16 September 2016
13 Elul 5776
In just these first two weeks of school, I have observed many examples of teaching and learning, sports, arts, student leadership, and Jewish life that remind me why Gann is such an extraordinary community and example of what a high school should do.
During our faculty-staff meeting last week, our new librarian shared what we call a “mission moment.” She saw a group of students sitting in the library and overheard them talking about Gann’s dress code. Having worked with high school students before, she expected the group to be complaining about or criticizing the code or the administration (as nearly all high school students are wont to do). Instead, she was surprised to find them with the student handbook open, doing a close reading and textual analysis of the code, discussing and debating the fine lines of what is included and what is not and what the language of the handbook means! A wave of smiles and laughter moved across the room as she told this story, because this was a classic Gann moment. We train our students to see everything as a text, to read carefully, analyze critically, and think deeply. We should not be surprised when they turn these skills on our own codes of behavior!
This is a powerful illustration of how great education does not simply transmit knowledge and information, nor even behavioral standards, values, and expectations. Instead, “text study” asks students to engage and wrestle with the knowledge, values, and big ideas that we believe should be guiding forces in their lives but not blindly accepted or followed. This is also a beautiful example of the powerful connection between academic excellence and moral rigor. Critique—the ability and willingness to examine everything carefully, even social norms and authority—is essential for being a free thinker and an intentional actor, a moral agent in the world. While, in this case (high school students examining a dress code), this might encourage healthy teenage boundary pushing and challenging of authority, when done respectfully, these are signs that our students are developing as intellectually and ethically responsible people.
A few days later after our librarian shared this story, during our 9/11 commemoration, I participated in a break-out workshop focused on remembering through music. We listened to a classical piece entitled “WTC 9/11”, composed by Steve Reich and performed by a quartet. It was not an easy piece to listen to, yet our students stayed focused and attentive. After listening to the music, we sat in silence, and then the teacher asked us, “What did you hear? What did you notice in the piece?” This was an entirely different context from the dress code text study, but this teacher was also asking us to do a close reading and textual analysis. The text was not words but music, not visual but auditory. The goal of the analysis was not so much critique as exploration of meaning and relevance for our lives. Listen closely, pay attention, notice, this teacher asked of us. Hear what is going on in the background and beneath the surface. Reflect on how it impacts you and why. Pushing ourselves to suspend our visceral reactions to look more deeply into the music opened up new possibilities of understanding the piece itself, the meaning of 9/11, and ourselves. This was not only a powerful way to explore notions of memory and commemoration through art. It was an illustration of the powerful connection between academic excellence, aesthetic appreciation, and pursuit of meaning, self-understanding, and self-knowledge. The experience would have been less powerful if we had simply listened and reacted or even just appreciated. It was the “text study,” the more rigorous, careful unpacking of what we heard, that yielded greater meaning and understanding.
As we progress through the month of Elul in preparation for the High Holidays, one way to call ourselves to greater levels of ethical and spiritual awareness and intentionality is to see more of the world, including ourselves, our experiences, and our interactions with one another, as texts to be read carefully, analyzed, and unpacked. What would happen if we subjected more of our societal norms and behaviors to critical analysis in respectful discourse with others? What would it feel like to slow down and live more moments as if we are listening to a 15-minute piece of classical music in the dark, and how might this change how we act and who we are?
Teshuva, the process of self-reflection and examination in the name of self-improvement, demands this combination of intellectual, moral, and spiritual rigor and openness. It is we—ourselves and our lives—who are the texts. May we have the courage to open the book and read, critically and compassionately.
Rabbi Marc Baker