Sunday, April 13, 2014

Passover Based Learning

First, an acknowledgement: this post was inspired by my colleague Tikvah Wiener's mention of a piece by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks about Passover.
Second, an admission: I am writing this while sitting at a table which has not yet been cleaned for Passover -- that doesn't make this an exercise in procrastination, but I just want to put out there that I am piecing this together from memory as I don't have my haggadot out yet.

On Facebook, Tikvah Wiener mentioned the Rabbi Sacks piece opening as a defense of the rasha, the "evil" son who asks about the "avodah" (either the sacrificial service or the work required for a Jew). I very quickly saw that the evil son was just like the student who, in his group work setting, gloms off of the sweat of others and takes his final grade while diminishing the effort that others put in on his behalf. He excludes himself from the process but reaps the benefits at the end. The evil son is, after all, sitting at the same seder and enjoying the same "freedom" that the Exodus afforded all Jews.

From there, I began to think of the other 3 sons and I wondered, "how is this story unlike others in the seder or elsewhere?"

1. It creates a group which, metaphorically represents an entire people.

1a. Yes, but the same symbolism is applied to the 4 species on Sukkot.

2. It, in meta-fashion, looks at the retelling of the Exodus as the event to be discussed, not just the Exodus, itself.

2a. So does the story of the Rabbis in Bnei Brak.

3. It sets the stage for educational groupwork importable into the day school setting.


So if the rasha is part of the group, who are the others (and all you teachers out there, let me know if this sums up some of the challenges of creating groups for class). The chacham is the kid who works hard and, especially in a homogeneous classroom stands out as either not belonging or acing every assignment. He isn't necessarily popular but when it comes to group work, everyone wants to be in his group. So you, as the wily educator, place him with a motley collection of students to try and raise them all up.

The rasha, as mentioned, doesn't intend to do any work but will take what others achieve and make it his. His question looks intelligent and looks like it almost mocks the chacham's question (in that they both use a second person, seeming to exclude themselves -- but the teacher knows the intent of the asker and answers in kind).

The tam, the simple student looks at the assignment and says "what's this?" Overwhelmed by the assignment he sits there and doesn't know where to start. So the teacher points to the title and the underlying facts and reminds the student what the ultimate goal is.

And the one who doesn't know to ask (or how to ask) needs the female touch of the teacher who needs to be told that he is as valuable a member of the learning community and that in not asking, he is still performing a valuable function. His inability comes soon after 2 stories of grand rabbis -- one in which the biggest names in the business sat around doing the same group work and one in which a rabbinical master admits his own inability to understand until someone else explains it to him.

This last son got me thinking about inclusion. The group is populated by 2 students who understand traditional pedagogy and are self-motivated, one by the urge to understand, one by the will to get a grade. The third son knows he is supposed to know but can't see the process at all. He needs to be brought in to the group and pointed in the direction. He might be a very concrete learner who has to be shown the value of creativity. And the one who doesn't know to ask might be one whom we are currently labeling a student with special needs (excuse my wrong label if that is not in vogue when you read this...maybe the exceptional learner or whatever). His learning style is so not attuned to this class, or project, that he can't even see that educational path being laid out.

From there, I began to look at the entire of the haggadah and it dawned on me that the whole evening seems to be a final project put together after a teacher handed out the following assignment.

Create a multi-disciplinary and integrated program which will, intertextually, allow every stakeholder to participate in and fulfill the obligation to discuss the Exodus. Include a rubric, address modalities of learning, and provide fruitful content which will inspire participants to continue to create levels to the material so that future iterations cannot become stale.

The seder has a rubric -- we learn that anyone who has not discussed 3 things (The Paschal offering, the matzah and the bitter herb) has not completed the assignment. We establish a transparent order at the beginning so that everyone knows what we are up to and where we are headed. Big questions are set out at the top so that we know what we have to cover. In terms of resources, we rely on biblical and post-biblical texts. There are historical passages for those who love history, stories of miracles for the literary minded, math and computation for those who love numbers and measurements (eating only the STEM of the karpas? Just kidding), abbreviations and word games for the puzzle maniacs, songs from beginning to end which serve as memory aids for those who learn via repetition and rhyme, and which tell other versions of the central story of salvation so that students can compare and contrast. Hierarchical levels of learning are addressed -- recall, analysis, inference and ultimately synthesis.

There is real life application as we point to the objects on the table in front of us. There is mystery (why do we keep taking the plate off the table or covering parts up? Why are you hiding that matzah? Why are there nuts on the table?). There is symbolism and the identification and exploitation of experts. We learn to invite the poor and improve our world. We show faith and trust in our fellow man as we open our doors to all comers and our faith in God as we open that door and tell the world who we are. We look backwards at the traditions of our forefathers and towards the future as we aspire to greater religious heights. We use multiple languages so that the story is not frozen in one place or time, but grows with us.

And, through all the questioning, we are told over and over to go out and ask even more -- to write our own seder, and find new answers to all sorts of mysteries so that next year, we can become the teachers who help those in that new group to understand why we are here. And at the very last, we hope that our academic work at this seder can be turned into a reality next year in a rebuilt Jerusalem; we aren't learning just to learn, but because we want to be ready to understand and to do.

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