Bringing Parents Along – A key to Life Centered Education

By Zelig Golden and Steven Green

“When schools, families, and community groups work together to support learning, children tend to do better in school, stay in school longer, and like school more.[1]” This finding from a 2002 study affirmed a philosophy already held by many that guided significant national education policy and programs. Head Start, a program endorsed by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965, incorporated a family component[2]. Today, the idea is widely accepted that parental involvement in students’ educational pursuits provides lasting benefits for the students. Disparate competing programs such as No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top[3]incorporate this idea as a cornerstone.

While parental involvement in secular learning is almost a given, this has not been the case in religious education. Former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks of Great Britain describes this as sending “mixed messages” to our children about the value of education[4]. He noted that many parents expect their children to place importance on Jewish learning and practice for the sake of tradition even when the parents choose not to engage in particularly Jewish practice.

Strategies for Student Success

The Southwest Education Development laboratory lists the following two items as a subsection of recommended strategies to achieve student success:

  • “Engage [parents] at school so that they understand what their children are doing”
  • “Give [parents] a voice in what happens to their children”

While belonging to a booster club or even a Parent Teacher Association at school provides valuable connections, these affiliations do not offer opportunities for parents’ deep engagement and understanding about a child’s secular education. Rather, meeting with individual teachers, working through homework problems with students, and even developing formal relationships between families and their schools can achieve more lasting success for the students and understanding for the parents. Moreover, these extra steps also show the value and importance of the education to both children and parents.

In a religious school context, parents might belong to a church or synagogue, but that membership does not inherently lead to their engagement in a child’s spiritual journey and education. Parents, instead, must be proactive and seek opportunities to be deeply involved in this learning. Engaging children around their education both at the Jewish institution and at home is a core part of this process.

A Case Study on Parental Involvement in Education

In the field of Jewish education, Wilderness Torah – an organization committed to connecting individuals to Judaism through the environment – offers a case study on the importance, evolution, and potential of deep parental-child-teacher engagement in learning. Its B’naiture program for students in grades 6 and 7 was designed as a complement for religious education[5]. The ultimate objectives of Wilderness Torah’s program design and their early adaption to engage parents more deeply, provides profound insight into how parent involvement in children’s learning can entirely transform religious education.

B’naiture 1.0Taking Youth on Journey

Wilderness Torah created B’naiture as a response to the call for “life-centered” youth education – experiences that deal with the whole person and her or his set of human concerns, as Jonathan Woocher explained in “Redesigning Jewish Education for the 21st Century” (2008). The desire for these experiences often comes in the early teen years, during that critical phase between childhood and adolescence, when youth need help building confidence in themselves as unique individuals. Wilderness Torah developed B’naiture with this guiding principle and the understanding that focusing on soul-development at this time of passage in life is essential. Thus, the program prioritizes self-awareness, self-responsibility, and the discovery and empowerment of one’s own inherent gifts.

This all plays out over the course of the two-year program in – as the name implies – nature. Participants embark on a journey during which they learn hands-on survival skills such as fire-making, and do-it-yourself skills such as making shofars and mezuzahs from raw materials. It also challenges them to face fears, expand their beliefs of what’s possible and share their hearts around the fire with peers and adult mentors. All of this is framed and woven together by designing the experience according to the Hebrew calendar throughout the year and framing all the activities with Jewish stories, teachings from the Torah and Pirkeh Avot, and Jewish prayers and song.

While after seven years, B’naiture’s life-centered model has proven successful – parents consistently report their B’naiture graduate teens demonstrate high levels of newfound confidence, respect, accountability around the house and at school, and self-responsibility – Wilderness Torah faced an unexpected challenge at the program’s inception. Some parents were not ready for the changes their children exhibited during program participation. As a result, over the program’s first two years, B’naiture had nearly a 30% dropout rate, in many cases because of parent resistance.

B’naiture 2.0Parents Join the Journey

Wilderness Torah inevitably wanted to know why parents held this sentiment and what, if anything, could be done to overcome the challenge. The answer to both questions affirms the theory that parents and children together are part of the education process.

Historically, in traditional societies “rites of passage” were all-family, often all-community events because the passage out of childhood is not just experienced by the child. It is also experienced by the parents and the community. Parents need to feel that they are supporting the transformation of their child into adolescence. This is part of their process of embracing their own “loss” of their child to adolescence. For a variety of reasons, if parents feel left out of this critical stage, they may unconsciously “sabotage” this life experience for their child process.

After absorbing this information, Wilderness Torah conceptualized its solution – a parent track that takes parents on the B’naiture journey. Now, parents participate in an opening 3-day camping trip where they learn about rites of passage, what changes to expect in their child, learn skills and reflect upon their own experience when they were their child’s age. How were they met or not met at this life transition? What do they need to be able to fully support a healthy transition for their child? Parents form a supportive parent group that meets periodically throughout the year to learn some skills B’naiture teaches their children, to learn Torah relevant to the rite of passage, and to provide on-going parent-group to understand how to support their child.

The creation of this parents’ track has been a game changer. The B’naiture drop-out rate has shrunk to a nominal number each year and parents’ involvement has made this work even more transformative. Children feel fully supported and parents feel a part of this important developmental stage of their children’s lives. As one parent, Jenn Rader, commented:

The parent track was an invaluable part of our family’s experience in B’naiture. At an age when young people’s activities often separate them from their families, the B’naiture program sets out a model for a young person’s development that is closely held in family and community. B’naiture found the sweet spot in their capacity to create an experience that both young people and parents can really own on their own terms and have those experiences infuse a shared family culture and set of values.

The opportunity to share with and hear from other parents passing through this same portal offered a lot of support and insight to my partner and I as we navigated this stage with our two boys. We also felt a sense of partnership with the Wilderness Torah mentors in supporting our boys, which was powerful.

For Wilderness Torah and the Jim Joseph Foundation (one of its supporters), the evolution of B’naiture has been a learning process offering many insights we believe are helpful to both the secular and Jewish education fields. Incorporating parents into their child’s education in meaningful and substantial ways is an effective strategy for all involved.

Zelig Golden Is Founding Director of Wilderness Torah, which reawakens and celebrates the earth-based traditions of Judaism, including a focus on life-centered mentorship of youth kindergarten through teen years. Beginning summer of 2016, Wilderness Torah will offer training and consulting in its nature-based curricula and Jewish mentorship model.

Steven Green is Director of Grants Management and Administration for the Jim Joseph Foundation, which fosters compelling, effective Jewish learning experiences for young Jews in the United States. Established in 2006, the Jim Joseph Foundation has awarded more than $370 million in grants.

[1] A New Wave of Evidence: The Impact of School, Family, and Community Connections on Student Achievement A. T. Henderson & K. L. Mapp. (Southwest Educational Development Laboratory, 2002) Report Conclusion.

[2] National Head Start Association

[3] No Child Left Behind was an initiative introduced by George W. Bush and Race to the Top was introduced by Barack Obama

[4] “Four Ways to Look at the Wicked Child” The Wexner Foundation

[5] Turns out that around 50% of the families engaged chose B’naiture as their primary B’nai Mitzvah experience.