A core curriculum, two Judaic studies courses per semester, a competency exam, and an independent senior project: It sounds like a college admissions pitch.
But for high school students at Golda Och Academy in West Orange, a beneficiary agency of Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, it’s a brand-new program set to begin in the fall. In a total revamping of the day school’s Judaic studies curriculum, students will be able to take more electives in Tanach (Bible) and Jewish thought and tradition after taking core courses during their freshman year (see sidebar).
School administrators say the revised curriculum has been developed solely for GOA by faculty and administrators, but also with various outside influences.
The goal is to maintain a rigorous level of teaching while increasing the flexibility of the curriculum to “appeal to a broad range of students” with different backgrounds and skill sets, said Judaic studies chair Flora Yavelberg in an interview with NJJN.
Upper school principal Nancy Leaderman said the school evaluates curricula on a regular basis and the new curriculum helps take advantage of what engages the students.
“I think there was a real desire to be more flexible to allow for classes that met students who have a broader range of interests and to reinvigorate the curriculum,” she said. “We looked at a bunch of different models and were really drawn to a model that offered more electives….” Based on such a model, the new studies program also provides that “once the kids had a basis they could move forward.”
The school’s previous curriculum moved through the books of the Bible sequentially in Tanach class and then offered segments of the Talmud or Rabbinic concepts such as Tractate Sanhedrin or Avodah in rabbinics class. For example, a ninth-grader would learn Genesis, the first book of the Bible, and Sanhedrin, from the Talmud, while a 10th-grader would be learning Exodus and Avodah, and so on.
Now, students across grade levels will get to choose from such electives as “Jewish Mysticism,” “Advanced Talmud Study,” and “Women in Halacha.”
A number of influences guided the educators formulation of the changes, including the results of the school’s strategic planning process, a self-study undertaken through its accreditation process, and a survey of other day school models. Faculty members took part in training at Jerusalem’s Pardes Institute and received input from Jewish Theological Seminary professors and research centers.
The New Jersey Association of Independent Schools, the organization that accredits GOA, looks at the Judaics curriculum in its accreditation process, but the broader Solomon Schechter Day School Network, of which GOA is a member, is not involved in setting GOA’s curriculum.
Dr. Elaine Cohen, director of the Schechter network, said she thinks the new curriculum will likely be a positive change.
“From what I’ve heard about it, I think it’s going to meet the needs of a wider range of students to get them more engaged in text learning,” said Cohen. “One of the primary goals [is] that the program will be more individualized, more attuned to where the students are…, and that’s a good thing.”
Jewish day schools commonly grapple with providing theme-based courses while also maintaining rigorous text study, according to Dr. Deborah Miller, associate director of The Melton Research Center for Jewish Education at JTS.
“Schools struggle with this all the time because they want the students to have wide exposure to Jewish sources and thought, and they want students to have options wherever possible.
“But at the same time they don’t want to lose depth, and real strong engagement with text is very important,” said Miller.
Leaderman said that the increased number of electives and subject diversity plays into a larger trend in education and student-centered learning, which involves “figuring out what gets kids excited about learning something and what touches them.”
“Student-centered learning,” said Miller, “is very much the rage, and it means a lot of different things to a lot of different people.”
Adam Shapiro, GOA’s dean of students, said the change is exciting because he expects the new curriculum will instill interest in students. “Our students will be able to follow their passion in a way that they might not have been able to before, and that will absolutely encourage a higher level of interest, learning, and excitement in the classroom,” he wrote in an email to NJJN.
Revamping the curriculum presents challenges “in terms of the time and energy,” said Leaderman. Since classes will include students from different grades, scheduling will also be more complex. “It’s very challenging, but we have a really, really expert faculty so it’s a good thing,” said Leaderman.
The curriculum change also “dovetails nicely” with GO Connect, a new program at GOA that helps eliminate barriers for new students without prior day school education, said Leaderman. (The development of the curriculum, however, predated GO Connect, she added.)
“I think for kids who are new to day school, the option of taking a course like Jewish Response to Suffering is probably more accessible than coming in and saying you are just going to study [Deuteronomy]. I think for kids who don’t have the background it is in some ways more accessible, but there is still very intense text study,” said Leaderman.
Yavelberg said the curriculum will help connect the materials with modern issues and events and therefore more readily engage students. “We want to be able to appeal to someone who is coming into the school and not have the person feel like they are so far behind that there is no way he or she could ever be a part of the school.”