“Put your phone away please,” I said. “Don’t worry, I’m texting someone Jewish.” Yes, it’s true, I’ve finally taken up the mantle of the true Jewish studies graduate student: I am teaching Hebrew school. While of course the money helps, I took this job because I had begun to really miss the classroom and I wanted to know whether everything I have been studying for the past four years about teaching and learning has actually impacted my own teaching. Could I practice what I preach? Could I honor students’ interpretive priorities? Could I allow student ideas to drive class discussion? And could I avoid taking on the role of primary knower (Aukerman, 2006) in the classroom? Having watched teachers for the past three years I wanted to turn my empirical eye back on myself. And so I thought, where better to find out than at 4:30 in the afternoon in a room full of twenty-five 12-year-olds all required to be there as part of their Bar and Bat Mitzvah program. Challenge accepted.
Ideally in this next paragraph I could reveal myself as the Michelle Pfeiffer circa Dangerous Minds of Jewish Education. I could explain how I walked into a class of disillusioned, distrustful group of Jewish youth and through my pervasive dedication I had kindled the fire of Torah in their hearts. Unfortunately, the jury is still out on that. Despite my best efforts, hevruta time still seems to often be time for catching up on the week, the cell phones remain out, and I still resort to assigned seating, and occasionally even to making them sit boy-girl, boy-girl, something which I know casts doubts on my progressive gender credentials.
Nonetheless there have been some glimmers of hope. Students have taken to Talmud Torah (the study of Torah) like fish to water. We are currently studying the book of Jonah and I am absolutely blown away by the insights they have offered, questions they have asked, and back-and-forth debates they’ve engaged one another in over the text. Without anything but the text in front of them, these students have offered complicated, compelling, and competing understandings of Jonah’s motives.
It has become more and more popular to say Hebrew School should be more experiential and less like formal classroom education (Sales and Saxe 2004). Students should feel like they’re at camp, not as school. But this approach takes far too limited a view of what experiential education is. I found that the more I let up on the reigns, the more I let students say whatever they want about the text, offer the connections that are salient to them, ask the questions that are compelling to them and debate one another over the answers to these questions, the more engaged they become with the text. And this is experiential education. But the experience they are having is not modeled on camp but on the Beit Midrash.
In his book, Dialogic Inquiry, neo-Vygotskian educational theorist, Gordon Wells argues that according to Vygotsky school should enable students to “reconstruct the resources of the culture as tools for creative and responsible social living,” (Wells, 1993, p.43). In other words, schools, through appropriate instruction and educational activities, should allow students to start doing organically the things in their culture that adults do. Yes, that includes Shabbat, and singing, and building a sukkah and Israeli dance (for some), but we should not forget that Talmud Torah is also a resource of Jewish culture. And though it may happen in classrooms, with texts and desks, it too is experiential education.