Thoughts on Teaching and Learning

One of the many blessings of being the rabbi at The Davis Academy is that I’m afforded daily opportunities to reflect on the most basic components of education: teaching and learning. Here are a few gleanings from my day (in no particular order).

  1. True learning is, by necessity, transformational. If we’re truly learning then our future self will, by necessity, differ from the person we are today.
  2. Classroom learning is most impactful and exciting when students are able to connect their learning to real life.
  3. Two people can look at the exact same thing and see completely different things.
  4. In all great classrooms there are multiple lessons being taught at the same time.
  5. You can’t bake bread without flour.
  6. Growth is wonderful, healthy, necessary, and beautiful. And sometimes it’s also painful.
  7. Teaching in the absence of learning is not an absurdity, but rather an impossibility.
  8. We all connect to passion and do our best when our motivation is sincere and compelling.
  9. It only takes a moment or two to know when you’re in the presence of a master educator.
  10. The sound of deep learning is as glorious as any symphony and in many respects more redemptive.
  11. Thoughtful, respectful, and authentic dialogue and conversation are cornerstones of teaching and learning.
  12. Children have many teachers and are constantly learning.
  13. Reflection is that set of activities, skills, dispositions, and capacities that allows any learner to become his or her own teacher.
  14. Teaching and learning are not only about imparting knowledge, but also about helping one another to encounter the wisdom within.

It was a great day! So was yesterday. And I’ve got a pretty good feeling about tomorrow! Educator friends: what did y’all reflect on about teaching and learning today?

Asking a child to do a grown up’s job

A recent JEDLAB discussion on Passover got me thinking. Are Jewish educators asking children to do the job of grown ups when it comes to Jewish life and living? And if so, are we inadvertently infantilizing grown ups in the process? Here’s what I mean…

When it comes to Passover, Jewish tradition is pretty clear that it’s the job of the grown ups to find ways of engaging children in the seder. As a Jewish educator I know that I have limited capacity (time, influence, and otherwise) to equip grown ups with the skills to do this if they don’t already have them. So I focus on the kids. I make sure that they’re conversant in the liturgy of the seder and also that they’re equipped to bring something creative, provocative, engaging, and different to their seder so that they might be the ones who engage the grown ups. A complete reversal of the traditional Jewish view that places this onus on the grown ups.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that the grown ups are very appreciative that their children come to seder ready to engage them in a meaningful experience. But this comes with a potential (and I do mean potential) shadow side– we empower the children but infantilize the grown ups and the seder experience more generally.

While children are more than capable of bringing something cute and interesting to their seder table, they’re not capable of facilitating and participating in the kind of adult conversation that really honors the complex themes and social critique embedded in the Passover story. Seder, when focused only on the children and built around their engaging contributions, may be memorable, enjoyable, rewarding, celebratory and many other things, but it is likely not deep,  challenging, transformational, or significant. Of course a well-timed query from a child can propel a seder table to new depths, but this isn’t a guarantee. As grown ups wait for and depend upon the energy and creativity of the children at the seder table the really important questions may go unanswered.

More than likely seder is actually a blend of child generated joy and adult conversation. But as Jewish educators we have to ask whether our focus on the child runs the risk of letting grown ups off the hook a little too easily.

Lech Lecha– a unique perspective

The following D’var Torah was prepared by Todd Williamson, a member of The Davis Academy faculty. It was shared at one of our weekly Middle School tefilah services in honor of a student that is becoming bat mitzvah this Shabbat and is published here with his permission. Todd has asked me to note that he did not write this D’var Torah expecting that it would be “published” on a blog and therefore did not include citations. He notes that Bruce Feiler’s work on Abraham was very influential in his thinking along with many additional resources.

In addition to being a wonderful D’var Torah in its own right, this post demonstrates part of the unique potential within a Jewish Day School such as The Davis Academy. Consider the following: a D’var Torah lovingly and thoughtfully prepared by a non-Jewish faculty member, presented in front of several hundred early adolescent Jewish kids– an exchange of ideas characterized by great thoughtfulness, tolerance, and pluralism. Some critics argue that Jewish day schools are not diverse. I’d be eager to hear about other Jewish organizations where it would be commonplace for profound words of Torah to be shared by someone of a different faith. The exchange of ideas, the diversity of life experience, and the sharing of Torah that this guest post reflects is truly unique. Todd can be followed on Twitter @Bookman30022. When Todd isn’t writing Divrei Torah he is immersed in technology, teaching, and literature. 

 

Lech Lecha:  Genesis 12: 1: 17-27

God instructs Abram to leave his father’s house and set off to the “Promised land” G_d will reveal to him.  G_d promises Abram that this land will be set aside for him and his descendants and that Abram will be the father of a great nation.  Abram, Sarai and Lot(Abram’s nephew)  travel to Canaan.

A famine in Canaan forces Abram to seek provisions in Egypt where Abram declares Sarai to be his sister, not his wife.  Abram and his family receive good fortune, while Pharaoh receives plagues.  Pharaoh realizes Abram’s deception and sends Abram, his wife and their possessions out of Egypt.

Abram and Lot separate and live separate lives and soon Lot is taken away as a hostage in a tribal war.  Abram and his men free Lot from his captors and G_d reappears to Abram and promises progeny and land.  Abram confirms G_d’s covenant and then G_d fortells the Israelite bondage in Egypt.  During this time Sarai gives her handmaid, Hagar, to Abram and she bears Abram a son, Ishmael.

G_d once again repeats his covenant to Abram, but requires all males to be circumcised as a sign of the covenant.  Upon this sign, G_d changes Abram and Sarai names to Abraham and Sarah.

Thousands of years ago Abram was called by G_d, just like you are being called to the Torah this Shabbat.  You are a direct lineage to Abraham:  a memory you should be proud to share with our ancestor.   One thing we can certainly learn from Abraham is that G_d listens when we as humans yearn, or cry out for his guidance.  God hears Abraham’s plea for help, but we first must believe G_d.  Abraham does not believe in God, he believes God.  This is a huge difference, so I’ll say it again:  Abraham does not believe in God, he believes God and thus fulfills the covenant promised to him and his descendants, which leads to the original Kehillah of Jews on Earth

Could you follow in Abraham’s footsteps, could you have the faith he had to leave his father’s home and follow G_d’s instructions?  Despite being a believer, I’m not sure if I could…so perhaps I don’t really have the gift of faith: I certainly know I don’t have the faith Abraham had, but I don’t have to:  Abraham had faith for all of us.

The story of Lech Lecha beckons us, as humans and as Jews, to take risks and travel into the unknown in pursuit of our true purposes in life. It encourages us to listen to our intuitions, to pay attention to the inner voice that more often directs our heart than our head. It teaches us that we may have to leave what we know and move away from areas of comfort, in order to develop our potential.  One day, years down the road, you too, like Abraham will leave your father’s home: which invariably will bring you closer to your family you just left behind. Like Abraham, if we hear the call, we must remember to put our faith in that inner voice that guides us along the way and trust in our strength, ability, creativity and talents that when we make the journey, we too, may find our own personal “promised land” and that you personally will become the wonderful, brilliant and beautiful young lady you are destined to become.

G-d promised Abraham, and in turn promised us, that, if we become leaders and initiators, our initial efforts will never be forgotten.  Have faith and believe G-d and you too, just like Abraham will always be remembered as a blessing!

On behalf of the students, faculty and staff of The Davis Academy, we wish you Mazel Tov.

Thank You Robert Coles

I’m working my way through Robert Coles’ beautiful book, The Spiritual Life of Children. It’s a great “Elul” read.  Here are a few of the insights that speak to me as a rabbi and educator with an eye toward the Blog Elul theme for day 15: “learn.”

 

coles

1. In all child/adult relationships power always resides with the adult. In the introductory chapter of Spiritual Life Coles describes how he systematically deemphasized spirituality and religion for the majority of his career. In reflecting on his younger self he writes, “A shrug of my shoulders (a thought to myself: who will ever know?) and a remark of mine that moved us into quite another realm of discourse– such are the fateful turns in what later gets called ‘research.'” Whether we are researchers or not, the lesson is clear: we see what we want to see. In our interactions with children are we patient or rushed? Do we sincerely listen or do we pretend to listen? Do we give children opportunities to explore ideas or do we shut them down? Children are undeniably and irrepressibly spirited. But as adults we actually do have the power to celebrate their spirit or slowly crush it. The power is ours.

2. It’s natural to seek evidence to confirm our preexisting theory. In differentiating his work from that of James Fowler (who developed a faith development theory based on stage development) Coles critiques the idea of stage development theory noting, “If a child fails to respond to a researcher’s predetermined line of questioning, the researcher is likely to comment on a ‘developmental’ inadequacy.” Coles is saying that, when we have a theory that we whole-heartedly believe in, we begin to interpret the world accordingly. Human beings are meaning making entities. We can’t help the fact that we greet each experience with a myriad of predetermined ideas and beliefs. The more compelling and subtle of these might qualify as “theories”– assumptions about what meaning we’ll find in a given experience. The tricky thing is letting our theories guide us but not letting them define us. If our theories define us then they actually hinder our ability to construct new meanings and insights.

3. Wisdom can’t be acquired in a day. We want to know, we want to understand, and we tend to be inpatient with ourselves and with others when we or they don’t “get it.” Coles reminds researchers that in order to truly understand something, to acquire wisdom, we need to be open to the idea of prolonged encounters. Coles argues that to truly understand a child’s spiritual life takes at least a year of engagement. During his career he interviewed some of his research subjects as many as 25 times. Many of us are quick to trust our instincts and to make snap judgments. Often we’re fairly accurate in our initial assessment, but to acquire true wisdom, we need to slow down and be patient as well as reflective.

4. The best teachers are first and foremost committed to learning. Coles writes, “A good way to initiate… research is to sit down with children, tell them what you want to learn, and then hope that they will become colleagues, instructors, guides.” Too many educators are trapped by the notion that we have to provide the subject matter and represent the voice of mastery. Meanwhile, a lot of lip service is paid to the idea of child- centered education. In a truly child-centered pedagogical framework an interesting possibility emerges– that the adult teacher will actually come to learn important lessons from the child teacher. While we can’t always flip the classroom quite so dramatically, the idea that children are great teachers is one that we need to continually revisit in our classrooms and our schools.

I’m sure many of us have read Robert Coles’ work. What has resonated with others that have had the pleasure?

Science Fiction Torah

“‘Is it possible for me to understand?’
‘Oh, yes. Many could understand it. What people do with understanding is a different matter.’
‘Will you teach me what to do?’
‘You already know.'”
Frank Herbert, God Emperor of Dune


          As a side note I must recommend the first four books of the Dune series to anyone who is even remotely what one might call a “sci-fi” buff. Of course if you read any science fiction then you already know what I’m talking about. For the uninitiated, there’s nothing quite like reading Dune. The fourth book, which is quoted above, has as its protagonist (possibly villian, I’m not quite done reading it) none other than (a/the) God. I’m sitting here trying to think of any books besides Dune and the Bible for which this is the case. Forget science fiction, if you’re interested in religion, theology, or philosophy it’s a must read.
        I’m not going to bother trying to contextualize the passage from the book. Instead, I want to appropriate it, as it’s a useful frame for thinking about education in general and Jewish education in particular.
        1. “Is it possible for me to understand?” The last thing I want to do is strip Judaism of its nuances, complexities, paradoxes, and mystery. At the same time, more of us need to embrace the Deuteronomic concept of lo bashamayim hee (lit: “it is not in heavens…”). Judaism is a here and now faith. It’s a religion of “whatcha gonna do next.” It’s a “what are you waiting for” way of living each day. Judaism is all about empowerment. There’s no limit to how much you can learn or how masterful your command of tradition can be– and that’s empowering. At the same time, there’s a lot you can do with even the slightest motivation– this too is empowering. And while there’s a lot of levels of understanding it is emphatically, undeniably, 100% possible to understand.
        2. “What people do with understanding is a different matter.” The Hebrew word for understanding is havanah. The Hebrew word for intention is cavanah.  While these words sound the same, and are transliterated into English using many of the same letters beware– they are in fact different concepts. Havanah and canavah are not always mutually reinforcing concepts. There are many things that many people understand. However our actions are more less likely to be driven by our havanah than our cavanah. Understanding is critically important, especially given our unique nature as rational beings. But cavanah will always play a more fundamental role in determining how we live each moment. As Jews we are committed to havanah and cavanah. Let us pray for the wisdom to unite these two ways of knowing so that we may live lives of purposeful conduct.
        3. “Will you teach me what to do?” There’s a lot of wisdom floating around out there about the nature of education and how learning occurs. One area of profound consensus is that the openness to learning and the hunger to learn are preconditions for meaningful and transformative development to occur. As educators our role is twofold in this regard: 1) to kindle, or at least keep alive, the innate flame within every person that yearns to know, understand, learn and grow, and 2) to honor the student who comes to us with this question. If we can rise to the occasion of this question guiding our students beyond what they currently can do to that which they are capable of doing with our care, guidance, and teaching, then we’re doing sacred work.
        4. “You already know.” While learning is about journeying into foreign lands, both literally and metaphorically, it’s also about coming home. The wisdom we encounter in the world around us often resides within us as well. Creation is our mirror, showing us something that we can grasp because we are a part of it, and it is already within us, or least the capacity to grasp is already within us. While our students will surely grow weary if the response to every earnest question is “You already know” they will more quickly learn to draw on the vast resources that constitute their innate humanity if we lovingly throw the ball back into their court every now and again.

4 Things Every Jewish Educator Can and Should Do

I’ve been reading a lot of educational philosophy: Dewey, Vygotsky, Bruner, and Noddings, to name a few (and how is that for name dropping!).

I’ve also been reading a lot of Jewish educational philosophy: Twersky, Rosenak, Fox, Meyer… (now you’re really salivating!).

There’s a spectrum of responses that people have when they find themselves doing this kind of reading for, say, a class in Jewish educational philosophy. At one end of the spectrum is fear, anxiety, boredom, and even anger. At the other end of the spectrum is the highlighter toting, read-two-lines and have to look something up, I love this stuff response. That’s me. I love this stuff.

But rather than trying to infect you with my love of educational philosophy, I find myself wanting to jot down some notes on the age old topic: The Joy of Learning. So here’s an utterly incomplete, philosophically irrelevant, mundane list of things Jewish educators can do that make kids love being Jewish and learning about Judaism. I’d love for folks to post comments and add ideas to the list.

1. Give them challah and grape juice. I’ve never met a gluten-tolerant Jew that didn’t love challah and grape juice. When we break out the challah and juice at The Davis Academy, as we do each Friday, the energy is amazing. There’s smiling and sharing, singing and blessing. Invariably kids are asking for more.
     Now one might argue that sharing challah and juice isn’t education. Wrong! Partaking in this simple ritual teaches countless lessons in a very profound way: community, fellowship, connection to Jewish history and tradition, the sweetness of Shabbat and others. Reciting blessings (in Hebrew, no less) is probably the most beautiful expression of theology there is. I firmly believe that if all we did at The Davis Academy was share challah and juice (and light candles) every Friday, we’d still be strengthening the Jewish future.

2. Ask big questions and have deep conversations. It’s amazing what happens when you put a question box in a 2nd grade classroom. Explain to the kids that they can ask any question in the universe (as long as it’s appropriate) and within a week even the wisest rabbi or educator will be stumped. Kids love to ask big questions and have deep conversations. The amazing thing is they do it without caffeine or existential angst. If all kids remember from their time at Jewish school is that they got to ask outrageous questions and have deep conversations with one another and an educator who actually took them seriously, dayeinu. 


3. Tell stories. Stories are the bread and butter of Jewish tradition. While Halakhah (Jewish Law) has undoubtedly played a critical role in preserving Jewish identity through the ages, I’d argue that stories are even more important. Stories transmit the values and teachings we hold dearest. They introduce us to the heroes (and villains) that came before us. They remind us that there’s magic in the mundane. They also remind us that we too have stories– family stories, personal stories, fictional stories– that only we can tell. Also, kids of all ages (and adults) love a good story. Throw in a floor rug, some bean bag chairs, and a few props, and kids will literally sit at your feet and give you their undivided attention.

4. Make them read Dewey’s Democracy and Education, 1916 (and write a massive book report). During the summer.

5. Connect Judaism to life. Kids are inundated with information. News, sitcoms, music, movies, social media. It’s constant. Kids are amazed when they learn that Judaism has something to say about the National Debt or when they realize that Jewish values are being taught through The Simpsons. They’re intrigued when they discover biblical references in popular songs. We all know this. We also know that Judaism is a vast and dynamic body of wisdom that relates to virtually everything. When we make these connections eventually our students start to make them for themselves. Once this happens our students are engaging Jewishly no matter where they are or what they’re doing.

Introducing The Davis Academy Beit Midrash

This morning the Judaic Studies team at Davis studied the story of Kamsa and Bar Kamsa as it appears in Lamentations Rabbah 4:3. For those who aren’t familiar the story is about… well that’s the thing. It’s a story that is connected in the “rabbinic imagination” to the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE by the Romans. The story serves as a kind of proof text or explanation for why the Temple was destroyed: baseless hatred and excessive piety.
There’s enduring wisdom in the recognition that the fusion of baseless hatred ande excessive piety is a truly toxic combination. While Tisha b’Av mourns the physical destruction of the Jewish community in Ancient Palestine (and a host of other historical maladies) it also calls upon each of us to participate in the positive destruction of unchecked emotions that detract from rather than contribute to the social good.
This morning’s conversation quickly diverged from a discussion of the moral dimensions of the story into a meta-conversation (I can just see you losing interest). The story of Kamsa and Bar Kamsa is, like many rabbinic texts, an elliptical story. It leaves out plenty of details, raises issues pertaining to narrative plausability, and requires a certain amount of familiarity with Jewish history. Because these are ancient/ classical texts and we are modern/ postmodern readers there are translation issues. These issues range from making sense of the Aramaic to trying to develop an appreciation of whatever genre restraints may be dictating both the content and form of any given story. In the case of Kamsa and Bar Kamsa one’s sense of the text is determined as much by what you bring to the text as what you find there. Is this making sense?
Ultimately our conversation became about the act of reading itself. By the time we wrapped things up the five of us had spent about an hour engrossed in a dialogue that was brought into being by a Jewish text. Our activity connected us to countless people throughout history who had previously studied and discussed the story of Kamsa and Bar Kamsa. Our conversation also connected us with all those who study it today in relation to Tisha b’Av, and to some extent to those who study it in the future as well. In other words through engaged reading we became part of a community and a conversation that transcends time, geography, and ideology.
But at the same time as our conversation connected us with a kind of virtual community, it also forged a much more intimate community– the five of us. The conversation that we had about Kamsa and Bar Kamsa was unique. While probably not unprecedented, it was our own conversation. In addition to mining a variety of messages from the text we also learned about one another– what we see in the text, what we notice, how we analyze, how we think, how we question, what gets us intellectually excited, what Tisha b’Av means to each of us. All of this emerged through the act of reading and is a reflection of the powerful impact that reading can have.
I love reading. I especially love reading Jewish texts because they demand that I be an active, creative, and engaged reader. Jewish texts teach me how to read and enrich the many other readings I am engaged in.
While meta-conversations generally tend to resist pragmatic applications there is a very practical dimension to what I’m describing. At The Davis Academy we are going to be implementing a new initiative– The Davis Academy Beit Midrash. At various times in the year the entire middle school will be coming together to study certain Jewish texts. One goal of the Beit Midrash is to expose students to classical Jewish texts that they might otherwise not encounter in the course of the regular Judaic curriculum and to teach them how to read these texts in the way I describe above. While reading Jewish texts to life we will simultaneously be fostering the kind of community that can only emerge through the kind of reading that Jewish texts invite– a community that is based on shared conversations, dialogues, and ideas. A community of listening and speaking, of debating and relating. A community where teachers are learners and students are teachers. A community dedicated to the exploration of self and tradition, and critical reflection. I’ll let you know how it goes…