What does it look like to convene an action-oriented network of professionals who, working together, enrich their own work, contribute to the broader field of Jewish education, and use their conversation to strengthen experiences for their students? Suri Jacknis, Director of Educator Networks at the Jewish Education Project shares their approach to developing action networks.
The Jewish Education Project empowers educators and communal leaders with the tools they need to help young people and their families thrive individually and collectively as Jews and global citizens by sparking and spreading innovation that expands the reach and increase the impact of Jewish education.
The benefits of educator networks seem intuitive. Educators come together in networks to connect with other colleagues, to learn with and from each other, and to collaborate on projects of mutual benefit. Effective vehicles for sharing resources and for scaling impact, networks are also a low-cost, low-barrier vehicle of outreach and community building, At the same time, they can be poorly attended, and become closed echo chambers where diverse opinions and new ideas are not always heard. How do we seize this opportunity as one of growth and potential change for participants?
While the Jewish Education Project has long recognized the value of networks and supported them by convening educators or youth professionals, initially these groups were focused on relationships, learning and improvement of practice. Under the leadership and vision of our Chief Innovation Officer, Dr. David Bryfman, we were charged with seeing networks as vehicles for fulfilling our mission to spark and spread innovation in Jewish Education. More specifically, sparking and spreading innovation in Jewish education. Innovating is hard work. There is resistance to trying new things, to change. It is easier to move forward when you have the support of others. While we are still iterating and learning, we’re proud of what we have accomplished. Our hypothesis seems right: Networks work, when we craft them strategically.
Methodology: The Beginning
We began with small peer groups of 4-6 people who wanted to be in conversation with each other. Eventually we realized that it was better to strive for a minimum of ten participants so that each meeting would have a critical mass for meaningful conversation. The communities were highly structured so as to be focused on a goal and to ensure each participant’s learning from the group. Time is precious; we wanted to use it in the most strategic way possible.
- We experimented with using protocols for conversation (our most popular protocol is the tuning protocol) so that each participant had a chance to present a case study from their practice. We ended with an authentic generative question around which to collect suggestions and the wisdom of the group.
- We incorporated an opening connection question for the purpose of getting to know each other, build trusting relationships, and invite everyone’s voices into the conversation. We made sure to include a text study to provide a Jewish lens that could infuse our learning conversation.
- Each group had six meetings, so that each participant had a turn to share their case. At each meeting, each person’s presence was important; each participant’s contributions were deeply valued.
- We closed our meetings with an opportunity for each participant to reflect on their learning and what they plan to implement in their own practice.
Not Just Learning, but Action
As we evolved, many of our networks became ACTION networks. Participants of an action network commit to making change in their own practice/institution.
- Whole-network goal setting and individual participant’s goal-setting are part of the culture of an action network.
- At least once a year the network engages in a reflection/renewal conversation so that the network can agree on a shared goal around which the group will organize their learning and work for the year.
- If possible, the conversation will include a consideration of the network’s contributing to the field so others can benefit from their learning and experimentation. This can be in the form of a blog post that shares resources, case studies, highlights or a framework that they have developed together. Individual participants receive coaching from their peers and the facilitator to formulate their own goals in alignment with the focus of the network.
- Check-ins on progress toward goals may be included at the mid-point and end of the year. Some networks include a progress update as part of the format of every network meeting.
Impact and Results
Network participants report that they value their network because it gives them a framework to keep them moving forward on the innovation continuum. A network provides accountability, motivation and inspiration to keep going, even when the going gets tough.
Network participants tell us that their network keeps them focused on continuous improvement. Knowing that they have a responsibility to attend and contribute to their network and “report in” keeps them on track. “With so many things to do,” remarked one educator, “it is easy to lose sight of the goals that I have set for myself.
Coming to the network is really something I look forward to: I see my colleagues with whom I have now have ongoing relationships. I have a positive expectation that they will push me forward. They count on my input to give them ideas, suggestions and inspiration. They ask me how I am doing on my goal and they are genuinely interested in my answer and in my success. Hearing what they are doing and their suggestions sparks my own motivation to progress toward the goal that I have set for myself.
More established networks that have been meeting for several years begin to look beyond themselves toward what they can contribute to the field. Several networks have combined forces to provide shared professional learning for their teachers. Another network has designed a whole program to train and support teen mentors for their schools.
The “Bridge Network,” one of our action networks, can help us appreciate the impact of the network on the individual, institution and the community. This network has worked on the problem of how to help families bridge their engagement in the early childhood program to involvement in religious school. Often there are large numbers of families participating in Jewish experiences during the early years. Children are connecting to Jewish life in a Jewish setting for five hours a day. Holiday and Shabbat celebrations are full of joy and engagement. Contrast this with the once a week drop off Kindergarten experience. Class size is small; engagement of families is minimal. This network asks, How can we work as an institution towards continuous engagement of the learners and their families? Through experimentation with various strategies as well as learning about different models across the country, this network developed a list of “levers for continuous engagement. “ It is this framework that they contribute to the field in the hope that it can inspire future progress to meet this challenge.
A snapshot of a recent meeting of this network illustrates other aspects of its impact.
A team of colleagues that were newer participants of the network spoke about their frustration trying to work in a collaborative way in their synagogue culture that is very siloed, where there is no natural connection between the Early Childhood programming and the programming for the Religious School. Veteran participants were able to speak from their multiple years’ experience in this work (“we’ve been there”) as well as to offer suggestions for how to move forward in a manner that was both supportive and accessible. It was a moment of “network maturity,” of how far we have come and how much wisdom we can offer to those just starting. Network participants chimed in to relate that they frequently reference using ideas from the Bridge Network when they meet with clergy and others.
This network has become a force of “authority” in our work, participants testify. They suggest the Rabbi now asks them, “What did the network say/recommend?” when they are planning. Another participant suggested, “This network makes it very professional…we are presenting information to the various constituents in our community including volunteer and staff leadership and ideas based on hundreds of parents and children and having this data behind our experimentation matters.” A third participant adds, “We often take our inspiration from suggestions offered in the Bridge Network; we know that this network plays an important role in helping us push forward our work.”
Still in Progress
Our action networks are still a work in progress. We aspire to build a culture of generosity, mutual responsibility, and accountability. We hope our network participants feel as though they are working toward a common goal, and that they are in this together, that they have a responsibility to be there for each other. That said…
- Consistent attendance is still a challenge in some networks.
- Goal setting is still aspirational for some newer networks.
- Motivating progress toward network and individual goals is not always easy.
- Developing rituals for checking on and documenting progress is ongoing.
We are now analyzing attendance data. Why are some networks better attended than others? What drives people to consistently attend? We hope to find some trends in the data that will help us identify best practices to encourage better, consistent attendance that we hope, will help with other challenges as well.
Facilitators continue to support and provide positive recognition for goal setting and to create intrinsic incentives for progress toward goals. Facilitators share practice around the rituals they are creating for participant to update their progress; they also are finding new ways to share stories of impact across networks.
The challenges drive us forward to keep experimenting and improving. We will continue to use the power and energy of the networks to give educators and communal leaders the tools they need to help young people and their families thrive individually and collectively as Jews and global citizens.