Tuesday, February 3, 2015

The Social Network as an Educating Space

In Israel with the Riverway Project, on one of the many bus rides that often constitute a guided Israel experience, one participant and another began talking about their Jewish pasts. Having been raised by parents with deep Jewish connections but little interest in organized religion, Dena was fascinated by Carin’s seeming comfort with liturgy and Jewish tradition. In turn, Carin was interested in Dena’s experience outside of synagogues and in her grandparents’ leftist/ intellectual orientation that Dena associated strongly with her Jewish roots. Their conversation began with Dena’s simple question of Carin, “How do you know so much?” As each continually asked questions, their varied Jewish experiences - Carin's day school education and her family’s involvements in different synagogues, Dena's family seders and Lower East Side roots - provided resources for each other and an opportunity to consider different kinds of Jewish lives. 

It's been demonstrated that "who you knew affects how you Jew," that social networks encourage Jewish engagement. The more Jewish communities in one's background, the more Jewish choices one makes as an adult. We mimic our Jewish friends, who make their own Jewish choices. Our very knowledge of Jewish choices comes from Jewish friends. Out of Jewish communities, we create long-term relationships with Jews, which facilitate our Jewish education, Jewish life partners, Jewish involvement.

Social networks also, themselves, are classrooms. Walking into a peer's home for Shabbat lunch, that home becomes the text that explains Jewish living, makes it come alive. The experience of Shabbat lunch affirms, explains, and models. We can have a mezuzzah on our doors, and ritual objects on our bookshelves. We can display that book that we bought in Israel; we can open Shabbat lunch with blessings. In this secular life, this is how our peers do it. We learn as we live in these cases of true situated learning, the life experiences of the members and then of the network itself becoming texts that we, network members, study and explore.

This kind of experimentation within the context of community is most important for newcomers. Newbies engage from the sidelines. In prayer, for example, we follow the words to the songs with our eyes but don't sing. We take a glass of kiddush wine but don't help pass it out, or tap our feet to the tune but don't clap. This is how we learn Jewish community, by watching and, when we're comfortable, jumping in, one ritual at a time. We practice "legitimate peripheral participation," the description that community of practice scholars Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger give to this phenomenon. We, legitimately, dip toes in the water, interested and engaged, not yet learned, confident, or at home, but slowly absorbing the practice of Judaism.

This is how we learn the details of Jewish living and it's good stuff, for sure. But ultimately, the most intense power of the network is not actually in all of this ritual learning. The confidence to live Jewishly, the resolutions of our struggles with Judaism, the validation and motivation that some of us need to engage, these come more from the safety, stimulation, and support of the group, from the experiences that members create together. Strong social networks become supportive learning communities. They talk through the network's living - in this case, of their Jewish lives. We have a meal after Shabbat services at synagogue and work on the issues that the rabbi raised in the sermon. We talk through events in Israel. We look for a Jewish spiritual community that's right for us, thinking out loud with peers about what that means. We work on volunteer boards together, critiquing our organizations and mapping out what they need.

On the Riverway Project's Israel trip, the group became the mediator of participants' Jewish growth. As these twenty- and thirty-something liberal (Reform) Jews had complex experiences at the Kotel, and walked around Jewish history for the first time, and grappled with Israel's borders and boundaries, their once merely social interactions gave way to trust and even reliance as they thought out loud together. A genuine interest to learn from each other seemed to grow, as did an expectation among participants that they would help each other build their distinct and mutual ideas. They would help each other build their respective Jewishness. They debriefed formally, sitting in circles after visiting varied sites, and they chatted informally, as Dena and Carin did on the bus. They began to take on each other's language, relating in later conversations ideas from their peers that stuck with them. The group members became each other’s teachers, their relationships and the ways that the prompted and supported each other the most authentic part of their experience. One group member explained:
It was not the sights we saw, nor ... the Israelis conducting their daily lives in and around these sights, though both were fascinating, but rather how the group of people that I was traveling with experienced these same moments. In our evening sessions of study and reflection, I was struck continually by the thought that Israel was merely the backdrop to our own deepening connection with each other and our own sense of evolving Judaism.
In all of these ways, social networks offer an educating space, practice from which to learn to be Jewish, and validation and support, a group with whom to reflect on and process their Jewish choices.

Social networks develop organically, but they also benefit from cultivation. That is, the same as a curriculum, social networks are a tool that practitioners can craft deliberately in order to facilitate education. So:
  • Facilitating a class? Don't spend your time only - or even primarily - on the "content." Lecture about Maimonides, or teach about Shabbat, but spend an equal amount of time facilitating reflection among students, asking them to share their opinions about the material with each other, helping them to learn from peers about who they are as Jews as well as from each other about Judaism.
  • And, build relationships. Make sure students know each other's names, and details about each other. When they speak in class and refer to each other's points, help them use each other's names and to speak to each other, not only to the teacher. Facilitate a get to know you conversation. Help students share personally.
  • Create opportunities for informal, organic conversation, outside of the classroom. Facilitate a museum trip, or a movie and meal afterward, or a Shabbat experience. Help students have serendipitous conversation.
  • Raise topics for conversation. Bring out the tensions in students' identities and experiences. Don't let conversation be easy; don't gloss over what you think is really going on for students.
Every class can become a network, the network strengthening what happens in class. Every network can be educational, with content and facilitation from a caretaker, with tight relationships that allow deep trust among members. Through conversation and reflection with each other, on the text that is their collective experience, students - network members - transition into new and more strongly Jewish identities for themselves.

No comments:

Post a Comment