ARTICLECultivating a Community of Practitioners Across Contexts, with Philosophical Inquiry

Bringing Jewish educators together from across different contexts-- this is something that Dr. Jen Glaser, Co-Director of the Israel Center for Philosophy in Education, feels strongly about. With the support of a Covenant Signature Grant, this conviction has been central to her work over the past 5 years in North America, developing the Engaging Texts Network.

“When I first started doing this work,” she explained, “I was told that it would be difficult to have synagogue educators and day school educators learning together, in the same room, especially when studying Jewish texts, because goals, backgrounds and contexts were seen to be too disparate. But I was sure that actually, that line of thinking was wrong. I knew we could bring them together.”

Glaser believes that the pedagogies of engagement that form the basis of professional development in philosophical inquiry are enriching for everybody, regardless of the space in which they teach.

“We’ve found that educators love being together across the different modes of learning, different fields,” she said.

And that variety doesn’t just concern educational spaces, but also, streams of Judaism. So in practice, Glaser explained, “PI” professional development programs can successfully enrich a teen educator from the reform movement, alongside a teacher from a Conservative day school and an early childhood educator from Chabad.

“Bringing people together from such disparate places on the religious and educational spectrum may seem counterintuitive to some, but it works,” Glaser said.

Perhaps it’s the philosophy behind the philosophy, so to speak, that makes this kind of cross-pollination professional development, succeed. As Glaser explained, this kind of philosophical inquiry implies “a combination of rigorous exploration of meaning with community building and reflection on students’ own lives. The students themselves take control of their learning, and wrestle with texts together as a group, not just as individuals. They ask each other questions and push one another on their responses.”

The same is true when PI is employed in a professional development setting.

“PI aims to instill both empowerment and deep content knowledge, with the goal of helping kids see themselves as part of the ongoing Jewish conversation,” Glaser emphasized, “and ultimately, this contributes to the development of a strong Jewish identity.” And these goals are as relevant for adult educators as they are for kids.

This summer, Glaser will run two philosophical inquiry professional development training seminars-- on opposite coasts. First, she’ll be in at Hebrew College in Newton, MA, from July 17-20, for the Hebrew College Summer Workshop: Philosophy for Children (P4C), which will focus on getting educators initiated into the practice of building communities of philosophical inquiry.

With Hebrew College as the “hub,” and lots of prior local events and demonstrations popping up to get educators in the region interested in how PI fits into Jewish education, Glaser is hoping that the Hebrew College training will appeal to a broad spectrum of educators.

“The ideal participant of these trainings isn’t just a classroom educator,” Glaser said. “These sessions could be of interest to administrators, Directors of life-long learning, family educators, and in the last few years, we have had increasing interest from clergy, too, because dealing with texts and thinking about how to make texts relevant, is something rabbis do all the time. In fact, we’ve found that our workshops which prepare educators to delve into the philosophical dimensions of experience really helps to expand their repertoire.”

The Hebrew College seminar is a truly immersive experience, Glaser said, which is central to her approach to professional development.

As educators know, professional development takes myriad forms. “In some schools,” Glaser offered, “the mode of PD happening might be one where a trainer goes into a classroom and works with the teacher for a few sessions, or conducts PD out of class spread out over a long period of time.”

“What we do is different,” she continued, “in that we are taking educators out of their regular professional environment, and immersing them in a sustained experience over a stretch of time.”

Based on Vygotsky’s Constructivist Theory, our approach immerses educators in a practice with the opportunity to reflect on that practice with other educators, in order to become more sophisticated about it. The Hebrew College seminar is built so that the four days of learning aren’t four independent days. Rather, each day builds on the next, utilizing what was mastered along the way, from one day to the next.

In many ways, the evolution of Glaser’s work is a meta example of the pedagogy she teaches.

“When I first began doing this work and applied for a grant from The Covenant Foundation,” she said, “I was working with individual educators at the Jewish Education Center of Cleveland, to train them in a method that they could then bring into their classrooms.” But ultimately, Glaser continued, there was a bigger idea brewing. What would happen if those educators could then develop competencies in teaching this to others? What if they took it, and introduced their colleagues to this approach?

“We set the project up as a ‘proof text,’ or a model of what this kind of teaching might look like, where educators within a network could steep themselves enough within the practice and the theory to then develop a ‘hub’ of professional development in their own city.”

And that’s the motivating idea behind the trainings that Glaser will lead this summer. “We want to help cultivate a community of practitioners who can engage with one another,” she explained. For example, one of educators from Berkeley will be coming to help lead the seminar at Hebrew College. “There’s a lot of modeling that happens in any professional development setting where philosophical inquiry is being taught,” she added. “We always deconstruct, we always translate what is being taught into practical pedagogical tools. The goal is not just a sending educators away with ‘big ideas,’ but also, practical ways that they can operationalize this method in their own classrooms.”

In Berkeley, with her colleagues at Studio 70 and Edah, Glaser will lead workshops on Aug 2 and 3 and then several days later, the workshops resume on the 10th and 11th. While the immersive experience is still central to Glaser’s goals on the west coast, the training model looks slightly different there this summer to accommodate for the New CAJE conference, which happens on the days in between.

Glaser will be running workshops at New CAJE, too, or, as she calls them, “little pockets of professional development,” on topics like bringing an inquiry-based approach to text into conversation with project-based learning and Design Thinking, a new development that’s emerged over the past year in Glaser’s work.

For instance, Glaser explained, if educators are teaching about Israel, in addition to a deep dive into related texts, an integrated curriculum would ask that learners also consider the concept of place and ask questions like ‘what makes a place a home?’ By looking at preconceived notions about familiar ideas, and making connections between those old notions and new discoveries, texts that are then introduced will be all the more enriching for the nuance they bring. In this way, philosophical inquiry enhances and complements many of the current trends in education that look for ways to integration learning across disciplines.

“When this project began,” Glaser said, “it was much more about dealing with an approach of PI with text, but now, in response to what educators have expressed, the focus of our trainings is shifting and we’re excited to explore themes and topics that are current in classrooms right now.”

“In this way, we can truly isolate those concepts that are so rich for exploration,” she said.

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