21 March 2014
19 Adar II 5774
Every year around this time there is a unique energy in our school. The days are getting longer, the light brighter, the weather warmer. Seniors are counting down the days until their formal academic program concludes and they transition into a period of internships and independent studies before graduation. And, most excitingly, Exploration Week is about to begin.
Over the next week, our students and their learning will break out of the walls of our school, and the world will become their classroom. From “Board Game Design and Theory” to “Fighting Hunger in Boston” to “Local Farming, Local Food” to “Environmental Preservation in California,” students and faculty will learn by doing and, in the process, will strengthen their connections to their teachers and to each other.
The Association for Experiential Education describes this approach to education and its goals: teachers and learners are engaged “in direct experience and focused reflection to increase knowledge, develop skills, clarify values, and develop people’s capacity to contribute to their communities.” Of course, these goals and this methodology apply not only to travel and what we officially call “experiential learning.” These are outcomes toward which every teacher, every discipline, and every classroom aspire. Indeed, our classroom learning continues to grow more collaborative, interactive, and project based—sharp contrasts to what Roland Barth calls the “sit ‘n git” approach of traditional teaching and learning.
For so many students and for so many of us, there is something special about the learning that occurs when we depart entirely from conventional pedagogy and curriculum and experience the world with our own heads, hands, and hearts. Why? This kind of learning is a tikkun (a repair) of one of the problems of education that John Dewey describes in The Child and the Curriculum: “To possess all the world of knowledge and lose one’s own self is as awful a fate in education as in religion.” For Dewey, “not knowledge or information, but self-actualization is the goal (of education).”
Another educational philosopher, Rabbi Kalman Kalonymous Shapira, known as the Piascezno Rebbe, wrote something similar in his work Chovat HaTalmidim – A Students’ Obligation: “An educator who wants to ignite the fire of a student’s soul . . . needs to (find ways to) uncover the hidden sparks within the child in order to bring out, develop and grow (each child’s unique self).” For both Dewey and the Piascezno Rebbe, the process of self-actualization is the foundation upon which children emerge into responsible adults with the skills, knowledge, and motivation to find their place in and, ultimately, contribute actively to their community and the world.
In this spirit, all of our Exploration Week programs fall into one of two categories: Discover and Rebuild. In so many ways, these two words capture the essence not only of experiential learning but also of Gann’s educational approach and of all spiritual and civic education. Great learning is a profoundly humanizing and self-actualizing process in which students discover their world and come to see it through new eyes, and they discover and come to know and understand themselves—including their talents, interests, and passions—in new ways.
This process of learning and discovery is meant to lead to more than their self-actualization. Our tradition teaches us that, as members of communities and citizens of the world, we have a sacred responsibility to partner with God in the ongoing co-creation and reparation, the building and rebuilding of our world. The beauty is that self-actualization and service to the world are not an “either-or” proposition. The name of one adult Israel experience—“Livnot U’L’hehibanot—To Build and To Be Built”—captures this beautifully: these processes of discovering and rebuilding support and reinforce one another.
We wish all of our teachers and students an engaging and meaningful week of discovery and building, of developing themselves and bettering our world.
Rabbi Marc Baker