A Missing Priority in Jewish Day Schools

Perhaps it’s because we take it for granted.

Perhaps it’s because we don’t know what it is and therefore can’t work it into the curriculum.

Perhaps it’s because we’re focused on the letter and not the spirit.

Perhaps it’s because we’re focused on the content and not the vessel.

I’m not sure.

But I’ve spoken with colleagues from dozens of Jewish day schools and there’s a common theme: in spite of our deeply religious missions many of us are failing to make spiritual growth and exploration a priority for our students, our families, and our faculties.

And it’s a shame. It’s a shame because failing to educate for spirituality means our students will enter the world with a deficit. They’ll be less happy and they’ll be less whole.

Here are a few assertions that I’d love to discuss, debate, and reflect upon. I’d love to do so online and at the upcoming North American Jewish Day School Conference at the DSLTI-hosted session, “Holding the Unspoken Conversation.”

1) Spiritual development (I know, “development” is a loaded term) is no less important than intellectual, emotional, moral, and physical development. Our schools tend to the intellectual, emotional, moral, and even the physical development of children with great care and concern. Too often we relegate spiritual development to venues like tefilah and the Jewish studies classroom.

2) That’s because many Jewish day schools and faith based schools in general conflate religion and spirituality instead of treating them as interconnected but distinct phenomena.

3) We conflate them because many of our most cherished teachers and administrators aren’t really comfortable owning either the religious or the spiritual mandate that is at the heart of the Jewish day school. That’s in part because we are unsure how our own religiosity and spirituality fit into our professional roles or because we’re afraid to cross the threshold into this terrain.

4) That’s because the schooling that we received likely failed to prioritize our spiritual development. And now we’re paying it forward.

Here are some things that I’ve witnessed that help bring spiritual development into our schools:

5) Promoting spiritual growth and development among our faculty and administration. We can do this during time allotted for professional development. I’ve seen and felt the shift in energy that emerges when faculty and administration address the topic of spirituality– both our own and that of our students.

6) Distributing responsibility for spiritual growth and exploration across the curriculum. When we liberate tefilah and Jewish Studies from the unrealistic burden of owning the entirety of spiritual education it’s good for Jewish Studies and General Studies alike. Lifting spirituality from the “Procrustean Bed” invites teachers across disciplines to embrace the spiritual potential in their curricula.

7) Gathering our most forward thinking and thoughtful people around the table for conversations about the means and ends of Judaic programs like tefilah. When we do this we tap into the deep wisdom and varied perspectives of our diverse communities.

8) Educating parents about the importance of spiritual growth and development and enlisting them in our efforts. They’re favorably disposed, but often equally at a loss for how to bring spirituality into the home. They love discussing  how they and their school community can partner in helping cultivate this naturally occurring phenomenon that we all see in our children and adolescents.

9) Remember that we’re just spiritual beings having a physical experience!

If you’re at the NAJDS and want to share struggles, opportunities, successes, wisdom, and wonder about this topic I hope we can come together and “Holding the Unspoken Conversation.”

“A Palace in Time” – TMI/ Liner Notes

It’s Shabbat, what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel called both a “cathedral” and a “palace” in time. My daughter’s eating raspberries and watching Beauty and the Beast and I’m seizing a few moments while the rest of the family is napping to jot down some thoughts and recollections about the 2nd album of original Jewish music I wrote and created for The Davis Academy, A Palace in Time.

Let’s start with the basics– A Palace in Time is a musical exploration of the psalms and other liturgy that make up the traditional Kabbalat Shabbat service. Kabbalat Shabbat is the portion of the Friday evening service that precedes Maariv. It’s a time when we focus on opening our hearts, minds, and souls to the possibility of Shabbat. Kabbalat Shabbat is about creating within ourselves the capacity for active receptivity. It’s about fine tuning our ears, our eyes, and all of our senses so that we might behold the beautiful imperfection of our lives and our world, all with God’s blessing.

Pretty much every contemporary Jewish songwriter/composer has set pieces of Kabbalat Shabbat to music. Kabbalat Shabbat and Shabbat generally are the anchor of the Jewish people– a weekly reminder of the core values of our people and a  time to be together in sacred community. I am drawn to Kabbalat Shabbat for these reasons and because Kabbalat Shabbat is both well-known and shrouded in mystery for many Jews. Some liturgical passages are sung weekly, others remain whispered. There are recurring themes such as God’s sovereignty and creation’s collective praise and affirmation of God and many others. It’s ripe for musical exploration.

Here are some things to I want to remember about the process of creating A Palace in Time:

1. The title of the album was never a question in my mind.

2. Will Robertson, my musical chevruta and the album’s producer, remarked that he’d never started a project knowing in advance the entire track list, track order, and album title.

3. Many of the initial seeds of the melodies came to me all at once– I’m talking about 10-15 songs in a single sitting. I remember in those moments a profound sense of feeling that I was discovering rather than writing music. I continue to believe, perhaps foolishly, that “discovering” is more accurate a way of thinking about my role in creating this music than “writing.”

4. Initially I wanted and continue to want the music to feel instantly familiar and author less. Those who know Jewish music know that there are many melodies whose composers names are unknown or meaningless to us as the melodies are a part of soul. That’s my dream. My dream is that when people hear these songs they’ll feel like they’ve heard them before, like they’ve always been there, like they’re old friends.

5. Initially I envisioned very simple instrumentation for the album so that congregations would instantly be able to hear how the songs could live in their worship services. Though the recording studio seduced me into pursuing more dynamic arrangements the fact remains that every song could be rendered a cappella or with whatever instrumentation a congregation has available. The songs are meant for Jewish congregations across the religious spectrum and could easily be sung in Orthodox shuls.

6. In a similar spirit to the aforementioned musical simplicity the songs were originally intended to be only in Hebrew. I chose to include English because I felt like I wanted to participate in the poetry of Kabbalat Shabbat by interpreting the words in ways that reflected my understanding. All the English is optional. Some people really don’t like English in their Jewish music and I totally understand this. In the end I feel very strongly that the English lyrics are really quite beautiful and remain very true to the spirit of the liturgy.

7. The L’chah Dodi on the album was “discovered” (i.e. written) in the city of S’fat– the mystical city where the original words of this prayer were written in the 15th century. The melody came to me as I was chaperoning a group of Davis Academy students on our 8th grade Israel trip. We happened to be in S’fat on Erev Shavuot (the day leading up to Shavuot). The fact that Shavuot commemorates the giving of Torah and the revelation at Sinai isn’t lost on me. Another way of saying that I want these songs to sound familiar or that I “found” them is to say that the melodies are “mi-Sinai” from Sinai. That’s a Jewish way of saying that they’ve always been here, waiting for us to find them.

8. The percussion on the song Mizmor Shir is comprised entirely of things you’d find at or around a Shabbat table– candlesticks, spoons, a challah plate, bread knife, and trash can.

9. Even if no one else likes this music my daughter loves it and has learned much of the Kabbalat Shabbat liturgy by singing along.

10. The first couple of tracks on the album aren’t actually from the Kabbalat Shabbat liturgy. They’re included as “opening songs” in the siddur of the Reform Movement, Mishkan T’fila. For the song Hineih Mah Tov I reached out to the faculty and students of the Marist School, a local Catholic school with which we have an interfaith partnership. The message of Hineih Mah Tov– that it’s good for brothers and sisters to dwell together in peace– is a perfect message for Jewish and Catholic teens to share with the world. There’s a deeper story here but it will be told elsewhere.

11. The student artwork is incredible. Rebecca Ganz, Davis’ visual arts teacher and I together came up with the idea of merging the traditional Hebrew Illuminated Manuscript with 1960s psychedelic music poster art. The cover, which she created with some input from me, captures one of Shabbat’s key ideas: the dual remembrance of the original act of creation and the liberation of the Jews from Egypt. Shabbat is fundamentally an affirmation of creation and liberation. Rebecca’s profoundly beautiful cover tells this story. I’m sure many people will be drawn to this incredible artwork and the cover in particular without ever noticing the fact that Rebecca hid the word “Shabbat” in the candles flames.

12. The closing song, Bar’chu, is what’s traditionally known as the call to prayer. It typically comes towards the beginning part of the worship service. That the Bar’chu is the closing song on this album symbolizes a couple of things. First, it reinforces the fact that A Palace in Time is truly focused on Kabbalat Shabbat– the beginning of the Friday night prayer service. Second, it subtly implies that, having taken this musical journey, whatever you do once you’ve listened to the Bar’chu has the potential to be a form of worship or devotion. Typically the Bar’chu is followed by specific liturgical passages. On this album it’s an invitation to think differently about what you’re about to do next.

13. One tough part of this album is the fact that many melodies I “discovered” for Kabbalat Shabbat didn’t make the final cut. 18 songs is more than any album really should have. God willing there will be future opportunities to bring even more Jewish music into the world.

14. A Palace in Time is inspired by a quote attributed to musician Mickey Hart who said of The Grateful Dead, “We aren’t in the entertainment business, we are in the transportation business.” Hopefully this music will transport the listener spiritually and emotionally.

The album will be available for complimentary download on all major music sites.

 

Children’s Spiritual Watercoloring

 

I feel close to God when... (from upper left to bottom right) ... I see an ocean.  ...when I am close to my family. ...when I'm inside and outside. ...when I see a rainbow. ...in a synagogue and with my family. ... when I'm at synagogue.
I feel close to God when… (from upper left to bottom right)
… I see an ocean.
…when I am close to my family.
…when I’m inside and outside.
…when I see a rainbow.
…in a synagogue and with my family.
… when I’m at synagogue.

 

As I look at these water color paintings made by 2nd graders at The Davis Academy I can’t help but feel that there’s something truly refreshing and inspiring about the easy way that children express their spirituality. How can we ensure that as they grow we (parents, teachers, society) don’t inadvertently shut down this natural part of the human experience? How can we ensure that this openness to spirituality thrives and grows, developing alongside all the other capacities that we recognize as being important be they intellectual, emotional, or moral?

One simple thing we can all do right now without any preparation is listen to children when they express spiritual ideas, when they ask spiritual questions, and when they articulate spiritual beliefs. Our lives will be enriched by their innocent profundity and by listening we let them know that we care deeply about what they think, feel, and believe.

Ruth, Friendship, and Spirituality– Thoughts on Shavuot (on Shavuot)

 

Apologies for the pseudo-Shakespearian translation but here’s a familiar passage from the first chapter of the Book of Ruth:

16 And Ruth said: ‘Entreat me not to leave thee, and to return from following after thee; for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge; thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God; 17 where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried; the LORD do so to me, and more also, if aught but death part thee and me.’

I have a confession to make. It’s Shavuot, and I didn’t go to Shul today.  Even though it’s Shavuot– one of Judaism’s three pilgrimage festivals. Instead, I met with and interviewed a recent alum of The Davis Academy as part of my doctoral research on adolescent spirituality. (Incidentally this is the 2nd year in a row that I didn’t go to shul. Last year I spent Shavuot at K’far Yehezkel, a moshav in the Southern Galilee. It was an incredible experience and you can read about it here.)

Though I didn’t go to shul, it turns out that I learned an incredible lesson about at least one aspect of Shavuot during my interview today…

My doctoral research is on the topic of adolescent spirituality. My goal is to advance both the academic and colloquial understanding of the phenomenon of spirituality as it is experienced by adolescents. I come to this topic not as an “objective” researcher, but as a rabbi and educator who works with adolescents and cares deeply about this aspect of their lives and their development. I also believe that this is a largely neglected area and that most educational contexts fail to protect, nurture and celebrate adolescent spirituality. Rather than circulating a questionnaire or survey I’ve chosen to conduct in depth interviews with a small cohort of recent Davis Academy alumni. Today I conducted an interview with one of my research participants. And yet again I was blown away by the depth of thought, the depth of caring, and the depth of insight that I witnessed in the adolescent sitting across from me.

As the interview unfolded both the participant and I developed a deeper understanding of what spirituality meant to him. Toward the end of the interview I attempted to summarize his definition of spirituality as he understands it:

Spirituality is about realizing our potential as human beings. It starts with self-knowledge and self-awareness but quickly extends to our relationships with other people. We realize our potential when we connect with other human beings in meaningful and socially redemptive ways. Spirituality is the foundation of the connection that we make with others, particularly when this connection is deep and true. All true friendships have a spiritual component. 

I’ve conducted several interviews, and the theme of “connection” has been present in each. But no other research participant has more emphatically emphasized that his/her definition of spirituality is so firmly rooted in the act of connecting with other people, in forging relationships of various kinds, and friendship in particular. When I asked him directly whether all of his friendships had a spiritual component he thoughtfully and unabashedly said yes.

On Shavuot we read the book of Ruth. Ruth is all about relationships, human connection, and friendship. The connection between the name Ruth and the Hebrew word for friendship/companionship Reut has been noted by others. Ruth chooses to cast her lot not only with Naomi, her mother in law, but with Naomi’s people– the Jewish people. At the beginning of this post you’ll find the most famous passage from the book of Ruth. Ruth’s words to Naomi when Naomi implores her to return to the Moabites.

While I didn’t go to shul today I do feel that I encountered holiness. I’m motivated to do my doctoral research because I believe in the importance of the topic. I think we all need to develop a more nuanced and respectful vocabulary for thinking about and discussing adolescent spirituality. I’ve conducted 4 in depth interviews and, while each participant has experienced spirituality slightly (or very) differently, if at all, they’ve all been incredibly reflective, generous in sharing their experiences, and appreciative to have been given a voice. Collectively and individually, they’ve reaffirmed my belief that JFK got it right when he said, “Man is still the most extraordinary computer of all.”

 

Israel 2014- A Man of Life

Written for The Davis Academy Menschlichkeit blog and cross posted here.
5/16/14
The following is a poem written by Mitchell A. this evening just before Shabbat that he read aloud in front of the entire class at a reflective session at the Menorah in front of the Knesset (Israeli Parliament). It is published here with his permission.
I Am a Man of Life
I am not a man of religion,
I am not a man of fiction,
I am not a man of myth,
I am not a man of fact,
I am not a man of history.
I am a man of life.
But life is weird.
Life is made up
Of all these things.
History becomes fact,
Fact becomes fiction,
Fiction becomes myth,
Myth becomes religion.
Then all those factors live
In harmony and war
All at once.
All until there is only ash.
Then history rises from that ash
And the cycle continues.
Just as life does.
I could stop writing now, but I feel like I have to try to answer the question— what is it about the human spirit that enables us to create such beautiful poetry?
Friday is a crazy day in Jerusalem. Thousands of Muslims ascend the Temple Mount to offer their prayers, Jews hustle and bustle to prepare for Shabbat, tourists squeeze in a few extra visits before the entire city takes a day of rest and renewal. Today we contributed to the craziness of Jerusalem by participating in an archeological dig and going on a culinary tour of Machane Yehudah—Jerusalem’s central market place.
Approximately 10 years ago an illegal building project was undertaken at the Temple Mount. In order to create a entrance to one of the Mosques there, thousands of pounds of debris were removed from the Temple Mount. Rather than consulting with archeologists the debris was removed without any foresight or concern for preservation. It was rescued by a group of archeologists who recognized the irreparable loss that would’ve occurred if the debris had simply been discarded. As we sifted through buckets of debris we found artifacts dating from the First Temple Period (approximately 800-500 BCE) all the way through the modern era. We found two coins, the dates of which we don’t yet know, as well as many pieces of pottery, animal bones, and mosaic tiles. We literally sifted through history. Did one of us uncover an artifact that would turn fiction into myth? What about myth into religion? We made history rise from that ash.
After reviewing the day’s key archeological discoveries and washing up we headed to Machane Yehudah. Machane Yehudah is such a multisensory, multicultural, vibrant place it’s virtually impossible to describe. This year we were privileged to receive tickets that allowed (and required) us to try food or drink from 6 of the hundreds of vendors in the marketplace. We tasted food and drink unlike anything we’ve ever had before. And we loved it. All of us. Stuffing grape leaves into our mouths, olive oil dripping onto our shoes—you might say we were all “men of life.” The one thing that unites the chaotic bustle of Machane Yehudah is that everyone there is trying to feed his or her family. In that respect, Machane Yehudah just might be one of Jerusalem’s holiest sites.
After a few hours rest we set out for our first Shabbat in Jerusalem and the last Shabbat of our trip. Shabbat in Jerusalem means slowing down, digging deep, connecting, and opening our hearts and minds to the possibility that our spirit has something to teach us and something to offer the world.
To help get us into the spirit of Shabbat we decided to have our first “Spiritual Check In” of the trip. Spiritual Check Ins are opportunities to cultivate the reflective aspect of the Israel trip. Our spiritual check in this evening was literally miraculous. Here’s why…
The Menorah opposite the Knesset is one of the most visited sites in Jerusalem. We’re never been able to stay at the Menorah for very long because there are constantly groups lining up to see it. Tonight we were able to sit at the foot of the Menorah for the entire duration of our spiritual check in—45 minutes. Our tour guides were literally in shock that our session remained undisturbed. Just as we began to “close” the spiritual check in a group of tourists arrived. It’s as if an invisible barrier had been erected to protect the sacred sharing that took place tonight—sharing that broke down some of the remaining barriers among the grade and lead to many tears, laughs, and insights.
Aside from Mitchell’s poem I’m not at liberty to share the contents of the spiritual check in. Confidentiality is part of the protocol. But what I can tell you is that we used a quote attributed to Albert Einstein as our starting off point. The quote was, “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.” It really got the kids thinking. After briefly discussing the quote we gave the kids individual time to reflect. They could write, contemplate, or do whatever they wanted with the time we gave them. When they returned to the group they were welcome to share or not, depending on how their heart moved them. The most important part of the sharing is that it was meant to help the sharer arrive at greater clarity for themselves, to listen to what Parker Palmer calls, “The Inner Teacher.” For that reason we asked kids to focus on active listening and not to clap or respond in any other way to what was shared. Mitchell was the first to share. When we heard his poem it was clear that the spiritual check in was going to be a profound point of connection for the kids. As I said, there was much laughter, many tears, and a strong desire to continue to conversation at a later time.
Having grown even closer through mutual sharing we headed to the Kotel for what ended up being a remarkable Shabbat. The outcome of the courageous struggles of the Women of the Wall is that there is a new section of the Kotel called, “Ezrat Yisrael.” At “Ezrat Yisrael” women and men are allowed to pray together. That’s exactly what we did. Our ruach was so inspiring that others came to join us. As we sung and stamped our feet, the platform beneath us was literally shaking. At multiple points during our song session/ Shabbat service we all traded places to stand next to different people. At the end we sang the Mishebeirach and also recited Mourner’s Kaddish. I made sure to impress upon the kids that the tefilah we experienced at Ezrat Yisrael, and the Torah that our children carry in their hearts as is as legitimate as what they would experience when we ascended to the main Kotel plaza where men and women continue to be segregated. In the past I’ve felt a slight tinge of envy that the Orthodox prayer services had more ruach than our own. Don’t get me wrong, I am a proud and devoted liberal Jew. For the first time, tonight, I felt that our prayer experience actually had greater beauty, integrity, ruach, and impact than what was taking place at the main Kotel. Our kids got to experience both, so it’s up to them to decide.
Last but not least, we had a delicious dinner. We wished Sam B. a happy birthday once more and even gave him a few more random gifts (I forgot to mention that his friends bought him all sorts of random chazerai at Machane Yehudah such as bathroom soap dispensers, high heels, a book in Greek, and other random items from the flea market section). I presented him with a gift from the school—a keychain size version of the Book of Psalms. In presenting it to him, right after the conclusion of our spiritual check in, I reminded everyone that the Book of Psalms gives voice to many of the emotions that were shared during the check in—joy, sadness, confusion, yearning, regret, hope, humility, pride and more. I told Sam that I prayed that he and all of us would experience the deep humanity that was felt by the Psalmist.

If the Hebrew cannon hadn’t been sealed thousands of years ago I’d make a strong argument for adding Mitchell’s poem to it. Perhaps it will appear in a book of poetry one day, or as a creative reading in a siddur. The power of having our spiritual check in at the foot of the Menorah is that it allowed us to join our personal stories with the communal stories of the Jewish people. The Menorah granted legitimacy to our various narratives by serving as a silent witness from our Jewish past. It was truly a fitting place for our check in because, after all, “life is made up of all these things.”

 

Jewish Day School Kids are Blessed

 

If #JewishDaySchoolKidsAreBlessed were a hashtag I’d have a lot to tweet about. But that wasn’t always the case for me. Though I personally attended a Jewish Day School for kindergarten (Stephen S. Wise in Los Angeles), I do not consider myself a “product” of the Day School Movement and I never thought I’d work at one. In fact, I’d say that, even as a rabbinical student, my attitude was somewhere between ignorance and wariness. Surely Jewish Day Schools were nothing more than small, parochial private schools, sheltering kids from the real world. And at a great financial and social cost no less.

For the last six years I’ve served as the Director of Jewish and Hebrew Studies at The Alfred & Adele Davis Academy, Atlanta’s Reform Jewish Day School. When I look back on my former attitude regarding Jewish Day Schools all I can say is that I was 1) uninformed and 2) that the view is very different from the “inside.”

On the topic of #JewishDaySchoolKidsAreBlessed I’ll simply offer one thought that’s particularly fresh in my mind. Students at Jewish Day Schools are among a small minority of children anywhere in the world that are given the time, space, support, and resources to develop an authentic and compelling spiritual practice.

Siddurim

 

Davis Academy students are consistently exposed to developmentally appropriate prayer (tefilah) during their years of study. I’ve personally witnessed countless children journey through different phases– the wonder and curiosity of early elementary, the literalism of upper elementary, the deep questioning, skepticism, and struggle of middle school. Few leave Davis fully formed and secure in their spiritual lives (indeed that’s not the goal), but all leave having had ample space and support in exploring their spiritual lives.

Even the finest public and private schools in the world typically don’t support the kind of spiritual exploration, experimentation, and growth that children need. Consequently most children (and in turn most adults) encounter spirituality as something foreign, intimidating, new-ageish, or perplexing, rather than as an intrinsic and essential part of the human experience.

While it’s quite possible to develop a spiritual practice outside of school through interactions with faith communities or through a variety of different activities, the fact that Jewish Day Schools carve out and dedicate time for spiritual practice is a powerful statement of purpose. The fact that it’s deeply countercultural is something to be lamented rather than celebrated. Spiritual education is an area where Jewish Day Schools can and should shine and it’s an area where we can offer expert advise and insight to educators that aren’t fortunate to work in environments that celebrate spirituality.

Through my doctoral studies I’ve learned that different countries have different attitudes toward spiritual education. The UK and Australia, for example, mandate that public schools provide some sort of spiritual education for their students. For obvious reasons that’s not the case here in the U.S. Unfortunately, banning spiritual education from the classroom has the unintended consequence of destroying this capacity for too many children.

#JewishDaySchoolKidsAreBlessed for many reasons. One reason is because they are given the space and encouragement to grow spiritually, in turn making them better able to begin to appreciate the many other blessings they are lucky enough to have.

Those of us who work at Jewish Day Schools have to work together to make sure that we do indeed support spiritual growth for our students. It is our obligation to make sure that time dedicated to tefilah isn’t a source of dread but a source of joy and inspiration for our communities.

 

 

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?

Tzedek and Non-Acceptance

One of the core menschlichkeit values at my school, The Davis Academy, is tzedek (“righteousness”). Tzedek means living a morally upright life. Ideally we’d all embody tzedek  but this is obviously not the case. The disconnect between what we know is right(eous) and what we often find, in our own lives and certainly in the world around us, is often very stark. It turns out that living morally and ethically is much harder than it seems. It turns out that human beings might intellectually grasp the importance of moral and ethical excellence but we generally don’t yearn to do the good. If we are passionately committed to living righteously the world arounds us presents many stumbling blocks to thwart us. It’s not enough to be intellectually committed to tzedek. Both as educators and as individuals we need to feel emotionally and spiritually stirred to pursue tzedek in our daily lives. That’s why I think non-acceptance is vitally important.

Non-acceptance, outrage, and spiritual indignation are powerful motivators. Abraham felt these emotions when he argued with God against destroying Sodom and Gemorrah. Moses felt these emotions when saw an Egyptian slavedriver beating a helpless Israelite.

Non-acceptance arises when we are able to see the abyss between the world as it is and the world as it should be. Outrage arises when we realize that the status quo, so deeply entrenched and ingrained, reinforces iniquity and injustice. Spiritual indignation bubbles up when we taste the disconnect between our principles, our potential, and our personal power, and the hypocrisy, inertia, and excuses that come too easily.

The cognitive and emotional dissonance captured by non-acceptance, outrage, and spiritual indignation can propel us towards tzedek. It can help us push through the malaise and complacency that keep tzedek just beyond the brink of consciousness. When we come home to tzedek we can confront the dizzying notion that each of us has the power to make a difference.

If you’ve read this far you might enjoy the song Rise Up from my CD: Be a Blessing. It features the Mt. Zion Second Baptist Church Gospel Choir. Click here to download the song or the entire album for free from CD Baby.

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.

 

The Truth About Children

“3 Minute Poet” is exactly what it sounds like– a non-threatening way to get kids writing. The teacher provides the title (in this case “your name”) and starts the timer. The rest is up to the students. Here’s a wonderful piece by a Davis Academy 5th grader (now rising 6th grader), Isabella McCullough. It’s reprinted here with parental consent.

Isabella McCullough

creatively weird

undefined

haven’t opened the door,

but I’ve freed my mind.

clash with the heart,

the true me is still there.

If you’re looking for me

I’ll be anywhere

I’m an unfinished

book

an open-ended fairy tale

I am who I am

Isabella’s poem and the context in which it was written (“3 minute poet”) illustrates a simple but important point:

Every child is a poet.

“I know I saw that book in here somewhere!”

 

When it comes to kids it can be hard to make sweeping generalizations. Not every kid is a math whiz, or a polyglot, or an app developer, or competent with a hair brush. But I do think there are some things we can say about “every child.”

Every child is an artist.

Every child is a philosopher.

Every child is a theologian.

Every child is an actor.

Every child is a dancer.

Every child is a nature-lover.

Every child is an explorer.

Every child is a comedian.

Every child is a skeptic.

Every child is a teacher.

Every child is a boundary pusher.

Every child is a truth speaker.

The Talmud teaches that the world is sustained by the breath of schoolchildren. When we pause and consider the wonderful qualities and traits of our children, it’s hard to disagree.

Whether we live out our responsibilities towards children as parents, teachers, school administrators, or simply as caring adults who look to future generations to make the world a better place, we should ask how we are helping cultivate these characteristics and traits in our children.