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What on earth worked??
April 18, 2010 by Rachel

I just got back from a Confirmation class retreat for a synagogue school. I have been teaching off and on at this school for the past 5 years, but I wasn’t originally signed up to teach this year (I have little kids at home and wanted some extra time with them). About halfway through the year, however, the Confirmation class was going very poorly: the teacher was having such a hard time connecting with the class, the teens were not engaged or participating, the whole bit. So the principal asked me to come back and co-teach the class. When things had hit bottom, the school had held a class meeting – with parents and teens – where they all vented their frustrations and talked about what they thought it would take to make the class functional and a positive experience. The parents talked about positive experiences, not too much content, giving lots of time for the kids to socialize.

In short, they wanted a youth group.

The teens admitted that they were a large part of the problem. They weren’t trying, didn’t answer questions that were asked, and had largely checked out. Let us have more fun, they said, give us activities and games that will let us get to know each other. Don’t be too strict or go too heavy on the content and we’ll try to engage some more.

So in I came, armed with team-building activities, very light on the content, but high on the personal. We built cubes out of straws and did silent introductions. We talked about Jewish values, but not for more than 20 minutes at a stretch. And we muddled through – the class certainly wasn’t a raving success, but it wasn’t on the brink of anarchy either.We were stymied by the never ending series of dramatic weather that hit the mid-Atlantic and missed several weeks of school. I tried to continue the class bonding and conversations through a class wiki-page, but never managed to get more than half the parents or students to sign onto the site. I felt the same frustration as my co-teacher and my principal had felt all year: we’re giving them exactly what they wanted, and yet they’re still not engaging or participating.

Then two things happened to shine some light. First, as we were casually chatting before class one morning, one teen asked what we were going to do that day. “No more games, I hope!” chimed in another one. “Yeah, no more games! We already know each other and we are tired of the silly games!”

Tired of the games? Really?

Then the next week we took our teens on our annual Confirmation trip to Philadelphia. It’s not usually terribly high in content, but this year was lighter than most. Our tour guide was very nice, but talked about things the teens couldn’t relate to, and kept pointing out where things used to be (see that corner there? That used to be a Yiddish theater! And that store there? That used to be a café where radicals met.). We were debriefing on the bus back to D.C. and the teens were all saying the same thing: We didn’t learn anything. It wasn’t connected to Confirmation. We wish we could have gotten more out of the experience.

So last weekend we tried something new. We taught. We had such a tight lesson plan that we hardly gave the kids a break in the middle - - let alone the multiple breaks the parents had requested. We had the teens out teaching the younger grades about the Holocaust and encouraging them to come to that evening’s Yom Hashoah program. We used text, we challenged them to state their own beliefs and then we set them a challenging assignment to tackle: figuring out how to explain the Yom Hashoah program in a way that was compelling, interesting, and related to 7th or 8th graders.

It was the best class of the year.

Then came the Spring Retreat. I always dread this retreat, sure that it will fail miserably. We spend almost the entire weekend writing - - the teens do half a dozen introspective writings, both wrapping up the year and also writing the material that creates the Confirmation service. Despite my fears, it always seems to work – maybe it’s just school-like enough that the kids don’t fight back? – but I was sure that this time it wouldn’t. These kids couldn’t possibly handle the hours and hours of writing, the editing and critiquing to get their first drafts into things worth sharing with the congregation. And, to top it all off – we just load up the weekend off with content! We read and analyze the book of Ruth. We talk about the Reform movement’s statement of principles, about God, Torah, and evolution, we think about the purpose of Judaism in our lives.

And it worked. Beautifully. Absolutely beautifully. The teens engaged. They wrote. They thought. They shared and they processed. And in reading their writings, I see that many of them have really struggled with what their Judaism means to them - - but they are committing to have that struggle, something many couldn’t do at the beginning of the year.One teen in particular, who is an avowed atheist and came into the class not considering himself part of the Jewish community in anything other than an accident of birth, wrote a beautiful letter to his parents as one of his confirmation assignments. Dear Mom and Dad, he wrote (and I’m paraphrasing, but not much!), I did not want to go to Confirmation this year. I complained and argued, but you ignored me and sent me anyway. And I now understand why you did. I still don’t know what my place in Judaism is, but I now see the value in it. I understand the importance of Jewish values and I can commit to them. And I now understand the passage: v’shinantem l’vanecha – you shall teach them to your children. You have done that, and I will do the same for my children. Thank you.

What’s the moral of the story? I’m not sure. But I do think that there’s something to be learned here and I open it to this community to help me find the moral. Is it just that the class needed a fresh voice and a new approach? Was it really not as bad as it seemed? Were the parents (and the teens) just completely wrong on what they wanted? Was giving more content all of the solution? I look forward to your analysis, and for now, I’m just relieved that, for whatever reason, it worked!