HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal
The Pluralistic Mission in Everyday Practice
Often one of the pillars of community day school mission statements, pluralism is an elusive value that can be hard to translate into practice. Lipsky presents ideas for schools take pluralism from the mission statement into the classroom.
We are falling short in assisting our students to comprehend fully the mission and vision of pluralism. Too often students leave the community day school environs without clearly understanding their own religious beliefs and identity in addition to the cultural and religious identity of the community or communities to which they belong. Community day school curriculum scopes and sequences do not engage students in enough explorative and reflective study about differing Jewish religious philosophies and values as well as the students’ individual religious beliefs, values and practices. Instead, students are left on their own to make sense of these sometimes competing value structures.
If we want our students to graduate from our community schools with a clear idea of what it means to affiliate with a particular type of Judaism (denominational, cultural, etc.) and know what it is to believe in pluralism, then we must provide students with a clear framework of pluralism’s beliefs and tenets within which they learn and dialogue. Accomplishing this means overtly incorporating the school’s pluralistic mission and vision into the everyday practice of teachers and students through curriculum development and implementation.
Intentional pluralism requires intentional conversations about pluralistic tenets and beliefs at and across all levels in the Jewish community day school. Community day schools promote respect and tolerance of different Jews, social justice and ethical and moral conduct while acculturating students in Jewish customs, traditions, ritual practices, literacies and norms. Our school community members come from different backgrounds and beliefs, and to fully engage in the tenets of respect and tolerance we have to engage in conversations around differing Jewish religious philosophies and practices. Even when the religious philosophy of the school remains purposefully undefined, the academic and experiential curricular choices made by the administration and faculty establish an institutional definition of pluralism.
Setting pluralism as a goal is in itself a value statement. And how the stated tenets of pluralistic philosophy are interpreted and even implemented through a curriculum is colored by the religious affiliation of each administrator, parent, teacher and student involved in the conversation. Thus, curriculum development—academic, social-emotional, physical and experiential—must be guided by questions directly relating to what pluralism might look like in action at the individual, institutional and communal levels. Creating guiding questions for curriculum development that draw directly from a school’s mission and vision can also lead to a deeper level of integration across the curriculum and content areas. These guiding questions should serve as articulation points for all content areas, making meta-themes and bigger concepts related to the school’s mission and vision explicitly part of a student’s schooling.
Crafting a school’s mission and vision requires a team of thinkers and visionaries. Bringing the mission and vision to the student level requires teachers and students to participate in the implementation process. Teachers should be working daily with students to help them understand the tenets to which the students as individuals and the school as a community subscribe. Teachers play a crucial role in implementing a school’s mission and vision through the curricular and instructional choices they make for academic and experiential learning.
To do this requires school administrators to engage with teachers in ongoing conversations about the school’s mission and vision. These conversations help school leaders understand what the mission and vision might look like in the classroom setting, thereby lending much needed specificity to the statements. Such conversations would better enable teachers to use a school’s mission and vision to guide his or her curriculum development and instructional implementation. These theoretical and philosophical conversations should also be integrated into classroom discussions in ways that allow students to participate thoughtfully and honestly.
Students should participate in infusing their own meaning into the general words and phrases of a school’s mission and vision statements through honest and thoughtful conversations about a school’s and its community’s cultural, religious, and political beliefs and values. Presented are a few thoughts on what it can look like to create a curriculum framework that allows teachers to explicitly engage students in critical thinking and reflection around the components of a school’s mission and vision.
Putting the Mission and Vision
As someone who has worked in three different community day schools around the US, I have experienced a disconnect between a school’s mission and vision of pluralism and what is actually happening on the ground, particularly when it comes to the experiential and Judaic studies curricula. At the schools of which I have had the good fortune to be a part, the community school’s experiential activities seem most similar in characteristic, tone and feeling to Conservative practice and outlook. For example, daily tefillah (if there is daily tefillah) regularly defaults to traditional egalitarian tefillah. Currently, the experiential activities do not provide the spectrum of Jewish students in a pluralistic school with equal opportunities to see and experience their personal religious beliefs, values and practice in the curriculum.
The guiding curriculum framework might include big ideas such as, “Engaging with diversity is a tenet of pluralism” and “It is important to be knowledgeable of and understand my own religious beliefs and values as well as seek understanding of my peers’ religious beliefs and values.” Essential questions might be, “What are the key tenets of pluralism?”, “How does being a ____________ Jew influence my understanding of pluralism?” and “How does believing in pluralism affect me as a __________ Jew?” Of course, conversations among a school’s stakeholders about the school’s understanding of pluralism must occur to determine if the big ideas I pose here are indeed the tenets of that particular school’s pluralistic philosophy.
Following these essential questions are stated student objectives. Some student objectives might be specific to a content area but encompass the tone of pluralism, such as when learning Torah, “Students will be able to identify reasons for dissensus and/or consensus among textual commentaries about a given topic or idea,” or when working on a math project, “Students will be able to solve real world mathematical challenges in multiple ways using creative problem solving and perspective taking skills.”
Regardless of the content or subject area, teachers should be engaging students in ways that help the students answer questions such as these, and students should be journaling about and reflecting on these questions throughout their community day school experience. When teachers develop their specific curricula, they can look for topic areas that lend themselves to fostering meaningful conversations in which students critically consider aspects of pluralism as they relate to the content areas. Teachers can then help students make connections between what they are learning and their own lives using the lens of pluralism. This naturally leads to students having opportunities to research their particular style of Judaism and put it into conversation with that of their peers. Moreover, it forces the school community to reflect on whether the curricular choices school leaders and teachers are making truly echo the pluralistic mission and vision of the school.
As school leaders reflect on the construction and implementation of the school’s mission and vision, teachers should be engaged in ongoing conversations about the school’s pluralistic mission and vision and reflect on how the mission and vision guide their curricular and instructional choices. Students should reflect on how their thinking about their personal beliefs and the school’s philosophy are interacting, growing and shifting. Only then will a school’s mission and vision truly find its place in the curriculum, and only then will students comprehend better how they may choose a particular Jewish path while continuing to believe in and belong to a pluralistic community.♦
Eliana Lipsky is an EdD candidate in curriculum and instruction at Loyola University Chicago, researching authentic student inquiry in the Modern Orthodox Tanakh classroom. email@example.com
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