Monday, January 2, 2012

Towards a Theory of Practice

The title of this post was stolen from a 2009 study of the same name written by Saul P. Wachs and published by The Solomon Schechter Day School Association.

The study opens with the following disclaimer:  
This paper is based on a presentation by Dr. Wachs at the Solomon Schechter Day School Association Professionals Conference in January 2008. The conference, which took place at the Solomon Schechter Day School of Las Vegas, was devoted to the spirituality of students and day school professionals.

Dr. Wachs here a comprehensive and thought provoking framework for developing the spiritual dimension of tefilla–a framework that can inform the practice not only of Schechter schools, but all who hope to initiate students into Jewish spiritual life. 

The Solomon Schechter Day School Association offers this booklet as part of its vision of assisting Jewish days schools to be places of ahavat torah and yirat shamayim.

So with that said, I want to share some reflections and critiques that I observed.  I think it is important to state that in my search for materials on the topic of tefilla and how to evaluate its instruction, this is one of the few pedagogical documents out in the public sphere.  

Wachs identifies a lot of the problems with tefilla in day-schools and concludes that it "has to do with what was done when the pupils were young and in the process of forming a basic set of attitudes towards tefilla" and that for most it was an "exercise in skills and nothing more".  I think this to be a astute diagnosis.  To his credit Wachs puts forward a list of suggestions to develop what he calls "omek" (depth) in the service.  One general criticism (and one that some readers have made of this blog) is that the suggestions make for good "one-off" lesson plans that will inspire students for that specific day, but do not create a systematic approach to build  spiritual confidence.  

The title of this booklet - Towards a Theory of Practice - is appropriate in that it I am unsure if a) the approach is anything more than a collection of anecdotal experiences coalescing into a theory and b) if it was ever implemented and analysed for statistical analysis.  (On page 16 Wachs indicates that he surveyed three schools in differen parts of the US).  Some of Wachs' idea for engaging students in "Kedusha and Yofi", dance, poetry and art are worthy approaches but I question whether they offer more than temporal inspirational experiences. Further, are teachers in this school ready to take on this task of moving beyond skills and theory? 

I very much liked Wachs' idea of iyun tefilla - "a process wherein teacher and pupils search together for meanings that are stated or implied in the text" (17).  This conceptual approach is already used by many schools but there is not any standardized or published texts that can be shared with other educators nor is there evaluative research for different approaches, ideologies or ages.  

Over the next two weeks I will be sharing specific nuggets from the booklet that I think are worth noting. One final point, I would also be interested to hear from other teachers, from Conservative, Orthodox and Non-Denominational schools whether this paper reflects a road map to improving tefilla.   

1 comment:

  1. For me, it is the sustained effort to create meaningful t'fillot that is most challenging. I can pull off very successful "one-shot" programs or experiences that give the children a "deep" t'fillah experience but translating that into a sustained approach to t'fillah is what I'm really struggling to do - especially when the burden of teaching the skills is so present.