Engaging Tweens and Teens in Judaic Learning: A Multi-Modal Approach
Performing magic is a fascinating art. For a young child, going to a birthday party and seeing an amateur perform the simplest sleight-of-hand trick such as pulling a quarter out of their ear or an incredibly long multi-colored handkerchief from the magician’s sleeve creates a sense of wonder and amazement. They don’t question how it was done, they just want to see more. As we matriculate into the tweens/teens and eventually into adulthood, while we remain captivated by good, professional magicians, we are no longer content with just seeing the next trick. Instead, with that same sense of awe and amazement, we push further by asking, “How did he do that?” We try to figure it out and make sense out of it. If we can figure it out, we feel a sense of accomplishment in having a better understanding, but we move on to the next trick, continuing to search for that next feeling of amazement. We yearn for that childhood feeling of believing in something that takes over our thoughts and emotions. The Torah, while not sleight-of-hand, has that same power to transform our students’ views about their religion from an old book with stories of characters long since passed to an exciting guide book for how to live life, connect to our heritage, and engage in meaningful Jewish practice as they continue their journey into adulthood. However, while our goal of creating a sense of wonder and awe is similar to that of a magician, we also want to create a sense of lasting connectivity and purpose as we encourage the students to explore and make sense of what they are learning.
Fostering a sense of connectivity
In order to create that sense of awe, connectivity, and purpose, we must find ways to immerse students in text, practice, and spirituality. Text ignites the visual, practice ignites the touch, and spirituality ignites the soul. The ultimate goal is to apply this multi-modal approach in the classroom to inspire the future of the Jewish people to connect, take action, and make Judaism a necessary part of their daily lives. Many teachers are sensitive enough and trained to find creative ways to teach when students are struggling, have a learning disability, or seem disengaged. Perhaps we need to consider doing the same for all learners, to help them learn better and connect more meaningfully to a Torah filled with love, learning, and practice.
Re-envisioning the role of the text
So what does engaging Judaic learning look like? For each classroom and for each student, there are a variety of answers, but one place to start could be by rethinking the role of the text. Is the text the learning itself or is it an important piece of a larger learning experience? While the general practice traditionally is to start with the text, many students find themselves less engaged with a text-based foray into Judaics. After all, the text can feel challenging, foreign, overwhelming, and tedious. Imagine starting with a practice or a discussion of a practice. This grounds the learning in the lives of the students—in actions that they are already doing or can do and experience—which can then serve as a spark for questions, which will help to eventually push the conversation into the text. This conversation and textual study will have greater meaning and engagement due to the momentum created by the practical, hands-on approach. Studying the text now provides answers or a path to finding answers. It helps to solve the students’ problems rather than generate problems for them. After all, in going back to our magic analogy, seeing is believing. They will be able to understand that their questions were the very same questions that have been pondered for centuries, and/or they will be able to apply a new and unique perspective to practices that they may or may not have learned at home.
A practical examination of experiential Jewish education
To make learning experiential and meaningful, the simplest question to ask is “How does this affect my life?” For some, a love of Judaism is easy and part of how they grew up. Participation in Jewish text, thought, and practice is not a struggle, and they know what their place in the community will be. Some may go on to become Jewish clergy members and community leaders, which is vital to our survival and growth. But we lose far too many people who develop a lack of passion and engagement with Judaism because we set text as the only way to “achieve success” in Judaism. Changing the normative practice from “let’s read Masekhet Rosh Hashana” to “let’s learn how to blow shofar” may take a student who struggles with text and teaches them a practical skill that makes them a vital necessity to the Jewish community.
Once they’ve learned the skills, they will then not only be much more engaged in the text study after learning the practice but will also be set up for lifetime engagement in the community. This example rings true for many and allows students who may not be gifted textual scholars, but who excel at music, to connect to Judaism. The same is true for our climbers and kinesthetic learners regarding eruv. Sure, Eruvin is fascinating to some as a straightforward text, but is there anything wrong with starting by building an eruv on your campus? Or perhaps sending a school bus of high school students to help check the local eruv once per month? So many elements of hands-on learning such as building the school sukkah while learning the laws of what makes a sukkah kosher, learning to read Megillat Esther and then volunteering in the community, tying tzitzit to wear them, learning kashrut through class time in the school kitchen, open up many new doors. Seeing and participating in these areas of Jewish life and community service would only heighten the interest of all students in following up these experiences with the text. After all, this is why so many children identify camp as the place that they feel most Jewish. Why not take that eight-week feeling and incorporate it into the other ten months of the year? This process fosters allowing them to experience a Jewish education with a much more powerful sense of authenticity. It is also accessible to students of differing abilities.
We are in the text, now what?
Now that we have explored ways to engage students in discussion and experiential learning, how do we help the students to use the text? The most common thought would be to now jump into the text. While this is a logical next step, thinking about how our students will relate to the text should come first. Do we know who our students are as people? How might a child who does not have strong role models at home react to the story of Akeidat Yitzhak? Would students who struggle with sibling rivalry have differing opinions on Yaakov and Eisav’s relationship? Perhaps a middle child might feel like there are favorites and see Yaakov wearing furs on his arms and deceiving his father because he is his mother’s favorite as unfair. Perhaps they can look at the text and learn how to deal with adversity which is as relevant today as it was back then. Ask questions and be receptive to questions. Speaking to the students about who they are and how they view themselves is vital for you and for them. Calling home and speaking to a parent/guardian to get a sense of each student (at the beginning of the year) will help educators to be able to approach each topic with a greater sense of sensitivity towards the figures in Tanakh. Taking this approach will make the text relatable, which is a significant key to unlocking connectivity. Text study now becomes meaningful. And if they did not get through as much text using this method, but are more interested and active in their religion, then we are successfully creating lifelong learners who will continue to use their skills, rather than abandon the skills they have developed because they weren’t connected.
Brett Kugler (firstname.lastname@example.org) works as a learning specialist at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, Maryland, and serves as the High School Z’man Kodesh Coordinator. He has also worked as the Director of Experiential Jewish Education at Kol Shalom, Youth Director at Young Israel Shomrai Emunah, and volunteers with NCSY.
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