Sunday, April 24, 2011

Passion for REAL Jewish Learning

Jewish education in the 21st century demands a rethinking of both our chosen goals and methods.  In recognizing that the environment for learning, the demands on learners and the processes for learning are rapidly shifting, we must reconsider the models of learning Jewish education assimilated. While much focus remains on web tools, smart boards, nings and cellphones, the key does lie in the tools (nouns), but in the way we teach and learn to enhance what our students can do (verbs). Marc Prensky demands that we distinguish between nouns and verbs in our thinking and planning for 21st century education. Yet, beyond differentiating between our emphasis on nouns and verbs, Jewish educators need to stake our claim on our approach to how we engage our students.

In a recent interview by with Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach on learning for the 21st Century, she described a transformation in education resulting less from a change in tools, but in a complete shift in how we teach. Beyond transitioning the teacher away from the knowledge giver in total control of the classroom that many 21st century learning models have proposed, Bussbaum-Beach goes farther:

Instead of me having all these preconceived ideas of what they should doing, saying, and producing, I have to be open to what I find in each student. I have to discover—and help each student discover—their talents and interests and create a learning environment where they can use those gifts and passions to learn from a position of strength.

Nussbaum-Beach contends that 21st Century teaching and learning must embody a sense of wonderment, not just tapping into, but also deriving from student’s passions. This allows students to work from their strengths and interests, and thus requires teachers to continuously informally assess students for their passions as well as their learning growth.

Passion-based learning provides a powerful model to integrate with Marc Prensky’s partnering pedagogy.  Prensky’s pedagogy depends on creating “real learning”, and not just relevant learning.  So often in Jewish education, we strive at our best, to construct through our choices of materials, creative sets and authentic assessments relevant and authentic learning. Prensky argues that:

I don’t think that is really what all of today’s student need or want. What they do need and want is for their education to be real. What’s the difference between relevant (or even authentic) and real? Relevant means that kids can relate something you are teaching, or something you say, to something they know.

I am as guilty of trying to relate to my students using relevance to relate to my students as the next Jewish educator. I have used Batman Begins, Lord of the Rings and Star Wars to address character development, literary devices and the use of interpretive method when teaching Chumash.

To truly engage in partnering with my students in their Jewish learning and journey, I have had to go beyond trying to make Judaism relevant to kids by relating Judaism to something within pop culture. There has been nothing like working with high school seniors to open me up to the possibilities of engaging students as partners in creating something “real”. Two examples I hope to explore in more detail in later posts are the Viral Judaism Project and the Jewish Futures Project.

I first realized the potential of truly partnering with students, in the manner Prensky advocates, in my work developing the teen presenters program for LimmudLA over the last two years. Through this program, LimmudLA partnered with teens from Milken Community High School to develop a session to be delivered at the adult conference. The students achieved this great task through the support of coaches, workshop and much diligence. Above all, what made the students successful in delivering their presentations to a real adult audience at an adult conference was that their sessions derived from their passions and interests such as, Being a Secular Jew and Loving It, Hip-Hop & Judaism and From Temples to Facebook: American Judaism.  These students created, persevered and excelled in developing sessions that conference attendees considered to be the premier sessions of the conference, by an adult or a teen.  The Jewish Journal’s summary of the conference captured the energy created by teens allowed to learn “real”.

Jewish education needs to tap into more opportunities to engage students in their passions in real ways by engaging students in the community around them and offering them real ways to engage in education that matters. As today’s teens show more and more their readiness to contribute in ways that manner to our current society and Jewish community, we need to make these opportunities a central part of our curriculum and not marginalized accidents we are so proud to show off when they occur. I hope to address the power of today’s generation of young learners in my next post.

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