Sunday, February 5, 2012

The Challenge of Davening in School

Anyone who has taught in a Jewish day school knows that (starting from about seventh grade) one of the most difficult things to teach is "davening" (prayer). The simple reality is that talking in a foreign language to an invisible being does not come naturally to many young people (or old people, for that matter). This creates a situation where students are often, at best, completely "spaced out" through the entire davening. Davening becomes a social event where everyone catches up on what happened since the last time they saw each other. (Sound familiar, grown ups?)

In the long term, we need to work with the students on their understanding of prayer as a concept (what is prayer, why do we pray, what does it accomplish, etc.) and also work on their understanding of the meaning and significance of the specific prayers. All of this needs to be built on a basic foundation of belief in God and His relationship with us. This is a long process (ultimately, it is a life-long process), in which prayer itself plays an important role. Like many things, prayer is something we learn by doing as much as by studying.

In the short term, much depends on the specific situation and every educator needs to find creative ways to deal with their own situation. One of the most important elements is not to have unrealistic expectations. As a general rule, it is not reasonable to expect young teenagers to fully relate to davening. This is especially true when the adults around them don't appear to take davening all that seriously either.

As I mentioned above, in my experience, one of the main challenges with davening in school is that many students have extraordinary difficulty refraining from socializing with their peers during davening. I found that, for some of these students, if some kind of arrangement was made ahead of time so that they would sit separately from their peers, within a short time many of these students would begin to actively participate.

Another thing that can very effective is to have the students be actively involved in "running" the minyan (if you have one) as chazanim, baalei kriah, gabbaim, etc., with the adult(s) acting only in a passive, supervisory role. The more responsible a student feels for the proper functioning of "his" minyan, the more likely he is to buy into the whole thing.

One project that I found to be very successful in increasing student participation was what I called the "Kol Ram Club." I taught the students about the importance of answering "amen" out loud, as well as the relevant halachos (esp. no yelling!). I then tracked each student on a daily basis if I observed him appropriately answering "amen" out loud. The tracking was done on a chart on the wall of the classroom. After a two week period (5 school days a week), if the student had gotten at least 7 (out of ten) days of answering out loud, he got a "star" on the chart and a doughnut. Once a student earned four stars (which took a minimum of two months), he got a fancy certificate (made by me) stating that he was a "four-star" member of the "Kol Ram Club."
"Official" Logo of the Kol Ram Club
The project had a huge impact. The minyan felt more "alive" and active, students weren't as "spaced out", and the general tone of the entire davening was improved. (The certificates also turned out to be highly prized items.) It is a classic example of how minor changes can have a disproportionate impact. I did this project with middle school students, so I'm not sure how well it would go over in a high school. Of course, everything depends on presentation.

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