Minds in Session: The Jewish Court of All Time

Michael Fahy, Jeff Kupperman, Jeff Stanzler

The fever dream of a Jewish history teacher? Not exactly. What we just described to you was an actual scene from the Jewish Court of All Time (JCAT), a web-based simulation for middle school students, developed at the University of Michigan School of Education by our Interactive Communications and Simulations (ICS) group. Designed in collaboration with RAVSAK, JCAT was piloted in 2008 with the participation of Jewish Education students in Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, Alabama and Mississippi, and the “conversation” quoted above comes from that pilot.

In JCAT, we propose a way of studying history and current events that is dialectical and imaginative. Students weigh multiple sources of information, draw conclusions from incomplete evidence, stretch their ability to understand what it was like to live in a distant place and time, and struggle to find present-day meaning in the events of the past. They do this as participants in a dramatic narrative, whose outcome no one knows until the end. It is as far as one can be from the dry, “one damn thing after another” kind of history study that most of us experienced throughout our schooling, yet in many ways is closer to what professional historians do.

But are middle school students up to the task? Won’t they just “make stuff up” and end up with a distorted caricature of history and current events? That is always a risk, but we have found, to the contrary, that students are more likely to dive into their task with impressive seriousness and sophistication. To find out what students are learning in JCAT and how, we must look at three separate, but interconnected “spaces”: (1) the virtual, web-based common space; (2) middle school classrooms participating in the simulation, and (3) a classroom of university “mentors” taking a seminar in which they work closely with the younger students, seeking ways to nurture and support deep thinking and expressive writing.

Figure 1: Interconnected spaces of JCAT

Let’s start with the virtual space of the Jewish Court of All Time simulation. In this space we ask, “What if the wisdom of history could be brought to bear on a problem of our day?” Specifically, the JCAT website creates space—imagined to be a restored fortress at Masada—where great women and men from across the range of human history gather to decide the outcome of a trial, connected to an event of our time. These great figures of history (brought to life by the students and mentors) come to Masada to help ensure a just resolution to the case, though part of what makes JCAT interesting is reconciling the different visions of justice held by the gathered luminaries. While the trial itself is fictional (in our scenario, a Sudanese man sues the State of Israel in order to obtain refugee status), behind the scenario are complex, real-life moral and legal issues (e.g., does a Jewish state have a special obligation toward refugees from modern-day genocide?). Within the website, student-portrayed characters can make speeches, participate in public discussions, maintain blogs, and send private messages to each other in a password-protected workspace.

What goes on in the middle school classroom? Student participants learn about and ultimately portray significant historical and contemporary figures, most of whom are Jewish. Their first task is to write and share their “resume,” which is the means by which student-portrayed characters teach their colleagues about who they’re portraying, and it also serves the specific function of pushing the students to more fully “become” their character. Students write their resumes in the first person, and they must discover enough about their characters that they can represent them well, learning about that person’s life and beliefs. They must also begin crafting a vision of the kind of person they are, as we see JCAT as partially an exercise of the creative imagination—we encourage the students to establish a distinctive “voice,” to be dramatic and, most of all, to imbue their participation with a spirit of play.

How about in the university classroom? Like the younger students, the university student “mentors” participate in character. As they learn about their characters, the university students receive a gradual orientation to the teaching and learning environment of the simulation, and from the outset they come to understand that their primary tasks are to help the younger students construct a bridge between historical times and the present day, and to gain a heightened appreciation for other ways of thinking. In the service of these goals, our mentors must draw upon their academic backgrounds and life experiences, and we are consistently engaged in thinking reflectively about where the teaching and learning opportunities can be found.

Philosophically, we start with the belief that students need opportunities to hone their skills at engaging critically with the world of ideas, and this requires that they develop the ability to formulate and articulate their own ideas so that they can more thoughtfully examine those of others. We believe that doing this kind of work takes on greater meaning if kids see that people are paying attention to what they think: their words and ideas matter, so it’s worth investing the time in thinking about what they want to say, and why. We also believe that the thoughtful employment of story and drama can draw kids in, and can sometimes have the effect of making schoolwork seem a bit more like creative play.

In order to take full advantage of these possibilities, JCAT has a fluid storyline that grows out of what takes place at that particular trial, and that exploits the element of surprise, growing out of our belief that things become more compelling when characters act in surprising ways, and when things get “revealed” unexpectedly. Finally, we believe in actively maintaining a safe environment, and much of the work of the mentors is motivated by this goal. Students are taking risks as they express themselves in character, and it is essential that their efforts not be belittled. Feeling safe is also important because we have seen that character play can make it possible for kids to talk about important matters that would be risky to discuss as themselves, face-to-face. For many of our students, being able to speak in character, without the glare of a face-to-face conversation, gives them room to more fully articulate their ideas, building the confidence that can lead to success in other settings.

There is nothing magical about JCAT, and in each of our simulations some students struggle with the tasks required, or find them less than compelling. However, the idea of infusing the study of history with the spirit of creative play and the power of an engaged audience has led to some gratifying outcomes. Elaine Kaplan, faculty member at Rockwern Academy in Cincinnati, Ohio, said that “my students responded to the JCAT program on so many different levels simultaneously that it is probably impossible to adequately describe their learning. Students were forced to consider how the times in which their characters lived affected their perceptions and assumptions about many things, including Judaism itself. In discussing the case of the family from Darfur, my students were deeply engaged in figuring out what Israel’s role should be, leading them to wonder and consequently learn more about Israel’s history, mission, and current politics. Participating in JCAT led my students to think, write and argue more intensely about moral questions than typical assignments. Ironically, the simulation engaged them more thoroughly and authentically than learning about actual current events.”

One of the university mentors wrote of being “amazed at the ways that students took ownership of their characters and adopted their characters’ worldview. The project allowed students to test out new theories about the world and actively, openly debate these theories in a safe space.” We are pleased to report that, in partnership with RAVSAK and the Center for Studies in Jewish Education and Culture at the University of Cincinnati, we recently were awarded a grant from the Covenant Foundation to expand JCAT, and we look forward to exciting new learning partnerships with RAVSAK schools starting in the 2010-2011 school year.

Dr. Jeff Stanzler is Lecturer in Education at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor. Dr. Michael Fahy is an Instructor for Interactive Communications and Simulations, and is Project Director at Proxima, an educational consulting firm. Dr. Jeff Kupperman is Associate Professor of Education at the University of Michigan-Flint. The three co-direct the Place out of Time and Jewish Court of All Time projects. They can be reached at [email protected], [email protected], and [email protected].

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HaYidion iSchool Spring 2010
Spring 2010