What Does It Take to Engage Our Students?

Students in Luria Academy, a Jewish Montessori school in Brooklyn, NY; screenshot The Idea School.

By Elana Weissman

What is it that you hope your children will become as a result of their Jewish day school education? As a parent of young children and as a Jewish day school educator, I want my children and students to grow into knowledgeable and literate Jews, to sustain engagement with their Jewish learning and to take pride in their Jewish identity. I want my children to be invested in building their lives around Jewish values, while also contributing to the broader community. I want my children to think critically and deeply about the complexity inherent in their Jewish identity and observance, while still feeling an immense love for their religion, sacred texts, and cherished traditions. My husband and I work hard to embed these values in our three daughters. But we also rely heavily, as do many other parents, on the Jewish day school experience to shape who our children will become.

What do Jewish day schools need to do to cultivate a literacy and love of Judaism that will sustain our children through adulthood? What would it be to fall short of this goal?

I imagine that many parents would be disappointed if their child, the Day School graduate, only adhered to Jewish tradition and observance because of a sense of compliance and obligation, without the underpinning of meaning and love. After the investment we have made as parents and as educators in providing a Jewish education for our children, we want their Jewish identity to be beloved rather than burdensome.

How do we, as educators and as parents, foster our children’s lifelong commitment to their Judaism to be more than a guilt-ridden obligation or a list of rules to follow? Our charge starts with considering the current approach to Jewish day school education and to ask ourselves if our children are merely compliant or truly engaged in their Jewish learning. Are students invested and enthusiastic about their learning, putting forth the cognitive effort, expressing excitement and actively participating, feeling ownership for their learning and achievement? Or are they only doing what needs to be done to make the grade and avoid any negative consequences? Do we even know how to identify true engagement? And how can we foster an environment that encourages students to feel connected to and invested in their Judaic Studies?

Engagement encompasses behavioral, emotional, and cognitive dimensions of a student’s psychological interest, and active involvement in learning and achievement. It is NOT simply doing what is supposed to be done. It is the enthusiastic, authentic, and effortful investment in learning. While initially intended to decrease the rates at which students were dropping out of school, the study of engagement has pointed to far broader impacts and has become quite the buzzword in recent educational discourse.

Engagement in learning is positively correlated not only with academic achievement, but with deeper conceptual understanding, more thorough skill development and retention, positive self-esteem, life satisfaction, and resilience. In contrast, when students are not engaged in their learning, they are more likely to struggle with substance use, anxiety, depression, and school failure.

Studies suggest that even when students have above-average intelligence and come from families of high socioeconomic status, they will experience increased anxiety and anger and decreased academic achievement when they feel disengaged from learning. All the more astonishing is that engagement in learning is on the steady decline from entry into kindergarten and through high school, with children sometimes showing signs of disengagement as early as first grade.

How do we take this ivory tower research and make sense of it within our Jewish educational system? How can we provide a Jewish education that fosters engagement, enthusiasm, psychological investment, rather than compliance – or even worse – rejection?

We know that both children and adults learn best when they feel that their learning is relevant and purposeful, when they have choice and autonomy in the process of what they learn, and when they believe that their sustained effort will move them towards mastery and competence. Conversely, they are far less engaged when their learning is controlled and driven by a teacher’s agenda, or when they feel as if their role in the learning process is simply to be an empty vessel that receives information from the expert teacher. Students disengage from school and lack motivation to learn and achieve when they do not perceive themselves as competent and actively participating in their learning or success.

Student-centered and inquiry-based learning awards us the opportunity to foster an environment in which Jewish subjects spark enthusiasm by making them relevant to our children and something they can have autonomy over. This pedagogical approach pushes teachers to facilitate student learning rather than control it, and allows students the control and creativity to make their Jewish learning personally meaningful. By exploring engaging questions, finding what they’re curious about, and real-world, authentic application of texts and skills, our students can construct and organize their knowledge in deeply meaningful ways. They don’t have to simply follow the rules, because they are part of making the rules. Rather than being the receivers of information, students are the creators, discoverers, and designers of information.

If our goal is to raise engaged, enthusiastic, and committed Jewish children, our work needs to start in making sure our children are engaged and enthusiastic in their Jewish learning. Otherwise, we run the risk of teaching our children that compliance, simply following the rules, is the expectation they need to meet. Perhaps we must think less about finishing a specific perek [chapter of a Jewish text] or sefer [Jewish text] and more about whether our students are leaving our classrooms with a growing passion and sturdy commitment for their religion. Student-centered, inquiry-based learning is the way for us to make sure that happens.

As a doctoral student in education at Johns Hopkins University, I am deeply interested in what contributes to students’ levels of engagement, or lack thereof, in their Judaic Studies. And I am curious, all the more, if day school teachers are able to differentiate whether a student is simply compliant or truly engaged, and what the impact is on our students’ Jewish identity and their Judaics skill and conceptual understanding.

Elana Weissman is the Lower School Director of Student Support at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School in Baltimore, Maryland and is pursuing her doctorate in education at Johns Hopkins University, where her focus is on young students’ engagement in Judaics Studies.