23 December 2015
11 Tevet 5776
Last week I witnessed an exquisite example of what education should be.
This fall, as part of their study of American History, two groups of 11th grade students embarked on a new Oral History Project. As you can read on their blog, the students were learning about notions of continuity and change over time, as well as about the significance of personal stories as primary texts for the study and understanding of history.
For this project they interviewed three elder states people of the Greater Boston Jewish community, all residents of NewBridge on the Charles, a retirement community in Dedham, MA. The interviews were a way for the students to see the unfolding of American History through the stories of real people who lived the history. After several visits to NewBridge and weeks of analysis and curation, the students produced for their final projects short documentaries and a multi-media blog. And last week they invited their new friends from NewBridge to visit Gann for a celebration and presentation of their projects, an intergenerational experience that brought tears to my eyes.
What was so educationally and emotionally powerful about these projects?
On an academic level, our students combined rigorous analysis of American history, including major themes and historical trends, with newly acquired oral history skills of interviewing, interpreting, and curating one person’s individual story. They used the 21st century tools of media and technology to make their learning public, compelling, and interactive. They collaborated with one another, each contributing his or her unique talents and perspectives to final projects that managed to represent the classes’ collective learning.
The educational power of these projects went beyond academic excellence. On the ethical and emotional levels, our students experienced the dignifying power of telling another person’s story. Through genuine curiosity and deep listening, our students, in the words of Christian theologian Nelle Morton, “heard another into speech.” I am reminded of a TED talk by Dave Isay, founder of NPR’s StoryCorps, in which Isay explains:
You know, a lot of people talk about crying when they hear StoryCorps stories, and it’s not because they’re sad. Most of them aren’t. I think it’s because you’re hearing something authentic and pure at this moment, when sometimes it’s hard to tell what’s real and what’s an advertisement . . . It’s simply an act of generosity and love. So many of these are just everyday people talking about lives lived with kindness, courage, decency and dignity, and when you hear that kind of story, it can sometimes feel like you’re walking on holy ground . . . this (is a) testament to who we are as human beings. . . Together, we can create an archive of the wisdom of humanity, and maybe in doing so, we’ll learn to listen a little more and shout a little less. Maybe these conversations will remind us what’s really important. And maybe, just maybe, it will help us recognize that simple truth that every life, every single life, matters equally and infinitely.
Our three extraordinary Jewish leaders gave our students the gifts of their time, wisdom, kindness, and courage, and our students had the privilege of reflecting back to them just how much their personal lives matter and will continue to matter to the next generation and to the world.
This brings me to the profoundly Jewish dimension of this American History project. In terms of subject matter, this is a beautiful example of how the particular, American Jewish story interacts with and sheds light on the broader American story. In terms of process, this project and the entire enterprise of oral history are so Jewish. The existential significance of mesorah, which we translate as “tradition”, but which comes from the Hebrew root mem-samech-resh and really means “passing down,” is one of personal connection to both the past and the future. It represents not only the idea but the feeling that our lives have meaning and significance because we are rooted in something larger than ourselves and because, in part through the power of stories, we transcend time and live on through the legacies we leave.
I want to express my deep gratitude to Cynthia Shulman, Rabbi Robert Miller, and Raya Dreben for giving our students and our whole community the gifts of their stories, to the bold and creative teachers who conceived this project, and to our students for their avodah (service) of bearing witness.
Wishing everyone a restful and peaceful winter break,
Rabbi Marc Baker