Writer: Gila Hadani Ward
Integration of experiential learning is a growing trend in complementary schools. Whether it is called “creating Jewish memories,” “camp inspired learning” or some other catchphrase, the idea of connecting Jewish learning to Jewish life is becoming more of a priority in the synagogue school setting. This represents a significant paradigm shift for schools, synagogues and most pointedly for the school faculty. What teachers don’t often understand is that integrating experiential learning and activities into a school’s curriculum can be seamless and unbelievably rewarding but it requires a great amount of preparation and a great deal of thought needs to go into the preparation and execution of learning plans.
This white paper will discuss how teachers need to be trained and prepared to meet this challenge and to succeed in making an impact on their students.
The idea of professional learning is not new. It has been an essential and often overlooked component of complementary school education for many years. However, as the expectations that synagogues hold for its teachers change, synagogues need to be prepared to support its vision with professional learning. Professional learning in this setting does not mean a random seminar with a guest “specialist” teaching in a frontal manner. Professional learning should be ongoing with a set of desired outcomes and with consistent follow up and reflection.
At Temple Beth Sholom, as our school changes and evolves, so too have we asked the teachers to take this journey with us. As such, we made a choice to embed weekly professional learning into the schedule of our Religious School teachers. For one hour each week, teachers are asked to think about the classroom learning, the students and their families. We rarely talk about logistics, report cards or who will supply challot, grape juice or any other food symbolic of the next Jewish holiday. There are other meetings and times for those conversations. Professional learning time has become just that – a time to focus on the learning agenda that has been set.
It is important that a complementary school be clear in its learning outcomes for the faculty with professional learning. First, it helps the teachers understand what is expected of them. Second, it shows teachers, lay leaders and other key stakeholders the seriousness and importance of professional learning. Learning outcomes and expectations are a visible sign that there is a level of expectation, professionalism and accountability.
In integrating experiential education and camp-inspired learning into professional learning, there is a great deal to consider. Teachers need to think not just about developing skill sets and knowledge, they need to look at what they want students to feel and believe. According to Barry Chazan, the experiential educator is a total educational personality who educates by words, deeds and by shaping a culture of Jewish values and experiencesTeachers need to think about how to both create a learning environment while at the same time creating memories for their students and creating a ruach, a spirit that will encourage and empower students to be engaged and want more. Teachers need to think about the relationships that they create with their students. On its surface, creating the ambience for enthusiasm and excitement about Judaism and Jewish experience sounds much easier than planning a lesson sounds, but for some teachers, the forging of relationships is much more difficult and complicated. In experiential settings, teachers are not just teachers. They are Jewish role models to their learners and with this incredible opportunity also exists a responsibility to share from their own experiences.
Setting, where learning takes place, is also an important component of experiential learning. There is a joke (I have to believe it is a joke) where a child comes home from a life-changing summer at Jewish overnight camp. The first Saturday evening at dusk, the child’s parent asks if the child wants to say the Havdalah prayers, since the child wrote home about how amazing it was. The child declines and says “we can’t do Havdalah. There is no lake.” How do we create meaning for students when we don’t have the same trappings as camp or the backdrop of Jerusalem? We can’t replicate it and we shouldn’t even try. What we need to do, however, is learn about the qualities that make Havdalah at camp so special or a zimriyah (song festival) so memorable.
Some teachers will have that frame of reference and will be able to draw on their own powerful Jewish memories and experiences at Jewish overnight camp or Israel programs. Other teachers, however, in their professional development, will need to be exposed to modern examples of powerful experiential learning. That means they will need to visit Jewish overnight camps or experience teaching Torah through drama by attending a Storahtelling workshop. Instead of teaching “about” experiential learning, teachers may need to be immersed in and participate in that learning as learners themselves. This will show them, first hand, what makes experiential learning so powerful.
Along those same lines, it is important to be cognizant that different teachers will inevitably need to focus on honing different skill sets. This means that a “one size fits all” model of professional learning will probably not work. It will require creativity to figure out how to structure the learning. It may mean taking an individual approach to the learning – each teacher embarking on his or her own path of professional learning. However, this can also be a great opportunity for collaborative learning. Placing teachers in collaborative groups with a common goal of learning specific skill sets can be very empowering for the teachers as well as beneficial for the overall school program.
Knowing The Students
John Dewey, one of the great thinkers in education, advised teachers to get to know their students. The “present standpoint of the child and the facts and truths of studies define instruction” (p. 339). A child’s surroundings informs his or her learning. With experiential education this holds true as well and is even more important. The degree to which we get to know our students in experiential Jewish learning has the ability to take a good learning experience to one that is transformative or life-changing.
In addition to knowing a student’s learning style, it is important for teachers to know who their students are. It is important to know details about a child’s family, what a student is passionate about and what interests him or her. It is important for a teacher to understand that our students lead incredibly busy lives, certainly busier than we ever led as children. It is important that a teacher use that understanding when working with our students, when planning activities and lessons, and when speaking to students.
In a camp setting, staff literally live with their campers. This creates a connection and a familiarity that bonds staff and campers to each other. In the complementary school setting we do not have this intimate contact with our students. We have to use the time with them teaching in a way that will build relationships with our students while at the same time giving students powerful learning experiences.
As schools move toward a model which integrates experiential learning, this will inevitably need to become a factor in faculty hiring. Teachers should have experience in Jewish camping or be willing to learn from those models. Moreover, teachers should be willing to cultivate relationships with students and their families. These relationships are integral to the creation of powerful Jewish learning experiences. These qualities should be taken into consideration when hiring teachers.
Teachers in complementary settings underestimate the power that they have. For the most part they assume that their students do not want to be in Hebrew School and want nothing to do with their teachers. I just don’t believe that is true. In my experience, the right teacher who cultivates a relationship with his or her students makes the after-school challenge of Religious Education much more pleasant. It also opens the door to a dialogue between teacher and student, creating a trust and an understanding that will lend itself to powerful learning and a lifetime of memories.
Gila Hadani Ward is the Director of Lifelong Learning at Temple Beth Sholom in Roslyn Heights, New York. She is a graduate of the University of Florida where she received a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Political Science. She also holds a Juris Doctorate Degree from the University of Florida College of Law. Gila also currently serves as a mentor for the Master’s Degree students in Jewish Education at the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education at JTS.
 Chazan, B. (2003), ‘The philosophy of informal Jewish education’ the encyclopedia of informal education,www.infed.org/informaleducation/informal_jewish_education.htm.
 Dewey, J. John Dewey on Education: Selected Writings. New York: The Modern Library, 1964.