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Fresh Faces and Ideas to Brighten Gratz College CurriculumCurriculum

August 18, 2005
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Joyce Ness

As someone who's spent the better part of her adult life immersed in education, Joyce Ness can understand the large strides that the profession has taken in the last 30 years.

When she began teaching back in 1971, "there was little research on reading, little research on multiple intelligence, and little or no research about brain-compatible learning. Many of the instructional decisions that I made back then were intuitive."

When, just a few years later, Ness moved out of the classroom and into a desk job administering numerous teacher certification courses, coordinating continuing professional education programs, and assessing needs and strategies for local public schools, she never forgot the importance of keeping teachers up to date with the latest research and cutting-edge skills.

She will continue her three decades of work away from the blackboard - and still very much behind the scenes - as the new director of Gratz College's Master of Arts in Education Program, a nondenominational program with about 940 matriculated students.

"The program focuses on strategies to enhance classroom instruction and improve student learning," explained the 57-year-old resident of Collegeville. "The courses stress application of educational research, and looking at how it applies to real-life classrooms and teaching situations."

Previously director of continuing professional education for the Montgomery County Intermediate Unit - a group serving 21 school districts and 159 nonpublic schools - Ness feels a great responsibility to influence teachers, who can, in turn, have a direct impact in the classroom.

"Joyce is a person with exceptional background, knowledge of the field and an enormous amount of hands-on experience," attested professor Jonathan Rosenbaum, president of the college. "She understands the issues surrounding teaching in public and private schools as well as anyone, from her experience overseeing programs and teacher training in the region."

Education Through the Arts

Armed with a different set of lesson plans but the same determination to introduce a different angle on education at Gratz, another new face will grace its halls this fall.

Ofra Backenroth will join the Jewish Education Department to teach how to weave the arts into a Jewish curriculum.

With a wide range of expertise - she's taught dance, literature, Hebrew and education in Israel, New York and New Jersey - Backenroth will lead "Methods of Teaching Jewish Studies Through the Arts" this semester. A native Israeli, she came to the United States in 1976, and plans to utilize her first language as the instructor of "Methods of Teaching Hebrew."

Backenroth's interest in the arts stemmed from her own involvement in her children's extracurricular music education. She noticed an unparalleled excitement and love of learning expressed by the students, parents and teachers in the after-school program.

"I wondered why this excitement was missing in the Jewish day schools my children attended," relayed Backenroth.

She went on to spend years studying what experts felt on teaching via the arts.

The idea, she reported, "is that it's easier to connect to an image, voice or movement than to text itself," said the 55-year-old.

Backenroth said the biblical story of Abraham and Hagar, for example, tells the details rather than the feelings of the characters. As a teaching tool, she would show artists' interpretations and depictions of the couple. Then, she'd ask the students to create their own art to fill in the gaps.

"They can put their thoughts into it," explained the educator, "using their own creativity and imagination."

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