Sometimes it takes a visitor to remind us about the value of that which we take for granted. This week, our visitor was Dr. Jon Levisohn, Director of the Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education at Brandeis University. His current work is on the moral dispositions that Jewish Day Schools encourage. He was conducting his research as he was visiting schools across the country. Our chavurah program particularly inspired him.
I thought this might be a good time to communicate the chavurah vision, to describe its genesis and how it has “morphed” since its inception two and a half years ago. The word “chavurah” roughly translates to “friendship group” and I modeled it after a program that has been in effect for over forty years in a small independent school in San Diego.
While on an accreditation visiting team to this San Diego school about ten years ago, alumni parents at that school kept talking to me about the impact of their “color group”. They talked proudly about how they had been on a particular red (or blue, or purple, etc.) team and how their own children were now on those teams. When I interviewed students and teachers in the school, they too talked about their color group. Finally, on a Friday morning, I saw it in action.
At a designated time, all 200 students in the school assembled around tables in the social hall. At each table, there was an upper school student holding a different colored flag, and, around each table, children from each grade found their color group. On that day, there was a sudoku challenge that each group needed to complete. I watched older children and younger children engaged and working together. I saw a real sense of “belonging” to a small group.
When I suggested the idea to our staff a few years ago, everyone embraced the concept. We discussed using the Hebrew name “chavurah” to capture that feeling of a friendship group and we talked about academic and social goals for the chavurot. We wanted to create a long lasting structure with each group having representatives from each grade. We wanted the students to engage in activities where younger and older students could both benefit from the interaction, and we wanted to make sure that there were teachers and administrators attached to chavurot. Students would remain in the same chavurah for their entire Wornick education, eighth graders who graduate are replaced each year by new kindergartners and new entering students.
From those early discussions, Mrs. Haire developed the twenty groups. In the first year, the sessions (usually lasting 45 minutes – 5 times a year) were used to build group identity with names and flags. After reviewing the first year experience and because of professional development work that the staff had participated in, we decided to use the time each session for design challenges. These have proved very effective as young children and older children can all participate in meaningful ways. The challenge usually involves a bag full of items that must be used to solve a problem – like moving an object a certain distance from a higher to lower level using only 4 sheets of paper and 6 inches of tape.
We wanted the chavurah experience to be one of the formative memories for Wornick graduates. It is that, but it also has produced other important effects. It definitely knits the community together. Students who would have had limited interaction with students not in their grade or class have their chavurah buddies from all different grades. It is not uncommon to see a younger child seek out an older chavurah buddy on the playground, and during school-wide assemblies. Older children coach and advise their younger buddies, and they welcome them and acknowledge them when they walk by each other in the halls. Older children know that in the chavurah they are the leaders and younger children know that one day they too will be the leaders.
Dr. Levisohn felt the sense of “belonging” that cut across the grades, the leadership qualities of our students and the excitement around discovery learning at our school. In his discussions, he uncovered the fact that the chavurot played an important role in generating and sustaining these qualities.