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Value Added: Practitioner Research In Jewish Education

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This blog post was originally published on July 18, 2017, on the website of the Consortium of Applied Studies in Jewish Education under the title  Reflections on CASJE’s Emerging Scholars Seminar and NRJE’s 2017 Conference and is reposted here with their permission.

One of my favorite aphorisms is “you don’t know what you don’t know.”  This adage encapsulates what I have grown to love about Jewish educational research; namely that what we discover is always illuminating but never definitive.  The next piece of conclusory evidence that will alter what we think we know is just beyond the next research question. 

I was reminded of this truth when I recently gathered with colleagues at CASJE-sponsored Emerging Scholars Seminar at the 2017 Network for Research in Jewish Education (NRJE) conference. I was honored to be included with an engaging group of colleagues and mentors at various stages of honing our skills as researchers in Jewish education.

The Emerging Scholars seminar convened the day before the actual NRJE conference and was woven through it.  This allowed the participants to interface and network with both their peers and with more seasoned colleagues over the course of the three days, and to process what we learned in the various conference sessions together.  While there were several panels and programs for the participants as a group on aspects of work as researchers, the most useful component of the seminar for me was the opportunity to meet with my assigned mentor, Dr. Janet Aronson of Brandeis University. 

There were two distinct categories of researchers in the seminar: those who were fully immersed in research as part of a career path in academic environments, and those who saw research efforts as complimentary to work as practitioners in some aspect of K-12 education.  The seminar organizers appropriately matched the participants with mentors from these respective perspectives who shared commonalities in their work and backgrounds with their mentees. In my case, Janet and I are both communal professionals who began our academic research work mid-career and came from practitioner backgrounds in other fields.  She works with Jewish communal organizations to do practical social science research that helps them better understand their constituencies; I work within a Jewish communal organization leveraging social science research to better strategically plan and deploy resources through a deeper understanding of our constituents. We each do important work to build the knowledge base of the Jewish people, but without an opportunity such as the seminar we may never have interacted to talk shop and, in my case, seek advice.  Janet allowed me to share my challenges in conducting educational research in the agency setting while offering insight on how to better advocate to other communal professionals about its value and necessity.

Beyond the Emerging Scholars seminar, the larger NRJE conference offered many substantive takeaways, including the value of practitioner-based research as championed by Drs. Meredith Katz and Jeffrey Kress of the Davidson School at The Jewish Theological Seminary, Miriam Heller Stern of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and Sharon Feiman-Nemser of Brandeis University, among others. As one of the few researchers at the conference whose work environment is not primarily an academic setting, I repeatedly am struck by the amount of informative research in Jewish education that fails to trickle out of the ivory tower into the ears of educators on the ground.  Those of us who participate in these types of research conferences read academic journals and trade periodicals, and probably periodically skim databases such as Proquest for the latest dissertation findings.  We naturally find value in research and try to stay current on it because it directly impacts our own work as researchers. 

However, we still lack a good vehicle for consistently distilling research findings into useful and accessible information for the educators and teachers on the ground. Practitioner-based research offers a partial answer to this problem. And while it is not a new idea in education research, it is becoming a more common and respected form of research in Jewish education. By activating educators in the field to be a part of the research process, they are engaged in its purpose and come to better understand its value to their work. While this form of research has challenges—it has limitations in terms of generalizability and sometimes methodological rigor—it also helps narrow the gap between “town and gown,” and promotes increased knowledge among practitioners as valuable professional development alongside the more dominant emphasis on skills improvement. Moving forward, I hope to amplify the importance and practical application of research for educators in my own educational community in Chicago.  Who knows what new findings, or which new thinker, could emerge from a culture change like that among our local educators?

Rabbi Scott Aaron, PhD is Executive Director of the Community Foundation for Jewish Education of the Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago.

A Relational Approach to Building Local Leadership in Jewish Early Childhood Education

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מדוע אתה יושב לבדך… לא-טוב הדבר

Why do you sit alone? . . . It is not good [to do so].
—Exodus 18:14, 17

Poor Moses. The guy sure had a way of making leadership look isolating. You know you have a problem when your in-laws admonish you to your face, calling your leadership style “lo tov” (Exodus 18:17). Ouch.

Today’s early childhood leaders know what Yitro knew—that going it alone is lo tov for so many reasons. We have all seen how leading alone can be a recipe for burnout and an obstacle to succession planning. We know it is anathema to Jewish and progressive pedagogical ideals about learning from and with others. And yet it is neither obvious nor simple to imagine how to begin leading differently.

In recent years, Chicago Jewish early childhood leaders (directors, lay people, and educators) have been gathering together to seek knowledge, support, and understanding. Their work has addressed several needs in our system: cultivating a shared sense of responsibility for each early childhood center, identifying and nurturing future leaders, helping leaders develop non-profit management skills, retaining directors through the challenges of leading a family center, developing an inspired vision for excellence in teaching and learning, and recruiting new teachers.

Already we are seeing an impact on individuals and schools. Remarkably, directors insist that this is an entirely new way of working for them; in their words I hear echoes of my favorite 1980s song: “Til now I always got by on my own; I never really cared until I met you.” Unsurprisingly, then, I regularly hear stories about how caring relationships with colleagues are pushing area leaders to try new practices and lifting them up when their efforts miss the mark.

Below I offer a few examples of the purposeful systems supporting leadership development across our 39 Jewish early childhood programs. Following these examples, I will share hopes and dreams for next steps in our ecosystem.

Chicago Early Engagement Leadership Initiative (CEELI). This cohort of 12 schools gathers regularly for professional development. Each school team is composed of a director, a teacher, and a lay person. Together the cohort focuses on strategic challenges and opportunities such as marketing, communication, and family engagement. The CEELI project director supports each team in reaching a goal the school sets for itself. Past goals have included developing a marketing plan, redesigning a website, integrating families into the host synagogue, developing new feedback mechanisms, engaging in visioning with staff, and aligning the preschool and supplemental school program. This year the initiative welcomed new schools to the cohort and began inviting additional community institutions to skill-building boot camps to learn how to more effectively engage young families. CEELI is the brainchild of the Union for Reform Judaism and includes participation from a wide variety of schools.

The Jewish Early Childhood Leadership Institute (JECELI). JECELI brings leaders in area schools together regularly for Jewish learning, community building, professional development in Jewish constructivist and experiential education, and leadership development. Through communal study with local and national experts, these 17 participants are building the Jewish knowledge, confidence, and skills to lead Jewish programs. Essential to this program are four incredibly experienced mentors who attend the sessions, conduct small group reflection sessions with their mentees, and visit and guide mentees on-site on a regular basis. Participants develop and share final projects that reveal the pedagogical leadership they have been bringing back to their schools. JECELI is a joint initiative of the Leadership Commons, part of The Davidson School of The Jewish Theological Seminary, and the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute for Religion.

Director’s Council. In Chicago there is a long-standing group of seven schools whose directors meet monthly, sharing dilemmas of practice and working together to offer thoughtful feedback and engender reflection. This group is facilitated by a clinical social worker who is also a child development specialist.
Study travel is a new element in our community, in which school teams—each composed of a leader and two teachers—study cutting-edge practices in early childhood education, delve into the common texts and ideals that bind Jewish schools, travel to visit leading centers and learn from experts, and reflect together on new approaches and practices they have begun employing in their programs. This year 12 schools participated—half of them studying together in the fall and then visiting Los Angeles to tour early childhood programs and study progressive pedagogy, and the other half meeting monthly throughout the year and studying together in Reggio Emilia, Italy, in the spring.

Beginning this summer, the Chicago Teachers Project: A Laboratory for Early Childhood Education, funded by the Covenant Foundation, will onboard a cohort of 12 individuals who have recently been recruited to pursue Jewish early childhood education as a career. Under the guidance of local education leaders, these new educators will meet for a summer retreat and a summer intensive, study and reflect together three times a month, complete a certificate in Progressive Education from the Erikson Institute, and work twice a month with skilled mentor teachers from Jewish schools across the community. These educators will learn the art of leading a classroom community. As part of the same initiative, three tiers of educators will grow in their own leadership—12 co-teachers will assist in onboarding these new teachers and will benefit from an enhanced budget for their own professional development, 12 mentor teachers will learn about the art of mentoring and receive a stipend for their work, and six school directors will travel together to the Boulder Journey School to reimagine their own schools as laboratories for excellence in teaching.

In an effort to enhance coordination between networks and among participants, our Federation, the Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago (JUF), has initiated a strategic planning process for Jewish early childhood education, incorporating the voices of parents, teachers, and leaders across the city and the country. Chicago’s new strategic plan boldly outlines strategies and tactics for strengthening the pipeline of teachers and leaders, advancing a culture of excellence in our schools, and expanding accessibility for families.

Central to carrying out this plan is the possibility of collective impact. Thus the plan calls for the development of a collaborative, to be housed at JUF, that will not only do the vital work of focusing myriad communal initiatives around shared outcomes, but will also have the power to address the seemingly intractable issues that have and will continue to plague early childhood education—inadequate resources for schools to properly invest in teacher compensation and professional development, and barriers to enrollment such as limited hours, scarcity of infant care, and unaffordable tuition.

To properly embolden our community as we take next steps, I look to counter Moses’s lonely leadership (lo tov) with Psalm 133’s virtue of togetherness (hinei mah tov, or “here is what is good”) and Genesis’s rife praise (ki tov) for the work of creation. Taken together, it seems that doing good work will require leading and creating—together—in wholly new ways. I believe that with the stability, relationships, and confidence being nurtured through our various leadership networks; continued encouragement and support from funders; and generous relationships with leaders around the country, we have a chance at Moses’s happy ending.

As Exodus 18 concludes, Yitro tells Moses that when he will develop a system of shared communal leadership, the whole of the people will reach the proper place in peace (18:23). May it be so.

Anna Hartman is the director of Early Childhood Excellence at the Community Foundation for Jewish Education of the Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago. This blog post was originally posted on the Gleanings e-journal of the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and is reprinted here with their permission.