Connecting the Dots in Jewish Education … Appreciation and Community

DCL’s Drash
Rabbi Julie Schwarzwald, Director of Congregational Learning

“Not all superheroes wear capes, some have teaching degrees.” – Unknown Author

This week is Teacher Appreciation Week, and we owe tremendous gratitude to our amazing CBI teachers – both BBRS and CBI Preschool – for how they have embraced the challenges of online education over the last seven weeks. The technology we are using to stay connected to our families was new to almost every teacher. They are finding creative ways to finish the year with some learning while understanding the challenge we all face in merging our home-school-work lives so completely.

Whether we are able to learn together in person again sooner or later, this experience will create an educational revolution. The revolution is not one of technology, however; the discussion about technology in education goes back to the very beginning. Time and again, we hear about the magic that will happen to education when we have every classroom using horn books – blackboards – pencils – overhead projectors – mimeographs – photocopiers – handheld calculators – personal computers – the internet – interactive whiteboards – and so on. Yet in many ways, much of education is little changed from the beginning of public schools. The continuing overarching goal of education is the transfer of knowledge from one person, the “teacher,” to another, the “student.”

The revolution that I think we are primed to embrace is that of truly moving toward a constructivist approach to learning. What we have seen from our Zoom classes is that it is hard to sit in front of a screen and absorb information – learn – in a meaningful way. Constructivist learning theory is not new; the idea of students engaging in active learning is not new. What has changed is the environment in which we are now tasked with providing opportunities to engage with Judaism and with our kehillah/community.

The possibilities and opportunities presented by distance learning are tremendous. It allows for greater flexibility of scheduling and frees up time for families. We have seen that it is a gift to students with anxiety, hyperactivity, or other challenges that make it difficult to sit in the classroom. Learning Hebrew decoding and prayers does not happen when students only practice once a week; online apps and games offer ways to master material with just a few minutes each day.

And yet, that is not what Judaism is about. Judaism is about community, about being together in times of simcha and times of comfort. Judaism is about connection. So is the best education. When students are engaged in active learning of ideas of interest to them and topics driven by them, when class time is spent in personalized learning and experiential programming, when our children enjoy spending time together in community, then exciting education happens.

All of that is not dependent on technology, although the technology of 2020 provides amazing access to information that can be used to enhance learning and understanding. What makes the magic happen is teachers. Teachers who put the social and emotional aspects of learning ahead of rote acquisition of content are the revolution – they are our superheroes.

Embracing Jewish education through the lenses of social, emotional, and character development means shifting our emphasis to focusing on authentic experiences of celebrating holidays, ethical living following Jewish values, and finding a spiritual connection. It means giving our passionate and compassionate teachers the ability to empower students to take an active role in their learning. It means thinking about ways to use all that technology has to offer as a tool, to enhance building connection. It means flipping the learning – having students prepare and read outside of class, so that when they meet together – in person or online – they can engage in deepening their understanding and applying their knowledge to projects and deep discussions, in order to internalize what they have learned. It means that their time together is spent in connecting with one another.

As we close out this year and begin planning for a number of possible scenarios for next year, I am deeply appreciative of the effort of our teachers to embrace our new reality and begin to think creatively about ways to continue learning and connection when we can only be together in virtual space.

“One looks back with appreciation to the brilliant teachers, but with gratitude to those who touched our human feelings. The curriculum is so much necessary raw material, but warmth is the vital element for the growing plant and for the soul of the child.” – Carl Jung

Rabbi Julie Schwarzwald