By Jon Ramsay
October 16, 2018
This blog post is part of a featured series by writer Jon Ramsay, friend of URJ Heller High. This series was written during a ten-day trip alongside the students of the Fall 2018 semester.
What hits you first is the noise. This is not a quiet classroom. This is not a lecture hall. No one sits back or fades away – there just isn’t a chance to. A Heller High Jewish History class is a kinetic, active, participatory space where students and teachers respond to each other with enthusiasm and equal power, taking individual responsibility for learning but also working together as a cohesive unit towards a common goal of study.
Our teacher this morning is Evan – young, fiery, and loaded with more arcane knowledge than Wikipedia. His style of teaching is, in a word, loud. No subject is treated quietly, no lesson is not thrilling. He sets a tone of infectious energy from the start – he’s like the Willy Wonka of Reform Judaism who can’t wait to guide his pupils through a maze of strange, new wonders. Students sing Hebrew together to memorize vocabulary, call out answers with obvious pride, and take control of the flow of discussion freely. Their curiosity is obviously the most valuable element here, not just getting through the day’s curriculum. And Evan is more like a composer than a teacher, in a lot of ways. He knows how to play the room so everything comes together, and no voice is left out.
Much of this success is due to the physical shape of the classroom. Students sit in a ring, looking in at each other. It is similar to the Harkness conference method used at most American private schools today, in which students are encouraged to discuss their subjects openly and learn from each other as much as from their teacher. The students debate often, challenge each other, reconsider their perspectives in light of new evidence, and ask questions constantly. “I hadn’t thought of it that way” and “I want to address what my friend just said” are commonly heard, as well as textual references to their source books. To be honest, I felt like I was sitting in parliament – not a high school classroom at all.
Today in particular started with a contemporary article on the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, a hot issue in Judaism at the moment. To put it simply, Palestinian organizations are seeking to boycott products of Israel on a global scale as a form of protest. With a controversial subject like this, I was wary of where things were headed – but the calm and even direction of Evan and his assistant, Talia, kept the discussion moving and open minded. After a smooth transition, and a request for students to pursue their own independent research on BDS, the curriculum moved forward to the main topic.
Here’s a confession – the last time I sat through a Jewish History lesson was Sunday School when I was 14. I have a feeling the same is true for most Reform Jewish adults. I didn’t really expect to be overly captivated or swept off my feet with academic fascination. And yet that’s somehow exactly what I fell into. The focus of study was the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, and the change from Oral Law to the written Mishnah – a code book of rules and advice that offers Rabbinical commentary on the lessons of the Torah. 10 years ago, and with a different teacher, I’d be asleep within minutes of this. But here, today, with someone as almost ridiculously passionate as Evan, you have no choice but to participate and learn.
Evan finds segues in the ideas of his students – he lets them determine the next revelation by the power of their own curiosity, and the strength of their own inquiry. While he obviously has everything planned out, piece by piece, topic by topic, it feels as if the students are the ones pushing the lesson forward with their own interests. As we moved from the philosophies of Rabbi Hillel and Rabbi Shamai, the debate of ancient principles felt somehow alive and contemporary. But Evan also takes special care not to taint the discussion with his own opinions. I heard him say more than once that he was reserving his own ideas on a particular item, or that he didn’t know how to feel about a specific issue, and he expected students to come to their own personal conclusions of how they felt.
I worked as a high school English teacher at a private boarding school for 4 years. I know good teaching when I see it, and I saw it. If you’re interested in active, personal teaching experiences that inspire debate, touch on controversy, and value the opinions of students, you can’t find anything better than this. Two hours flew by like the breeze.
Jonathan Heller Ramsay has degrees from the University of St Andrews and University of Edinburgh in Scotland. He’s a writer with a passion for Judaism, pomegranates, and dogs.