An Experiment in Congregational Education: Teacher as Researcher, Student as Theologian

I’m proud to share an article here that I wrote with my friend and colleague Rabbi Joel Mosbacher, published in the Winter 2014 issue of the CCAR Journal. I’d love to hear your feedback in the comments.

 

Is spirituality educable, or do teachers need a different approach altogether to cultivate spiritual development? Would it be worthwhile for high school students to explore their own ideas about God and existential questions in a supportive, student-directed series of conversations? We believe that more than being taught about God, people come to their own conclusions through a series of thought experiments, conversations and experiences, testing out theories until they find one (or more) that speaks to them. Since people’s ideas of God often change over time, it may be more important to give students the skills to revisit and revise their ideas rather than to instruct them in a particular theology.

The topic of this issue of the CCAR Journal was the impetus for the two of us to work together to explore an approach to talking about God with teenagers. We had worked together as a rabbi and an educator on the same synagogue staff from 1998-2001. Today we live in close proximity in a different state. Joel works in a congregation, and Wendy consults to congregations in the area of education.

Method

We turned to early childhood education for a methodology. In the Reggio Emilia approach, teachers use documentation to measure student learning; share progress with students, teachers, parents and administrators; and make decisions about the next steps in their curriculum. Thinking about spiritual education has evolved: David Hay and Rebecca Nye have described an approach to children’s spiritual development that honors the individuality of each child.1 Because it is likely neither possible nor desirable to outline a series of spiritual steps through which the teacher expects each child to progress, we thought applying the documentation/reflection model to this subject matter and this age group would be appropriate and instructive.

Rabbi Dr. Michael Shire describes “three elements of curriculum design [that contribute] to religious development in Jewish education: encounter, reflection and instruction.”2 Rather than try to provide all three of these experiences in this limited framework, we focused on reflection. Reflection is a chance for students to discuss “religious questions of meaning.” In this phase, teachers act more as counselors and active listeners. Our suspicion was that while high school students may have had both opportunities for encounter and instruction, they may have had less of a chance to reflect and refine their own spiritual ideas.

Our questions were: Can we extrapolate the principles of early childhood documentation and apply them to older children in a curriculum about God and spirituality? What will happen if the teacher takes the role of observer/researcher and the students take the role of theologian? How will the students document their growth and questions, and can we use this documentation to determine what material and discussions to introduce to the class?

We should explain that while we did some research to understand the Reggio approach to documentation, we were not concerned with being purists regarding the theory or method. First, we were extrapolating the idea and applying it to high school students. Second, we think it is important to note that we are not researchers primarily but teachers, and we want to encourage others in our situation to experiment with different approaches to spiritual education that resonate and that might be fruitful for both student and teacher.

Therefore, we designed an experimental elective class for high school students wherein students would discuss their ideas about God and how God acts in the world, while Joel as the teacher would primarily record their thoughts. Later, he would reflect their ideas back to the students. Six students enrolled in the class, and attendance was inconsistent. The class met for five sessions (one that was planned had to be cancelled due to weather). In planning the class, we anticipated the students playing a larger role in their own documentation. We felt this was an important adaptation of the documentation methodology for older students. At the beginning and end of each class, Joel asked the students to reflect on a text and/or question. He asked them to think if the discussions had changed their ideas in any way.

We thought that students might use technology like video diaries or online communal conversation tools to share their reflections, but in practice, while students sometimes submitted their reflections via their phones, mostly they used pencil and paper to record their thoughts. We think this was mostly due to the fact that students did not put much time into this class outside of the classroom, so they used what was most efficient and at their disposal during class time. We should also note that this use of technology would have been new and unusual for both the teacher and the students. We could have been clearer and more insistent about the need to incorporate these reflections and how to do that.

In between each class, we (the instructors) met by phone to review the students’ comments and plan the next class. This collaboration time is an essential step to the documentation process as envisioned in Reggio. While the teacher spends a lot of time observing during class time, he/she should review the observations with a colleague after class to analyze progress and plan the subsequent class. This was a crucial part of the process for both of us. Insights about the material and the class became clear as a result of this collaborative reflection time. Wendy had a unique perspective, not having been to the class but reviewing the notes most of the time. On the other hand, when she did substitute teach, the roles were reversed. Having notes and reflection time allows the teacher to take a step back and analyze the learning taking place during class. The colleague provides insights that come from reviewing notes and listening to the teacher reflect. (We speak more about how this worked in the “Lessons Learned: Collaborative planning and reflection” part of this article.)

We spoke at length to plan the approach to the class, as it was a departure from conventional teaching. We outlined the best way to explain the methodology to the students. Joel explained the class was a place for the students to talk about their ideas about God. He told them that the class was private, but that it was also a research experiment for this article. He explained that students would share their ideas, and he would reflect back to them in the hopes they would see how their own thinking was developing as a result of the class sessions. His role, he told the students, was to guide, help them reflect, ask quiet students to share and make sure nobody monopolized the entire discussion.

After this explanation of the approach, Joel asked the students to write a reflection on the questions: What do you believe about God, and why? What’s your big question about God you hope we’ll talk about? Then he shared a simple translation of Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles of Faith. The students discussed the text in a sort of free-flowing, self-directed discussion, during which Joel for the most part quietly recorded their comments on his tablet. For the final five minutes of class, Joel asked the students to write a reflection on how they were feeling about the discussion at that moment. Our goal for the first class was to introduce students to the method and get some feedback from students about our first experimental session. Student journals showed that four of the students felt the class discussion meandered, but that two thought it was still interesting.

We planned for some communication between the students and Joel in between sessions. There was one student in particular who sent his thoughts, but other than that, this did not happen. Students did hand in all of their reflections from each class, and Joel wrote comments on them which he then returned to them in the subsequent class.

In the students’ reflections and in reviewing their classroom comments, we thought there might be a discrepancy behind the idea of God that had been taught to the students in school (particularly God as a character in Biblical stories or as a subject of prayer) and the way that the students experience or don’t experience God in their everyday lives. Therefore we formulated the following question for the second session: How is the God of the Torah the same, and how different, than the God you experience? This was the focus of the second session’s discussion. At the end of the class, Joel asked the students if their opinions had changed. Four of the students said they had not changed their views, but one said, “I’m more open.” The other two students used the reflection to explore the idea of miracles and how God may act in the world. One student wrote additional reflections to the rabbi after the first and second classes. After this class he wrote: “Tonight I feel that a lot of opinions changed in the group. …In theology there can be many answers that are correct… I believe that all questions can have multiple correct answers. Scientists want everything to be all black and white, but in truth there are all different shades.”

For the third class, Joel asked the students to write a response to this question: It is said that God revealed the Torah in every language in the world. What does that mean to you? For the self-led discussion, the students considered different ways of understanding God: the Creator who no longer intervenes, a puppet master, a conscience, nature, or the One who metes out reward and punishment. The discussion included a debate about God’s gender and the language we use to describe God, as well as if or how God intervenes in the world. There was also a discussion about the truth of different faiths and whether religion was a force for good or a source of conflict. At the conclusion of class, students revisited the initial question and reflected on the discussion.

In the fourth class, we wanted to steer the students away from generalizations about God as real or not real or religion as good or bad, to focus on their own experiences. We started with the questions: What is the evidence of God in your life? What proof is there that there is no God, if you don’t believe? We were careful in our formulation to include a non-judgmental option for someone who did not believe or was not sure of his or her beliefs. For the text, we read this selection from Harold Kushner’s When Children Ask About God:

“To ask ‘when is God’ suggests that God is not an object, but a quality of relationship, a way of feeling and acting that can be found anywhere, but only if certain things (study, gratitude, self-control, helpfulness, prayer, etc.) are in evidence at that particular moment.…

“Where, then, is God? He is not everywhere. He is potentially anywhere; when people act and treat each other in certain ways, so that the Spirit of God flows between them, we can say that God is then present.”3

Again they were asked to reflect for the last few minutes of class in writing. Wendy substituted for Joel during this week of the class. Her experience was slightly different because she had no relationship with the students. Also, the students didn’t have a text in front of them but instead had it read to them. When the conversation stalled, Wendy asked probing questions. One student, we’ll call him Tom, who had been rather outspoken about his lack of belief in God as well as his belief that religion was a source of wars, voiced the following sophisticated theological idea towards the end of class. It seemed that he was struggling with the idea of free-will and a distant, abstract God. When another student said, “God could be like hope.” Tom replied, “If there’s a parent who doesn’t take care for you or give you anything, then it’s not really a parent. So if you don’t have faith in God, and God never did anything for you, I don’t really believe in God.” Another student shared how her thinking was developing as a result of our discussions in her journal reflection: “This conversation made me think about how God isn’t a Creator, but maybe a creation.” At the end of class, Wendy asked the students to prepare a presentation for the last session that showed how their thinking had developed over the course of the class.

In the final session, students watched a slide show prepared with Prezi that synthesized some of the ideas they had expressed throughout the course. You can watch the Prezi here. In synthesizing the comments from the previous classes, we saw that student thinking was around the nature of God, how people relate to/believe in God, the balance of power and control in our lives, and the nature of evil. Students also had a chance to present their own reflections on how their thinking had developed over the sessions. Some of the students had written reflections which they read; others spoke from notes or extemporaneously.  Here are a few of the students’ final reflections on the class:

“I think the experience has been different. I like not just being taught to… God is such a complex and open topic that it’s good to not just be taught about it. I came to see more of the arguments for and against believing God is real.”

“Before this, I didn’t really believe in the whole God thing, and even though the class was a good experience, my views didn’t change. We did have deep conversations though.”

“Before I took the class, I believed, but I didn’t have an official—a formulated vision of Him. Now I understand Him more, a strong force between people when we pray, the still small voice, and I think that God can work miracles. There are many. We just don’t notice them. I think that there can be an infinite amount of interpretations of the Torah and an infinite amount of manifestations of God.”

“The class itself was helpful. If you want to ensure your beliefs, it was a helpful way to develop those ideas.”

“Taking this course has definitely changed the way I think about God. This class made me realize that everybody has very different views and opinions on God. … When I was younger, I thought of God as a man with a long white beard and a large white robe who sat on a cloud and looked down upon his people. But then my thinking shifted—God was a tree, a lamp, a chair, the sky, God was everything all around us. God helped us to make the right decisions. My thinking shifted again once I started taking this class. I now realize that no matter what, you should rely on God. You can put your faith in God, or turn to God when things are hard or you need somebody to listen. But you should never assume that every bad decision, every wrong-doing thing is God’s fault. … Now I believe that’s what God is: something to listen, something to pray to, something for people to believe in.”

Lessons Learned

Documentation

Joel felt that being put in the position of researcher, documenter and listener above all else was an incredible experience as a teacher. He was required and prepared to truly sit and listen to what the students were saying. This practice allowed him to listen more carefully for patterns, deeper questions, and significant insights. He also learned to trust the students, realizing that they could be responsible stewards of the conversation and that they were perfectly capable of carrying on a wonderful, often intense conversation without needing a teacher to manage it in any significant way. It allowed the students to practice respectful discourse and listening to one another—crucial skills for teens and young adults. This practice redefined what a teacher is for both students and teacher: not only someone who purports to have all the answers, but also a partner with a different perspective, someone who can offer reflections, invite deep and extended thinking, and learn from that interaction what might best serve the students going forward.

Taking notes during class allowed Joel to notice things that happened in the class that he had forgotten or missed completely. Wendy noticed that in reading over the notes, her perception of the class session changed dramatically. Often our impressions of the success of a class are not based on data; documenting student ideas gave us as teachers something concrete to help us evaluate students’ growth. We think students also responded well to this process; writing down their ideas, and especially reflecting them back in the final session, legitimized those ideas and the exploration of different opinions in a Jewish setting. We believe it helped the students to feel heard when they saw their thoughts presented on screen. Because we want the students to continue to engage in dialogue with us during this critical time in their spiritual development, it was probably more important to us to communicate an openness and acceptance than to instruct them in theology.

Student journaling

Requiring students to write reflections at the beginning and end of the class allowed the students to be reflective, notice things about their own views and how they changed. It allowed them to express things in writing that was hard for them to figure out how to say out loud; and it allowed them to say things privately in writing to Joel that they might not otherwise ever have shared out loud. On their own, more than a few of them were able to name their own growth patterns throughout the class. Others felt their beliefs were reinforced by class discussions. In addition, they seemed to remember and relate to material from previous classes in a much stronger way then they likely would have had they not been given the opportunity to write from class to class.

For example, one of the students (we’ll call her Rachel), took the class at the same time she was preparing her speech for her bat mitzvah. Initially, she brought a draft of the speech that seemed insincere. In the course of a meeting with Joel, he realized that she was expressing doubt in her belief in God and a hesitation in expressing that, both to Joel and perhaps to her parent. In the meeting, Joel told her that sometimes the most devoted Jews ask the toughest questions. It seemed to him that the conversations in class and the conversations in bat mitzvah preparation were complementary, even one in the same. As Rachel volunteered with victims of domestic violence for her mitzvah project, she questioned why she should believe in a God who commands us to honor our parents while there are abusive parents in the world. In one-on-one meetings, Joel was able to introduce texts in which the rabbis struggle with the definition of honor. Because of the two sets of conversations, Rachel seemed more open to acceptance of different interpretations of God and eased her fury against a God who would ignore this suffering. In the final session, she said, “I didn’t believe in God before, and I still don’t, but now I understand how people might believe, especially when you’re struggling.”

As the teacher, Joel felt having their writing was immensely helpful as he tried to gauge what they were and were not internalizing, what they were and were not learning from each other, and what they were and were not “getting” from the texts. It also allowed Joel to write to the students privately after class. This served many purposes: responding to individual questions and thoughts, extending the learning beyond the short number of in-class hours, legitimizing the students’ ideas and pushing them to think even more deeply, and building the relationship between the students and the rabbi. We would like to explain these last two points with a few examples.

By writing on the student journals, Joel was able to affect the class dynamics. In the first few sessions, the boys tended to dominate the conversation, while the girls would sit more quietly. After discussing this in our reflection/planning meeting, Joel decided to address this in his written notes to students. He was able to privately invite the boys to make room for other voices to be heard and at the same time strongly encourage the girls to make their voices heard.

The chance to build a relationship with a clergy person and role model at this stage in one’s spiritual development seems very important to us. When Wendy substituted, she noticed that the student who had been most engaged in discussions and had written to Joel in between classes approached the director of education before class. He asked if he could switch to a different class! After class, Wendy stopped the student, explained what she had observed, and asked why he wanted to withdraw. He said that he took the class to study with the rabbi, but that many of his friends were in a different class. We believe that this illustrates how the significance of building strong relationships with clergy in Jewish educational settings cannot be overstated.
Collaborative planning and reflection

For both of us, there was a critical value to debriefing and reflecting with a colleague during the process. These discussions gave Joel an opportunity to be self-reflective about his role in the classroom and, as we mentioned, gave us real data to consider in planning future sessions. Since Wendy only had the benefit of notes, she was able to see the big picture of what happened in each class and tie together themes that had arisen over a series of classes. Together we decided what the next session should look like. We were also able to discuss class dynamics and ways to respond to individual students and issues. The class was able to evolve over time, and had we had more students and more sessions, we believe we would have seen an even more fruitful, deep and varied discussion among the students, with different students challenging different ideas. Having experienced this kind of collegial reflection, Joel now intends to incorporate this practice more often in all of his teaching. No doubt this will benefit Joel as well as the teachers with whom he collaborates.

Future Experiments

We would be excited to see this experiment replicated in different settings. There are a few changes we would suggest to the methodology.

Certainly, this was a small experiment, both in terms of the number of students in the class and the number of weeks that the class ran. We would expect to see more development if there was a more critical mass (making it harder for a few students to dominate the discussion) and if the class met more often and over a longer period of time. It was also somewhat challenging to have seventh graders and tenth graders in the same room. They are, obviously, at very different stages of their own personal and spiritual development, and there were times when those different stages clashed—sometimes the older students had questions that the younger students could not even comprehend, and sometimes the youngest kids asked questions that the oldest kids were challenged to allow for. For example, one student introduced a thought experiment about sacrificing one life to save three others, and if God participates in making such judgments and sacrifices. A younger student chimed in after a while with: “Why is everyone saying ‘He’? How do you know that God is a boy?”

The topic of God and God’s role in the world is also rather broad. We think the class could be improved with a clearer focus on the topic, although we hope that the teacher would allow for discussions to evolve organically. With more time to plan, the teacher could choose texts that honed in on the specific theme of the class, bringing different perspectives on that theme to each setting.

We would also like to see the students play a greater role in their own documentation. This is somewhat dependent on the culture of the institution, how often the group is meeting and how much time students can be expected to focus on this content outside of classroom hours. In this vein, we suggest that the teacher devote time to writing responses to each student after each class. Joel started doing this about halfway through the course, but he feels it was one of the most successful parts of the experiment because it allowed students to deepen their own thinking and for him to individualize his responses to each student. It would also be interesting to introduce other creative opportunities during the class sessions for student reflection, different modalities that would include art, writing, and oral reflection. Video diaries would allow the students to see themselves expressing their ideas at the beginning, middle, and end of the process. As this is just a snapshot of the students’ development, and we want the process of reflection and testing out of spiritual ideas to be ongoing, we would like to figure out ways to follow up with students after the classes have ended. Perhaps a segment of the synagogue or school blog could include reflections and stories of experiences, and students could be invited to contribute from time to time. We would like some way to check in with them after a period of time elapsed, to see what they have retained and how they have grown.

Other Applications

This experiment has caused us to ask some questions in general about religious education. The most valuable parts of the class were collaboration and listening. In our supplementary schools, when so many feel the pressure of limited time and the need to “cover” material, how would the experience be different for teachers and students if teachers felt their role was that of a guide and observer, with an emphasis on “uncovering” student beliefs? What would the effect be if teachers were assigned colleagues with whom to reflect and co-plan their lessons?

We are reminded of this tale:

“A man lost his way in a great forest. After a while another lost his way and chanced on the first. Without knowing what had happened to him, he (the second) asked (the first) the way out of the woods. ‘I don’t know,’ said the first. ‘But, I can point out the ways that lead further into the thicket, and after that let us try to find the way together.'”4

In the area of the mysteries of God, can we be partners with our students on a journey, like the two Jews in the tale? Perhaps our spiritual learning communities can be strengthened with a greater emphasis on listening, asking, and learning about and from one another.

Notes

1. David Hay with Rebecca Nye, The Child as Spiritual Being, rev ed. (London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2006).

2. Michael Shire, “Nurturing the Spiritual in Jewish Education.” HaYidion. (Winter 2010): 13.

3. Harold Kushner, When Children Ask about God (New York: Schocken, 1995), 54, 55.

4. Rabbi Hayyim of Zans, in Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim: Later Masters (New York: Schocken Books, 1948), 213.

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