How might we engage middle school students in regular reflection on leading a life of meaning and purpose that avoids didactic methods and elicits a wide range of viewpoints and approaches? This was one of the guiding questions that we used to develop the “My Search for Meaning” program at Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School. Hausner, a K-8 pluralistic day school situated in the heart of Silicon Valley emphasizes engaged learning and joyful Jewish living within the context of a welcoming and nurturing community. We wanted to craft a program with our school’s values and educational commitments.
The goal of the “My Search for Meaning” program at Hausner is to create a weekly opportunity for our middle school students (grades 6 – 8) to reflect upon what gives meaning and purpose to their lives. At the center of our weekly middle school Kabalat Shabbat program, a speaker presents a brief (no more than five minutes) talk on her/his experience in trying to live a life with meaning or purpose, which is followed by several minutes of a questions from the students.
Presenters are invited to share and discuss how they have come to affirm (or question) a core value, commitment, or belief that guides their daily lives. In particular, presenters are encouraged to relate a personal story, a significant word or phrase, or an on-going process which best captures their experiences with searching for meaning in life. Successful presentations should avoid being overly abstract or didactic. When asked by presenters what they should avoid I always answer: “inauthenticity.” Middle school aged students can quickly discern when someone is preaching to them as opposed to sharing an experience or commitment that is authentic to the presenter’s identity. Ultimately, the presentations are intended to serve as a tool for students in their own search for meaning and thus need to come across as possible and real.
An additional component of the program is that each week’s presenter is introduced by one of our 8th grade students. Students volunteer for this opportunity. Several weeks in advance, an 8th grade student is provided with the name of the presenter, his or her contact information and a list of five basic interview questions, along with a sample introduction. The student must initiate contact with the speaker, ask him/ her the interview questions and then craft a 2-3 sentence introduction that includes information about the speaker’s professional life and the theme of the presentation. This experience offers students opportunity to develop important interviewing, writing and presentation skills.
When we began the program we told presenters to limit their remarks to five minutes thinking that this was the ideal amount of time to capture the interest and imagination of our students, members of the “You-Tube” generation. What we soon discovered was that even the most engaging presentation was simply an appetizer to what quickly became the heart of the program: the question and answer session. Our students, a little tentatively at first, began to engage with the speakers and learned to ask insightful, challenging and illuminating questions, often inviting the speakers to reflect in a more deep and thoughtful manner regarding what he or she had just presented.
Since launching this program in August of 2008, our middle school community has been blessed to hear a plethora of diverse and authentic voices culled from Hausner’s faculty, parents, and members of the larger Bay Area community including activists, artists, innovators, entrepreneurs, rabbis and philosophers. Upon returning from their mid-year trip from Israel, and as a way to bring closure to their educational experience at Hausner, our 8th grade students spend time writing reflective essays with the “My Search for Meaning” program. During the final weeks of the year, the 8th graders present part of their reflections at different events including Kabalat Shabbat, board meetings, and graduation.
Overall, the “My Search for Meaning” program has enhanced the educational experience for our entire community including students, faculty, and parents. Not only do we gather as a community to mark and celebrate the end of each week, we also spend time listening to and engaging with ideas relating to personal commitments and values. Each week we model for all the members of our community that doubt, pain, fear, aspiration, love, joy, and the deepest experiences of life are not outside of our spiritual and Jewish life, but at its core.
Rabbi Noam Silverman, Ph.D., is beginning his 6th year as Principal of Hebrew and Jewish Studies at Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School in Palo Alto. He is an alumnus of The Wexner Graduate Fellowship, Class 17, and recently completed his doctorate in education from Stanford University. Noam can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.