Visitors to Schechter Manhattan often comment to me about how engaged and happy students appear. They notice how the students are busy at work, focused on the learning activities at hand. Sometimes I am asked, what motivates our students? Why do they choose to do hard things in order to learn?
Motivating students, and people, in general, is a challenge faced by all educators, and Schechter Manhattan is no exception. After all, our students don’t get a choice about whether they come to school, the adults in their lives insist. And, at Schechter Manhattan, like at most schools, we adults have made decisions about what content, concepts, skills, and values to include in the curriculum of study- things we think are really important and expect all students to learn. Add to that our approach to assessment and reporting, which includes lots of feedback but no grades or other such external motivators, and the question becomes even sharper. What motivates students to try?
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 wide 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.
In the 1990’s and 2000’s, Judaic teaching capitalized on newer approaches to curricular scope and sequence (spiralling up), giving way to the development of proven pedagogic approaches for skill-building over the last 10 to 15 years. While we can appreciate and lean on the merits of that effort, it is a misplaced focus. When it comes to Judaic Studies, the most important aspects of pedagogy teachers should embrace are those associated with motivational pedagogy. Whether or not a child wishes to engage in the wisdom of our thoughtful lessons after the school day ends impacts more than our job performance. It is the very reason we perform our jobs.
We all should aspire to create a setting where Jewish students want to learn Judaic Studies when they aren’t in the classroom. We know that the depth and power of our tradition can guide, inspire, and influence their lives in positive ways.