Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Ha'azinu 74 - Lead by Greatness

In this week's portion-parasha of Ha'azinu Moses tells us to'' Remember bygone days, understand the years of each generation, ask your father and he will tell you, your grandfather and he will say it over to you."זכור ימות עולם, בינו שנות דור-ודור;    שאל אביך ויגדך, זקניך ויאמרו לך." Moses is encouraging   us by his words -  'remember bygone days' to have an appreciation of History and to see God's divine role in shaping history. We also need to remember history as the philosopher George Santayana warns ' Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it". The Menachem Zion notes that the next words in the verse – understand the years of each generation – sounds a little redundant or just poetic. He explains that the word 'shnot' – years can be read not as years but as the differences, so we are encouraged to learn the lessons of history but also appreciate the differences in each generation when we apply these lessons. The previous generations  have a sense of history and appreciate these differences and changes.

 The changes and differences are obvious when it comes to children's   education and discipline issues. The use of corporal punishments, other punishments and harsh criticism are discouraged and frowned upon despite sources in the Talmud and the Bible that condone the use of corporal punishment. The world then was a rather different place. It was very authoritarian .Those in positions of authority like fathers and teachers had a lot of power and this power was respected. Women, children, students, and  slaves were expected to be very obedient and submissive. If these expectations were not met, they were punished often with a beating. Women and certainly children accepted this as part of their culture. The educational system demanded such a system. The focus was on learning lots of information, mishnayot, Bible by heart, rote learning and memorizing facts.' Carrot or stick ' techniques work well in getting kids to focus on remembering facts and  learning mishnayot by heart.        
We live in a rather different world where the instruments of control are extremely limited. Corporal punishment and other punishments are totally ineffective. Today it is an accepted fact with so much overwhelming evidence that hitting kids is not only harmful, but also ineffective. There is a tendency amongst religious parenting authors to romanticize the period when corporal punishment was considered effective and not harmful. Kids were considered more resilient, compared to metal, when beaten is hardened and strengthened. Kids were said to flourish under a regime of strict and punitive discipline and high expectations. Today's kids are considered like clay that crumbles when beaten.  They are not resilient and emotionally vulnerable. They don't need punishment but need rewards and encouragement to motivate and control them.  Interestingly when it comes to the treatment of women, they don't say that beating a wife is not acceptable today because today's women are less resilient and more vulnerable  – like clay. And that those women who lived in a culture that allowed a husband to beat a wife in order to educate her were resilient  like metal. We just say that it was culturally acceptable.  We don't hit women because we are concerned for their dignity, safety and emotional needs.  When it comes to corporal punishment a slave is more resilient than a freeman, a donkey is more resilient than a slave and a student is more resilient than his teacher (the principal punishes the teacher with a beating). The more honored the person, the more emotionally vulnerable he is.

These authors see the lack of teacher and parental power and authority as a sign of regression in the education. Harav Kook and others have explained that often spiritual regression as that which took place after the ' enlightenment era' meant that the teaching of Torah needed to be more intellectual and deeper to meet the new challenges of science and philosophy. In the same way, we cannot be authoritarian and use power and status  to control  people, but be powerful because of who we are, become authoritative   and lead people because of our greatness.

 We try to inspire kids to learn Torah because it is relevant, meaningful and exciting and not to get a 'good grade'.  Creative learning only takes place when kids feel safe and not feel being controlled by rewards or punishments. We teach kids not to act inappropriately because they will be punished, but because of the consequences of their actions on other people. We teach them to ask – what kind of person do I want to be, what kind of school or community do we want. When we use power we lose the opportunity for learning and spiritual growth and learning to solve problems in a collaborative way. When it comes to all kids and especially the  challenging kids ,we have the benefit of at least 30 years of brain research that shows that kids do well we attend to their needs for acceptance, respect and other emotional needs and give up trying to control them with punishments or even with  rewards. Kids may have the comforts of life and not be abused physically but today kids in a sense have a more  difficult time . They  have to ' behave and do well at school in order to earn parental love and acceptance. Kids' resilience depends on their needs for unconditional  acceptance , respect, love  and other emotional needs are being met.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Va'yelech 74 Hakhel - Learning that touches the heart and soul

The Parasha-Portion of Va'yeileich - Devarim- Deut. 31:10-13 deals with the mitzvah of ' Hakhel where the king read passages from the Torah in the presence of the whole nation. All the men, women, and children - including infants had to attend the event. It was a re-enactment of giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. It took place in the temple in Jerusalem after the Sabbatical year during the festival of Succoth, once in 7 years. The Shmittah -Sabbatical year and Succoth allude to God's divine protection and providence, and Israel's faith and loyalty to their God.

 The Talmud – Cha'giga 3, asks why the ' infants-  ha'taf ' had to attend? Two answers are given. Even if these infants   do not benefit directly from the ' hakhel experience', their parents and especially their mothers are credited for bringing them. The underlying reason is - by bringing their infants and making sure every person would be present at this event, they show an appreciation of the importance and centrality of the Torah for the Jewish nation and for future generations.  The Talmud – Masechet Sofrim adds the following reason - there is in fact a benefit and intrinsic reward for the infants themselves from the Hakhel experience. People would according to their intellectual levels and obligations, either engage in studying the words of the Torah, or just listen to the reading of the king, but all would be emotionally moved by the ' Hakhel ' experience which would make them more appreciative of the wonder and awe of God, to love God ,his law and be more committed to God and his Torah. 
 The hakhel experience also supports cooperative learning and 'ahavat yisrael ' the  emotional connection between people .

An emotional connection to learning leads to better cognition and  a deeper understanding.The Malbim explains that the toddlers and infants will be affected emotionally in a bigger way than the adults by the incredible atmosphere of fear and love for God and awesome sight of millions of Jews standing united for hours for the sole purpose of hearing the lessons that the king is reading from the Torah. Their lack of intellectual understanding allows the imagination to make an indelible impression of what they see and experience. This experience is intrinsically valuable as it will contribute to the love and fear of God when they become obligated to do the mitzvoth.

The purpose of the Hakhel experience is to move people emotionally, so that their learning experience will touch their hearts and souls and motivate them to higher levels of love and fear of God. The big events such as the festivals do the same thing and give us an ' emotional lift' out of our routine existence. But our aim should be that all our learning and experiences should touch our hearts and souls. 

When it comes to our kids' education, people are becoming aware of the importance of social-emotional learning to help kids regulate their emotions and improve their social skills, but no attention is being paid to something equally important – that a kid's learning should touch their hearts and souls. The reason that this does not happen is that learning is driven by extrinsic motivators like grades and competition. Kids, parents and teachers focus on how well kids are doing, and any emotional input is put into the ' good job' praises or expressions of disappointment. Instead success or failure should be experienced only as information. This allows parents and teachers  help kids  to focus on what there are doing and learning  , making meaning of what they are doing, sharing their  learning and learning from others ,  and ' connecting to  ' the learning so that the learning  touches their hearts and souls. Instead the emotional connection is not with the learning but with the grade or position in the classroom rankings. 

It was previously understood that emotions interfere with learning. The author and researcher Mary Helen Immordino-Yang says that emotions are important and integral  to children's learning. They form a critical piece of how, what, when, and why people think, remember, and learn. Emotion and cognition are supported by interdependent neural processes. Emotions are not add-ons that are distinct from cognitive skills Complex emotional feelings, such as interest, inspiration, indignation, and compassion, are active mental constructions. We only think deeply about things we care about. deep understanding depends on making emotional connections between concepts. Emotions are triggered by the meaning kids make of their learning , and in turn emotions like interest, excitement , curiosity , feeling of connection with the learning or a sense of awe in beholding beauty, become a dimension of the cognitive  skill itself leads to better cognition and understanding. Interest can precipitate a lifetime commitment to studying a topic, that kids have such trouble applying themselves when they don’t know why they would ever use a skill outside of class, and that offering kids candy will make them like coming to class but will not help them learn to appreciate mathematical thinking.

 Curriculum should be based on kids' interests and what is relevant and meaningful to their lives. They should be expressing their opinions and perspectives in the context of a caring, cooperative learning community and not just giving the answers that teachers want. In this way they will develop deeper understanding ,a connection and  love for learning, act on newly acquired knowledge in other areas as well and show a commitment to the values underlying their learning. They should be hearing stories of real people whose lives give expression to lessons learned and they should also tell their own stories and share their own experiences. The Mitzvah of ' Hakhel' comes to remind us to open our hearts to our learning, and that all learning and experiences can and should touch our hearts and souls and those of our children and students, support the emotional connection between learners themselves and the emotional connetion with God  and lead to deeper understanding.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Ki Tavoh -74 Being grateful is not easy

Our portion-parasha   Ki Tavo starts of the mitzvah – commandment to dedicate the first fruits of our labors to God by bringing them to the Beit Ha'mikdash – Temple in Jerusalem – Deuteronomy/ Devarim 26:1-11. . The bringing of the ' Bikkurim' took place mainly from Shavuot to Succot and was accompanied by a moving declaration of gratitude to God for ' redeeming us   from the hardships of Laban and Egypt and bringing us to the land of Israel. '

Being grateful is a challenge as we tend to ascribe success to our own doing and forget God's crucial support, without which we could not succeed.  We also tend to forget people who have helped us along the way. From this mitzvah we learn to be grateful to God and express gratitude to all those who have helped us when we reflect and speak about the milestones we have reached and success we have achieved.

But more challenging is when we are faced with a crop that has 'failed'. Even from the little that there is, we have to take and dedicate our 'Bikkurim' – the first fruits. Because  the Mishnah says -  Bikkurim don't have a ' sh'iur' , a minimum quantity,  you have to dedicate something .  Even if the fruits of our labors are miserable, we have to make our declaration and as the verse states – rejoice with all the goodness that Hashem, your God, has given you and your household together with the poor of your community.   וְשָׂמַחְתָּ בְכָל-הַטּוֹב, אֲשֶׁר נָתַן-לְךָ ה'    .Celebrating and being grateful for success and sharing your success with others is not so challenging as the celebrating and being grateful for a miserable crop yield. Also the declaration is only said if the first fruits are brought between Shavuot and Succot and not after Succot. This is because the period after Succot, is  after the harvest has been gathered and therefore  is not called a time for rejoicing.

The verse says that we should rejoice and be glad with ALL the goodness that Hashem, your God has given you.  And this means searching within ourselves and discovering  what we can be grateful about. Being grateful does not depend on something ' external to us ' or being the receptacles of someone else's goodness. It is a characteristic, it is a need within us to feel grateful and express it.  We are grateful for life, our relationship with God, the Torah  and the opportunities to do good and  mitzvoth. We are not only grateful for the first fruit but more so for the opportunity to perform the mitzvah-commandment  of ' Bikkurim ', to dedicate the first fruits of our labors to God, in fact to dedicate our labor to God. In our declaration of gratitude to God, we do not thank God for the fruit, but we thank God for gift of  the land. The bringing of the fruit is just a way we express our gratitude for having a holy home close to God. . And the best time are the festivals of Shavuot until the end of Succot , a season full of opportunities to make a contribution and do mitzvoth

As parents and teachers we can model being   people who are happy, grateful and always see the glass half full. When kids don't meet our expectations or make mistakes, our disappointment, or even anger can get in the way of how we view the whole  child. Suddenly we are no longer grateful for the gift of this child , we don't see the whole picture – a child with wonderful attributes who has now made a mistake. When kids make mistakes or experience failure we can still see the positive and say they are doing their best as the CPS - collaborative solving mantra tells us ' children do well if they can . We don't need to be critical , just collaborate with them to solve the problem. Mistakes and failure are windows for new opportunities for growth and improvement. Being grateful is not just  being happy with what we have been given, but being grateful for opportunities to make a contribution and grow despite the challenges we face.