Zooming Our Way to Transcendent Encounters
Tips and Methodologies for Mindful Virtual Learning and Facilitation
By Jake Marmer
Do you know that feeling of deep relief and satisfaction which arrives as you finish the final bit of planning for an intricate, complex program? When the last of the guest speakers is confirmed, all the texts are arranged, and the schedule is ironed out and ready to be shared with the world? As we say in Yiddish, a mekhaye – what a pleasure! That was my thinking in early March, as we, at The Bronfman Fellowship, wrapped up the last bits of planning of our annual Spring Seminar in Washington, DC for our North American cohort – the culminating point on the arc of their year-long program.
And, as you may have guessed, the feeling did not last: like many others out there, we scrambled to quickly transform our offering into a virtual experience. Our key concern was the fact that Bronfman program hinges on high-quality intellectual study, as well as deeply personal interconnections between the fellows. The deeply personal interconnections felt particularly challenging to envision in a virtual setting, with each of us confined into the same-sized rectangular windows on the screen. The quality of the intellectual study was a question mark as well, because for us, such study is not about the transfer of information but is focused on creating an environment in which it is possible to think together, and to engender a sense of profound conversation across difference.
An old Russian-Jewish saying goes: the destiny plays with men, and men get to play – their tuba. I don’t know about a tuba, but I did find that with training, collaboration, pedagogical intuition, and experimentation it is possible to achieve far more than I imagined was possible in a virtual setting. The below is my attempt to share a few key ideas and strategies in the hope that others will benefit from them.
I am deeply grateful to my colleagues at The Bronfman Fellowship whose wisdom was crucial for much of the learning I am sharing below.
We chose to hold an open, optional Town Hall prior to the seminar to provide the forum for our participants to speak freely about their reservations and disappointment with our inability to meet in person. We were deeply disappointed not to see everyone in person, too, and being together in this way felt not only significant and therapeutic, but also allowed us to clear the air and to make way for the actual encounter.
We also put together a care package which each of the fellows received in the mail prior to the seminar. Our hope was to create a sense of togetherness by having identical objects, visible to each other on screen. One of the items, a seminar notebook, was a way to encourage participants to avoid taking notes on screen and slipping off into other distractions. We also sent around cinnamon sticks for havdalah, as a way to connect through the sensory in addition to the visual.
We created a thorough “virtual etiquette” document and asked all to review to ensure the rules of engagement are clear to all.
While it was impossible to redesign our program from the scratch, it felt necessary to adjust our content to account for the moment we found ourselves in to create a greater sense of relevance to our shared reality. In our case, the seminar’s overarching theme was “Visions,” and we originally planned for it to take place in Washington DC, which we saw as a perfect setting for this subject matter. It felt entirely fitting to keep this theme in our virtual program but to adjust our key questions and framing so as to explore what’s incumbent upon us today, and what’s necessary for joint rebuilding of the future ahead of us.
Setting and reiterating a shared intention is important as well. I encouraged everyone to think of our shared space not as “facetime” but as an opportunity for panim el panim – a transcendent encounter with each other.
We hired and trained a talented college student alumna to serve as “tech producer” for the seminar to take care of all of the back-end work: creating break-out rooms, conferring hosting privileges, pulling up videos, playing music, spotlighting speakers, posting links and more. That way, the educators and facilitators themselves were able to focus on the educational program and the experience of the learners.
In addition to Zoom for the seminar sessions, we used Slack for asynchronous discussions, as well as Google Docs for a dynamic schedule. In a few of the sessions, we used Google’s Jamboard during the longer havruta sessions to offer a way for each of the small groups to share out. (In a physical setting, I’d be walking around the learning pods, checking in and assessing the energy of the room, but popping into people’s havruta on Zoom felt too Big Brother – so Jamboard was a gentler alternative).
Routines and Rituals
It is true for a physical classroom, and it is equally true for a virtual one: ritual and routines help create structure, familiarity, and comfort. They allow participants to truly enter the space. Jewish theater director and stellar workshop leader Aaron Henne recommends that no less than 20-25% of the day’s program is allotted to the warm-up/opening. A deep investment into the opening routines allows the rest of the session to flow smoothly. These are a few recommendations I’ve learned, adopted/transformed, and otherwise found useful.
The first routine is simple: after welcoming everyone, I invited all of the participants to close something so as to be open. They can close the door to the room they are working in, or an unnecessary browser tab, or a chat window. They can mute their phone. This routine is courtesy of Brian Tarallo, whose workshop on facilitation I benefitted from.
My colleagues and I learned the following ritual from Israel-based facilitator Jacklina Eshaya: taking three breaths together as a virtual collective. Because of a large number of participants in the session, when all are present in the same digital room at once, everybody other than the facilitator is muted. And so, to be aware of each other’s breathing we ask all to pick up their hands, in front of the screen, and raise them on the inhale, lowering them on the exhale.
The final ritual we used every day of the seminar is a quick one-on-one two-minute breakout room right at the opening of the day. When we walk into the room for an in-person seminar, we settle in with a quick hello to those around; so, too, these brief break-out room encounters foster a sense of warmth and intimacy in the group. We learned this from an incredible virtual facilitator Judy Rees: the faster you get into break-out rooms, the better.
Virtual meetings and learning sessions require breaks every 45-50 minutes. This, too, we learned from Judy, who cited NASA (they know from distant learning!) research. We often invited fellows to facilitate stretch breaks, though getting off screen for five minutes or more is crucial in recharging the group’s energy.
As any classroom teacher will tell you, a great deal of learning happens right outside of the class, leaning on the wall in the minutes prior to, or after, the bell rings. Real learning happens as students walk down the hallway, processing and bantering with each other. Virtual seminars lack that opportunity for an unstructured time together. This issue remains a question mark in my mind, and I hope that in the coming months we will continue exploring and finding new solutions for it.
In the meantime, we found that participant-led sessions offered an opportunity for experiential and/or peer-learning which, in a way, approximated the unstructured learning environment, as these sessions were a bit more casual and organic. Our participant-led modes included ritual (kabbalat shabbat, havdalah) as well as open learning sessions (mishmar).
We also “opened” the Zoom rooms an hour prior to the official sessions, and invited folks to drop in to casually chat together. (Additionally, our hope was that socializing prior to the official program will decrease the amount of texting and chatting during the actual sessions.)
Singing/Dancing and Music During Quiet Times
Singing together is crucial to a Bronfman experience. Singing over Zoom, especially in large groups, is awkward. So, instead, we asked a single person to lead the singing, while others sang along on mute. Or, more often, we’d play a song that everyone knows, all mute ourselves and dance/lip-sync. As our tech producer went around, spotlighting (a great Zoom feature!) individuals, there was a sense of togetherness, even if it was a bit silly and awkward.
When we asked our participants to work on something quietly, the muted silence across the screens felt uncanny. We found that playing music during such times helps fill up the space. Seeing everyone groove along is a fun perk.
Translating the in-person learning experience into a purely virtual environment is one the greatest challenges I’ve had as an educator, and I must admit that I had quite a bit of trepidation going into it. And yet, the desire to transcend the situation we find ourselves in, to bring the meaningful connections and content we all crave, our team to dream together, be creative, continue learning and re-inventing. With all of the warmth and encouragement, I wish all of my colleagues in the field the best of luck in this enormous experiment.
Please feel free to contact me with questions, ideas, and suggestions.
Jake Marmer is the Educator and Programming Director of the Bronfman Fellowship. He is also a contributing editor for Tablet Magazine, the author of three poetry collections: Cosmic Diaspora (forthcoming in 2020), The Neighbor Out of Sound(2018) and Jazz Talmud (2012).