Between The Textbook Lines
August 31, 2023
The Curriculum Conundrum
Can we educate our children without sacrificing their chinuch?
Twenty lines in the science textbook have been Wited-Out since they state that the world is billions of years old.
A novel is set in the Holocaust years but the protagonists are not frum.
A history curriculum focuses on the greatness of Rome and Greece without discussing what’s happening simultaneously.
We need to teach our children how to read and write. We want them to be good at math. It’s important for them to know history and understand the way Hashem runs the world.
But do our current curricula provide them with the education we seek?
Defining the problem
Obviously, there are certain materials we won’t bring into our classrooms under any circumstances. Much of what is considered a typical curriculum in the secular world contains content that is outright kefirah or is otherwise assur for our children to read.
“I would never advocate giving students a textbook that’s not censored,” Mrs. Chasya Bernstein, a veteran educator who currently teaches in Bais Yaakov of Lakewood, states firmly.
But is that enough?
“The curriculum challenges in tznius, kefirah, and secular culture are real,” Rabbi Yochanan Scherman, director of Torah Umesorah’s General Studies Initiative, says.
Because it’s not only about the censoring. As the ideals of the world around us become more and more poisonous, they continue to seep into their educational material in the subtlest of ways.
“I can tell you the secular agenda has only gotten more extreme over the years,” says Mrs. Miriam Gerstein, a Lakewood parent. “I have a PhD in math, and we didn’t learn anything about education or math while I was in college. It was all about liberal ideas. I used to walk out of the classroom frequently during the discussions. And the people I was sitting with in class will be writing the math books of the future.”
Beyond hashkafah, part of the problem with sticking exclusively to the typical textbooks is their lack of educational integrity. Those books deny our children the ability to learn with a more broad-minded perspective, particularly when it comes to the history curriculum.
“There are so many periods in our own history that our girls know nothing about,” Mrs. Gerstein points out. “There’s a teacher I know who is working on a literature curriculum based on Forever My Jerusalem by Puah Steiner. Instead of spending hours learning about what the Indians ate and where they lived—people who were the worst murderers in history—let them learn about that.”
Another facet of the issue is that many students don’t enjoy or appreciate their general studies classes, leading to a breakdown of discipline and derech eretz. If the slant of the classes were changed so it was clear that the material is relevant to their lives, it’s likely the students would enjoy the classes more and take them more seriously.
In our ability
Last year, Mrs. Gerstein arranged an asifah on this topic in Rav Yisroel Neuman’s house with the participation of many local rabbanim. Rav Sadya Grama, Rav Aharon Zuckerman, and Rav Yitzchok Sorotzkin spoke, imploring teachers to be careful with what they bring into their classrooms.
“Perhaps fifty years ago, we could not change anything, but today it is in our ability to make changes,” Rav Yitzchok Sorotzkin stressed.
Rav Sadya Grama related a story of a menahel who apologized for a certain inappropriate image that been mistakenly left in a textbook, saying it was a mistake. “Would anyone run over a child and say it was a mistake?” he exclaimed. “We need to do more than that.”
But what can be done?
“I have found that the best way to improve afternoon classes—both from a curriculum and a behavior perspective—is by having the menahel lead the entire day, including the afternoon,” says Rabbi Scherman. “This does not mean he has to actually be there all day, but he should be keeping his finger on the pulse, ensuring a seamless chinuch alignment all day in what gets taught, who teaches, as well as the derech eretz of the students. The culture and attitude need to come from the top down.”
But the question of specifics still remains: Are there places in our curriculum that we can upgrade from a ruchniyus perspective?
Between the lines
We’ve all heard of subliminal messaging slipped between the lines. We would never read a New York Times article and swallow its assertions without critique. But the textbooks of today follow the same method as the newspapers.
Mrs. Khaver, founder of Curriculum Options, a resource for the frum teacher, puts it simply: “There is a very liberal agenda that permeates the most censored of curricula.”
“Not that the curricula of 50 years ago were okay,” she hurries to add. “Rav Avigdor Miller said half a century ago that we need to have a curriculum that is designed for frum schools. But if you look at how the curricula in the secular world have changed over the last few decades, you can clearly see their goals.”
For example, the descriptions in the textbooks are curated to promote the theme of random change over time. “The impression is given that if man doesn’t step up to the plate, the world will not survive.” Mrs. Khaver says.
Another popular liberal theme that rears its head in the most basic of science texts is that the population has exploded out of control and we need to work to cut it down. Of course, a simple look at the facts disproves this theory—there is so much food on Earth that much of it gets thrown out on a regular basis. But the theme that’s given over is that we are in desperate straits.
Another example is found in the literature curriculum. “A significant percentage of stories in every textbook proclaims fantastic feats of women. There’s no pritzus, nothing technically wrong, but it’s pushing a message of feminism, and there’s no question that that is impacting our girls’ outlook.”
As Rav Aharon Feldman famously says, “You cannot censor between the lines.”
According to Rabbi Scherman, we need to work backwards. Once the hanhalah has instituted the standards for the school and is ensuring that they are met, the curriculum can be built to maximize the students’ gain. Instead of pulling out the old science and literature textbooks and building curricula off of them, we need to decide which skills are necessary to teach our students and pick the resources using those goals.
“Let’s say you want to teach certain literary skills. You then look for the stories and articles that will allow you to teach those skills. It’s the same thing with science or history. We want our students to walk out of school with skills, not just to memorize a lot of information.”
When focused on skills and outcomes, with books being just tools to help the teacher, the academic value of the book is a plus but not nearly as crucial (although they must be reviewed to ensure that they do not have any tznius or kefirah content).
“The specific psak in ruchniyus and the educational decisions are up to each school to determine and use to decide which materials it will use. But the goal is to get from point A to point B. It doesn’t matter so much what story or textbook you choose to get there.”
However, while one may be able to forgo some top-quality resources and still compensate (albeit with more effort) to achieve academic excellence, one should never compromise on the tznius and hashkafah of the resources, as that can directly impact the chinuch of the talmidim. When there’s a question on a particular resource, a she’eliah should be asked.
Choose your pick
“The best way to address the negative is by replacing it with good-quality teaching and hashkafically appropriate materials,” Rabbi Scherman says.
Creating a textbook that meets state-mandated standards is no simple task. The expense is prodigious, and the amount of effort and research necessary makes it a daunting prospect. While several textbooks have been put out that meet the requirements—Witness to History by Project Witness comes to mind—it’s not something that can be done overnight.
Nevertheless, several individuals and organizations have stepped up to the task of accomplishing just that.
Achievement Education Services has worked in conjunction with Houghton Mifflin to put out math books that teach the same concepts as the originals, but the examples are changed to relate to the life of a frum child.
One of the leading developers of quality resources is Life Prep, which combines educational value with a Torah lens. Although they are currently mainly targeting mesivtas, they have resources available for both girls’ and boys’ upper-elementary school classes.
Machon Menoras Hachochma in Baltimore has also developed multiple English curricula for the frum consumer.
Curriculum Options is another resource. “Anyone with a curriculum that meets the guidelines given to us is promoted through our website and at our curriculum expos at no cost,” Mrs. Khaver explains. “This way, curriculum coordinators, principals, and teachers who come to us looking for alternatives have many options to choose from. Currently, there is a wide spectrum of subjects available.”
With all these options out there, why are many schools still using their old textbooks?
“I think a big reason is just that people are not aware,” Mrs. Khaver says. “Once awareness spreads, I think the schools will revise their curricula. Many of them already are.”
Although the textbooks and curricula that have been created are necessary and helpful, we can’t forget the real goal of our English classes: it’s not so much the acquisition of knowledge as it’s imparting skills to our students.
“We are actually starting a pilot program now in which we are training teachers to use [a skills-based teaching] method when planning their lessons,” Rabbi Scherman shares. “We’ve done a lot of research, and we feel that by implementing this style of lesson planning and teaching, the students will gain immeasurably both from an educational perspective as well as from a behavior perspective, since they feel that they are gaining more from the classes.”
Rabbi Scherman believes that once our teachers are trained with this method of skills-based learning, more resources that meet the standards will follow. “There are a lot of resources out there already; they just haven’t been widely shared. But it’s all about supply and demand. Once more teachers are requesting certain resources, the supply will stretch to meet it.”
Mrs. Bernstein notes another benefit of teaching skills. A big stress in her classroom is the ability to differentiate between fact and opinion, as the lines get very blurred in every textbook or primary source she has come across. Mrs. Bernstein will use articles that enable students to practice how to distinguish between real data and what’s been twisted to fit the author’s agenda.
“Specifically with history, I explain to the girls that you see a very small picture in the textbook. When the Greeks, for example, are discussed, their advancement and equality are praised. It doesn’t say that two thirds of the population of Athens were slaves.”
By giving the students a thorough training in critical thinking, they are inoculated against many of the insidious messages that may otherwise slip through.
“I first teach them how to navigate their way through the different sections of a textbook so they can locate events, maps, and people on their own,” Mrs. Bernstein explains. “Then I ask them, ‘Where can you find the Rambam?’ ‘Where can you find Geirush Sephard?’ And they stare at me. I explain to them that the chapter headings of the textbook are not the names of gedolim but the Stone Age, the Iron Age, the Industrial Age.”
In this way, she gives over the powerful message that the author of the history text’s goal is to show the reader how people came to dominate the physical world. They glorify the fact that man went from a farmer to an industrialist to an engineer. There’s a clear bias just in the way the chapters are titled.
By setting up the essential background with which to understand the author’s opinion and approach, students can make their way more critically and safely through the secular material.
Finding the connection
But it’s not just limiting the negative that we are concerned with. There are immeasurable benefits that our children will receive from being exposed to a secular curriculum from a frum perspective.
Mrs. Bernstein offers a story from her own high school years about how to create that atmosphere in the classroom.
“Rabbi Dov Gobioff was our ninth-grade science teacher. When he entered the classroom on the first day of school, he klapped on the desk and announced, ‘Lernen mir heint niflaos haBorei—Today we are learning about the wonders of Hashem.’ It set the tone for the year.”
Mrs. Miriam Jaffe, principal of Chedvas Bais Yaakov, shares her school’s innovative outlook on education. “There’s no such thing as limudei chol in our school. It’s all taught through a frum lens.”
Science is called niflaos haBorei, delineating its purpose in showing the exquisite precision of Hashem’s world. The vast majority of the literature in the school is written by frum authors; the school employs texts such as All for the Boss by Ruchama Shain and In Those Days in This Time by Etka Gitel Schwartz to give the girls both an education in masterful writing and background to dramatic periods in our history.
Another way that demonstrates the lack of separation is the fact that the majority of the teachers teach both limudei kodesh and limudei chol.
“When your Chumash teacher explains to you how the digestive system works, you understand that it’s all kodesh.”
When asked about finding appropriate literature, Mrs. Jaffe gives the credit to her teachers. “They spend a lot of time sifting through material to find top-quality stories and poetry.”
Science is always delicate, and Mrs. Jaffe shares that her teachers actually develop their own curriculum.
“We have a rav go through whatever is potentially problematic in our curriculum to make sure it’s okay.”
Ultimately, the goal is to create and give over a secular education that is no longer secular, one that bridges the gap and gives our children both abilities and a stronger belief in Hashem.
With the times
There is a famous story of a group of frum families living on a moshav in Eretz Yisrael who reached out to the Chazon Ish with a question. “We don’t have enough chareidi families on the moshav to create our own school. Can our children learn together with children from Mizrachi families?”
The Chazon Ish’s answer was no.
“It’s not that I’m worried about your children learning Chumash together with them,” the Chazon Ish explained. “It’s the secular subjects I’m concerned about. When they teach math, they will give the example that two front legs plus two back legs equals four legs, and that is not the way we teach math.”
Fifty years ago, yeshivos were pulling the students away from public school. They needed to be able to prove to them and their parents that their graduates were able to go to college due to the top-notch secular education they provided.
Today, the frum world is thankfully far from such dire straits. We have schools and frum programs that offer degrees and numerous businesses that provide jobs for the community without ever needing to come in contact with the secular world.
The world has changed, but have we changed along with it?
Countering their claims
“Even with all the censoring we do, apikorsus-based comments slip into the textbooks, especially when we teach earth science,” Mrs. Bernstein says. “I feel that it’s best not to give these subject too much credence by spending time disproving them.
“Instead, if my class comes across a line about the world being billions of years old, I’ll say something like, ‘Oh, they’re so scientific that they ignore evidence that doesn’t fit their theory.’ When we learn about the fossils record, I bring in Rabbi Miller’s article that explains how the fossils were made by the Mabul. I tell the girls that the same way Adam was created as an adult, the world was created fully formed.
“Similarly, when the books give the message that we are ruining the natural world, I tell the girls that there are birds whose sustenance is dying wood. Hashem created the world with dying forests so these animals would have what to eat.”