In preparation for the holiday of Sukkot, our 4th and 5th grade students learned about the laws of building a Sukkah with their Jewish Studies Teacher, Ms. Dominguez. The requirements for building a Sukkah are numerous but most center around an attempt to recreate an experience that the Ancient Israelites had in the wilderness. That experience can largely be summed up in the following way: Even though the wilderness was frightening, the Israelites felt protected by G-d. Thus, the primary goal of sitting in the Sukkah is effective. We are meant to feel somewhat vulnerable but also somewhat protected.
Indeed, the walls of the Sukkah can’t be too high, or else they would provide too much shade. Nor, can they be too short or else they would not offer enough shade from the sun. Similarly, the roof of the Sukkah cannot offer so much shade that one would not be able to see the stars. However, the roof must offer enough shade from the sun and be able to withstand most strong winds. All of these laws point to a concerted attempt to create an emotional and physical balance for us where we feel both vulnerable and protected.
I have been thinking about how teachers have to strike this balance as well. Of course, students must feel safe in their learning environments. However, teachers need to work hard for students to feel a little bit uncomfortable in their learning environments. Students need to feel that they are being stretched, that they are able to take risks and that they are not always given every single tool or step necessary to solve a problem. At the same time, they need to know that their teachers are their to support them, that mistakes are welcomed and appreciated in their communities, and that they always have someone to go to if they get stuck.
This past week, I saw our teachers creating these “Sukkah” like environments in their classrooms. In Kindergarten, I saw Ms. Debra teach students the skill of inference while practicing estimating the number of beans in a jar. At some point in the lesson, the students were far off in their estimations, and although the teacher could have given the students obvious hints to get a more accurate answer, she chose to have them count the beans and form an empirical, student-driven understanding of the concept of inference in estimation. Similarly in 4th grade, students were conducting an experiment with Ms. Braitman and were tasked with determining the impact of different masses of water on a land formation. Students were given very few hints on the accurate answers and assessments of the experiment. Ms. Braitman masterfully led them in an exercise where they made incorrect assumptions about the experiment and learned by reflecting on their thinking.
As we continue celebrating this beautiful holiday, let us all think about how we can bring the spirit of balancing vulnerability with safety to our lives and the way we learn.