Wednesday, March 5, 2008

More on Imagination

In this post on Hirhurim, I shared some thoughts that emanated from a dvar Torah I gave in shul during Shalosh Seudos on Judaism and imagination. After sharing the dvar Torah and discussing creativity and imagination with my Wednesday morning parshah shiur at Akiva, I decided to try and practice what I preach, and try to incorporate some imagination and creativity into my teaching.
This year, I teach gemara to seventh grade boys, and we're studying the fourth chapter of Brachos. That day we studied the Mishnah about Rabbi Nechunia ben Hakana, who would offer a prayer each day before he would enter the Beit Midrash and after he would leave. What, the Gemara wonders, did he used to say? Upon leaving the Beit Midrash he would "thank God for his lot," highlighting the difference between us and them.
שאני משכים והם משכימים - אני משכים לדברי תורה והם משכימים לדברים בטלים, אני עמל והם עמלים - אני עמל ומקבל שכר והם עמלים ואינם מקבלים שכר, אני רץ והם רצים - אני רץ לחיי העולם הבא והם רצים לבאר שחת.
For I rise and they rise - I rise for words of Torah, and they rise for wasteful things. I toil and they toil. I toil and receive reward, and they toil and do not receive reward. I run and they run - I run to life in the World to Come, and they run to a bottomless pit...
(Incidentally, we include this very prayer in the text usually recited at a siyyum at the conclusion of the study of a body of Torah.) In any case, I decided to give my students an opportunity to be creative. I asked them to go home and come up with their own prayer, using the formula of Rabbi Nechunia -- "for I rise and they rise." They should then describe what each of them rise for as opposed to why "they" rise. I didn't tell them who "they" should be -- I left that up to the students. I gave them the assignment excited about what they would come up with.
It was a total bomb.
Of my fourteen students in the class, only five of them submitted the assignment on time. Of the assignments I did receive, only two of them were at all memorable for their thought and creativity. The rest that I did get seemed to be whatever the student could put down on paper with the minimum of effort and energy. (Truth be told, they are seventh grade boys!).
Some never completed the assignment at all despite repeated requests and warnings, some even claiming that "they didn't know what to do." It seems to me that the request to add some creative input threw the students for such a loop that the simply shut down, unable to do the assignment. It can't be simple laziness, because the very same weekend I gave them a significant amount of what I would consider spitback homework -- answering questions in their workbooks, and to a man, they completed the lengthy assignment which took far more time that the initial creative work.
I found this lack of creative ability in other places as well. Last Shabbos Bnei Akiva brought a Zach (grades 7-8) shabbaton to our shul, and I gave another variation of this dvar Torah to the kids, encouraging them to be creative in their Jewish lives. (Yes, rabbis do recycle. There, I admitted it.) During my talk, I asked the kids to raise their hands if they were taught to use their imaginations to express themselves Judaically. Of the sixty kids in the room, five raised their hands; one was American, and the other four were the Sherut Leumi girls spending a year in America. I looked at the Israeli girls and asked them again, "You learned to be creative in school?" Yes, they told me. But what about the American kids, who stared at me with blank looks in their eyes?
Finally, that very afternoon, my son was entertaining a friend and like all kids,
couldn't figure out what to play with. We only have closets bloated with toys. (I know, I sound like my parents. That's what happens.) I suggested Kinex - a great building toy. What he said shocked me.
"But Abba, we lost the directions, and I don't know how to make anything." I just looked at him. You don't know how to make anything? Isn't the point of building toys not just following the color-coded guides, but coming up with your own creation? Then I rea
lized just how much things had changed. Think about the Legos that you got as a child. I remember that we had a big box of Legos all mixed together, and you just sat down and put something together - whatever came to mind. Sure, you could buy a really cool set to build a car with the working pistons. But we couldn't afford those fancy sets. We just bought the sets that came with a bunch of different pieces mixed together, and you made whatever you could think of. You can't buy those sets anymore. Go to Toy R Us and see for yourself. You can only buy Star Wars Lego sets, or car sets, or movie-themed sets, designed to be built to create a specific model using specific directions, no imagination required.
When I built my front porch a few years ago, I had some cedar wood
left over . Remembering fondly a set of blocks I used to play with as a child, I cut and sanded that wood into a huge set of building blocks, filling a large plastic tub in the basement. To my surprise and chagrin, my kids hardly use it, opting for gameboy, computer -- anything electronic first, and then even reading before they use the blocks.
I used to be upset about the lonely blocks sitting in the corner of the basement, and wondered why my children ignored them.
Now I think I know why.