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Preparing Service-Learning Professionals: Lessons from Training Experiential Educators

Posted by: on Mar 20, 2012 | Leave a comment
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Mark S. Young and Dr. Jeff Kress, William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education at the Jewish Theological Seminary

Abstract

Service-learning is, by definition, action oriented. Service activities hold enormous potential to engage learners in repairing the world, but there is the potential for these activities to end up as one-offs that may (or may not) be interesting and enjoyable, but provide minimal impact within the variety of other interesting, enjoyable experiences that Jewish youth encounter. The work of skilled educators is a crucial mediator to the impact of service-learning programs. Over the past ten years, the Davidson School at JTS has trained master’s-level students to enter the field of “informal” or “experiential” Jewish education, including service-learning. Davidson has also recently embarked, for program development purposes, in ongoing consultations with leading professionals in the field. Here, we discuss two broad lessons we have learned from this work.

Full Article

An oversimplified summary of experiential education might read, “Act, Reflect, Repeat.” This idea of learning from experience is expressed in ancient sentiments such as naaseh v’nishmah – we will do and we will understand. Reflection serves as a catalyst to distinguishing educative experiences from the myriad daily experiences that have minimal impact. Through meaningful reflection, we call into question our beliefs about ourselves and our world and provide new frameworks for understanding further action. The role of the experiential educator is to facilitate this process.

By definition, service-learning is, action oriented. Service activities hold enormous potential to engage learners in repairing the world, be it serving in the local soup kitchen with their synagogue or building houses in Honduras during spring break with Hillel. They also can build empathy and provide meaningful lasting connections with Judaism. However, there is the potential for these activities to end up as one-offs that may (or may not) be interesting and enjoyable, but provide minimal impact within the variety of other interesting, enjoyable experiences that Jewish youth encounter.

The work of skilled educators is thus a crucial mediator to the impact of service-learning programs. Over the past 10 years, the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) has trained master’s-level students to enter the field of “informal” or “experiential” Jewish education, including service-learning. Davidson has also recently embarked on ongoing consultations with leading professionals in the field. Here, we discuss two broad lessons we have learned from this work.

The Educator as Facilitator: Making Personal, Jewish Connections

The ideal facilitator provides just enough information and guidance to help participants reflect on their experiences, making it meaningful in a Jewish context; in this role he or she helps learners draw their own conclusions. Striking the right balance between being “overly directive” and “too hands off” is deceptively difficult. When we work with facilitators, we often begin with a discussion of their goals and objectives or what they want the participants to take away from the experience. Facilitation can be discussed in terms of increasing the likelihood that learners will achieve these outcomes. Although the outcomes can be malleable enough to allow individual differences among participants, having them in mind can help focus the work of the facilitator.

Facilitators can lead participants in reflecting on the experience’s emotional aspects, both positive and negative, and to connect the experience to other elements of their world. For example, the facilitator may ask, “Who in your community might be in need of service?” or “What are the challenges we face in taking action?” and “How might we overcome these?” Although there are universal elements to the idea of service, facilitators also play important roles in helping participants locate the work within authentic Jewish values and texts in ways accessible and meaningful to them. Educators can ask participants to reflect on Jewish themes and terms: for example, “What does the idea of tikkun olam mean to you?” or “What about the world might need repairing?”

Attend to – and embrace! Nonprofit management and leadership skills

For Jewish experiential educators, direct education is only part of their role. Broadly, they must set the program vision and goals that need to be connected to measurable outcomes. Most Jewish service-learning trip leaders are also responsible for administrative functions, which may include marketing the program, creating and adhering to budgets, managing staff, interacting with lay leaders, and fundraising. Therefore, we have trained educators to be knowledgeable about and comfortable with skills of nonprofit management, constantly balancing the hats of education and administration. We have found our graduates to be more comfortable and successful entering the workforce as a result of this training.

Balancing both educational and administrative roles involves a shift in mindset as well as skills. Educators are seldom drawn to their work by a love of Excel spreadsheets, grant proposals, and donor requests. At best, they may see these as necessary evils, distinct from the real work of education. Although we certainly understand these sentiments, we believe that they may potentially lead to disillusionment and burnout. Educators must come to see these nonprofit management elements as critical to their professional identities and personal growth. As they create meaningful service-learning experiences and help transform the service-learning landscape, the goal is to balance these tasks with the aspects of their work that may be more inherently rewarding.

Skillful facilitation and administration are two among many of the stepping-stones in preparing successful Jewish service-learning educators.