HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

Professional Development in Jewish History

by Yona Shem-Tov Issue: Teacher Retention & Development

High school history often gets a bad rap. When we think of history class, too often we imagine kids slumped over their desks, wondering, “What’s this got to do with me?” It’s hard enough to try and get our students to imagine what life was like before Facebook, let alone trying to get them to imagine what life was life 50, 100, or—dare I say it—1000 years ago. And yet, I would argue, history, of all the subjects in the school’s curriculum, has the potential to stir students in significant ways. History after all is a great story—especially Jewish history. For the so-called “me generation” teenager attempting to construct a meaningful identity in a world of competing influences, historical context can be powerfully compelling.

Jewish history is taught and learned well beyond the walls of the history classroom.

The way in which we narrate the Jewish past to students can help them contextualize and make sense of their own modern Jewish experience. Especially at a time in their lives when they are busily, if not unconsciously, constructing their sense of selves, educators have a responsibility to carefully craft that story so that our students find it accessible, compelling, exciting, and meaningful.

It is through history that students can learn of the uniqueness of this Jewish moment in time in which they are living, when there is a Jewish State in the land of Israel, when there are still Holocaust survivors alive to share with them stories of loss and survival from the destruction of much of European Jewish society, and during a “Golden Age” of Jewish life in the United States and Canada. At the same time, students can also learn that there has always been a diversity of opinion in Jewish society, that their ancient and medieval coreligionists also disagreed with one another about how to best carry out God’s word, and that they are not the first to wrestle with preserving a Jewish identity and Jewish life in a majority non-Jewish society or to challenge prevailing interpretations of Jewish law. This can be liberating and exciting for students: to learn not only how they came to be modern Jews living in 2008 with all the complexity and opportunity that may entail, but also that they too are actors in the Jewish story.

If we do this carefully, Jewish history can contextualize why students learn Tanakh, Rabbinics, Talmud and Hebrew. It can nurture a sense of awe and appreciation that Rashi, Rambam, and other commentators are not just lines to memorize, but real live people, Jews living in a time and place both different than, and similar to their own; that Herzl’s ideas were not new and that they grew out of a reaction to living in a particular circumstance; that much of what they take for granted has a story behind it and one that may resonate with them more than they realize.

This can be liberating and exciting for students: to learn not only how they came to be modern Jews living in 2008 with all the complexity and opportunity that may entail, but also that they too are actors in the Jewish story.

It is for these reasons that RAVSAK and The Network for the Teaching of Jewish History (NYU) joined forces to create Re/Presenting the Jewish Past, an 8-month program designed to help teachers improve the teaching of Jewish history at their schools. This year’s participants included twenty-four outstanding educators from seven high schools across the USA and Canada. School teams worked collaboratively in revisiting their school’s mission statement and reflected on how the Jewish past is presented in the life of their school. Teachers came together over five days last summer for an intensive workshop, where they met with leading scholars of Jewish history and were exposed to new research in both Jewish history and education.

School teams were facilitated by exceptional graduate students in the fields of Jewish history and Jewish education, who helped educators outline concrete plans for representing the way the Jewish past is presented in their curriculum—be it integrating the Jewish narrative into general history or revising course structures from chronological to thematic approaches. Teachers had opportunity to meet with colleagues wrestling with similar issues in other schools, to share resources and strategies, and to consider new approaches. Each school team identified a goal for improving the teaching of Jewish history in their school and will meet monthly with their Re/Presenting the Jewish Past liaison to discuss challenges and successes towards this end. By May 2009 seven schools will have instituted significant changes in the way the Jewish past is presented to their students.

There are no quick fixes for meaningful change in how we present the Jewish past to our students. Jewish history is taught and learned well beyond the walls of the history classroom. It permeates our schools, from how we teach about fast days to why there is, or is not, an Israeli flag in the classroom. This year, we challenge you and your faculty to critically examine the narrative of the Jewish experience your school is presenting to your students, and to ask yourselves how it may be shaping who they will become.

In your efforts to do so, consider:

  • Time for Reflection: Time is a rare commodity in the day school. At your next professional development day, consider giving history teachers in your school time to meet with one another to reflect on areas of improvement, to look critically at their curricula and to consider what meta-narrative students are consuming. What is working? What could use some improvement? What is the minimum you want every graduate of your school to know about Jewish history? How can you align these objectives?
  • Connecting to Scholars: Teachers need time to be learners. Consider partnering with a scholar at a nearby university to present to teachers and to discuss issues that teachers may be wrestling with, or with an educational leader who can address new pedagogical approaches.
  • Cross Departmental Collaboration: Are there ways you can foster collaboration between teachers of history and Judaic studies in your school? How do “general” history and Jewish history intersect in your school? Making time for colleagues in different departments to identify places in the curriculum to coordinate their efforts is a valuable investment. ♦
Yona Shem-Tov is the Coordinator of Education and Outreach for Re/Presenting the Jewish Past and a doctoral student in the Education & Jewish Studies program at New York University. She can be reached at yshemtov@ntjhistory.org.

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Teacher Retention & Development

Teachers are the most precious resource of any school. The measure of a great school is its ability to recruit and retain great teachers who know their subject and craft, care deeply about all their students, and are passionately committed to their own development and the school as a community. Here, find guidance for finding, preparing and evaluating teachers, and keeping them happy and productive stakeholders.

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