The Keva and Kavannah of Inspiration: Intergrade Partnerships
A quick search of Jewish day school websites around the country shows that about one-quarter of the schools use the word “inspire” as a descriptor either on their main page or in the their mission statement. Most of us in the business do see our purpose as that of inspiring our students, our staff and our families. What exactly does “inspire” mean in a school setting? Is there a way to make inspiration happen? Why should we make sure that we are peppering our open house speeches and our websites with the verb “inspire”?
The word inspiration is rooted etymologically in divine influence, but commonly it is understood as that “aha!” moment when an experience, an idea or person evokes an awareness that propels us to see something in a new way. The leading researchers of inspiration, Todd M. Thrash and Andrew J. Elliot, find that “inspiration involves both being inspired by something and acting on that inspiration.” In this understanding, there are two sides to the equation—the inspiration stimulus and the disposition of the person to act on that stimulus. Thrash and Elliot’s studies show that people who report being inspired frequently are more open to new experiences, have high rates of absorption in tasks, are less competitive, less extrinsically motivated, are more creative, and more self-reliant than peers who rate low on their inspiration scale.
Schools have some control over both sides of the inspiration equation—over the stimuli and in shaping the stimulus recipient’s receptiveness to inspiration. We create inspirational opportunities by hiring and cultivating teachers who are inspiring and by creating learning opportunities that touch the souls of our students. Scott Barry Kaufman notes that inspiration is not a passive experience, as “it favors the prepared mind.” When we create the conditions that promote intrinsic motivation, resiliency and decreased competition, our students should be positioned to “receive” inspirational stimuli.
As we thought about the concept of inspiration and we listed examples from each of our schools that qualified, we realized that the first examples that came to mind were rather similar. Both schools have created regularly scheduled, well-planned opportunities for older students to engage with younger children. Most of the time the older children are the leaders or “teachers” in these events, and sometimes younger children are given chances to lead. Not only are all students engaged throughout the activities, they take initiative in suggesting and assuming leadership roles within the school independent of the original activity. The stimulus is the “inspiring” mentor student, and the conditions that have been structured foster receptiveness to inspiration in all children. The outcome of creating new ways to be a leader in the school is the creative output of inspiration.
At Heschel, mixed-aged groups of students share the tradition of Tashlich, building their own fountain together and sharing the meaning of casting away their sins. Older students help the younger ones understand the importance of making mistakes, of accepting their errors, and of repenting for them during Tashlich. In secular studies, a similar dynamic occurs as the third and seventh graders share science experiments, with the younger students teaching the older ones about crayfish, for example. In robotics, which includes students in third to eighth grades, the mentorship opportunities occur in an afterschool robotics program. Heschel has created a K club, where older students serve as teaching assistants in the transitional kindergarten class. Mentorship opportunities are also structured outside of the formal school program. For example, middle schoolers at Heschel are charged with sitting with younger children during bus service to build relationships, teach bus etiquette, and create “one large family.”
The “one large family” idea is also apparent at Wornick in the chavurah program. The entire school is divided into 22 chavurot. Each chavurah has representatives from each grade, and all teachers and administrators are assigned a chavurah as well. Students remain in the same chavurah over the course of their tenure at the school; as an eighth grader graduates, a new kindergartner takes his/her place. Chavurot meet once a month to tackle a design challenge or a game created by a particular class, and students sit by chavurot during schoolwide Thursday morning tefillot.
Both schools have created intergrade opportunities around their eighth grade trips. At Heschel, as eighth graders leave for Israel, they are blessed under the school’s rainbow tallit with all grades delivering Tefillat HaDerekh, the Traveler’s Prayer, and the transitional kindergarteners’ presentation of letters to the travelers to put in the Kotel. Similarly, at Wornick, when eighth graders leave for Israel, there is a schoolwide ceremony in which each class presents an eighth grader with an assignment for their trip. For example, a second grader might say, “Our class is studying different species of animals. Please bring back photos of the different animals that you see on your trip.” When they return, each eighth grader teaches the younger class what they discovered about their assigned topic.
At Heschel’s step-up ceremony in June, each grade demonstrates their work in Project Chesed, a yearlong project in which they select a community organization to support and work with during the year. For example, kindergartners work with the local fire department, fourth graders choose Guide Dogs of America, second graders are guardians of the earth, building a garden and growing produce. Serving and giving are woven into the fabric of both schools and cut across grades.
The evidence of inspiration from these projects is clear. The sense of community in both schools is palpable. It is not uncommon to see older students and younger students “high-fiving” each other on the playground and at various all-school events. Older children often reach out to the younger students to sit with them at sports events to listen to and to help them solve a social problem on the playground. At Wornick, younger students frequently propose and carry out significant tikkun olam projects of their own. This year, because the projects had become so numerous and so well designed, the school has created a “mitzvah shuk” (similar to a non-competitive science fair) to take place in the spring. Younger grades (K-2) will each present one project per grade, and older grades (3-8) will propose and execute group projects.
The inspiration phenomenon is much more than simple role modeling. An inspirational role model may be necessary, but not sufficient. In fact, a receptive person could be inspired by an awesome event—a spectacular rainbow or an elegant mathematical solution. The structured experiences and the cultivation of receptiveness to the stimuli are key to inspiration in such cases.
In so many ways, the conversation about the possibility that inspiration can be structured echoes the keva vs. kavannah debates about prayer experiences. These discussions, and the subsequent outcome in how prayer services are structured, focus on balancing the structured (keva) with the spontaneous (kavannah) in prayer. There is an understanding that without keva, kavannah might never happen. Additionally, among the hoped-for outcomes of that perfect balance is a prayer experience that inspires one emotionally to perceive the world in new and wondrous ways, and to conduct oneself with greater empathy and concern for others. Like the inspiration continuum, the awe-inspiring prayer experience that motivates one to engage more deeply with oneself and with community is dependent upon structure and dispositions of receptivity. Intergrade opportunities provide an effective structure to generate the inspirational dispositions that build a community with a deep sense of shared purpose among all members of the community.
We discovered that intergrade opportunities are the core of inspiration in our institutions. The well-researched benefits of multiage activities in the literature on multiage classrooms include older children developing the patience and verbal skills to communicate effectively with younger children, and younger children honing their listening skills. Greater cooperation and empathy are also documented outcomes of multiage experiences.
We found an additional benefit. The pervasiveness and intentionality of the intergrade experiences addresses a basic human need “to belong” to a community. Our students and our families develop a profound sense of attachment, ownership and enduring commitment that comes from being part of a community where each member has a sense of responsibility to the whole.
Aside from all these compelling reasons for our schools to pay attention to inspiration, there is one more reason. In a competing landscape of schools where we can all tell pretty similar stories about the “what” and the “how” we teach, one factor that will both distinguish us and drive people to us is how well we can touch hearts by creating a community where everyone belongs and everyone matters. Mindfully creating the intergrade conditions for inspiration makes that possible.
Todd M. Thrash and Andrew J. Elliot, “Inspiration as a Psychological Construct” in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
Scott Barry Kaufman, “Why Inspiration Matters” in Harvard Business Review.