Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Book Review: Chanukah Lights by Michael J. Rosen and Robert Sabuda

Chanukah Lights Book CoverWhat do you get when you combine the talents of two award-winning people like Michael J. Rosen (author of National Jewish Book Award winning Elijah's Angel: A Story for Chanukah and Christmas) and Robert Sabuda? Only the most incredible book you’ll ever want for yourself, your family, and for a gift to give to others. I’m talking about “Chanukah Lights” by Michael J. Rosen and Robert Sabuda, and published by Candlewick Press. Given that it's a collaboration with Mr. Sabuda, who has created some of the best-selling and ingenious pop-up books, what else could it be but a pop-up book? And what an eye-pleasing pop-up book it is, full of cleverly designed and constructed pops ups, one for each of the eight nights of Chanukah (I might as well adopt this book’s transliteration, even though it’s not my favorite.) I will add the disclaimer that your humble reviewer is a lover of the pop-up book genre.

The authors were clearly troubled by many of the aspects of how Chanukah is observed and the story is told, especially the military aspects. Thus they chose, as did the rabbis of long ago, to focus the centerpiece of the story on light. Unlike the rabbis, who chose to mask their fear of openly celebrating a military victory  of a small minority of Jews over the mighty Syrian Greeks and antagonizing the Romans (and later oppressors) by introducing the story of the miracle of the oil (you mean you didn’t know the rabbis made that up?) Mssrs. Rosen and Sabuda use the concept of the “light” of Chanukah to help illustrate and illuminate eight different times and places in Jewish history and existence where Jewish people have been able to celebrate Chanukah and the story of the single lamp that burned for eight days. I won’t spoil the surprise by telling you which places are represented by the beautiful pop-ups. You’ll have to discover that for yourself. I’ll include this quote from the publisher:

“…this stunning collaboration showcases the spirit and resilience of a people in search of a home.”

The pop-ups are stunning, and their pure white color stands out against the subdued colors of the book’s pages. The very last pop-up is a surprise in how it departs from the all-white color scheme, and makes me wish that this technique had been used on at least some of the other pages – although I recognize that it was both nice to save it for a special surprise at the end, and also how difficult and expensive the process of colorizing the pop-up components can be.

If you’re looking for a book that tells the story of Chanukah, whether it’s the concocted rabbinic version, a more historical take, or even the “delayed Sukkot celebration” theory then this is not the book for you. If I have any quibble with the book, it’s pedagogic, in its subtle adherence to perpetuating the story (or should we say myth) of the “miracle of the oil” without any hint or suggestion that this so-called miracle may not have been part of the historical origins of Chanukah – though I can’t blame the authors for side-stepping that potential pitfall.

If, however, you are looking a for a delightful way to celebrate Chanukah, or share the celebration with others, then “Chanukah Lights” may very well be the best solution for Chanukah 5772.

Chanukah Lights by Michael J. Rosen and Robert Sabuda
ISBN 978-0-7636-5533-4
Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA

More about Michael J. Rosen at
More about Robert Sabuda at

Monday, August 29, 2011

Mac Anxiety

I have been using PCs since, well, they first came out. My use of early computers included the Commodore PET, Commodore Vic-20, Commodore 64, Commodore Amiga, IBM 5150 (the original IBM PC,) the Kaypro II, TRS-80, the Apple II, the Apple Lisa, the Apple III. By the time the first Apple Macintosh came out in '84, I was firmly entrenched, at least at home, if not always at work, in the PC world of DOS and later Windows. Over the years I've acquired a great deal of experience with PCs - hardware, software, networking, maintenance, and more. I haven't yet made the switch to Windows 7 (though I have used systems running Windows 7) but have been eagerly awaiting my chance to replace my existing laptop and desktop and make that switch.

I'm not unfamiliar with Mac and Mac OS. I used a few classic Macs here and there. In the summers of '97 and '98 I was using PowerPC-based Macs in my work as a camp video specialist. I repeated this again in the summer of 2010, this time using Intel-based iMacs and Mac Pros. I experienced Mac OS 7 to X. I'm not as quick and profficient using a Mac as I am a PC, but I can use them. I know the basic differences and the pitfalls one might encounter when switching.

At this point, I'm not switching at home- but I am starting in a new job for a place that is entirely Mac-based. Thus I have Mac anxiety. I am not a Mac- or Apple-hater. I will be just as happy to use Macs. It's just that I've been using computers for a long time. I've developed a lot of habits and a high comfort-level in PC hardware and software. I am no slave to my computers-I have learned to make them work for me. I have carefully crafted relationships with particular pieces of software and hardware that allow me to work the way I want, instead of being forced to work the way the hardware or software wants me to work.

Intellectually, I understand that most of the PC software I love will run just fine on an Intel-based MacBook.(There are some exceptions, and I worry about those.)  I understand that great customization is available in the Mac OS (though I still feel that Macs do somewhat restrict the ability to customize to the level and extent I have been able to do over the years on Windows machines.)

As I analyze my fears and concerns, I realize that the core of them is this: I am totally unused to turning to others for help when it comes to computers and technology. I am the one to whom people usually turn when they need help with their computers and technology. Though I have little doubt I will be able to develop a similar level of knowledge in the Mac arena, there will be a learning cruve and a time when I remain dependent on others to teach and show me.

I have learned that to conquer fears you need to name them. So now I've named mine. I am afraid to be the one asking for computer help rather than the one asked to give it. It's foolish to let pride hang me up like this, and I'm sure I'll get over it.

On this blog, you’ll be able to follow my experience with this adaptation. My die-hard Mac-user friends are convinced that I’ll become one of the “once you used it you’ll never go back” pack, but I remain unconvinced, particularly because I am already familiar with Macs and Mac OSs, and I still prefer Windows –not because I’m comfortable but because it works better and more intuitively for me than Mac OS. Plus I’m a cheapskate always looking for the best bang for the buck –something Apple has never really delivered. Making the switch to Macs at home will be far more expensive that getting new PCs. I’ll have to learn to integrate my MacBook from work into my Windows-based home network, and I’ll be able to use both side-by-side. I am fairly confident that my comfort with what I already know and prefer will find me still using the PCs at home and then transferring the work to the MacBook. We shall see.

Thanks for this opportunity to name my fear. Now wish me luck in overcoming it.

Kol tuv,


Monday, April 11, 2011

You, Ewe, Yew, U

Note: This is a blog post in progress. I plan to continue editing and updating this post, so please keep that in mind while reading it.

The other day a 10-year-old of my acquaintance told me that she had noticed texting shorthand had become so routine for her that it had started  cropping up in her regular keyboarding when she writes papers and things for school (well, “papers” seems a bit much, but, like the comedy line from Avenue Q  “but they’re kindergarten, so they’re very short.”) She particularly cited using “u” quite a bit on place of “you.”

Now this is of course not surprising. Texting shorthand has been finding its way into school work at many grade levels for some time now. Slang and other types of shorthand have been finding their way into common usage throughout the history of language.

A first instinct might be to knee-jerk react negatively to the usage of texting shorthand in regular writing. I will admit that an initial thought I had in my head was “tsk, tsk.” Though I’m far from perfect, I do try and pay due attention to spelling, grammar, syntax, sentence structure, etc.  I’m not sure how I would react if a student sent  me a written assignment using all shorts of texting shorthand (unless they were sending it to me as a text message or a tweet at my request!)  However, as I began to mull it over, I saw there is another side to consider.

Being strict about grammar, spelling,  sentence structure, use of clauses, et al has its place, and is of value. Whether or not it is always of value is open to debate.

In a “No Child Left Behind” world in which standardized testing is the yardstick, and we strive to create “Stepford students,” spelling (and grammar, et al) is almost a requirement.  If we leave this already clearly doomed to failure NCLB approach behind, we become open to a world where other things besides having every jot and tittle in its place is important.

Consider how we in Jewish Education struggle with teaching Hebrew to our students. Consider as well that modern Hebrew speakers read a form of Hebrew that, like its true ancient ancestor, does not use vowels! Often, the only way to know what a certain word is is through context. Now there’s a skill worthy of teaching our students.

It seems fairly self-evident to me that, in many cases, texting shorthand used in regular writing isn’t much different. Understanding the context of what is being communicated will help the reader who is unfamiliar with the shorthand understand it. It also helps the reader who is familiar with the shorthand understand it.

Now I recognize the value of spelling, and for a great many words which come from or are built upon Greek, Latin and other language roots, knowledge of these roots and their spelling can enable a student to decipher newly encountered words made up from those roots. (Hmm, sort of like Hebrew again. Knowing Hebrew roots, prefixes, suffixes, etc really is the key to learning to understand Hebrew. Yet knowing the vowels is less so, for one can ascertain with reasonable certainty, the vowels used to shape the roots into meaningful words from the context.) So not every word is, IMHO (as Tom Lehrer once said, the rest of you can look that up when you get home) a candidate for a texting shorthand substitute. I’m not sure what the appropriate criteria might be for determining which texting shorthand substitutions might be appropriate in which circumstances.

I discussed this the other day with a now retired elementary school teacher I know (who also happened to have taught the student to which I am referring in this post.)  She did feel strongly that teaching correct grammar and punctuation was important, and she wasn’t ready to wholeheartedly embrace the use of texting shorthand in school work. She responded somewhat differently when I mentioned a related bit of information. Some time ago, a college professor of my acquaintance, who diligently writes out her notes by hand and shares them with her students, was surprised when one of her students told her that the notes were useless because he couldn’t read cursive writing.

I fully expected the retired elementary school teacher to “tsk, tsk” this as well, but she surprised me by relating that during the last few years of teaching, she had begun to argue with her superiors and the school system about their continued insistence of teaching students cursive writing. She believed there were far more important skills to be teaching to students, and cursive was one we could easily do without.

So I asked her why, when she had little difficulty giving up cursive, she wasn’t as amenable to texting shorthand being used. Unfortunately our conversation was interrupted at that point and I’ve yet to discover her answer.

It seems to me that substituting “u” for the word “you” is not an entirely inappropriate form of shorthand, and could become normative. I can understand how an etymologist might object, but from what I know of the etymology of the word you, there’s little to be learned from the spelling that would give  a modern reader a clue to its meaning. Knowledge of correct spelling and roots might be useful for words like philosophy or anamnesis. I’m just not convinced this is as useful when it comes to words like you.

“What about homonyms?” I hear you cry. To the rescue comes context. However, I probably would not approve of “u” becoming a universal substitute for homonyms of the word you like ewe and yew (though I daresay that context would probably allow this to work in some cases-though not all. The sentence “I love u” is easily readable. What about this sentence: “U took that ram and u and u mated them” ? Not quite as easy to decipher.)

Another frequent and ubiquitous substitution is the number symbol “2” for the word “to.” Purists might argue that we have potential homonym problems here, but again I suggest context comes to the rescue. “Me 2!” is no less understandable than “Let’s go 2 your house.”  Now, turning to the Judaics side briefly, how might you feel about seeing this: 2bishvat ? 2b’av? Now we’ve complicated things. We’ve taken a Hebrew number represented by Hebrew characters (15)  and replaced it with a numeric symbol. It might make getting across the point that “tev-vav” is a representation of the number 15 in Hebrew a bit more difficult and confusing.

Let’s be honest-we’ve been using all shorts of symbolic shorthand for decades, even centuries. Think about mathematical and scientific symbols. Consider abbreviations like “etc. Not all abbreviations are free of potential confusion. Most likely only context would reveal what the abbreviation “St.” is representing in a given situation-street or Saint.

When I say 10KB you probably know I mean ten kilobytes. There’s a fair chance if I write “go check the online KB for that software” you’ll know I’m using KB to represent “Knowledgebase.”

Context doesn’t always come to the rescue as easily as we might hope. I am reminded of the  bit from “The Odd Couple” in which Oscar is ranting about a note that Felix left for him and complains that it took him hours figure out that the “F U” at the end of the note stood for Felix Ungar!

Here’s one for you: He knows that He is the symbol for Helium. No problem figuring that one out, right? I am @ home. Pretty obvious, yes?

Is it problematic if these symbols, forms of shorthand, and abbreviations find their way into common written usage? I’m not sure. Personally, I wouldn’t be thrilled to read a book (even on an e-reader) that rendered Shakespeare as “2 b or not 2 b…”

A common defense used by those who utilize texting shorthand is “everyone , including you, understands what I wrote, so why is this a problem?” A common response form those rigidly insistent on a fixed and static form of written language is that it usually and often makes it harder to understand. It’s a vapid response at best.  For those who understand the new shorthand, abbreviations like “WTF",” “FWIW,” and “ROTFLMAO” can actually be easier to understand and make a more emphatic and pointed form of communication than if these expressions were fully written out.

There is a controversial project, the Evolution of Human Languages project, that is attempting to trace the history of written language back to a prototype system of symbols common to early humans around 50,000 years ago and found at mutliple sites of early human settlment. Some linguists have embraced the idea, others reject even the concept, stating that languages are too fluid to be studied across truly large spans of time (current thinking seems to place the outer limit of useful historical study around 7-8,000 years.) I am beginning to wonder if our technology is bringing us full circle, back to a form of written language that is less formal and structured, easier to write and use.

I’ve devoted a good deal of time and effort in my life in learning to write properly according to established conventions (though I would point out that are variations in the standards-witness the manual different “style manuals.”) The same is true for many of us. A certain amount of jealousy or frustration may be involved in our knee-jerk reactions to the increasing “threat” of email and text shorthand finding its way into common written usage.

Except for the few true curmudgeons among us, most of us are using email, chat, twitter, texting on cell phones, etc. We must admit that the use of shorthand and abbreviations is, to a large degree, not just convenient but necessary. So we excuse our own use of the shortcuts in those situations. Is continued stubborn resistance to any usage of these abbreviations and forms of shorthand in more formal writing truly logical and appropriate. Now, the obvious argument to raise here is the “slippery slope.” If we allow some shorthand, we’ll simply open the floodgates to all.

History has not proven this true.  Telegraphy, radio, television, computers, e-mail – all have been heralded by some as signs of the death of written language. Written language will survive as it always has. The forms it takes in the future may be less familiar, but that is the nature of language – it changes and adapts.

Since I’m writing these words from Amherst, MA I can hardly pass up the opportunity to remind us all that Emily Dickinson was thought of by some of her contemporaries as posing a similar attack upon the conventions of writing. Now her work is view as brilliant.

Then there’s Twitter.  Being forced to say something meaningful in 140 characters or less. Is that necessarily a bad thing? I, for one, am often criticized for being verbose, and I struggle to be concise and on point. Using Twitter is actually helping me to hone the skills required. The same is no less true for digital natives.

I came across this quote on 
while perusing the internet for fodder for this post.

I would actually argue that effective tweeting and texting require a higher level of literacy, because you need to have a solid understanding of the language before you can abridge it.

The author of that blog also makes the point that Twitter and texting eliminate the availability of formatting like italics, bold, and underline that we use as aids to help us convene meaning, tone, and intent. Trying to make your point without the benefits of formatting text is actually more difficult, and helps to sharpen communication skills.

To those who insist on sticking their feet into the mud- you might want to try reading a little poetry. In particular, Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Ozymandias. The mighty edifice that is the form and structure of the English language as it exists today my look as vain and forlorn as the shattered statue of Shelley’s poem.  Changing TELAWKI (the English language as we know it) will not bring about TEOTWAWKI (the end of the world as we know it.) On the other hand, due caution ought to be observed. The introduction of email and texting shorthand into common English writing may have unexpected consequences. Or, as Robert Heinlein put it, TANSTAAFL (There ain't no such thing as a free lunch.) OMG, I used the word “ain’t.” It’s the end of the world as we know it.

Adrian (aka Migdalor Guy aka Yoeitzdrian)

Some online links pertaining to this subject:

This discussion from the BBC website is from 2003!

I’ll post more links as I come across them.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Paying It Forward – My 2011 Birthday Experience

[Posted both here and on my Migdalor Guy blog]

Yesterday was an amazing day. It was my 56th birthday, and I spent the morning teaching Jewish music to kids at the SAJ, most of the afternoon on a bus back to Amherst, and a quite evening here with a wonderful birthday dinner and desert.

What made it truly amazing was the many, many birthday greetings I received on Facebook, e-mail, and other electronic fora. I was, frankly, overwhelmed by the sheer number of people who sent me greetings. The vast majority of those greetings were not the product of some app, but the effort of an individual friend, colleague, or family member. Most, were, indeed, short and terse, but many were obviously individually crafted and not generic at all. Some of you may believe that’s important. I am no longer so certain that is the case.

Even those who turned over the task of sending me a birthday greeting to an automated app still had to take the time to add my name to the list of those they wanted to included among the recipients.

Sure, I got plenty of automatically generated birthday greetings from businesses like CVS, my insurance agents, financial planners, and from many of the online fora to which I am subscribed. Are those heartfelt? Probably not many of them. Are they just marketing tools?  Probably so. I don’t mind. And the coupons can be a nice bonus. At the same time, I don’t feel as obligated to acknowledge those birthday greetings.

Yet I felt so blessed for all those birthday greetings, that I am taking the time to respond with a thank you to each and every one-and believe me, that’s a lot.

I can already hear some of you thinking “it’s not about the quantity, it’s about the quality.” Like all supposed truisms, even this one has levels of subtle complexity. Quantity is relative, anyway. I don’t have the huge numbers of friends and followers that celebrities do. My numbers of friends and followers are actually pretty small in the scheme of things Facebook and Twitter. Nevertheless, I must admit that the quantity, in this case, did come as a surprise. I received far more birthday messages than I ever expected. So the quantity did contribute to the overall good feelings produced by this mass onslaught of birthday wishes. However, it wasn’t the quantity alone.

Made easier by the technology or not, people who are my friends and colleagues still have to make the initial decision to send me a note on my birthday. That’s quality. It tells me, I think, several things. It tells me that these many friends and colleagues are good people who care enough to send me a birthday greeting, to engage in a simple act of kindness. It also tells me that I must have, at some point, had an impact on their lives in some way.

The diversity of people who sent me greetings is amazing. Yes, that sheer diversity is the product of technology, and the ease with which it makes possible re-connecting with people. I heard from grade school, high school, college and grad school classmates. I heard from people at every synagogue, school, job with which I have ever been associated. I heard from people in every community in which I have ever lived. I heard from students I have taught, and from teachers who taught me. I heard from friends, neighbors, employers, colleagues and more.

The collective effect of all this has been to increase my own positive feelings of well being, and caused me to feel extremely blessed. As I stated in one wall post, I have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to friends, colleagues, and family.

Here it is the next day, and I am still basking in the positive, reinforcing glow of this experience. I suspect it will last for a while.

I’ve had lots of nice birthdays over the years. In terms of some of them, this year was far less in terms of actual physical interaction, didn’t have much in the way of a party or presents. (Well, except for the best present of all which is the good feelings I’ve gotten from all those greetings.)  I’ve been thrown some humdinger birthday parties over the years, including ones that reunited me with people I hadn’t seen in a long time. I remember those experiences, and I also remember the relative lengths of the afterglow, the endorphin release. This year’s afterglow seems stronger, more resilient.

While songleading yesterday, teachers had their students sing me a happy birthday wish, and the effect was, indeed, heartwarming. Would that have had the same impact if it were virtual, sent as a video, or some other electronic form? I’m not sure. So there remains a power in face to face experiences. Yet I have discovered here a truly impressive power in a more virtual and electronic experience, and I cannot deny that it was no less impactful than the in-person experiences I had for my birthday.

Something, at least for me, made this Social Media birthday experience different. Many synagogues with which I have been affiliated have done things to acknowledge birthdays (and have even been using technology solutions for years to generate personalized letters or postcards from generic texts.) For me, those just didn’t have the power of this recent experience. Something is different, and trying to figure out what that something is is what we need to suss out.

So now comes the obvious question. How can we harness the forces of Social Media to help bring this experience to others, in general, and in a Jewish context? I’m not speaking here of the particular effect of birthday greetings, but the positive feelings I experienced as a result.

I’m aware of the risk that analyzing the effect of this experience could wind up imploding the experience for me. Nevertheless it’s a risk I’m willing to take. There’s something here – I can’t quite put my finger on it yet – but it is something that re-affirms my belief that the internet, like the aether that preceded it, carries more than simple bits and bytes, electrons, pieces of data. I could feel the warmth of the good wishes that people were sending me, despite the obvious lack of real-time, in-person interaction. I know the experience is reproducible.

As always, there are cautions to be observed. As a form of media, social media can be abused. I think of all the televangelists who used the power of television and radio to sustain their ministries financially. I was tempted to say “bilked their listens out of millions of dollars.” However, I feel I can’t be that cynical right now. If my theories and beliefs are correct, it is certainly possible that many of those listeners were actually moved and affected by their virtual encounters with a televangelist. Their desire to support those ministries was sincere. It is even possible that some of the televangelists were sincere.

It’s equally possible that some televangelists were masters of techniques and tools designed to produce endorphin release in their viewers. It’s possible my own birthday experience this year is similar, except that it wasn’t the result of a deliberate or intentional effort. So, as we explore the power of technology and Social Media for good, we can’t ignore the risks and perils as well.

It’s not just a matter of a risks vs. benefits analysis.  That can only tell you when something’s good marginally or significantly outweighs its potential for bad. For me, it is a matter of seeking to be as aware of possible of the potential negative outcomes, and structuring what you create the minimize or even eliminate them. I’m not so foolish as to believe we can really know and predict every possible outcome, but we certainly have the tools and experience to enable us to work towards the good.

Help me turn my good experience into something good for others. Let’s explore the possibilities, potentials and pitfalls together.

-Adrian (aka Migdalor Guy, aka Yoeitzdrian)

©2011 by Adrian A. Durlester

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Why Would A Developer Fail to Plan Ahead for Firefox 4?

Just a quick blog entry to wonder aloud this question:

Why, when Firefox 4 has been in beta for a long time, and the release candidate has been around for a while now, are there so many Firefox Add-ons that aren’t yet FF4 compatible?  Many of my favorite add-ons were made compatible even before the official release of FF4, and kudos to those developers and companies for planning ahead. I cannot, for the life of me, understand why major add-ons, with lots of users (for example, the Delicious Bookmarks add-on) were not yet FF4 ready at the time of its release. C’mon people. be forward looking, plan ahead! Yes, not every one of your users is an early adopter or will be so quick to upgrade to FF4, but it has been clear now for weeks, if not months, that FF4 would contain enough improvements (especially in memory usage and speed) that most users would want to upgrade as soon as possible, since FF3 has become real slow and bloated.

I know it’s not easy for developers, and especially so for those who create free add-ons. These are labors of love a lot of the time. Nevertheless, if you’re gonna make the commitment, make it all the way, and be prepared to support major new releases when they are released.

I’ll let you in on a little secret. Those developers who have always shown foresight by planning ahead for new releases, who respond quickly to bug reports and offer good customer service – well, those are the developers on whose “donate” buttons I click, and give them some cash in appreciation of their efforts and to help them keep the app going. Get it?

Adrian (aka MigdalorGuy aka Yoeitzdrian)

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Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Curriculi, Curricula-The Great Curriculum Debate

On a list for Jewish songleaders/music educators that I manage, one member asked around if people had curricula for music programs for their supplemental synagogue religious school. My first response to that discussion was this:

I'lI add my two agorot to this discussion. As a Jewish Educator/Administrator, and also a member of ASCD (formerly the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development) though I do believe very strongly in the use of curricula, my personal experience in supplemental Jewish education has taught me that following secular models of using curricula in our settings is often not the way to go.  Their value comes, mostly, from both having some coherence in your school, and also enabling underpaid, over-worked and often under-trained or experienced teachers to have an easy framework with which to work. It's nice to be able to hand a new teacher (or a sub) a truly well-thought out lesson plan built as part of a massive curriculum.

However, the primary weaknesses of a structured curriculum are:

  • (Unless really well written and developed) they don't give supervisors the option of building upon and utilizing particular strengths of particular teachers at any given time.
  • They take so much time to create that they are often obsolete, outdated, or not keeping pace with the changes in your school and students/families.
  • With so many Jewish educators who do the work as an avocation rather than a vocation, they don't always have the vocabulary and background to grasp the curriculum (again unless it is well written and in plain language.)

In short, they often aren't flexible enough, and especially so in our rapidly changing social environment.

I've been brainstorming with colleagues for years to find something that works better than a typical secular school model of curriculum for use in Jewish supplemental education. I haven't found it quite yet, but I'm still looking.

All this may be a matter of semantics, but before you go looking at creating an actual "curriculum" maybe it's worth considering whether something less formal (an outline with goals and mileposts and methods of assessment) might be a better use of your time in creating it.

Also, and here's the special caveat when it comes to a separate "music curriculum." If it isn't integrated into the core curriculum of the school, it's sort of like whistling into the wind. In fact, the whole idea of separate curricula for different disciplines within the supplemental school seems an oxymoron, and antithetical to what curricula are intended to be. (On a side note, this is why I think Hebrew fails a lot in supplemental education - it has its own curriculum separate and apart from everything else. Can that really work? I don;t think so.)  If they're not "all-encompassing" then they're not really a curriculum! Now there are plenty of professional educators who disagree with my viewpoint, but you'd also be surprised how many (even in secular education) actually agree and now see curriculum development as an exercise to which we devote way too much time taking away from the time we need to do the things we really need to do on a daily basis.

I should talk, being as verbose as I am, but why create a big, thick binder when a simple list will do? Our rabbis have devoted a lot of time to whittling down the essence of Torah to three things (or less.) Backwards design (i,e, Understanding by Design) also seeks big picture pieces (essential understandings) from which to create the more particular lesson plans. I've often found that by using backwards design concepts, you can almost completely avoid the need for curricula. Get to the essence of what you want to teach, and figure out the best way to teach it. You don't need a 500-page binder to do that.

Always the gadfly.

Kol tuv,

About the same time I was composing that email, another person wrote in to the discussion sharing a music “curriculum” he had created for his synagogue. It was a really nice effort, and had much to be admired, but here’s what I wrote:

That looks great and I applaud the effort and the approach.
But to put on my educator hat, and apropos to the post I just made in response to this question, I would say that what you have written isn't, by strict definition, a "curriculum." It's a bit more than the simple list I've talked about, but I think it's really closer to that in style and feel than to a formal curriculum. I think it's great that you have clearly attempted to integrate the music into the broader whole of what the school does (though it doesn’t seem to go very much into the individual classroom level in particular,) but I maintain that as long as it, like Hebrew and Judaics, are some sort of separate curricula, it's still very much operating in a silo rather than a big barn.

I would encourage folks to create the sort of thing you've created, but I wouldn't take it much further than that (and might even trim it back a bit to give it more flexibility.)
Also, calling music a "tool" sounds like a nice thing to say, but I'd ask you to reconsider how people frame that in their minds. I think it's much more than a tool, and we shouldn't be afraid to call it such. Music is a core component of Judaism, and must be included in all efforts to teach and impart Judaism. Period. That it might reinforce is just icing.

There's a lot of recent research that debunks the claims that the arts community in education has been making for years that having arts in school improves student skills in other areas like math and science. The latest research simply doesn't support that thesis anymore. As artists, we need to stop playing to the NCLB crowd ("no child left behind") and stop trying to justify the inclusion of the arts in schools because it improves test scores! We need to make our case on the merits of the arts as being of value intrinsically, and as a core part of education.

If we keep playing the "it helps kids do better in other stuff" card, we're liable to lose big time as the evidence mounts that it doesn't really do that, at least by the yardsticks of NCLB and those who see education as "teaching to the test" and "necessary for us to beat the pants of the Chinese, Japanese and Koreans." We need to stick to our guns (and in Judaism even more so) that education is about creating educated, informed, well-rounded citizens of the planet. Not test-taking automatons.

So there, in a rather long nutshell, are some thoughts and ideas I’ve been harboring for a long time.  The key points for me are these:

  • I caution strongly against assuming the intrinsic value of using massively developed and comprehensive curricula (using the standard understanding of what this means in secular education) in supplementary Jewish education. They often lack flexibility, are unsuited to taking advantage of individual teacher strengths (something one has to do when one depends on a large number of avocational teachers,) and become obsolete or out of step too quickly in our rapidly changing environment.
  • Having separate curricula for things like music (or Hebrew) is oxymoronic. The ideal curriculum is fully integrated to begin with.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that, in secular education, multiple coincidental curricula are often employed. Many schools have things like a “math curriculum” and a “science curriculum.” However, in good schools, these are really just components of a larger integrated whole, a “master curriculum” as it were.

Let’s go back to the beginning, with Bobbitt’s seminal work of 1918, “The Curriculum.” In the Wikipedia article on the subject it says:

curriculum, as an idea, has its roots in the Latin word for race-course, explaining the curriculum as the course of deeds and experiences through which children become the adults they should be, for success in adult society. Furthermore, the curriculum encompasses the entire scope of formative deed and experience occurring in and out of school, and not only experiences occurring in school; experiences that are unplanned and undirected, and experiences intentionally directed for the purposeful formation of adult members of society.

Curriculum. (2010, December 31). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 01:28, January 5, 2011, from
Be sure to note the Wikipedia cautions at the top of the article.

Curriculum, to Bobbitt, was, indeed comprehensive and focused on creating good adults. Modern usage in formal education is narrower:

Curriculum in formal schooling

In formal education or schooling (cf. education), a curriculum is the set of courses, course work, and content offered at a school or university. A curriculum may be partly or entirely determined by an external, authoritative body (i.e. the National Curriculum for England in English schools). In the U.S., each state, with the individual school districts, establishes the curricula taught[4]. Each state, however, builds its curriculum with great participation of national[5] academic subject groups selected by the United States Department of Education, e.g. National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) for mathematical instruction. In Australia each state's Education Department establishes curricula with plans for a National Curriculum in 2011. UNESCO's International Bureau of Education has the primary mission of studying curricula and their implementation worldwide.

Curriculum[6] means two things: (i) the range of courses from which students choose what subject matters to study, and (ii) a specific learning program. In the latter case, the curriculum collectively describes the teaching, learning, and assessment materials available for a given course of study.


Is it even possible to create such a thing in Jewish education? Many have tried. I’m not sure many have truly succeeded.


defined the curriculum as an ideal, rather than as the concrete reality of the deeds and experiences that form people to who and what they are.

Contemporary views of curriculum reject these features of Bobbitt's postulates, but retain the basis of curriculum as the course of experience(s) that forms human beings into persons.

I’ve reached a point where, though I don’t fully embrace Bobbitt’s ideas, I think contemporary views are wrong to dismiss Bobbitt’s view of curriculum as an ideal rather than a reality.  This is particularly true in the case of Jewish supplemental education. Massively researched, developed, and planned curricula should be viewed only as an ideal, and not as a plan for implementation. A rigid adherence to a formal curriculum in our settings can be deadly, dangerous, and counter-productive. We are in a fluid environment. The range of skills and experiences that our teachers have vary widely. Given these, how can any curriculum be anything but an ideal? I suspect the reality, in many supplemental programs that use formal curricula, is that they do become more guidelines than anything else. (There are exceptions to this, I know. I think they are rare.)

Given that curricula perhaps ought to be more ideals than concrete realities, I think it behooves us to look differently at what systems and methodologies we use to help guide us in running our supplemental school programs, and strongly consider what effort we put into creating “curricula.”

Is it just a matter of semantics? Possibly. However, words have power. Calling something a curriculum doesn’t make it a curriculum, but it does affect what people expect from it. Using “curricula” (in it’s contemporary meaning) makes a statement about how we approach supplementary Jewish education. Using “curricula” in Bobitt’s meaning is a whole different ballgame, but that’s generally not what people expect “curricula” to be.

Whatever we call it, it should be (and here I quibble with Bobbitt and change a few words:)

a course of deeds and experiences through which people become the people they can be,  for being a participatory and contributory member of  adult society.

What do you think?

(Remember, sometimes I posit things just for the sake of discussion-they may or may not reflect my actual views on a subject.)

Always the gadfly,

Adrian (aka Yoeitzdrian aka MigdalorGuy)

Saturday, January 1, 2011

The Social Net Works

Crossposted from my Tech in Jewish Ed Blog, Yoeitzdrian

The media have given a lot of attention to this past week’s (Dec. 29) report from Hitwise that social network Facebook has surpassed Google as the most visited website (in the U.S.) There are many levels of spin and criticism being built around Hitwises’ measuring yardsticks, which don’t really create a totally fair comparison.  Questioning of Hitwises’ apparent bias favoring Facebook was questioned as early as this blog posting from last March. However, let’s put all that aside.

Even if Hitwises’ pronouncements are a bit premature, or utilize considerable spin, or are even biased for some reason, in Facebook’s favor, there is clearly a trend. Facebook is becoming a rather dominant force on the internet. It may never challenge Google’s full breadth of internet presence, nevertheless it is likely to remain an important and influential piece of contemporary society.

Though many will probably view this through dark lenses as a portent and proof of  society’s inevitable fall into the abyss of becoming like the Matrix, or Tron, and others of the that genre, I see this through rose-colored glasses (which, I’ll admit, has its drawbacks as well.) For many years I have been a strong proponent of technology and the internet. I have been an early adopter, and consider myself a digital naturalized citizen, not a mere digital immigrant. In all this time, though I have my own worries and concerns about “big brother” and the many dangers inherent in the technology, I have believed with all my heart that the aether (and by extension, the internet) carries on it more than mere bits and bytes. Well-done radio dramas made people laugh, cry, be scared, etc. Modern TV and cinema depend upon the ability of the audience to indentify with the characters. A well-crafted e-mail can convey very subtle levels of emotion and understanding-especially if there is already a shared language of this between the correspondents.

While most people I know have viewed the internet, and things like e-mail as impersonal and anti-social, I have never truly believed that electronic communication (and therefore electronic socialization) are inherently so. Yes, as a long time user of email, I’ve been caught many times in the trap of electronic communication’s general lack of body language and other subtle clues that help us understand one another. I have to say, though, that this has definitely been occurring with less and less frequency as the years pass. Chalk some of that up to my own self-awareness, but also credit the slow evolution of how we communicate electronically that is enabling us to find other ways to include the pieces of unspoken subtext, body language, etc. Digital natives seem to have far less trouble making the subtext obvious, and while it may take some effort and learning, digital immigrants can do it too. I know that with people I correspond with on a regular basis electronically-even ones I have never met in person-there is a shared understanding that allows us to have subtext and more in our messages back and forth.

I still believe that electronic socialization can never fully replace in-person socialization and communication. There will always be a need for people to socialize and communicate. (I’m aware that I may eventually have to eat my own words, because there are pundits and futurists who do posit that technologies may advance to the point that “telepresence” may prove just as efficacious as in-person, and become an accepted norm. I sort of hope this doesn’t happen. I’m not keen on something like the “orgasmatron” from Woody Allen’s “Sleeper” although even in that case, there was in-person participation-so perhaps that’s not a great example. In any case, I hope that humans will always have a desire to do things together-in person, and in real-time. I’m not ready to go fully virtual, although future generations may be.)

Cautions aside, I see the prominence and success of Facebook as support for my understanding of how technology is changing the definition of “social.” I think the fact that more people seem to be seeking “the social network” now rather than searching or data mining suggests that the technology is not a roadblock or an impediment to human relations, and, in point of fact, may be enhancing it. If the worst-case scenarios were coming true, then people would be turning more and more to solitary rather than communal and social activities on the internet.  Multi-player games are rapidly overtaking single-player games. SecondLife has demonstrated that entire communities can exist virtually, along with their own social dynamics, commerce, etc.

Facebook (and other services like Linked-In, Twitter, etc.) have made me a better person.  Reconnecting with people I haven’t connected with in ages in refreshing and enlightening. (It also allows me to relieve a certain amount of guilt at not being as good a correspondent as I could have been.) I have discovered all sorts of interesting things about people from other times and places in my life, as well as many interesting things about the people in my life, personal and professional, currently. Maybe some of it is just the joy of nostalgia, and some of it the pure joy of vicarious living, or innocuous voyeurism. At the same time, it exposes me to new things, new ideas. It can serve as a reinforcement for my worldview, or a challenge to it-even from those I believed shared my worldview completely. So, at least for me, it’s not just pabulum.

It is possible to get too wrapped up in Facebook, too involved in the minutiae and quotidian things of the lives of others. Each user of Facebook needs to seek and find their own balance, their own equilibrium. There’s no single hard and fast formula for how much is enough and how much is too much. In this way, Facebook is modeling good education for the 21st century, in which the learner gets to set a lot of the agenda. Yes, Facebook has its flaws, and one has to spend a lot of time to really learn how to tweak things. (And Facebook’s constant changing of the rules and interface doesn’t help in that regard. Somehow, though, we all seem to manage to adapt in time.) Also, to some degree, we can potentially be the slaves to the technology of Facebook rather than the master of the tool that is Facebook. That is a danger inherent in all technology. Remember “R.U.R” and similar cautionary tales. I struggle each and every day with finding software and technology that gives me as much control as possible, so that I am not adapting my work methodologies to the technology, rather the technology is working for me as a tool to enhance my abilities. If there is one thing that we are all having to learn to give up in this new age, it is the simple dependence on technology as underlying magic. We can longer be a world in which we don’t understand any more than that flipping the light switch turns the light on. We must be a world in which RTFM (read the effing manual) becomes an archaic term because we all recognize the value of doing so.

Yes, Microsoft, Apple, and others have sought for the longest time to do just the opposite-create operating systems that enable us to simply be end-users with little understanding of the underlying technology. Sometimes they’ve gone too far, preventing users from doing any serious tweaking. Yet, all along, MS, Apple, and others have, for the most part, created operating system interfaces that make it easy for end-users, yet still allow power users to open the hood and fiddle around.  It’s still not their strong suit, which is why, for example, Vladimir Putin has ordered the Russian government to shift completely to open-source operating systems and software (think Linux) over the next few years. Let’s hope we never get to the point where the user is totally locked out from the underlying code and technology.

I’m lucky. Having been in on the personal computing revolution from the very beginning, I’ve never been afraid to look under the hood and make adjustments. I won’t pretend to any deep understanding of how the operating systems and microprocessors work, but I do know enough to twiddle and tweak, and I think that all of us need this level of skill. It’s something I think our schools should be teaching our students-not to just be end-users, but masters of the technologies. Fortunately, many students I know are unafraid to dig into the technologies they use. However, not every student has an equal opportunity to gain that knowledge, at least, not yet.

Digital natives have certainly mastered some skills that give them power over the technologies. While it’s a somewhat trite example, just watch any teen texting. Watch the ease with which they snap a photo on their phone and instantly share it, post it, blog it, etc. Watch how creating a Powerpoint for school is second nature. Notice how many teens know and use standard keyboard shortcuts on popular programs that most digital immigrants never quite get-figuring that the switch to a Graphic User Interface (GUI) sort of requires them to use the mouse instead of their fingers. Watch a teen deftly set their Facebook security settings.

Facebook is being used somewhat different by older adults, younger adults, and teens. The common thread between them is that the use is, primarily, social in nature-it’s just that they have different needs for and ideas of what socialization is. And that’s the point. The technology is being used for a purpose that fulfills personal and social needs. That need is universal and strong, and Facebook’s rapid growth simply reinforces the point.

So the success and popularity of Facebook serves to restore and maintain my faith in humankind in the face of rapidly advancing technologies. The desire for connection to others remains strong, strong even, it seems, than the thirst for knowledge and information. (Just to be the gadfly, there may be a down side to that as well.  We already have a woefully under-educated, or rather not-well-informed society, and if we do not take advantage of the gift of the information age-even with its inherent dangers of unfiltered information-we risk own very existence. If we wind up frittering most of our time away on Facebook, and less on Google and Wikipedia and all that, we will pay the price in the end, and it won’t be a pretty one. Facebook could just become one permanently addicting “orb,” another “Sleeper” reference. We’ll spend all our time obliviously socializing while the universe goes on wreaking havoc all around us.

However, one of the strengths of Facebook is its interconnectedness. Through its ability to allow people to connect and log-in to other sites and services, and its ability to allow those services (like Twitter, YouTube, etc.) to share information through people’s Facebook accounts, the service has a good start at overcoming my previously-stated concern about it stealing our time and attention away from all the rest of the things in life.

Who knows but in a a decade (or even less) Facebook may become a thing of the past. It may be replaced or supplanted by something better (or possibly surreptitious.) However, the internet and social media are not going away.  I hope and pray that Facebook’s continuing success and growth portend a good future for us, as our society adapts to new paradigms, new concepts of being social, while never losing the desire to be the social animals we are.

I’ve already spoken about one way in which I think education fits into this picture-the need to teach students to be masters of and not slaves to the technology. Jewish education also needs to reinforce this. There are other roles Jewish education can and should play in this evolution and revolution. It can and should serve a cautionary  role, but that should not be its exclusive and sole role. As socialization changes, Judaism must adapt to those changes, or be left behind. Jewish education can be at the forefront of enabling Judaism to adapt to the changes in socialization and society. It’s way past time to start examining how we can do that.

Your thoughts?

Adrian A. Durlester (aka Yoeitzdrian, aka Migdalor Guy)