The World’s Birthday

This is a season when time is very much on our minds.

We’ve finished the High Holy Days, having counted from Rosh Hashanah, the world’s “birthday,” through the Ten Days of Repentance, and now we’re celebrating Sukkot, the Feast of the Tabernacle, a holiday that coincides with the harvest and that marks the completion of our reading all the weekly portions of the Torah. But no sooner have we finished the Torah readings than we begin them again, perpetuating the cycle of Judaism — and indeed, of life. The death of Moses at the end of Deuteronomy is quickly followed by the creation of the world in the opening of Genesis.

While those myriad cycles may feel uplifting and reassuring to many, consider that we also end the round of holidays with a reading of Kohelet, that most doleful of biblical books, which has given us such dolorous gems as “Vanity of vanities. All is vanity” (1:2) and “I have seen all the works that are under the sun; and, behold, all is vanity and a striving after the wind” (1:14). It seems considerate to give all the Ketuvim — the Writings — their due and read a different one on each festival, but aren’t we required to be happy on the holidays? Aren’t they a time of happiness and rejoicing, when we are forbidden to be mired in the morose thoughts of Ecclesiastes?

The High Holy Days and Sukkot coincide with the opening of each school year, so we find ourselves each new year, as parents, students, and educators, constantly toggling back and forth between settling ourselves into the routines of school — of getting up early, rushing for carpool, planning lessons that will get the year started, but that won’t feel interrupted by the constant missed days — and doing the necessary and important introspective work the Days of Awe require. It’s not an easy juggling act: contemplating the meaning of life as we help our kids study for spelling tests.

And yet it’s second nature to us as Jews. “To every season . . . ,” and this is our season of contemplation, to walk to the bus stop with our children amid the newly changing leaves and to wonder, “How did we change this past year? How did we grow? How did our family and friends fare? Is the world a better place than it was last year?” Sometimes the answers are quite painful and arresting. They can lead us down a rabbit hole.

I’ve been thinking a lot about rabbit holes lately: I’ve been filling in for a teacher on maternity leave who teaches a children’s literature class at Magen David Yeshivah High School. My background is in English literature, and children’s literature has always been a favorite genre of mine. We started the year discussing the magical lands of Neverland and Wonderland, as the seniors in the class, drawing on the examples from these magical stories, began to create their own fantasy worlds. Discussing with the students the elements of Neverland and Wonderland — and other enchanted places — made me aware, against the larger backdrop of the High Holy Days, of how crucial a role time plays in so many tales.

Of course, Peter Pan’s story is based on the fact that he is the boy who doesn’t want to grow up, with Neverland imbuing him with an immortality no one else in his world obtains. And the White Rabbit in Alice’s tale is famous for his preoccupation with lateness. He actually gets the story started after exclaiming, “Oh dear, oh dear, I shall be too late,” and jumping through the rabbit hole, down which Alice follows him. Other fairy tales, too, take time seriously. A heroine or hero has three days to complete a task. A spell will break at midnight . . . or after 100 years.

The White Rabbit from "Alice in Wonderland" makes us feel the anxiety of time's passing

The White Rabbit from “Alice in Wonderland” makes us feel the anxiety of time’s passing

The class I’m teaching permanently this year is one on American literature. I’m trying to honor my students’ time by not assigning homework. I look at the students’ schedules — they’re in school from 7:30 until 4:30 or 5:30 each day — and I wonder, When do they get a chance to just be? To breathe and not have someone make an external demand of their time? Recent research on homework shows that it’s often ineffective and can not only prevent students from finding pleasurable hobbies in their down time, but can also stop families from spending quality time together. The research also doesn’t adequately address the experience of students in Jewish day schools, who are doing twice the amount of work that students in a single-curriculum school do, and who are then asked to come home and, as one of my students said, “have another day of school.”

“It’s not enough to be busy; so are the ants. The question is, what are we busy about?” — Henry David Thoreau

It’s not easy not assigning homework. In fact, it feels a bit quixotic, similar to a task a heroine might be assigned in some strange fairy tale about education. A kind of Miss Frizzle story where the madcap teacher gets away with something that seems almost wicked and wrong but that the students enjoy way too much. Added to the challenge is the fact that my class is an AP one, so students have to be prepared for the AP English Language exam by the end of the year. Unlike the AP history exams, which cover a lot of content, the AP English Language test is skills-based and so requires students to develop the ability to take the test, as opposed to memorize a lot of information for it. That makes being homework-free more realistic, but I still have to make sure our course provides students with rigorous opportunities to improve their writing.

My quest, then, is to use my class time as efficiently as possible. When I plan my lessons, I’m hyper-vigilant about the best activity to refine students’ skills and to help them uncover and discover the American experience in literature and society. I also have to make sure the most important part of the class happens, and that is that the students develop a keen sense of themselves and their civic role.

I’ve written extensively about project-based learning, and that is the pedagogy in my classroom: the course has a driving question around which learning is organized. In this class, about American literature and the role of rhetoric, the driving questions are: What does it mean to be an American? and What makes a good argument? The PBL classroom isn’t frontal; that is, you won’t find a teacher at the front of the room, lecturing; rather, you’ll find her moving from group to group or student to student, as the class works on individual activities or group ones that lead to a larger product or event students create.

One of the activities common in a PBL humanities classroom is a Socratic seminar. These are discussions where one group of students sits in a circle with texts they’ve studied closely, and another group of students sits in an outer circle. The inner circle conducts a discussion on the prepared texts, while the outer one observes the discussion, noting which students participate, ask questions, wait for their turn to speak, respond to another student by looking directly in their eyes, and don’t engage in side conversation.

In short, the Socratic seminar not only shows students how to read and think critically but also how to be good citizens: to have well-informed opinions they can share respectfully with others with whom they may disagree. An important part of the PBL classroom and of the Socratic seminar is reflection, and when we reflected on the discussion, students noted how good it felt to engage in polite discourse. We spoke about creating a society in our classroom where good listening and civil discourse are the norm and about bringing that experience into the outer world.

Dost thou love life? Then do not squander time, for that is the stuff life is made of. — Benjamin Franklin

The PBL classroom also is different from a traditional one in that it insists students manage their time well. Students must have completed the research for the discussion by the time it happens, and though part of my facilitation was ascertaining that each student had used academic research, the students were responsible for ensuring they met with the school librarian to find the sources they needed.

I had asked students to post how their research process was going on an online class discussion board. One young woman and I had spoken about a class period she hadn’t maximized: she had spent it waiting for the librarian, who had ended up helping others with their research. When I asked the student why she hadn’t asked a few of her peers — who were researching the same topic — for help, she quickly realized she hadn’t spent her time well and had to spend time at home catching up with what we had accomplished in school. (I will allow this kind of homework!)

When the student posted about her research, she posted not only about what she had learned about her topic, but also about the experience of learning not to waste her time. I was struck by her response. When we’re young, we often think we have all the time in the world. We may not be immortal, as Peter Pan is, but we sure feel like it, just as we may be ambivalent about adulthood, a world that may seem magical at times but that is also filled with adults urgently going about their business, running madly about, proclaiming that they’re always late and that they have no time.

Thus, though we cannot make our sun/Stand still, yet we will make him run. — Andrew Marvell

The first mitzvah, commandment, the Israelites receive as a nation is Rosh Chodesh, the celebration of the new month. (And since the Jewish calendar is a lunar one, we mark the months by noting the waxing and waning of the moon, a symbol in literature, by the way, of the heroine or hero’s quest.) Nothing can happen without a sense of time. The world cannot celebrate its birthday, to every season there can be no turn, without our noting the passage of moments. The creation of a calendar, something to pin to the wall so we can X out each day and count down to a new year, also enables us to reflect, to look back and ask ourselves, Did we use our time well?

Claude Monet's "Grainstacks at the End of the Day" puts us in mind of the Sukkot holiday, a time of harvest. Samson Raphael Hirsch, a 19th century German rabbi, sees the word "atzeret" in the holiday Shemini Atzeret as "a gathering" or "storing up" not of crops, but of the gratitude and devotion we've developed over the course of the holiday season. We should time-release these qualities into the activities we undertake over the course of the year.

Claude Monet’s “Grainstacks at the End of the Day” puts us in mind of the Sukkot holiday, a time of harvest. Samson Raphael Hirsch, a 19th century German rabbi, sees the word “atzeret” in the holiday Shemini Atzeret as “a gathering” or “storing up” not of crops, but of the gratitude and devotion we’ve developed over the course of the holiday season. We should time-release these qualities into the activities we undertake over the course of the year.

At the end of the Sukkot celebration, Kohelet stands as a kind of warning, then: if you mire yourself in misdeeds, take the wrong path, choose the wrong quest! — you will lose your way and end despondent, with a wasted life of wasted days. We must be mindful of the preciousness of time, which shimmers around us like magic, reminding us of our fragility and mortality, true, but also of our ability to seize each moment and out of it, to shape a better, new world.