21 May 2015

Sunflowers in the Drawing-Room: Some Notes on the 2015 Torah uMesorah Convention

As it turns out, the Torah uMesorah teachers' convention isn't a secret convention only for Real Teachers. There is a pre-convention for principals but (someone correct me if I'm wrong) that isn't exclusive either. There were high school girls babysitting and on their breaks they came to the lectures too. I wish I'd known this when I was in high school. Tell your students.

Our route took us through Torah uMesorah history, passing a number of cities I know only from the history of the day school movement. Liberty, NY – I know from R' Shraga Feivel. Scranton – also R' Shraga Feivel. Ellensville – that name is familiar, too.

Then we walked into the hotel and into the Torah uMesorah present, a grand courtyard all draped with Torah uMesorah banners and filled with the murmur of mechanchim networking.

Networking means walking up to random people to ask them what they teach and how and how do you make class interesting to your twelfth-graders? It is the most fun I have had in a drawing-room, ever.

(Incidentally, my favorite answer to the question of how to engage teenagers came from the babysitters. Make it practical, they said. Practical, practical, practical.)

It was delightful to share a chatzer with a few hundred mechanchim. It was also delightful to giggle with all few hundred at once in response to amusing moments in the lectures. And it was a great privilege and delight to hear great talmidei chachamim addressing questions on Jewish education.

Here are some points that stood out to me from over the weekend. Some were new, some just timely.

Please read with caution – I often misquote people.

Therefore, if you don't like something, you may safely assume that it was not actually said by the person I claim to be quoting.

1. Someone asked about extrinsic reward, e.g. a parent paying a child to help with chores.
R' Shmuel Kamenetsky, shlit”a observed that when a mother rewards a child, the child realizes that it's not a payment, but an expression of the parent's love. You help because you want to help your mother. She rewards you because she loves you.

(I would derive from this that if such is not the nature of extrinsic reward in the classroom, then it should be.)

2. Someone asked about the nature of derech eretz that students show for teachers, including standing when they enter the room.
R' Aharon Feldman, shlit”a said that derech eretz is yirah.
The Novominsker Rebbe said that the younger generation is in a position of mekablim. We get up because we are receivers.

(I asked myself how I would explain this to lower elementary and the first thing that came to mind was time-lapse photography of heliotropic flowers.)

3. Someone asked about allotting time to teaching biur tefilla.
R' Aharon Feldman, shlit”a pointed out that if we don't teach it, not only are we not teaching that material, but we are teaching mitzvos anashim milumada.

4. Three ideas from R' Kook shlit”a of Rechovot:
a. He quoted R' Moshe Shapiro shlit”a: the melamed has to be an eish lehava
b. A pshat from the Alter of Kelm: chanoch lanaar etc. lo yasur mimenu – the object of mimenu is milehischanech.
c. The Chazon Ish was makpid on yemino moshech and smol dochek and not the other way round (not literally). I like the use of the word makpid in this sentence.

5. Rabbi Elimelech Gottlieb of Queens spoke on motivation.
He cited one Angela Duckworth that the best predictor of success is grit (grit survey) and the baalei mussar that the way to acquire grit is tachbulos. --e.g., when you give an assignment, ask: What do you think might prevent you from completing this project? (e.g. – do you have a place to do it? Is there something you'll want to do instead?) And what are you going to do about it?

He observed that if children have not internalized the idea that sheva yipol tzaddik v'kam, that it's all about change and growth through mistakes, then “exerting effort makes them feel dumb”. He pointed out that a music teacher listens to you and then tells you what you need to change; and that feedback is specific and actionable.

6. Mrs. Zheutlin of Los Angeles gave a scintillating presentation on social dynamics and teaching empathy. The exercises she suggested apply to all behavior. To quote here those portions I found enlightening would be to reproduce her lecture in toto.

7. R' Shmuel Kamenetsky shlit”a observed a few times over the course of the weekend that
a. Children should eat fruit and eggs for breakfast, not sugary cereal, and if this change were made we would probably see fewer children on Ritalin; and
b. The best way to be mechanech a girl in x behavior that people asked about (in a session on girls' chinuch) is if her mother does it.

He went on to address what teachers can do when the parents cannot be relied on; but it occurs to me that part of that might be making mother-daughter programs or otherwise encouraging parental involvement in whatever the area of concern is.

8. Rebbetzin Twersky spoke about her husband Hy”d. My favorite insight was this: A bachur came to the door with a shaila about bracha acharona. R' Twersky disappeared into the kitchen, whence issued the sound of pots and pans; and emerged shortly with a bowl of hot pasta. “How many mechanchim,” asked Rebbetzin Twersky, “would cook a pot of pasta to address a student's shaila about a bracha acharona?”

9. There is an organization called Lechu v'Nelcha which connects post-seminary students through shiurim.

10. R' Joseph Elias was niftar. I had not known that. His son spoke about his very interesting life.

11. R' Hillel David shlit”a quoted – probably the Gra...? – that a she'ela is for oneself and a bakasha is for others; therefore in achas shoalti... osah avakesh the request was not only for himself but also because of the ramifications for others.

(I was greatly pleased by this because I remember in high school wondering where everyone else was in that pasuk and the best I could come up with was the observation by – I want to say R' Shimon Shkop zt”l but I think I'm wrong – that I cannot be limited to myself.)

12. I was interested that a high proportion of the questions posed both in the motzaei Shabbos session on girls' chinuch and in a parallel session from which I got someone else's notes were about – davening. Apparently this is a big issue for the generation.

I didn't spend as much time as I should have looking at the vendors (I don't teach kriah or Gemara), but here is some free publicity for a few of them:

1. Avenues of the Sky: a portable planetarium; shiurim and presentations (in English or Yiddish) on astronomy-related sugyos. Based in Lakewood.
2. Touch of Torah: Plastic models of the Mishkan and its keilim, made using a 3-D printer. Based in Baltimore.
3. Living Torah Museum: books and DVDs and a museum with all the tactile pretty ephemera that come up in Chumash, etc. Based in New York. When I passed by the booth he was explaining how to string together a caravan of camels.

I spoke over the weekend with another few people who are also engaged in this sort of Torah-im-cool-stuff and a mashal occurred to me. One of the designers of the card game Magic: the Gathering observes that when people create games, they often get so excited about all the cool stuff that the game does that they forget that it needs to have a clear objective. MTG is popular not only because it has many cool complications but also because it has a very simple objective: be the first to reduce your opponent's points from 20 to 0.

Applying-Torah-to-pretty-things involves all kinds of cool complications but it has to be absolutely clear, from the outset and constantly, what the objective is; and that objective should be simple; and the way that all the cool stuff leads to it should be clearly defined; and the merit of the cool stuff is defined by it.
(I'm not implying that this is an issue for anyone in particular; just thinking aloud since the subject came up.)

There were some other vendor booths I didn't stop by at all but they sound interesting – P'tach special-ed; BINA support following stroke or brain injury and Chai4Ever support in case of parent illness, R”l; a financial literacy curriculum called Mesila; and now looking at the list of vendors I see a purveyor of fax machines, copiers, &c., which is an item in which I have absolutely no interest but which I cannot resist mentioning because the name of the person behind this “Fax Unlimited” is Isaac Breuer.

Feel free to contact this blog if you need the contact information for any of the people or organizations mentioned above or if you want the information on kriah and Gemara-learning vendors or if you want to know what people wear or anything else about Convention.

There were loads of other interesting insights that came up in conversation with individuals, and many other interesting lectures. It was also somewhat fascinating to talk over how certain inyanim are the same, or different, in the PNW and in Williamsburg.

Recordings of all the lectures (except those given on Shabbos) are available from Torah u'Mesorah.

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