Teacher applies Torah-study method to secular learning

After a combined total of 15 years as the religious-school principal of Congregations Beth Jacob, B'nai Shalom and Ohr Emet, Shira Lubliner felt she had gone about as far as she could in the world of Jewish education.

"I was interested in teacher training," said the Lafayette resident. "For that I needed a wider group of people to work with and decided to go back into public education."

That was about five years ago. Since then Lubliner got a teaching credential, taught sixth grade, earned a doctorate in education from the University of San Francisco, landed a tenure track position at Cal State Hayward, published a book — "A Practical Guide To Reciprocal Teaching" — and led workshops on reciprocal teaching around the country. Oh, yes, and then there are her four children and husband, for whom she managed to do all the usual things in her spare time.

"Dania, my oldest, started teaching at Menlo-Atherton High School this week," Lubliner announced proudly. Her other three children are Leora, a junior at University of San Francisco; Dori, a high school senior at Campolindo in Moraga; and Elan, a sixth grader at Stanley Middle School in Lafayette. "We're a two-generation teaching family."

And that's an understatement. The older Lubliner has become a teacher's teacher by repackaging the age-old wisdom that the Torah should never be read alone and exporting it to the secular realm.

It all began when, during the course of her graduate work, Lubliner came across a journal article by Annemarie Palincsar and Ann Brown about reciprocal teaching.

"It's a method designed to improve children's reading comprehension," said Lubliner. "People work together to construct meaning from the text, and together we understand much more than we could understand alone. It develops a text-based dialogue, which fits in to the Jewish model of chevrutah," a study-partner approach to Torah learning.

There are two processes in learning how to read, mechanics and comprehension, which should be taught simultaneously but often are not, Lubliner explained.

"The emphasis is on phonics and decoding," she said, describing how children are taught to read. "If it goes to an extreme, children don't even know that they're supposed to understand what they read."

That's where reciprocal teaching comes in. The theory has four strategies — questioning, clarifying, summarizing and predicting — and employs cooperative learning groups in which, among other things, students read a piece of text and then formulate questions based on it.

"In order to do that, you have to understand what you've read," said Lubliner, adding that it's a technique that can be used by teachers in the classroom, by parents at home and even by pre-readers. "It forces kids to focus on the text."

Although Palincsar and Brown developed their theory in the early 1980s, and their research consistently produced a marked increase in students reading comprehension, reciprocal teaching hadn't found its way into the classroom.

"Not many people knew about it or how to do it," Lubliner said, explaining that articles in professional journals are difficult to convert into classroom practice. The articles are dense, and the journals often are not available to teachers. So at the next reading conference that Lubliner attended she decided to buy a book on the subject. But to her surprise, there was none.

"Fortunately I was taking a problem-solving class, and our assignment was to write a book proposal solving an educational problem," remembered Lubliner. Reciprocal teaching became her topic. She wrote the proposal, and "I just kept going."

The result was "A Practical Guide to Reciprocal Teaching," which was published last May by the Wright Group of McGraw-Hill. Palincsar, who was recently appointed to the Presidents Council on Education, endorsed the book and wrote the foreword for it. (Brown passed away before the book came out.)

Unlike the inaccessible and hard-to-read professional journal articles, Lubliner said her book is aimed at parents and teachers and is an easy read. Whether it's a foreign language, a historical text or just good old fiction, reciprocal teaching gives students the tools to understand the real meaning of text. The goal is for students to internalize the techniques so that they'll use them when working independently.

It's a particularly useful tool in Jewish education where children need to make sense out of unfamiliar words.

"In Jewish education we use words that have deep conceptual meaning like mitzvah or tshuvah," said Lubliner. "We want children to understand the deeper meaning of these words."

By way of example, she says a teacher might ask children to create an icon for the word "mitzvah" or to name things that are mitzvot and things that aren't.

For the past several years, Lubliner has been a regular speaker at "Biting the Apple" and "Getting to the Core," the late summer and winter conferences for Jewish educators in the East Bay.

"She is one of the most sought-after lecturers," said Riva Gambert, director of the Center for Jewish Living and Learning of the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay and the conferences' organizer.

"Many of our teachers are not in the education field. They're college students. Shira gives them the tools so that even if they're premed or going on to law school, they'll have the pedagogical tools to transmit their love of Judaism to their students. Her workshops are something that really make a difference in their teaching."

It's been a big year for Lubliner, who just turned 50. But, you might ask, how does her husband, Efi, feel what about all this?

"He's very proud of what I accomplished, but at the same time he's very tired and hopes that it'll slow down and that we'll have more time together as a family," said Lubliner. "It's been very intense the past few years."

Another understatement.