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Reflections on a Very Different Week in Yeshiva

By: Rabbi Dov Emerson, Director of Teaching and Learning, The Marsha Stern Talmudical Academy (MTA)


I know I am not the first to observe that the last two weeks have felt like a whirlwind. Looking back, it’s hard to believe that Purim was just a few days ago, or that the shuls were open, or that we were sitting together learning in our yeshiva together. And now, like so many others in our local and broader Jewish community, we find ourselves with a very new reality. We have traded in the warmth of our Beis Medrash for a Zoom classroom, the comfort of daily banter with our talmidim in the hallways for a WhatsApp chat. 


As we have made this transformation to a remote learning program, my mind has often turned to the analogy of building a plane while it’s in the air. The journey must continue, as our children need to continue to learn. But we, the teachers and rebbeim, administrators and educational leaders, are adjusting to a new reality in real time. Braving these uncharted waters has been scary. But it has also been incredibly inspiring, as faculty and talmidim alike have stretched themselves to exercise new muscles in the learning process. I’d like to share a few reflections on what we’ve observed along the way:


(OVER)communicate: As a school, we often struggle with finding just the right amount of communication, as too many emails in one day risks annoying stakeholders. When it comes to the Coronavirus, there have been so many unknowns, so many variables, and so many quick changes, we made a decision to overcommunicate. Regular and frequent communication, which clearly and calmly explains the circumstances and what our next steps are, has the capacity to calm people who are in a state of upheaval.


Move Fast and Break Things: The closure of our yeshiva and the move online was the definition of disruptive. At the same time, it provided us with an unprecedented opportunity to embrace a growth mindset. Because the current situation has so many constantly moving parts, we have been able to try things and then change course as needed. For example, our schedule continues to evolve, as we learn from our first few days of online classes and move towards a more balanced mix of synchronous and asynchronous learning experience. In embracing failure as an opportunity to learn and grow, we model an important set of characteristics for our students, and we also have the chance to make quick, impactful improvements based on real time feedback. 


“I don’t know!” and that’s OK: In a regular school environment, we often talk about the notion of “Lifelong Learners” as a goal we try to develop in our students, as well as something we aspire to do as educators who keep on learning. However, there is a key shift that has taken place as we navigate these new realities: we have been given permission to say “I don’t know.” In general, there is often a pressure for educators and educational leaders to have ‘all the answers,’ in technique, curriculum, and handling tough situations with confidence and grace. This past week, I have seen the hesitancy in a teacher’s voice as she tries a new EdTech tool for the first time, and I am proud. That hesitancy means she is learning, and in this environment, where we have accepted that no one knows all the answers for making education work, acknowledging that we don’t always know is allowed. It is a lesson that I hope stays with us. I wonder what it would look like if we could continue to celebrate “I don’t know” even when things get back to normal?


Give People Space: One of the challenges that we face in a regular school schedule is finding time to meet. Our dedicated faculty push themselves in the classroom and beyond, making themselves available to work with students in a variety of ways. One of the silver linings of a completely new schedule for online learning is that all of a sudden, we can make adjustments to the program, and allow for faculty to meet. Our daily check-ins for faculty over Zoom have been tremendously successful. Unstructured by design, we invite all faculty to join and share with their challenges and successes with each other. It’s been wonderful to watch how just giving them the space, with no major programming required, yields powerful collaboration. This has happened with our students as well, as in many classes, our students hop on the Zoom class before the ‘bell,’ and are simply there to enjoy each other’s company. Giving students that space has maintained warm relationships among the boys even while physically distant from each other. 


Expectations are not obvious: Expectations, directions, and schedules are always important in helping learners learn. We found that they are even more crucial when our students are not in school. In running classes and meetings over the Zoom online platform, it became clear that the regular cues that are part of the landscape in a physical setting that indicate expectations, directions, and goals, are simply not there in the online space. What does a student do when they enter a Zoom classroom? What are today’s classroom goals, and how are we going to get there? These are items that need to be more explicitly communicated in an online environment. 


We’re All in This Together: It’s a daunting feeling when you have to close up school and move to a totally new educational program. Knowing you are not alone makes all the difference. It has been so inspiring to see the way in which educators around the country and beyond have supported each other. WhatsApp groups, Twitter, Facebook, and Zoom meetups have provided for a continuous sharing of resources and ideas. I have never been prouder of our Jewish educational community. 


Appreciation: One theme that has kept repeating itself in so many conversations with colleagues and students has been that of appreciation. “Rabbi, I never thought I’d say it, but I miss school!” I felt such a sense of appreciation as our family, like so many others here, experienced a surreal Shabbos, with no guests or Shul attendance. I recall going outside for a moment to take out the garbage, and a solitary man was walking down our block at some distance. He called out “Good Shabbos,” and those were the sweetest words I had heard all week, and it reminded me how much I missed the gift of a regular Shabbos centered around Shul, communal learning, and relationships. This past Sunday night, we held an online Zoom Night Seder for our boys, just to learn by themselves but with each of them on camera, creating a virtual Beis Medrash. It was so special to learn together, but more than that, it served to remind us all how much we treasure the experience of sitting together in Yeshiva, and not to take that for granted.