27 March 2015
7 Nisan 5775
This week I have observed, heard, and read about students cooking and baking in their “epicurean adventure,” visiting the Museum of Fine Arts for a different lens on gender and society, using tools and materials they have never tried before at the Artisan’s Maker Space, learning from national education experts while volunteering in local early childhood education centers, and meeting with our own United States senator in Washington, DC. These are just a few of the out-of-the-box learning experiences that are defining this year’s Exploration Week, all of which you can read more about on our new Exploration Week Blog.
With only one week until the first Passover Seder, I have been thinking a lot about the relationship between Exploration Week, high school education, and the concepts of slavery and freedom.
Many aspects of the vision and philosophy behind Exploration Week make it powerful and transformative for so many students. A few examples include: breaking down the walls of the classroom and the school to learn in and from the broader community and world; directly encountering people and places rather than just reading and talking about them; learning through doing, making, creating; taking risks and experimenting with new subjects and learning modalities; forming new relationships with teachers and peers; giving back, through learning and service, to the community and larger society; and pursuing more deeply or discovering for the first time passions and areas of interest that might not always fit into a standard high school curriculum.
As I think about the educational challenges and opportunities facing high schools and high school students today in the context of Passover, there is another crucial and defining aspect of Exploration Week: change. In many cases the experiences our students are having this week represent a significant shift from their normal routines in terms of what, where, how, and with whom they are learning.
One threat to deep, authentic, transformational learning—a threat that, unfortunately, characterizes so many formal educational environments today—is the rote and routine of “doing school.” I once met an admittedly cynical veteran teacher (not at Gann) who said to me, “If you want to understand the experience of high school students, you have to think of school as a form of slavery. Many students have not chosen to be here nor chosen what to learn; they are told when to be where and for how long; they are going through motions prescribed to them by others.”
A slave does not get to experience newness and change other than, perhaps, the erratic behavior of an unpredictable master. The despair of slavery is partly the inability to experience or even to hope that the world can be different tomorrow than it is today. From an educational perspective, this lack of change and hope can lead to a dulling of the openness and awareness to the world that make real learning and personal growth possible.
On the other hand, change is a defining feature of a life of freedom and possibility. The fact that the world around us changes bears witness to the fact that we ourselves can change, learn, and grow. This, in turn, should create a sense of empowerment and responsibility to contribute positively to the change we want to see in the world.
On both the intellectual and spiritual levels, change also can wake us up. It can open our minds to ways of seeing and understanding that are not possible when we are stuck in habitual thinking. It can arouse wonder and curiosity, opening our hearts and stirring our souls to encounter and experience the people around us, the world, and ourselves in new and profound ways.
To be free is to have the capacities to see, experience, and initiate change in ourselves and the world. Transformative learning experiences like Exploration Week seize change as a powerful tool for developing these capacities in our students. As we approach the holiday of Passover and the season of our freedom and redemption, this kind of learning could not come at a better time.
I wish everyone a joyous, change-filled Passover.
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Kasher v’Sameach,
Rabbi Marc Baker