This article was initially posted on the JTS William Davidson School’s Gleanings. Click here to view the original.

Why are you always writing stuff down?” a kindergartener asked me the other day at Mensch Academy, Mishkan Chicago’s approach to Jewish education for kids and families. “I write down your comments and questions because I want to remember them,” I told him. He responded by telling me his latest idea—he thought that Rivka must be a vegetarian because the text says that Yitzchak favors Esav since he likes meat; therefore Rivka must love Yaakov because she does not like meat. I added this to my notes and went to listen to what other students were wondering about this text.

Every year at Mensch Academy, the students explore a piece of Torah. They read, analyze, ask questions, and develop their own interpretations of the text. This year, our students in kindergarten through fifth grade learned about Esav and Yaakov. They always begin by reading, or listening to, an English translation of the Torah text; by the end of the unit, each student has his/her own interpretation of something in the text. One of our fifth graders created an abstract painting that represented Rivkah’s feelings—a colorful pattern across the page with drops of paint interrupting the pattern. She explained:

This is from the point of view of Rivkah. It’s calm and soothing at first. Your life is going okay, and then there’s this big blotch of sadness or worry or disappointment in life. She’s trying to get her husband to give her favorite son a blessing and she’s not sure if it’s going to work so that’s the worry. She hears that her other son is going to kill her favorite so that’s also worry and disappointment, worry for one of her sons and disappointment in her other son for even thinking about killing another person.

I have felt worry and disappointment, but not in the same way, not for thinking of killing someone. But I have felt worried, and that’s almost the same thing. I was worried when my grandpa had cancer. I feel like I can understand where Rivkah is coming from.

This student took an experience from her own life, her grandfather’s cancer, and the worry she felt about it, and connected it back to how she imagined Rivkah felt. She was able to show how she sees worry and anxiety as something that drops into a seemingly normal life, when “your life is going okay,” and disrupts it. She brought the Torah narrative into her own experience, and we intentionally set up our sessions to give students the space to do just that.

At Mensch Academy, we respond to Dr. Jonathan Woocher’s (z”l) question, “How can we help Jews draw on and use their Jewishness to live more meaningful, fulfilling, and responsible lives?” by taking our students’ ideas seriously. This means that, among other things, we record their comments and questions, and let their ideas guide our learning process. I believe that Jewish education must be meaningful for the learners, and I also believe that students cannot have meaningful learning experiences unless they feel seen, heard, and safe enough to be vulnerable and share their ideas openly. Our students see us writing down their ideas, they hear us repeating their thoughts back to them and asking follow-up questions, and in those ways, we give them space to bring their full selves forward in connection to the Torah and in connection with each other and our Mensch Academy community.

As part of the Fellowship in Educating for Applied Jewish Wisdom, we crafted a set of six guiding principles toward educating for thriving/shlemut (wholeness). These include cultivating dispositions, being in relationship, attuning to the world, presencing the divine or sacred, practicing Jewish, and authoring the self.

At Mensch Academy, we integrate all six of these principles into our setting. How do we manage this?

I work with our educators and we work with our students on becoming their best selves, not only in relation to themselves as individuals, but in relation to the community as a whole. As mentioned above, we actively and attentively listen to our students. We model a stance of kavod (dignity) for them, and in return they (usually) behave in the same way. When we notice that kids are not showing kavod, we pause and reflect with them about their behaviors.

Over a few weeks, we noticed that students were talking during tefillah, so in the next session, as students entered the space, we asked each one of them to write their hopes for tefillah. We read them their hopes and asked them how they thought tefillah was going so far, and what they thought could be changed so tefillah can meet their hopes. Some students pointed out that they feel that they don’t know the tefillot as well as others and are embarrassed to sing; others said it would help them to remember not to sit next to someone they know they will talk to during tefillah. Once we gave students the opportunity to search for their own meaning, and offer up their own solutions, tefillah changed. After tefillah, we asked them, how did this tefillah feel? Students said: “It felt amazing!” “I felt so connected to everyone here.” “Awesome!”

At Mensch Academy our vision is for kids to feel loved enough and safe enough to take risks and develop their own Jewish ideas. To this end, we have created teaching standards that help guide us. When we create lesson plans, we check back with each other to make sure we are doing the following five things:

 

  1. We teach from a place of kavod. This means that we check our teacher language. Is our language observational or judgmental? Are we listening to our students or interrupting them? Are we acting from a place of curiosity and empathy?
  2. We support students to develop their own Jewish ideas. Are we telling students how we interpret the text or allowing them to create their own ideas and interpretations?
  3. We develop playful experiences. Is the learning fun? Are students moving around? Are they interacting with each other?
  4. We design the learning environment with the students in mind. Are student ideas and questions displayed around the space in a way that they can access them and remember what they’ve been thinking? Can they access materials? Can they sit comfortably? Does the space feel warm and inviting?
  5. We plan learning experiences that respond to students’ ideas and needs. Were students super hungry when they came in? Do we need to move snack time earlier in the session? What were they most focused about in the text? Were most of them asking questions about Esav gathering 400 men? Make sure to return to that question, even if it might not be the place you, the educator has deemed “most important.”

The framing of Mensch Academy’s teaching standards is how we teach toward applied Jewish wisdom, toward shlemut. We make space for learners to create their own interpretations of Torah, and thereby develop their vision for how to apply Jewish wisdom to their lives.

 

Ilana Gleicher-Bloom is the founding vision director of Mensch Academy at Mishkan Chicago. Ilana previously taught Talmud and Tanakh at Rochelle Zell Jewish High School in Deerfield, Illinois, and at the Heschel High School in Manhattan.