Sunday, November 6, 2011

Moving away from Prepackaged experiences

More and more, it seems that our students live lives that are, for lack of a better term, pre-packaged. They attend either the day school in town or one of the few schools, move from there to the one or several available Yeshiva high school options, do the year in Israel thing followed by either the YU/Stern track, the Ivy league track, or the good-state-school (Rutgers, Maryland, Michigan, etc.) track, and ultimately do the doctor/lawyer/accountant/permanent grad school thing.

Beyond the general itinerary through life, more and more of their other activities seem to fall into predictable patterns and categories. They play sports (in organized leagues), they take music lessons (generally piano, drums, or violin), and perhaps the girls are involved in dance or gymnastics. Vacations tend to be taken to one of a limited number of popular locales (how many of your students spend winter break in either Florida, Israel, the Caribbean, or, if you are in the NY metro area, Great Wolf Lodge?), and summers find them in one of a handful of camps.

But it goes even further than this. With apologies for sounding old and crotchety, when I spent a year in Israel less than 20 years ago, time spent out of Yeshiva was time to improvise. Perhaps you went to a family friend that had made aliyah, or an Israeli friend that you just met, or perhaps you hopped on a bus with a couple of friends and hiked around Israel for a day or two. In the time since, it seems that more and more there are "official" experiences that everyone "must" have. Pre-Pesach in Poland. Shabbat at "the Moshav". And on and on.

I have a chicken-and-egg discussion in my head about this. I think that it is obvious that increased connectivity plays a role in this homogenization of experience. People quickly find out what others are doing and want to be a part of it, or at least do not want to be the only ones left out. I'm not sure if the technology creates the need to be an individual by doing what everyone else is doing or if it merely facilitates it.

I bring this up because I just concluded three days with my 7th grade students at Camp Frost Valley, a beautiful, expansive YMCA campsite in Claryville, NY. Our students spend three days with no cellphones (they don't work up there), no internet, no technology of any kind. Instead, they engage in a variety of outdoor activities meant to begin to build a sense of community and to challenge them to challenge themselves to do things that are perhaps outside of their zone of comfort.

As much as our Frost Valley trip is a program, and we do indeed scrutinize and strategize every moment of the trip in our planning process, the fact is that, for the students, this does not fit the normal pre-packaged model that so many other aspects of their lives fit into. You cannot fabricate the thrill of trying to work up the nerve to fly on the Giant Swing (some 40 feet in the air), and you cannot predict what will happen when 12 teenagers are charged with a task that requires them to work in concert in order to solve. If only we provided our students/children with more moments where we bring them to some place - either in space or time - and let them be the arbiters of what type of experience they will have.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi Aaron.
A very astute blog post. Food for thought.
My feeling, being an Oleh with Israeli born and raised kids, is that we are constantly experiencing the adventure of getting to know a different education system and a youth scene which is incomparable to the way that we grew up. Even though I am here 20 years, my kids' experiences are highly different than those with which I was raised. In contrast to your post, here in Israel I see my kids offered a huge range of options, both experiential and religious, both within the community and without, to choose from, and afforded a great amount of non-structured living. This summer, my 15 year old crafted his own summer experience including a MDA course, and a youth leadership-camping seminar, each of which tested him and expanded his horizons. Furthermore, I see a great deal of exploration and forging of new religious options amongst the 20-something generation. I wonder whether Israel still has more of that lack of pre-programmed structure, or whether its just all new to me.

Anyhow. Excellent post.