HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

Bridging the Chasm between the Formal and Informal

by Daniel Held Issue: Formal-Informal Education

For informal education in day school to be most effective, formal and informal educators need to work tightly on coordinating goals and curricula.

During my first years of teaching I split my day in two. Each morning, from 8:30-10:30, I was “Mr. Held,” the Jewish history teacher. My students sat in desks, diligently took notes, and raised their hands to ask questions. I took attendance, marked quizzes, and taught a curriculum rich in primary sources.

Each morning I was “Mr. Held,” the Jewish history teacher. As soon as the bell rang I became “Held,” the director of student activities who worked in the “Cougar Cave.”

As soon as the bell rang and I left the classroom, I became “Held,” the director of student activities. I worked in the “Cougar Cave” which doubled as a student lounge. I partnered with students in organizing shabbatonim and assemblies, holiday celebrations and an Israel trip. I sought to engage students in the activities of the Jewish calendar and to help them integrate Jewish values into their daily life. While these activities offered valuable experiences in Jewish socialization, at times the emphasis was on the social rather than the Jewish. Students cited the informal programs as a highlight of their school experience, an important selling point for the school.

At the time, the bifurcation of my role into formal classroom teacher and informal educator seemed natural. Historically, education developed on two parallel lines. On one hand, schooling, characterized by a content-oriented curriculum and a hierarchically organized structure, was termed formal education. On the other hand, a hodgepodge of educative activities, often loosely focused on identity formation and moral education, occurring in settings ranging from camps to the Golan Heights, was termed informal education.

When my school, like many others, began investing in informal education by hiring a dedicated staff and running new programs it took the first step in breaking down the wall separating formal and informal settings. Within the school, however, these two forms of teaching ran in parallel, non-intersecting paths. The Israel trip and community service program, tefillah and holiday celebrations had no direct connection to classes in rabbinics, Jewish history, Ivrit and Tanakh.

Isa Aron, in describing formal and informal learning in congregations, describes these two paths as “instruction” and “enculturation.” The classroom is the home of instruction, passing information from teacher to student. “The school … is a ‘delivery system,’ in which teachers, administrators, and a variety of specialists work together to transmit these objects to their students as efficiently as possible.” Informal education, by contrast, provides enculturation into the living experience of Judaism and socialization into school culture through immersive experiences, with a healthy dose of recreation.

The sharpest, though by no means the only, example of these two non-intersecting tracks was the teaching of Shabbat. All ninth grade students were required to attend a school shabbaton. Through communal meals and tefillot, songs and stories, they discovered—some for the first time—a vibrant celebration of Shabbat. The students loved the experience. The optional tenth, eleventh and twelfth grade shabbatonim were oversubscribed, a group of students and teachers began their own Friday night tefillah at a local synagogue, and others rejuvenated the lunchtime Kabbalat Shabbat program in school. The rabbinics course covered Shabbat in eleventh grade. In the text-based curriculum, students studied the biblical and rabbinic origins of Shabbat, a variety of contemporary, philosophical relationships to Shabbat, and the halakhah and practices of Shabbat. The two curricula, however, didn’t speak to one another. Separated by two academic years and differing pedagogies, the two Shabbat curricula were islands unto themselves.

Running two separate tracks was comfortable. It avoided conflict and smoothed planning and implementation. Teachers, who bemoaned loosing valuable instructional hours, didn’t have to sacrifice class time and weren’t required to plan or attend the shabbaton. I was able to convene a team of like-minded educators to implement the shabbatonim without thinking too far out of the box or challenging my own notions of teaching and learning. Although this approach avoided conflict and sidestepped the need to reorient existing norms, it belied the holistic approach to instruction and enculturation that our schools must adopt.

The contemporary day school must be a bastion of integrating instruction with enculturation, a paradigm that can be met through the incorporation of experiential learning into the central fabric of the school. Successful integration of experiential learning cannot take the form of informal activities that run parallel to classroom curricula. Rather, classroom instruction must inform the curriculum of activities just as the activities must shape learning in the classroom. Aron states, “Successful instruction is usually founded on a base of successful enculturation, which provides the student with both the motivation to learn and opportunities to consolidate that learning.” Similarly, Joseph Reimer demonstrates that while informal educators often define their goals in terms of socialization, such learning can only reach it potential with dual defining goals: socialization and education.

Once we articulated the challenge of running two parallel curricula, we laid three steps leading towards integration. First, the school’s classroom teachers and informal educators must engage in dialogue, sharing perspectives, resources and responsibilities. Second, informal educational programs and specifically the shabbatonim must, in Reimer’s language, “go deeper” by establishing a curriculum of experiences and conceptualizing cognitive goals. Third, the classroom curriculum had to be modified in order to allow students to reflect on their shabbaton experience and consolidate that learning with the classroom curriculum.

Engaging a wide swath of faculty was crucial in parsing the divide between formal and informal learning. We distributed a survey to better understand teachers’ perceptions of the impact of the shabbaton program on classroom learning and the school environment. The instrument itself was seen by teachers to demonstrate a level of seriousness and reflection not previously associated with the seemingly raucous and informal nature of the shabbatonim. General and Jewish studies staff, novice and veteran teachers, those who had been on shabbatonim and those who had never attended spent time reflecting on the program and sharing their insights.

Many noted the unintended impact on classroom learning. Recognizing the group-building experience, teachers cited increased participation in classroom discussions and activities. Similarly, teachers who had attended a shabbaton demonstrated that students felt more comfortable approaching them to address both curricular and non-curricular issues. Using these responses and the resulting conversations as triggers, a core group of teachers interested in the shabbaton was assembled.

The key to teacher engagement is providing a sense of purpose for involvement. When teachers view their role as supervisory or perfunctory, they balk at volunteering their time. When they have a sense of purpose and recognize the unique contribution of their time, skills and expertise, I found them eager to contribute.

Increased teacher involvement came in two forms. First, a core group of teachers partnered with students in planning and implementing the junior shabbatonim. For many teachers, shifting from a hierarchical teacher-student relationship to a more collaborative working style was challenging and required continual reflection. Second, on each shabbaton we set aside time for teacher electives. During these blocks, teachers were invited to teach their passion—often avocational topics that did not relate to their core teaching subjects. Both of these pathways for engagement allowed the teacher and student to form a new type of relationship, one which is sometimes inhibited by the classroom hierarchy.

Greater teacher involvement increased the educational rigor of the shabbaton, expanding the program from one focused on enculturation to include instruction. Student leaders and teachers developed a text for the shabbatonim including prayers, songs, commentary and explanation. A curriculum was developed ensuring that on each shabbaton rituals were framed with background information and explanation. Newly engaged teachers led text studies and parashah discussions.

With a core group of teachers helping to shape the work of the Department of Student Activities and a revamped shabbaton curriculum, it became easier to find links between the shabbaton experience and classroom learning. Before the shabbaton, in rabbinics classes, teachers taught elements of the rituals students would encounter on the shabbaton and madrichim began teaching songs. We divided freshmen shabbatonim by rabbinics class in order to encourage the teacher to attend and to extend classroom learning into Shabbat. Following the shabbaton, the classroom was a forum for reflecting upon the experience and extending enculturation into instruction.

Throughout the process, my role in the school changed. While at first, I wore two different kippot—one in the classroom and one in the Cougar Cave—over time the roles melded. Beyond work integrating the formal and informal Shabbat curricula, I worked with a variety of teachers and departments to build experiences to complement their teaching. Akin to the educational technologist who consults with teachers on integrating technology into their curriculum, I acted as an educational experientialist, working with the Jewish history department and our Israel trip provider to scaffold the Israel trip, the Ivrit department to video speeches for students to review and critique, and the politics teacher to convene a mock trial on Israel’s security fence. While many schools have hired experiential educators or seconded teachers to take responsibilities for informal activities, the role of the educational experientialist runs deeper than planning and running assemblies and holiday celebrations. He or she is charged with bridging the divide between the formal and informal curricula.

Our schools have come a long way in growing the scope of educational activities. Day schools invest heavily in extracurricular activities and informal education. All too often, however, these programs are isolated from core instruction, acting as peripheral programs to classroom learning. They are conceived as recreational, value-added programs that help with recruitment and retention, rather than educational activities designed to buttress core elements of the curriculum. If our schools are to serve as the holistic centers of education, the formal and informal must meld into one overarching curriculum that runs between the classroom and the experience, merging instruction and enculturation.♦

To Learn More

Aron, Isa, “The Malaise of Jewish Education,” Tikkun Magazine 4:3.

Reimer, Joseph, “Beyond More Jews Doing Jewish: Clarifying the Goals of Informal Jewish Education,” Journal of Jewish Education 73:1.

Daniel Held is a doctoral student in Jewish education, a Wexner Graduate Fellow, and the coordinator of the Educators’ Program at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. He can be reached at danielmheld@gmail.com.

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Formal-Informal Education

If only school could be like camp… Many people’s fondest childhood memories are of camp with its unstructured days and enjoyable activities. Increasingly, under the rubric of informal or experiential education, schools are capturing some of the atmosphere of camp in the classroom and beyond. How can this model be adapted effectively to the educational rigor of a day school?

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