Don’t Just Teach It: Do It
By Rabbi Shira Stutman, a Wexner Graduate Fellowship alumna, and the Director of Community Engagement at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in Washington, DC. Shira can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thirty weeks at 1½ hours per week may sound like a long time, but it’s really nothing when it comes to a conversion class. What to include, what to leave out? When planning the Jewish Welcome Workshop 5771, it was touch-and-go. Jewish theology gets a whole session, an overview of Jewish history, same. I’m trained as a Reconstructionist rabbi, so a session each to the different eras of Jewish thought: Biblical, rabbinic, medieval, modern, contemporary. But Israel ended up with two sessions: one on Zionist history, one on contemporary issues. Passover got two, as well—but perhaps that’s just because it’s my favorite holiday? And Purim: does it get its own session? Does Musar make it at all?
Thirty weeks goes by in a blink of an eye. And then, in the months afterward, the conversions. And then, in the lifetimes to follow, Jewish lives. I feel an unexpected sense of responsibility, and lay awake nights worrying.
My husband, God bless him, alerts me to where I’ve gone wrong. “Don’t worry so much about all the dates, names, texts. Don’t be such a traditional educator.” Traditional education, valuing content over process. Students are vessels to be filled, and we, the teachers, fill them. When I passed out the list of 90 questions that I expect my students to be able to answer before they enter the mikvah (What is brit milah and why do we do it? Who was Joseph Karo?), I was being a traditionalist.
Progressive education, on the other hand, privileges curiosity over content, arguing that if we create the conditions for students to want to learn, they will uncover the content themselves. From John Dewey to Howard Gardner to Eleanor Duckworth, progressive theorists call for student-centered learning, for the exploration and experimentation that allows students to construct their own knowledge, rather than just regurgitating mine.
I learn from Eleanor Duckworth (and of course my husband). I shift the focus. Stop worrying so much about stuffing them full of information. Cancel the session on Shabbat and instead append a short lecture on Shabbat to another day’s class—and then have everyone over for Shabbat dinner. And then watch as students begin to have rotating Shabbat dinners at each other’s homes each week.
Cancel one of two classes on prayer, and have a learner’s service instead, with unrestricted Q &A, one Shabbat morning. And then notice how students, who have been attending services for some time but haven’t understood many of the why’s and how’s, begin to connect with Hashem and with community at synagogue.
Shorten the session on the ABC’s of the Jewish community or on pluralism (what’s a denomination to regular “Jews in the pews”, anyway?), and definitely don’t assume that just because someone is taking your class, they must become members of your synagogue. Require students to explore other shuls and places of learning—and then come back together to debrief each other.
Experiencing Zionism, we’ve got you covered; we leave for our class trip on June 29.
When the new Jewish Welcome Workshop cohort begins, in 5772, I hope to be even braver: why sit for hours and listen to me lecture on Tikkun Olam, Tzedakah, Gemilut Hasadim: instead, let’s do a day of service, with multiple text studies interspersed throughout, and let students experience first-hand what Judaism has to “say” about justice? Forget the lecture on kashurt; let’s cook a few kosher, pot-luck meals together, learning the laws and the customs, cooking Jewish food, talking about eco-kashrut, reciting the different blessings before and after.
The best of progressive education utilizes technology to spark on-going exploration and conversation. Next year, I hope to incorporate wikis, Skype, tweets, Facebook groups, apps, blogs: all those things that the 20-somethings whom I teach are intimately familiar.
Even as I embrace progressive education, I recognize that the pendulum cannot swing all the way to the other extreme. Those 90 questions? I still expect students to know the answers, even if it means they have to sit down, open an old-fashioned book and drill. They need to know the reasons we celebrate Shavuot before they can become members of the Jewish people. That said, one tikkun leil Shavuot, one all-nighter of study and prayer and chevruta, will do more to teach about Shavuot–not just in the brain but also in the kishkes–than any one lecture.
“I have learned much from my teachers. I have learned more from my colleagues than from my teachers. But I have learned more from my students than from all of them” (B. Talmud, Taanit 7a). I am eternally grateful for all I learn from my students—how to be a better human, a better Jew, a better teacher.