June 15, 2024
Search
Close this search box.
Search
Close this search box.
June 15, 2024
Search
Close this search box.

Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

‘The Usual Suspects’ of Successful Jewish Education

I’ll never forget how I felt the first time I finished “The Usual Suspects.” The film (spoiler alert!) revolves around the testimony of a petty career criminal who suffers from cerebral palsy named Verbal Kint. Kint is one of only two survivors of a massacre orchestrated by Keyser Soze, a mysterious and mythical warlord known for his cruelty and barbarism. Kint is questioned by a detective who hopes to uncover the true identity of Soze, while the other survivor provides physical details of Soze’s appearance to a police sketch artist from his hospital bed. Eventually, Kint is released from police custody, where we see him walking outside, gradually losing the limp and flexing his supposedly disabled hand. At the same time, the sketch of Soze arrives at the police station by fax. As soon as he receives the fax, the detective drops his coffee mug on the floor in a state of shock and horror, as he realizes that Kint is in fact Soze. As Soze drives off, never to be seen again, the audience hears a voiceover of a line he said to the detective earlier in the film: “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist, and like that … he’s gone.” And the movie concludes with one of the greatest plot twists of all time.

There is something unforgettable about a good plot twist. They each possess a unique quality that makes them timeless, while so many others are instantly forgettable. What makes the great ones so memorable whereas many others are so unremarkable? I think one possible explanation is that a good twist leaves us feeling shocked and surprised. When we get surprised, our brains fire off dopamine, (one of our happy chemicals) which increases the intensity of emotions we feel while the brain works to understand and process what has happened. Essentially, surprise enhances emotions and happiness, things we all enjoy feeling.

Another reason why we like a good twist is due to our inherent intellectual curiosity. An intellectually curious individual is not afraid to have their core beliefs challenged and willingly embraces ideas and values through the prism of an alternative perspective or point of view. Immediately after finishing “The Usual Suspects,” I went back to the beginning of the movie and watched it again to see if the ending’s shocking revelation actually made sense. To my surprise, I found myself analyzing every interaction, conversation and detail of the movie, and upon finishing it for the second time, I understood why it is considered such a classic.

As educators, we are trained to be intellectually curious. We are constantly asking ourselves questions about everything from individual students’ observable behaviors, educational best practices, to creating a school culture filled with ruach and joy. We know from our own experiences that what was true yesterday may not necessarily be true today and that the best way to learn is to continue to ask questions, to be open-minded and to be intellectually curious.

Years ago, while Googling something on my phone, the following thought occurred to me: In the not-too-distant past, students went to school to acquire information. At the time, the school building was the central hub of all available information deemed important for students to learn so that they could eventually succeed beyond the classroom in the “real world.” Essentially, the necessity of school was directly tied to the information students would acquire and have access to. However, we currently have access to all of the information in the world with the simple push of a button! That being the case, what is the point of school nowadays? What are the educational expectations for your children? As educators, what are our goals? What are we hoping to achieve? What are the metrics of success and accomplishments?

In my research into this question, I found several books that address this topic, most notably Ted Dintersmith’sWhat School Could Be: Insights and Inspirations from Teachers Across America” and David B. Cohen’s “Capturing the Spark,” (both highly recommended for all parents). I found these books to be tremendously helpful in terms of learning about innovations in education, student motivation, academic achievement, helping students discover and explore their passions, and the underlying conditions that lead to student growth and success.

Reading these books and other subsequent articles over the years on this topic has me constantly thinking about how this research and information can be used to benefit our students, as well as how it relates generally to the unique experience of the Modern Orthodox yeshiva education system. My findings have helped me answer key questions regarding the overall experience that we provide our students, educational philosophy, student experiences and metrics of success.

School should be a journey of self-discovery for all students. They should be provided opportunities to take advantage of the abundance of information that exists on a given topic, and be provided with the tools to research, create, and discover their own passions and interests. By engaging with students in this way, schools create a warm and safe environment for students, which will promote and foster personal growth, self-confidence and cognitive development.

School should be a place of “good vibes,” where students are encouraged to ask questions, classrooms are warm and positive environments, they have meaningful and inspirational co-curricular and religious programming, and the student-teacher relationship is one of encouragement, inspiration and motivation. Schools should do everything in their power to avoid “bad vibes,” where students feel the environment is punitive, there is a toxic hyper-competitive focus on grades, and a limited focus on hard work, effort and mental health. This will ultimately lead to greater student success and achievement.

If we can do these things, not only will this lead to greater student success and achievement, but we will also have succeeded in creating an environment that leads to strong religious and value developments, a place of emotional safety and security, a positive and supportive learning environment and help every child maximize their potential. In doing so, we will be able to achieve the real goals of school: cultivating the next generation of the Jewish people who are committed to a life of Torah and mitzvot, individuals filled with strong moral character, and have the self-discipline to work hard and succeed to their chosen field. May Hashem grant all of our wonderful educators success in achieving these goals!


Rabbi Jeff Ney is the middle school director at Westchester Day School.

Leave a Comment

Most Popular Articles