As parents, we send our children off to Yeshiva day school and we hope for the best. We pray that our Rebbeim and teachers will teach our children and will connect with our children and help make a difference in their lives. At "Meet the Teacher Night,” we get to know our Rebbeim and teachers, and at parent teacher conferences we listen as to whether our children are doing well or not. We examine their report cards for signs of success or struggle, and we hope and pray that our children perform well, get good grades and are inspired by what they learn.
But I think that there is so much more that we can strive for. I think we can and should want more for our children, and expect more from our Rebbeim and teachers. More than just acquiring grades or even pieces of knowledge, a Yeshiva education should be about each student acquiring his or her own connection with Torah.
There is a famous passuk in Mishlei which states, chanokh l’na’ar al pi darko – educate every child according to his or her own path. Everyone is different, endowed with different abilities and different skills. It is the work of a gifted educator to tap in to those different abilities and skills so that each student is educated in a way that best suits his or her individual profile. Such is the logic behind differentiated classrooms, as explained by Carol Ann Tomlinson, an expert in this field. Dr. Tomlinson has written, “Differentiated classrooms support students who learn in different ways and at different rates and who bring to school different talents and interests. More significantly, such classrooms work better for a wide range of students than do one-size-fits-all-settings. Teachers in differentiated classrooms are more in touch with their students and approach teaching more as an art than as a mechanical exercise.”
All students are not alike. A lesson or assignment that works well for one student, may miss the mark for another. Using differentiated instruction empowers teachers to be flexible in the way they apply their techniques to the individuals who fill their class room. In a differentiated classroom, a teacher may opt to give three different types of homework, allowing students the option of which assignment they would like to do. For example, a lesson on Roman history could have some students creating a trivia game with questions and answers to play with the class, other students making an arts and crafts project incorporating what they learned, and other students writing a persuasive essay on the topic.
Even greater than its implication on homework and in class assignments, differentiated instruction reimagines the way that goals are set by instructors for students. As parents, when we meet our child’s Rebbe or teacher in the beginning of the school year, we should ask not merely what he or she will be teaching, but what will be the goals for our children in terms of both content and skills to be learned. Moreover, what are the benchmarks throughout the year that will determine if our own children are meeting these goals? By doing this as a parent, we create educational expectations for our children’s Rebbeim and teachers, and also for our children themselves. With this plan in place, parents and teachers are then equipped to revisit these goals as the academic year progresses. We are then able to ask critical questions and refine our original plans as necessary. Based on the individual performance of each student, and in the wisdom of “chanoch l’na’ar al pi darko,” expectations must be continually reframed and goals must be adapted. Grades alone are not informative enough. When a child receives a grade of an “A” or a “B” on a report card, the information that grade provides is actually very sparse. It in only in the context of this student’s fuller profile and potential that performance indicators such as grades are meaningful.
Why is it so important that we press our educators to have concrete goals for our children and to assess whether they are meeting those targets? Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch makes a very important comment that is illustrative of this very point. After Yehoshua caught Eldad and Medad prophesizing in the camp in Parshat B’ha’alotcha, Yehoshua is upset that they were not prophesizing with the elders by the Ohel Moed. Moshe responds to Yehoshua, “Wouldn’t it be great if the entire nation of God would be made up of prophets so that God would place His spirit upon them.” In explaining Moshe’s response to Yehoshua, Rav Hirsch stated, “Moses’ answer to Joshua remains for all teachers and leaders as the brilliant example they should keep before their eyes as the highest ideal aim of their work, viz., to make themselves superfluous, that the people of all classes and ranks reach such a spiritual level that they no longer require teachers and leaders.”
Rav Hirsch’s comment is for me the key to Jewish education. The ultimate goal of a Jewish educator is to enable his or her students to be independent, such that they may have a sense of ownership over Torah. Everyone, no matter what age, needs a Rebbe and a mentor. But the goal of an educator is not simply for the student to love and connect with the educator, but for the child to connect with and acquire the Torah. This is an ambitious mission that does not come easily, but the rewards are vast if we work to achieve them. Partnering together, parents and educators can and must set appropriate individualized goals for each and every child each year in Yeshiva day school. We must frequently assess our progress in nurturing their growth and our children’s progress on reaching their potential. As a Rabbi, parent and educator, I encourage all parents to be more proactive in our children’s education and I encourage all grandparents to encourage their children to do the same. Let’s hold both ourselves and our educators to a higher standard. Challenge them to create realistic goals for your children and a real method of assessment, and you will see your children striving for those goals and being excited as they see how much they are achieving. The stakes are high but the rewards are great. It is through this purposeful planning and partnered persistence that we nurture our children toward their own acquisition and love of Torah.