Whole Child Growth Through Jewish Integrated Learning

      by: Rebecca Milder

Rebecca Milder describes a learning process which touches multiple pieces of the student experience.

At the Jewish Enrichment Center, children involve their whole selves in Jewish learning: they dive into a Jewish text with peers, and wrestle, refine, and recreate their own personalized meaning through creative, in-depth projects which unfold over several months. The teaching modality we use is called integrated learning, in which children grapple with a complex question or idea for an extended period. As they work, children explore text and their relationship with text, wrestle with peers’ varied responses and our tradition, while practicing essential life skills, such as cooperation, engagement with diverse perspectives, and resilience. The projects are not supplemental to the learning, but the projects are the path through which children learn. This article will describe our third through fifth children’s exploration of the driving question, “What is berakhah?,” with insight into how the project process builds children’s Jewish knowledge as well as social-emotional skills.

During the Fall of 2015, children explored berakhah. All children at the Jewish Enrichment Center, ages 3 – 11, engage in 3 – 4 thematic explorations every year, each theme lasting 8 – 10 weeks. The theme is the primary learning vehicle; children do not have separate tracks for Torah, hagim (holidays), ethics, etc. Hebrew is integrated into the theme learning and also enjoys dedicated time. While the Jewish Enrichment Center operates in a Sunday/ afterschool context, any school environment that affords children time to engage with text and their own ideas about text is an ideal setting for Jewish integrated learning. Children attend at least two sessions per week, and about one third of the children attend three-to-four sessions per week.

Our integrated learning process is grounded in Jewish text. During berakhah, third-through-fifth grade children explored six different texts, including texts from the Torah, Mishnah, and Talmud. Children explore the text in havruta (partner text study), in communal conversation, and also in the yetzirah (art/creativity) studio. During the initial phase of our integrated learning process, these three ways of engaging with text provide children with a platform to wrestle with the text itself and to gather information about berakhah, to discover what they and their peers care about regarding berakhah, and to synthesize initial ideas about berakhah. Two snapshots from this early part of the theme will provide context for how the project process is designed to foster both academic and social-emotional growth.

One Tuesday in the third week of our theme, third-through- fifth grade children held a passionate conversation about a text they had explored in havruta the previous week (Mishnah Berakhot 2:3). It was the type of conversation this group of children had practiced for several years, and at this point, the children were fluent in the skills necessary to hold this advanced conversation. Without prompting or teacher moderation, nine children argued for nine different understandings of when a person might want to say a berakhah, and what the purpose of berakhot are. Children argued that a person who lives in a mountain region ought to make a berakhah:

  • Once, at the beginning of the day
  • If you see a new mountain
  • If something terrible happens to the mountain, and the mountain is still there
  • Only if you feel amazed by the mountain
  • If you see the mountain (you don’t have to feel amazed)
  • When you recite your morning berakhot
  • When you come back into the mountain region after being away
  • When you “experience” the

mountain, not just see it

  • If you see something new about it, like something new growing, or a cave

Children argued their positions based on careful text reading, and shared opinions respectfully. They were crafting their own sense of themselves as Jewish humans in the world, in conversation with their peers and as part of the ongoing Jewish conversation through the centuries. Integrated learning requires children not only to wrestle with Jewish text, but to develop skills for expressing their ideas. While conversation is one way children might share their opinions, we also make use of a much wider range of modalities: drawing, sculpting, building with blocks or small natural materials, costume play, writing, working with wire, making comic-strips, and more. As the theme got underway, we asked children to respond in the yetzirah (art/creativity) studio with their initial ideas about texts. Educators chose three art modalities to focus on during this theme: watercolor crayons, oil pastels, and felt. As they practiced with the art materials, children discovered more about how they understood a particular text. Yosef, a fifth grade boy, tried to execute an initial idea about our Talmudic text using watercolor crayons, but he felt dissatisfied. As he moved his hands, he was suddenly struck by how the color appeared on the page, and he quickly filled his page with a new design. He explained, “I just got this other idea. And I thought I didn’t have a good explanation…but I did [big smile],” and he shared a coherent explanation of how his art showed his interpretation of the passage. Yosef had discovered his idea about the text through the act of painting. All of the children reflect aloud about their quick art and we record these transcripts for future use.

Next, educators sought to broaden children’s idea of what a berakhah is. We reintroduced children to a text they already knew: Isaac’s blessing to his sons (Genesis 27). Children needed nearly two weeks to synthesize a new understanding of berakhah: perhaps this kind of berakhah was closer to wishing someone luck, or perhaps it was “like an inheritance,” or “like a last will and testament,” or a request that God bestow these things. Children continued to deepen and extend their ideas through havruta, conversation, and in the yetzirah studio, with texts about God’s role in berakhah (Lev. 25:20-21), the unique nature of every human (Berakhot 58a: “A person who sees crowds of Israelites should say, ‘Blessed… Who is wise in secrets (hidden mysteries),’ because their minds are different and their faces are different.”), and the priestly blessing (Num. 6:22-27), used today as part of the berakhah parents might give children on Friday nights. We paired this last text with the archeological find at Ketef Hinnom in ancient Jerusalem, which proved people have used these same words as a kind of amulet, or prayer, for nearly 3000 years. This information captured several children’s imaginations.

While some children had asked a similar question throughout the theme (“Does everyone around the world say a berakhah in their own language?”), other children required more assistance in defining their driving question. We held small group conversations for children to review their transcripts and artwork from the theme, with peer feedback to help identify their most intriguing question or idea. Additionally, we aimed for something new in this theme: not only would children synthesize information and grapple with their own personal response to our theme through the project, but this time, children would choose their own modality, the way in which they would wrestle with their ideas. We explored how to choose art materials to express our ideas, noting the ways in which different materials are better suited to show certain kinds of ideas.

Finally, each child took the ideas and questions they had been wrestling with about berakhah, and embarked on a personalized trajectory of creating a piece to show their Big Idea about berakhah. The process mixed text, conversation, art, idea testing, restarts, peer review, frustration, breakthroughs, and finally, a fully-formed project: a Big Idea shown in art and words. Educators curated children’s work into a large-scale installation, open to the public. A glimpse into a single child’s process will serve as an example of how the process develops children’s problem-solving skills, confidence, and resilience.

Eli is a fourth grader attuned to logic and detail. As we reviewed  his transcripts and art from the theme, he identified his Big Question:

It says in the second paragraph [of the Mishnah], whenever you see a sea, you should make a blessing. But then in the third paragraph, it says, “in the great sea…but only if you see it occasionally.” … If you see the great sea a lot, would you say the blessing from the second paragraph, “Blessed is the one who…?”

It was exactly the kind of question the early rabbis might ask, to clarify which berakhah is appropriate in a particular situation. The question was not, however, appropriate for a final project. It was too narrow, and wouldn’t allow Eli to wrestle with and synthesize his ideas about what berakhah means to him. We looked again at Eli’s work and the text, and a peer offered suggestions. Finally, worried about the time, I asked Eli to draft his idea.

Eli pulled a notecard over and started drawing a picture. He didn’t get far before he stopped, pointed to the upper left corner of his drawing, and said, “Wait, I have another idea,” he said. He flipped the notecard over and quickly drew another picture.

Eli explained his new drawing. Now his words were a mixture of his old and his new idea:

There’s two seas, one big one and one little one, and there’s one berakhah for each sea. They’re not sure which one you should do, but everything is a little connected, and the berakhah is everywhere. Eventually, the sea or the ocean.

“What do you mean, ‘eventually, the sea or the ocean’?” I asked. Eli explained, “Water just keeps going to different places, it could go fast, go slow, or change places….” As he pointed to his drawing he continued, “Those are the pathways where the water goes.”

Now Eli was working on a Big Idea. He saw a connection between berakhah and water, one he had discovered through what was visible to him in his drawing, and was able to synthesize his ideas about berakhah: “Berakhah is everywhere, [it] flows like water from one place to another.” He headed into the yetzirah studio to work on a painting. Eli was dissatisfied with the first version of his painting, and returned to the studio several times to make his painting match the idea in his head. Two weeks earlier, Eli had felt nervous that he would not generate an idea he could stand be- hind, and now he felt incredibly proud of having worked through so many challenges.

Children’s final projects were as varied as their ideas about berakhah. Tzipporah’s intricate marker drawing shows how the prayer is passed down through the generations, but with different intent: “Parents [in every generation] say the same words, but they mean different things, and each parent is wishing their own thing that is right for the child.” Reuven made a billboard urging people to make berakhot, explaining,

Let’s say, you’ve seen a billion shooting stars, and a billion mountains, and a billion oceans. …You don’t have to be amazed. You’re still seeing it. It’s still stuff that God created. You should still be thankful for it there if it’s still there.

Channah’s watercolor crayon painting includes a family on a Friday night, with the words of the children’s blessing streaming through a wall, to show that “there is no way stopping the berakhah’s path to God’s ear, and God acknowledges that the berakhah is being said.” Avraham made a replica of a Ketef Hinnom scroll, with an essay about what it means to have parents bless their children with the same words that have been used for 3000 years. As a modality for children’s learning, integrated learning allows us to create a fully integrated environment that embodies the values and skills we want to grow inside children. That is, we’ve chosen integrated learning because through it, we can address the whole child, academic skills as well as interpersonal skills and inner drive. The process itself requires the whole child to be involved in learning, and brings parents and community into the process, too, through the public sharing of children’s ideas. In addition, integrated learning requires children to decide for themselves what the meaning of a Jewish text or idea will be. In berakhah, for example, educators did not decide on an answer to our driving question, “What is berakhah?” and teach children the answer. Rather, children were required to figure out for themselves the meaning of berakhah in their own lives, in the context of a community of peers, within Jewish tradition.

The impact of this work is experienced on many levels. First, children feel tremendous pride in the work they have created, and with pleasure, explain their work to family members during a Family Exploration and Celebration morning. Visitors who take the time to explore children’s work encounter a wide range of personalized interpretation of text, and find their own ideas about berakhah stimulated and perhaps, expanded or deepened. Over time, a child who engages in this whole child integrated work grows skills for text interpretation, firmly grounded in Jewish tradition, yet personalized and connected with peer community. Again and again, the child encounters challenges in explaining ideas, in creating projects, in working with peers, and the child must, with educator support, learn how to manage and resolve these difficulties. Over time, a community that participates in this whole child integrated work finds their ideas about children shifted, and they honor children’s voices as a powerful part of the community. All of the overt and hidden messages of this work, and all of the skill-building of this work – through the process itself to the high quality final project to its public honoring as part of a Jewish communal conversation – grow a child with the confidence, knowledge, and skills to be co-creators of the unfolding of Judaism through the generations.

Rebecca Milder is the founder and director of the Jewish Enrichment Center, a Sunday/afterschool where children explore Judaism in their own way, connected to each other and Jewish text. Rabbi Milder’s extensive leadership experience spans across formal and informal Jewish education throughout the religious spectrum.

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