Moving Relationships to the Center: Five Questions Every Educator Should be Asking

The Pedagogy of Partnership (PoP) is a method of learning Jewishly that understands relationships as the very heart of teaching and learning. Underlying this approach are PoP’s Core Relational Building Blocks (CRBB), which serve as a foundational tool for creating educational programs and learning environments that foster relationships between students and teachers, among students and their peers, and importantly, between students and Torah. PoP holds that the teacher, each individual student and the text itself are all partners in learning. 


The Core Relational Building Blocks

The CRBB framework constitutes a set of questions the educator asks themselves to address two fundamental elements to relationship-building: the work of helping the learning partners become present and available for relationship and the work of connecting all the partners. When educators consider each of these questions, they open worlds of possibility for the skillful use of strategies and interventions to deepen the quality of learning and strengthen the learning community that makes this learning possible. These are the questions:

How am I connecting to learners and building relationships with them?

How am I inviting in and helping each individual learner be present?

How am I connecting learners to one another?

How am I inviting in and helping the text (content) be present and available for partnership?

How am I connecting learners and texts (content) to one another?

In this article, we explore this framework through a case of one teacher and her classroom. We illustrate how an educator might use this matrix of relational questions to see the potential she has to move her class to joyful, deep and connected learning.



Sample Class Session

The following story of a teacher and her classroom presents a composite image of many common themes emerging from actual classroom observations and teacher reflections. 

In a Jewish studies classroom, students are working on a packet with text excerpts from Shemot (Exodus), translating phrases and answering questions about the text. Some students asked if they could work together, and the teacher has given permission for them to work in havruta; otherwise, students can work on their own to complete the packet.

Scanning the classroom, the teacher observes that a havruta group has their packets open to different pages, as one student is working on one set of questions while the other is working on the next, having divided up the assignment. They mostly talk and laugh together about an upcoming school sporting event, punctuated by the occasional check-in about what a Hebrew word means in the text or “what did you put down” for a specific question. The teacher occasionally visits them to get them back on track. 

In another part of the room, a student working on her own is intently writing in her packet. The teacher anticipates that the student will finish before the rest of the class, declaring “I’m done,” and the teacher will need to provide that student with an extension activity. In a different corner of the room, another lone student sits slumped down in his chair, frowning. Staring out the window, with his packet untouched, he taps loudly on the desk with his pencil, causing his classmates repeatedly to yell out, “Stop tapping already!” He responds with an angry look. 

 The teacher is busy crisscrossing the room, following raised hands and answering questions. She slowly becomes aware that many of the questions are not about the text itself but about the packet directions and what she is “looking for.” 

When the time is up, the teacher brings the class together for a discussion. She asks the class the first question in the packet about what Bnei Yisrael (the Israelites) have to do to prepare for receiving The Ten Commandments. Three out of 18 students raise their hands and comment in turn, directing their comments to the teacher. The rest of the class maintain a hushed hum of whispered chatter; they are not engaging with their classmates’ comments. Time is up. Kids stuff their packets in their backpacks and leave for the next class. 

After the class, the teacher reflects. She is happy that the class was reasonably behaved and that they accomplished the lesson plan for the day; the unit on these chapters of Exodus is on track. The students who spoke in the class discussion seemed to know the material. She hopes that they are representative of the rest of the class; she will find out when they do their unit assessment. She wonders about the one boy in the corner, though, and makes a mental note to ask him for his packet to see what he has done. 

Despite feeling on track, she is unsatisfied. The class lacks the energized buzz and love of Torah learning that she herself has experienced and inspired her to become a Torah teacher. Most of the students do not seem particularly moved or genuinely engaged in the rich lessons and ideas the Torah text raises. She wishes she could do something to breathe a different quality of learning and engagement into her class.

Over the years, she has learned classroom management strategies that have been effective for keeping the class orderly. She has employed strategies for motivation, such as giving students some choice to work together or alone and point systems for incentivizing classwork. Her curriculum packets follow the chapters she needs to cover. She has worked to include higher order questions about the text and to convert some of her assessments into options for creative projects. She is not sure what else she can do other than becoming more entertaining to grab the kids’ attention like some of her colleagues are able to do, but that just doesn’t feel like her—and anyway, she believes that the Torah should be interesting enough that she shouldn’t have to be a comedian. She wonders what other strategies she can learn to move her classroom toward the vision she holds.

But what would happen if, instead of reaching for the newest set of techniques, this teacher paused and viewed her class through the lens of Core Relationship Building Blocks? What potential might this afford her to strengthen the quality of learning in her class?

She would see that she can do more to connect with her students as individuals and to set them up to learn in relationship with the text and one another. Though not intentional, her current classroom is set up for students to care about completing activities according to the teacher’s expectations, rather than to care directly about the content and one another. The classroom culture supports students to “do school” rather than to build relationships.

Let’s listen in on the teacher’s reflections.


How am I connecting to learners and building relationships with them?

The teacher realizes that some students she does not know as well as others–and that these students have not had much of an opportunity to get to know her. She then makes sure to find formal and informal ways to connect with each student throughout the course of the class or the week. Instead of writing off the sports chatter of one havruta as a distraction to be tolerated, she sees it as an entry point for learning what is important to them and comes to understand that they are both serious athletes. She communicates her genuine appreciation for their commitment and finds a point of connection with them. In the future, she will draw on this connection to help them strengthen their havruta-learning relationship. 

Similarly, the teacher realizes she needs to reach out to the disengaged solitary student in the corner. Rather than checking in with his packet, she checks in with him about what he is experiencing. She learns that he is anxious about an illness in his family, and that the idea of doing worksheets at a time like this seems totally pointless. His classmates’ reaction to his nervous noisy tapping only further exacerbates his growing sense of disconnection. She offers to be his havruta and inquires which classmate he would feel good about working with in the future.

By considering how she is connecting to individual students, she opens myriad strategies from which to choose: prioritizing hallway conversations, sitting in on specific havrutot, conducting full class warm-ups and reflections that invite sharing, asking content-based personalization questions, and so on. She can take the opportunity to share stories about her own interests, her own challenges in learning and how she herself has built her own relationship to Torah.

The teacher’s knowledge of her individual students’ lives and her consistent demonstration that she cares about them contributes mightily to her students becoming ever more present for learning.

How am I inviting in and helping each individual learner be present? 

The teacher realizes that she typically skips this step in an effort “to get to work.” It dawns on her that not attending to this job of helping her students become present has contributed to a task-oriented classroom that does not yet draw on the personal investment and contribution of students.

She then builds in a two-minute routine to help her students get settled and center their awareness of themselves and others. She facilitates a class warm-up that specifically ties into themes of the Exodus text to give each student a chance to think for themselves and share. By so doing, she invites in the voices of each of her students and primes them to be able to engage in conversation with the text. Students begin to show interest in one another’s answers; energetic head nods indicate that students discover connections they would not have discovered anywhere else if it were not for the frame that the Torah text offers them.

Instead of hearing only from three students at the end of class, she makes it a goal to hear the voice of every student. She sets students up in havruta intentionally so that each student has the full opportunity—and expectation--to activate their voices and minds. With this core relational building block in mind, the teacher is able to find many ways to bring her students, in their particularity, “into the room.”



How am I connecting learners to one another?

The teacher realizes that while she is providing some opportunities for students to connect with one another, these occasions are mostly incidental. Students do have an option to work together, and they do get to hear some of their peers’ ideas when they report back to the full class, but she knows she has uncovered an untapped channel of energy to elevate learning by strengthening peer-to-peer relationships.

She decides to set her students up to work in longer-term havruta groups so they can grow in their collaboration over time. She teaches specific havruta routines that invite students to connect with one another socially and work together skillfully. These routines, newly embedded in the unit packet, hold students accountable for one another’s ideas—not just their own.

She introduces language tools to improve collaboration, embeds them in the packet, posts them on the walls, and models these in full group discussions. Instead of hearing her students ask one another “What did you put down for number one?” she hears them say “Tell me more about what you mean” and “I disagree with you because…” or “I want to build on what you just said…”

In the full group, instead of responding to each comment in turn, she redirects students back to one another. She asks her students to articulate aloud and in writing what their peers helped them notice in the text and the ways in which their friends enriched their understanding. She holds these peer-to-peer relationships up as a value of the classroom and cultivates an active practice of explicit appreciation for what students bring to one another in their learning.


How am I inviting in and helping the text be present and available for partnership?

As the content expert in the room, the teacher is used to presenting the text to her students, but this question has her thinking a bit differently. She realizes that the Torah is mostly trapped in a photocopied packet, encumbered by worksheet questions. She wants it to come alive for her students and begins to think about other ways to present the text physically, to give her students multiple experiences of interacting with it. She gives students time with the sefer (book) itself; she projects key verses on the wall for all to gather around as if around a campfire. She uses her packet to re-present and “chunk” the text in formats that help students slow down and notice its details.

Now that she has established havruta groups, she is freed up to differentiate instruction for a range of language learning needs and gives different groups skill-appropriate translation exercises to make the text accessible to them while preserving its authenticity and ambiguities.

The havruta routine builds in steps for reading and re-reading the text aloud so that everyone can give voice to the text and hear it many times over the course of study. And she continues to teach students more information and provide resources that help students understand the text on its own terms.

Now when she crisscrosses the room, she hears the words of Torah spoken from her students’ mouths. The text is present and surrounding them in sight and sound. Students begin to ask her more questions about their understanding of the Torah and fewer about what she is looking for to finish their work.



How am I connecting learners and texts to one another?

Through her reflective audit of her classroom, the teacher already has put in place effective structures to bring the text and her students into direct relationship with one another such as warm-ups, intentional havruta practices and reflections. Nonetheless, there is more she can do to create the quality of Torah learning that she desires.

She realizes that if she truly wants the text and her students to meet in conversation, she needs to give her students the chance to notice the text for themselves, wonder about it, and ask and pursue their own questions. Her standard text unit packets, filled with teacher-generated questions, do hold a lot of wisdom, but they also create obstacles to direct and intrinsic engagement. By the routines of translating, noticing and wondering she has instilled, her students most often discover questions the classical commentators raise and that she would have asked herself. But instead of racing through classwork to get it done, the students identify and consider those questions with renewed investment. Any questions they don’t ask that the teacher feels are critical, she contributes to the class as a fellow lifelong learner of Torah and an expert member of the learning community.

Whether students are pursuing their own questions or the teacher’s, the teacher has taught them to ground their answers in the text itself. She teaches them language tools such as, “Where do you see that in the text?” to help one another stay accountable to the Torah, supporting and challenging their ideas. By doing so, students develop habits of returning to the Torah.

Full-class discussions are no longer just about reporting out answers. Every student now has something to offer. Together, they are weaving a vibrant tapestry of genuine questions and evolving interpretations, particular to the relationships built among the teacher, students and Torah.


The Core Relational Building Blocks is in some ways a simple tool—just a handful of questions. But these questions help to reorient the enterprise of teaching and learning toward the life-giving potential of relationships. Educators can draw upon these questions to plan, to teach in real time, and to reflect on their classrooms in order to build the relationships that fundamentally shape the quality of learning. Through these questions, educators can see new horizons of opportunity to bring Torah to life and to cultivate the intellectual, social-emotional and spiritual growth and wellbeing of their students. The CRBB is an expression of PoP’s theory of learning: If educators attend to each core relationship over time and in balance, attuned to their context, learners will experience deeper, more sustaining and more joyful learning.

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HaYidion Spring 2023: Relationships
Spring 2023