By Elaine Kellerman and Lisa Klein

The Jewish Federation of Greater Houston is implementing an innovative approach to engage our 21st Century congregational religious school students. Through a multi-year professional development program, almost 400 teachers and principals across the community are being connected to each other and to new technology, tools and techniques, with the goal of creating lifelong Jewish learners for every member of the congregational community school system.

This comprehensive approach is significantly different than past initiatives. The Jewish Federation of Greater Houston is the central agency for Jewish education and its staff has been working with schools for over 50 years. It has spearheaded many programs in the community, which start by exploring the needs of school leaders and teachers. In response, the Federation identifies existing programs or creates new programs to address particular issues raised. Some of those programs were a single workshop or series of workshops, a new shared resource, or a program for a group of schools. While these past programs built trust between the Federation and its constituents, the Federation was focusing on solving short-term issues.

A 2010 study indicated an urgent need to create an integrated, comprehensive program to support congregational religious schools across our community. The schools were challenged to engage students, so that students and their families would find religious schools relevant and essential. The Federation was able to obtain the necessary funding to design and rollout a comprehensive program. Central to that program was that professional development would start with school principals in order to strengthen the effectiveness and relevance of curriculum and the training for their own teachers, creating an engaged environment that would roll down to students.

Key to success was providing educators with new tools and techniques to facilitate growth and learning so that everyone who works at the school could grow and focus on the goal of improving student learning. This also required vital sharing between teachers and administrators, which was enhanced by using technology. Four new initiatives make up this program.

Employ Experts

The Federation identified expert educators in the community, including former school principals, teachers and university professors who were uniquely qualified to assess schools. Their first task was to assess schools by holding focus groups, observing classes, and by using a rubric to analyze the strengths and weaknesses of each school. Their assessment focused on three areas: school environment/culture, process of teaching (pedagogy), and quality of content (Judaica). Findings were presented to each school team of professionals and lay leaders with a list of recommendations.

Last year, these same educational experts, and a few others, were recruited to provide ongoing, customized mentoring to new and experienced teachers. Administrators selected those teachers who they thought would benefit most. This mentorship opportunity was presented as a reward and investment in training that would empower the mentored teacher. Teachers were observed and met with their mentors to make plans to implement new teaching strategies. Teachers were encouraged to try new tools and techniques to engage students and make class learning relevant. Principals of each school were briefed on the consultations so they too, could help and encourage their teachers in their growth and improvement.

Based on this initial success, the Federation expanded the program this school year to include ten community teacher mentors called Morim L’Chaim, Teachers for Life. Over the course of the school year, these mentors will work in 13 different schools, mentoring 2-8 teachers at each school. Mentors are focusing on sharing how best to use technology as a creative teaching tool, Jewish identity building activities, teaching about Israel, implementing family education programs and other areas that will create a culture of Jewish learning and living and create lifelong Jewish learners.

Integrate Technology in Classrooms

While learning online and using computers and apps are second nature to our congressional religious school students, many teachers feel uncomfortable using these teaching tools. The Federation engaged Mindy Gold, founder and lead consultant of EdtechMMG, for a series of in person and online workshops that provide experiential professional development focused on connecting Jewish education goals with technology-infused learning around Jewish content. The tools introduced are chosen because they focus on the 5 C’s of deeper learning – curiosity, collaboration, communication, creativity, and critical thinking that engage students of all learning styles (e.g. extroverts and introverts) to participate equally.

Integrate Technology into Professional Development

Gathering teachers together from 20 different schools for professional development is particularly difficult in Houston because of our sprawling geography. It can take 45 minutes to an hour for a teacher to travel to the Federation from their school. Implementing online coaching sessions was an ideal way to reach more teachers. This year we will have three additional online learning sessions (hosted via Zoom) on a variety of topics, including passion-based learning, teaching with video, and fostering student creativity and connection through video creation.  Two congregational schools also will be participating in a three-session Zoom series of their own on using tech tools specially designed for their own staff’s interests and needs.  As part of the ongoing customized professional development plan, developed through collaborative planning sessions with Ms. Gold, the Federation is also implementing chat sessions hosted on Backchannel Chat, which will allow teachers across our community to share, ask questions, and get immediate feedback from peers and mentors.

In addition to formal online coaching, this school year we launched an online platform called the Jewish Federation’s Houston Jewish Educators Online Professional Learning Community (PLC). The PLC is hosted on Edmodo, an online learning management system that maximizes the reach and participatory nature of social media in a secure, online space designed specifically for educators and students. This technology facilitates networking among teachers who are teaching similar grades or subjects, sharing of resources, and collaboration between educators across the community. Teachers can post questions, share successes and challenges, get advice from colleagues and have access to extra support resources.  While the online professional learning community launched just this school year, we’ve already seen increased interaction and collaboration between teachers in the same grade, but in different schools.

Modeling Life-long Learning

Driving all of these initiatives is the concept of modeling continuing education and growth from the top down.  Houston educators are participating in the 7th cohort of the Mandel Teacher Educator Institute (MTEI), a pioneering program that strengthens the Jewish community by developing educational leaders – teachers of teachers – who are spearheading powerful and innovative professional development experiences for their institutions and communities.   This team of educators will bring back the lessons learned through MTEI to their network colleagues with the belief that ongoing, substantive professional development is central to revitalizing Jewish education.

The Houston Federation is a founding member of Shinui, a national network for innovation in part-time Jewish education. This network sparks ideas for innovation that can be shared across regions and schools. As a partner in this network, the Federation is committed to sharing and learning about innovative approaches to part-time Jewish education.  Teachers are training through all the programs outlined above and our students are benefiting by participating in enriched classroom experiences that utilize the technology that engage 21st Century learners.

Elaine Kellerman is Vice President of Education at the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston Vice President of Education. Lisa Klein is Managing Director of Jewish Education at the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston.