Breaking down classroom walls with resilience theory

Why is the summer’s poetry slam on the loss of the Beit HaMikdash (the Holy Temple) seared into our educational memories, while the details of yesterday’s Jewish history class can hardly be recalled? Why do the ultimate messages of pride and unity felt at the end of a massive color war ring deeper than silently reading what Rambam has to say about the topic? Schools have the tremendous opportunity and privilege of accessing and serving students for a longer duration and often in more depth than camps, Shabbatons, youth groups etc. … and yet informal learning venues are overwhelmingly cited as fun, remarkable places while school is something students may begrudgingly attend.

In a different world, frilly coral colonies, like swirls of tulle, run down the east coast of Australia. Considered one of the seven natural wonders of the world, the Great Barrier Reef is the mother ecosystem, the marine equivalent of the world’s largest city. By all accounts, due to the increase of greenhouse gases, the acidification of the ocean and bleaching of coral, the coral should be gone. Wiped off the face of this earth. Yet it is still here, largely still glimmering its majestic colors. How? Ecological resilience. An organism or ecosystem is deemed resilient when it meets three criteria: it undergoes a tremendous change or shock but retains the same essential structure and function; it is capable of self-organization; and it can build and increase its capacity for adaptation and learning. The coral has recovered from major disturbance and, further, has largely continued to develop and reproduce.

Resilience theory is a perfect paradigm for producing students who are engaged with the subject matter and strengthened in their Jewish identities. Camps, Shabbatons, service learning, youth groups and other forms of education offer a dynamism and urgency that’s often missing from classrooms. Current parochial schools risk system collapse (read: apathetic, unengaged students) by not offering dynamic programming. Yet we can harness the best elements of these programs to create powerful experiences at the day school level, inside the classrooms.

How we do so is a fundamental question of building resilience, and it starts with creating a hybrid between what is traditionally referred to as “informal” and “formal” education through experiential education. (Let us also dispel the myth that experiential education is learning under a tree, or something of that nature. We are not discussing peppering every few lesson plans with an activity. Rather we are in the practice of making the topic come alive, of the students discovering their role within the topic.)

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wisely said, “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” Our education systems should not be solely focused on memorizing the information to sufficiently pass the test. Rather, it is to create that longing of which Saint-Exupéry speaks, to discover one’s self inside the information, to make that information part of the fabric of one’s identity. Information is not only retained this way, it is tangibly felt.

What would a classroom look like through the lens of resilience? For one thing, it would be multisensory. I ran a program for a synagogue in Montreal on Jacob robbing his brother Esau (a hunter who is characteristically rough and hairy) of his birthright blessing from their blind father Isaac. As the portion goes, Rebecca gives her preferred son Jacob advice on how to obtain the blessing. We blindfolded a few students who were “Isaacs” so that they could experience “blindness.” A few of the girls in the room were “Rebeccas” who gave half of the students, the “Jacobs,” twine (representing hair) to wrap around their arms and candy (representing the meat). The “Esaus” were given a dash of strong cologne and a different candy, and were told to speak gruffly. The “Isaacs” had to guess which group received the brachah. By utilizing the powerful elements of taste, touch, sight, sound and smell, the participants were fully engaged and had significantly more to contribute to our discussion afterward. By enlivening the senses that frequently lie dormant in educational activities, we are involving the whole student, and creating a deeper connection to the material.

A resilient classroom includes multiple methodologies. With the economic recession continuing to rage on, many schools have had to grapple with difficult decisions of hiring and firing. Again, ecology can provide a model for maximizing efficiency. One of the most innovative ideas in resource sustainability today is rice paddies in India that are used both for growing rice and breeding fish. Same resources being used, double the output. No waste.

Working off this model, knowledge generated in one classroom could be used in another, and experiences and sharing best practices should be openly encouraged. Let’s creatively look at the diversity of educators we have in schools to double the educational gain. Let’s encourage cross-pollination. Are the English teachers consulting the art teachers? Is the drama teacher asked to help run an exercise on enacting the receiving of the Torah from Sinai?

Perhaps more importantly, are the students themselves—the ruach (spirit) or student government committees, that master doodler in the back row, that chronic texter on the right—co-opted into the curriculum planning stages? Are students encouraged to dream up shiurs, lesson plans, exercises for their class? Want to really get students to master material? Put the onus of facilitating the class’ learning on the students themselves. Make them the teachers. Guiding this process is important. Proper attention to framing the learning and clear objectives should be shared. Such an approach would herald a watershed moment for Jewish education.

The backbone of experiential learning is a student-influenced inquiry process. Project-based learning and peer-to-peer learning in day schools serve as powerful tools for making this happen. These approaches are at the core of experiential education and, by their very design, promote collaborative classrooms and self-agency—hallmarks of educational resilience. The most successful classroom activities provide students with a clear context and mirror real-life tasks, encouraging students to build expertise. The tasks are collaborative, complex and require examining from multiple perspectives and disciplines. Inherent in the project or learning activity is the opportunity for students to reflect on their beliefs and values. Most importantly, the result is not predetermined; the door is left open to multiple possible outcomes.

Resilient classrooms consider changing the physical settings and routines of the class by adding or rearranging things. They are dynamic by moving away from rote memorization and toward textual experiences that place the learner in the text. Underlying an activity I ran in which students build a community out of cookies were the questions: What elements and characteristics are essential to a community? What makes a community successful? What do I want my community to look like? Students had more thoughtful comments to contribute toward our conversation on community once they had to physically construct their own communities.

Sara Smith incorporated these ideas in a lesson on gleaning, based on the second chapter of the Book of Ruth, which she taught to eighth graders at Pressman Academy. She had students glean, using pennies to represent crops, tapping into the emotions and realities of an impoverished person’s lifestyle. Students were told they were so poor that their only option for feeding themselves and their families is to go to someone’s field and pick up crops that workers had dropped. Three students were selected as workers in the field and given hundreds of pennies to scatter across the room. The remaining students picked up the pennies, but could do so only one at a time. The motivations of the collectors and workers were discussed during the debriefing of the activity. Jewish laws pertaining to these concepts were explained. Smith said, “They were able to understand the complex dynamic between the owner of the field and his workers, as well as their relationship with the poor who came to glean on their field.”

An ecosystem’s dependence on a single type of support, and similarly a classroom’s usage of one type of source, creates vulnerability. The experiential classroom’s lifeblood is drawn from multiple disciplines. Diversity in content presented provides multiple venues for students to connect with the topic. Educators should make and encourage the making of wild connections. Showcase the Maasai tribe in Africa, graffiti art, ancient philosophy, current events, popular video games and comics. Bringing in diverse ideas, cultures, etc. can further be strengthened by presenting students with rich choices that enable them to cultivate their own strategic and narrative immersion. Smith’s gleaning activity discussion could have brought in texts from agricultural revolutions, other points in Jewish history or law that address the hungry, or included how other religions give to their poor.

Resilience thinking is as much about withstanding disturbances as it is about using those events to ignite renewal and build a deeper sense of self. Building resilient Jewish identities and values is achieved when students are presented with meaty conflicts. The best way to enact this is by making classrooms challenging for each student via project-based learning, peer-to-peer learning, stimulating activities, probing questions and dynamic texts. Resilience in day schools emphasizes flexibility, a wide variety of disciplines, methodologies and content. It encourages us to anticipate, adapt and transform in light of unforeseen disturbances and champions adaptability and persistence. By implementing these strategies we can build resilience in our school cultures, our classrooms and, most importantly, on an individual level, with the students we serve.

Amanda Gelb works in the fields of experience design, Jewish education, museum consulting and spatial design. She is the creator of the Million Museum Project. Gelb is a proud member of the first cohort of Experiential Jewish Educators who received certification from Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future.

Looking for God in All the Wrong Places

Why is it that when Jews seek spiritual wisdom, they’ll go almost anywhere except their own traditions? Look into any cult, any radical new therapy, any metaphysical society or meditating community, and you’ll find Jews far beyond our proportion in the population. And should they come to Judaism, there is a thirst for the esoteric. “I want to learn your spiritual secrets!” an impassioned searcher says to me.

The truth is that the Jewish tradition does contain spiritual secrets to happiness, secrets to finding life’s meaning. There really is a buried wisdom. And where would something so infinitely precious be found?

No, they’re not hidden exclusively in esoteric works of mystical Kabbalah. Nor are they shrouded in obscure gematria — mathematical puzzles concealed in the Torah. To locate this wisdom, you needn’t play your “Fiddler on the Roof” records backward.

If they’re hidden anywhere, the secrets of Jewish spirituality are veiled in plain sight. They are found in the common books of Jewish tradition — in the Siddur, in the Bible, in the Haggadah. But these books are rarely seen as sources of wisdom, containing the answers to life’s deepest questions. For so long, we have taught them as “Bible stories” — charming, entertaining, but devoid of depth and power. We have taught them as decorous, formal ritual, empty of magic and meaning. We have offered them as sacred artifacts to sit in splendor on a shelf, far from the struggles and celebrations of real life. It’s really no wonder that Jews run elsewhere for enlightenment.

“Kedoshim tihyu” — “You will be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” This is a remarkable invitation to the world of Jewish spirituality. What follows is not readily recognizable as spiritual instruction. Indeed, it’s all about behavior. Holiness, it seems, grows out of holy living. But carefully tracing the word kedusha, holiness, in its contexts in Jewish life reveals a deep spiritual secret:

A family, a community of friends, gather at a Shabbat table, a Passover seder, in the Sukkah. A goblet of wine is raised, and a prayer called “Kiddush” is recited. “Kiddush” is a prayer of sanctification. But it is not the wine that is sanctified. Instead, the wine is a symbol of the sanctity, the preciousness, the sweetness of this moment. We are held together by sacred bonds of family, friendship, community and peoplehood. In these concentric circles, we share life — we share our joys, our sorrows, our dreams. These bonds of love, of loyalty, of common purpose, bring holiness and meaning to life. We belong to one another, to the generations that have been here before and that will follow us.

When two people pledge their lives to one another, in love, trust, support and responsibility, the same word is used. It is called kiddushin. When we lose someone close, when death tears our lives apart, we hold tightly to one another and to our loved one and recite a prayer called “Kaddish.” The same word kedusha means sanctification, holiness. And holiness is found in the bonds that hold us together and bring us close to God.

“The extended lines of our relations,” taught the philosopher Martin Buber, “meet in the Eternal Thou.”

Mrs. Shapiro had it right; it’s time to come home.

Ed Feinstein is the associate rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom. He replaces Rabbi Steven Z. Leder, who will be completing a book (along with synagogue responsibilities at Wilshire Boulevard Temple) during the next six months.

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Achre 5757

A couple with whom I’m close had their first child, so I ran to the bookstore to get them our favorite book on child care. I had forgotten the exact title (it was always “the baby book”) and the author’s name, so I thought I’d just scan the shelf until it turned up. Shelf? Try shelves — six of them, each 8 feet long and 10 feet high, and all on parenting. Need advice on building self-esteem, teaching morals, successful potty-training? There are volumes to teach it.

There is no word in traditional Hebrew for “parenting.” No term designates the set of skills, aptitudes and techniques necessary for raising children. This certainly cannot be a concept unknown to Jewish tradition. We are, after all, a tradition obsessed with children. Daily we are reminded: V’sheenantam le’vanech — “you shall diligently teach your children.” So why no word for “parenting”?

The Hebrew for “parents” is “horim”, and if we were to choose a noun form of the word describing the essence of being a parent, we would be forced to choose the word “Torah.” We have no prosaic term for “parenting,” because there is no Jewish idea of parenting skills and techniques isolated from the qualities of character, spirituality, wisdom and love. “Torah” — with all its deep, powerful and holy resonances — is the only possible word for what it takes to raise children. But don’t tell that to my local bookstore.

And that’s just the beginning. Move one shelf over, and you discover that “self-help” is now the biggest section in the store. Feeling anxious? Having difficulty communicating? Missing out on life’s joy? Here’s help. At least, here’s technique.

Americans have an obsession with technique, with doing it right. From home repair to lovemaking to parenting, we have this unquenchable thirst for a better technique. Traditional American pragmatism — the faith in the “right tool for the job” — has grown into a conviction that, for every human problem, there is a discrete technique that will lead to its solution.

Traditional American pragmatism — the faith in the “right tool for the job” — has grown into a conviction that, for every human problem, there is a discrete technique that will lead to its solution

But what about the deeper qualities of inner life, once associated with a good life — wisdom, sensitivity, integrity? I’m sure that in one of those books, there is a better way to fix a clogged sink. But I’m not convinced there’s some trick to fixing a broken relationship or some gimmick to opening a closed mind. Certainly, I’ve learned better ways to talk to my kids, to praise and to discipline, to set limits and to encourage responsibility. But, in the end, successful parenting is not a matter of effective technique but one of right living and sensitive loving. It is “Torah” in the broadest sense.

In the 10th chapter of Leviticus, which we read some weeks ago, the two elder sons of Aaron are killed in the process of offering aish zarah — alien fire. And the issue is raised again this week: “The Lord spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron.” Still, the exact nature of their infraction is a mystery. So are the circumstances of their deaths: Although they were burned to death, their bodies were carried out of the camp “by their tunics.” What sort of fire burns a man to death but leaves behind his tunic intact?

The Midrash posits a fire that entered the nostrils and destroyed in the inner man. From this, we can extrapolate the infraction: Nadab and Abihu entered the holy place with precise technique and skill. But that’s all they brought. No heart. No compassion for the people whose offerings they carried. No awe in the face of God’s presence. They had the technique down perfectly, but there was nothing inside.

Religion, too, can become a cult of technique — obsessed with detail and oblivious to higher purpose, disconnected from the qualities of depth and inwardness. But reduced to mere technique, religion, as with parenting and loving and so much of life, brings only emptiness. In this week’s portion, Aaron is invited back into the sanctuary — the inner place of holiness — to cultivate compassion, forgiveness and wholeness. And we are invited to go with him.

Ed Feinstein is the associate rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom. He replaces rabbi Steven Leder, who will be completing a book (along with synagogue responsibilites at Wilshire Boulevard Temple) during the next six months.

All rights reserved by author.