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Ben Porat Yosef fourth-graders study empathy

Abigail Klein LeichmanLocal
Published: 11 December 2009

Is it possible to teach empathy? Can a teacher instill positive character traits along with reading and math skills? Jewish day-school educators continually seek effective approaches to this challenge.

At Ben Porat Yosef in Paramus, two initiatives recently were launched with the goal of fostering empathy for people who are different because of age or ability.

“I think modeling is the key,” said fourth-grade teacher Michal Kahan. “You can talk to children about disabilities, but if they don’t see how you deal with people who have those disabilities, they won’t know what to do.”

Using a social-studies curriculum she developed, Kahan introduced classroom discussions about physical, mental, emotional, or learning differences. After extensive role-playing and preparation, she then asked her pupils to identify and interview a person with a significant disability.

“At first, some of the children said they wouldn’t do the assignment, that it would make [their subjects] feel worse about being different,” said Kahan, herself the mother of a special-needs child. “I explained that people with disabilities really want others to understand them.”

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Ben Porat Yosef fourth-graders Adina Aisenthal Berkovit and Ben Lasher sort coins while blindfolded, part of the class “differences” curriculum, while Julia Kohen looks on.

With help from their parents, most of the children found relatives or family friends with disabilities, including cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, autism, Alzheimer’s, and blindness. The others consulted special-needs parents who are friends of Kahan. Interviews were almost all conducted by phone, often with input from the subject’s parent or caregiver.

“It took courage to pick up the phone and do it,” said the teacher. In class journals, children wrote that they had felt extremely nervous prior to the conversation, but once they engaged in the process they had rehearsed with their teacher, it went smoothly. “They saw by the end of the assignment that they were doing a great service to those they interviewed,” Kahan said.

Fourth-graders’ parents e-mailed Kahan afterward with positive feedback and follow-up ideas such as inviting guest speakers. One suggested a class viewing of “Praying with Lior,” a documentary about a boy with Down syndrome preparing for his bar mitzvah. After watching it together, the class compiled a list of similarities and differences between Lior and themselves. They discovered that the list of similarities was longer, and wrote essays about these findings.

In addition, Kahan reinforced the lesson with an experiential simulation of hearing and vision impairment, muteness, and inability to use one’s hands. For example, children in the “visually impaired” group were blindfolded and then sorted pennies, dimes, nickels, and quarters entirely by feel.

At a school Thanksgiving feast several weeks later, the fourth-graders interacted with guests invited from CareOne, a nursing and rehabilitation facility in Teaneck. “I had prepared the children about the special needs of the elderly, and they did amazingly well,” said Kahan. “They went right up to them and asked questions, and they were very warm and patient. Maybe it’s partly that they’re just good kids, but maybe it’s partly because of what they learned from the unit.”

To further develop the trait of empathy and introduce the concept of “chavruta” or partner learning, Rosh HaYeshiva Rabbi Tomer Ronen recently began pairing third- and fourth-graders with first- and second-graders to study the weekly Torah portion together.

“What emerged from that was the idea of the oldest children in the school being involved directly in support of the younger children,” said Stanley Fischman, director of general studies at BPY, which was founded in 2001 and has 160 children in toddler to fourth-grade classes.

Fischman created the Eshed Society, a voluntary group open to fourth-graders. “Eshed” is an acronym for the Hebrew words “iggud shlosha devarim,” or “society (for) three things,” namely Torah, avoda (prayer), and gemilut chasadim (acts of kindness).

The Torah component involves the paired study partners. For avoda, society members pray together with first-graders in the mornings. For good deeds, volunteers give up recess to help younger grades in the lunchroom.

“When we came up with the acronym ‘eshed,’ we didn’t realize it means ‘waterfall,’” said Fischman. “But it’s a perfect name; water flowing from higher ground to a lower plateau really describes what the children are doing.”

The society’s student steering committee, under Fischman’s guidance, keeps track of who does what on a daily basis and brainstorms new ideas.

“They are living the notion of supporting others, and they will continue, with God’s help, to do this as they advance through the grades,” said Fischman. “As opposed to formal lessons in kindness and empathy, character traits are not as much taught as they are lived. The greater picture that emerges from what we have been working on this year is establishing the essential principles of living and learning at our school.”

 
 

No mumps here

More than 300 people in two New York Orthodox communities have contracted mumps from an outbreak that has been traced back to a Catskills summer camp. The illness has spread to parts of the Garden State but area school officials are calm, noting the outbreak has not made its way to North Jersey.

“Thankfully, we’ve had nothing,” said Joel Kirschner, administrator of Yavneh Academy in Paramus.

The school receives a state grant for nursing services that requires compliance with state immunization regulations, which mandate the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine. Schools must also complete an audit containing students’ medical histories, including vaccination records.

Arthur Poleyeff, principal of general studies at Torah Academy of Bergen County in Teaneck, said students who have not been vaccinated are not permitted to attend school.

Yavneh is also in contact with the Paramus Board of Health, which issues alerts when necessary. “We’ve not had an issue,” Kirschner said. “I would suspect the communities that have are less on top of this issue and may not get the kind of services we get.”

The Paramus Board of Health first got in touch with Ben Porat Yosef’s nurse, Dara Silverstein, in the fall. Silverstein said she is following policies set by the board, but no cases have surfaced at this point.

According to those instructions, all students’ immunization records must be up to date and all students must have the proper immunizations. Absences are also closely monitored and the board of health is to be notified if mumps are reported. Calls to the Paramus board were not returned by press time.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a Jewish summer camp in the Catskills, with 400 campers, was the source this summer of the largest U.S. outbreak of the mumps in several years. More than 200 people in Monsey and New Square in Rockland County have been diagnosed with the disease, while many more in Kiryas Joel in Orange County and in Brooklyn have also fallen ill.

On June 17, an 11-year-old boy came to camp from Great Britain, which has reported some 4,000 cases in an ongoing mumps outbreak. According to the CDC, the boy began to show symptoms at the camp on June 28 and 25 cases were reported among campers and staff.

Most of the campers were from Borough Park, where mumps began to spread after the campers returned home.

On Sept. 26, the New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services learned of eight suspected mumps cases in two Ocean County boys’ day schools. By the end of October, 40 cases had been reported. The outbreak continued to spread to Rockland and Orange counties in New York and in Quebec.

According to the 2008 National Immunization Survey, more than 90 percent of children between 19 and 35 months old in New York City, New York state, and New Jersey had received one dose of the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine, while about 90 percent of teens 13 to 17 years old had received two doses.

Mumps is spread by coughing and sneezing. Common symptoms include fever, headache, and swollen salivary glands, but it can sometimes lead to more serious problems.

According to some reports, students in the affected communities had been vaccinated. One dose of mumps vaccine prevents about 80 percent of mumps, while two doses prevents about 90 percent, according to the CDC’s Website. In an outbreak, according to the Website, if most of the population is vaccinated, then some people who contract mumps are likely to have been vaccinated as well. Without vaccination, though, the outbreak would affect the entire population.

For up-to-date information on mumps, outbreaks, and vaccinations, visit www.cdc.gov.

 
 

Ben Porat Yosef to buy former Frisch building

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The Frisch School has entered an agreement to sell its old building at 243 E. Frisch Court in Paramus to Ben Porat Yosef.

Ben Porat Yosef announced last week an agreement to buy the old Frisch building in Paramus, which has housed the elementary day school for two years.

The details of the sale, from The Frisch School, have been worked out, according to BPY’s vice president, Yehuda Kohn, but the closing is still a way off. But as of Aug. 1, Kohn said, BPY would assume full responsibility for the 70,000-square-foot building at 243 E. Frisch Court.

“There are no words to describe how this worked out for us,” Kohn said. “Having everybody under one roof in this particular facility — which fits us magnificently and is in a tremendous location for our constituencies — is a dream.” The school had previously planned to split its older and younger grades between its original campus at Cong. Sons of Israel in Leonia and a proposed second campus at the Jewish Center of Teaneck.

The building is in generally good condition, Kohn said. However, the yeshiva would like to “modernize” it. Immediate building improvements include a new roof and an evaluation of electrical systems.

Though BPY and Frisch have publicly announced the transfer of ownership, the schools are in only the first stages of negotiating the terms of the sale, according to Martin Heistein, president of Frisch’s board. He would not comment on the amount under discussion, but real estate listings revealed a $14 million asking price for the building.

Proceeds from the sale will go toward paying down the debt on Frisch’s current campus, also in Paramus, Heistein said. He did not comment on what the amount of debt is.

“We’re very pleased that the sale of the building will be mutually beneficial to both institutions,” Heistein said. “The former Frisch building has wonderful memories and we are thrilled that the building will remain a Jewish school for our community for years to come.”

BPY isn’t the only school in the building, however. Bat Torah–The Alisa M. Flatow Yeshiva has been Frisch’s primary tenant in the building since 2008, and BPY has been subletting from that school. According to Kohn and Bat Torah’s principal, Miriam Bak, the two are likely to continue a relationship that will keep Bat Torah in the building.

“Now that we’ve finalized our agreements with Frisch, we’re trying to finalize with Bat Torah,” Kohn said.

BPY intends to continue leasing to the all-girls high school, he added. “As long as they can still fit, we’d like to have them for as long as possible,” Kohn said.

Class size may eventually become an issue. BPY expects an enrollment of at least 215 students during the 2010-11 school year, approximately 40 percent growth from the 2009-10 year. It has entered what Kohn called “a vigorous growth phase,” and that growth is expected to continue.

The schools have divided the building well so far, said Bak, with Bat Torah operating on the ground floor and BPY using the top two floors. The schools share the auditorium, cafeteria, labs, and gym.

Students from Bat Torah have babysat for BPY children during evening programs and earned chesed hours by tutoring the younger children. Students from BPY, in turn, have been invited to attend school plays at Bat Torah.

“We wanted to make this work,” Bak said. “We’ve made it into a very pleasant relationship.”

She noted that her school has received interest from “one or two places available and anxious to have us” but for now the school is “happy where we are.”

“We intend to remain in the building as long as they accommodate our needs,” Bak said.

Though Frisch had leased the building to Bat Torah and BPY for the past two years, it continued to list the property for sale. The school had not set out to sell its former building to another Jewish institution, according to Heistein, but he appeared pleased that it would continue to function as a Jewish school.

“The Frisch School desired to sell the building for the highest price,” he said. “It was merely fortuitous that it is going to another Jewish institution.”

 
 

Learning by doing at Ben Porat Yosef

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Na’ama Papier, Dasie Fisher, Michaela Niewood, and Michael Goldberg, work at the “ant” station to find how many marbles weigh a pound. Photos courtesy Ben Porat Yosef

Estimating, measuring, comparing, and calculating just got a lot more fun for first- to fifth-graders at Ben Porat Yosef in Paramus.

The kids recently hopped and ran their way through the day school’s first Discovery Learning Day. This new experiential program joins science and math — and reading, too. Teachers used David Schwartz’s popular “If You Hopped like a Frog” as a jumping-off point (literally) for the boys and girls to compare their physical abilities with those of the frog, ant, pelican, and spider featured in the storybook.

Science specialist Jean Myers and math specialist Cindy Wiesel devised the program as a way to integrate lessons in the two disciplines. “We discovered that so much about science is measurement. We wanted the children to have a hands-on experience with concepts such as distance or elapsed time or volume or mass to have a sense of what that means,” said Wiesel.

They created four stations based on four of the animals in the Schwartz book, which colorfully compares different creatures’ physical abilities with those of humans. Classroom teachers read the book to their students beforehand.

A frog can hop 20 times its body length, so if a child could do the same, how far would that hop take them? Spiders can scurry 33 times their body length in one second; the kids were timed as they ran along a marked track showing how far 33 times an average child’s body length would reach.

Knowing that a pelican can gulp a volume of food into its mouth that is three times what its stomach can hold and that a human stomach holds about a pint, the children guessed which of several containers was pint-sized and which was three times larger. They tried to estimate how heavy an object they would have to lift to get anywhere near an ant’s ability to carry 50 times its body weight. Using a huge scale built by Wiesel’s husband, Israel, they tried to guess how many marbles add up to one pound (answer: 87) and then compared the weights of different fruits.

As documented on a video of the event www.youtube.com/watch?v=naQ7AjggwIM&feature=player_embedded), each of the 100 children carried a clipboard from station to station and entered answers to questions geared to different grade levels. A live frog and an ant farm were part of the props in the school’s gymnasium.

This type of program is referred to by educators as “authentic learning,” said Stanley Fischman, director of general studies.

“The value and concept behind the program is to teach students math and science in a practical way that they will be excited about, and that helps them truly understand concepts and be able to apply them,” he said. “In this way, we are building an important foundation for all future science and math education.”

Author Schwartz was invited to attend the event inspired by his book, but since he is on the West Coast he suggested instead holding a live assembly with the kids via Skype the following day.

“He was so pleased with our project and how it reflected on his book that he waived his fee and asked only that we send him a video of our Discovery Learning Day,” said Wiesel. “He has written several books about math and measurement, and he said this is the first time he heard of a school basing an activity on that particular book.” Ahead of the virtual assembly, teachers helped their pupils prepare questions for the author.

In the spring, another school-wide Discovery Learning Day is planned, probably focusing on an engineering project. “We want to do something a little different each time, tied in with a different book,” said Wiesel. Smaller-scale programs may be introduced for each grade level more frequently during the year.

In keeping with Ben Porat Yosef’s philosophy of integrating Hebrew language into the whole curriculum, Wiesel and Myers plan to add Hebrew labels to objects at each station in future programs. Among the stated goals of Discovery Learning is “Sharing our collective understanding and appreciation of HaShem’s wondrous creations,” which Fischman said dovetailed well with the school’s annual theme of giving thanks via the blessings recited daily.

“A program like this gives them a sense of wonder of God’s creation,” he said.

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Yosef Kryzman hops to see how many frog-lengths he can reach with one jump. With him are Anna Margolin, Michelle Elmann, and Dalia Efremoff.
 
 

Budding scientists learn teamwork

Three schools take part in Science Olympiad

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A team constructs its bridge using only 50 straws and 20 pins. Teams designed and constructed their bridges to have the longest span possible and still support the weight of an eraser for 10 seconds. Adrienne shlagbaum

Ever wonder how an F-16 lands exactly where it’s supposed to on the deck of an aircraft carrier? Or why a bridge doesn’t collapse from the weight of rush hour traffic? Why doesn’t a boat sink when it’s loaded with cargo?

These were some of the challenges that more than 50 students in the fourth and fifth grades from Yeshivat Noam, Yavneh Academy, and Ben Porat Yosef, all day schools in Paramus, faced when they gathered at the Yeshivat Noam campus for a Science Olympiad. It pitted teams and students against each other, but in a new and unusual way designed to teach teamwork and collaboration as well as science.

Linda Stock, the assistant principal at Yeshivat Noam, said, “At one time, the Science Olympiad had one school compete against the other, and this year, we, the participating schools, decided to do things differently. Yes, we created teams at each school to tackle specific problems, but then, instead of having the schools compete with each other, we broke up the school teams and created new ones, in groups of three, where every student came from a different school. We also continued the tradition of afternoon knowledge challenges, with ‘Picture This,’ ‘Science Jeopardy,’ and ‘Name that Scientist.’ It was a chance to teach kids how to collaborate with one another, how to make a project come to life from different ideas, and to teach them to think critically. It was a challenge in problem-solving, cooperation, and compromise, all skills required in real life.”

Bridges designed by each team were judged by the weight they could hold without collapsing; for airplanes, aerodynamic design that worked needed to be engineered from a single sheet of paper, the use of a pair of scissors, and five centimeters of tape. And the boats were made of clay and needed to hold a fair amount of cargo before they would sink. There were five teams in each category, and all the students received certificates for participating in the Olympiad.

Stanley Fischman, director of general studies at Ben Porat Yosef, told The Jewish Standard, “Teaching science is very important in all of these schools, and one of the benefits is to get children to think creatively and critically. In order to compete effectively in this Olympiad, we taught the principles of engineering and design to help the kids design models that are the strongest and most resilient structures. In this way they learn to appreciate the innovations of civil engineering and the skill it takes to build something that lasts. We at Ben Porat Yosef believe that ultimately, teaching science provides a child with a strong appreciation of God’s creation.”

Elaine Weisfeld, associate principal at Yavneh Academy, and Margi Saks, the enrichment coordinator at Yeshivat Noam, were the driving forces behind the day. Said Weisfeld, “The day was an educator’s delight. We achieved our goal of a positive experience in cooperative problem solving. The atmosphere of fun, camaraderie, and mutual respect motivated the children to work together and try their best. The students cheered one another’s efforts and accomplishments and expressed their appreciation for one another’s strengths and the unique learning experience.”

Saks told the Standard, “When Elaine and I found out Kushner Academy was not able to host the Science Olympiad as they had done for the past two years, we decided the learning opportunities were too valuable to lose and created our new alternative …, working collaboratively as schools and not competitively. Science is usually associated with boring and hard [work]. Through these experiences, all 50 children now view science as intriguing and extremely interesting. What greater outcome could we have wanted than to spark a love of learning in our children?”

As for the students, Eli Kuperman of New Milford, who attends Yavneh, worked on the bridge-building project and told the Standard, “I was very excited about this. I learned how to work with a team and with different supplies. We combined our ideas and it turned out to be lots of fun. I even made new friends.”

Alex Melzer of Teaneck, who attends Yeshivat Noam, also worked on a bridge project. She said, “It was interesting to see that the simple design of a straight bridge worked just fine and didn’t cave in when we put our first eraser on it, but it did collapse when we added more weight. But I did make new friends, too.”

Ariel Chechik, who lives in Bergenfield and attends Ben Porat Yosef, worked on one of the airplane teams. “We combined our ideas, and of course we tried, but we failed. I can only imagine what the little pilot in the cockpit had for breakfast — maybe he was drunk — because it crash-landed on its nose!”

Yehuda Saks wanted to be a participant but was worried that because his mother, Margi Saks, was one of the organizers there might be a conflict of interest. The judges decided otherwise when he passed the “entrance exam,” and he worked on a bridge. “I learned that it’s hard to make a thin, strong bridge, and it’s easy to make new friends,” he said.

 
 
 
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