Bringing Lessons from Experiential Education into the Classroom
A core goal of Jewish education is that the educational process will connect the learner to Judaism in a personal and meaningful manner, infusing each individual with a strong Jewish identity. We hope that the learner understands and internalizes that Judaism can provide guidance or context for grappling with life’s struggles, doubts, and questions, alongside its celebrations and joy. These connections must be based on knowledge, personally constructed meaning, and emotional understanding.
This noble goal is not a simple undertaking within any educational environment. In Jewish day schools, there are pre-determined expectations of formal education to contend with: knowledge and skills to be acquired, beliefs to be promoted, standards, assessments and grades, schedules, classrooms with walls, etc. How can knowledge of both personally constructed meaning and emotional understanding of Rabbinics thrive in the context of a formal school setting? How can lesson plans creating a year-long course of study be constructed which feel vital, engaging, and meaningful to the students?
Three years ago, I began teaching Rabbinics to middle school students at The Charles E Smith Jewish Day School located in the Washington DC suburbs. I was new to day school education, but not new to Jewish education. Early on I found myself relying on several principles I had cultivated during my eighteen previous years in the world of informal Jewish education. These principles inform and enhance the meaning of what I co-create with my day school students each day. These principles of the informal education world, when combined with the deep textual learning of formal Jewish day schools, allow for Jewish meaning-making for students.
Apply the Learning to the Students’ Reality
All education should be related and relatable to students’ lives. This is frequently a struggle in Rabbinics, particularly in a pluralistic day school with students from a wide variety of backgrounds. Nonetheless, no matter a student’s background or their family’s relationship to halakha, the learning must speak to the students’ lives personally and meaningfully.
For example, in a class studying Mishna Sukkot, we decided to view the rules of the sukkah in terms of values. Do we need more shade than sun to make sure our guests are comfortable? Must the roof be made of a natural material to help keep us connected to nature? During this unit I have the students interview their parents about their home. How did the size, material, age, etc. affect their decision in their choice of home and how does that reinforce their family’s values? This has led to some wonderful parent-student conversations about what their families’ deeply held values are and how those values inform their decisions.
Another example of students finding personal meaning in the text came out of our discussions surrounding our yearly theme. The theme for sixth grade Rabbinics is “My Place, My Space: How the spaces we construct reflect our values.” This theme is the overlay and the background for all the texts we study throughout the year. At parent-teacher conferences, when I explain this theme to the parents, I will hear about how students rearranged their bedroom inspired by what they had learned in Rabbinics class.
Be Audacious, Do Domething Unexpected, And Spark Curiosity
When introducing the study of Sukkot, I begin with learning about Charmin’s Pop-Up Toilets. As a publicity stunt, Charmin Toilet Paper designed and built 14 pop-up bathroom stalls in Times Square, each with its own thematic decoration complete with clever wallpaper, lights, and sound. Talking about cool, interesting, and weird toilets with middle school students was an instant draw, sparking curiosity about the unexpected and serving as an opening to a year-long exploration on how the spaces we construct reflect our values.
When studying the Rosh Hashanah prayers we ask what it means to walk before God like sheep. We learn about shepherding, specifically, that the shepherd must take care of the entire flock while also attending to the needs of the individual. Then each student is given a sheep personality (Baa once every minute, look for a way to go back to the classroom, do the opposite of what the shepherd asks, etc.) to embody. The students become sheep and one student, our shepherd, tries to herd them from one area to another. This activity leads students to think about what it means when it says in the Rosh Hashanah prayers that we pass before God like sheep. We engage in conversations about how God looks out for the collective good while simultaneously honoring the individual as well as our individual and group roles in this process.
Assume The Students Are Interested And Set Your Expectations High
I have always had the attitude that students should do the learning simply because I expect it and I have ensured that the education is engaging, valuable, and applicable. I have found that when I assume the students are interested (to varying degrees) and act accordingly, the students rise to my expectations. I frequently respond to the question of will this be graded with the response, “Does it matter? Will you do any differently with the assignment?” This mirror helps the students understand that they should always put their best self forward, no matter if there is a grade attached or not.
Help Students to Own Their Learning
When students own their learning, they become connected to it. There are many ways to accomplish this. First, offer opportunities for students to play with the text. Second, encourage students to share their learning especially while it is imperfect and still developing. This is a great opportunity for them to revisit and refine what they are doing and will give them a deeper sense of mastery. Third, allow students to construct their own knowledge. One way I do this is through a choose your own Mishna project. At some point during the unit, I will have students choose a mishna within the masekhet we are learning, learn it independently with a hevruta, and then present it to the class. Frequently the students misunderstand parts of their chosen mishna, but perfection is not the goal. The goal is for the students to claim these texts as their own and allow them to demonstrate their learning process, fostering the feeling that they are the next link in the long chain of Jewish people who have poured their heart and soul into the understanding of our tradition.
At the end of the year, I ask the students to choose one of our enduring understandings and create a virtual reality world which represents their learning on that subject. These virtual worlds must include several textual citations thus connecting the text we learned directly to their understanding of the big ideas we have focused on. In my class, the enduring understandings are:
- Oral law, extending from the Torah to modern day, is the building block for our Jewish tradition.
- The spaces and communities we create reflect and express the values we hold dear.
- Judaism respects and demands a plethora of competing and complementary ideas.
This project allows the students to create a visual representation of their learning. The students create amazing worlds which we virtually enter, immersing in the students’ deep learning and personal understanding.
Follow The Students’ Excitement
One year, when reading Mishna Rosh Hashanah 1:2, my students became curious about what it means that on Sukkot we are judged for water. While this was not the curricular focus for this particular text, I followed the students’ excitement. We learned about and recreated a Simhat Bet Hashoevah. We had students blowing shofar, students blessing and pouring water, and other’s making music—all in honor of water. This diversion from the planned curriculum showed the students that what interested them mattered in our classroom. It gave the students agency to ask questions and the opportunity to investigate in a deep and engaging experience. It showed them that they could find excitement, meaning, and ownership in our classroom, and it provided everyone a positive, lasting memory from our Rabbinics class.
Tangible, physical activities help bring Rabbinic texts to life. When students can embody or experience a text they better understand its meaning—the more immersive the better.
While trying to help my students pronounce the word mahloket, I came up with the “mahloket handshake” with three steps, one for each syllable. On their own, the students started doing the mahloket handshake before they began their hevruta learning—the handshake morphed from being a fun way to learn how to pronounce a Hebrew word to an invitation to enter into hevruta learning with an openness to push each other’s learning and understanding of the text.
In one unit focusing on the Shabbat table we create different immersive experiences to highlight the values embedded in the texts we study. One of those recreates the Shabbat table in the classroom. The students create their own tables, and prepare an experience demonstrating their knowledge of how the spaces we create reflect our values, so that their individual tables may end up looking like a traditional Shabbat table, or something completely different. What they all have in common is that they are based on the texts and related values we studied. This has yielded some extraordinary results during the period of distance learning, as students created family time through traditional Shabbat dinners, game and movie nights, campfires, and or camp themed evenings.
Never Forget to Debrief
Debriefing, where students and teachers discuss their experiences, is critical. This is the place to elicit from the students their thinking, deepen their understanding, illuminate connections to the text, and contextualize the meanings they have created. The debrief helps students create the bridge from their experience to the application in their lives and, in the process, elevates both the experience and the textual learning. The debrief can ultimately take an experience from a moment of fun to a moment of deep learning.
As John Dewey said, “Education is not preparation for life…education is life itself.” We cannot afford to simply prepare our students for some future we may hope they embody, rather, we must create opportunities for our students to connect to the deep reservoir of our Rabbinic tradition today. We must ensure that these connections are based on knowledge, personally constructed meaning, and emotional understanding. Inviting principles of informal education into the day school classroom enables deep Jewish meaning-making opportunities for students, moving them forward on their journey to becoming people who hold Judaism deep in their core.
Jennifer Newfeld is a Rabbinics teacher at the Charles E Smith Jewish Day School in Maryland. Prior to working at CESJDS she spent 13 years in synagogue education administration. Jennifer holds an Ed.D. in Jewish Educational Leadership from Northeastern University, an MA from the Jewish Theological Seminary and an M.Ed. from George Mason University.