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03 May 2013

Introducing ReFrame from JTS

By Jane Shapiro
ReFrame Consultant

Reading this blog about all the wonderful new programs springing up around the country, one comes to feel the energized capacity in the community of Jewish educators to always be looking for new ways to engage our children, our parents and our communities. While we often see the “challenges,” it is good to celebrate the “innovations” as well.

Over the last eighteen months, The Davidson School of the Jewish Theological Seminary, at the specific request of Chancellor Arnold Eisen, has taken up one of the challenges and is beginning to meet it in a significant way. Whether you call it Hebrew School, supplementary, complementary or other, those are the few short hours in the week when we hope to capture the hearts and minds of a majority of Jewish children. As a consultant to JTS, it seemed to me that its ability to be an enduring institution and an innovative one was of the essence.

We created ReFrame through a careful process with the following steps. First, we scanned the field of current practice, spoke with lots of first rate educators, asking them what they saw happening and what--if they had time-- they would love to “imagine about” with a group of colleagues. We carefully processed what he heard and developed a set of questions to guide us as we made decisions about conferences, consultations, development of action research, projects, and evaluation. These questions include:

  • What is our vision of what the next generation of Jews will need to build a vibrant future? 
  • What approaches to education might be generative? 
  • What will future educators need to know and be able to do for the work to succeed? 
  • How does substantive Jewish content fit into this picture?

We commissioned a set of articles on these topics, from a wide set of thought leaders created a video and social media outlets to create more of a national conversation, and began to put together a Design Lab to bring people together so that the real work of dreaming and designing the Jewish education of the future could begin.

Because there is so much conversation these days about finding appropriate and interesting overlaps between the camping world and the school world this intersection became the focus of the Design Lab. A tight focus on a set of ideas coupled with amazing people was our approach.

Here is where the strength of an enduring institution entered. Dr. Jeff Kress’ work on experiential education was a central piece. We wanted everyone who came to the lab to work with a shared vocabulary provided by Dr. Kress. We also added a presentation by Lesley Litman, an experienced practitioner who works with new theories of curriculum. Experiential education is more than just camping fun. It:

  • enhances relationships and a sense of belonging 
  • engages the emotion and the spirit 
  • provides multiple entry points for diverse learners 
  • incorporates scaffolded opportunities for reflection 
  • creates connections to other settings 

Curriculum exists not just in a book but is also:

  • both emergent and planned 
  • relational and individual. 

The Design Lab had large group presentations and a lot of time for small group work. Twitter and video interviews enabled us to take the pulse of participants in real time. Could people ReFrame their perspectives on what a school could be? Could they think about content, subject matter areas like Hebrew, Jewish holidays, tefilah or Jewish texts not as “what items should be taught” but “how do we build an integrated environment where everyone learns to care about the subject matter.” Dr. Zach Lasker, Director of Education Projects and Alan Sufrin, our network weaver, were nervous but eager to see what happened.

I faciliated a diverse group of practitioners: curriculum writers, school leaders, camp educators, central agency consultants who were asked to think about experiential approaches to teaching Jewish texts. Of course, we began with some text study ourselves, looking at a Midrash from Pesikta deRav Kahana about the giving of the Torah. I thought folks would want something to share on Shavuot. In the text, each person “receives” the Torah ( Kol Adonai) according to their individual capacity (koach). We realized that texts embody the principles of experiential education; deeply affecting emotion and spirit, and making connections between people. Unfolding a text is emergent, just as there is always a scaffold of skills and a history of interpretation for the text. Any text can create a powerful experiential moment, especially when it is sets the stage for a variety of other activities outside of the classroom, involving others. One director began to dream about taking students to the harbor to watch boats and sailors, as they prepared to study Jonah before Yom Kippur. The atmosphere in the group was free-wheeling, intense and fascinating. After two long discussions I could sense people thinking about their work in a new way which is--after all--what a ReFrame is meant to be.

Bottom line. Colleagues from so many different fields: the camping world, school directors, communal organizations, academics all together around compact ideas, all challenging each other, pushing each other and taking first steps to design ways to work with Jewish children that may never have been seen before. The two days were chock full of surprises and out-of-the-box work. We were thrilled and motivated and charged up to move ahead with more Design Labs and the establishment of real laboratory schools where Davidson students and faculty may also play a role.

In addition to looking towards the future with good anticipation, it is worthwhile to look behind us as well. Rabbi Ishmael, two thousand years ago, developed a set of hermeneutic principles which could be called a set of pedagogic ideas that enabled a generation to expand the boundaries of the Torah immeasurably. Samson Benderly looked at the new generation of Jews of the twentieth century and realized that a new style of schooling was needed to turn immigrant Jews into passionate modern American Jews. Now, with good efforts and good colleagues we are starting to generate spaces for the Jewish future.

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