By Danielle Kranjec
When I first moved to Pittsburgh nearly eight years ago, I had the privilege to serve as a teaching assistant for modern Hebrew classes at the University of Pittsburgh. I taught Hebrew grammar and conversation five days a week in the most literal of ivory towers – the Cathedral of Learning. At 42 stories, it is the tallest educational building in the Western Hemisphere. Lofty, distant, and authoritative, it is an apt symbol of the university and Western educational model. I left that “ivory tower,” and today, after nearly six years of teaching in a modest three-story building mere blocks away, I could not imagine re-entering that space and the pedagogy it represents.
In my role as Senior Jewish Educator at our multi-campus Hillel Jewish University Center of Pittsburgh, there is no pose of critical distance or monolithic truth. Now when I am teaching, I find myself most often sitting in a circle with my students, or standing together at the counter in the kitchen, or in conversation as we set the tables for Shabbat – the physical location of our teaching emblematic of the mutuality for which I am striving. I am working toward a nonhierarchical pedagogy of relational learning, in which all participants bring their whole selves to the encounter.
What does the educational moment look like when the pedagogy is almost purely relational? What does it mean to bring one’s whole self to the learning encounter, to bring one’s heart and one’s mind, and not just one’s head? What does it mean when so-called educators also envision themselves as learners and assume no hierarchy with regard to the so-called students? What is at stake? What is lost and what is gained?
These are the questions I have been exploring in earnest since last July when I took part in M²’s Relational Engagement Circle. What I knew almost viscerally as I committed to this year of learning and research is that any pose of critical distance between myself and my students is a fallacy, and that my educational moments are richest when I am truly present and most integrally myself, when I am in the nexus of learning, as it occurs as part of my relationships. These past months of study and research in the context of our group have given me a vocabulary and a framework for understanding how to more deliberately enact relational learning as a pedagogy.
The embrace of a relational learning pedagogy involves great risk for educators. In this model, educators can no longer hide behind the guise of expert and stand separated at the front of the classroom, but instead, in a true relational pedagogy, must involve themselves in the educational experience as co-creators and participants themselves. In American Jewish educational spaces, there has been so much fear and focus on Jewish continuity that we have not made space for risk-taking, either on behalf of the participants or the educators. We feel we have so much to lose, and so little capital, we revert to the tired model of the educational landscape.
Is our fear of asking too much causing us to alienate ourselves and our own needs? What is the danger of educators asking themselves, What do I need from this encounter? A risk of narcissism, perhaps; but balanced with the question, What does the student/other need from this encounter? a potential for meaning emerges. In my case, after the attack at Tree of Life Synagogue, blocks from where I live in Pittsburgh, I could not ignore that I was bringing my own trauma and grief into the classroom. The question for me has become how to transform that grief into an opening point for creating greater connection and meaning in the educational endeavor. By recognizing my own needs and owning my perspective, I found that the participants in my learning groups, both formal and informal, were able to access their own truths in a way that was mutually enriching and allowed for significance beyond what was expected or planned for – both for the students and myself.
M² has made a bold statement in the structure of the model in the Relational Engagement Circle, in which faculty and mentors are full participants in the entirety of their seminars. Experiencing this in praxis was at first unsettling, but the blurring of the lines between instructor and learner in our workshop has emboldened me in my own practice. For example, in the peer leadership model at our Hillel, we empower our students to teach each other. Yet, often I would find myself as the educator off to the side or in some way just outside the room – now I am entering the circle as a participant. The possibilities this opens are unfamiliar for all involved. The young people who come to our Hillel specifically looking for a transactional data exchange are unsettled by my unwillingness to be their human encyclopedia. But as a mutual embrace of questioning with regard to our truths and the tradition becomes more familiar, they become more open to delving into their own beliefs and ideas.
One of M²’s taglines is, “Powerful Experiences Shape Lives. Some people are fortunate enough to create them.” One of my main takeaways from my months in the Relational Engagement Circle is that as educators we have to realize, embrace, and take risks with the knowledge that we are also creating experiences for ourselves. In a pedagogy of relational learning, the educator is not just creating the experience for the other, but is rather a co-creator of a situation from which mutually shared meaning emerges. Within this new model of relational learning, I find that my own learning sustains me and nurtures me more than ever before.
Danielle Kranjec is the Senior Jewish Educator at the Hillel Jewish University Center of Pittsburgh and a participant in M² Circles: Relational Engagement, cohort 1.
Do you also see relational engagement and learning as a pedagogy? Are you yearning for a cohort of educators with whom you can delve deeply into the role relationships play in creating meaning and learning? Learn more about the next cohort and M² at www.ieje.org.