Thursday, March 23, 2017

Vayakhel 75 - School as a community by Allan Katz

Guest post by Allan Katz

The word for community – ke'hilah comes from the word vayakhel- ויקהל , the opening word of our parasha. There are different types of communities , some positive and some negative depending on their goals and common purpose.  And Moses assembled – vayakhel = ויקהל the people  so he could share with the community God's commandments to observe the Sabbath and build a mishkan – a tabernacle which would come from the contributions offered by the people. The Sabbath had to observed especially by being careful to focus on bonding through learning and not kindling a fire -  including the fire of argument and conflict in the community.  The Midrash explains that while community is very important, Moses is setting a precedent, that  community   life  must be based on  learning. People should gather on the Sabbath and Moses would teach them about the Sabbath and other laws of the Torah. Houses of prayer, like the study halls should be places of learning as well as for  prayer. Community projects like the building of the mishkan- the tabernacle or any other projects that serve the community  must be  seen in the context of spiritual development and commitment to the Torah. This context is created by communal learning and observing the Torah laws. So community must be based on cooperative learning and projects  and be    guided by spiritual beliefs. The ideal situation is that people are drawn to a Rabbi and his place of learning and because they learn together, they pray together and participate in communal projects.

Schools are the perfect setting for building a community based on cooperative learning and social projects. Unfortunately many schools are more about instilling obedience and having control .It is for sure not a place that gives kids a voice and tries to  inspire them  to make their school a better and nurturing place for all. Teachers will use extrinsic motivation like prizes, grades and competition to motivate kids to behave and learn. Kids learn to ask themselves what will I get or what will be done to me. Kids are ranked according to their test scores and how well they behave ,  and the competitive ones see others as obstacles to their success. It does not help to talk about good character and caring , if the environment is competitive and problems are solved using punishment or bribes. The school has to create an environment which promotes cooperation between kids and pro-social behavior. If we go beyond discipline and grades and focus on community  and cooperative learning, kids will learn to  ask how do my actions impact on others , how can I make a contribution, what type of school or classroom would I like?  Kids will be intrinsically more motivated and develop a love for learning when they can participate in deciding on the curriculum. As one student remarked, my teachers always had the ability to give us the feeling that we decided on what we were going to study and learn.   Excellence is not measured by test scores but by taking responsibility for other kids and sharing your learning. Kids see each other as learning resources and look to each for support and friendship. There is the understanding that only a unity of purpose , cooperation and a caring atmosphere where every child is needed and valued,  can a community  and individuals meet  their goals.

Progressive schools see the importance of creating a community of caring learners and the best way children learn is when they are engaged in real-life situations that are important to them. Schools can implement a Jobs Program which allows kids to learn by doing.

Each School Group has a specific job to perform that helps the school community function smoothly. Some groups will tutor and become buddies for younger kids, other groups can run the school newspaper, the school store which supplies stationary and text books , the school garden , be involved in  sign making and running the  print shop. The children have ample opportunity to practice and expand their academic skills, including mathematics, reading and writing, while further developing leadership, critical thinking and problem-solving tools. Because they are performing real jobs that meet real needs, the children also develop a genuine sense of ownership and pride in their school community.
Anyone working with or watching these children soon realizes the deeper psychological aspect of this type of program. It gives a child a sense of dignity and responsibility to be entrusted with a job whose importance he fully recognizes...All his abilities are called into play. He learns self-control, patience, self-discipline. He accepts the need for drill and for special work in areas where he is weak, so he will be better able to serve his customers and his community.” 
—Jean Murray, former principal of City &Country

When community is based on communal and cooperative learning, there is more growth, bonding and commitment to values and to be of service to other kids.

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