Photo credit #OnwardHebrew Screen shot

Nachama Skolnik Moskowitz

This is one of several articles from “Gleanings,” a publication from the Leadership Commons at the William Davidson School at JTSA. This issue asks: “What does it take to nurture small successes into larger successes in Jewish education? Often we take a program or initiative that works well in one setting (say one particular synagogue school or JCC) or city and attempt to replicate it elsewhere, yet it fails to flourish.

Yet there are, in fact, numerous stories of scaling success in Jewish education, with strategies that illuminate how this can be done. This issue of Gleanings aims to shed a light on these stories and strategies, with the hope that you are inspired to apply within your particular site or area of Jewish education.”

In 1987, Cleveland’s Bureau of Jewish Education began supporting an intensive curriculum development partnership between its Curriculum Department and individual local schools and educational programs. In its earliest years, this work was known as Project Curriculum Renewal (PCR). It involved a formal three-year process that moved through the stages of research, curriculum design, and development (year one); implementation, coaching supports, evaluation, and revision (year two and then again year three); and finally sharing the document with other educational programs. In 1993, the project was included in the initiatives adopted by the BJE’s successor, the Jewish Education Center of Cleveland (JECC).

This intensive process of curricular improvement was site-specific and classroom-based. It did not focus on an entire congregation or institution, nor was its goal to scale up. Rather, PCR built the capacity of a program for curricular change and ensured that the needs of a particular school or educational program were met.

Thirty years later, the formality of PCR has disappeared. And, while site-based curriculum development has been at the fore of JECC’s Curriculum Department’s work, its staff has learned that it is possible to enlarge and scale curricular efforts without special grants and funding. The department does this by raising up, teaching, sowing, sharing, and galvanizing.

  • Raising up: Generally, Cleveland’s most successful community-wide initiatives have bubbled up from the field, with JECC staff grabbing onto ideas and raising them up, offering supports that lead to forward momentum. One of the most successful examples emerged late in the day at a congregational education directors’ retreat when a core group expressed interest in collaborating on a community-wide curriculum for sixth graders. The JECC’s Curriculum Department and Retreat Institute raised up the idea and supported the education directors in developing “Count Me In,” a three-to-four week unit that culminated in a community-wide event for students with a parallel event for parents. The classroom-based unit had at its center the midrashic text, “Everyone has three names: the name their parents give them, the name others call them, and the name they earn for themselves.” Amazingly, all 12 Cleveland congregations with education programs chose to be “in” and now, seven years later, it is still an integral part of everyone’s sixth-grade program.
  • Teaching: At the turn of the millennium, the Curriculum Department began developing curriculum using the process known as Understanding by Design (UbD). Its staff gained great expertise in UbD and supporting others to utilize its framework. With a desire and willingness to spread the power of UbD, for eight summers the JECC hosted an intensive three-and-a-half-day, college-credit-optional Understanding by Design seminar. An average of 15 to 20 local and national educators attended annually, thus, approximately 150 in total over time. Each returned with the skills to apply UbD to their own curricular needs.Teaching as a way to bring to scale a curricular initiative may also be currently seen in the JECC’s work with Hebrew Through Movement (HTM). This learning approach— brought to life by Dr. Lifsa Schachter, while a professor at Cleveland’s Siegal College—introduces Hebrew language in a playful, kinesthetic way. Before Lifsa retired, she developed a robust curriculum guide that supported the approach. The curriculum department created a 10-hour, asynchronous, online seminar that complemented Cleveland’s approach to professional development. By hiring two master teachers as learning facilitators, the online seminar became self-sustaining, making it easy to offer it to teachers beyond Cleveland. Over the last five years, 1,100 educators representing over 350 different educational programs have registered for the seminar. This created a quick tipping point for the nation-wide adoption of HTM’s energizing approach to Hebrew language for more than ten thousand learners.
  • Sowing: The developers of Understanding by Design stated at a seminar that their intention was not to tightly control the adoption of UbD. While offering supports (books, workbooks, articles, blogs, seminars, a website, etc.), their approach was in stark contrast to other educational change projects that required its adopters to complete specific training, receive targeted coaching, and “swear allegiance” to the original structure. This lack of concern for how other educators adopted or adapted a curricular approach greatly impacted the JECC’s Curriculum Department; it became apparent that curriculum could be offered to interested educators without tying up staff in the follow-up. As a result, the JECC’s curriculum is available for free download from the JECC Marketplace and Hebrew Through Movement offers training, curriculum, and a Facebook group, but places no implementation expectations on those adopting it. The result, for better or worse, means that carefully developed, piloted, and researched educational initiatives take on different looks in other educational programs.
  • Sharing: For many years, the JECC’s “Immediate Response Curricula” were the most well-known, respected, and depended-upon sharing efforts of the agency. Responding to national or international crises, JECC staff dropped current work obligations and collaborated to publish an Immediate Response Curriculum in time for teachers to access by midafternoon. Each multipage document included background on the current situation and supports for addressing the crisis, including Jewish texts, learning activities, and response suggestions. Over the course of 15 years, the JECC’s response curriculum accumulated tens of thousands of downloads and shares (no mean feat in an age prior to the proliferation of social media). In 2014, as a result of shifting staffing patterns at the JECC, this project was put to bed, though not until a more generic Responding to Crisis website was developed with 24/7 access. Other examples of the JECC’s outward sharing of its materials include a number of websites (some for teachers and others for students), as well as free and immediate downloads of curriculum via the JECC Marketplace.
  • Galvanizing: In the last year, the JECC’s Curriculum Department began circling back to some of its earlier efforts to transform Hebrew learning in part-time/congregational settings—what might be the impact of conference presentations, consultative phone calls with colleagues, and supportive curricular materials on the hoped-for changes? It was discovered that almost a dozen Jewish educators had moved their Hebrew education programs dramatically forward. To galvanize their efforts and give energy to the change process, the JECC invited a handful of education directors to Cleveland. Their sharing of experiences and openness to discussing challenges led to #OnwardHebrew, a growing national conversation that is leading to a sea change in Hebrew teaching and learning.

The JECC Curriculum Department’s experiences illustrate that while local Jewish education agencies have community-specific missions, there is great potential to share work on a broader scale with modest financial support and without Herculean efforts by staff.  The JECC has been able to grow its local initiatives by raising up ideas, teaching in areas of expertise, sowing ideas, sharing resources, and galvanizing Jewish educators, leading to dramatic steps forward on behalf of our students, teachers, and their educational programs.

Nachama Skolnik Moskowitz is the senior director and director of curriculum resources for the Jewish Education Center of Cleveland.

Cross-posted from Gleanings