Some years ago I distributed a page to one of my classes with pictures of various traffic signs and asked students to pick the one that best represented their current religious journey. One student’s response particularly resonated with me. She chose several speed-limit signs that were above the legal limit and then wrote:
On the road, for many, the goal is to reach your destination in the fastest, most efﬁcient way possible. For example, learn the text in the curriculum, learn the three planned commentaries, only ask lack of comprehension questions, and move on. But what about the WHY’s, the slowing down from time to time, the reﬂecting, and enjoying the view?
…The way I saw it, my mind was constantly immersed and stimulated but my soul and faith were the snails lagging behind, always trying to catch up…What about slowing down at times to internalize the meaning or message of a text and to discuss the big questions that these stories leave us?
I have heard this plaint countless times since then and it has forced me to recognize that we may have done a great job over the years teaching texts but we may not have always been as attentive to teaching students. By that I mean that we have not sufficiently addressed their inner lives, we have not asked how the texts we teach resonate, how they might apply to our students’ emotional and religious world, how they might speak to the developmentally present quest for spirituality and connection. We surely have done an amazing job of helping create a much more literate and knowledgeable student body, but have we expended equal effort on speaking to their souls?
Is this seemingly more necessary today than in a previous generation? If yes, whether it is related to a phenomenon in society at large that focuses more on the individual or whether it relates to an internal communal problem in which we have been teaching about texts and traditions without paying attention to the why’s, the bottom line is that students, like many adults, crave something more. The problem is that they cannot necessarily do it on their own. They need our help.
While there are many teachers who can do this intuitively, there are many others for whom this does not come easily. In my limited research, I have been amazed by the number of responses I have gotten from teachers who say, “I’m too uncomfortable talking about God.” “I’ve never really taught that way before.” “I was never taught that way.” “I’m too afraid of getting questions that I cannot answer.” “I’m too afraid of opening students up that way when I cannot spend the time to address them afterwards.” “I went into teaching, not into kiruv (outreach work).” “I teach Torah and it’s up to the students to internalize the message.” “I already do that—on every test I ask students a question about how it’s relevant for their lives.” These kinds of responses come from fabulous instructors who are not yet in a place where they are ready to do this kind of teaching. Unlike those who may do so intuitively, the rest of us need help too; for doing this kind of teaching means embarking on a different kind of pedagogy, one that goes beyond the texts to the hearts of our students.
In my own school, we have taken to calling this process “Personalizing Torah” and in part thanks to an Ignition Grant by JEIC, we are building on our experience to try to chart a path forward across a number of domains in our school from curriculum to religious guidance to informal education.
Let’s take one example, the teaching of texts. Our goal is not to give up our teaching of those texts, either in quality or quantity. We still strive for students to achieve the skills necessary for self-sufficiency and for the breadth and depth of knowledge. But we also seek to consistently add a dimension of interaction with those texts for our students that may have been missing.
Assume that I am teaching the Book of Yonah. A major theme in the book is why Yonah ran away and I will undoubtedly teach the various commentaries on that. I may use some literary analysis tools to highlight motif words that point to Yonah’s state of mind, and I will compare his initial reaction to his mission with those of Moshe and Yeshayahu, and I will certainly use Rabbinic writings to fill in some of the missing details. There was a time when I would have left it at that and perhaps asked a question on a final unit test about why we read Yonah on Yom Kippur, but now I am much more likely to also add questions. Do you think it was right for Yonah to be angry with God? What did you feel when he ran away? How might you have acted under similar circumstances? Was there ever a time when you ran away from responsibility? From God? How could what you have learned from Yonah helped you at that moment? What lessons can you take away from Yonah about your relationships with other people? With non-Jews?
I am teaching Bereishit and we have been analyzing various possibilities among the commentators about the meaning of man’s being created in the image of God (intellectual, creative, moral, free will, etc.). There was a time when I would have left it at that but now I am much more likely to probe further. Which opinion appeals to you the most and why? How might you further develop the image of God that lies within you? How might your new understanding of the image of God impact the way you interact with other people, especially those with whom you disagree or with whom you do not get along?
A colleague is teaching Talmud Berakhot 9b which cites a verse from Psalms 72:5, “they shall be in awe of you with the sun,” as the source for the custom to prioritize prayer at sunrise. Instead of translating the text and moving on, this teacher asks students if they have ever experienced a sunrise and what their feelings were at that moment, and then ties it in to how this may be an opportune time to encounter God or the qualitative difference in praying at sunrise. It does not take long to explore this but it is clear that this adds a new dimension to the learning, one in which students’ lives and experience are a central part of the learning.
I teach a unit on arguments for the existence of God and we discuss a number of approaches: cosmological, teleological, historical, experiential, and the like. It is filled with sources both traditional and modern and my usual modus vivendi is to give them a unit test that focuses on definitions, examples, and some application. This time I asked them to go home and interview a grandparent or a parent about their faith, to ask why they believe and how they got there. Then students are asked to explain which of the approaches we discussed in class best applies to what they heard, citing sources. Finally, I asked them to reflect on what they heard and what they walked away with. The common thread in the responses was “I’ve never heard my grandparent/father/mother talk this way before” and “I was so surprised/shocked/glad/moved.” “Now that I have heard about my father’s belief in God, I feel so much closer to him.” (I am not sure if it is him or Him). Where I previously assumed they would make the personal connection themselves, I now make the students confront the issue, making it as explicit as possible, not prescribing answers but inviting students to create their own.
These are but a few examples of the ways in which my approach to pedagogy has been changing, in teaching an entire unit, a passing verse, or doing a more reflective summary. Instead of being afterthoughts they are now part and parcel of my planning, my thoughts before and during my teaching. In the checklist of things, I once placed the curriculum at the forefront and then I learned to account for the student’s learning needs, and now I add their inner lives to my concern; indeed, sometimes it is the top priority. How will I get them to personalize this learning, to examine its potential relevance and meaning so that it will stick with them after the class is over?
There is still a lot of work yet to be done. We need to scour our current curriculum to look for opportunities to open our students’ hearts without compromising our other goals and to do so in an organic way that makes the questions and meaning flow from the sources as opposed to being imposed upon them. We need to experiment with how one asks the right kinds of questions and in what order. We need to better articulate how one goes about creating a classroom environment where students feel safe sharing their feelings and emotions in general and about God in particular. We need to develop a better idea of what it means to be a teacher in such a classroom, how to be a fellow learner and not just a sage on the stage or guide on the side, and how developing these skill sets is possible for all or most teachers, not just those gifted ones who were born that way.
I’m not sure that this represents a radical shift in teaching, but rather an added layer that needs to be done in a thoughtful and deliberate way. One of the more challenging parts of education has been to stay abreast of developments in students’ lives so that we can adapt our methods or emphases or references accordingly. Rav Elisha Aviner once said that the mandate to “teach the child according to his way” applies not only to the individual needs of each child but to the changing needs of each generation as well. This generation is searching for meaning and connection. That, too, must now be a part of our mandate and our mission.
Rabbi Jay Goldmintz Ed.D. teaches at Maayanot Yeshiva High School. He is the author of the National Jewish Book Award-winning Koren Ani Tefillah Weekday Siddur and its companion Shabbat volume as well as numerous articles about curriculum, religious development, and religious parenting.