The following piece sits at the intersection of two loves: Torah and Education. I welcome those unfamiliar with the Jewish world of Bible Exegesis to enjoy an unusual spin on an ancient text.
A long time ago, I had a prescient image of my future self. I’d seen some movie where the teacher was sitting on the edge of his desk, facing the class, waxing poetic about whatever.
Years later, yes, I do that sometimes. But only sometimes.
Class begins, frequently, with story-telling on a plot. The topic is posted on the class online-calendar. Students write, and then we share. Sometimes, if I think the story is edutaining, I might sit on the edge of the desk and summon my story-telling skills. I might look a little like that teacher I’d imagined, a long time ago.
Most of the time, however, I walk around the room. Sometimes I stand on a chair. Sometimes I sit on the floor. Often, since I am using a wireless laptop projector, I break the fourth wall, plop down in the middle of the classroom, at an empty desk, and conduct class from wherever. From everywhere.
In this week’s Torah Portion, a critical encounter takes place. Isaac, forefather of the Jewish People, meets his wife, Rebecca, matriarch of the Jewish people. The text describes their encounter in oddly physical terms:
Isaac went out to meditate in the field toward evening; and he lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, camels were coming. Rebekah lifted up her eyes, and when she saw Isaac she dismounted from the camel (Ex 24:63).
Why does the text tell us about Rebekah’s dismount from the camel? Why include that detail at all?
Is body position, perhaps, a key ingredient in authentic encounter?
When I set up my class, I try to create a circle. A circle symbolizes equality and democracy. Like Rivka in the text above, in order to meet my students in true encounter, I need to get down off my high-camel, and meet my students where they are.
I sit on one side of the room one week, and the other side of the class the following week.
And when students work in groups, I try not to hover over them like a threatening presence – I sit down, at their level, and listen. I try not to interrupt. I enter the group quietly and respectfully, and I leave the same way.
When students sit on the ground, I sit on the ground.
And when I must take a place at the front of the room, there is no desk between me and my students. I push the desk to the side and leave open space.
Learning, like all encounters, take place best when there is space created for feeling safe and seen. Sometimes, my classroom is a seminar hall, but often, it is a salon in a comfy living room. Sometimes it’s a cafe. Sometimes it’s a design studio. Sometimes, it’s like a 70’s-style rap session, with everyone in a circle.
But always, I want my students to see me, not by looking up at me.
I want them to open their eyes, and see me, as often as possible, wherever they need me.