Tradition and Disruption
As Tevye sings in the opening bars of Fiddler on the Roof, “Tradition” has sustained the Jewish people for thousands of years. The same is true for Jewish day schools: Long-standing school rituals—receiving a first siddur, Purim carnivals and model seders—bind generations of students through shared experiences.
But what happens when crises such as the corona virus pandemic disrupt the curriculum? Certainly, educators everywhere adapted to maintain school traditions; in Jewish schools, who hasn’t participated in a Zoom Havdalah ceremony? But once they’ve adapted to a “new normal” and perfected, by trial and error, new versions of old standards, and the crisis subsides, should schools go back to the way programs ran before the pandemic?
Perhaps disrupted learning has led to innovations that ought to become part of the bedrock going forward. Perhaps the changing needs of even a high-performing school can lead to improved educational and experiential outcomes for students.
Such is my experience at Hillel Day School of Metropolitan Detroit, where I became head of school in July 2020. Hillel has a long and venerated history as a jewel in Detroit’s deeply affiliated Jewish community. Since its founding in 1958, the school has served over 3,000 students from across the Jewish religious spectrum with an engaging general and Judaic studies program. Graduates go on to master their chosen fields and become leaders in their communities, locally, nationally, in Israel and in other parts of the world.
Trial by Covid
At the outset of 2020, I set myself a goal for my inaugural year: to “meet, listen, ask questions and learn,” and to interact with as many constituents as possible. Quickly, that goal was supplanted by another: to safely provide in-person instruction even as Covid-19 raged.
The school calendar loomed before me and heads of school everywhere. How would students and their parents celebrate time-honored traditions such as the second grade Torah Party, the fourth grade Rosh Chodesh service and bnai mitzvah aliyot? In past years, our teachers had worked tirelessly to teach tefillah and Torah skills; first grade parents and grandparents had lovingly decorated siddur covers; our music teacher had rehearsed gradewide performances for weeks.
Families filled the gymnasium, students sang out loud, and teachers helped with costume changes. How would all of that go on without visitors and close contact? Similarly, in general studies, how would our public-facing project-based learning units such as the second grade shuk, where students learn economics and sell their wares, and our sixth grade Shark Tank, a design-thinking competition complete with judges, proceed?
Our school’s leadership team surveyed the conditions in which we would have to operate, with social distancing, masks and plexiglass, and determined that while the physical landscape was going to be much altered, the spiritual essence of our programming would remain. In the face of the anxiety and isolation wrought by the pandemic, we would redouble our efforts so that students, including those learning remotely, could achieve their educational goals and cultivate their Jewish identity. Furthermore, we would ensure that our larger school community could share in the milestones that are integral to a Hillel education.
Recreating Special Programs
The following principles guided our planning:
• All programs would be executed in accordance with our Covid health and safety protocols.
• The structure of the in-person program would be replicated as closely as possible for our remote students and their parents.
• The programs should be joyful, a celebration of our students’ general and Judaic studies education.
To frame the creation of programs, we asked the following questions:
• What is the ultimate purpose of this program?
• What are the learning targets?
• What parts of our traditional, pre-Covid program must we keep?
• What does this disruption free us to do that we might not have done in past years?
In the case of our first grade Siddur Party, the goals remained intact. Students learned the weekday Shacharit service in class, led a service for their parents and received their own siddur. But the presentation of the siddurim changed. Rather than produce a show for a large gathering, each class held an individual program outdoors for 30 to 40 guests.
Parents responded favorably to this change. They appreciated the intimacy of the moment, and took advantage of a new opportunity to participate like never before. They each approached their child and delivered a special brachah that they had written for the occasion. A similar format was followed for our first graders who were learning remotely. As an added benefit, teachers gained extra class time in lieu of rehearsals.
Our revised sixth grade Shark Tank Project also resulted in improved outcomes that we could not have anticipated prior to Covid. Previously, small teams of two to three students had worked together to identify and solve a problem through the creation of a prototype: a flip-flop with a closed toe for winter walking, or an eyelash curler that also applies mascara. In the lead-up to their product presentations, you would find students spread out throughout school, polling staff about their ideas and practicing their public speaking skills with the adults around them. The team then would pitch their products to a live panel of judges, who would decide whether or not to invest in the entrepreneurs and their ideas.
But during our 20-21 school year, we switched the format of the Shark Tank presentations. Our students sat six feet apart in a classroom to listen to all of the pitches, while our judges watched via Zoom. This switch introduced our students to many more ideas than they would have otherwise been exposed to, and also improved their attention to detail and active listening skills, as well as rallied the grade together around a shared experience.
As I write this article, we at Hillel are preparing for a third Covid school year. Operationally, our plan is in place, and we know how to handle any disruptions that may occur. While it saddens me that our children will need to learn yet again in the shadow of a global pandemic, I also am heartened that many of their experiences could be as rich or even richer than those that came before them.