What is the power of teaching?
This was the question Hanan Harchol began from when creating the animation, “My Teacher,” the most recent entry in Jewish Food for Thought, a collection of animated shorts that teach Jewish ethics to adults and teens using thought provoking and funny conversations between animated versions of Hanan and his Israeli parents.
Hanan, an animator and a New York City Public School teacher, has many answers to the question. His teacher, whom he honors in this animation, instilled confidence in him, focused on his talents so that he could see himself clearly, gave him space to create, never made him feel ashamed. She supported him, nurtured him. She stepped aside when it was time for him to move on and move forward. In short, Hanan’s teacher did what every excellent teacher does: she empowered him.
And now, 20 years later, Hanan has taken the lessons he learned from his most treasured teacher and is empowering students of his own. At the High School of Art and Design on the East Side of Manhattan, he teaches a film production course, where—to date—his students have been awarded over $95,000 in prizes for their films.
“When you see a group of students being acknowledged for the hard work they’ve put into creating something,” Hanan said, “you realize what your essential role is, as their teacher: to help them recognize and build upon their own abilities.”
“To me, this is so closely related to Jewish wisdom,” Hanan continued. “In Judaism, there’s a teaching by Rabbi Nachman that tells us to focus on the light inside of every human being. When you focus on the light in a person, they focus on it as well and the light begins to grow. In teaching, when you help a student see their light, their potential, it begins to grow. This wisdom has shaped my philosophy as a teacher: focus on the parts inside a student that are fantastic. Then, the student will begin to see that within him or herself.”
When Hanan joined the faculty of his school in 2009, he was charged with writing his film/video course curriculum from scratch. The school is a Career and Technical Education (CTE) high school, where students pick an industry-standard art major which they study over three years in addition to their regular academic courses. Operating within the guidelines set by his school, industry, and New York State CTE standards, he ensured that the course met all objectives coincident to project-based learning and other necessary theoretical concepts.
Hanan Harchol and students
At the end of the three-year course, students must take a film editing exam given by Adobe Systems, the computer software company. So far, there’s been a 100% passing rate for Hanan’s students, despite the fact that many of his students struggle in other courses, like Math and English. Hanan credits this success rate to the Jewish concept of na’aseh v’nishmah, first do, and then learn.
“Everything is hands-on,” Hanan explained. “Every six weeks, my students produce a short film from beginning to end, in small groups, with individual edits. Their first draft films are often problematic, but every six weeks they repeat the process from beginning to end, reinforcing what they’ve learned, while building on their technical and theoretical knowledge from film to film; learning by doing.”
Pedagogues might call this “kinesthetic” learning, Hanan noted. Learning in this way, he added, means students are apt to retain the knowledge they’ve acquired much more intensely—the theories aren’t esoteric ideas floating around in space, rather, they’re ideas that are attached to actions, to a project, to something that is created. They do, and they learn.
Hanan is quick to note that this propitious synchronicity he has experienced, between his study of Jewish ethics and his public school teaching career, wasn’t immediately evident. On the contrary, he shared, the first two or three years of teaching were extremely difficult, and he considered quitting many times.
“So many urban schools across the country, struggle to hold on to teachers, who often stay a year or two, and then quit,” Hanan explained. “In fact, around 50% of public school teachers leave the profession within 5 years.”
Hanan added that often the problem is that teachers are not given the proper training to reach students who might come from challenging backgrounds. A new teacher may know how to teach the subject at hand, but they don’t necessarily know how to engage and motivate students who might come into the class with reading levels that are well below their grade level, challenging socioeconomic and/or family situations, or other circumstances that put the students at a disadvantage and create an environment that can be overwhelming for a new teacher.
“One of the things that has allowed me stay in teaching and persevere, is that I’ve tried to use Jewish values and wisdom to help me re-focus and re-channel my energies, Hanan said. “Jewish teachings have actually made me a better teacher for my students,” he added.
“In my first year of teaching, I spent a great deal of time considering leaving the teaching profession. It was too hard. But ultimately, instead of fighting my students and insisting on winning every battle,” he said, “I needed to learn to stand in their shoes. I needed to shift the focus away from me, not take things as personally, and learn to make it about the student and his/her experience and reality.”
“It’s a learning experience,” he continued. “I have to keep reminding myself that I was fortunate to grow up where I did, in a home and environment where I had everything I needed and all the necessary support. I needed to find a way to connect with students who in many cases had a reality very different from mine. And I found the answer rooted in 1,000 years of Jewish wisdom, in Jewish ethical teachings on judging others in a favorable light, loving kindness, and most importantly, humility.”
This struggle to retain great teachers in challenging learning environments is not new. Across the board in the field of education, teachers are routinely overlooked, underpaid, and underprepared for the challenges they face in the classroom. To that end, Hanan is now in the process of raising money to shoot a live-action feature-length film, a dramatic scripted piece, which he hopes will raise awareness about the challenges teachers face. The film will focus on the life of a New York City public school teacher; all of the events depicted in the film are based on events that happened in Hanan’s first five years of teaching and the students featured are Hanan’s former students who have come back to participate in the project. He explained that Jewish teachings aren’t necessarily articulated directly in this film, and yet, and he considers this in many ways to be the most Jewish film he’s made yet.
Hanan Harchol and students at presentation of ABC Disney Film Award, where they won first, third and sixth place.
“What connects me to the wisdom and values of our ancient tradition is how those teachings can be applied so readily to every day life,” Hanan said.” “To help us live more meaningful and impactful lives. Living Jewish values for me, means trying to remind myself that every interaction with another human being, is an opportunity to improve my relationship with other people and improve myself. How am I treating others? How can I use my gifts, my blessings, to most effectively become a blessing in otherpeople’s lives?”
“Being a teacher is very much like being a parent,” he continued. “You give, and you give, and you give, and paradoxically, through all of that struggle, you receive the greatest gift.”
“There are people out there who are educating their hearts as we speak. They’re getting on with the work, they’re loving their kids, they’re loving their students, they’re loving their communities. We must retrain our vision toward those people—we must develop eyes to see and ears to hear where that love is already happening—that is worth our energy and our care and our time, to tend that love, to show that love ourselves.”
—Krista Tippett, Founder and CEO, The On Being Project
“There are just two outcomes that really matter: First, that students feel Judaism is the fertile ground in which they get nurtured to grow, and second, that they find Judaism joyful.” Rabbi Joy Levitt, Executive Director, JCC Manhattan
"Civil discourse requires us to listen generously and to act as though—and to really believe—we could be open to persuasion. We each may think: 'I did not cause this situation, I am not to blame.' Yet we each have the capacity to help society turn the corner, if we honestly ask what went wrong and what we can do about it."
- Martha Minow, the 300th Anniversary University Professor at Harvard University and Joseph William Singer, Bussey Professor of Law, Harvard University
The Wow Metric of Success: Jewish Life in Bloom on the Farm: Spring has arrived, and the Jewish community is busy planting with purpose. In Vaughan, Ontario, the yellow coltsfoot and purple-blue scilla are just starting to flower at the Kavanah Garden, a half acre community garden that’s part of Shoresh, the Canadian-based Jewish environmental organization that includes the Kavanah Garden and Bela Farm. Last Sunday, on “Yom Manual Labor” volunteers gathered to turn the soil, plant seeds, paint outdoor tables and participate in construction projects with the Shoresh team, preparing the garden for growing season.
“Our Jewish community is only as strong as its ability to include all members in the fabric of Jewish life. Doing so helps each of us recognize the unique strengths we all bring to the Jewish community, and that community cannot possibly be complete until we actively and intentionally welcome each other.”
-Meredith Englander Polsky, 2017 Covenant Award Recipient, Director of Institutes and Training, Matan, and Developmental Support Coordinator, Temple Beth Ami Nursery School
“From all of my teachers, I have grown wise.” Psalms 119:99. Framing Jewish Education, a project of The Jewish Lens and supported by The Covenant Foundation, was created to engage teachers, students, and families in conversation about the value of Jewish education and to illustrate the power of great teaching and learning via a curriculum based on visual literacy and text.
“For me, study is a divine and daily imperative; I study a page of Talmud daily so that I am not only teaching. My teaching is constantly being fed by my learning.” —Erica Brown Associate Professor, George Washington School of Education and Human Development. Director, Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership, 2009 Covenant Award Recipient
The Covenant Classroom means something different to every educator but common goals are to motivate, engage and be inclusive of all learners. In this volume, we’ve collected an array of Teachings on Inspiration and Motivation in all areas of Education.
#ThankATeacher It has been twenty-five years since The Covenant Foundation first opened its doors, and we continue to be humbled by extraordinary Jewish educators from across North America and across the spectrum of Jewish life who have devoted their careers and considerable talents to the field of Jewish education. Now, in celebration of a quarter-century-old tradition of honoring Jewish education and educators, and to kick off a year of public engagement around great teaching, we’re proud to share The Covenant Foundation voices app with you: a new digital way to give and share your gratitude.
“What would it look like if we bet on Jewish early childhood education for the long-term, as our tradition instructs? The task might seem large, but the reward, we know, is great (Pirkei Avot 2:15).”
“Countless leaders have been inspired by the story of the Jewish people leaving bondage in Egypt – those whose names we know, like Martin Luther King, Jr. and those whose names we never will know, whose every-day acts of kindness and resistance fuel social change. This story, our story, has become a cornerstone of modern social justice work.”
—Abby Levine, Director of The Jewish Social Justice Roundtable
This is how I see a “Covenant Classroom”: a place where challenging topics are passionately discussed; a place where complex ancient texts are grappled with; a place in which self- esteem grows, and motivation to learn increases exponentially because of it. An environment in which each Jewish soul is given the confidence to continue the eternal search for meaning.”
—Dr. Sandra Ostrowicz Lilienthal, Curriculum Developer and Instructor at The Rose and Jack Orloff Central Agency for Jewish Education of Broward County and 2015 Covenant Award Recipient
“When powerful, new approaches to learning are introduced through digital tools, meaningful disruptions occur along the way… When this happens, new approaches which previously seemed inaccessible, are suddenly within reach.”
—Barry Joseph, Associate Director for Digital Learning, Youth Initiatives, American Museum of Natural History
“The future of Jewish teen engagement can in fact be found in 3D printers, and in text-people, and in service, and outdoor education, and in anything that brings teens into contact with authentic learning experiences and passionate, caring, knowledgeable educators.”
—Charlie Schwartz, Senior Jewish Educator, Director, BIMA & Genesis, Brandeis High School Programs
Portal seems like a particularly apt metaphor for entry points into Jewish life and learning because ultimately we want those experiences to be deeply experiential and transformative. We also want them to be accessible. A portal has no toll; passage is free. At the same time, a portal is particularistic, not a generic entrance. It conveys a sense of magic, ritual, and power. Similarly, we want to convey that Jewish life is rich, layered, and meaningful beyond what is immediately apparent. We want the encounter with Jewish life to take you on a journey that is profound and surprising. And, given that each of us may enter through the same portal but have a completely different experience of what is on the other "side," the possibilities are endless.
— Judith Rosenbaum, Executive Director, The Jewish Women’s Archive
"We need a new kind of creativity in the classroom that’s going to reach Jewish kids… If a teacher is imaginative, he or she is going to connect to students’ hearts and souls.”
—Dr. Arnold Eisen, Chancellor, Jewish Theological Seminary, Board Member, The Covenant Foundation.
"There are four types of students... The sponge absorbs everything. The funnel brings in on one side lets it out the other. The strainer lets out the wine and retains the lees. The sieve lets out the flour dust and retains the fine flour." —Pirkei Avot 5:15
"There’s a misconception that a venture must depend on large grants from big donors. It makes more sense and it’s more sustainable to test out an idea, and see whether it has the opportunity to make an impact on people’s lives."
— Ariel Beery, founder, PresenTense
I think [creating new Jewish texts] is a really good description of what we’re trying to do. These days we’re increasingly creating products that are intended to be shared on the web. We’ve felt and continue to feel that this medium, and virtual communication as a whole, is being under-tapped for its possibilities for making art.
— Reflections from Sam Ball on the New Jewish Filmmaker Project