Showing posts with label Jeffrey Kress. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Jeffrey Kress. Show all posts

Friday, October 16, 2020

Virtual Experiential Education: It Works!

I do not believe that anyone who is reading this does not already know about, an amazing curated blog that covers Jewish Philanthropy and Jewish Education. "To assist organizations progress as they adapt to the continuing changes and challenges of the 21st Century, eJewish Philanthropy was launched in 2007 as an independent on-line publisher and a facilitator of resource mobilization serving the professional Jewish community."

There are some very important articles that originate or end up there. This is on of them. If you want to make a comment, I urge you to so on their page: in order to engage in the wider conversation. I include the article here because I think it is relevant and would like to talk about it with you.

Virtual Experiential Education: It Works!

By Anna Serviansky

In designing JustCity/CityStage 2.0, JTS’s Pre-College summer program for teens, our team of educators intentionally crafted a setting and learning environment where the objectives of experiential education would be met. While we were unsure how this unchartered territory of an online format versus the in-person experience we had curated for years would be received, it took only the first day of seeing the program unfold in action to realize that our careful planning was producing the results we hoped for. A community of learners was formed, the social emotional needs of the group were met, and the teens were excited to learn in the dynamic, experiential environment we engineered. As we step back to review what made our program a success, I can distill the elements that took place and see that in fact they mirror what researchers have been studying for decades.

While some might question whether excellent experiential education can happen online, if certain conditions are present, then the setting is less important and learning outcomes will be met in the positive, reflective manner that contributes to the personal growth of our learners. While informal Jewish education, which includes experiential education, tends to be tied to say the place of camp, JCC, youth movement, or synagogue as juxtaposed to the formal classroom setting, this notion of “place” is becoming less important to where informal and experiential education can thrive and accelerate outcomes.

In fact, as Dr. Barry Chazan writes describing informal Jewish education, “It works by creating venues, by developing a total educational culture, and by co-opting the social context … it does not call for any one venue but may happen in a variety of settings.” (Chazan, The Philosophy of Informal Jewish Education, 35). Our finding was that indeed, in our virtual platform, we were able to create a venue and social context where our learners could process their own Jewish identity within the current milieu among a community of like-minded peers and knowledgeable educators.

Moreover, reviewing Dr. Jeffrey Kress’s rubric of quality experiential Jewish education, we have a road map for not only what made our program successful, but also what can be translated to future impactful virtual programs. (Kress, Experiential Jewish Education Has Arrived! Now What?, 326). I will divide this rubric into two categories and explore how we might continue to make use of the six elements he outlines.

Logistics, Relationships, and Participant Involvement. Our schedule was modified to meet the needs of our participants and educators (ibid). We had three sessions spread throughout the day with ample breaks. Our first class was a text-based class on Judaism and justice that used contemporary and ancient writings as a jumping off point for students to relate to their own questions on certain justice issues from immigration to the environment and more. Our second class was a creative arts workshop where learners had an opportunity to explore those justice topics deeper through poetry, song, and theater. And at the conclusion of each day, a third educator facilitated participant involvement where teens planned their own reflections and social activities. All of the educators nurtured learning environments where they modeled how to do Judaism and social justice and how to form a community around these issues from different perspectives that teens could relate to. They also purposefully constructed relationships between the teens themselves throughout their programming.

Ritual, Spirituality, Programmatic/Developmental Elements. For a pluralistic program like ours, we celebrated Shabbat Friday afternoons with reflections, divrei torah, and singing. As when we are in person, we continued our model of a diversity of forms of spiritual exploration and reflection tools not only during Shabbat, but also as a way to process our learning, both context and social-emotional, through journaling, the arts, and more. The positive energy of our educators who used music, creative check ins, and digital strategies transferred to our teens who often wanted to hang out outside of scheduled times. And, we focused on opportunities where our learners could become skilled practitioners, applying what they learned in real time from how to study a Jewish text to how to advocate for causes to how to have tough conversations with those of differing views.

Our virtual program included all six of those elements that comprise excellent Jewish experiential education. And, so, perhaps we should not have been surprised that the “venue” itself did not matter and that a virtual program can provide learners with what they need. In their own words, teens reflected on the power of this experience:

“I didn’t think I’d create the same bonds I have at other summer programs because we were online and not spending time together 24/7, but I was so wrong. I made so many friends, and it’s just been so amazing!” Miriam S.

“My favorite thing about this program was getting to learn from my peers. Rather than just being talked at by our teachers, we were able to have open discussions and hear each other’s ideas on relevant issues. I also really loved being able to connect Jewish texts to modern day social justice issues. I had never done that before, and it was super interesting.” Yaya S.

The hallmark of any good experiential Jewish education to my mind is when the participants do not want the experience to be over. Many of them wished they could continue their learning together and spoke extensively about how much they had appreciated the community during a challenging summer. And so, while the world is changed, we must continue to bring the very best of experiential Jewish education virtually, and when we do so, we will continue to meet our objectives of developing strong connections to Judaism and to one another.

Anna Serviansky is Associate Dean of List College and the Kekst Graduate School and the Director of JTS Pre-College.

Friday, October 16, 2015


This is from a letter I shared with the parents in our school this fall.

Something New
I am working with a group of colleagues from around the country with Doctors Jeffrey Kress and Evie Rotstein. Jeff is a professor at the Davidson School of Education at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Evie—who many of you met last May when she spoke here-is director of the School of Education at the Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute of Religion.

We are studying something called social, emotional and spiritual learning (SESL). Like cognitive (knowledge) and affective learning, they each distinct ways in which we perceive our world and make sense and meaning of it. For the last several years our faculty and I have been developing lessons that utilize something called experiential education—which focuses on things that happen as we learn, distinct from information on a page or screen. SESL actually provides us with the philosophical underpinning to experiential and many other kinds of learning.

We need your help. During the course of the year, we will be constructing a lexicon—a list of words that we will use to describe things that reflect how learners’ social, emotional and spiritual selves are nourished. We will share that vocabulary with you in the weekly e-mails. Please use some of those words when you ask your kids to describe something they experienced or that their teacher or classmate said. Lots of people talk about the importance of spirituality, but because we don’t really have a common language, it is very hard for us to actually do anything about it.

Something Old
Last year, in this space I told you about a week I spent learning in Los Angeles in an immersion program for Jewish educators, rabbis and cantors at Beit T’shuvah. It is the country’s only Jewish residential facility for people in recovery from all kinds of addiction.

At Beit T’shuvah, they breathe spirituality. The rabbi there, Mark Borovitz – is crazy for the work of Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the great Jewish thinkers of the 20th century. We spent considerable time studying Heschel’s work. He said:

“Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement. ....get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.”

In our school we continue to work on radical amazement. Our growing Tefillah – worship – curriculum is one example, as is our new Hebrew curriculum. Both were developed to respond to the educational and spiritual needs of our students and set them on the road to radical amazement.

In Tefillah, each grade spends part of the service time learning about a prayer. Why do we say it? What is the point? What does it mean to me? Then we pray together.

In Hebrew, we use Modern Hebrew instead of the prayer book – to teach the same levels we used before. The vocabulary and the content are different, but the linguistic skills develop at the same rate. And the content integrates with the rest of our curriculum, covering holy days, values and Israel.

We invite you to be a part of the process as we seek ways to help our learners discover radical amazement in their lives! 

Monday, June 17, 2013

"School as camp?" We can do better!

Jeff Kress has been my colleague in the Leadership Institute for the past nine years. He has taught me and many others a great deal about Social and Emotional and Experiential Learning. For the past year I have been part of and SEL study group with him, Evie Rotstein and a small group of congregation-based educators. We have spent our time exploring different aspect of how focusing on these types of learning can be effective. Yesterday, Jeff published the article below on

I am not going to add anything today except to say I think it is worth all of our time to read it, and that I have collected a small group of links to articles that relate to this topic at the end of the posting.

Click here for the original posting on eJP and to read other comments.

A More Accurate Analogy?
Thinking About Synagogues, not Schools, and Camps

Posted on June 16, 2013 
by Jeffrey S. Kress, PhD

It seems that the idea of making supplemental schools more “camp-like” has gained even more momentum over the past year. In that time, I have engaged in many conversations with practitioners and researchers who shared my mix of hopefulness and skepticism about the idea. The hopefulness often springs from the freedom to think creatively about education while at the same time maintaining a developmental-growth framework to inform new initiatives. Skepticism, on the other hand, often emerges from pointing out the ways in which schools were not like camps (camps being seen as voluntary, having more contact hours, etc.).

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Summer Camp in the Classroom?

There have been a number of articles and a bit of buzz about making religious school  more like camp. My teacher Jeffrey Kress wrote "So, You Want Your School To Be More Like Camp?" back in March. My camp counselor and colleague Roberta Louis Goodman has created "Camp NSCI" for the 3rd and 4th graders at North Shore Congregation Israel in suburban Chicago:
"Camp NSCI with its ruach (spirit) interpreting Torah through drama games and film making, and cool materials for visual arts, Hebrew chuggim (electives) that have included sports, cooking, smartboard, computers, ipads, yoga, games, singing, visual arts and more!"

And even one of my congregants, who grew up at Camp Ramah has asked for our music curriculum to become more like his camp memories (I think we are almost there, Ted!).

I have been thinking for a while about this and what I might have to say here. My first impulse is to agree with much of what Jeff has to say in his article in the Jewish Week. We have to ask what about camp do we want to emulate. And like him, I believe there are certainly some aspects we can draw from the camp experience. And I will blog on that later in the summer. From Eisner Camp. Where I am going on Sunday. Because camp is a huge part of why I became a Jewish educator.

But here's the thing: while there are many facets to what is the "essence" of Jewish camping, I believe it all comes down to the 24/6+Shabbat aspect. It is the total immersion of the camper in the community of camp. It is the keeping of parents and school friends at arm's length for 2 - 8 weeks that allows the camper to enter a completely different head space. There are mores at camp that have little meaning at home. Some good, some less attractive. But they are components of an immersive culture that take campers to a different world. Eisner director Louis Bordman calls it being "under the bubble." It is a magical place. And so is nearly every other Jewish camp.

But that was all my first impulse. Yesterday my Club Ed shipment arrived from Torah Aura Productions.*  Inside was a copy of Experiencing Jewish Prayer.Wow.

So I grew up at Olin Sang Ruby Union Institute in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. Where Joel Lurie Grishaver tested what eventually became Shema is For Real and the Prayerbook Board Game.  As a camper in 1975, I remember the staff and my rabbi, Mark S. Shapiro, taking us on a journey through Jewish prayer each day during Shiur/Sicha (today we call it Limmud), culminating in the Prayerbook Board Game. It was the second iteration of the program since Joel had developed it and OSRUI had published it.

Since then, Joel has used it as a springboard for the Shema is for Real Hebrew curriculum and he has revised the original as the All New Shema is for Real. He has been doing the experiential approach to teaching prayer for longer than most people have been able to spell experiential. Each version was designed for a new generation of teacher and student. Yet each left a decidedly "classroom" feel to it.

Experiencing Jewish Prayer is something else. In some ways it is another take on Shema is for Real. Which is a very good thing. But it is so much more. As I read through it this morning, I was imagining teaching with it. I didn't feel myself in a classroom. I felt like I was under a tree or on the Quad at Eisner having a lot of fun with campers who were getting into the idea of talking about and more importantly playing with the idea of prayer.

There is a version of the classic four corners game with several questions about God. The visual representation makes it easy for a teacher who has never been to camp to visualize how to make it work in a classroom. There are texts for chevruta study. In invitation to create a human sculpture of a car wash that feels like it comes from the New Games Book - a standard in my library as a camp counselor. (You should get one!) To understand the idea of long and short brakhot, it invites students to team up, get a siddur and analyze actual brakhot to determine which is which. It is filled with stories and analogies and metaphors.

I still believe that for religious school to become like camp, we need to keep the students overnight for a few weeks and separate them from their own bedrooms and social media. But I think that the peulot (activities) in this book will give my teachers a very real opportunity to make prayer come alive in ways we had only been able to do at camp or in youth group. I am buying one copy for every teacher in the relevant grades to start off. And one grade will be using this as a text as well.

If you are not a member of Club Ed (Torah Aura's review approval service), then call them at 800 BE TORAH and order a copy for your review. You will be glad you did.