By Shira Hecht-Koller
[This article is the seventh in a series written by participants in the Senior Educators Cohort at M²: The Institute for Experiential Jewish Education.]
A few years ago, my family purchased a new home. A lovely house with an abundance of light, the inside had not been touched in many decades. I found myself serving as my own architect-designer, spending early mornings and late evenings standing with a contractor drawing lines on floorboards, measuring beams, and imagining the possibilities of space.
Being pregnant with my third child at the time, I already had a sense of what life in this home would look like, and more importantly, what I wanted it to look like. Each decision – Which wall should be knocked down? What should the ratio of windows to bookcases be? Is open, flowing space better than closed areas for quiet and solitude? – felt critically important, as I intuitively understood that physical space would be much more than just a place within which to live; it was to be a place where experiences would be crafted, education animated, and values embodied. Recently, I was reminded of my foray into architecture and designing spaces intentionally while a participant in Senior Educators Cohort (SEC), a program of M²: Institute for Experiential Jewish Education.
In the second seminar of SEC, we focused on the creation of concrete experiences through the use of four primary methodologies: Space and Environment, Sensory Engagement, Multiple Intelligences, and Typology of Activities. We were divided up to delve into each of these methodologies, and I was assigned to work with a small research and project group tasked to focus on the utilization of space and environment in crafting engaging and meaningful Jewish educational experiences.
Together with my fellow group members, we explored the idea that by intentionally planning space and environment to an educator’s advantage, the learning experiences can be significantly enhanced and result in a broader and deeper educational impact and learner engagement. We tested this through the development of an interactive presentation and text-study exploring the value of creating a more inclusive community. Through a shift in physical space, manipulation of varied immersive learning environments, and utilization of role play, we asked and answered such questions as:
- In what ways does design enhance and illuminate a learning experience?
- How can intentional space design be useful in program development?
- What do educators need to know about design of space and environment, and the ways in which it can elevate their practice?
After having spent many years teaching in a variety of different settings – both formal and informal – and now having the opportunity to take a step back, reflect, and, together with colleagues from varied Jewish educational organizations, institutions, and schools, examine these concepts through text, theory, and practice, I am provided with new tools to think about questions of space and design as a means to enhance our educational settings, and our homes.
In the course of my teaching, I have taught in formal classrooms and open-floor-plan learning spaces, around conference tables and in outdoor gazebos, on the grass in Central Park, and in rooms with no windows, in batei midrash that are closed and sealed off from the world, and others that are wide open to the sounds and influences of the surrounding environment. I rarely, however, had the chance to deliberately think about how the different environments enhanced or detracted from the teaching methodologies I was employing. The pace of teaching is frenetic and doesn’t always afford the opportunity for reflection on the art involved. While in SEC, I realized how much benefit there is in the process of reflection. More often than not, educators do not have the luxury to design learning spaces, or even choose the location. They regularly find themselves in environments where content takes precedence over form, and thus deliberate design and construction of space falls by the wayside. But through the tools we learned in SEC, and experiences we shared, it became clear that even very slight changes in setup, design, and environment – if deliberate – can deeply enhance the learning experience.
These are of course critical issues for Jewish educators to explore when assessing and perfecting their practice. They are also key issues to explore in designing the physical space that will serve as the container for the values that we seek to impart to our families. Our homes are our most important classrooms. Do we think of them that way? Does our use of space reflect our values? Do the experiences that penetrate our homes reinforce the truths that we deeply hold? Are we deliberate and intentional in our design and use of space in our homes so that those values are elevated to the fore?
The research and methodology I have refined while being a participant in M²’s Senior Educator Cohort prompted me – as did my initial home construction project – to re-evaluate the way I think about design of our learning spaces. The process shifted my thinking from seeing design of space as a privilege to seeing how we deliberately design space as a necessity – creating incubators and laboratories where we can take varied material and rich content and then experiment in order to live full, rich, and multidimensional Jewish lives.
How we create and intentionally use space – whatever space is available (and it need not be much) – is a way to elevate the practice of education, both in formal settings as well as in our homes. Like teaching in a formal classroom, it requires research of the craft, patience, intentionality, deliberate design, and of course, at times, creative exploration and experimentation. When we integrate design and educational content, values, and experiences, we place before ourselves demanding and challenging work, which is also rewarding to us, and to our learners.
Shira Hecht-Koller is the Director of Communal Engagement, Drisha Institute of Jewish Education, and a participant of Senior Educators Cohort 2.
To learn more about M²’s flagship program, Senior Educators Cohort, and to request an application, please visit www.ieje.org.