Embracing and Reimaging School Context

By Joel Abramovitz

[This article is the third in a four-part series featuring graduates of the Mandel Teacher Educator Institute (MTEI).  MTEI is a two-year journey of discovery, helping educational leaders transform their educational communities into places where teachers learn together, exploring both Jewish content and how to enrich learning for students.  This series focuses on how some MTEI graduates are grappling with challenges of teaching and leading at this time.]

Teacher. Learner. Content. Environment. The four basic elements of any educational experience. In normal times, educational leaders (think we) have control over all four: we hire the best teachers, we know our learners and how best to teach them, we make intentional decisions about content and curriculum, and we design and create norms to ensure a safe and productive learning context. These are vital and we view them as constant. Based on the work of David Hawkins article “I Thou and It,” we read in MTEI, we imagine the relationship between these four as a triangle within a circle:

This creates a relational space and pedagogy where the learners, teachers, and content are constantly in communication with each other. As Jewish educators, we’re obviously focused on the students and Jewish content, but the context/learning environment is as important and often not considered as deeply. This isn’t just the physical classroom or learning space, but the practices, norms, and values that are created and maintained for the culture of the learning space. The context is what keeps the whole engine running and encourages, as Hawkins writes, “Relationships between teachers, students, peers, self, and text inspire and mediate genuine learning and excellent teaching.” (Hawkins, David. 1974/2002. I, Thou, and It) The context is deeply linked with the ongoing professional learning the teachers experience as part of their teaching work. 

Spring 2020 asked all of us: what do you do when the context dramatically changes? 

Freedom School, our family learning program at The Kitchen in San Francisco, was built on two key principles around the environment/context: first, that the most effective Jewish learning happens in the rhythm of Jewish life; our school meets on Shabbat or holidays, in the context of other community-wide services, gatherings, and programs. The second principle is that the most effective Jewish learning happens in the context of a family system. As a result, we’re a family school – parents always come with their children; often they are learning or praying separately, but about a quarter of our sessions involve some whole family learning component. The other components of Hawkins I-Thou-It triangle fall out neatly as follows: teachers – compassionate and committed educators/community members; learners – families, broken out by cohort (grade level classes + parents); content – “synagogue” Judaism (Torah, prayers, communal holiday rituals). It looked something like this: 

As we transferred our program from in-person Shabbat morning context to the zoom boxes on our computer screen, it became clear that Hawkins’ I-Thou-It triangle needed a full re-evaluation. Through trial and error experimentation over the spring (and, let’s face it, quite a lot of errors there), our team began to deeply question who, exactly, are our students and why are we teaching about a Judaism based in a synagogue when we’re all only at home. It became clear that the learner, for us, isn’t “children + parents” but is actually “family.” Kids learn, parents learn, and they learn together. And for us, the “together” is key – this is what brings Jewish learning in a supplementary program out of the program and into the rhythm of their lives. They learn as they navigate the role of their family and their home as they build their own Jewish life. The challenge has then emerged – how do we engage the whole family, collectively, in a meaningful way that enhances Jewish practice? 

So the content shifted dramatically too. We had originally structured the content, the It, to revolve around synagogue/communal Judaism (the cycle of Torah parshiot, prayer, communal holiday practices). Our key breakthrough came when we realized that if families’ new context was the home, then educating around a home-based Judaism needs to be central to the learning experience. We’ve reimagined the entire curriculum of our school, built around a Judaism that’s rooted in the home, wrapped around the meaningful home rituals, prayers, and practices that can help families navigate this deeply unsettling moment, Jewishly. 

Approximately two Saturday mornings a month, we’ll gather as a Freedom School community for a one-hour session that will engage families in their homes, with learning experiences that intentionally minimizes screen time in favor of real life face time (zoom is a touch point; the world is a classroom). We are creating a whole-school curriculum that will revolve around these three essential questions (and the accompanying content + project):

  1. How do we make our home sacred? (Sukkot / Mezuzah + create a family mezuzah)
  2. How do we sustain meaningful rituals? (Home Blessings + create a family Siddur)
  3. How do we bring our values into life outside our homes? (Urban life / social justice + Jewish guidebook to the world)

Finally, we’ve reimagined what the “I” can be – what the teachers can and should be doing. A whole-school, whole family curriculum requires a teaching team that is in sync and planning collaboratively and collectively, from a place of inquiry and reflection and vulnerability, rather than a teaching team siloed in their own classrooms and individual curricula. Our team will be meeting before and after each session, to finalize details, reflect on what we did, plan for the following session, and learn from one another. 

Teacher. Learner. Content. Environment. Still present, in a very different form: 

Our hope is that this new format and curriculum will engage our families, while deepening the teaching through collective learning, collaboration and experimentation – so that our families ground the upcoming chaotic year in a home-based Judaism that is authentic, resonant, and compelling. 

Joel Abramovitz is the Senior Family Educator at The Kitchen, in San Francisco. Joel is an alum of MTEI Cohort 8, DeLeT, and holds a master’s degree in Jewish Education from the Rhea Hirsch School of Education at Hebrew Union College. When not working, Joel can be found one room over in his kitchen, baking or studying cookbooks as if they were sacred texts.