Two new experiential educational endeavors at Reuben Gittelman Hebrew Day School – a Schechter Network school – had students break new ground in ways that artists and writers do. Over the last three years, both the pursuits of prayer and spiritual life education, as well as Rabbinics text education were determined to be subject areas that could be informed by experiential educational practices and philosophy.
By way of background, at Gittelman, children grow up knowing that their writing skills are being refined in order to contribute to the library of stories and books that are on our library shelves. By interacting with visiting authors and learning the writing, publishing and illustrating process during the years of grade one through five education, the children come to see themselves as authors. Upper elementary students take their books and read to lower elementary and early childhood students. Some years the children visit area schools or children’s hospital wings to read their stories aloud, to promote literacy and pay visits to those ailing with illness. Each cycle of school, the year ends with a writer’s café at which the children read their stories to one another and their parents and then have a book discussion.
Where could we go from there? For many years the students contributed writing to a bi-lingual journal of English and Hebrew writing. Opinion pieces, poetry and reflections on favorite mitzvot peppered the pages. During the middle school years, though, in addition to our English/Hebrew journal “The Torch,” we wanted to add experiential dimensions to both prayer education and the Rabbinics curricula.
How could we build on the experiences of participating in the prayer life of school and upon the Jewish learning that occurs in the beit midrash? The students themselves were challenged to become more reflective, interactive and production oriented based on the learning they had already experienced. Students expressed interest in interviewing members of area congregations about their prayer experiences and why they were important. A panel of students participated in a “Tfillah Talk Show” and debated about whether or not prayer and a prayer life are important elements for teens. Most recently a group of students looked around the beit Knesset and said that we, too, could be artists who adorn our prayer space with original art just as those do whose reproductions hang in our synagogue.
An Artist’s Beit Midrash for exploring prayer and producing synagogue art was formed. As part of the process students learned about whether or not old siddurim bound for the genizah (a hideaway for sacred books with God’s name printed thereon) could be used in art-making. A tshuvah (legal responsum) from the Conservative Movement Committee on Jewish Law and Standards was discussed. It permits recycling texts with God’s name, in order to be more environmentally responsible. We talked about the old prayerbooks being used for hiddur mitzvah – the beautification of the prayer service and experience. The pages of old prayerbooks with missing pages became live prayer guides once again.
Students sat with siddurim open and in prayer chevruta (pairs of kids studying the words of our liturgy) with the task of conceiving of art that grows out of the words and themes of tfillah. As students presented their ideas to one another about the art that they wanted to produce, they learned the art of careful, constructive critique. Once a concept was refined and discussed, the artists were off to make Omanut LaEmunah – the name of our prayer arts project – Art for Inspiration.
Many of the pieces incorporated powerful ideas about the meanings of prayer and personal connections to tfillah. One young artist in 7th grade took a page of the Mourner’s Kaddish and made tears out of the page. She pasted them to the oaktag and took the oil crayons. Dark colors then light brought a face to life. The piercing eye seeking the sha’ar d’maot came into existence, the Gates of Tears that the Talmud talks about still being open – a Talmudic text that this young lady was interested in learning, on the spot, as she made the art of crying in tfillah. Her tears were about personal loss, communal loss and historical memory. This was all from a student who you would NEVER know was seeking a prayer life or had a personal stake in regular minyan experience! Eliyana is deep, and she is already a working Jewish artist.
With the Rabbinics Curriculum in 6th grade, we decided to take a trip to the Jewish Book Store and look at what commentaries and children’s books have been written with Mishnah in mind. Students explored more than the Pirke Avot with the commentaries of Rashi, Rambam and Rabbeinu Yonah that they received in class. They asked about which commentaries sold the most and about their nature. Incorporating the experiential philosophy of moving students to create meaningful work or experience about which they can deliberate and interact, our students were asked to create new commentaries on the ethical treatise of Mishnah they were learning, in addition to generating a new Masekhet, or tractate of Mishnah, in the spirit of our ancestors whose religious creativity and desire for Jewish unity were, perhaps, at play.
Students were asked to see themselves as being hired by the Rebbi Yehudah HaNasi Foundation to create a new tractate on Hilkhot Ahavat Yisrael v’Yom HaAtzmaut – Love of Israel and Israeli Independence Day. Students, based on their experiences over the years, having learned the style of Mishnaic Hebrew, compiled an incredible number of apodictic legal statements and some even made midrashic moves within Mishnaic style laws for their fellow classmates. As we imagined the Tannaim of the Mishnah debated which laws and statements to include, which minority opinions to record and how to organize the tractate, the class of students left some pieces on the cutting room floor but put together a new code that could fit into the 63 tractates of Mishnah . “One should wear blue and white on Israeli Indepence Day, 5 Iyar, but if it is Shabbat one does not have to. On the day Yom HaAtzmaut is celebrated, one should wear the blue and white. If one does not own blue and white, Rabbi S. says go out and buy some and Rabbi A. says one may wear a shirt that has a Jewish star or other symbols of Jewish pride.” Sixth graders produced this being challenged to rise to the occasion.
Another group also became writers.
After seeing the children’s books that use Mishnah teachings as inspirations, Gittelman students were asked to submit original manuscripts for consideration to Schechter Network Publishers (we were thinking of making the project open to all middle school and high school students in the Network!). Students visited with a working children’s author who talked about character development, narrative, illustration making and story-boarding. Some of the students invested incredible amounts of energy into designing their publications and considering what to personify, whether to use human beings or not and what kind of situations and problems to create that helped amplify good, Jewish values-based solutions. In the work pictured here one young lady works to toil for the prize of teamwork, feeling accomplished and doing her personal best instead of being a sore loser and just being out for the prize of winning. Rachel is onto becoming an accomplished children’s author, among her other pursuits.
Whether in the study of humanities, the sciences or in Judaics, we have found that experiential educational methods rouse our children’s curiosities and make them feel accomplished. Being able to say that they have added to the world they know or impacted the lives of others launches them into brighter futures. Whether new inventions come out of our science program or students become anchors on Israeli Advocacy mock-TV programs, or they are the products discussed above, we are striving to use these alternative, experiential assessments and experiences to keep our students sharp-minded and inquisitive.