Opening the Eyes of the Blind

I started my day praying with 4th graders. Fortunately a colleague stepped outside to gather a rain-measuring device and encouraged me to take the kids outside because there was a beautiful mist resting on our baseball field. Going outside changed everything. The typical prayer routine was tossed aside and the 4th grade and I engaged in a moment of quiet mindfulness and appreciation:

“What did you notice or appreciate?”

“There’s a bird sitting on top of the fence.”

“The grass is sparkling.”

“The concrete is cold.”

“I’m sitting in front of a pole.”

“The sun is powerful.”

We then opened our prayerbooks to a series of prayers that thanks God for some of the daily basics that we often take for granted.

“Which do you think we should recite after taking some time to notice and appreciate?”

“Thank you God for opening the eyes of the blind.”

“I agree. Most people think that our eyesight just gets worse and worse as we grow, but maybe we actually can get better at seeing as we grow and take time to notice and appreciate.”

It’s wonderful when experience and tradition are in harmony. I spent the rest of my day with that prayer in mind: thank you God for opening the eyes of the blind. Then I was blindsided.

——

My day ended in a meeting with a small group of  colleagues. During the course of the meeting one of them shared a concern with me about something I occasionally (or maybe even often) do while leading prayers with our middle school students– calling students out by name, particularly if they’re talking out of turn.

The content of the conversation isn’t as important as the process. I quickly realized that something I considered a benign, even affectionate gesture, was being perceived differently. In calling out students by name I thought I was saying, “I know who you really are. I know that you want to contribute rather than detract from our community during this time.” Regardless of my intentions, rabbis and the rest of us must strive to never shame another person, especially a child or adolescent. Unintentional shaming is even worse because it often goes unnamed and unexpressed possibly causing resentment down the road.

It’s not easy to share a piece of feedback that we know might upset someone. But the strength of our communities, the functionality of our teams, and, ultimately, the spiritual well-being of those we serve demands that we share our perspectives. We have to demand of one another and ourselves that we open our eyes to things we might not see.

One of the greatest ironies of sharing feedback is that relationships sometimes cloud rather than clarify the process. We don’t want to hurt, offend, alienate, turn off, or otherwise damage the precious ties that we share with students, colleagues, and friends. Sharing, like my colleague did today, requires vulnerability and risks hurt. But the truth is that sharing feedback actually strengthens these ties and brings meaning to terms like collegiality and community.

Last week a parent shared with me that he felt naive in discussing God and theology. I suggested that naivety might not be a bad thing. Naivety brings with it the capacity for openness which in turns brings the capacity to see with new eyes and acquire new insights. We can help one another celebrate our naivety, see differently, and deepen our understanding.

I’ll admit that when my colleague mentioned that he had feedback to share I got nervous. As I listened and reflected my nervousness turned to embarrassment that I hadn’t seen this myself. Embarrassment quickly gave way to understanding and appreciation. It all brought to mind the 4th graders I spent the morning “enlightening.” All I can pray is that the more we help one another notice and appreciate, the more compassionate and vibrant our world will be.

The Value of Interfaith Dialogue

A remarkable week ended on a remarkable note at The Davis Academy Middle School. We hosted 150 students from The Marist School for a day of interfaith dialogue and relationship building.

It has been a remarkable week. The Jewish community commemorated Yom HaZikaron (Israel’s Memorial Day) and celebrated Yom HaAtzmaut (Israel’s Independence Day). As Americans we watched in horror as the Boston Marathon bombing took place. As human beings we grieved for the loss of life in West, Texas. It has been a remarkable week.

Since coming to The Davis Academy I have dreamed of creating a context wherein our students could meaningfully explore matters of faith with peers of different faith backgrounds. Several years ago I was invited to be a guest lecturer at The Marist School, a local Catholic middle and high school. Eventually I found a counterpart at Marist, and we assembled a team of educators who were motivated to bring our 7th grade students together. Today we had the privilege of hosting these students and many of their outstanding faculty.

The goals of our interfaith dialogue program at this point are threefold: 1) to build relationships based on mutual respect between adolescents of different faith backgrounds, 2) to teach students how to engage in intentional dialogue on matters of faith, and 3) to partner in faith-based community service. Today we made great strides in actualizing goals 1 and 2.

Davis Academy 7th graders gathered in our gymnasium a few moments before the Marist students arrived. We had been preparing for their visit for several weeks. For example, we asked our students what kinds of questions they thought Marist students might have for their Davis counterparts. We also asked them what questions they had for their Marist counterparts. We also brainstormed different things we hoped to share with our guests and also reviewed what it means to be welcoming and gracious hosts. The energy in the room was palpable.

The centerpieces of today’s program were twofold: 1) we broke into small groups, facilitated by faculty members, to do, “I’ve always wondered.” Students  from both schools had the chance to ask and answer one another’s questions in a safe and respectful environment. When we reflected with our Davis students later in the day they identified this is a highlight. Topics ranged from: kashrut to Santa Claus, Lent to belief in God, Jewish ritual clothing to the Gospels and much more. Without fail, faculty members who facilitated the groups reported great conversations, active listening, and mutual respect. One teacher characterized the meeting in Buberian terms: I-Thou.

The second centerpiece was Kabbalat Shabbat. Since the program was held at The Davis Academy on a Friday morning we felt that we should share a central part of our community’s identity: Kabbalat Shabbat. Almost 1/2 of the grade volunteered to help lead Kabbalat Shabbat. Marist students were given the option of wearing kippot and most chose to do so, and also took them home as a memento of their visit. Davis students shared what Shabbat means to them, we took out our Torah scroll, and recited the Shabbat blessings.  At the end, Marist’s priest and I joined together in offering the Priestly Benediction to a group of Marist and Davis students who were celebrating their birthdays. We all shared challah and grape juice and made promises to reunite in the Fall.

Today the city of Watertown is under siege. Today is also the anniversary of the Oklahoma City Bombing as well as the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. For The Davis Academy and the Marist School, today is the beginning of a friendship that we hope will change the world one teenager at a time.

Anachronistic Faith

I’m reading James Fowler’s classic work, Stages of Faith, as part of my doctoral research. To say there’s a lot going on in this book is an understatement. It’s dizzying at times, especially as I’m trying to read it both critically and with an open mind. I’m also reading it not only as a doctoral student, but as an educator, rabbi, and person of faith. One idea that resonates with me is the idea of “anachronistic faith.” Fowler writes:

To approach a new era in the adult life cycle while clinging too tightly to the structural style of faith employed during the culminating phase of the previous era is to risk anachronism. It means attacking a new agenda of life tasks and a potential new richness in the understanding of life with the limiting pattern of knowing, valuing and interpreting experiences that served the previous era. Such anachronism virtually assures that one will settle for a narrower and shallower faith than one needs (Fowler, 1981, p. 114)

Fowler is describing a costly disconnect that I have observed at times. The journey through life is necessarily one of maturation. We are meant to grow in so many ways: in wisdom, in compassion, in appreciation, in our capacity to love and so on. As spiritual beings we are also meant to grow in our faith.

Faith is a dynamic concept. It isn’t necessarily religious though it can be. It isn’t necessarily individualistic, though it can be. Rather faith represents the capacity to respond to life experience with a certain set of characteristics or dispositions. Faith is a way of knowing, a way of being, and a way of doing.

The tragedy that I think Fowler accurately describes is for the person who encounters the complexity and richness of life, having failed to mature in faith. To greet the challenges of life as a mature adult with a faith that has not been reflected upon, challenged, or expanded since childhood or adolescence ensures that we navigate life from a place of deficit and immaturity (at least as far as faith is concerned).

In my work as an educator I find myself committed to helping children and adolescents develop their spirituality and faith. Already by Middle School it is evident that some children are less motivated to develop their faith lives than others. I believe it is the responsibility of adults to promote dynamic faith development in children and adolescents. I fear that anachronistic faith in adults undermines our ability to do so. Like most things, we must educate ourselves before we can educate others, especially our children.

 

Immaturity is the Common Denominator

     Too often, when it comes to education, we think of the processes whereby children acquire the skills and dispositions necessary to be successful adults. This is particularly true when it comes to 21C. Take, for example, the concept of “media literacy”: we want kids to learn to evaluate the legitimacy of various forms of information such as websites, master various user-generated platforms like wikis, blogs, and facebook, and be mature/responsible users of technology. If only most adults fit this bill! The AASL (American Association of School Librarians) Standards for the 21st Century Learner is a wonderful example of the massive expectations that are embedded in 21C learning standards. There’s a name for a child who has even a basic mastery of the AASL’s learning outcomes: “adult.” 
      At the same time I believe we’re fundamentally confused about what constitutes maturity in 21C. Consider the ascendancy of the Digital Native (Prensky, 2001) which brings with it a significant reversal: children are characterized as being more advanced, savvy, and technologically mature, then their teachers and parents (i.e. all the Digital Immigrants). One of the fascinating outcomes of the 21C buzz is that it challenges educators to think anew about the needs, interests, dispositions, habits, and desires of children. The irony is that when many educators think about children they envision the Digital Native who is, at least in theory, more mature than they are. 
     21C and the “generation gap” have led to a measure of confusion between “adults” and “children.” We want children to behave like adults, and yet we’ve positioned adults as inferior and less mature than children. As 21C educators strive to engage children and help them to become more mature users of technology, there’s a countercurrent which suggests that children are more mature and advanced than their teachers and parents. 
      I believe that John Dewey offers us a way of resolving much of this confusion. Rather than Digital Natives/ Digital Immigrants or a vision of education that aspires to morph children into skilled adults, we can consider Dewey’s concept of “immaturity” found in Democracy and Education, chapter 4. For Dewey, immaturity is the capacity to grow. Immaturity is not a condition to be overcome, but to be perpetually redefined; as we grow, new avenues of growth become available to us. We learn and grow only to again be immature. 
     Immaturity is a concept that unites children and adults rather than dividing us: we’re all immature in different ways (meaning: we all have the capacity to grow). It’s an idea that helps education move beyond a paternalistic desire to make children into successful adults. It’s an idea that saves adults from feeling that they need to bow at the feet of the Digital Native. Immaturity forces us all to look at proximal growth opportunities– it forces us to look at “now.” To come full circle, immaturity reminds us that each person has specific learning tasks that we, and only we, can complete. 
     In Judaism, the most important mitzvah is the next mitzvah. Immaturity is an idea particularly well-suited for Jewish Education which perpetually emphasizes continual growth. Imagine a 21C Jewish educational environment where everyone is learning, where everyone embraces their incompleteness. Such an environment would be truly authentic and inspiring, it would be mutually supportive and collaborative. Much is gained in Jewish education through Dewey’s concept of “immaturity” as learning becomes active, personal, relevant, and normalized. It might even be argued that immaturity is a necessary characteristic for Jewish education to go 21C.