Two really interesting things happened last week – one that you almost certainly heard about, and one that you almost certainly did not.
On one side of the world, Israeli company Waze was sold to Google for over a billion dollars. Different from our typical GPS system that gets one individual car from point A to point B, Waze is a community-driven application that learns from users’ driving times to provide routing and real-time traffic updates.
On the other side of the world, more specifically Eighth Avenue in New York City, Matan gathered its second cohort of congregational school education directors to kick off another Matan Institute. Aimed at helping educators understand the diverse needs of children in their classrooms, and then working with them to develop systems to appropriately serve those children, the Matan Institute first asks participants to analyze their own learning styles. Once they have established their preferred mode of learning – auditory, visual, tactile, kinesthetic (movement-based) – we divide them into groups. We keep the groups homogenous (i.e. all kinesthetic learners in one group). Their task: to use a bag of seemingly random supplies to introduce themselves according to their preferred mode of learning.
We’ve done this activity many times, and the participants report that it helps them better understand the concept of “diverse learners.” This time, though, something new emerged. The group of visual learners decided that their best bet was to utilize standard name tags. Among their props were a few name tags, but not enough for each person. So they decided to barter with the other groups – they offered up their play dough, musical instruments and other tools in exchange for all of the nametags in the room. They realized that those other groups probably would not take advantage of the nametags, but could use the tactile, kinesthetic and auditory materials.
I thought this was brilliant. This strategy brought to light a crucial point in including children with special needs in Jewish education. At Matan, we advise educators that they don’t need to have all the answers, but they do need to know where to go to find those answers. As Jewish educators, we cannot merely sit in our own cars and turn on our individual GPS to get from point A to point B.
Barriers to inclusion, for the most part, are not about cost. They are about attitude. When we look around at the many resources around us, think creatively and draw on each other’s strengths we have the opportunity to include all learners in our Jewish education programs. To be clear, we probably will not ever make a billion dollars doing it – but learning from each other’s “traffic jams”, “driving times” and “preferred routes” will get us all to our destination – the inclusion of students with disabilities – much more smoothly and efficiently.
Meredith Englander Polsky co-founded Matan in the year 2000 and currently serves as the Director of Training and Advocacy. She holds graduate degrees in Special Education and Clinical Social work and, in 2001, was one of eight national recipients of the first fellowships awarded by Joshua Venture: A Fellowship for Jewish Social Entrepreneurs. She currently resides in Gaithersburg, Maryland with her husband and three children.