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FRONTAL FREE: Amalgamation

Dave Smolar is co-founder of Kikayon Productions, creating turn-key solutions for Jewish education. Our “TORAH TIME LIVE!” Parashah Play series is now for sale! From Creation to Mt. Sinai, click on “Our Store” for more!

I’ve written before about students in class, or in a bunk or cabin at camp, or in a junior congregation or a friend’s party or any group dynamic, who don’t tend to socialize. Some are quiet, some resort to chronic avoidance, some are oppositional. You might see a kid who sits down when you ask everyone to stand up, or keeps asking “when’s recess?”, or simply puts their head down. In fact, one of the few rules in my classroom is that you’re not allowed to curl up in a fetal positio

n under the table in the room, which might sound extreme, but I’ve had plenty of students who think it’s appropriate or that nobody will notice.

Not to give the wrong impression that the antisocial child is the quiet one exclusively. Sometimes, they’re the one that constantly has to change the rules. Even if you give an open-ended graphic arts project to the class, offering them to use markers and pens for drawing, this one will use pencil. And they’ll do a great drawing, but nobody will be able to see it because it’s purposely drawn so faintly. Here you have the child who acts resentful that you’d give them a fun activity to do when they simply don’t feel like having a good time that day.

OK, so if this behavior happens once in a blue moon with a certain kid, so be it. I have my bad days, my energy crashes, my moody blues. But when you have a child who consistently stands up in the middle of a lively discussion, goes to the window, and just stares outside, you might not stop the class entirely but you should definitely take note of the behavior. A distraction is a distraction, and sometimes, for me, a kid doing that can be just as disruptive as a kid calling out, or asking questions and making comments unrelated to the discussion, or simply walking out of the room in the middle of an activity.

If these things have happened in my group work, they’ve happened to you. And especially for the kid who simply walks out with a blank face, you’ve no idea what they’re up to or what they’ll do. You can’t just leave them unattended for a variety of legal and pedagogic reasons. And maybe most importantly, for their own sake, they can’t wander the building, because when something goes wrong, they’re unaccounted for and therefore suspect number one.

I had a class I taught where I was asked to take over mid-year, and when I asked about what the kids were like, I was told, well, there’s a mix of interests and behaviors…and there’s also been items stolen from cubbies, holes poked into the eyes of the photos of younger children posted on the walls, and the occasional fire alarm. And I’ll be perfectly honest with you: I knew which kid was the probable culprit, not only of these alleged infractions and vandalism but responsible for driving out not one but two teachers, both of whom quit by January.

So? Big deal. Kids are kids, everyone’s different, everyone has challenges, you’re not in their head, you don’t live their lives, and who are you to judge why they do what they do? But, at some point, I have to do my job and teach the class, or lead the services, or have a discussion at camp, or train them to read Torah, or plan a holiday celebration, or even write a Purim shpiel.

Obviously, I can’t let their aberrant behavior go unaddressed. But for me, that’s not enough. I’m not interested in kids who are complacent. I don’t want robots, or sponges, or whatever the metaphor would now be for a child who hears everything I say, writes it down, and regurgitates it in a monthly exam, following which they promptly expunge the information from their noggin. So what do I want?

I want the future of the Jewish people. I want pride, I want focus, I want recognition of personal acceptance of legacy, foundation of religion in Torah stories, and the understanding of the elasticity of Jewish tradition and family customs. I want them to know what they need to know to get them started thinking about who they are as Jews, what it means to them, and how their own personal code can be found in our beliefs. I can teach them text, or a story, or prompt them into discussion, but they need to do the discovery themselves.

So if I have a child in a group who is having trouble, the trouble they’re having is allowing themselves to feel a part of the group, allowing themselves to value THEIR OWN thoughts and deeds and beliefs and opinions. Only they know what they need, and sometimes the seemingly unfitting or inappropriate behaviors they exhibit – maybe even through no fault of their own – signal us as facilitators that what we’re teaching, or how we’re approaching it, isn’t what works for them.

I love discussions, getting kids to brighten up and talk about themselves, couching their responses into Jewish ideals. But I know that discussions, as fair as you might try to conduct them, will die off with preteens and teens after about 10 minutes. So when my brightest student stops me mid-sentence to ask me what time it is – with a clock on the wall that’s been there for 5 months – I now know that they’re not interested in knowing the time but want to get out of their chair. So I get them up. Whatever I’m teaching, even if I’m in mid-thought and want to continue the idea, I try desperately to stop talking, get them up, and do some activity where they’re working things out with each other, without me in the loop.

There is no alternative, there are no choices here, and if you simply ignore one kid’s behavior, write it off, or even marginalize it, you’ll marginalize the kid. Rather than feel a part of our people, they’ll feel more alone than they could make themselves feel in the first place. The world doesn’t have to revolve around them, nor does it stop for them. But creating a dynamic teaching atmosphere that brings the kids into the activity, to the extent that the kids are leading each other and creating the module that day, just by seeing their peers running the circus for a while, the “quiet kid” will realize that they, too, can be the leaders. And they will begin to focus their energies that, once distracting and disruptive, now become creative and productive.

And there’s the respect that makes a success of such lovingkindness in our small worlds.

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