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Why the Passover Seder is a perfectly crafted educational experience

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I participated in a Passover Seder meal this year. Raised in the Catholic Church, I’ve got a soft spot for ritual and the way that so many of our senses are engaged in religious ceremonies. As I sat through the Seder, I couldn’t help but think, isn’t this a perfectly crafted educational experience?

As a Seder newcomer (I’ve been to about three in my life), my interest trumped my lack of knowledge about Jewish religion and Hebrew language. Even though we sat at the table for over four hours, I was engaged throughout. Part of my engagement came from the knowledge that something important and sacred was about to happen. It made me wonder: How do I make classroom experiences important, even sacred, to my students?

The female rabbi, our leader in this Seder, provided a Haggadah she had assembled for each person at the table. The pages were numbered, as books in Hebrew always are, from back to front, tying us in a simple way to the traditions that we were about to practice. The ritual, which retells the ancient story of the Jews’ exodus from slavery in Egypt, was conducted with a mix of Hebrew, English, and Aramaic language. While some participants were familiar with all three languages, some, like me, only knew one. As a teacher, I thought: How do I expose my students to cultures with which they are unfamiliar? How do I invite them to bring knowledge of their own cultures to the classroom?

The leader began by providing us with an outline of the parts of the Seder, pronouncing the Hebrew names of the components, with them providing an English translation along with a hand motion. Throughout the Seder, as we transitioned from each part, we chanted the parts we’d completed, using the accompanied hand gestures. While I never did fully remember each Hebrew pronunciation, my level of confidence increased each time we sang and gestured. And even though I hadn’t understood, I was fully able to participate in the hand gestures, my favorite part. I asked myself: How can I integrate the arts into the classroom to provide more entry points for experience an expression?

The story of the Exodus from slavery to freedom is told and retold throughout the meal. If you miss it or don’t understand it the first time, hopefully you’ll grasp it later — and each way is told differently. The story of the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt is told through the answers to the Four Questions, the parable of the Four Children (which Ruben Brosbe related to his own classroom), the song “Dayeinu,” and the explanation of the Seder Plate. It made me think: How can I tell stories in multiple ways, gearing them towards multiple learners at varying points in their journeys?

In the explanation of the Seder Plate, the Passover story is symbolized by the food we eat, adding yet another way to understand and remember what the story is about. This part has stayed with me since the first time I participated in a Seder during the eighth grade as a part of my Catholic religious education. I distinctly remember dipping parsley in salt water (and that I didn’t like the taste), which I was reminded this year is meant to recall both the arrival of spring and the salty tears shed by Jewish slaves. The plate and its contents provide a way to remember the important parts of the meal, either through taste or simply visualizing the plate in one’s mind. I asked myself: What hands-on and visual symbols can I bring into my lessons to enrich the experience for students?

Along the way, our rabbi tied in more recent events and our knowledge and experience throughout the dinner. Tying the story of the Jews’ quest for freedom to the African-American Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech was read, and the group also sang “We Shall Overcome.” I think the singing here was one of my favorite parts, probably in part because I knew this song! How is what we’re studying relevant to my students? In what way do we make emotional and socially relevant connections within the classroom?

And who could forget — a game is incorporated into the Seder as well: the search for a hidden piece of matzah, the Afikomen, which happens at the end of meal in order to keep children engaged through the long history lesson and meal. A little fun goes a long way! As a teacher, how can I make learning fun for my students, even when the task is not easy?

One of my favorite components of the evening I attended was one that is not standard but instead was added by the rabbi who led the Seder: a discussion of the Jewish tradition of charity, called tzedakah. In the tradition of the tzedakah box, one could place money into the box as an act of charity. And one who needed money could take some from the box. The important thing was that no one knew who was doing the giving and who was doing the taking. This ethos of exchange should be present in the classroom, which is home to a constant give and take of teaching and learning between student and teacher and among students. How do we create this type of balance in our classroom — a place where responsibility is shared?

While I certainly can’t fully explain or dictate each part of the Seder, I will say I remember so much of it and understand a decent part of the symbolism, even though it was a short experience. This is in part due to the careful planning of the leader along with the wise merits of ritual religious experience that speaks to the senses and the memory. As I returned to school from spring break, my Seder experience has stuck with me, and I am contemplating one overarching question whose answer I’d like to guide my work: How can we, as teachers, make school a meaningful, wide-awake experience that stays with students beyond the classroom walls?

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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