16 September 2011
17 Elul 5771
One of my great joys as Head of School is the opportunity to visit classes and witness the extraordinary teaching and learning that happen everyday. This week I observed a 12th grade class immersed in an analysis of a Shakespeare sonnet. When I walked into the room, I was first impressed with the depth and sophistication of the students’ comments about the poem. They made sense of the complex layers of Shakespeare’s language and delved into the complex emotional and existential aspects of the poem.
I was also struck by the level of the students’ engagement with the poem and each other. The text, not the teacher, was at the center of this classroom discussion. Students genuinely listened to each other and responded directly to each other’s comments. I witnessed critical reading and analysis skills and the art of disciplined conversation, which will serve them well in so many areas of their lives.
However, the most powerful moment for me occurred just before I left. In the middle of the discussion, one of the students raised her hand to ask for help. “I’m sorry; can you help me understand again what exactly Shakespeare is saying here? I’m still a bit confused and not sure I really understand.”
How easy it would have been for this student to just keep quiet and to fake understanding by looking interested in the conversation or even responding directly to other students’ comments rather than the poem itself! How many of us find ourselves as passive observers when we, too, don’t fully comprehend or cannot as quickly process a conversation? Yet, this young woman had the courage and confidence to interrupt the flow of conversation, admit her lack of understanding, and advocate for her own learning (and no doubt for others’ as well). She practiced the teaching of our sages in Pirkei Avot 2:5: “lo habayshan lamed – the shy or embarrassed person cannot learn.” Her teacher had already created a classroom environment hospitable to both rigorous, high-level intellectual discussion and to risk-taking and not-knowing. As we (and our students) get older, it can become more difficult to admit what we do not know or face the possibility of failure. Yet, the willingness to do so and the environments that support this are what promote real learning and growth.
The level of engagement in this classroom reminded me immediately of the d’var Torah I shared with our community at hakhel (morning assembly) on Tuesday. Commenting on the name of this week’s parsha, Ki Tavo (“When you enter the land . . .”), the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, asks the question, “At what point does entering occur?” For example, if a person puts his hand into a room, is he considered to have entered it? The Lubavitcher Rebbe quotes both a Talmudic source (Chullin 33b) as well as Rashi on the beginning of this parsha, both of which suggest that “partial entry is not considered entering.” He derives from this principle a lesson about how we should live our everyday lives: “We should enter ourselves totally and wholeheartedly into everything we do for God (mitzvot).”
I would extend this beautiful message from mitzvot to all of our actions and interactions, to our daily pursuits, and, of course, to learning. In our high-paced, too often distracted world of competing demands, personal technology devices, and multi-tasking, it can be quite challenging to be totally present for anything we do. So, it was particularly refreshing to see our 21st century students “entered” so fully into the exploration of a Shakespeare sonnet. When we are truly present and wholeheartedly engaged, our moments of greatest meaning, insight, and connection can occur.
Rabbi Marc Baker