Return - We Can Do Better

Reflection can lead us to "we can do better"; Removing the Stumbling Block

Thinking about returning conjures images of going back - to what we have done, to what we once knew or to what we may have previously said. 

There are times when this is worthwhile. Memories are powerful, with the ability to ground us in the relationships that make us whole. 

And yet, all too often, we allow ourselves to fall back on what was, what we have always done. Maybe because it's comfortable, easier. “Because we have always done it that way,” can be a dangerous phrase when it is used as an explanation rather than investing the time to do more. We are all guilty of this. We must challenge ourselves to grow. 

When we truly do the hard work of introspection we will be ready for more.  Reflection can lead us from “it’s good enough,” to “we can do better.” 

L'shana tova; Removing the Stumbling BlockAnd we can. We can make the Jewish world a place where everyone is welcome. We can help more of our synagogues to become inclusive. We can build the relationships and shape the programs that reach those we have yet to reach. We can do this. We must do this.

Are you ready?
L’shana tova u’metukah – a good and sweet year to all!

Let Me Give You Some Advice...

find partners; Removing the Stumbling Block

I’m in the advice giving business.

Take any of the many hats that I wear, and at some point every day I will offer advice. Educator, Jewish professional, Inclusion Specialist, teacher trainer, blog author, supervisor, mentor, parent, friend… each one of these roles has some advice-giving inherently built in.

And lest you read any negativity here, it is not implied. Giving advice often gets a bad rap, but it’s not the advice itself that’s really at issue. At issue is the way the advice is given; the issue is often the advice GIVER. 

Case in point: We run the risk of “becoming the wallpaper” when we are the ONLY voice consistently sharing a specific message. We need partners. Otherwise we run the risk of helping advice get its bad name, as each of us alone could veer too close to nagging, hassling or badgering.

Please don’t misunderstand – I am not suggesting that we stop offering advice or stop sharing our message. Rather, I am suggesting that we need to consistently vary the ways in which that message is delivered. 

A perfect example:

Sometimes all is takes is a simple shift to another point of view. Or maybe it's as simple as using a different modality to amplify your message.

So let me give you a little advice...

Accommodating Isn't the Same as Inclusion

accommodating isn't inclusion; Removing the Stumbling Block

Working with students of all different abilities to ensure that they have access to a meaningful Jewish education enables me to revisit my own personal commitment to inclusion over and over again. Over the years I have learned amazing strategies and techniques in adapting curriculum, shaping lessons and accommodating individual students' needs.

But the most significant thing that I have learned is that simply accommodating a student’s needs is not inclusion. Don’t get me wrong, making appropriate accommodations is an essential strategy in working with all students who have unique learning needs. But there’s more to inclusion. 

Let me give you an example:

A class of students is going to break into chevruta (partner) groups to study a Jewish text. A written copy of the text is given to each student. The teacher decides that since this is a discussion-based activity, the text can be read aloud to a student that is blind and she can still fully participate.

What’s wrong with this? 

Put yourself in the scenario. Are you typically the one who says (when something is read aloud), “Let me see that, I missed half of what you said.”?  If so, you are probably a visual learner. (Read more about learning styles.) This is how Braille can function for a student that is blind; it’s her way of “seeing” the text for herself.

accommodating isn't inclusion; Removing the Stumbling Block
Here is another example:

Students will be working in groups to explore leadership and community building. The activity relies on students' ability to observe one another as they engage in the task. Adding a listening role to the group for a student who is blind is a reasonable accommodation, but adding that same role to every group is inclusive.

One more:

Making sure there is a chair available for a student who has a physical disability is a reasonable accommodation, but reshaping the activity so that most or even all of the students will sit is inclusive.

Inclusion isn't always easy. Sometimes it takes trial and error. And it takes both intentionality and planning.  But as we learn from Rabbi Tarfon in Pirkei Avot: "It is not your responsibility to finish the work [of perfecting the world], but neither are you free to desist from it." (2:16) 

Celebrating Our Mistakes

Is this inclusive? Removing the Stumbling Block

One of the things I most often discuss when training teachers to be more inclusive is the importance of reframing. We discuss reframing attitudes and reframing language, notions that tend to be easy to understand, even if difficult to apply.

It's when we get to reframing lesson plans that it can get tricky. Even when teachers have the right intentions, they can find it challenging to consistently design lessons with an eye toward inclusion.

There is a lot that good teachers take for granted, especially in successful classrooms. I am guilty of this, too. When we have activities and strategies that have been successful, why would we think about changing them? Because to be truly inclusive is to look at every lesson, every activity, every strategy and ask ourselves, "is this inclusive?"

Accommodation isn't inclusion illustrates this concept. It might be "fine" to adapt an activity or add a component to it to make it more successful for specific students, but it is truly inclusive when we reframe the entire activity in a way that makes this addition a seamless part of the whole.

Celebrating Our Mistakes 
With thanks to Michelle Steinhart of Temple Israel Center in White Plains, NY for this excellent idea!

As teachers set up their classrooms - organizing, labeling and decorating - many are also thinking about systems of behavior management. Most are reading student files and will reach out to begin getting to know their students before the school year even begins. Teachers may learn that a particular student is a "perfectionist", one who struggles to let work go when she thinks she has possibly made a mistake or who will have a meltdown when she does something "wrong". A typical system of behavior management (I am NOT a fan!) would likely have this student earning tickets or stars each time she is able to hand in an assignment with only one revision.

Reframe the system:

Celebrating Our Mistakes; Removing the Stumbling Block

Begin with a classroom discussion of making mistakes and failing as a part of the learning process. Create a system where each student gets to put a marble in the jar when he or she has made a mistake. Just as in other, more traditional systems, the class will earn a reward when the jar is full.

What's different? 
  • First, students are taught that mistakes are a part of the process of learning and growing. 
  • Next, the student who struggles to let work go or has a meltdown when he has made a mistake is no longer singled out. Rather, he is celebrated and comes to learn that he has something valuable to contribute to the classroom community. 
  • Finally, this is a system that celebrates diversity rather than penalizing students for not conforming to an arbitrary set of ideals.

How will you reframe your teaching to make your classroom more inclusive?
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