Back at school after an all-too-quick winter vacation, Carmit Federman is wishing she had used some of the precious free days to get started on this month’s dreaded task: report cards.
For most adults, report cards hold a key place in their childhood memories: the nervousness upon opening them, the anticipation of parents’ reactions, or simply the pride of coming home with a page full of A’s.
For teachers like Federman, report cards mean something else: hours and hours of work. At Hannah Senesh Community Day School in Brooklyn, where Federman teaches second grade, the reports (one is due out this week) are only a twice-yearly ritual, with parent conferences coming at regular intervals between them.
But while they are infrequent, Hannah Senesh report cards (like their counterparts at many day schools) are labor-intensive. Instead of issuing grades for her 20 students, Federman must write detailed evaluations on performance in the four subjects she teaches: Hebrew listening and speaking, Hebrew reading and writing, Bible, and prayer/holidays. Federman and Jenifer Avery, the second grade’s general studies teacher, also each write evaluations on the social and behavior skills of half the students- conferring with each other before the report cards are finalized to make sure each agrees with the other’s assessment.
For the Israeli-born Federman it’s a daunting project because although she is fluent in English she finds it painstaking to write in English, and is nervous about making spelling and grammatical errors. Plus, the evaluations have to be carefully crafted, with plenty of examples to back up any observation.
"If there’s a problem, you want to tell the parents, but you don’t want them to panic," Federman explains. "You have to be very sensitive. It happens sometimes that you say something needs to be worked on and then the parents blow it out of proportion."
As a parent of a kindergartener at Hannah Senesh, Federman appreciates the care and detail that goes into report cards. But for two weeks, she is perpetually exhausted, staying up until 1 a.m. each night working on the evaluations, because the project can’t begin until 9 p.m., after her two small children are in bed.
"This was the first time I really questioned whether I could be both a mom and a teacher," Federman reports, noting that most of her colleagues either have no children or have considerably older children.
However, she comforted herself with the knowledge that report card season would end and that she enjoys working outside the home: and with children.
One thing that has surprised Federman in consulting with her co-teacher, Avery, is how similarly the children are doing in Judaic and general studies. "You’d think some kid would be quiet and concentrate in math, but then not like Hebrew, but the kids seem either to do well in both areas of the curriculum, or they don’t do as well in either," she notes. "It’s rare that someone is quiet and concentrating in English, but not tefila [prayer]."
As Federman evaluates her students, she reflects on her own progress so far this year, her first at Hannah Senesh, a 7-year-old, pluralistic school. Having just completed her master’s degree in Jewish education last spring, this is the first time Federman ó who spent years as a social worker before switching to education ó has worked with a class this large. The experience has forced her to hone her classroom management skills.
Over the past two months, Federman’s newfound firmness has grown apparent. Whereas at the beginning of the year she ignored her students’ frequent squirming and allowed children to interrupt lessons to share off-topic concerns, she is now insistent that everyone "sit on their tushes," and politely reminds interrupters that they can tell her their news after she is finished with the lesson.
In both December and January, when a boy ignores Federman’s assignments and uses them as an excuse to write about the "Captain Underpants" books, Federman firmly informs him he needs to do the project over again.
Classroom squabbles are becoming less frequent, in part Federman says, because of what she has learned from her co-teacher: to encourage the children to think about how they should have handled the encounter differently and when possible, urging the kids to resolve the dispute on their own.
Federman attributes much of the newfound classroom harmony to simply structuring activities a bit more carefully. For example, she now sends the children in small groups, rather than all at once, to get their lunches from their cubbies. In planning Hebrew Day, an upcoming school-wide program, she suggested that teachers escort students from activity to activity, rather than having the children wander around on their own, the original plan.
"You learn how to think ahead and where to anticipate balagan," she says, using the Hebrew word for chaos.
Helping matters is that by this point in the year, the students have settled into various classroom routines. One such ritual is celebrating Shabbat, which the second grade does together every Friday at lunchtime. While Avery reads to the class in one room, Federman brings four helpers into the other room, where they noisily and enthusiastically push tables together to create one long one, unroll sturdy paper to create a makeshift tablecloth, put out placemats and set out paper cups for each child. Federman sets up the silver candlesticks, takes out a silver kiddush cup, plunks several bottles of grape juice onto the table and sends one of the helpers down to the office for two loaves of challah.
Usually, after the candles are lit, kiddush said and the blessing made over the challah, the children take out their lunchboxes, sing a few songs and eventually sing the blessing after the meal together. But on a recent Friday, it is Tu b’Shvat, and Federman has something different in mind.
On this day, the helpers are excited to see that the instructions have changed. This time, they are putting out entire place settings for their classmates. And Federman is pouring different kinds of dried fruit and nuts onto plastic plates and having the children place them in the center of the table.
"I don’t like peanuts," one boy says apprehensively.
"These are almonds," she explains. "We’re having a seder today for Tu b’Shvat."
When the table is laden with seven types of food (from dried figs to avocado to olives, all are plants native to Israel) Federman lets the helpers invite the rest of the class in. They spend the next hour drinking grape juice, tasting the foods one by one and reading from a Tu b’Shvat hagaddah Federman has compiled.
Despite the frequent accidental knocking over of grape juice cups, the seder runs fairly smoothly. The second-graders seem to enjoy sampling the foods, even though several refuse to try the almonds and the somewhat shriveled dates.
At the end, when Federman sends them to their cubbies for lunch, Jake groans, "Do we have to eat lunch? I’m full!"
Eli exclaims, "This is the best kabbalat Shabbat ever!"
To read previous articles in this series, please check The Jewish Week website at www.thejewishweek.com.