On a balmy Sunday afternoon in mid-November, Jewish educators from in and around Orange County, as well as Los Angeles and Long Beach, met in Tustin to discuss how to create more sacred spaces within their communities. More than 200 teachers were present.
The 2010 fall teacher conference with the theme: “Creating Sacred Spaces within our Communities,” was sponsored by the Jewish Educators’ Association of Orange County and held at Temple Beth Sholom. Topics ranged from bullying to how the Internet plays a key role in today’s classrooms and how it all ties in with the early days of Judaism.
“In all seriousness, this is a major endeavor in the community. First, this program is aimed to directly address bullying. As we both know, this is a topic of concern in the entire country, and we want the Orange County/Long Beach Jewish communities to know it is concern in the Jewish religious schools in their home communities,” said Matt Kahn, coordinator of the event. “The day addressed making our learning environments sacred spaces. Our list of speakers was the best we have ever had, and we had hundreds of religious school teachers throughout the county attending. In essence, this was as big an educational event as we have around here.”
Why the Internet Matters
The event’s keynote speaker, Phil Liff-Grieff, associate director, Bureau of Jewish Education LA, spoke about the “New Internet and the Classroom: Cool Tools for Teachers (Grades K-12).”
“The Internet is rapidly expanding in exciting directions that offers new tools for teachers to use,” he said.
The talk explored new resources that come from the world of “Web 2.0,” free and easily accessed applications that educators can use in their classroom, in managing their work, and in connecting better with their students.
“About 30 percent of the world is on the Internet,” Liff-Grieff told the audience. “The Internet is filled with all kinds of learning tools including MapQuest, Facebook, Google, Twitter, and MySpace; there are thousands and thousands of tools, and they all help to connect people with information, as well as connect people with other people.”
The Internet also helps connect kids and has taught us that there are other ways of learning than just a blackboard.
“How does the Web change the writing of our brains?” Well, kids’ brains are different; they are wired differently than they used to be. The good news, though, is that brains can adapt quickly. How does this affect you as teachers?” he said.
Kids today like to be interactive, they like to network and collaborate and, of course, kids like to be active. This basically comes down to the teachers who need to be doing these things, too.
“As teachers, we need to engage kids, bottom-line, like the Internet, learning is social,” Liff-Grieff said. “Is all of this good for Jews? Yes. Jews have been doing all of this for a very long time. We are a virtual community and have always been a people of networkers. Look at the Talmud; it was the first example, really, of a blog.”
Shannon Wolper addressed making classrooms a safe space for students and why bullying is a major problem. An educator and psychologist for 15 years, she said she has been in many different learning environments with a variety of socioeconomic groups.
“Bullying is of interest to me, because bullying exists in every social group, every economic group and in most cultures around the world. It has been used to influence others’ decisions, gain power and manipulate others for another’s gain.”
In her work, she has noticed that bullying occurs a lot on the playground. “It seemed that none of the administration, aides, teachers, parents, or volunteers was getting involved or effective at preventing the problem,” she said.
That’s when she began a program specifically geared toward eliminating or redirecting bullying in the social classrooms; the playground. She added, “I have run several different social groups for students from pre-school through high school age with a large focus on the elementary and middle school environments. It is my goal to teach tolerance and acceptance.”
She said if she had to use two words to describe her ideal in the classroom, it would be to “embrace diversity.”
More Hot Topics
Other speakers at the even included Arlene Chernow, outreach specialist, congregational consulting group, Union for Reform Judaism, who addressed the topic, “Four Children from Interfaith Families in the Classroom.”
She talked about such topics as: What are the barriers that children from interfaith families bring to the religious school classroom? How can teachers help children from interfaith families build a strong sense of Jewish identity? The session was intended to help teachers understand the issues that children from interfaith families may bring to the classroom, how to answer the children’s questions and deal positively with all of the stories that the children share.
Dr. Kimberly Schwartz, assistant principal, Milkin Community High School discussed “Creating Sacred Space for Students with Special Needs.”
“The classroom can be a frustrating place for students with learning challenges and for their teachers! Sometimes, all it takes to make a difference is understanding what these students confront each time they enter a classroom, open a textbook or try to participate in a class discussion,” she said.
The session examined definitions of specific learning challenges, including ADD, ADHD, visual and auditory perceptual disorders, dyslexia and non-verbal learning disorder. Participants had the opportunity to build empathy through simulations of these challenges and discussed strategies for creating safe and sacred space for these learners.
Long Beach educator Deborah Lewis related that an educator in Long Beach said most everything she learned was “Applicable to our classrooms, but also helps us understand where the kids are coming from.”