Remember, from our students we learn most of all!
Our first posting is from Sarah Marion.
Getting to Know Our Students - Really.
By Sarah MarionLast week, I prepared and delivered a presentation for my Human Development class on systems theory and its role in educational contexts. I wanted to engage the class in a concrete discussion regarding the various systems our learners belong to, and the ways these systems might manifest in the classroom environment.
I decided to facilitate an activity in which my classmates would receive a series of learner “profiles” and using the profiles, be asked to consider (a) which system(s) their learners belonged to, (b) how such systems might manifest in the religious school environment, and (c) the ways in which we might respond or react to such manifestations. For example, if student x’s family system includes a live-in grandparent, student x might connect especially well to lessons and values on honoring/caring for the elderly, and thus, a teacher might ask student x to deliver a presentation on that same topic.
In preparing for this presentation, my initial intention was to re-construct “real life” profiles of students I have encountered over the years as a religious school teacher in order to make the activity as realistic and relevant as possible. I wanted my profiles to be comprehensive, and thus include information such as family origin, current family characteristics and dynamics, student and family interests and activities, and more.
But as I thought of different students from various religious school classes I have taught, I realized how little I actually knew about my learners. I couldn’t fill in all of this information, because I had never learned it. I had known who my students were inside the classroom, but I realized I had little or no idea who they were outside the classroom. Accordingly, I ended up constructing “fictional” profiles for my presentation. For example:
Ryan, who is in 8th grade, was adopted from Russia when he was three. He lives with his two moms, and his younger sister, Lucy, who was adopted from South Korea. Recently, Lucy was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder. Ryan enjoys swimming, and competes on the swim team at the JCC. Ryan’s mom, Kathy, runs a small after school day-care program in their house, and Ryan sometimes helps out with his mom’s business. Ryan’s other mom, Nancy, was raised Protestant and is involved in both her synagogue and church communities.While writing these fictional profiles accomplished my goals for the presentation, I began contemplating the larger issue of how and why I didn’t fully know the systemic attributes of my students. I wondered if my experience was unique – and realized it probably wasn’t. I wondered - do part-time religious school teachers truly have the time and resources to get to know their students in the fullest sense? What is missed – and what are the consequences - when teachers are not aware of the various systems their learners belong to?
Perhaps we miss opportunities to better engage and integrate our students into the learning process, perhaps we miss opportunities to connect the material to our students’ lives, perhaps we miss opportunities to inspire students to take ownership of their own learning, perhaps we make incorrect assumptions and hypotheses about who our students are. (For example, the teacher who is aware of student x’s family system will not miss the opportunity to integrate and connect this student’s experience of living with an aging grandparent into a class lesson on honoring the elderly). Therefore, the critical question becomes: how can we, as Jewish leaders and professional educators, inspire and assist our teachers in becoming fully aware of all the systems that impact our learners when they enter our classrooms?
As community-based and value-driven structures and institutions, synagogues are perhaps better equipped for and have more investment in promoting a holistic understanding of learners, in comparison to secular schools. I have been pondering some concrete, realistic ways in which synagogues and Jewish leaders can help religious school teachers become aware of the various systems their students belong to, in order to better understand their learners’ diverse needs and identities.
One idea I have stems from an Education Team meeting I attended a few years ago while working as a full-time youth educator at Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley, MA. At this meeting, the team discussed the idea of a synagogue-based “Jewish Journey Project” in order to better “track” our students and connect them to the synagogue in meaningful ways.
I’m not sure if this project ever fully came to fruition (as I left for rabbinical school when the project was in its first stages) but I remember the basic premise. Each student who entered the religious school would receive a Jewish journey advisor who would interview the student and his or her family in order to gather as much information about the student as possible. Interview questions would include family history, demographics, student interests and aspirations, past and current student and family involvement in temple life, etc. This information would then be entered into a database accessible to clergy, synagogue professionals, and other advisors.
Student profiles would be updated regularly as students matured and became more or less involved in synagogue or other activities, as family dynamics shifted and changed, etc. Ideally, students would meet with their advisor every year to ensure that database information is current and up to date. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, synagogue professionals (i.e. clergy, education director) would share pertinent and relevant database information with religious school teachers.
Of course, this model is quite aspirational and might have some problems in terms of confidentiality. But it prompts us to consider how synagogues can best embody “whole person” learning communities, in which students and teachers are compelled to consider, integrate, connect, and explore the various facets of life that affect learning.
Sarah Marion is a rabbinic/education student at HUC-JIR's New York campus. She grew up in Westchester, NY and graduated from Brandeis University with bachelor's degrees in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies and Women's and Gender Studies. Prior to entering rabbinical school Sarah worked as a youth educator in Boston, and has spent several summers at the URJ's Eisner and Crane Lake Camps, as a counselor and unit head. She is currently interning at Larchmont Temple in Larchmont, NY.