At the Jewish Enrichment Center, children involve their whole selves in Jewish learning: they dive into a Jewish text with peers, and wrestle, refine, and recreate their own personalized meaning through creative, in-depth projects which unfold over several months. The teaching modality we use is called integrated learning, in which children grapple with a complex question or idea for an extended period. As they work, children explore text and their relationship with text, wrestle with peers’ varied responses and our tradition, while practicing essential life skills, such as cooperation, engagement with diverse perspectives, and resilience. The projects are not supplemental to the learning, but the projects are the path through which children learn. This article will describe our third through fifth children’s exploration of the driving question, “What is berakhah?,” with insight into how the project process builds children’s Jewish knowledge as well as social-emotional skills.
During the Fall of 2015, children explored berakhah. All children at the Jewish Enrichment Center, ages 3 – 11, engage in 3 – 4 thematic explorations every year, each theme lasting 8 – 10 weeks. The theme is the primary learning vehicle; children do not have separate tracks for Torah, hagim (holidays), ethics, etc. Hebrew is integrated into the theme learning and also enjoys dedicated time. While the Jewish Enrichment Center operates in a Sunday/afterschool context, any school environment that affords children time to engage with text and their own ideas about text is an ideal setting for Jewish integrated learning. Children attend at least two sessions per week, and about one third of the children attend three-to-four sessions per week.
Our integrated learning process is grounded in Jewish text. During berakhah, third-through-fifth grade children explored six different texts, including texts from the Torah, Mishnah, and Talmud. Children explore the text in havruta (partner text study), in communal conversation, and also in the yetzirah (art/creativity) studio. During the initial phase of our integrated learning process, these three ways of engaging with text provide children with a platform to wrestle with the text itself and to gather information about berakhah, to discover what they and their peers care about regarding berakhah, and to synthesize initial ideas about berakhah. Two snapshots from this early part of the theme will provide context for how the project process is designed to foster both academic and social-emotional growth.
The impact of this work is experienced on many levels. First, children feel tremendous pride in the work they have created, and with pleasure, explain their work to family members during a Family Exploration and Celebration morning. Visitors who take the time to explore children’s work encounter a wide range of personalized interpretation of text, and find their own ideas about berakhah stimulated and perhaps, expanded or deepened. Over time, a child who engages in this whole child integrated work grows skills for text interpretation, firmly grounded in Jewish tradition, yet personalized and connected with peer community. Again and again, the child encounters challenges in explaining ideas, in creating projects, in working with peers, and the child must, with educator support, learn how to manage and resolve these difficulties. Over time, a community that participates in this whole child integrated work finds their ideas about children shifted, and they honor children’s voices as a powerful part of the community. All of the overt and hidden messages of this work, and all of the skill-building of this work – through the process itself to the high quality final project to its public honoring as part of a Jewish communal conversation – grow a child with the confidence, knowledge, and skills to be co-creators of the unfolding of Judaism through the generations.
Read the entire article in Jewish Educational Leadership.