One of my dearest friends and colleagues is Rabbi Yonah Fuld, who, prior to making aliyah, was the principal of SAR Academy in Riverdale for many years. In a recent article in Jewish Educational Leadership he reflects on his views about experiential education. He is a master educator and his views provide us with much food for thought. What follows is a condensation and distillation of some of his thinking and observations about what a Jewish education ought to be.
Granted that schools are in the business of academic development and children should learn. However, there are other areas which are just as important to a child’s development
You can’t learn values from books. It has to be lived. As we learn in Pirkei Avot, “lo hamidrash ikar ela hama’aseh,” the learning is not the goal, the practice is. How do we get children to internalize values, to live and act on their values? Only by doing it, by experiencing what it feels like.
The way that a teacher speaks to a student, the ways that students speak to each other, are value laden and are lessons in themselves. Saying thank you to the person who serves lunch, greeting the security guard, and including everyone during recess games are all lessons in positive Torah values. If we succeed in creating a mensch, the academics will follow.
2. The Emotional and Psychological Well-Being of the Child
You cannot teach an unhappy child. The number one goal should be that the student should be happy. Happy kids love to come to the place that makes them feel good. Happy students are open to all sorts of learning. When a child gets up in the morning and says, “I’m so excited to go to school!” education becomes a joy for everyone. When children are smiling in the hallways as they go to class, that school is doing something right.
This philosophy is one that I share and employed myself when I was a principal. I extended it to the teachers as well. While I could not pay them what they were worth, I was able to create an atmosphere where at least they were happy with the environment that we created for them in terms of all non-financial support. It makes a big difference. Happy teachers=happy students.
3: Leveling the Playing Field
Some students are good at regular, formal, frontal learning — absorbing and processing knowledge. But others are not as good at that. When they are in an environment that focuses only on intellectual pursuits they are reminded every day that they are not as good as the others. But what happens when you create an environment that values other kinds of learning — affective learning, values learning, learning by doing — and puts those aspects of learning as an equal to academic achievement? All of a sudden, all those children can shine. And just like kids can say, “I’m good at math, but not so good at writing” or vice versa, they can say, “I’m great at Chesed, but not as good at the book stuff.” We create multiple models of excellence.
4: Relationships With Teachers
When students do things together with their teachers it creates bonds that don’t exist in traditional classroom settings. They learn to see their teachers not only as classroom people, but as real role models. And the reverse is true also. Teachers get to see their students as people, rich in many different kinds of ways, not just as receptacles of information. Good relationships mean happier students (and happier teachers), a better environment, increased opportunity to learn from role models, and enhanced learning all around.
When I was a teacher I didn’t just stand around at recess, I played football with my students. It made a difference in the classroom. One of my teachers used recess to engage with the non- athletic students so that they didn’t just munch snacks on the sidelines. Relationship building and ego building is very important especially in the primary grades.
Rabbi Fuld recalled a rabbi who said that more people were drawn closer to Judaism by his wife’s cholent than by his sermons. Too many students are turned off of Judaism by a single teacher who treated them poorly — said the wrong thing, or didn’t understand what was happening with the student. Having a student who likes, admires, respects, and feels close to a teacher is critically important. Of course, having a teacher who really understands the students and tries to connect with them individually makes a huge difference.
5. Experiential Learning
Every morning, we ask God to make our Torah learning sweet, veha`arev na. If it’s important that God make it sweet for us, why should it be any less important for teachers to make it sweet for our students? Aren’t teachers God’s deputies, doing His work? One of the ways to make it sweet is to make sure the learning environment isn’t totally teacher dominated. Every student should feel like they have received the Torah at Sinai, and even more, that they want to accept it. Experiential learning is the way to make this happen.
For example, keep school open on Sukkot so students can have an authentic Sukkot experience while their parents are at work. They should experience a lulav and etrog for real, on the days that it counts, not just as practice. They should be in a sukkah and experience it on the days that it matters. Neighborhood sukkah hops or special trips enhance the holiday mood and are also educational. Even expressing gratitude to a host or a bus driver is a living lesson in middot.
Chesed trips to assist the elderly, delivering meals to the homeless shelter, collecting gloves and socks for soldiers, tutoring younger students, etc. are other ways to make mitzvot come alive.
Rabbi Dr. Wallace Greene was the principal of the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy in its formative years and the dean of Ohr Torah High School.