Listening to Our Tweens

By Nachama Skolnik Moskowitz

Many of us have come to believe that the content and teaching models that keep making their way into our Jewish educational settings are ‘sacred’ – that we have to teach about Golda Meir by fifth grade, that making rainbows with younger children is part of an authentic Noah’s Ark lesson, and that every year we need to teach the history of every Jewish holiday. Indeed, we find it hard to break free from the litany of content areas that form the foundation of Jewish education (Torah stories, prophets, Israeli history, Jewish life cycle, holidays, values, Hebrew, blessings, etc). In spite of layering in creative art projects, drama games, hands-on materials, and the latest technologies, the more things change, the more they seem to stay the same.

The fault, perhaps, is our starting point – that we, educators and committee members, regard ourselves as the only experts. It’s time to listen to our learners.

In recent years, the Jewish Education Center of Cleveland Curriculum Department’s partnership with two local congregations (The Temple – Tifereth Israel and Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple) has flipped the curriculum development process by starting squarely with a focus on learners … in this case, tweens. As the education directors in these two congregations began to consider educational innovations with the help of the JECC, they initiated a series of one-on-one and group conversations with fifth through seventh graders. The students were surprised that the directors did not ask them to critique their current Jewish classes or to offer suggestions for the future. Instead, with a nod to the design thinking process, the tweens were probed about learning quite broadly:

  • What do you enjoy learning? What makes it interesting to you?
  • Tell us about an interesting conversation you recently had with an adult (a parent, teacher, coach, anyone). What was it that made this conversation interesting?
  • What are you learning from social studies classes in your public/private school that has grabbed your attention?
  • Is there something you have wondered about Jewishly? What are you curious about?

In one of the congregations, parents were asked similar questions, still with a focus on their tweens: “What interesting conversations have you had with your child recently, perhaps at the dinner table or in the car? What seems to hold your child in the discussion?”

While we thought we knew the age group well, their responses surprised us for they showed deep interests beyond our original assumptions. Many talked of math and science, noting that they enjoyed these subjects for their hands-on nature. Some talked of personal curiosity and the paths they took to follow their own questions. Of course, there were contradictions between them – for instance, one learner told us she was curious to know more about the story-behind-the-story of Jewish holidays, whereas another began with a rant, “If I have to learn one more thing about the Jewish holidays ….!” By carefully listening, we learned that middle schoolers:

  • Delight in challenges, relishing opportunities that stir their curiosity, ideally ones that require time to develop a solution (i.e., not “one and done”).
  • Ask deep questions.
  • Want to feel valued, making contributions to individuals and society.
  • Can be argumentative and provocative.
  • Want to be taken seriously. They crave being introduced to issues that adults might think they are not quite ready for, especially regarding the twists and turns of life.
  • Want choice and ownership of their learning.
  • Move fluidly between their Jewish and general lives.
  • Enjoy technology and are quite skilled because of expertise developed in their public and private schools.

We heard these tweens loudly and clearly and understood why teacher-directed classes in congregational settings were not meeting their needs. Our challenge, then, was to develop curricular models that took these learning characteristics into account, with us constantly asking “would this be compelling to the learners?” and “how do we grow student responsibility for their own Jewish learning over multiple years?” Rich in Jewish content, new curriculum was developed for: fifth graders, who spend the year helping an adult who discovered a mysterious box “somehow related” to a quote by Hillel; sixth graders, who choose which codes to crack and challenges to solve, and in the process explore Jewish values; and seventh/eighth graders, who investigate a wide variety of curated materials that enable them to respond thoughtfully to a real-world question. [Overview videos are linked to each of the grade names, providing examples of how the JECC and the congregations brought to life what we learned from local tweens.]

Our new models are sometimes called “tushies in the air learning” because students, often with twinkles in their eyes, lean half-in-and-half-out of their seats towards each other and the materials that focus their conversations. The learning is active and engaging, ticking off a lot of the boxes of what students and their parents told us they respond to educationally.

The JECC and these two partner congregations learned that the challenge to us as Jewish educators involved in curriculum development is to resist the natural inclination to fall back on the content and learning models that have been part of Jewish education for decades. Do our tweens in part-time settings REALLY need to learn about the prophets, Golda Meir, or the details of all seven blessings in a Jewish wedding ceremony? Maybe yes, maybe no. But to take our next curricular steps we need to ask probing questions, listen between the lines, and then find the time, resources and creativity to develop compelling learning opportunities for our next generation of Jews.

The Jewish Education Center of Cleveland (JECC) is one of ten partner communities in Shinui: The Network for Innovation in Part-Time Jewish Education, a group that sparks, nurtures and spreads innovation in Jewish education. The curricula noted above (and others) are made freely available through at the conclusion of their pilot years.

Nachama Skolnik Moskowitz is the JECC’s Senior Director, as well as Director of Curriculum Resources.