The Five Words That Change Everything

I walked out into the hallway and met the parents in the waiting area toward the front of the building. I invited them to follow me with a smile and a “Come on down!” worthy of Bob Barker. Each parent made idle small talk as we made our way back to my classroom, making reference to the weather, apologies for the late evening and, in one case, commenting about feeling like they were meeting their executioner. I laughed at that last comment and reassured the mother that she had nothing to worry about, but I’m not sure she was convinced.

The classroom where I teach religious school is set up differently than most. Four rectangular white tables stand on light green area rugs in the business half, surrounded by grey auditorium chairs. The other half includes two charcoal grey couches that look softer than they are, plus a row of three cushioned lounge chairs. The chairs and couches sit in a U around a set of small turquoise coffee tables. In fact, the only obvious sign that the room is part of a school is the large green chalkboard that takes up most of one of the walls. The furniture provides a more relaxed atmosphere for my students, which is critical for helping them to maintain their focus; if they’re already taking time away from their increasing loads of homework or their precious moments to relax from school and other activities, at least they can be comfortable doing it. Continue reading “The Five Words That Change Everything”

A Pleasant Surprise

“Can I go to the bathroom?” she asked.

I resisted the urge to roll my eyes at the question. The girl had raised her hand and waited politely to be called on, just as I wished some of her classmates would. She was also a good student; she never backed down from a philosophical debate, especially if the subject was in any way related to feminism, and her positions were thoughtful and logical. It wasn’t her fault that the bathroom question was a momentum-killer from my point of view; the progression of my class discussion wasn’t her responsibility. She just knew that she had to pee.

“Not yet,” I said as her face fell slightly. “I’ll let you go in a minute, I promise. I just want you to hear this next bit because I think it’s really going to make you angry.” Continue reading “A Pleasant Surprise”

Strength and Beauty

The principal of the religious school where I teach led an exercise on Tuesday evening.

It was the first night of Hanukkah. We had gathered all of the students together in the small chapel of the synagogue so that we could talk about the holiday and light the hanukkiah1 together. After a quick refresher for the students about the correct way to light the candles – shamash2 first, candle for the first night on the right side of the hanukkiah, light the newer candles before the older ones, etc. – we all sang the blessings together while one of the teachers lit the candles.  Continue reading “Strength and Beauty”

Religious Education and Spontaneous Combustion

This week I had one of those fantastic moments in class where I blew a student’s mind.

The class was made up of students in sixth and seventh grades. The broader lesson revolved around interfaith relationships and focused particularly on the degree to which we, as Jews, should be educated about other religions. I’m on record with my students as saying that it is not only a good idea to learn about other religions and cultures, it is critical for Judaism’s survival that we learn about the people around us so that we can find ways to coexist peacefully. Judaism has never existed in a vacuum and part of my lesson was imparting the message that we need to understand the beliefs of others in order to maintain healthy relationships with them. It is a matter of keeping the peace and being good neighbors, to be sure; but, for a nation that has been attacked and persecuted as long as it has existed, it is also a matter of survival.  Continue reading “Religious Education and Spontaneous Combustion”

Searching for Wisdom

My English teacher in my junior year of high school, Dr. Beller, looked like he had walked straight out of a Jack Kerouac novel. He was short, overweight and wore light brown glasses with thin frames. His skin had the leathery look of too much sun and cigarettes, but his eyes were soft and kind and they had a mischievous quality to them when he smiled. His voice was also gentle, with a slight gravelly tone to it and the hair he had left was always a little bit out of place.

Dr. Beller had been a college professor for most of his career as an educator before he came to my school. My junior year was his first year as a high school teacher and he had a bit of a rocky start.  Continue reading “Searching for Wisdom”