Middle School Tefillah Is My Favorite Time of the Day

Teaching and Learning

Middle school tefillah is usually a struggle. We are often, at best, seeking student compliance. Student engagement seems beyond our reach. How do we create, and even enjoy, meaningful, spiritual tefillah experiences with middle school students? 

Since my own teen years, I have strived for personal tefillah that nourishes my soul. To experience this kind of tefillah as a middle school teacher davening with reluctant students seemed impossible. But, for the past two years, I have had the privilege of this kind of experience. I have been davening with a group students who were chosen by the faculty to be in my alternative tefillah group. They were clearly not engaged in any way in our traditional, communal davening. They needed a different approach. 

I wish I could say it was all intentional from the outset. But it wasn’t. We just knew that these students needed something that wasn’t yet being offered. We began by dividing our time into a 20-minute discussion group followed by fifteen minutes of quiet, personal, davening time.

The discussion piece was determined by the students. I started by asking, “What bothers you about tefillah?” “What is hard for you?” What aspects do you struggle with?” Sometimes it was as simple as, “Does anyone have anything to discuss this morning?” They always had an issue to discuss. I framed my teaching about tefillah around their concerns.

Slowly, we built a community. We shared personal stories of when we couldn’t connect. The students were honest about why they would not or could not daven with the whole community. They shared their feelings about God, Torah, and Judaism, and their personal struggles with all of it. They learned that they could say what they were feeling, without judgment. They asked questions. They were seeking answers. 

I tried to structure our time together so that the students were getting what they seemed to want and need. We learned why the siddur is structured as it is. We learned what specific tefillot mean. We learned that so many of their daily concerns are addressed in the pages of the siddur. We built a community based on trust and acceptance. And, with time, everyone started to daven. 

The crossed arms relaxed. Siddurim were opened and read. Students shared stories of which tefillot they chose to say each morning and why. Our alternative group became a safe space to struggle with God and the obligations of communal tefillah. It was a place to struggle, but not a place to give up. 

As the group evolved, I began to treasure my time each morning with these students. After a passionate discussion about gratitude, or healing, or miracles, I was able to open my siddur with new eyes and a fresh perspective. My relationship with my tefillah group positively impacted my relationship with these students outside of tefillah. A student told me that she would miss tefillah over the summer. Tefillah at school began to nourish my soul.

I learned that middle school students want to talk about God. They want to talk to God. But sometimes they want to do it in their own way and on their own terms. They want to feel that the educators are on their side. They want to feel that someone cares about their struggles with tefillah. They want communal connection. They want to know what they are being asked to say and why they are being asked to say it. They want to be free to ask questions. Providing this opportunity for students is a tall order, but it is well worth it.