Meet Adina Borg-Blaustein
Adina Borg-Blaustein won the Kohelet Prize for Risk Taking and Failure for her work at the Fuchs Mizrachi School. Check out her winning entry, Tanach Mastery Skills Lab, here: https://koheletprize.org/database/tanakh-mastery-skills-lab/
In your experience, what is the greatest challenge facing students/teachers today?
The greatest challenge I have is that my students are not truly “present.” students are bright, passionate, and hardworking. They are also so tired from a full day of classes, homework, and sports. They go to sleep so late – sometimes because of schoolwork, and sometimes because of poor time management. The blank expressions facing me in class the next day are often due to exhaustion, not apathy. Additionally, they are tethered to their devices and have difficulty truly disconnecting. As such, it is so difficult to engage my students and help them feel a sense of passion and excitement in learning Torah that extends beyond a thorough lesson, good discussion or effective assessment.
In implementing your winning project in the classroom, was there a moment when you knew that you had hit upon something really powerful? If so, describe that moment.
I first implemented a skills lab in September 2016 and was unsatisfied with the execution. When I decided to retool the project and try again in September 2017, I doubted myself and the project, worrying that my students would not find it meaningful or effective. I delayed the activity until after the chagim and presented my proposal to my colleagues at an early Tanakh department meeting, seeking their advice on whether or not I should go ahead with the project. My colleagues’ reactions were gratifyingly positive, and they immediately began coming up with ways of adapting my framework for mastery learning to their own grade levels and courses. I felt so excited and encouraged by their reactions and I realized that my approach could potentially help other teachers with similar goals. That was when I began thinking that this might be a really worthwhile project. When I presented my students with the broad outline of the project, they were a bit skeptical. But when they started their very first skills lab and realized that the skills we were working on were directly related to the content we learning in class, they responded with far more enthusiasm. When students began asking when the next skills lab would be, and were disappointed if it wasn’t every week, I realized I had hit on something truly powerful.
What advice would you give teachers who want to attempt something new and different in their own classrooms?
Don’t view your own students as the stumbling block preventing you from attempting something new or different, using their rigidity or learning habits as the reason for why you can’t change your style. View yourself as partnering with your students and you will encounter much less resistance. Ask students to articulate their goals for the class. Be vulnerable, and open yourself up to student feedback. If you react without defensiveness, your students will react with a greater sense of trust and they will be more flexible and resilient during new and more challenging classroom activities.
What’s your favorite part of your teaching day and why?
I love being a fly on the wall during my students’ chavruta learning. If I have done a good enough job scaffolding the independent study, my students have a productive struggle that includes high level analysis of pesukim and mefarshim. This year marks my eleventh year teaching and I am invigorated by how the same stories and commentaries I have read and taught countless times can be understood and appreciated in new ways. Listening in on their chavruta learning reminds me how lucky I am to be a Tanakh teacher, sharing my love with a new generation of budding Torah scholars.
How do you ensure that you’re always growing professionally?
As noted above, feedback is very important to me and has been such a valuable tool in my own professional growth. I try to use the constructive criticism I’ve been lucky to receive from students and supervisors as an opportunity to problem solve. When faced with a problem, I like to consult my amazingly talented colleagues, read books, watch Ted talks, and try to be solution-oriented when brainstorming issues with students. This approach to problem solving has allowed me to seek and receive immensely valuable feedback from my students and supervisors, making it a critical means of professional growth.
If you had one piece of advice to share with a new teacher walking into his/her classroom for the first time…
Don’t teach the students you wish you had, the students you taught in the past, or the students you thought you would be teaching when you were in graduate school. Teach the lovable, easily distracted, exhausted and challenging group in front you. Pay close attention to their needs, and ask your colleagues and supervisors for help when it doesn’t go as planned.
What are some ways in which you motivate your students to become lifelong learners?
First, I try to personally model what it means to be a lifelong learner. I present myself to my students as a work in progress. I am currently studying to become a Yoetzet Halacha under the auspices of Nishmat and I share with my students my own struggles to amass greater textual skills and learn a new way of thinking as a means of encouraging their own struggles. Second, I stress to my students that having a growth mindset is the key indicator for long term academic and professional success. I create assessments and activities, such as my skills lab, in a way which encourages a growth mindset. Third, I try to show my own passion and love for learning Tanakh. I often express to my students how grateful I feel to be able to share that love with them on a daily basis, and how lucky they are to have their entire lives ahead of them to uncover new solutions to ancient dilemmas in the text. I include as much as possible chiddushim by contemporary scholars like Rabbi Menachem Leibtag, Dr. Aviva Gottlieb- Zornberg, Rabbi David Fohrman, Rav Yoel Bin Nun, Rav Yaakov Meidan, Rabbi Alex Israel and Dr. Yael Zieger – to name just a few- to show students that the study of Tanakh is something that is dynamic and still very much in progress, and that if they become lifelong learners of Tankah, they too can be a part of that ever developing process.