08 December 2008

"He Can't Study Torah if He's in the Torah!"

I am ready to admit it. I am raising children who question things their teachers tell them. Cool yiddishe maidel is in kitah alef now, so she brings home her parsha sheet for us to, ideally, discuss at the Shabbat table. What ends up happening, in reality, is she starts to tell me about some midrash involving the principal characters. I will inevitably ask her if this story came from the Torah, and she will say "yes". I open up the Chumash and start reading the parsha to her. When we get to the disputed part, she'll say, "Oh, I guess it's a midrash." 

[From a chinukh perspective, I feel it's important for a child to understand the difference between p'shat and d'rash from the beginning. Starting in kitah bet, she will study each of the parshiyot in Chumash. It'll be a significant disappointment for the students when they realize that some of those "fun" stories their kitah alef teachers told them are not even in the Torah, but were creative stretches done by the Rabbis. It's particularly problematic for the "drier" parshiyot in Vayikra and Bamidbar. A veteran kitah alef teacher I read about revealed the "disservice" she did with her students by teaching midrashim and since then, sticks to p'shat.]

This was particularly fun to do for Toldot (yes, I'm a week late posting it but oh, well!). CYM started to tell me about the part in the parsha when Yaakov left to study Torah with Shem and Eber and that was why G-d selected him for the brakhah. I asked, "How can Yaakov study the Torah if he's already in it?" She answered, "Oh, Morah xxxx never told us that." I continued, "So ask her about it." This past week, for Va'yetzei, I guessed she asked her morah the question. Apparently, her teacher said, "I don't know" and pushed on. (Am Kshe Oref's wife joked that a card is being prepared on my daughter and at some point, she'll get kicked out of school for asking the "wrong" questions. As AKO's wife also pointed out, the morah is not an "educated" da'ati/l'umi, but an Israeli who allegedly borders on being chillunit.) 

Tznius: The "Big Idea" in Bais Yaakov Curricula

A question many teachers ask themselves when they are creating lesson plans or units of study concerns the "big idea" that they want their students to walk away when it's all over and take with them. Of course, there are objectives and standards that need to met as well. During my "first career" years as a Judaics teachers, we were urged to create units of study that encouraged the "big ideas" and the "big questions" which would cause our students to seek out answers. It was important for them to understand that there may not be one "right" answer to these types of questions.

Boy, was I in for a rude awakening when I started working in a charedi school! For the first month, per the mother's request, I was at the school from 8:30am-3:30pm, working with the same child. Shortly before Rosh Hashanah, some disruption ensued from by being there and I was relegated to General studies only (in the afternoon). [It's a topic for a very long complicated post but suffice to say, there may have been issue with my being "modern". You can fill in the gaps if you wish.]

Concepts are presented in a very black and white/right and wrong/this way or the highway attitude. I had read about this in accounts of people who fell "off the derekh" when they described their school experiences and even saw evidence of this when I lived in the charedi neighborhood, but still found it hard to believe. This particular school recently changed its dress code for the girls, limiting them to long-sleeve powder blue polo shirts or blouses, navy skirts, and navy socks (which allowed for compromise if they wanted to have "decoration" on them). My student happened to be wearing white tights (which the mother had been assured was okay for her age level) and the school interventionist (and self-appointed "uniform police") did a spot check one morning to see my student in these "illegal" white tights. [Keep in mind that my student is classified as "special needs" with high anxiety and emotional problems while the adult in this situation is supposed to be an "expert" in dealing with special needs children.] In front of the other girls, she caused my student to feel bad about the tights, explaining that they HAVE to be the same color as the skirt.]

This ties into a recent rant on Frum Satire and here about the "charedi goth" look we have been seeing recently. I'm sorry, but by definition, tzniut does NOT mean following a fad. As it appears to me, does it make a difference what color her socks were as long as they do the job of covering her legs? [It's easy to file it under "dress code" but I wonder if it has more to do with some "chumrah" that dark stockings are more "tznius" than white ones. I'm honestly not joking about this one.] 

My friends in real life has heard me rant about this before. I'm convinced it's revisionist history, at best. Somewhere, there's a picture of Beis Yaakov girls in Poland from the 1920s-1930s wearing dark stockings. [There are several practical reasons for this: 1) It's essentially winter in Poland ten months of the year; 2) Dark stockings are lower maintainance than white ones. If they rip, the mending will not be as obvious. 3) Along the same point, they don't show the dirt as badly. Remember that people did not wash their clothes after one wearing, nor have ready access to hot water and washing machines.] I understand there are chassidishe sects who require the women and girls to wear dark stockings. This seems to me to be yet another example of charedim borrowing the strictest thing they can find and turning it into halakhah. 

The "big idea" that charedi schools want their children to take with them is that there's only one "right" way. Anything that does not quite measure up is just not frum, no matter what you may think. This could lead to thinking that talking to a boy is just a step away from sex. (I was young once but I can't recall any occasions when that was all it took.) There is even a comprehensive curriculum for Beis Yaakov schools to use for their 1-12 girls on the evolving theme of tzniut. It even includes a study of collarlines, sleeves, hemlines, and slits to determine what would be kosher. I have a basic question to ask. Why can't the morot and the mothers simply model tznua dress with their children like I do with my girls? Cool yiddishe maidel is almost seven years old and we have already started looking at clothes and she analyzes whether it's tznua. I gave her some simple guidelines (about covering the belly even with arms up, for example) and she has been somewhat successful on her own. How about giving the children the tools to understand and moving on from there?

Aren't Manners Part of Good Middot?

Last Monday, I walked into class and did my daily ritual of asking the head teacher the plans for the day. (I work with a special needs child and I am often required to make on-the-spot modifications to her activities.) The teacher told me that another General Studies teacher wanted to come in and speak to the girls. A minute later, the teacher walked in. She works with the older girls on Reading. She opened by telling the girls that Rabbi K (the General Studies principal) was due to visit them soon. "Do any of you remember what you are supposed to do when a rabbi walks into the room?", she asked. "Say 'hi', one girl replied. "Ask 'how are you?" was another response. The teacher finally told the girls they had to stand when he came in, etc. The reason she wanted to come and talk to them was because she noticed some of the older girls she worked with (sometimes for two years) would ignore her when she said "Hi, Plonit". This spoke volumes to her about their manners. She then spent another ten minutes having the girls role play "basic" scenarios involving "manners": introductions, etc. My student asked about a couple extremely hypothetical situations and her teacher deemed them "inappropriate" so I was asked to escort her out of the room. 

I don't know the end result (whether the rabbi walked in and the girls "passed"), but I found the experience odd. I commented to the other personal aide (a Beis Yaakov graduate) that I thought this was the job of the "morning morot" (since having good manners are a part of having good middot). One of the observations I have made about this school is the major compartmentalization going on. It almost seems like there are FOUR different schools using the same school building: Girls Judaics, Boys Judaics, Girls General Studies, and Boys General Studies. The priority is easily placed on the Judaics teachers and whatever requirements they have. [One of the teachers, a kollel wife, seems quite happy with the balance of power she has based on her (by marriage) yichus. To detail some of what I have witnessed would definitely be telling lashon ha-ra, so I will not.] 

Come to think of it, though, good manners is something that is best modeled by parents and teachers. The morning morot will cluster onto one end of the playground at recess and start gossiping about who's getting engaged, or about to have a baby. They will demand that the child will stand there at attention until they are acknowledged (good for teaching not to interrupt an adult), but will interrupt a child asking a question in class with a flippant response. The students have also witnessed the morning morot act disrespectful towards their afternoon teachers. For example, one of the afternoon teachers wanted to place a string in the back of the room to hang projects (and the morah said it was fine). The following day, the string was cut and the morah claimed that the girls were playing with it "too much". After further questioning, it turned out that the morah just cut the string even though "no one" was playing with it. [I realize that young children tend to see things one-sided but since I have seen this morah in action, I have to believe the students more.]

When I wonder about the rudeness I see in frum Jews, I was told that it's justifiable since they study Torah, there is no need to demonstrate good middot. However, since girls are technically exempt from Torah study, more time in school should be focused on good middot rather than studying hemlines and shirt collars. 
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