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If You Really Listen to Teens

By Rena Fraade, Director of Religious School at Larchmont Temple

There was post on the NATE/ARJE list serve a few months ago asking if anyone felt they were doing middle school education “right.” I chuckled when I saw that. And groaned when I saw the responses – because they were all sharing things that I’ve been trying to do – working with my staff to connect our 7th graders who are having a million other struggles in life in addition to “ugh I have Hebrew School today!”

We want it to be meaningful, connecting, engaging – all those words. And when we sat and talked with our 7th graders, we actually got some info – not necessarily enough – but definitely enough to make some immediate changes. While we know our kids are opinionated, we have to frame conversations to get them to talk about what we need them to talk about.Larchmont-Temple


I adjusted our 7th grade program this year (I have actually honed it every year for seven years) by bringing our 7th graders in the evening to be with our older kids on Tuesdays (they still come in the afternoon Thursdays). They come from 5:45 – 7:45 which includes an elective, dinner, and a “core” program that overlaps with the 8th graders.

We are using a theme of “Jewish Identity” for the 7th graders, everything relates back to them and their own development of this thing they don’t really understand. The first set of electives were chosen by our teachers, things that help us connect to our Jewish identity, such as cooking, comics, and children’s books. But then we wanted the next options to be based on what they wanted to learn. And we needed to check in with the kids anyway.

Hopes & Dreams:

In November, we had our first Hopes and Dreams meeting during their class time in which the kids, in small groups, talked to me and Rabbi Dena Klein, my Jewish Education Project Consultant. We definitely didn’t have enough time to hear as much as we wanted, but we heard SO much.

Here are some of the key pieces of information:

  • They have a lot going on
  • They listen to music/read books/watch movies and are impacted by the themes they are hearing… but don’t necessarily understand the full scope
  • They find that school takes up a lot of their time and feel like it keeps them from doing what they want to be doing; grades and homework get in the way
  • They want to hang out with friends, listen to music, skateboard, play video games, sleep, be artistic
  • They innately know how they are supposed to act in the world (though they know that they don’t always act that way)
  • The traditions of Judaism matter to them
  • They have mixed connections to their families, though they know family is important

23757_lIn January, we were getting concerned about our post Bar and Bat Mitzvah retention while simultaneously wondering how to keep connecting with our kids in the weeks and months post bar/bat mitzvah. And so we had a follow-up Hopes and Dreams Ice Cream Sundae Schmooze – the Assistant Rabbi and I invited the dozen kids to have a conversation with us. We were joined by six (four of whom had been in attendance at the November conversation).

Here are some of the key pieces of information we heard from them:

  • They want to know why/how the learning they are doing “applies” to their lives
  • They are busy, they want to feel like their time is being used well
  • They aren’t really thinking about a Jewish future right now, they are living in the now
  • They are listening to their parents AND their friends as influencers
  • They want the opportunity to make choices about their time
  • Technology is part of who they are, they find it annoying when they are asked to put the phone away
  • Some of them are very compassionate and want to act on it
  • They are both scared and excited for the future… they love learning but on their terms… they love their friends but want to meet new people… they yearn for the freedom to BE.

The Struggle Continues:

After the first Hopes and Dreams conversation, I wrote up a list of electives that I “heard” them “saying” they wanted, I sent a survey to their parents asking them to, together, pick their top 5. I then gave the kids sign-up sheets from the top 5 of those top 5, to create our three electives for this semester – Cooking, Comedy, and Social Action. I am teaching Social Action and we just came to a huge schism in our class… we had been working on finding ways to send packages to soldiers – Americans, Lone soldiers, and Israeli soldiers. They gave me their lists of what they found. And I said, “Ok how are we going to get these supplies?”

And they said to me, “Wait we’re actually doing this?”ques

What exactly, beyond the scientific knowledge, happens in the brain of a pre-teen? What do they want, what do they need… who matters to them, who impresses upon them? And why would they want to “do Jewish?” The brain of the pubescent was/is/will always be our biggest challenge in their Jewish lives.

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