Wednesday, May 10, 2017

FRONTAL FREE: The Death Star

Dave Smolar is co-founder of Kikayon Productions, creating turn-key solutions for Jewish education. Our “TORAH TIME LIVE!” Parashah Play series is now for sale!  From Creation to Mt. Sinai, click on “Our Store” for more!
OK, fine, the above title might sound a little overdramatic.  But it’s a specific reference, not to the Star Wars saga, but rather to a metaphor often and effectively used by the director of my college a cappella group.  It was often complicated getting the guys in our all-male group to settle down, pay attention, and put away their snark long enough to practice some actual music.

But as the end of the semester performance approached, and we realized we night soon face upwards of 800 ticket-buying customers waiting for a fantastic show, rehearsals became more intense.  It was absolutely crucial that we quiet down and focus up in order to hear each other, emphasize our dynamic crescendos, and be sure not to overpower the lead singer.  All of these were pitfalls we’d encountered from other groups countless times, and we refused to put on an underwhelming show, especially one that alienated the paying crowd.

So, one time around October, our director, in his own quiet, metered manner, had us stand in a circle, no music in our hands regardless of whether we’d really committed the sheet music to memory.  The old “feel the music” bit seemed to loom in the air.  But rather than giving us his best Robert Preston monologue, he instead told us to close our eyes and picture the Death Star.  In the most recent Rogue One solo film from the saga, there are numerous sequences featuring the Death Star firing its planet-vaporizing laser as the device blazes a path of destruction through a stream of guinea pig worlds.

But each time the laser is fired, we see the same guys in helmets push the same button array, then throttle up the same switcher handle, then, for some ungodly reason, cower right beside the green beam as it spouts from the sphere towards an unsuspecting doomed population.  It’s the same visual sequence each time.  And each time, it yields massive success, albeit in massively destructive form.  But hey, they’re building a weapon, so bully for them.

Back to the rehearsal room in college:  what our director would tell us is how all those techs in the Death Star worked together to yield the full destructive power of the laser weapon.  And if we could focus ourselves likewise, centering ourselves in the circle on a single purpose, a unified sound, then we would be able to unleash that sound directly at the audience, leaving any other group in our wake.  I must say that, even the first time we tried it – standing in a circle, eyes closed, stretching out our arms with hands sandwiched together directly into the middle of the circle until we just barely touched fingertips – it worked.

From the quietude burst forth a high energy, yet fully controlled sound.  We learned, we experienced, in an instant how powerful the group dynamic could be, how capable we were when we found focus and solace, and how difficult it can be to get yourself to that point.  The Death Star metaphor brought us there in an instant, and we continued to use it throughout the year.

So this blog post is about many things:  shared experiences, group dynamics, meditation/self-awareness/mental contraction.  When dealing with students or kids coursing with energy, whether because of personality or time of day or their excitement over an upcoming event, it really is possible to find a way for them to self-calm, self-soothe, and move along smoothly into the next activity.  If you have a busload of kids jumping at the bit to hit the street and run into whatever your destination was for the field trip, and you need to give them rules and regulations regarding where they are, don’t waste your time shouting. 

Establish a visual metaphor for them to practice their focus, find their inner calm.  You will never, ever be able to calm them down any more than you can make a kid go to sleep or do their homework.  There’s no sense using logic to convince a child to do something if they’re too hungry/tired/ramped up to pay attention.  Give them a visual to clue them in to your expectations.  Have them practice the calming when they’re able, in a predictable setting, so that they can recall the feeling of calm on cue. 

Find your Death Star and teach it to the children.  It could be the best gift you ever give.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017


Dave Smolar is co-founder of Kikayon Productions, creating turn-key solutions for Jewish education. Our “TORAH TIME LIVE!” Parashah Play series is now for sale!  From Creation to Mt. Sinai, click on “Our Store” for more!
Sometimes, someone I work with will overhear a classroom activity I’m doing with my 5th or 6th grade and peek in.  In fact, they might just listen in from nearby.  And sometimes I hear about it later, from them, or my principal, or feedback from a parent.
Of course, there’s always going to be a disconnect when someone partially observes your class or group session or meeting out of context.  Imagine you’re at work in the middle of an icebreaker where folks have names and facts of other people at the meeting put on a sticker and stuck to their back, and they must learn what’s on their back from having other people read the sticker, then they have to find the person who’s mentioned in the sticker and meet them and confirm the info…you get the gist. 
NOW imagine someone with no idea what’s going on suddenly entering the room.  They’re confused.  They’re out of place.  And maybe they simply write off what they’re seeing as a bunch of people screwing off at work instead of taking things seriously.  Considering that an icebreaker has many benefits to it, not the least of which is improving employee morale and boosting team bonding, what the person peeking in has to say about the activity, and how they couch what they’ve seen when complaining about it to someone else, can become altogether destructive to the office.
For me, this perfectly sums up the occasional unfortunate turn of events when a parent or shul officer happens to be near my classroom when my students are engaged in an energetic and even silly game.  If my students are tired and I want to build their energy and enthusiasm and focus, all I need to do is play a game, any game, that gets them on their feet.  Doesn’t have to be complicated at all.  Could be something as simple as having 2 teams of kids try to walk across the room by laying Hebrew flash cards on the ground in a path and telling them they can only move ahead after they’ve read a card.
While many teachers I’ve met will complain about having to teach grades 5-7 Hebrew school students, from what I’ve heard, the complaints seem to revolve around the fact that this age of students doesn’t like to sit still and be told what to think.  And if you think that you’re not necessarily telling them what to think, well, the kids are reacting to and rebelling against a passive and frontal style of teaching, having the teacher stand in front of the group and talk while the kids passively sit and presumably absorb the information.  You, dear Reader, might know by now that the theme of my blog, and what permeates my teaching efforts and educational products, is the clarion call to frontal free pedagogy.

I’m hoping and praying for a day when someone walks by and sees or overhears my class doing something fun, whether it be loud or silly or both, and rather than unfairly judge me and the group as flaky or irreverent, they assume that we’re find new and exciting way of making Judaism come alive.  I am not coddling the students by doing a fun activity, or a food-making activity, or an outdoor dance activity, or a play or songs or improv or artwork or anything else.  I don’t do an activity without a lesson attached, without a tangible takeaway, without assessment and follow-up and a depth of understanding for my students. 
My biggest mistake over the years has been not overindulging but under-indulging students in creative approaches to learning.  The truth is that Hebrew is more fun when you can keep the kids on their feet, and the kids who seem the mouthiest become the best leaders in the class, sometimes taking the reins on a project or activity and improving upon it.  So if you come by my class some time, and you see a kid whom others have written off for bad behavior, and that kid is now leading a class activity…and the activity addresses and explores something within our curriculum…and the kids are wearing masks or making funny noises or building something elaborate and cartoonish…please don’t judge.  Because the next time we have class, they enter the room laughing, they’re open with their opinions in discussion, and they remember and understand the material we explored during that activity.  And that is how we not only teach but inspire these students as they’re flung headfirst into the age of the b’nai mitzvah.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017


Dave Smolar is co-founder of Kikayon Productions, creating turn-key solutions for Jewish education. Our “TORAH TIME LIVE!” Parashah Play series is now for sale!  From Creation to Mt. Sinai, click on “Our Store” for more!
I’m not proud of it, no sir.  Therefore, before the world, I shall confess.  After these many years of teaching and tutoring, I am most suspicious of the kid who always volunteers to erase the board.
Not to be completely misanthropic, but keep in mind that empathy is a learned, and not congenital, trait.  So a child who perpetually volunteers to do some chore in the classroom is not one I emphatically trust.  I’d even go so far as to say that they’re doing it for, dare I say, ulterior motives.
Then again, you’ll never know what those motives are until you give into them, no?  So I let them erase the board, or clean the papers off the carpet, rearrange books, what have you.  And they do it until the day they take liberties, i.e. turnarounds.
I turn around, and there’s the kid:
·      sharpening every pencil down to a nib;
·      erasing the board after I’ve filled it with info for the next project;
·      putting their feet on the desk, leaning their chair precariously back on 2 legs;
·      making countless suggestions for improving the environs, including offering to open a window, close a window, move the thermostat, make paper fans for everyone;
·      and more!
But should I worry about this kid?  What do they really want, overall, holistically?  They want attention, sure, but also recognition of some sort, maybe even a closer relationship with the teacher.  I usually see the repeated behavior as a cry from a student who feels they’re not going to be noticed for the usual expected classroom interactions, like raising your hand and having something cogent to say.  So they’ve practically given up on participating and think I’ll give them equal standing for doing some light cleaning around the room.
They’re wrong.

I’m not upset when they offer to help.  I’m pleased, I encourage it, and I share my gratitude.  And I certainly don’t consider the kid to be rude or duplicitous or even cavalier in expecting me to fawn over them just because they’re tidying up.  In fact, I figure that if they want to be noticed, and they want to be put to work, I’ll make them an example. 
Stop the class 5 minutes before the end of the day.  Announce that they have 5 minutes to clean up.  And put the eraser kid in charge.  Then sit back and watch.
Do it every class for a week, a month.  And watch the eraser like a hawk.  Sometimes, they’ll become proud of their leadership role, which in turn might get them in better standing with their classmates, despite their possibly falling behind in their studies.  Because when that kid connects with another who knows what they’re doing, suddenly they become a chevrutah, and voilĂ !, you’ve solved another problem.
Sometimes, though, the eraser doesn’t like the attention drawn to them.  They want your confidence, not the spotlight.  Gradually, you might see them regress from helper mode and maybe even start finding reasons to leave the room, e.g. bathroom, water fountain, left my _____ downstairs and my parents will kill me if I don’t get it. 
I let them go.  I don’t stop the class.  And if they’re finding joy in finding success in avoiding the classroom, that’s when my boss tells the parents, and we try to conference to find the source of the kid’s behavior and how to amalgamate them into the room again. 
It’s all for the best, in the end.  The eraser doesn’t really bother anyone with their cry for help and acceptance, and if I let it go and see where it leads, it almost always leads to the kid find the appropriate way to handle their particular situation, or properly articulate on their particular complaint.  Heaven knows I was an eraser kid for a while years ago, that is, until I ran into the teacher who saw through me.  But I survived, persevered, graduated…and his chalkboard never looked better.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

FRONTAL FREE: A Fallacy of Empathy

Dave Smolar is co-founder of Kikayon Productions, creating turn-key solutions for Jewish education. Our “TORAH TIME LIVE!” Parashah Play series is now for sale!  From Creation to Mt. Sinai, click on “Our Store” for more!
My goal in teaching children is to teach Empathy.  And Empathy cannot be taught.  If Empathy can be defined as the human being’s inherent capacity for reaching into their own experience in order to connect with another’s tragic loss or inspiring achievement, then lording over a group of teens or toddlers or seniors, and dictating how they should feel, isn’t the course of action.  And yet for me, teaching Empathy is the most important aspect of Jewish education.  So out of necessity, I’ve tried to develop a teaching style that somehow, even indirectly, reaches this goal.
Unless you’re teaching students in a daily, formal pedagogic setting, I argue that you must create lesson plans that get the kids out of their seats.  By acting out scenes or walking through their lessons, kids begin to internalize the material you’re trying to convey, creating their own sense memory which then helps them somehow attach and associate their own personal experiences to the lesson.  I repeat this idea to myself every time I see their eyes wander, squint, and gradually migrate to the clock on the wall above me in the classroom…and if they actually get to the point of asking “When’s recess?” before I’ve transitioned them into something active and fun, I know I’m behind the 8-ball and should’ve been moving faster in my lesson and paid better attention.
That being said, all of us are now experiencing what appears to be a ramp up of anti-Semitism in the United States.  If it’s possible for me to face and address the course of recent human events without emotion or personal opinion, I’d like to be true to my blog and this company of Kikayon Productions by talking about Empathy.  And I’d like to explore how these nefarious times we live in can be used constructively to build sensitivity in the next generation.  Experiential learning helps kids take the subject matter we teach and find connections to their own lives, helping them build those emotional and synaptic bridges that lead to a deeper, more personal understanding of why their Jewish identity and heritage should mean so much to them.
I write this in the wake of at least 16 bomb threats called in today alone to Jewish community centers and day schools in multiple states across the country, on the heels of numerous similar incidents that have occurred just since the beginning of 2017.  And I insist that we need to use the awful events of today as teachable moments.  We should imply to students the gravity of the situation without dictating to them how they should feel and react.  We must trust in them that, once the kids are in the right frame of mind, their minds will accept what we explain to them is going on around them. 
And then what?  Which kids will feel righteous anger?  Which will feel pity for those communities affected?  Which will feel mercy for the lost souls committing these crimes? 
I don’t know.  You won’t know.  But I’m not afraid.  I’m not afraid of the perpetrators of these crimes, I’m not afraid to live in my community as a Jew in my own respect, and I’m not afraid of opening discussions, and dialogue, and creative outlets and outward responses with a group of ten-year-olds. 
And I have no agenda.  I want to see what happens, what they do, what they come up with.  Maybe the greater good in the room will lead to discussion.  Maybe it will lead to their wanting to write letters of support, or raise money for a cause, or plan a trip to somewhere to support a silenced minority in our community, who knows.  But any one of these elements arising from a quieted room will mark the burgeoning and blossoming of Empathy in our children, in their hearts, in their minds, and in their collective conscience. 

We have a golden opportunity now to make a true “gam zu l’tova”, find a Jewish silver lining from the recent ravages of anti-Semitism, whether brutal or subtle.  Give your kids an article about what’s going on.  Have them read one paragraph. 
Say to them, “Circle a location you recognize.” “Tell me if you’ve heard about this from your friends.” “Do you think it could happen here?  Because it’s happening…right…now.” 
This isn’t about kids today being hyper and sugared up and disrespectful to the extent that the only way to teach them is to play a game.  To me, this is about the empiric need, in our community and society in general, to help our Jewish children find and grow their sense of Empathy.  When they truly feel for the characters or events or Torah stories at hand or in the world around them, they will automatically become sensitive to the material and take it personally.  No lecture, no arm-twisting, nothing more needed.  And once you as a teacher, leader, or parent, realize they’ve crossed that line, you can do as I do.  Stare at them, stand up before them, and simply ask them:
“So…what do we do now?”

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

FRONTAL FREE: What’s Your Point?

Dave Smolar is co-founder of Kikayon Productions, creating turn-key solutions for Jewish education. Our “TORAH TIME LIVE!” Parashah Play series is now for sale!  From Creation to Mt. Sinai, click on “Our Store” for more!

I’m sure it would be paradise to kids if, at any given moment, they could face a grownup who’s addressing them, look the adult in the eye and say, “What right do you have to tell me what to do/think?”  Then again, they only respond that way when they feel cornered, whether it be physically, emotionally, functionally, etc.  While this makes things difficult when trying to teach kids anything, the paradigm also implies a destructive situation, where adults expect the kids to be voluntary, gentle sponges, ready to sit there and absorb whatever information we throw at them.

Imagine sitting in a room with a message to deliver to the person walking in.  You have no idea where that person was before walking in.  You don’t know what they’re thinking, pondering, worrying about.  And they have an instinctual coping mechanism of associating people with other people, as a means of seeking familiarity with a situation and, therefore, a comfort level in anything that comes at them and their capacity to handle it. 

So, here comes a kid – maybe your student, maybe it’s your own kid, maybe even your kid’s new friend – and you don’t know how to approach them in order to teach your lesson or communicate your message.  At this point, sure, I calm down and observe them, maybe asking some open, innocuous question to gauge their response, mood, attitude du jour.  But then I try to ask myself the same question, the mantra I roll back over repeatedly throughout my time with the kids.

What is my point?

In Jewish education, if you’re truly trying to reach and influence and instruct and educate a Jewish child, you really should figure out what the point is of what you’re doing.  For me, honing in on that purpose, that underlying goal of Jewish education, involves am examination of the philosophy of the institution I’m in, be it a synagogue, school, camp, etc., or even the family of the child I’m teaching, especially if I’m tutoring one-on-one.  Then I consider how often the kid received any Jewish education during the week as well as their exposure to it at home.  This is why I occasionally have class discussions on traditions and legacy and customs and holiday celebrations:  not to test the kids but to ask what do they do, where do they go, what do they make or eat or create to celebrate any holiday?

My point certainly changes over time, not so much evolving as morphing to fit the needs of the children and the situation at hand.  Honestly, if it’s raining outside and I’d planned a day of games for the kids, no matter what I say, they still might feel like dragging their feet or complaining about broken pencil tips even when I tell them I have fun things to do with prizes and open rules and – they don’t care if they don’t care.  If they’re not in the mood for learning, then my point is to get them in that mood, get them to where I want their attitude to be before launching into anything else. 

The other day, I had a student who reads Hebrew well but flat out refused to read, at all, shutting down and clamming up even though she’d just spent 10 minutes before class loudly chatting with friends.  Guess what?  My priorities changed, right then and there, to getting her and the others onto the same page before moving on.  So, remembering that the kid LOVES mythology, I asked her to read the translation of the line of prayer I wanted her to read, then used it as a launching pad into talking about metaphor. 

The line I wanted her to read, which four other kids had just read aloud before I got to her, talks about G-d’s house.  I asked her what it could mean for a god to have a house.  She demurred.  Another kid jumped and said it could refer to a temple of worship, and I responded by confirming that it might specifically have meant the Temple in Jerusalem.  What else, I said.  Another mentioned that G-d’s house might be the world, since G-d built the world to suit His plan, then that’s like building your own personal home or space. 

With all that said, I circled back to the kid in question and asked her not about the prayer itself, just to make sure she didn’t shut down again, but now that she was listening to her friends, I asked generically about a god having a house.  She said, it could refer to Olympus.  I responded, devil’s advocate, that Olympus was the mountain that the pantheon lived on.  She argued back, no, Olympus was the name of Zeus’ palace.  I asked if it was his or if all the gods shared, and she said it was his palace, but the gods all met there.  I led her into a tangent arguing about gods versus Titans, who was who, who won, which god represented what, if Prometheus was a god or a mortal, what was a demigod like Perseus, and she loved it. 

And she didn’t read a thing in Hebrew that day.  What she did, though, was get engaged in conversation, not isolate herself, hear her colleagues involved both in that conversation and in the Hebrew reading so as to normalize it all in her eyes, then bound off to recess in the building auditorium, where she and her friends sat with notebooks and pencils and proceeded to write out the names and attributes of every single Greek divinity they could remember.  I tried to contribute and was cut down each time, either for coming up with someone they’d already written down or coming up with a name that didn’t belong on the list. 

What’s the point, indeed.  That table, the writing of the names of mythological creatures, that was only mildly related to the context of the prayer that, frankly, I wasn’t interested in discussing but, rather, just wanted the kids to try reading the first 3-4 lines.  Something that should’ve taken 10 minutes at most ended up taking 30 minutes of time, in which the kids got a solid context, from me and each other, of the meaning of the words.  I used that talk to get into translation, which I then used to break down longer words on the board, which led to repeat discussion of Hebrew roots and morphology, etc. etc. etc. 

We were supposed to practice the prayer.  And we did.  But we also discussed and learned why the prayer was there, what it meant, and what the kids might be thinking of while reciting or singing it.  And we reinforced their reading skills along the way by doing more than just reading it over and over.  If you read the same word, you’ll memorize the word, and good for you, until I show you the same word but with a prefix or suffix on it.  If you’re a kid and you read until you memorize, or you sing or chant something into rote memory, you aren’t learning a thing about reading Hebrew, and you’re truly cheating yourself out of the opportunity. 

But that’s what I did, then what they did, and what we did, and what happened for the first part of class.  That’s not delving into the point of what we did, or I did that day.  So what was the point, and how can it be universalized to fit an overall mantra on teaching the next generation of Jewish souls?

The point, the mantra, was that I wanted to spot the kid in that group who was having the toughest time and find a reasonable, relevant, but respectful way to get her back into our good graces.  Yes, I stopped the reading activity.  But then we together broadened the activity into something more meaningful before I ultimately did bring the activity back to having kids practice reading the Hebrew.  Again, whatever happened, happened, but my intention was to do what I could to get that kid back on track with what the class was doing overall.

In fact, while the mantra might be “each kid is their own person and has a right to be included in the class,” the broader goal I have almost every time I enter the classroom is to have the children leave the classroom at the end of that day with a smile on their face about Hebrew school.  Their lasting impression should be of a place of fun and philosophy, offering ideas but asking for their input, where everyone’s ideas are valid and experiences valued.  They feel how wonderful it is to celebrate their Jewishness, creating and developing their own Judaisms ahead of their b’nai mitzvah.

And at the end of a really good day, I can’t get them to leave.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

FRONTAL FREE: The Fiction of Circadia

Dave Smolar is co-founder of Kikayon Productions, creating turn-key solutions for Jewish education. Our “TORAH TIME LIVE!” Parashah Play series is now for sale!  From Creation to Mt. Sinai, click on “Our Store” for more!

This shouldn’t take long, but it might.  And as always, my situation might be specific to Hebrew school but should apply universally to any teaching activity geared towards grades 5 and up [ages 10+].  Kids, folks, crowds are different in the morning than they are in the late afternoon and evening.  I know, this isn’t rocket science nor is it breaking news, but I’m just here today to shine a light on it.

It needs to be addressed, in a world of curricular goals but infinite pedagogic methods and modules, that we have to prepare lessons while taking into account a myriad of factors.  But those factors, while limiting our scope, shouldn’t hamper us but, rather, guide and fashion how we approach each topic and how we unpack the material for the kids.  Of any or all of these factors, many of which are clearly independent variables that could never be foreseen and, consequently, must be dealt with on the spot, there are the predictable behaviors and expectations of students in proportion to the time of day of the lesson and activity.

And I’ve known teachers, master teachers with decades under their Torah belts, who completely eschew any classroom or activity planning whatsoever, depending only on a combination of their classroom management skills, wrangling kids into appropriate and acceptable decorum, and their Spidey® sense, knowing right away which games to play or stories to tell or art project to develop in class based on the overall tone of the kids in the room that day.  And I applaud those teachers.  And I am them, at times, though I don’t think “winging it” to be an ideal plan for success, nor is it ultimately an inclusive way to teach, as I’ve often heard from students of these teachers, and their parents, who complain throughout the year that their kid’s needs are overlooked in lieu of the rest of the class. 

While it’s easy to predict that kids will be more tired on a Sunday morning in consideration of the fact that preteens, for the most part, are just getting to the point in their lives where they’re finally allowed to stay up and watch “Saturday Night Live” or some other social late night activity [or maybe a Shabbaton], it’s just as easy to predict that the mid-week Hebrew school kids will be tired after a 630am wakeup and full day of school, thin lunch, sugary snack, and schlep in the car or bus to your classroom. 

This means, as it seems, that the students are always tired, regardless of the time of day.  Chronobiology, be damned.

So in planning classroom lessons and activities, we use what we know, or think we know, to our advantage whenever possible.  But when we overthink whether the students will be tired walking into class on a given day, we end up with the Catch-22 that could lead us, frankly, to thinking the kids will be tired EVERY time they walk in the classroom.  And if that’s the case, or at least, if that possibility is an impediment to your attempts to plan anything at all for your class, then simply take that factor as a given and take it out of your equations.

I would argue the contrast between “being tired” and “acting tired.”  Kids are tired, kids are nudgy, kids like to complain, and it’s age-appropriate for preteens to act this way.  Notice that I said they “act” this way, not that they truly “feel” this way.  Kids want to be heard so badly at this age, they often instinctually revert to the non-verbal cues, almost as if they’re assuming that nobody will pay attention to them if they simply open their mouths and say how they feel. 

From this, we realize that many of the kids now have a decade of experience of being taken, brought, driven, and dragged from place to place without their consultation.  And even if that’s not entirely the case, by the preteen years, they have the emerging need to make their own choices for their own lives while still assuming that a grown-up will say “no.”  It makes sense that they’d feel that way, and that their manifest behavior reflects this notion. 

They want to want something, and even if they don’t really want anything, they feel they should want something.  Wait, but they also assume that nobody will give them what they want no matter how they ask for it, even though they don’t really want anything.  So they jump over the steps of identifying and clarifying what they want as well as asking for it out loud, and they skip right to the point of internalizing their resentment for grownups or leaders or older kids or anyone who might take their request and hold it over them, tantalizing them with…well, nothing. 

It’s this feeling of “I’m never gonna get what I ask for, so I’m gonna sulk to get attention” that must be addressed.  And it’s my assumption, every single time I’m in front of a group of kids ages 10+, that they’ll have this attitude.  They’re not tired, they’re not lazy, and they didn’t suddenly forget the English language.  There’s no such thing as spontaneous illiteracy, and I would guess that sudden onset nominal aphasia would probably be ruled out as a reason that they’re non-communicative.

So I leave you with this notion.  While teachers, leaders, and program facilitators want so much to include every single child – and that’s a great instinct – we must assume that kids need the time to ease into the classroom each time, even when you’re bringing them back from recess or break.  They don’t want to be lectured, they don’t want to feel like someone’s going to pounce on them or fire 100 questions at them, and they aren’t so eager to launch into a complex activity with a lot of rules and boundaries. 

I try to gauge my students’ attitude and energy level by standing out in the hall for 30 seconds, listening to who’s talking, what they’re saying, and if it’s relatable to Hebrew school.  Then I walk in.  Sometimes, especially if it’s a small group, I join their conversation and have it bloom into a more pointed discussion related to one of my lessons of the day.  If they’re very quiet that morning, I often take out the Hebrew texts and workbooks and have them do a few pages, then review and have them read answers aloud.  The next activity would start with reading something aloud, then asking what they think, getting them talking about their own experiences, and families, and traditions. 

Then they have to get up.  Have them act out a story, or dramatize a situation they were just relaying, or even offer up alternate resolutions to a moral conundrum you’ve presented.  Then gradually move the class into a more independent activity, where they’re either doing individual projects, working as teams, or creating and running their own activity.  By the end of the day, they see themselves developing and facilitating their own program, insinuating both a sense of independence and a feeling of ownership in the group. 

Those are the feelings the carry out the door.  And those feelings of belonging and responsibility will grow until they return.  And when they return on the next class day, they’ll openly express to you their excitement for certain activities, their enthusiasm for creating even more new experiences, and their sincere appreciation for where they are.  And you will share with the students the joy and mystery of our Jewish legacy, which must be rebuilt and renewed by each generation.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

FRONTAL FREE: Amalgamation

Dave Smolar is co-founder of Kikayon Productions, creating turn-key solutions for Jewish education. Our “TORAH TIME LIVE!” Parashah Play series is now for sale!  From Creation to Mt. Sinai, click on “Our Store” for more!

I’ve written before about students in class, or in a bunk or cabin at camp, or in a junior congregation or a friend’s party or any group dynamic, who don’t tend to socialize.  Some are quiet, some resort to chronic avoidance, some are oppositional.  You might see a kid who sits down when you ask everyone to stand up, or keeps asking “when’s recess?”, or simply puts their head down.  In fact, one of the few rules in my classroom is that you’re not allowed to curl up in a fetal position under the table in the room, which might sound extreme, but I’ve had plenty of students who think it’s appropriate or that nobody will notice.

Not to give the wrong impression that the antisocial child is the quiet one exclusively.  Sometimes, they’re the one that constantly has to change the rules.  Even if you give an open-ended graphic arts project to the class, offering them to use markers and pens for drawing, this one will use pencil.  And they’ll do a great drawing, but nobody will be able to see it because it’s purposely drawn so faintly.  Here you have the child who acts resentful that you’d give them a fun activity to do when they simply don’t feel like having a good time that day.

OK, so if this behavior happens once in a blue moon with a certain kid, so be it.  I have my bad days, my energy crashes, my moody blues.  But when you have a child who consistently stands up in the middle of a lively discussion, goes to the window, and just stares outside, you might not stop the class entirely but you should definitely take note of the behavior.  A distraction is a distraction, and sometimes, for me, a kid doing that can be just as disruptive as a kid calling out, or asking questions and making comments unrelated to the discussion, or simply walking out of the room in the middle of an activity. 

If these things have happened in my group work, they’ve happened to you.  And especially for the kid who simply walks out with a blank face, you’ve no idea what they’re up to or what they’ll do.  You can’t just leave them unattended for a variety of legal and pedagogic reasons.  And maybe most importantly, for their own sake, they can’t wander the building, because when something goes wrong, they’re unaccounted for and therefore suspect number one. 

I had a class I taught where I was asked to take over mid-year, and when I asked about what the kids were like, I was told, well, there’s a mix of interests and behaviors…and there’s also been items stolen from cubbies, holes poked into the eyes of the photos of younger children posted on the walls, and the occasional fire alarm.  And I’ll be perfectly honest with you:  I knew which kid was the probable culprit, not only of these alleged infractions and vandalism but responsible for driving out not one but two teachers, both of whom quit by January. 

So?  Big deal.  Kids are kids, everyone’s different, everyone has challenges, you’re not in their head, you don’t live their lives, and who are you to judge why they do what they do?  But, at some point, I have to do my job and teach the class, or lead the services, or have a discussion at camp, or train them to read Torah, or plan a holiday celebration, or even write a Purim shpiel. 

Obviously, I can’t let their aberrant behavior go unaddressed.  But for me, that’s not enough.  I’m not interested in kids who are complacent.  I don’t want robots, or sponges, or whatever the metaphor would now be for a child who hears everything I say, writes it down, and regurgitates it in a monthly exam, following which they promptly expunge the information from their noggin.  So what do I want?

I want the future of the Jewish people.  I want pride, I want focus, I want recognition of personal acceptance of legacy, foundation of religion in Torah stories, and the understanding of the elasticity of Jewish tradition and family customs.  I want them to know what they need to know to get them started thinking about who they are as Jews, what it means to them, and how their own personal code can be found in our beliefs.  I can teach them text, or a story, or prompt them into discussion, but they need to do the discovery themselves.

So if I have a child in a group who is having trouble, the trouble they’re having is allowing themselves to feel a part of the group, allowing themselves to value THEIR OWN thoughts and deeds and beliefs and opinions.  Only they know what they need, and sometimes the seemingly unfitting or inappropriate behaviors they exhibit – maybe even through no fault of their own – signal us as facilitators that what we’re teaching, or how we’re approaching it, isn’t what works for them. 

I love discussions, getting kids to brighten up and talk about themselves, couching their responses into Jewish ideals.  But I know that discussions, as fair as you might try to conduct them, will die off with preteens and teens after about 10 minutes.  So when my brightest student stops me mid-sentence to ask me what time it is – with a clock on the wall that’s been there for 5 months – I now know that they’re not interested in knowing the time but want to get out of their chair.  So I get them up.  Whatever I’m teaching, even if I’m in mid-thought and want to continue the idea, I try desperately to stop talking, get them up, and do some activity where they’re working things out with each other, without me in the loop.

There is no alternative, there are no choices here, and if you simply ignore one kid’s behavior, write it off, or even marginalize it, you’ll marginalize the kid.  Rather than feel a part of our people, they’ll feel more alone than they could make themselves feel in the first place.  The world doesn’t have to revolve around them, nor does it stop for them.  But creating a dynamic teaching atmosphere that brings the kids into the activity, to the extent that the kids are leading each other and creating the module that day, just by seeing their peers running the circus for a while, the “quiet kid” will realize that they, too, can be the leaders.  And they will begin to focus their energies that, once distracting and disruptive, now become creative and productive. 

And there’s the respect that makes a success of such lovingkindness in our small worlds.