The need to implement an education system that develops expert learners who have personal agency in their education is urgent. It is crucial to our collective goal to graduate students who are spiritually grounded, discerning, resourceful, creative, collaborative, ethical, moral, and socially responsible. Additionally, many students fall behind academically, struggle socially and emotionally, and often grapple with a lack of intrinsic motivation. Fortunately, in an age of highly developed technology, cutting-edge brain research, and the science of learning, delivering personalized education for all students is no longer an unachievable dream but rather a burgeoning reality.
Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School (CESJDS), the nation’s largest independent pluralistic Jewish day school, and Sulam, a Jewish special education inclusion program in the Greater Washington area, have established an exciting partnership to create a prototype for Jewish schools in which personalized learning is the underpinning of the educational philosophy and methodologies used to guide teaching and learning. We are grateful to have the Mayberg Foundation as a lead investor and thought partner, and significant support from the Isadore and Bertha Gudelsky Family Foundation, Inc. and the Kahan Family Foundation.
Our work together began with the question of how we could utilize the strategies and concepts of special education (which inherently personalizes learning for students) to broaden our educational reach and provide a more individualized learning experience for every lower school student at CESJDS. Students with both enrichment and support needs would benefit from this approach. With such a system of educational engagement, we would also be positioned to create a next level inclusion program at CESJDS for many students who would usually not be able to attend a day school. Despite an already robust educational support service program at CESJDS, we wanted to welcome students with more significant learning differences who have not found a home in the Jewish day school world and have sought their education at specialized schools.
The solution is anchored in the strategies of Universal Design for Learning (UDL), a Harvard-based educational framework that is designed “to improve and optimize teaching and learning for all people based on scientific insights into how humans learn.” What is particularly meaningful about UDL is that it can be applied to any discipline or domain to ensure that all learners can access and participate in meaningful and challenging learning opportunities. It is not a curriculum, per se, but a framework developed to be utilized by educators in all subject matters. UDL guides the design of instructional goals, assessments, methods, and materials that can be customized and adjusted to meet individual needs. UDL posits that to foster the development of purposeful, motivated learners, educators need to stimulate interest for learning. To shape resourceful and knowledgeable learners, we must present information and content in different ways. For strategic, goal-directed learners, teachers ought to differentiate the ways that students can express what they know.
UDL is in perfect alignment with the overarching goals of Jewish schools. Research has shown that when students have agency in their own learning they become independent, resourceful, and motivated lifelong learners and critical thinkers who ultimately become expert citizens. This ultimate goal aligns perfectly with the mission of Jewish day schools – to produce students who stay motivated and connected to their Jewish roots and to be lifelong Jewish learners who will become the next generation of responsible, critical-thinking Jewish citizens of the world.
To begin our partnership, we launched a professional development initiative in UDL at CESJDS. Now entering its third year of implementation, faculty members are routinely finding ways to personalize education within their classrooms. Understanding that there is no average learner and that every person learns differently at different times, in different subject matter, and in different ways, has led to what we believe is a transformative shift in teaching practices. Unlike previous good practice where teachers differentiate instruction for students when a need is revealed, teachers who use UDL design curriculum learning with entry points for different students prior to the students beginning their studies. This variation may seem like a slight nuance, when in fact it is a powerful and significant shift from differentiated instruction.
While we were working to develop a system of personalized learning for every student at CESJDS, we were just as eager to create a deeply collaborative inclusion program to expand the educational services of the school. The next step in our initiative is to create the CESJDS/Sulam special education inclusion program for students with disabilities in need of more significant support. The work already done by the educators at CESJDS has been essential in creating a culture of professional confidence and expertise, collaboration, understanding, and openness – all essential ingredients for an effective inclusion program. To reach this level of inclusion, every stakeholder must be prepared – faculty, parents, students, and the entire community. Research indicates that students with disabilities gain the most when outstanding special education support occurs in an environment which values and respects their dignity. Research also shows that neuro-typical students gain from the implementation of special education strategies within their classrooms, as they learn that people with disabilities are equally valued and equally deserving of participating in communal life.
The dream to create a personalized learning prototype, along with an inclusion program that serves a broader range of learners, is based on the Torah values of B’tzelem Elokim (we are each made in the divine image), K’hillah (community), and V’ahavta l’rei-kha (loving our neighbor). In a world that is not always in alignment with these values, it is crucial that Jewish schools model a commitment to teaching our students that each of them has a rightful place in our Jewish community and the larger world.
While this is a lofty aspiration, all the partners in this entrepreneurial endeavor are guided by the precept in Pirkei Avot that “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.” We have already made significant strides towards our goal and look forward to the important work ahead for our institutions and the model we plan to share with the Jewish educational field.
Lianne Heller is the executive director of Sulam.
Rabbi Mitch Malkus is the head of school at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School.