The Rhythm of a Classroom

By Gavriel Goldfeder

[This is part one in a four-part series written by graduates of M2: Institute for Experiential Jewish Education’s Senior Educators Cohort.]

For the past three years, working for MIT Hillel, I have taught the Jewish Learning Fellowship’s (JLF) Life’s Big Questions curriculum. First developed by Yehuda Sarna in 2007, JLF was intended to help people connect to Jewish friends, to immerse its attendees in Jewish community, to foster a “newfound love for Jewish learning and exploration,” and to provide access to a Jewish mentor for those who want it.

The JLF program featured a well-planned schedule of appetizers (“tapas!”), ice-breakers and get-to-know-you sessions, and exposure to Jewish texts, sandwiched between methods of exploration. So, in search of the essence of Shabbat, we might consider the frantic state of our lives while watching the video for Madonna’s “Ray of Light” and then discuss questions like “Why is it so difficult to take a break?” and “What would it be like to take a break?” Then, after reading Exodus, chapter 16, we would break up into groups of four to five people to explore the question, “What basic message does God want the Jewish people to grasp in this Shabbat practice?”

Throughout my three years of teaching the JLF curriculum, I have tried to adhere to this basic rhythm of exposure to an idea (through text, video, or the like), followed by exploration, followed by another text or idea, followed by another exploration and so on.

So I felt that I had failed when, in facilitating a discussion on Jewish views of sex, the well-structured conversation devolved into a barrage of questions about Orthodox practices and attitudes around sexuality. What about sex before marriage (or lack thereof)? The practice of menstrual separation? Birth control? Head coverings for women? – people shot question after question at me, which I answered to the best of my ability.

When we were debriefing at the end, I apologized. My goal, I told those students, had been to encourage them to develop their own sex ethic. I wanted them to think now about their own values, expectations, standards, hopes, willingness to self-limit and the like. The Orthodox system, to which I attempt to adhere, was not meant to serve as an “ought” but as an example: these are the kinds of things a sex ethic ought to address. What’s yours?

The students’ response surprised me. They told me that it was useful to them to get a massive download of information and then to process it, rather than intersperse information with processing. My intense concern with structuring our sessions – first Madonna video, then answer these questions, then read Exodus 16, and then breakout groups to explore and navigate more questions that are personally meaningful to them – ended up being no more useful than providing my students with the information I know and then allowing students to digest and respond. Where it fell short, however, was in not allowing students to make meaning for themselves. I offered information and ideas, but I had no indication that the students had done any exploration of their own.

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At the M² Senior Educators Cohort seminar, I was exposed to M²’s experiential education diamond model. The diamond is a geometric description of a process whereby an educator suggests an approach as to why and how learners might engage in a values tension (for example, dependence and independence, which is a values tension that would show up in multiple areas and texts). This values tension brings to the surface a range of current, relevant and often existential ideas and questions with which learners are likely already engaged, and understanding this values tension allows learners to explore and hopefully resolve questions with which they are currently engaged. Then, ostensibly, learners would apply that resolution to other areas.

The top half of the diamond opens the space for what the educator is proposing and offering. It’s best captured in what we called “teaching experientially.” The educator controls the conversation for this period of time. Value propositions and inherent tensions are crafted and explored.

But that is not where it ends: the diamond creates a midway split. The bottom half of the diamond is best captured in what we called “learning from experiences.” Once the educator has said their piece, it is incumbent on the educator to create space for the learners’ own explorations and meaning-making processes. This is based on the understanding that, as educators, while we can control what we teach, we can never control what our learners learn. What we can do is invite and facilitate the learners’ learning process, encouraging the learners to contend and argue with the claims the educator made.

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At the end of that JLF session on sex ethics, I began to understand an application of the diamond model: at particular points, and with particular students, it may be best to expose learners to a lot of new information and ideas. This can be done passionately, thoroughly, deeply and with a high degree of investment. Educators can convey their own sense of the coherence and cohesion of the ideas being presented and suggest ways those ideas could be practiced and adopted.

But then educators must let go and allow their learners to pick apart that offer, to question every bit of it, to wonder out loud how it could apply to them, to consider alternative approaches and to make the learning their own.

This approach shifts the time orientation of the classroom. Based on how I have understood and utilized the diamond model, the first half of my class is designated as belonging to me – the educator. But then I let go to make sure that the second half of my class is entirely open to all manner of conversation, exploration, discussion and reinterpretation. It belongs to my students. I am there to help, as needed.

The primary benefit of this approach is that it allows me to share, with conviction and rigor, what I am aiming to educate toward. At the same time, I recognize what is in my control (what I choose to teach) and what is not in my control (how my students learn). With this, I deliberately create the space that belongs to my learners, a space in which they wrestle with the material (and with me). The subsequent fully informed conversation can go in many directions without derailing the class process. This approach would be appealing to educators for whom that style is most familiar and effective, and also for learners who work best when they have all the information they need in order to effectively process the material, rather than a step-by-step guided approach to the material.

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As an addendum, I should note that there are limits to the experiential education model. The limits become most clear to me when I am, literally, trying to learn a text with someone for the sake of learning that text toward a specific action.

When the experiential education model approaches texts (and the presentation of them) as focal points for one or another values tension, the specificity and actionability of the text can be lost. Is it preferable, or useful, or even possible, to read all texts as values tensions? What if the educator genuinely feels there is a right answer/response to the text, and the “wrong” response is actually against the tenets of observant Jewish life?

As such, the experiential education model, as espoused by M2, is a wonderful tool to have in one’s toolbox. But the educator must consider the right and wrong times to use that tool.

Gavriel Goldfeder is a graduate of M2 Senior Educators Cohort and currently the Senior Jewish Educator at MIT Hillel.

M² develops and provides training and research to advance the field of experiential Jewish education and invests in the growth of its educators. Learn more at www.ieje.org. Read the entire series at https://linktr.ee/m2ieje.