One of my biggest role models as I taught first grade at Rockwern Academy this year has been Mick Jagger. Adam Morgan, in his book A Beautiful Constraint, recounts the story of how the Rolling Stones first started out. They performed in small venues, and Jagger had very little room to move around. Unable to pace around the stage, Jagger used his confined space to create a stage act full of expressive gestures, turning his constraint into a compelling part of their show. His flailing limbs and incredible footwork continued on even as he played stages with more and more room.
Thanks to COVID-19, my teaching experience has been anything but typical. Each week, I Zoom into the in-person class, teaching and engaging two sets of eleven masked, energetic, and excited first-grade students around parshat hashavua from their SMART board.
In the midst of this challenge, I realized that I needed to channel my inner Mick Jagger. How could I turn my constraint of a Zoom box into an opportunity to create something exciting, engaging, and memorable? The unique constraints of this year taught me a great deal about teaching that I would not have learned otherwise. Like Jagger, I’ve realized that I can apply what I learned even when the situation changes. This experience has taught me how to be a better teacher not just on Zoom but truly in any situation.
First, I remembered that I, too, had a band. Mick Jagger did not dance silently but relied on a whole team of musicians to create an experience. I relied on Idit Moss, the first-grade Hebrew and Judaic studies teacher, to help me facilitate. She was an invaluable aid to my success, explaining instructions that Zoom made it difficult to understand, helping guide the students to the camera, managing all of the logistics of learning together, and assisting students in ways I could not.
I also had to keep adapting my act. One of the “enduring understandings”of our education course with Barbara Dragul is that “an educator is the most significant learner” in the classroom. I had to continue to learn, understand what would keep me engaged as a teacher, and be willing to experiment. As one of my mentors reminded me, the Hebrew verb lelammed ‘to teach’ is the intensive form of lilmod ‘to learn.’ Teaching is intense learning, and this year was certainly an intense year of learning. I had to constantly learn new skills and media, experiment, and reflect, truly becoming a learner alongside my students.
Lastly, I knew that I couldn’t be the only Mick Jagger in the room. Although the students had their own COVID-related constraints—masks, social distancing, no food or singing, to name a few—we each needed to find a way to shine. The medium rendered obsolete simply talking at the students, yes-or-no questions, and made it even harder for students to sit still. My teaching became more learner centered than it had ever been, and I want to continue focusing my classrooms on the learners. I leaned constructivist educational activities as I found ways to let the students guide the lessons and contribute their own thoughts and perspectives. We created skits and drawings, wrote reflections, and shared with neighbors. We interviewed people, stood in someone else’s shoes, and did yoga to embody the exodus story.
The students controlled what meaning we took out of the story, and I learned alongside them! What would you think a first grader’s favorite day of creation is? One said it was the creation of the sun, moon, and stars because only when the sun is out can we go play outside! How did Abraham and Sarah feel with they were told Lekh Lekha? Both excited and afraid! Who was the mystery being Jacob wrestled with? Esau! Why did Pharaoh need ten plagues before he let the Israelites go? Perhaps it was because only the last plague really impacted him personally, or perhaps he was scared about not being able to finish his projects, or perhaps Egypt would feel empty and lonely without all of the construction.
My students helped me see Torah through their eyes and consider new interpretations of the text. They helped me become a more dynamic Zoom box, as I found ways to engage them through music, videos, digital picture books and interactive activities. One of my favorite parts of class is when a student comes and present something they created, through the camera, when they are finished. I get to see each student show pride in their work, explain their interpretation of Torah to me, and show how they visualize the events in Torah.
So the students became band members alongside Idit and me. Each of us played our unique instruments, contributing melodies and harmonies, artful pauses and dramatic changes. We all channeled our inner Mick Jagger, flipping this constraint into a powerful opportunity to experience learner-centered education, the teachers learning together with the students.
When Jagger began to play larger venues, he retained some of his original style, and I, too, hope to apply what I’ve learned this year in various media I might use to teach in the future. When teachers are able to create space for each person in the room to contribute, our classrooms become sites of intensive learning for students and teachers alike. After all, teachers are not solo artists but the leaders of a band.
Aaron Torop is the 2020–2021 TJF Education Fellow at Rockwern Academy. He is in his second year at HUC-JIR Cincinnati