The “From the Desk Of” series is my regular email to the Valley Torah High School community.
In a recent post on a Jewish educators facebook group I belong to called JEDLAB, someone asked this question.
“What do you find to be some of the most over-used, cliched words/terms/phrases in Jewish education today? (you know the ones that you hear over and over again that seem to lose their meaning because everyone uses them over and over and over again).”
The words members posted were ones like “21st century, innovation, engagement, inspiration, student-centered, blended learning, cutting edge, experiential” and many more. I have used many of these words in my career which led to conflicting feelings about the question. You see, I actually dislike the question, yet at the same time completely understand it.
I dislike the question because it minimizes the importance of giving definition to the framework of a school and the models of teaching and learning used. Having a shared understanding of how and why we educate our students is important. It helps ensure families choose the school that is right for them, it enhances student and staff culture as they understand the mission and it helps guide the teaching and learning down a cohesive path. The problem of course is when the shared language becomes a shared set of buzzwords that do not accurately represent the school, but rather they are used as a PR mechanism with little substance to support them. While that is a problem, it does not mean that the “buzzwords” used are always hollow. As someone else posted in the group “can you really use a word over and over again so much that it loses meaning? All these words have meaning. When people misuse them, they misuse them! But they still have meaning. Cliche is itself a cliche.” That is what is comes down to. Are the words used to describe a school being misused? How can you tell? Ask.
At Valley Torah, I have used the buzzword “innovative” listed above and if you were to ask me I would tell you that I use it to describe the positive changes happening in the classroom, among our staff and the opportunities afforded to the students to do something new and creative. In fact, I also often use the buzzword “creativity” which if you were to ask represents the passion-based (another buzzword) fine arts program where students work on projects that interest them, the maker lab we are designing where students can create anything their heart desires and the focus on integrating creative methods of teaching and learning in all of our classes. I can throw out a few more buzz words that describe the great work we are doing, but the point is these terms help describe us simply and factually, help shape what we are doing and certainly help guide us as a team and student body. I suppose that is why there is one word, which is also buzzworthy, that I prefer above all for VTHS. The word is “authenticity.”
My vision is that all the buzzwords I use to describe our school are in service of authentic learning for our students. The goal is that each and every student find meaning in what they are learning and can apply it to their lives. Basically, the learning should be “real” for them. This is a complex concept and certainly may not occur in every class and at every moment, but it is something we strive for. This may be why I am so fond of Project-Based Learning (PBL) as the model emphasizes a similar goal. In fact, the Buck Institute for Education, a leader in PBL training, recently published their new “Gold Standard” of PBL of which “authenticity” was a core component of the design of a PBL lesson. However, the bottom line is, a shared set of definitions for what a school does and how they do is critical to propelling a school forward with one caveat; the buzzwords must be authentic.