The Educated Jew

Bridging Dualism: Cross-Curricular Learning in the Jewish High School

♦ by Rebecca Shargel

In many of our high schools, students are accustomed to a schedule that separates the day into English, History, Math, Science, Hebrew, and Judaic subjects. Segmenting the day into distinct subjects helps students develop skills and in-depth knowledge of specific content areas. This structure accommodates teachers, textbooks, and parents. Teachers are typically trained as subject specialists and they utilize textbooks that support their subjects (especially in general studies). Moreover, parents are accustomed to this structure, as it was dominant in their own school experiences. The problem with learning exclusively in this way is that when students envision subjects as discrete “islands” they lose the opportunity to see how different subjects are connected and to ask common questions. If high school programs facilitated more cross-curricular connections, students could find deeper meaning in their studies by seeing recurring themes and patterns that cut across disparate subject areas. Students would realize that some of the same questions are posed in science and Judaic studies or in humanities and the arts. These cross-curricular connections could facilitate learning that is more interesting and leads to a richer and deeper understanding of material.

If Jewish day schools are committed to educating students to be conversant in both Jewish and secular areas, and who can make meaning of their relationship to one another, then a cross-curricular approach should infuse the curriculum. Perhaps we would stop envisioning general and Judaic studies as a dual curriculum and find more opportunities to join the two in fruitful dialogue.

Many Jewish high school students see their Judaic subjects as less important, since they don’t appear on either the SAT or AP exams or might be foreign to college admittance committees.

As educated Jews, our graduates should be able to forge connections between secular and Judaic knowledge so that they don’t deem one area less valuable than the other. Curricular integration is a way for students to bridge the connections between the two domains and to see their world more holistically. It helps broaden the academic context and widen the experience so that students can see how both general and Judaic studies help address common problems. The process of deliberately planning cross-curricular learning facilitates cross-departmental conversations. This would benefit teachers who are often isolated from each other and miss out on conversations with colleagues that include curricular deliberation.

Seizing opportunities for cross-curricular learning could address the problem of students devaluing Judaic studies. Especially with college preparatory pressures, many Jewish high school students in community schools invest more time and energy in their general studies subjects since they feel that they “count” for college. Instead of seeing general and Judaic studies as two parts of a whole, they see their Judaic subjects as less important, since they don’t appear on either the SAT or AP exams or might be foreign to college admittance committees.

A model that works very well at facilitating cross-curricular connections is a theme week that focuses on study of a single topic whose questions are answered by more than one discipline. One successful model for a theme week can be found at the Shoshana S. Cardin School in Baltimore, developed by Leslie Smith Rosen, the school’s director of general studies.

Interim Week

Imagine a program where students study a topic and all teachers contribute to teaching and planning for this signature event that takes place over a week. Instead of their regular shuffle subjects such as English, Hebrew, History, Science, Jewish texts, etc., students focus on one topic that that raises important questions whose answers occur in more than one subject area. Teachers with different disciplinary perspectives contribute to instructing students in different electives. Students learn in cross-grade groups to study with a variety of teachers with no pressure of tests. The week is in the spirit of Torah lishma (learning for its own sake).This week occurs each year between the second and third trimesters and is described by students as “a break from school,” meaning a change from the regular routine of classes and exams. As the week focuses on a theme, students enjoy a variety of school-wide programming that includes both formal and informal classes: electives, guest visitors, a school dance tied to the theme, dinners, and performances. This program is analogous to a sort of “stay-cation” for students who get to do something different from their usual school routine but continue to learn mostly on campus.

If our children understand the strong underlying questions that bridge Jewish and general learning, they will be more ready to live integrated lives as Jews in American society. Not only will our graduates see the harmonies and similarities between secular and Jewish ideas, they will also see the conflicts and the contradictions.

Starting Points:

By observing the Interim Week at Cardin, I found some starting points for planning a theme week. Below are descriptions for three good starting points that include considering existential questions, historical events, and scientific controversies.

1. Existential Questions

High school students are hungry to discuss life’s big questions with each other and their teachers. This week can provide an introduction to moral and spiritual questions that they will grapple with for years to come. These kinds of questions lead to answers and further questions in Jewish subject areas as well as literature and science. Below are examples:

  1. How did the universe start?
  2. What is real or true in the world?
  3. What are Jewish and other religious approaches to life after death?
  4. How do I successfully sustain friendship and love over many years?
  5. What is my purpose in life?

By crafting some good questions, teachers can find curricular areas where these questions are addressed. Ideally two or more teachers would collaborate to team-teach so that different disciplinary perspectives come into play during the same time slot. For example, in addressing the first question, how did the universe begin, this could lead to a study of origins of the universe that would include text study of first chapters of Genesis and its commentaries, as well as the Big Bang theory and other scientific theories about the beginnings of life in the universe and on earth. Imagine the science and text teacher engaging in dialogue with each other about how to teach both religious and scientific texts and how those texts raise common questions and theories.

2. Historical Events / Current Controversial Topics

History is another starting point. One way to select historical events is to consider anniversaries of people or events. For example, in the spring of 2009, Cardin celebrated Darwin’s legacy and the controversy that it ensued. The calendrical inspiration was Darwin’s 200th birthday as well as the 150th anniversary of the publication of his Origins of Species. Another year students commemorated the 40th anniversary of the Six Day War with activities connected to the War, Israeli history and culture. Students remember their Israeli teacher organizing them in boot camp each morning. There were other activities that circled around the events and significance of the Six Day War. You might want to consider birthdays of famous Jews or Americans from your region or your twin city in Israel.

3. Science

High school students are interested in physical matter—especially things that relate to their bodies or the environment. They are ready to discuss health conditions and controversies that are close to them or their families. For example, they might be familiar with the condition of lactose intolerance. During the Darwin week at Cardin one science teacher taught a class called “Got Milk” that described the phenomenon of lactose intolerance. Students who were familiar with this condition were very interested in the process of genetic mutations that explained the phenomenon. Moreover, discussion tangents also entered the realms of dairy products as well as kashrut in general. Allowing a forum for science to connect to everyday Jewish practice can make Judaism more meaningful to students who might otherwise see it as archaic or irrelevant to contemporary life.

A way to spark interest in a topic is to begin it with controversy. For example, in the Darwin week at Cardin students began their studies by viewing the film Inherit the Wind that chronicles the story of the Scopes Monkey Trial, where a public teacher was sued for teaching evolution in a Southern state where it was outlawed. Students saw the tensions between religion and science and eventually came prepared to debate whether or not evolution and creationism should be taught in public schools. This question began with science but spilled over into theology and history.

Faculty would appreciate guidance as to how to prepare together in teams.

A useful guide to help teachers form cross-curricular models is Robin Fogarty’s model for curricular integration. I particularly like the integrated model where four teachers think about overlapping.

Cardin like many of the RAVSAK affiliates is dedicated to pluralism. While most people think about pluralism as a multi-denominational endeavor, I’ve learned a new way of approaching pluralism; this approach allows students to see an issue from multiple perspectives.

Theme week gives students a repository of positive memories around an experiential learning component. The students value the week as evidenced by the multiple pages dedicated to it in the yearbook as well as their asking each year: “What will Interim Week be next year?”

Conclusion

We aspire for our graduates to feel comfortable in both Jewish and secular realms. If our children understand the strong underlying questions that bridge Jewish and general learning, they will be more ready to live integrated lives as Jews in American society. They will be able to distill the spiritual and moral meanings of Jewish practice and connect them to broader principles. Not only will our graduates see the harmonies and similarities between secular and Jewish ideas, they will also see the conflicts and the contradictions. With this clarity, our students as educated Jews will forge ahead to create a worldview that makes sense for them. Throughout their lives, they will be able to explain the principles behind Jewish practice—the deep spiritual and moral impulses that underlie Jewish living. ♦

Dr. Rebecca Shargel is Assistant Professor of Education at Towson University in Maryland. She is an affiliate of the Baltimore Hebrew Institute and can be reached at Rshargel@towson.edu.

HaYidion: Cover of The Educated Jew issue

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