The Paradox of Teaching

Over this past year, I’ve had the pleasure of teaching Hebrew and Judaic studies to kindergarten and third-grade students in my role as a TJF Fellow at Rockwern Academy in Cincinnati. As I was teaching, I was also reading Parker Palmer’s The Courage to Teach in the education seminar at HUC-JIR. In thisimportant work on education, Palmeroutlines six paradoxes of teaching, four of which help explain what I have learned throughout my time at Rockwern.

Palmer’s first paradox is that a learning space should be both boundedand open. By this he means that the learning space contains a defined subject so it does not become a “chaotic void,” yet there is freedom to explore within that space. Not surprisingly, six- and eight-year-olds love to ask questions! But this means they also love to get off-topic. So I was confronted with a paradox: I wanted to let the children follow what interests them, but at the same time I needed to guide them to stay focused, and to understand the line between curiosity and distraction. Parker’s solution is to use materials so compelling that the students cannot help but be focused on the subject at hand. With kindergarteners this may mean reading a book with pictures that stimulate discussion. My Rockwern kindergarteners recently were very engaged with a book about the Ten Commandments in which they could see a boy taking a cupcake from a baker for “Do not steal,” which unexpectedly (but pleasantly!) prompted a discussion not only about how taking from our friends is wrong, but also about being poor and not being able to afford that cupcake in the first place. — Yes, it was adorable! — We had a subject that was bounded (the Ten Commandments) yet open enough to allow for their natural inquisitiveness, and I used that to guide how that bounded topic was discussed, namely the ethical dilemmas that lead to some of those commandments being broken.

Palmer then addresses the idea of the learning space being simultaneously hospitableand charged. By this, he means that the space is both trustworthy and liberating, but he adds the caveat that this can be aided by the aforementioned boundaries. I found this to be true as I sought to create a space for deep learning to happen by viewing my challenge as how to allow the children to feel safe yet push them out of their comfort zones. During one class session, I taught the third-grade class some new Hebrew words related to the parashaand then asked them to draw a picture and write a story using three of those words—a task hospitable enough for each student to achieve. They reviewed the words and already had some strong Hebrew language skills. Most importantly, they felt safe with me and with each other, so some of them felt charged enough to push themselves by trying to write the whole story in Hebrew instead of just using a few words, which was truly impressive!

The next paradox Palmer raises is that the space should honor the little stories of the individualand the big stories of the disciplines and tradition. While we cannot lose sight of the bigger picture (the big stories), we can indeed provide moments for the students to let out their own inner teacher. I think this is fascinating, because it allows us as educators to have an end goal, but also allow students to make their own connections to the subject at hand, as well as add depth to it through their own stories and experiences. My favorite example of this is when the third-grade class learned about parashat hashavua, the weekly Torah portion. They worked in their textbooks in order to get an idea of the big picture and master the basic narrative. A few of our students do external studies at the Kollel so, when we did the Shabbat blessings as a class, we gave them a chance to tell us a little story about something extra they learned about the parashathat week, which is usually a midrash. We thus remained focused on the parasha as a class but also heard the amazing things our eight-year-olds discovered about our ancient texts, outside of school and of their own accord!

Palmer’s final paradox is that the space should support solitudeand surround it with the resources of community. He acknowledges the idea that students need individual time to reflect and absorb, but that they also need the sounding board of community so they are not left alone in their own thoughts and, perhaps, ignorances. This paradox is interesting in how it exhibits the fact that different people learn through different styles and methods. It allows for those styles to be used in a balanced way, so that deep education is possible for each student. Students in our third-grade classroom had the opportunity to work in chevruta(partnership) when they were assigned activities, so they could change desks or find their own space in the room in order to work together. Students who wanted a bit of space to sit and concentrate could find that space in an inviting pile of comfortable cushions in one of the corners. Our classroom contained a variety of spaces in which students could seek solitude but still know that their community of teachers and friends was always around to help them when needed.

I have learned this year that teaching is inherently full of paradoxes, particularly if we want to take into account both ourselves and our students as whole human beings, a theme that runs through Palmer’s work. Navigating these paradoxes has grown my own love of teaching as I have come to appreciate its complexities, and it has helped me toward my primary goal: serving the best interests of the students at all times. I am fortunate to have found a place like Rockwern where I could explore these ideas over the last year, and I look forward to the teaching challenges ahead!

Eliza McCarroll is a second-year rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and was the TJF Fellow at Rockwern Academy for the 2018–2019 academic year.

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