I have always been intrigued by the tale told about Sir Isaac Newton, “discovering” gravity when an apple fell on his head while sitting under a tree. Taken as a universal midrash/metaphor on learning, we can appreciate the way daily living experiences can confirm ideas dreamt up in laboratory environments.
The laboratory and the classroom are useful yet artificial environments for learning ideas and skills. The real test, and often the place where learning is most memorable and lasting, is in the world where we live and interact with people and objects. As summer vacation continues (a time when research shows that students lose approximately 2.6 months of grade level equivalency in math skills, and a month or more in other subjects), plan a visit to a stimulating site where the whole family can learn together.
The greater D.C. area is a treasure trove of learning venues. Museums, historic locations, concerts and plays, outdoor adventures, and community events are scheduled for the entire year. Guidebooks, such as “Going Places With Children in Washington D.C.” from the Green Acres School, or The Insider’s Guide to “Fun With Family in Md./Va./D.C.” are available in bookstores and on-line. There are even decks of cards to help start learning conversations in the car/train/plane on the way to a vacation site (“Food for Talk” by Julienne Smith, www.runningpress.com).
A goal of summer family learning may be to better understand how the world and all that was created works and inter-relates, and to add awe, wonder, and appreciation to our lives. If so, I recommend a model for maximizing the experience loosely based on the seven steps of creating meaning from the world found in B’reisheet/Genesis. Let’s rehearse a trip to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.
- Frame the experience- “In the beginning…” of any trip, frame the experience in a way that lets each family member (for their age and stage) be prepared to learn on their level. “Today we are going to become explorers, learning about people and nature. We will see…. It will be different than a zoo because…”
- Questions to ponder- During travel to the site, ask a number of broad questions that the family can have in mind during their experience. “What kind of animals would you want to learn more about? Let’s think about what kinds of animals we will see that live on land, under the ground, in the water, or in the air. [you may talk about the different stages of creation in B’reisheet, where first the environments are created, and then the creations that will inhabit those spaces are placed there].”
- Experience- Use all your senses to be in the moment. Prioritize your visit to spend time in the Insect Zoo, the Discovery Room, and the theaters.
- Narrate- Talk about what you are experiencing out loud, linking it to other activities you have done in the past. This is where ethical questions, issues of human relationships, social justice etc. could be raised. “Why are we so interested in the animals that have disappeared? How have people impacted nature, positively and negatively? How have people used their intelligence to survive?”
- Practice the Language of Metaphor- Using metaphor to describe an activity can lead to deeper learning. Metaphors can “make the strange familiar, and make the familiar strange.” It is also the basic language of Rabbinic Judaism, and a key to understanding the link between rituals and their symbolic meaning. “How is the world like an egg… Noah’s ark? To help the environment is called “being GREEN… why is that color chosen? What beracha/blessing could we say when we see something awesome, like dinosaur skeletons? [“oseh ma’aseh b’reisheet/made the wonders of creation]”
- Debrief- The experience is not over until you discuss what you experienced, sharing the emotional impact of the event and evaluating it for its entertainment and educational impact (“And it was good…”). In a debriefing, adults can tease out whether children really “got the point,” and whether there are residual issues (fears, unsettling questions, etc.).
- “Shabbat”- Plan a relaxing pause between activities. Mark the time spent together with some new family ritual. Capture the moment in picture or word form to create the memory. Give each family member the space and time to process the activity in their own way.
The Resource Center at the Partnership for Jewish Life and Learning would like to collect examples of how families enrich their time together, in order to share that wisdom with others. If you have an interesting place around DC where good learning happened, please email the details to
firstname.lastname@example.org so we can create a database on our website. Schools, synagogues and centers will continue to be hubs of our community, but we hope to CAPITOL-ize on our rich area’s potential to merge the universal and the particularly Jewish, living and learning around the beltway.