Make Room, Don’t Leave It

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By Bradley Solmsen

In his recent piece, “Educating by Stepping Out of the Way,” Elie Kaunfer makes the point that as teachers, leaders and facilitators we need to do a better job of making room for our learners and participants. Kaunfer argues, citing his experiences with Hillel and college students, that success is achieved when the Hillel college students can plan and implement Shabbat dinners without the staff’s participation.

I agree, to a point. I think it’s vital for the professional staff to make room for the students but I think it’s a mistake when we as educators, “leave the room,” completely. Instead, I believe in a model that focuses more on partnership between participants and professionals.

Instead of stepping completely out of the room, I’d ask if we could focus on sharing space, sharing the planning, valuing the voice of the less experienced alongside the voice of the more experienced. The real lesson I hope we can focus on imparting is that success is when all of us make room to share experiences together.

In my time at Brandeis University’s high school programs, we prepared our Community Educators to plan Shabbat services and meal experiences in an intentional partnership with the high school participants. The staff’s role was to ask questions, to challenge, to push, to allow the participants to struggle, not only in the planning for an experience but during the actual experience as well.

Most importantly, the role of the staff is to model being co-participants. They are guided not to take over but rather to share in the difficult conversations as well as the moments of discovery and celebration.

Partnership may be more demanding both for the participants and for the facilitators but the benefits of sharing the space together are greater for the entire community.

I have been fortunate to work in different, intensive, informal education settings: Brandeis University’s high school programs, at the URJ and now at Surprise Lake Camp. In each case, we prepare our educators to partner with participants. Success is not when the students can make Havdallah without the staff. Rather, success is when they can plan and implement Havdallah together – creating an environment that includes and honors a wide range of voices and perspectives. The outcome is richer, deeper and everyone feels a greater sense of connection to the program and to one another.

Don’t we want to model inclusive communities in which all voices are heard and valued? I am reminded of Lee Shulman’s teaching – “Do not do unto teachers what you would not have teachers do unto students.”

Shulman advises us that our most effective learning communities are ones in which everyone shares the responsibility for learning and teaching, together.

Bradley Solmsen serves as the executive director of Surprise Lake Camp in Cold Spring, New York and currently has the honor of holding a Shusterman Fellowship.