Spotlight on: Creating a Peak Moment: Middle School Moot Beit Din
In their recent book The Power of Moments, brothers Chip and Dan Heath throw down a gauntlet for educators and leaders alike. “We all have defining moments in our lives—meaningful experiences that stand out in our memory. ... Defining moments shape our lives, but we don’t have to wait for them to happen. We can be the authors of them.”
The Heath brothers’ challenge struck me. Authoring such defining or peak experiences in schools is not always so easy in a school setting. I often ask students about highlights of their school year; they regularly mention retreats, trips, community service and experiential learning among their most meaningful experiences. But what about the classroom? What would it take to create a peak experience in the Jewish studies classroom?
Last fall, with this question in mind,
I jumped at the opportunity to help create the first-ever middle school Moot Beit Din program. Moot Beit Din has long been a powerful and successful program at the high school level, where students explore a modern ethical or legal issue through the lens of classic rabbinic texts. Could it work with middle schoolers as well?
The answer was unequivocally yes. Over the course of nine months, I collaborated with colleagues from six different schools to plan the inaugural competition using monthly video conferences and a battery of Google Docs. Our group chose to reuse the 2015 Moot Beit Din case that centered on an offensive Snapchat during a school election. My students began to pore over the material, familiarizing themselves with the different texts. To my surprise, they were fascinated by the case and its complexity, puzzling over the 11th century takana of Rabbeinu Gershom that banned opening someone else’s mail.
We also decided to tweak the Moot Beit Din format to provide the appropriate scaffolding for middle school students. We identified two main sides of the argument and assigned groups of students to one side or the other. (In the high school competition, students are free to choose and tailor their argument.) Teams would submit a written component before the competition and present their arguments at Moot Beit Din in front of judges and an opposing team (including time for rebuttal, which was quite popular with students). After this initial round, we planned for a “final four,” in which the top four teams would compete in front of everyone to decide the overall winner.
Finally, after many months of preparation, I found myself on a bus with a colleague and 25 of my eighth-grade students, en route to Orange County. The scene there, just days before Shavuot, was revelatory: nearly 200 people, 160 students along with judges and teachers, gathered for the Middle School Moot Beit Din competition. Five Southern California day schools participated (Heschel, Milken, Pressman Academy, Tarbut V’Torah Community Day School and San Diego Jewish Academy), with Kinneret Day School joining via video conference from New York.
The day itself was filled with energy and a deep engagement with Torah. For me, the highlight was seeing my students and others passionately engaging with the judges about deep and complex Jewish legal questions. Additionally, it was truly a joy to collaborate with colleagues from so many different schools. Our creative partnership ensured that it wasn’t just a peak experience for the students but for the professionals as well.
The week after the competition, back in the classroom, I offered my students a chance to reflect and distill their learning. The results were quite moving, as one of my students eloquently expressed: “I have reconnected with my Jewish values, and
I have learned how to use different Jewish texts to help me solve my own problems.
I know that I will be able to use these texts throughout my whole life.”
We all want to create peak experiences that instill in our students a true love of Torah and a deep attachment to Judaism. Moot Beit Din did just that. It was an inspiring and rigorous learning experience that culminated with a communal celebration. Our students are eager to engage with sophisticated Jewish texts, and the real-life case of an inappropriate Snapchat allowed students to connect deeply to the material at hand.
We’re already planning the 2nd Annual Southern California Middle School Moot Beit Din Competition for the spring of 2019. I hope you’ll consider joining us, or even better, start your own local middle school Moot Beit Din.