During Kol Nidre, which ushers in Yom Kippur each year, the Jewish community does something seemingly odd. We publicly declare all of our vows between a person and God null and void from this Yom Kippur to the next one. Rabbi J. B. Soloveitchik points out that we nullify vows based on two premises (explained in Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 228).

1.     At the time a promise was made, a person was ignorant of some circumstance that made it too difficult to perform the promise.  

2.     At the time of the vow, the person was not ignorant, but came to regret the promise as time moved on because of new circumstances. Fulfilling the vow became too difficult.

Kol Nidre makes these assumptions with its grand stroke of remitting a statement that all these vows disappear for the next year. This future thinking makes us more attuned to our future vows, cautioning us against making regrettable promises.

Kol Nidre creates a paradigm for repentance. Bad choices are often the result of rash decision-making, limited situational awareness, unintentionality, or an outright wrong understanding of what is going on. Kol Nidre demonstrates that the experience of regret and the realization of unintentionality can effectively undo a vow as if the vow had never happened. This parallels teshuva (repentance), since the process entails developing awareness of what resulted from poor decisions, regretting the poor choice, and building sensitivity and intentionality to refrain from repeating the error.

This year, I suggest that our season of reflection set a tone for the school year based on the Kol Nidre model. Kol Nidre encourages us to make decisions intentionally and with greater situational awareness as we move forward. If teachers apply a similar methodology to the classroom, they can outline ways to inspire students and facilitate their independent growth over the course of the school year. In essence, educators can track how instructional methods and content have the power to maintain each student’s intrinsic motivation and build upon their connections to the Divine.  

I suggest that our season of reflection set a tone for the school year based on the Kol Nidre model. Kol Nidre encourages us to make decisions intentionally and with greater situational awareness as we move forward.

Imagine the possibilities.

What if for each lesson, a teacher intentionally considers the six categories of intrinsic motivation? What if the teacher thinks about how that specific assignment helps students connect to God as a means of coaching students to become stronger learners?  Imagine what could happen by the end of the year. Each student will hopefully have been able to become more self-aware and build the capacity for deep thought to make their subsequent years of learning even better.

Here are some of the questions teachers could ask themselves:

  • Autonomy: What ownership, engagement, and control over one’s decisions does this exercise offer students?                                              

  • Relatedness: What opportunities for maintaining close, safe, and satisfying connections in the students’ social environments are woven into the lesson?  

  • Progression Toward Mastery: How will students know they are making headway in their academic journey through this lesson?                    

  • Purpose: In what ways could this lesson guide or encourage students to develop the emotional or spiritual ties that energize a person to act with clarity?                  

  • Need to Feel Significant: In what way could this lesson help make students feel that they matter and that they each have a meaning and distinct identity?               

  • Resistance to Change: How might this lesson drive students to maintain established personal boundaries or foster more expansive student borderlines to develop grit?                                                             

  • God and Meaning Making: How could I specifically articulate this topic so that God becomes more present in the students lives?  How could the students use this project to understand the connection between this topic and living one’s best life?                                                                                              

Once teachers engage in this exercise for several assignments, patterns will begin to emerge, allowing them to identify and refine goals for each student as the year unfolds. Intrinsic motivation in students develops in trust-rich environments that have consistent structure and support. A Jewish classroom blooms when it has succeeded in those activities and is also nurtured by the light of God.