Our staff conducted a program in an Israel high school this week, in a middle-class, academically oriented community. As always, I was struck by the dismal environment in the classrooms. A large and well-equipped campus, yet with barren rooms and broken furniture. Once when I complained about the physical environment of Israeli schools to a friend who had immigrated from South Africa, she laughed, saying her family referred to Israeli schools as the "early Soweto style" of architecture. The conditions seem to invite vandalism, which is not quickly repaired. But wait, there's more: most buildings in Israel are concrete and block, covered with plaster, with steel or aluminum window and door frames. Ceilings too are concrete or plaster. Floors are terrazzo tile. There generally are no curtains in school rooms, and the furniture is made of steel frames with plastic or wood surfaces. All of this makes a classroom into an echo chamber, in which even a quiet class seems noisy, in which it is impossible to hear anyone speak if anyone else is murmuring, in which the scrape of steel chair legs on a stone floor is amplified to a painful acoustic insult. And given that the standard class size is 40, is it surprising that so many teachers have vocal-chord problems?
Israel has some of the finest educators in the world, and outstanding departments of education in its universities. Why, then, has there been no advance in the area of classroom environment since I attended the Leo Baeck school 40 years ago? Well, with the exception of room airconditioning in some schools (when it works - and I won't go into the noise issue...).
Recently I visited Pittsburgh, and was taken on a tour of the "Cathedral of Learning" of the University of Pittsburgh, a 42 story classroom tower built in the 20s in the style of a gothic cathedral. Each ethnic community in the city was invited to create one of the classrooms in the building; the communities spared no expense, and the results are truly impressive, from the hand-carved wall panels in the Romania room to the imported wooden beams in the Japan room, from the lush baroque furnishings in the Austria room to the graceful first century stone beit midrash chosen to represent Israel. These are active classrooms, occupied daily, yet appear in perfect condition with nary a scratch on the furniture after decades of student use.
Thinking about the contrast between these two visits, and about the way classrooms generally feel, everywhere (especially once you get past about 6th grade), and about my years as a principal trying (and usually failing) to get the teachers to decorate their classrooms in interesting and inviting ways, the following suggestion occurs to me:
Why not adapt the Pittsburgh model to local resources and the needs of Jewish education? Why not engage in a process of creating permanently decorated classrooms? For example, rooms could be designated for different sites or areas of Israel, or historical periods, and cumulatively decorated over the years by the classes and teachers using them: the Jerusalem room, the Negev room, the beit midrash room, the kibbutz room, the biblical room, the medieval Europe room, the shtetl room, etc. Permanent murals, dioramas, color schemes, displays, furniture, text inscriptions, could all contribute to a distinctive character for the room that would make it special, interesting, and colorful, not just another box made of ticky-tacky. Purchased and donated objects, professional and amateur artwork, could all be included. Parents and other community members could be involved. To keep such a project from degenerating into aesthetic chaos, each room should have a long-term master plan, perhaps designed with professional help.
Why shouldn't it be interesting and stimulating just to walk into a classroom, before the teacher even says a word?