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Thought & Identity: A Challenge in the Classroom 

November 4, 2016

By Jeff Amshalem, Ayeka Educator

Last year, I struggled with a particular class, 11th grade Jewish Thought and Identity.

Despite the great topics, driven by questions like “Why do bad things happen to good people?”, “Where does the Torah come from?”, and “Is Judaism a religion, a peoplehood, or a culture?”, we weren’t connecting on anything more than an intellectual level, and sometimes not even that much. I expected certain things from them as high schoolers that they weren’t yet able to produce.

I read their inability as laziness; they read my demands as a lack of concern for them.

Even after I realized that I needed to communicate my expectations more clearly and guide them more carefully to where I expected them to be, there was a definite negative energy in the classroom that was impossible to shake.

Then I joined Ayeka and spent two intense days in retreat, talking over such issues as loving our students, making the learning personal, and making ourselves vulnerable. I came out with my head spinning over how I had (mis)handled the class so far.

I went back to school and in the class about theodicy I spoke personally about my connection and challenge with the subject. I told the class about my relationship with my beloved older sister, who was like a second mother to me, and who was in the final stages of cancer. Every eye was locked on me while I shared my stories about her. When I was done, I said, “We just finished a month-long unit on theodicy. Now why is it I never talked about my sister until now?” Nobody, including me, had a good answer.

I pledged to them that we would make every day of our learning together from that point on not just interesting but actually personally compelling for me and them.

That turned out to be the class I connected with the most deeply. Those are the kids who are most likely to stop in the halls and talk to me, to come to me with questions, to tell me they loved our class and want to do it all over again. A number of them have told me (as if it needed to be said) that that day was what shifted everything.

By making myself vulnerable, by letting my students know something personal about myself – and, more importantly, letting them know I cared enough about them to share it – I invited my students to share something of themselves and to take the risk of trying to connect to the texts and to one another. The risks paid off for all of us.