is a bad idea, doesn't hand agency over to the technology. Do we just let the outside source be the teacher? English teachers wouldn't have to assign books, just Cliffs Notes and let them present the plot, the symbols and the characters, present suggestions for discussion, and then assign an essay. Done. The good teacher knows that a video, a -pedia entry and any thing else can't watch for signs of thinking. Yes, a website can have a quiz that can change based on right/wrong answers but it cannot watch to see the student's eyes and get a sense of comprehension; it can't know the student's mind. The good teacher can.

I think that one important notion can be imported from Jewish law. In many cases in Judaism, a person who has an obligation to perform a commandment can be exempted when another performs the action, and keeps the first person in mind. This can happen, though, when the one actually performing the action has the same obligation. Somehow, this imports a sense of empathy and a connection, bilaterally. In the same way, the most effective teacher is the one who can understand how a student learns because he had to go through the same process, himself. A person who knows his material intuitively and naturally might make a bad teacher if he cannot understand that students struggle with what he thinks is easy. He cannot break it down and re-present it in a way which will accommodate different modes of learning because he "got it" automatically. The internet is that person. It never had to learn. It just knows, so it cannot bring about learning in others unless its single more of presentation happens to resonate at a particular moment with a specific student. Very often, the most successful websites in terms of 'teaching' are the ones programmed by people who had trouble learning so the programmers/writers can infuse one dimension of empathy, anticipating a limited range of difficulties. But it still pales in comparison with a teacher or teachers who can know each student and respond in kind. In a sense, this is why taking a class in a Jewish school, and studying Talmudic texts is often called "learning with a rabbi" not "learning from a rabbi." The rabbi is an active learner at that moment also. The experience of discovery and enlightenment happens to all participants.

I was asked if I thought that the internet (and its ilk) is the biggest change in education since the printing press. I don't know -- I think that each has advantages. When the entire Talmud was printed up, it didn't mean everyone had a full copy. And when everyone had a copy, it didn't mean that people suddenly knew everything or could open it up to get the answers quickly, and on their own. If you plop a student down in a medical library, he won't find his way out after 3 years having become a doctor and yet all the data are right there for the taking. You can't drop someone off in the middle of a library and say "study what you like" and expect him to be a well rounded person able to exist with others after 4 years. You can't drop someone off in the middle of Rome and expect that after 4 years, he will be a scholar of Roman history.

Teaching isn't learning. Doing isn't learning. Watching isn't learning. Learning is a guided tour with plenty of stops along the way and effective teaching is being an active tour guide who knows when to present and when to shut up, based on insight into each person in the tour.

So, sure, I am willing to go as far as becoming a Lophorhothon and maybe, maybe, someday, be a Nimravid but this dinosaur doesn't see any computer being able to guide that tour just yet.