Thursday, December 30, 2010

An Open Special Education Contract

I have recently been invited to join a committee that is exploring how to make access to Jewish education a priority in congregational schools for learners with the whole array of disabilities. While I have always cared about the full spectrum of special needs in Jewish Education, I have to tip my kipah to my friend and teacher Rabbi Fred Greene of Temple Beth Tikvah in Roswell Georgia. Fred came to my congregation in CT straight out of rabbinic school and he really held my toes to the fire on this issue. It is so easy to concentrate on the needs of the many, but we are only as good as how we treat the few. And the lesson is not lost on anyone. I came across the blog Special Education {Tech} courtesy of someone I follow on twitter (I apologize for not giving credit).

This is from a blog entry by Chris Vacek, an educator whose bio follows the article. I think he presents an interesting and important challenge to us as educators. I am not yet certain his list is comprehensive or completely applicable in our settings, but I think it is the beginning point for an important conversation.

An Open Special Education Contract

Recently, I came across a classroom blog that struck a profound chord in me. It contained a teacher’s “manifesto”, with the promises the teacher made to his students. I love this idea, and thought about special education. I have never seen a Special Education Contract of that sort, and immediately started jotting down ideas. Then it occurred to me that this really needed to be an “open” project, and that I should seek the input of the special education world at large. If you are a special education professional, service provider, teacher or administrator, or a parent or advocate or a person with special needs, please contribute to this project. The items below are a beginning, and presented in no particular order, and I welcome your feedback and additions. I would love to see this grow and saturate the online special education community – so please share this with your friends, colleagues and contacts. Thanks!

  1. I promise to do no harm.

  2. I promise to individualize your education to the best of my abilities and resources.

  3. I promise to focus on your outcomes, and to be able to explain what difference the current education program makes to your functional independence later in life.

  4. I promise to listen to your parents, and work towards their goals, and yours.

  5. I promise to champion your success, and value your failures.

  6. I promise to promote your opportunity, and to seek opportunities for you to succeed.

  7. I promise to educate myself, to help educate you.

  8. I promise to use technology, and to help you use technology, so we can both succeed.

  9. I promise to strengthen your skills, and use your strengths to further strengthen your weaknesses.

  10. I promise to put your outcomes and needs first, and keep them close and centered, in your heart and mine.

  11. I promise to gather data on all your outcomes, and to only use data-informed, peer-reviewed, scientifically established interventions that document measurable progress.

  12. I promise to respect you and your wishes, always.

  13. I promise to involve you in decisions about your future, as best I can and as you are able.

  14. I promise to center your education around your needs today and your needs in the future.

  15. I promise to help generalize your skills in the classroom, and the home, and the community.

  16. I promise to use the most appropriate tools available for us to learn.

  17. I promise to remember daily that you are a wonderful human being, and that data and statistics rarely tell the whole story of YOU.

  18. I promise to help you fill your life with rich experiences in art, music, science, social studies, physical activity, etc… because reading and math are not more important than everything else. Everyone deserves to find his/her own passion.

  19. I promise to introduce you to, and teach you how to interact with, your peers. You will need both friends like you and friends that are different from you, and you’ll need to know how to interact with them.

  20. I promise not to think of you as data or outcomes, but to think of you as feelings and desires and wants and needs.

  21. I promise to advocate for you, always, everywhere, even when my boss disagrees, or the community disagrees, or the world disagrees. I will advocate for you.

  22. I promise to teach you how to help yourself, how to advocate for yourself, and how to become the most independent person you can be.

  23. I promise to love you as my student and as a person, even when my life is tough, your life is tough, and our work together is tough.

  24. I promise to value function over form.

  25. I promise to continually work towards your independence.

  26. I promise to educate others about how extraordinary you are.

  27. I promise to say something nice or positive to you daily.

  28. I promise to never try to make you fit into the world’s view of “perfect.” I will value you as “perfect” just the way you are.

  29. I promise to help you speak for yourself.

  30. I promise to help you stand tall.

  31. I promise to remember that you are whole, just the way you are.|

  32. I promise to do my best not to say or do anything unkind.

  33. I promise to listen to your eyes.

  34. I promise to laugh with you.

  35. I promise to ensure that you get to take your rightful place in the world.

  36. I promise to experience and celebrate you and your joy.

  37. I promise to do more than see. I promise to be a keen observer.

  38. I promise to not just say ” I hear you,” but to mean it with all my heart.

  39. I promise to learn from you and use what I’ve learned to help you grow.

  40. I promise that as hard as it may be to watch you fail, I know that “there is dignity in risk” and realize that sometimes you will fail before you succeed.

  41. I promise to facilitate your independence needs, and seek transparency and clarity for all in this process.
What promises would you make to your particular, and every other, special education student?

The original posting may be found at which is part of a very interesting blog called Special Education {Tech}.

About the author

Chris Vacek is the Chief Innovation Officer for Heartspring and the parent of a child with both Williams Syndrome and Autism. Heartspring, located in Wichita, Kansas, is a world wide center for children with disabilities, and a leader in technology based functional independence outcomes.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

"Super..." and "Amazing..." Curricular Projects

This is cross-posted from Caren Levine's blog  jlearn2.0. Caren is one of those people who is always thinking about the intersection of Jewish education and technology. Her digital and analog lenses work in stereo, kind of a unified field theory of Jewish education. She cross-posted it to YU 2.0, a wonderful membership site maintained by our friend and fellow JJF Fellow, Dr. Eliezer Jones.

A question I am often asked is, "Yes, but what are some examples of how these resources are integrated into the curriculum? By real live educators with real live learners!"

Presenting two free ebooks to whet your appetites and tickle your imaginations:

The Super Book of Web Tools for Educators: A comprehensive guide to technology in all k-12 classrooms. Articles include perspectives from administrators and teachers, as well as elementary school, middle school, and high school projects, and projects centered around particular subject matter or tools (ESL, Skype, blogging). Contributors include notable education bloggers Steve Anderson, Richard Byrne, George Couros, Larry Ferlazzo, Silvia Rosenthal Tolisano, and others. Check it out!

But wait, there's more! Be sure to read through Terry Freedman's The Amazing Web 2.0 Projects Book, a compilation that is chock full of practical ideas for the classroom. The many contributors include an international cast of educators such as Terry Freedman, Jackie Gerstein, Julie Lindsay, Sharon Peters, Shelley Terrell, Silvia Tolisana, Jen Wagner, and Reuven Werber, to name drop just a few.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Inspiring Jewish Educators

Why would a group of Jewish educators spend half a day with a leading Israeli venture capitalist firm? I would like to suggest that educators can learn a great deal from venture capitalists—especially if the firm is Jerusalem Venture Partners (JVP), founded in 1993 by Erel Margalit. The firm, currently with $820 million under management, is dedicated to building world class media strategy companies, and also to bringing together “profit and social profit, innovation and creativity, technology and leadership, in one place.”

Our JJFF (Jim Joseph Foundation Fellowship) visit began with a tour of JVPs Lab (Ha’Maabada), a performing arts incubator for graduates of Jerusalem’s arts academies. We then learned about “Bakehila,” an educational empowerment program in four of Jerusalem’s underprivileged neighborhoods (including 15 schools and 10 learning centers).

But the main purpose of the visit, in the words of JJFF Israel Seminar Coordinator, Rabbi Zvi Grumet, (Associate Educational Director of the Lookstein Center of Bar Ilan University and editor of Jewish Education News) was to “look outside of our own world (of Jewish education) and view models of innovation in the business world—to see people who do creative things and think creatively."

Meeting Gavin from the Animation Lab and viewing some of his high quality/high resolution animated film, seeing Maor’s work on the soon to be released project, and learning about Veoh, was invigorating.

The cynical part of me thinks such a visit makes us question why we are in Jewish education when there is so much excitement and life (and maybe even compensation!) in a place like JVP. But maybe a business like JVP is precisely where Jewish educators should look for inspiration and ideas. This will give us the chizuk (reinforcement) we need to stay in Jewish education!

In our short visit, I observed:

1. excited, enthusiastic and super intelligent workers
2. physical space organized for collaboration and sharing (well lit work rooms with tables meant for working together; doors, even of bosses, which were literally transparent and inviting, sending the message to “come in” and share an idea
3. an environment consciously sending the message “we are here to take care of you so you can use your professional skills to produce an amazing product” (they provide food, administrative support, legal and accounting work, etc. to people involved with the projects they support.
4. super cool, innovative products. For example,, now in beta, will be released in a month, allowing people (including Jewish educators) to access that perfect movie clip.

Today, fourteen Jewish educators went from learning about innovation at JVP, to learning about an innovative king, King David (via our afternoon at Ir David, the City of David). May we continue to learn from models of inspiration and bring this excitement back to our various Jewish educational settings.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

How Do We Talk About Israel in Our Schools?

I am currently in Tel Aviv at the final meeting of the Jim Joseph Foundation Fellows at the Lookstein Center for Jewish Education in the Diaspora at Bar Ilan University. Stuart Zweiter is the director of the Lookstein Center and coincidentally (to our being here) posted this observation to the Lookjed listServ (an e-mailed forum for Jewish Educators facilitated by Shalom Burger, director of the JJF Fellowship) on December 7. I think he asks some vital questions that I hope you will join me in discussing in the coming weeks. The original posting is archived here. You can reply there or here. I will copy comments here to the Lookjed list. If you would like to subscribe to Lookjed - and I recommend that you do, go to the on-line form at

This past Friday night Natan Scharansky told a few of us sitting  around the Shabbat table with him that he had found in his travels to  North American college campuses that Jewish students were uninformed  as well as scared to speak up for Israel, scared that if they were to  actively defend or speak positively about Israel it would impact  negatively on their academic career as well as their future professional career.

This morning in a discussion I had with the head of a major Jewish Foundation I was told that during a visit she recently had at a very  large Jewish high school, she found the students preparing for an  internal school debate on the topic, Israel: Is it an apartheid state? In an informal discussion she had with several students at the same  school, she was told by them that they love Israelis but do not like Israel.   

This evening I read a piece in the JTA concerning the vote taking  place this week at Princeton University on whether to ask the  university's dining services to provide an alternative brand of  hummus. Why? Because the current brand being offered is Sabra, which  is half-owned by The Strauss Group, which has publicly supported the  IDF and provides care packages and sports equipment to Israeli  soldiers.   

We all know of many similar examples. I am mentioning these because  they all occurred in just the past few days.   

This post is not an invitation to debate political issues related to  Israel. Rather, we are very interested in learning how Jewish high  schools and junior high schools of all stripes are educating their  students regarding Israel. It seems particularly important during this  period in which there is increasing de-legitimization of Israel. How  much time do schools invest in this critical issue that all of their  graduates will face on college campuses? Is it dealt with in a serious and systematic way through formal and informal educational  programs? Where does it fit into your school program? 

What does your  school do? We are hoping that through the Lookjed list the Center can  raise consciousness of and attentiveness to this issue and that the  thousands of subscribers to the Lookjed list can learn about the  different efforts and programs that are being implemented in schools.   

This question, of course, touches on how we prioritize what is  included in our school programs and how schools allocate and divide up  the time that is available. That itself is an important question for  reflection and deliberation by school principals and teachers. All  schools make choices regarding what is in and what is out? Where does  this issue fit in?   

Stuart Zweiter  
Director, the Lookstein Center

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Blown Reputations

This blog was originally written for the JFNA Challah Back blog and is being cross-posted to

I have a reputation. I have a reputation for walking into Jewish professional spaces and knowing the majority (if not a large percentage) of others in the space. [In fact, in one group it was statistically proven by survey that I was the most-connected in the group.] I have a reputation. I have a reputation for sitting pretty far to the left in my political and social viewpoints. Both of those were challenged this past week.

I have been hired by Jewish Funds for Justice (JFSJ – just don’t try and put the ‘S’ into the full name of the org) to serve as a program leader for their immersion service-learning initiative. Over the next six months I will be leading groups of participants to New Orleans where they volunteer to help re-build post-Katrina and will encounter the systemic issues which created the immense and distorted oppression which these victims suffer. The program participants, some with a 20’s/30’s group, some with college groups and some as bar/bat mitzvah students and their parents, will also engage in Jewish text study to learn how Judaism frames social justice. Along with my JFSJ program leader colleagues (about 30 of us), we will take over 500 people to have similar experiences, not only in New Orleans, but in Los Angeles, Baltimore and the Gulf Coast.

Last week, the program leaders from JFSJ came together with the program leaders of American Jewish World Service (AJWS … and if you haven’t seen their brilliant PR video, stop reading right now and click here to watch, for a five-day training held at Pearlstone Retreat Center in Reisterstown, MD. The partnership, along with leadership from PANIM Institute at BBYO, was inspired. The AJWS program leader staff leads similar trips to that of JFSJ, but to international locations like Guatemala, Nicaragua, Ghana and Mexico. The multi-agency partnership, under an umbrella of Repair the World, was a powerful tool for training, networking, and collaboration.

Here I was, surrounded 50+ passionate Jewish educators who are dedicated to social justice and Jewish identity development. I was in a Jewish space, where pluralism seemed to be at its best, and where expression of Jewish identity came in so many forms. As a post-denomination Jew, I was in a great space.

So what was challenging my reputation?

First of all, other than two of the senior staff people, and a brief encounter once with one other program leader, I walked into a room of strangers. How could it be that I was in a room with dozens of Jewish educators, ranging in age from early 20s to early 60s, and I didn’t know anyone? After spending a week with these new colleagues, I surmise that a large portion of that is that I came to this work 85% through my Jewish education lens and 15% from my social justice lens, and the majority of the program leaders seemed to come to the work 95% through their social justice passions and 5% from a motivation of a “traditional” (aka establishment) Jewish education framework. It was truly enlightening.

I heard the following from these talented people:

“It’s [Social Justice Judaism] almost its own denomination. It is my form of Jewish identity; it’s how I connect to Judaism.”

“It’s [Social Justice Judaism] now becoming an accepted way to express Judaism. Once it made it’s way to a GA session, that makes it almost mainstream.”

One of the highlights of the program was a panel with Simon Greer (CEO of JFSJ); Ruth Messinger, (President of AJWS); Rachel Meytin (Associate V.P. of Panim Institute at BBYO); and moderated by Jon Rosenberg (CEO of Repair the World). Ruth shared with the group some personal insights into the work she has done for so many years as well as some anecdotes she has heard from past participants. Of one, Ruth paraphrased the person’s response to her learning with AJWS: “I have learned more text at AJWS than I did at Hebrew School.” This seemed to resonate as a prominent experience for many JFSJ/AJWS participants, as reported by my program leader colleagues … that many participants encounter Judaism only via Social Justice (or primarily through it).

I encounter Judaism in a dozen different ways each an every day. I walk through this Jewish professional world by way of each of these pathways, and along them encounter many Jewish professionals over and over again. However, for the bulk of my co-leaders, this is THE pathway to their Judaism, and therefore the chance of me coming across them in other venues is slim to none; my professional network reputation blown!

The second challenge to my self-identity came by way of the political and social spectrum. I am not sure that there has ever been an instance when I have been described as “on the right.” In most of my experiences, I am somewhere on the left of the group or in the middle of the pack in my political and social beliefs. This is perhaps the first space where I might have been the person standing the furthest on the right. It’s disorienting.

One such case where this displayed itself was in the context of my leading a “pluralistic” Kabbalat Shabbat experience. In the effort to model Shabbat experiences we help shape in the field, the larger group was broken down into three smaller cohorts of about 20 people each. These 20 people had to work together to design a Kabbalat Shabbat experience and a Havdallah experience in which all 20 people would have their Shabbat needs met on some level. I joined the Kabbalat Shabbat sub-committee, and along with my teammates, decided to plan a multi-option experience. The group started out together talking about “B’ruach shel Shabbat” (in the spirit of Shabbat) and sang several songs to usher in that feeling. Then participants were given a choice of celebrating the Ruach shel Shabbat by participating in a liturgical singing service or by moving into a reflection/meditation/conversation space. Then, the groups came together at the end for Kaddish and a closing song. It was during the preparation and recitation of the Kaddish that I unknowingly entered into a political arena I had never encountered in a Jewish professional space.

The first hint of this was when I asked that our group keep the soldiers of the U.S. and the soldiers of Israel in mind as we recited the prayer. One group member then offered, “and those of Palestine.” To which I quickly broadened it to “all those who have lost their lives in this world fighting for their rights and protecting their homelands and freedoms.” The second mention of this came after services were over, and after dinner, when I was approached by one of the other program leaders who had been in my Shabbat group. She very respectfully sat down with me to ask why I had asked the group to call into memory the soldiers of Israel and of the U.S. I shared that I believe that American Jews are citizens of both countries and that while I don’t expect everyone to agree on the politics behind the wars/battles themselves, I assume that everyone would support the soldiers and their families who have sacrificed and lost. To which she responded, “I do not consider myself a citizen of Israel,” and went on to share that she does not believe that Israel has a right to exist as a nation-state and doesn’t believe that it represents her identity in any way. She confided that she often feels alienated in Jewish spaces, particularly in prayer spaces, because of the role Israel plays from the bima, and as a result removes herself from synagogue community. We spent about 30 minutes talking about this, from a Jewish educator perspective and as a personal Jew perspective. While I don’t agree with her politics, I have allowed her to challenge my assumptions as an educator and to challenge what real pluralism in Jewish spaces truly means, especially as it relates to Israel. As a result of this experience, and other conversations I had at this training, I have perhaps re-oriented myself on the political and social spectrum. Maybe not permanently, and it may be only situational, but it was my reality for at least those five days; my leftist reputation blown!

Monday, December 6, 2010

On the Road to Breaking Functional Fixedness

I can’t get the image out of my head. I keep thinking of the Power Point slide of the metal shopping cart with wheels, turned on its side, over a fire pit. Only a mischief-maker would burn a shopping cart, right? Wrong. An innovative person who wanted to cook meat but didn’t have a grill might be clever enough to put a shopping cart in a fire! The slide was entitled “Task Unification.”

The 14 Jim Joseph Fellows got a taste of what S.I.T.-Systematic Inventive Thinking does in an online webinar, and we will be spending 11-1/2 hours in Israel, starting a week from today, learning about tools and principles for breaking cognitive fixedness. One type of fixedness, “Functional Fixedness” is defined as cognitive bias which limits a person to using an object only in the way that it is traditionally used. Perhaps this applies to computers and video conferencing as much as it applies to shopping carts.

I am assuming that MegaMeeting and other video conferencing systems were intended to make it easier for employees of a company, based in different locations, to hold meetings, share ideas, and communicate better.

The directors of the special needs programs at the various Camp Ramah camps have begun using MegaMeeting for a slightly different purpose—for our “Shabbos Is Calling” Program. Every Thursday for 30 minutes, campers and their counselors “meet;” they hear and see friends from places as far away as Buffalo, NY; Chicago, IL; and Boston, MA. They sing Shabbos songs, hear stories about the weekly Torah portion or upcoming holiday, or simply “shmooze.” Last week, the group sang Happy (19th) Birthday to Riffy, talked about Chanukah, sang Chanukah songs, and even watched a counselor light Chanukah candles.

We are finding new uses for MegaMeeting, and we are proudly helping campers with special needs overcome isolation and loneliness by connecting in a meaningful way in the months when camp is not in session.

Time to get ready for next Thursday’s “Shabbos Is Calling!”

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

30 Days, 30 Texts:
Shema is For Real:
A Book on Prayer and Other Tangents

"In case of fire, throw this book in…"

So begins a religious school text book that was as revolutionary as the internet and social media are today. Joel Grishaver developed this book as graduate student at the University of Chicago, as a counselor at Olin Sang Ruby Union Institute in Oconomowoc, WI and as a the youth group advisor at North Shore Congregation Israel in Glencoe, Il. 

I was a camper in Wisconsin and a junior youth grouper and religious school student at a neighboring congregation.
Shema is For Real: A Book on Prayer and Other Tangents was transformative. It said that we could have experiential learning and out of the box thinking at Sunday school. It said that Jewish learning could be fun and engaging, even if you got the next best teacher. It told us there were more interesting people than the Stickmans.

This is the book that launched (several years later) Torah Aura Productions and challenged all Jewish book publishers to raise their game. And it challenged teachers and synagogue educators to make us think about prayer, not just learn the words. It taught us that the prayers could mean something to us, and that the way they were organized in the service had a larger meaning. 

And when we got to play the Prayer Book Board Game (at camp, at temple, and at NSCI with Joel)—wow! Our opinions and ideas were connected to the prayers and became one. I still think about James Brown shouting “Let me hear you say Yeh!” when I rise for the Barchu. Thank you, Joel, for thinking this way. And thank you Jerry Kaye, director of Olin Sang Ruby for publishing it and Debbie Friedman’s Sing Unto God.

Cross posted at JESNA's site and Welcome to the Next Level
This essay series is co-sponsored by: