Experiential Education:
An Approach. Not a Place.

By Andrea Lieber

[This article is the eighth, and final, in a series written by participants in the Senior Educators Cohort at M²: The Institute for Experiential Jewish Education.]

I live a double life as a Jewish educator.

Most of my colleagues know me as a professor and director of the Jewish studies program at Dickinson College, a small liberal arts school where I have the privilege of tenure and hold an endowed chair. In this educational setting, I am blessed with the very best in material resources: smart classrooms equipped with the latest technologies, ergonomic chairs, squeaky clean white boards, and entire collections of world-class libraries just a few clicks away. My relationships with students are defined by a clear power hierarchy: I lecture, they take notes; I establish requirements and deadlines, they comply; their work is evaluated, critiqued, and graded. There are transcripts and letters of reference. It’s very serious business.

Yet, two months out of the year, I also “moonlight” as the educational director at Camp Ramah in the Poconos, taking a break from the formality of higher education to experiment in the alternate educational universe that is overnight camping. At Ramah, my classroom might be a weathered gazebo that is also home to some nesting birds, a circular “yurt” furnished with an assortment of mismatched futons, or a patch of grass overlooking an expansive lake. If the wind blows the right way, I might be able to send a text message, but there are certainly no library databases, live streaming videos, or even simple Google searches. There are no tests, no writing assignments, and definitely no grades. And in camp, even as a respected educator, I am not even close to the top of the power hierarchy, a place ironically reserved for the college-aged counselors who serve as influential Jewish role models for campers all summer long.

I used to think of my two educator lives as polar opposites – each the inverse of the other. In what I sometimes describe as an academic version of Hannah Montana, I enjoyed the “best of both worlds,” but felt the need to keep my work in each realm compartmentalized, as if one had nothing to say to the other. I also felt some academic shame about my decision to spend summers at camp. Shouldn’t I be writing and researching in a library somewhere all summer long? How could I justify spending eight whole weeks in the mountains, watching my children, their friends, and their counselors grow up?

My very first semester back on campus after my first summer at camp, I had the powerful realization that the students sitting in my college classroom were, demographically speaking, the very same counselors I had worked with all summer. In camp, these young adults were so engaged in developing creative, substantive programs for their campers, showing initiative, passion, and leadership around the clock. So, why did the first-years and sophomores in my classes that fall look comatose as they stared at me from behind their laptops? Where was their ruach, spirit? Having seen the potential these young adults have for leadership and engagement, I began to think about what elements of the formal educational setting might be shutting them down.

I had explored and practiced with much success popular experiential pedagogies, such as service learning and community-based research in my undergraduate teaching. These courses were often project-based and necessitated students’ getting out of the classroom for hands-on activities. But, what about time in the classroom? How might methods of experiential education apply in a typical course environment? The methodologies I have learned as part of M²’s Senior Educators Cohort have provided a useful language for thinking through these issues and a framework that has helped me bridge these two educational contexts.

My most important lessons thus far:

Approach every class meeting experientially.
Experiential education doesn’t just happen in informal settings like camp or spring break trips to organic farms. I consider every single class meeting with my students an opportunity to curate a meaningful, educational experience.

Does the architecture of my teaching space support or undermine the experience I want to create in class? Sometimes, my position in front of the room, while good for my ego, reinforces a power dynamic that symbolically disempowers students, whereas sitting in a circle or forming small groups breaks down those hierarchies. Thinking experientially means paying careful attention to how the physical environment shapes our perspectives, and then playing with the space to combat inertia and resistance among learners.

Raise the stakes and welcome conflict.
Academia is known for its focus on the life of the mind and lofty ideas. But, it’s easy for students to get lost in abstract academic discourse. As educators, we know that young adults engage when they feel something is at stake for them. For this reason, it is important to articulate the value at the heart of any academic issue. To do this, I regularly stop to ask, “so what?” or “why should we care?” Identifying a value at the heart of any subject helps students connect from a place of relevance as they explore and work through the archetypal conflicts associated with that value. While they may not be inherently interested in the details of how Judaism responded to the loss of the ancient temple in Jerusalem, they can relate to a discussion of the value of resilience in navigating the tension between continuity and change. By framing my content in a conversation about values, especially competing values, students get to talk about themselves and the material at hand simultaneously. In this way, they have a sense of what is at stake in the lesson and how it connects to their own lived experiences.

Be present.
In a recent class, I noticed that a lot of students were paying closer attention to their laptops than to the discussion I was trying to facilitate. While I welcome devices in my classroom, I started to resent the fact that I was working so hard to get their attention. Only one or two students were making eye contact with me, and I was really tempted to end class early and send them home. Instead, I stopped my discussion and told everyone that I needed more from them – that this class was a collaboration, and they couldn’t leave all the talking to me. I then asked them all to close their laptops. After an embarrassing few moments of silence, the result was remarkable. We proceeded to have the best discussion we had had all semester, because everyone was more present in the room. The really fascinating part, however, came later that evening, when I set up an online discussion forum for students to share what it was like for them to have to shut down their computers and engage in conversation with each other. The discussion that ensued online was important reflective work that helped them process their experience. The students were incredibly self-aware about how much their participation was enhanced by putting the laptops away, which presented a great opportunity to talk about the relational dimension of the learning process.

I no longer think I lead a double life as an educator. My role in the classroom and at camp draw upon the same pedagogical theories; I just had to make the shift in my own mind to think of my two lives in conversation rather than at war. And because of that shift, my students, whether at camp or in my classroom, are learning and growing constantly, because experiential education is an approach, not a place.

Andrea Lieber is the Professor of Religion and Asbell Chair of Judaic Studies at Dickinson College. She is also a current participant in Senior Educators Cohort, the flagship program of M²: The Institute for Experiential Jewish Education.

Cross-posted from eJewishPhilanthropy.com.

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