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October 8, 2015 | 25th Tishrei 5776

Islands of Competence No 1, 5767

Al sh'loshah d'varim haolam omed:
Al haTorah, v'al ha-avodah, v'al g'milut chasadim.

The world depends on three things:
on Torah, on worship and on loving deeds.
- Pirkei Avot 1:2

This year each issue of V’shinantam will be written in partnership with Dr. Robert Brooks, our featured speaker at the 2005 Symposium on Adolescence. New Jersey-West Hudson Valley Council Regional Educator Sharon Halper will help us apply Dr. Brooks’ theory to our school settings.

V’shinantam is organized around the three pillars of Torah, Avodah, and G’milut Chasadim. In the Torah section you will find a selection of Dr. Brooks’ writing, in Avodah, applications for your classroom, and in G’milut Chasadim additional resources.

An excerpt from “The Search for Islands of Competence: A Metaphor of Hope and Strength” by Dr. Robert Brooks

More than 20 years ago I introduced the metaphor “islands of competence” in my workshops and writings. I conceived of this metaphor while listening to the words of youngsters in my clinical practice, many of whom were struggling with learning problems and had experienced a great deal of frustration and failure in their lives. Some of their comments were riveting, capturing a profound sense of helplessness and hopelessness. A sample of their statements includes:

“I was born with half a brain. Do you know how to fill in the other half?”

“I feel stupid. I feel I will never learn.”

“I can't think of anything that I am good at.”

While reflecting upon such negative comments, I thought, “Many of these children seem to be drowning in an ocean of self-perceived inadequacy.” This image remained with me for a few moments, but was soon replaced by another, namely, “If there is an ocean of inadequacy, then there must be islands of competence—areas that have been or have the potential to be sources of pride and accomplishment.” Continuing with this metaphor, I recall thinking with some excitement, “We must help children and adults to identify and reinforce these islands so that at some point they become more dominant than the ocean of inadequacy.”

I believe that the excitement I experienced when I first conceived of this metaphor was prompted by the clarity with which it captured the strength-based approach that I had adopted in my work My use of the metaphor “islands of competence” was not intended simply as a fanciful image but rather as a symbol of hope and respect, a reminder that all individuals have unique strengths and courage.

This metaphor influenced the questions I posed and the strategies I initiated in my clinical practice. Whenever I meet with parents, teachers, or other professionals to discuss children who are burdened with problems, I ask them to describe the child's islands of competence. Next, I ask how we might strengthen these islands and display them for others to see. I have witnessed the ways in which these questions can alter the mindset of adults as they shift their energy from “fixing deficits” to “identifying and reinforcing strengths.”

One of my favorite remarks offered by a parent was, “I feel like an explorer, looking for qualities in my children I had not thought about in the past.” He added with obvious contentment, “It's a very exciting, gratifying journey.” When I returned to a school at which I had previously given a workshop, a teacher greeted me with the remark, “The first question we raise at our team meetings and IEPs (individual educational plans) is, ‘What are this student’s islands of competence and how are we using these islands to help the student to learn and to feel more dignified?’”

I know that the task of identifying and reinforcing islands of competence in children and in ourselves presents many challenges and in some instances is not easily achieved. However, the search for islands of competence is well worth the effort given the possible rewards that await us and our children, namely, a life filled with increased satisfaction, joy, and accomplishment.

Making your classroom a place where every student can excel

Our goal is for all of our students to be part of our Jewish community. There are a myriad ways to do so; we need to help each student find their path. Begin by making your classroom a place where no child feels incompetent or like there is nothing that they are “good at.”

  • Get to know your students. We are the People of the Book. But some of us find satisfaction in being the Person of the Canvas or the Melody or the Mind-Bender or the Diarist. In our communities, we have people who have found their path to Jewish involvement through literature and in text, in the Federation board room, on the soup kitchen serving line, or through music. Our students need to find their places as well – in Mitzvah Corps, at the Religious Action Center, in rigorous academic classes, in youth group and on retreats, through self-guided learning, camp, contemporary Jewish music and with their families. Make your classroom a place that embraces a variety of interests and help each one find his or her area of interest or talent.
  • Partner with the family. Model holiday celebrations in school are only simulations. Practice builds competence and confidence. The student who is tentative in a classroom setting can find comfort within the family’s celebration and Jewish activities. Fostering homes in which Judaism is practiced means that students live out what they learn in school and gain the experience they’ll need to observe Judaism outside of school.
  • Listen to all your students. First responders are great in a medical emergency; in a classroom they often create a dynamic that overpowers other students. Techniques that allow every student to respond to questions allow every student to feel a sense of competence. Did you ever have to write report cards for a student whose classroom voice you’re never heard? Evolving questioning into a professional practice can change the classroom environment and experience.
  • Build classroom community. Cooperative learning allows for more members on the islands of competence. Well-structured cooperative activities allow students to demonstrate their skills needed for a particular assignment while developing social connections within the pre-assigned work group. In a Jewish school, if a child learns the material but remains a stranger to his or her classmates, we have failed. We need to facilitate community as we facilitate learning.
  • Embrace a wide variety of ways of learning. If asked to explain your own knowledge of a particular topic, would you write about it? Deliver a speech? Create a visual representation of it? Allowing students to demonstrate their knowledge in ways that are comfortable and natural enables students to best demonstrate what they know. This requires teachers to think beyond their own ways of learning. Take one example: My daughter once knew a boy who was virtually obsessed with weather forecasting. While the interest was the subject of some conversation, and derision, on the part of other students, when my daughter wanted the best local weather update for her backyard Sweet 16 party, this boy was first on her list! Imagine the same student looking at how the weather might have influenced what we read of Noah or the famine in Canaan or how the Jews expelled from Spain might have felt during their first winter in Holland.

Additional Resources

Brooks, Robert Dr. & Goldstein, Sam Dr. Raising Resilient Children, McGraw-Hill, New York, NY: 2001.

Brooks, Robert Dr. The Self-Esteem Teacher.Treehaus Communications, Loveland, OH: 1991.

Gardner, Howard. Multiple Intelligences: The Theory in Practice.Basic Books, New York, NY: 1993.

Wood, Chip. Yardsticks: Children in the Classroom Ages 4-14, A Resource for Parents and Teachers. Northeast Foundation for Children: Turners Falls, MA: 1997

Getting to know students

Click on “Charting a Course for the Islands of Competency,” a training workshop for educators who work with teens, including tools to help them get to know their students.

Try this simple exercise from Dr. Mel Levine’s All Kinds of Minds Web site: Have students complete the following sentence, “I am an expert in ______________ because ______________.”

Learning centers are a way of diversifying the paths to Judaism in your classroom.

Partnering with the family

Check out these and other parent education resources.

Hearing your students’ voices

Try these different response techniques.

Experiment with different assessment models.

Building classroom community

Learn more about cooperative learning in the classroom.

Embracing different ways of learning

Teach to different learning styles.

Help students find their intelligences.

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