It’s been almost 20 years since I sat in a Lookstein professional development seminar in Israel with a diverse group of Jewish day school colleagues, sharing about our common woes. Dress code violations and tefillah seem to transcend school denomination, size, and family wealth. While dress code occupies an interesting place in school policy discussion, tefillah gets a lot of attention in the wider Jewish day school world. In the last few years, a broad range of inspired teachers have reached out to JEIC about eight different tefillah programs, and at least three other new programs have been published since 2016. These numbers do not even include the countless other schools attempting to create a regular and effective tefillah program that students will embrace.
Ironically, what vexes the field about tefillah, I believe, also points to its future success.
It shouldn’t surprise you that most schools declare K-4th grade tefillah a success. The level of student amenability, love of singing the prayers, and positive responses to teachers bolster that assessment. Students enjoy what looks like tefillah from the outside and do not share the meaning adults project on the students’ experience. The evidence of that gap between teachers and students appears when the children begin to move from concrete to abstract thinking and when their brains begin to surface deeper social desires and ideals in 5th and 6th grades.
Equally predictable, you may agree, is that middle and upper school settings provide the greatest challenges to successful tefillah. The once happily praying students seem more distracted, less engaged, and more in need of punitive or rewarding attention to remain on task. This happens at the same time in students’ lives when they reach b’nai mitzvah age and need to take further positions of leadership in structured prayer and increased personal responsibility. Many schools report that students can push back with deceptive and sometimes outright rude behavior, requiring policing more than teaching. Even those who do not act out or seem to submit to teachers’ designs will admit to a less than spiritual or inspirational prayer time. These challenges stem from a fundamental misunderstanding about the way motivations influence tefillah experiences for adolescents.
At JEIC, we came to understand this by observing successful tefillah projects, both those we granted and those we studied, noting the patterns that led to desired outcomes. While one-time behaviors could be challenged or explained away, patterns show a type of validity of results. Educators who are successful approach tefillah like a class including being properly prepared, creating lesson plans, including student reflection, and administering thoughtful assessments. This moves the act of tefillah from passive to active, from compliance to engagement.
We recognized five particular elements that made for fruitful tefillah time, and upon further review, we saw how each element taps into the intrinsic motivation of an individual student, potentially leading to a very different Avirah (atmosphere).
Instead of extrinsic motivators (e.g. teacher rewards or consequences), which force students into meaningless word chanting and awkward self-imposed silences, students in settings imbued with intrinsic motivation can participate in multiple, engrossing short activities. In one place, the school arranged for each group of two or three students to have a teacher review one idea about tefillah for twenty minutes. Often this branched into a discussion in a safe space that addressed deep questions such as “why would Hashem care what I want?” In another program, each student in a maker-space built a light-up sculpture shaped to remind them to say Modeh Ani when waking up each morning. JEIC has observed time and again that relying on intrinsic motivation makes the eventual inculcation of tefillah into students’ lives much more likely.
Part of the adult change in mindscape about tefillah lies in seeing it less as apprenticeship and more as internship. In apprenticeship, the student blindly imitates the teacher asking practical questions clarifying performance along the way. Performance in this case includes the rote translation of sections in the siddur or practiced answers to practiced theological questions. Conversely, in internship, the student takes on increasingly engaged functions by problem solving and discussing the keys to choosing their personal path. Apprenticeship takes less preparation time and needs fewer role models to higher apprentices ratio. Internship takes more prep time and requires a higher role model to higher intern ratio.
Certainly, there are challenges to instituting a program with these ideals. These include less time for formal tefillah and managing administration duties to arrange for proper teacher training and student coverage. However, the upsides of turning tefillah into a positive life training experience is worthwhile when we consider the ultimate goal of students’ self-directed, life-affirming, tefillah when they are not in school. To be successful, students should have the opportunity to develop ownership of their kavanah/intention, relatedness to each other through prayer, and significance as a member of the Jewish nation when making their way down this path.