Factors in Choosing a Mesivta for your Son – Part 2

Part 1 posted here.

Speak to Other Parents

Make lots of effort to speak to as many parents of boys currently in the school as possible. I cannot emphasize enough how important this is. Ask a lot of directed questions. Try to find out how the rebbeim/menahelim handle problem situations – like scuffles/fights in school, skipping class, chutzpah, bullying — even how they would handle an instance of sexual abuse. Ask how the rebbeim have answered difficult questions raised in class, both in terms of hashkafa ( how do we know we’re right and the other religions aren’t) and hadracha (why can’t we talk to/go out with girls, why is internet/TV/movies so bad? ). I have heard scary things about the inability or unwillingness of some rebbeim to answer these questions. It is always important to ask about smoking and drugs in the school, and for co-ed or sister/brother high schools it would be important to ask about dating and sexual exploits among students (although you would have to speak to the students themselves, not the parents, to get candid and accurate information on these points). It is important not to be naïve and think that these things can never happen in a yeshiva. They can and do, but obviously not in all places, so it is important to ask.

Other Factors

Other things to investigate about a school:
1) What are the graduating seniors like? Do you want your son to be like them? What do those boys do immediately after graduation, three years after, etc. (advanced learning, working, college)? In other words, do you like their product and would you like your son to follow the path that the majority take?
2) What kinds of boys go there? Are they the kind you would choose as friends for your son? Are they the kind your son has typically chosen as his friends in the past?
3) What is the ambience in the school? Go visit the school and look around – do the boys seem relaxed and happy? Do the rebbeim/teachers seem happy? Are the boys in class (esp. during secular hours)? Is the school clean and neat? Is there a schedule that is enforced – i.e. is there order? Is there tension from a very strict hanhala?
4) Is there time in the day for physical exercise and some respite from the work? What sort of extra-curricular activities are offered, and what sort of homework policy is there?
5) Do you feel that you can speak openly and honestly with the mechanchim at the school? Are they open and down to earth with you, or do you feel like they are trying primarily to sell their school, or do you feel a sense of their being closed to your input? Do you feel that they understand typically developing adolescent boys with all their challenges, and know how to mold them into young men? Or do you feel that they don’t/wouldn’t understand the nuances of your son?
6) Try to find out the economic level of the typical family at the school; whether the average boy has a lot of pocket money to spend and whether they spend significantly more than you do on material things and/or vacations. Your son may come home newly interested in designer suits and/or wanting to order takeout instead of yeshiva food or wanting to go skiing or to Florida during various vacations and long weekends. This may not matter to you or your son, but it is something to consider.
7) If your son has a particular need or challenge academically, emotionally or socially, do you feel the school is equipped and willing to handle it and is confident of its ability in that area? In the same vein, if your son needs to take any kind of medication, do you feel confident in confiding this to the school hanhala and working with it as a partner in your son’s care?

Dorming

A few words about dorming. Many parents prefer their sons to live at home if at all possible during their high school years. However, it is not always the case that the best choice of school for any particular boy is local, so dorming is a factor to weigh among the other factors. It is my humble opinion that dorming can be a positive experience, and although some “scare stories” are true, many other boys will benefit from the experience. One must research each school’s dorm on a case by case basis.

It is crucial to ascertain that the facility is safe and was built and maintained to code, and that there are procedures for emergencies and other more mundane health issues. It is also very important to ascertain the level of supervision and rule enforcement in the dorm and the types of boys in the dorm. Some boys start smoking in dorm environments, many don’t get too much sleep, and some boys get exposed to things their parents rather they not be. Having said that, there is a wide variation in how strict yeshivas are about dorm supervision and in some schools problems are dealt with swiftly and completely. It is important to speak to some of the older boys in the dorm themselves and ask them directed questions, such as “how many boys smoke?” or “are there any drugs in the dorm?”, “what do the boys do for entertainment at night?” “what is the average lights-out time?” Also speak to the dorm supervisor to get a flavor of the place. Ask specifically if there have been any known incidents of sexual abuse or attempted sexual advances (even boy-on-boy), and what the school did about it.

Assuming the dorm does not have major problems, the positive aspects of dorming include providing a healthy social outlet after a long work day, fostering independence and self-sufficiency, learning to live with others and be sensitive to others’ needs, learning self-discipline and good personal hygiene, and becoming aware of one’s own annoying habits. A parent needs to factor in the disadvantages of commuting to and from a school that may not be in the family’s immediate vicinity, in terms of the difficulty of carpooling, the time taken away from the boy’s sleep and free time during the trips, and just what will be accomplished by the boy arriving home in time to go to sleep in his bed and then leaving the house too early in the morning to interact with anyone anyway.

A dorm might be a good place to be if the home environment is negative, or even just unfulfilling for the boy, including having mostly or all sisters with no one to “hang” with. It is better if the boy has attended sleep-away camp before putting him in a dorm situation, or he may have a hard time adjusting. All of my sons went to (or are currently in) dorming schools despite my reservations, and I was amazed at the growth they experienced, even in their first year. Some of this growth I attributed to dorm living.

No School is Perfect

A final note: there is no perfect school out there. All have their positives and negatives. If I had to give advice in one sentence it would be this (a variation on weighing the pros and cons): Choose a few schools which have the features and positive aspects you are looking for, write down all the negative aspects of each school, decide which of the negatives you are willing to put up with and which you are not, and choose the school with the negatives you can live with.

No matter which school you choose, it is important to keep close tabs on your son’s progress during his high school years and be pro-active in finding out what is going on with him (especially if he answers your questions with typical adolescent-male mono-syllabic responses such as “fine” and “good”). Do not become complacent, even if you are thrilled with the school of your choice. Nothing replaces a concerned, active parent!

First Published – Feb 1, 2011

Factors in Choosing a Mesivta for your Son – Part 1

‘Tis the season for high school applications, acceptances, and choices. For those who feel that they could use some pointers in how to go about making these choices I have put together some ideas which were the result of advice passed along to me, hard-won personal insights, and things I have observed during the tenure of three sons in mesivta (yeshiva style high school). I would welcome any additional ideas as well. Full disclosure: our experience is mostly with what some would call more “right-wing” orthodox schools, i.e. those who typically maintain dress codes of white shirts, black pants, hats while davening, etc. However, I think most points will apply to other kinds of schools as well. Also, I have not touched upon the issue of cost – in our experience, most schools of similar type had similar costs, and the differences were not enough to influence our decision. However, when there is a big difference in cost, that factor obviously needs to be considered – but you don’t need anyone to tell you that!

Right Level of Learning

It is important to choose a school which is a close fit to your son’s level of learning. Boys’ yeshiva high schools, with the exception of a community school, tend to be narrowly tailored to a specific level of learning. It is important to consider schools where your son will be challenged, but not so much that he will feel frustrated or be on the bottom of the class and struggling to keep up, nor too little that he will feel bored too soon or where it would be difficult for him to find a chavrusa of similar skill. Larger yeshiva high schools might have more than one class/shiur, with the different classes tracked. It is important to determine if there are different kinds of boys in one track vs. the other and which group your son is most likely to be part of.

How to determine what learning level a school is on can sometimes be a challenge. Yeshivas, like other schools, like to strengthen their reputation to prospective families, and sometimes schools will declare, at an open house or elsewhere, that they serve “the best boys” or have a “top program.” It is important not to be naïve and take everything a yeshiva says about itself at face value. That is, it is important to go beyond these statements and find out what the learning level of the boys who are currently there really is to determine if it is a good match. [Similarly, if a school brags about its graduates who go on to the Ivy League, try to find out if they are bragging about one or two unusual boys, or whether it is typical for its graduates to go on to the Ivy League.]

I would hesitate to send a boy to a “top” school if his grades in learning don’t match up or if he is unmotivated. Some rabbanim recommend that a boy go to a “better” school rather than one with a lesser reputation if a boy is borderline in his learning abilities, because, if things don’t work out initially, it is easier to transfer from a better school to a lesser school than visa versa. I would say this should only be followed where the boy is very motivated and is the type to put in the extra effort he will need to maintain a fair position in the class, and if you as parents are willing and able to pay for tutoring if he needs it. It does him no favors to languish at the very bottom of the class at a “better” school rather than thrive at a more modest school (unless there are other factors present that would counterbalance this possible sense of failure and lack of accomplishment).

Values and Culture Compatibility

Second, it is very important to choose a school whose values and culture “match” where your family is holding, religiously, philosophically, and practically. Rabbi Yerachmiel Milstein shlit’a (from Project Chazon) has said that it is crucial to be on the same wavelength as the yeshiva, and that a family needs to trust the chinuch and guidance that comes from a particular yeshiva. This would include factors such as its attitude toward the outside world and philosophy about participation in secular culture and relationships with non-Jews; religious affiliations should match generally, i.e. are you and the school Agudah types, OU, YU/Modern Orthodox, etc etc; mode of dress/level of tznius practiced by family members; use of internet/movies/TV/various technologies and leisure activities practiced at home; ideas about secular education in general; ideas about a college education and advanced learning after high school; boy/girl relations or lack thereof; ideas about Zionism. Conflict, or even just a clash in values, can put your son in the middle of a sticky situation. Any normal boy will likely pick up the habits and values of his school culture and peer group and adapt them for himself and bring them home, so be comfortable with them before you start!

Some dorming schools also have a philosophy that once in that school, the primary responsibility and influence of a boy’s chinuch has shifted from the parents to the yeshiva, and they assume in large part that the parents are on board with this, and have chosen that mesivta partially for that reason. They are molding a “ben yeshiva” and they create this by being the place where he eats, sleeps, learns, and gets guidance and advice 24/7 for several years. In these schools the boys come home for Shabbos typically only once a month (in 9th grade it can be slightly more frequent) and sometimes less than that. If you choose this sort of school, realize that you are even more fully entrusting your son to their care, and that your role as parents will shrink, whether you want it to or not. Your son’s outlook on halacha, hashkafos ha chaim, and daily living will likely become that of the yeshiva and he may trust their advice more than yours, even in such important aspects of life as his future plans and whom he marries. That is the goal, and some BTs don’t realize this when they sign up. Therefore your values and the school’s values should be as parallel as possible. When the family and the school match, and are true partners, the boy often blossoms beautifully and it is wondrous to behold.

One aspect of judging whether a yeshiva’s values match your needs is its familiarity with BT issues and/or its ability to be flexible. It is good to discuss various “BT” needs and possible scenarios with a school administration to see their reaction and their ability to make accommodations prior to choosing a school. This sort of discussion can also prepare a willing but unfamiliar yeshiva with the kind of issues that may arise and will help the school make accommodations when necessary. An example might be to discuss how they would react to asking for your child to come home from yeshiva for a Thanksgiving dinner that is made for secular family members, or what kind of accommodation they would make for father-son learning sessions where the father is not very advanced in learning.

Is Your Son Wanted There

Does the school want your son? I think it is important that the school regards a boy as a valued member of its class, and communicates that they look forward to the responsibility to be mechanech him for the next four years. It is my humble opinion that it is not good for parents to “push” their son into a particular school, because in sending an initial rejection, the school is saying that they are not equipped or willing to be mechanech him. If anything needs remediation during the school year they may be less willing to respond or put forth resources for him, because they didn’t think the boy was appropriate for the school in the first place. If a family has more than one school to choose from, it is also not a good idea to send to a school if they have the attitude that they are doing you a favor by accepting your child. It does not make for a healthy foundation for the future relationship, and could affect the boy’s self-regard if he finds out he wasn’t wanted in the first place.

Secular Curriculum

Decide what you want for your son in terms of secular studies. There is a wide variation in what some schools offer, and an even wider variation in terms of what they enforce about attending secular classes. It is not unusual at some mesivtas for boys to skip the English classes entirely and graduate without a diploma, or to go to class in a pro forma way without really learning anything. This creates an atmosphere where it is difficult to take the classes seriously, or sometimes even to hear the teacher, even if a boy is interested in learning the material.

I would also take with a large grain of salt any statements that a school is planning certain improvements in the secular (or kodesh) program in the upcoming year/s. Statements from school officials that they will have something in place, will be hiring someone new, or intend to pursue having a particular course may be nice ideas, but the improvements sometimes never materialize, even if the school really wants it to happen. Decide if you will be happy anyway even if the intended improvements never happen, even in four years. The attitude should be ‘what you see is what you get.’ Decisions should be made based on what is, not what might be some day.

I have friends who sent their sons to a particular mesivta partially based on public promises the menahel (principal) made about secular program improvements, and those improvements never materialized despite efforts the yeshiva made toward that end. These friends are still very dissatisfied with the program, and one has switched their son from the school. A boy should not have to experience this sort of upheaval based on a mistaken reliance on someone’s promises, no matter how well-intended.

Part 2 – is scheduled to be posted next week

Originally published in February 2011

Thanking our Torah Teachers

I just spent 4 days at the Torah U’Mesorah convention selling, InfoGrasp, my companies School and Non Profit Management Software. It was a great experience, especially on Shabbos when 1,500 Jews shared an amazingly uplifting G-d and Torah connecting experience powered by non-stop talks and lectures by some of the greatest Rebbeim in America. With that background information, I’d like to share an insight I gained over the weekend.

Over 15 years ago at a parlor meeting, a seasoned and well respected teacher related a talk he gave at Torah U’Mesorah in which he pointed out some classroom obstacles which often caused Rebbeim to stumble. He ended his talk at the parlor meeting saying that the people at the convention didn’t exactly appreciate his criticisms as evidenced by the fact that he was never invited back. For many years I accepted his story at face value, and I’ve seen first hand the obstacles of which he spoke.

This year, I asked a few attendees why they were at the convention and all of them included the need for chizuk (strengthing) among their answers. As I listened to the speeches I became more sensitive to the plight of our Torah teachers. They’re paid very low wages. They often have to move to a different city. They have to teach to a wide ability-range of students in the classroom. And many or most of our schools don’t have the financial resources to provide them with the support that almost all other teachers, public and private, receive.

The speeches focused on the wonderful task the teachers were performing, despite the above mentioned obstacles with many techniques of how to become better. There were sessions on a wide range of topics and the teachers listened attentively and questioned in their attempts to become better transmitters of our Mesorah. They were encouraged not to be discouraged and one of the last Shabbos speakers sounded these echoing words, “Please don’t go into the business sector, Klal Yisroel needs you”.

The whole event turned around my view of the parlor meeting. Yes there’s room for improvement, yes mistakes are made, but at their core, our generation of teachers have dedicated their heart and soul to teaching our children Torah and we must stand up, recognize and applaud them. The teachers at the convention didn’t applaud themselves for their efforts, but they really do need our support and we should try to make is vocal. At least once a year at the convention, there needs to be no constructive criticism and the talk is about the good and the trying to be better.

So next time you see a teacher, perhaps you can muster up the strength to thank them. Surprise them and thank them with no follow up request or constructive criticism. It’s a very tough job they’ve chosen and they’re truly are built up by our appreciation. The more we stengthen them, the more they can endeavor in the Jewish people’s most important mission, teaching Hashem’s Torah to every Jew.

In Defense of The B-Students!

New York – In a fiery speech, a respected Brooklyn Rabbi called for an all out war against yeshivos that throw talmidim out of their institutions.

Rabbi Aaron Krausz, a prominent chareidi Rov from Williamsburg, New York, and Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva Shaar Hatalmid in Brooklyn, addressed the baalei batim during Shalosh Seudos in his Shul on Shabbos Parshas Lech Licha.

In an explosive speech, which was delivered in Yiddish after the z’man and was recorded, R’ Kraus screamed “Rabosai, there is a fire burning in the Jewish community! All those yeshivos who only take metzuyanim have blood on their hands! We have teens wandering the streets, thrown out because they don’t know a p’shat or a deep Rashba? Stop with the nonsense!” “oh, you wanna build “lomdim”. That’s your goal, right? Look around in shul. Show me all those lomdim you brought up with this system. Show me!!”

Rabbi Krausz continued his stern admonition, urging a financial boycott of all institutions that expel talmidim from their hallowed halls saying, “when they come for you for Tezdokah to support their yeshiva, make it clear to them. Tell them: “I will only support you if you accept everyone, if you care about ALL Talmidim.”

Read the whole article here.

Torah Homeschooling

Homeschooling is beginning to boom amongst Orthodox Jews. Last summer, a Baltimore woman, Mrs. Avivah Werner, organized The First Annual Torah Homeschool Conference along with other local homeschooling parents. People came from as far away as New York, Michigan, and Sharon, MA to attend the conference. Presenters spoke on subjects ranging from different homeschooling philosophies and methodologies to practical issues such as dealing with state regulations. It was so successful that this summer, on Sunday June 13th, Mrs. Werner has organized the Second Annual Torah Homeschool Conference, to take place at the Park Heights JCC in Baltimore. Rabbi Daniel Lapin will be one of the featured speakers. (Schedule, speakers and registration info: http://jewishhomeschooling.wordpress.com/ )

The phenomena of homeschooling has exploded in America in the past decade, growing 12 times faster than public school enrollments. As of 2007, 2.2 percent of American children were being homeschooled, 1,508,000 all told. While its modern roots are in progressive alternative educational theory, its biggest practitioners are committed conservative Christians, who often reject public school for its ostensibly decadent secular program of indoctrination, and whose vision of an ideal pedagogy often harks back to very traditional methods. That homeschooling isn’t big yet amongst Orthodox Jews is surprising given that many Orthodox families are dissatisfied with the secular academics in yeshivas (associated with traditional Orthodoxy), and often with the religious studies in day schools (associated with Modern Orthodoxy), and that some children fail to thrive and even suffer socially, intellectually, and even spiritually in these institutions, and that this can contribute to children “going off the derech” (becoming alienated and non-observant), a trend that yeshiva education doesn’t seem able to fully stem, and in some instances, may accelerate. Consider too that yeshivas and day schools can cost significantly more than $10,000 per child per year, a very daunting figure for even relatively small Orthodox families, which are still significantly larger than the average American family. Given all these factors, and considering homeschooling’s deep roots in Jewish tradition prior to the industrial revolution, it would seem like a natural fit for significant parts of the Orthodox Jewish community.
Read more Torah Homeschooling

Building a Better Teacher

Issues in Schooling

One of the challenges that parents face is the schooling of our children. Among the many issues in schooling, three stand out:

1) Lots of material to master in a full dual curriculum day.

2) Many schools have insufficient resources.

3) A lack of truly great teachers.

Lack of Great Teachers is a Recognized Problem

Well it seems that a lack of great teachers is a problem shared across all American schools as discussed in a worth-reading article in the NY Times on Sunday titled Building a Better Teacher:

Eric Hanushek, a Stanford economist, found that while the top 5 percent of teachers were able to impart a year and a half’s worth of learning to students in one school year, as judged by standardized tests, the weakest 5 percent advanced their students only half a year of material each year.

You Can Build a Better Teacher

Creating incentives for good teachers and firing bad teachers is being tried across the country but it is not producing better learning in students. Doug Lemov a teacher and education consultant thinks the smarter path to boosting student performance is to improve the quality of the teachers who are already teaching.

Lemov decided to seek out the best teachers he could find — as defined partly by their students’ test scores — and learn from them. This five-year project produced a 357-page treatise known among its hundreds of underground fans as Lemov’s Taxonomy. (The official title, attached to a book version being released in April, is “Teach Like a Champion: The 49 Techniques That Put Students on the Path to College.”)

Central to Lemov’s argument is a belief that students can’t learn unless the teacher succeeds in capturing their attention and getting them to follow instructions. Educators refer to this art, sometimes derisively, as “classroom management.”

All Lemov’s techniques depend on his close reading of the students’ point of view, which he is constantly imagining. In Boston, he declared himself on a personal quest to eliminate the saying of “shh” in classrooms, citing what he called “the fundamental ambiguity of ‘shh.’ Are you asking the kids not to talk, or are you asking kids to talk more quietly?” A teacher’s control, he said repeatedly, should be “an exercise in purpose, not in power.” So there is Warm/Strict, technique No. 45, in which a correction comes with a smile and an explanation for its cause — “Sweetheart, we don’t do that in this classroom because it keeps us from making the most of our learning time.”

After discussing Lemov and his techniques, the article goes further and asks: Is good classroom management enough to ensure good instruction? It discusses teachers who are focused on reaching every student such a Katie Bellucci, who had been teaching for only two months, yet her fifth-grade math class was both completely focused on her and completely quiet.

Lately Bellucci and her mentor teacher, Eli Kramer, a dean of curriculum and instruction at Troy who also splits fifth-grade math responsibilities with Bellucci, have advanced to a technique called No Opt Out. The concept is deceptively simple: A teacher should never allow her students to avoid answering a question, however tough. “If I’m asking my students a question, and I call on somebody, and they get it wrong, I need to work on how to address that,” Bellucci explained in February. “It’s easy to be like, ‘No,’ and move on to the next person. But the hard part is to be like: ‘O.K., well, that’s your thought. Does anybody disagree? . . . I have to work on going from the student who gets it wrong to students who get it right, then back to the student who gets it wrong and ask a follow-up question to make sure they understand why they got it wrong and understood why the right answer is right.”

Please read the whole article here.

What Can We Do?

What can we do to help our teachers become better? I think for starters we can start the conversation by sending the NY Times article to the principals and the teachers we know. When Lemov’s book comes out in April, buy a copy, read it and lend it to as many teachers as you can. Our schools want to be the best they can be and my experience has been they are receptive to constructive suggestions.