Beyond Common Possibilities

By Rabbi Devin Maimon Villarreal

The picture has become a common one. Educators from different cities, different schools and teaching scenarios, all gathering online for professional development. Minds are filled with questions and anxiety about how to perform the monumental task of teaching against the backdrop of fluid plans for school opening. Each one is still swimming in discussions about distances and face shields, hybrid and online learning. But then something not so common occurs. Music begins playing, music written by a teacher and students about studying together. Voices in chorus about the treasured voices of the text, the study partner, and one’s own voice, about havruta (partnership) study. An uncommon experience is about to begin.

This was a snapshot of the Pedagogy of Partnership Midwest Fellowship workshop made possible by Crown Family Philanthropies, The William Davidson Foundation and the Mayberg Foundation and JEIC. The workshop launched a Fellowship for teachers from 8 Chicago and Detroit area schools including Adath Shalom-Beth Achim Learning Community, Chicago Jewish Day School, Dor Hadash, Frankel Jewish Academy, Hillel Day School, Hillel Torah, Rochelle Zell Jewish High School, and Solomon Schechter Day School of Metropolitan Chicago. Over the course of the three day workshop, teachers had the chance to immerse themselves in the theory and practice of the Pedagogy of Partnership (PoP). This included exploring teaching and learning attitudes at the heart of PoP, concrete teaching methodologies, and of course, engaging in PoP structured text study sessions themselves.

PoP’s approach to text study grows out of placing relationships at the center. As such, one of the first activities the group engaged in was sharing together about the texts that inspired each participant. The Zoom chat quickly filled with texts ranging from modern novels to books on teaching, and sacred texts. In essence, it became a reflection of who the group was. Building on this insight into one another, the group then delved into the particulars of the PoP methodology. The first concepts explored were “stance statements” expressing foundational beliefs about learning which are at the core of PoP. Participants studied central ideas like “I have something to learn and something to teach” and shared which was most meaningful to them.

The learning continued as educators went into havruta pairs in breakout rooms to explore concepts such as “The Partnership Learning Triangle” and text learning protocols emphasizing skills such as “listening and articulating.” Many of those in attendance appreciated how the instructions for studying these concepts were themselves PoP practices, providing prompts that ensured personal sharing, close listening to the text and human partner, and reflection upon what was learned. To bring the theoretical into the practical by another degree, the workshop also included analysis of clips of teachers using PoP approaches in classrooms spanning from first grade to high school. All of this was supported by lesson ideas and activities that teachers could adapt for their own classroom use.

Throughout the workshop, there were numerous instances of purposeful usage of technology such as Google Jamboards for group sharing, Padlet for communal responses, Zoom breakout rooms for more personalized moments of learning to name a few. For many teachers present, modeling online tools was an additional value as they planned how best to use technology for their teaching needs. In the context of PoP, it was a reminder that technology can be used to keep relationships at the center, even at a distance.

At the end of the three training sessions, participating educators reflected on their experience and the steps they were taking next. One common thread that emerged from these reflections was a deep appreciation for being seen and acknowledged as human beings. Many added that this was precisely the kind of experience that they sought to design for their students, and that the workshop provided them with vital tools to do so.

Students this year will be surrounded by common mechanisms to ensure their safety and well being, as they should be. The PoP Midwest Fellowship members will also bring with them the tools to go beyond and create essential moments of humanity, connection and learning.

Rabbi Devin Maimon Villarreal, an award winning educator, is a Pedagogy of Partnership coach and consultant.