Tikvah Wiener
Head of School of The Idea School, the first project-based learning Jewish high school in America

Who’s at the Table?

For those interested in active, experiential learning, the Seder and the Passover requirement to see oneself as if s/he has left Egypt offer all sorts of opportunities to enact the Exodus story. I scroll through my Facebook feed before the holiday and see friends and acquaintances dressed like Pharaohs and ancient Egyptians, setting tables adorned with objects and animals that represent the ten plagues, and even engaged in pre-Passover water fights that resemble the parting Red Sea. I love all the ways people are finding to make the holiday a fun one.

passover parting of the red sea 2

In fact, before Passover, I was in a few email threads with colleagues and educators who were sharing ideas for games and activities that would capture the attention of the many participants at their Seder tables. My colleagues weren’t only concerned with making the night a fun one, but also with making sure learning happened in a meaningful way. I was struck by the way my peers considered the ages and interests of those at their Seder tables, as they crafted a night that took both into consideration.

And it was another colleague who made me aware that preparing for Passover can mean something else entirely. Before the holiday, I spoke with Rabbi Shmuel Feld, Managing Director of the Jewish Education Innovation Challenge. His son has autism and relies heavily on technology to keep himself occupied. Before each Sabbath and holiday, Rabbi Feld and his wife prepare their son to unplug from his devices, even as they know that by the second day of a holiday, he’ll enter into a “line of questioning” that Rabbi Feld explained with good cheer would be all about when the holiday is over.

Considering the needs of everyone at the Seder table is clearly something the Rabbis had in mind when they crafted the Haggadah. No sooner are we exhorted to invite anyone who needs a spot to our Sedarim, do we sit down, recite the four questions, and launch into an analysis of the types of children we might be surrounded by: the wise son, the wicked son, the simple son, and the one who doesn’t know how to ask.

This year, I struggled with the response we give to the wicked son. The wicked son, we’re told, asks, “What is this service to you?” and makes it clear he’s excluding himself from the activities of the night, specifically the partaking in the sacrifice of the Paschal lamb. We’re told that because the wicked son removes himself from the community and is a heretic, we should “blunt his teeth,” that is, speak to him sharply.

I entered Passover thinking not only about the joyous and careful ways my colleagues, family, and friends were preparing for it, but also about the deep sensitivity they were showing those in their lives. I was particularly thinking about my conversation with Rabbi Feld, whose son would be peppering him with questions, not about the details of the Paschal lamb offering but about when the holiday would be over.

So how was it that we were to sit down with someone at the Seder table and speak sharply to him or her? I was surrounded by people engaged in the exact opposite, people who were going out of their way to make others feel comfortable, no matter how challenging their needs might be.

Polish artist Arthur Szyk's famous early-twentieth Haggadah includes this famous depiction of the four sons
Polish artist Arthur Szyk’s famous early-twentieth Haggadah includes this famous depiction of the four sons

One of the most important aspects of the learning-by-doing pedagogies schools are adopting now is the notion that learning must take into account student voice and choice. This means educators find out what students need — by talking to them and their parents and by finding out about any learning differences they may have. It also means educators find ways to let students make choices, large and small, in their learning. For example, teachers might allow those interested in the arts to have opportunities to create art out of their learning; those who are proficient with technology to create digital products; and those who are good at building to craft something from what they’ve learned.

In sum, we create a responsive classroom, one that looks like, well, a lot like the Seder tables that naturally form around the world: places where there are all types of learners and where we find ourselves, as my colleagues were, naturally making adjustments so that everyone is interested and involved in the learning.

In education, we call this the fully inclusive classroom, and it’s one where every type of learner — one who is neurotypical and one who has learning differences — can thrive. Yavneh Academy in Paramus, NJ, has a full inclusion program and has been discovering the power of having two teachers in a classroom, a regular and a special education teacher. The latter will sometimes lead the lesson, allowing the strengths of those with learning differences to emerge and enabling the entire class to benefit from learning strategies that are visual, auditory, and movement-based.

So when the class is finished with a heavily text-based or numbers-based lesson, for example, the students might move to a Maker space and discover that the student who struggled in the more traditional lesson has a spatial reasoning capability that outshines his peers’ and is able to build something far more complex than his classmates can. Suddenly, the student who perhaps saw her- or himself as less-than is the superstar!

My colleague, Dana Keil, who founded and runs Room on the Bench, a resource for Jewish day schools wanting to meet the needs of diverse learners, talks about the importance of tailoring education so that every student thrives in school. Room on the Bench focuses on expanding educators’ toolkits, so teachers can better meet students’ holistic needs. Dana says, “Our goal as educators isn’t solely academic growth, but also social, emotional and behavioral growth as well.”

Student voice and choice means, then, finding out what students’ strengths are, placing before them an array of choices in their learning, and developing weaknesses by making learning a holistic experience, one that’s rigorous and challenging and something each student can do and grow from in multiple ways.

Many in Israel pity those of us in the Diaspora who have to partake in two Sedarim, but this year, the second night became the perfect opportunity to talk out my concerns about how we were to address the wicked son. I raised the issue at the second Seder, and a lively conversation ensued. The group of us — in our sixties, forties, twenties, and teens — came to feel that the problem with the wicked son isn’t that he has a question or that he sees the world in a different manner: It is his mocking and condescending attitude.

Learning can happen in multiple ways and in many modalities, but it requires patience, care, and sensitivity. There’s no room for mockery and condescension in learning, and the Haggadah tells us we must “blunt the teeth” of those who come to the Seder table with a scornful or smug manner. If you’re at the table, you must be open and receptive, willing to learn with and from others, be an active participant in what we’re all doing, creating, and building together.

Viewed in this way, Passover is more than just one or two nights or even eight days. When we think of all we do for the Seder, sharing recipes and making them, selling hametz, enlisting our children in cleaning the house, running school car washes, inviting guests from all over — I’m currently in LA, enjoying the hospitality of close friends — , creating games and activities to make the Sedarim more lively and informative or the holiday easier for someone who’s counting down until it ends, the Seder, and Passover itself, begins to seem like, well, a lot like a fully inclusive classroom, one that we can all thrive in and grow from, individually and as a people. I hope you enjoy the remainder of this meaningful holiday.

About the Author
Tikvah Wiener is Head of School of The Idea School, a project-based learning Orthodox high school located at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly, NJ. www.theideaschool.org. She lives in Teaneck, NJ, with her husband and children.
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