Tuesday, July 5, 2011

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.


  1. 6) Put it to music. Put any lesson, Jewish or otherwise in a catchy song and kids will remember it forever. It is amazing how you can learn a song in a foreign language and magically know the meaning even though you can't give the literal translation. You can teach the Mishna, tell a story, say a prayer, bring a smile, laughter, tears, etc... Also, a group of children never cares if one or all of them can't carry a tune. I guarantee that if you had any organized Jewish upbringing, you are singing one of those songs in your head right now. --Daniel Lapidus

  2. I would add listening to their stories. Valuing their experiences, their stories, is powerful. Kids love to hear our stories and it's amazing for them to realize that we want to hear from them too.

  3. Melissa and Anna,

    Let me simply say "amen." I still remember most of the songs I learned in Kindergarten (not much else). As for hearing stories-- empowering kids is huge and, when we let them share, we get to sit at their feet and give THEM our undivided attention.