Learning and Living: What USY Teens Can Teach Our Congregational School Teachers

USY Education in a Congregational School Setting

Guest Post by: Amy Dorsch

Reframe Key Question: What obstacles might stand in the way of ReFraming Jewish education in complementary schools to be more experiential?  How would you overcome those obstacles? 

Congregational Supplementary schools are faced with challenges to restructure and reimage their content, goals and mission. For families that prioritize Bar/Bat Mitzvah preparation, the complaint may be that learners will not be siddur fluent (content). What looks like “silliness and games” may not be regarded by parents or seasoned educators as educationally valuable (method). Learners who are encouraged to “do Jewishly” or perform Jewish values and concepts through action, are often not given the opportunity at home to reinforce the Jewish life skills they encounter through experiential learning. Thus, Judaism becomes knowing without doing, learning that ends once the learner has left the classroom or the school.

Solutions? United Synagogue Youth offers a number of approaches to educate experientially and transform content to action. In a USY setting, learners are obtaining knowledge by experiencing the content emotionally, physically, spiritually, socially and intellectually. Due to this “whole person” experiential learning approach, USYers are empowered to weave Judaism into their everyday lives.  How is this done?

Participation can either be through short term chapter programs or higher impact weekend retreats or immerse summer experiences. Although Congregational school mirrors the time frame of a lower impact chapter program, the following examples are a start as to how congregational schools can still apply USY experiential methods and ideas to “reframe” the short term program for higher impact.

  1. Focus not only on “meaning,” but personal relevance presented in the language of the learner. USY’s approach to creative Tefillah engages the learner with the structured prayer service through various creative format such as “Ipod minyan,” Facebook Shacharit or Tefillah through Spiritual exercises such as Gospel Tefillah. For more details, check out USY’s creative Tefillah webpage.
  2. Active engagement with texts through “real life” application – USYers learn by doing. Active learning techniques such as role plays, debates and physical games and exercises engage the learners with the texts through “real life experiences.”  One recent, most impactful example of learning Jewish concepts through active learning is the USY Alternative Spring Break (Participant Blog and Press coverage can be found here). Congregational schools may run a similar type of volunteer or rebuilding program as a day-long option.  Another example of Jewish learning through application to life is the human board game “Game of Chai” that one USY region planned to teach the Jewish lifecycle (See USY Pinat Chinuch or Educator’s corner for program outline).
  3. Diversity of format or method- Examples of engaging learners through different format of active learning in USY include:
  • “Israel Instagram” – USYers used the Instagram concept to teach about Israel through various “lenses.”
  • Various or specific mitzvot can be taught through a 2-hour “Mitzvah auction” or “mitzvah point system” where Middle School aged learners earn beads for every time they are “caught” doing a mitzvah.
  • Media clips from popular TV and film can be applied to any Jewish concept (“Jewtube”).
  • Specific active Jewish decisions, such as Kashrut, particularly on our USY on Wheels summer program, can become an everyday decision; learners internalize and practice Jewish food choices, both purposefully and unconsciously. Kashrut is one example of transforming content to action, of Jewish choices becoming an everyday natural decision. Congregational schools may not have the continent as the classroom, but can use cooking demonstrations, Food Network programs, or a “Build-a-meal” trip to a grocery store to illustrate Kashrut as an everyday Jewish decision.

Diverse methods that speak to the learners allow deeper impact without the immerse longer term program.

  1.  Addressing the Social and Emotional Components of Learning- USY is social by nature, as is Congregational School. Many parents choose to send their kids to Congregational school specifically for the social component. However, our programs intentionally focus on the impact of connecting learners to each other and educators to the learners, socially and emotionally. A caring and committed youth advisor will motivate a USYer to return for a short term chapter program, just as a Congregational student will look forward to being part of the Congregational community because the teacher has invested in the getting relationships formed.  The role of the USY advisor is to impart knowledge or encourage skill building, while building meaningful relationships between students, between teacher and student and Jewish content. Relationship formation, especially at the foundation or chapter level, is a key component of USY experiential education. This relationship building is what keeps USYers connected to their Jewish experiences regardless of the future Jewish decisions they make. Concurrently, they often associate or connect these positive deep, meaningful human relationships to a relationship with Jewish content and experiences.  Congregational schools can address this key component to classroom education through interactive learning techniques, ice breaker or mixer games to teach, chevruta learning or learning outside of the classroom so that relationships are reinforced when removed from the location of learning.  An advisor who has not invested in relationship building, will not succeed at inspiring involvement and connection to Jewish life.  An integral component of Congregational teacher training is addressing the impact of social and emotional learning of learners.

Reality dictates that most congregational schools are limited by time and do not necessarily have the luxury of long term high impact programming such as a USY Convention or Summer Experience. The aforementioned ideas are rooted in concepts that can in fact be applied to a two hour congregational school experience. USY illustrates how congregational involvement can be more experiential even on a short term basis. These experiences, shared by a community of learners and taught by encouraging and caring role models can transform a two hour “extracurricular activity” into an inspiring way of life.

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Responses to “Learning and Living: What USY Teens Can Teach Our Congregational School Teachers”

  1. Thanks, Amy for your thoughtful response. The Learning Department at USCJ is grappling with this important issue. We continue to find that when we focus on what engages students, it is an easier path to success. Students who are learning through positive interaction with content at the core, with teachers who love what they teach and who guide learning rather than speak from the front of the class, and with teachers who understand kids, tend to come to the complementary school with enthusiasm. Amy’s suggestions and resources speak to those needs.

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