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Tefilah Action Research Project

Ten Pardes Educator alumni participated in an action research project in the area of tefilah in their schools in the Spring of 2011 .Simply put, action research is learning by doing. Tefilah was chosen, as it is, without a doubt, one of the key challenges in day schools. Each of our researchers told a similar story (of attempts to engage students who are generally disengaged with formal jewish prayer). Half of the research was done in middle schools (grades 5-8) and half in high schools. Our researchers included: Deborah Anstandig, Moshe Fisch, Sean Herstein, Scott Kaplan, Shifra Kaufman, Sarah Margles, Reuven Margrett, Yonatan Rosner, Aron Wolgel and Sarah Zollman. 

The participants learned a great deal from their individual experiments. We have taken their insights and pulled out common findings helpful to the day school field. While some of the findings may initially appear obvious, they are not – or schools would not be structuring tefilah the way they do.  Click here to read the full summary paper which expands upon the findings – giving rich anecdotal evidence and much food for thought. We would like to offer another opportunity to continue these projects or fund new action research in tefilah in 2012-2013. If you are interested, contact us.

The major findings included:  

A.    The most common finding was that giving students input into the tefilah experience was key to their engagement. 

Over and over we saw that when students were given serious input into the nature of the tefilah experience or the responsibility for making tefilah better, they took it seriously and worked to make it happen. In the words of one researcher:

 “ I found that when you give students the space to ask questions and explore new ideas on their own, they have the tendency to come back to you with profound and thoughtful experiences and ideas.  I hoped to empower them to become more aware and involved in their own prayer experiences.  I truly believed that the best way to get students involved is by asking. It worked!”

B.    Student Leadership within tefilah is key and needs to be built

Two of the research projects had student leadership as the primary focus. The high school project  trained leaders through a voluntary course in prayer and leadership which took place over the course of a full-school year (and had first started out as a club). The program, highly successful by any measure, continues to evolve. It succeeded, but only because of recognition of the need to build leadership and the work that went into doing so. 

C.    The Role of the Adult is Significant (for better or for worse).

The Pardes graduates who embarked on these action research projects are all people who are personally knowledgeable and passionate about prayer. It is not surprising that they reflected upon their own roles and raised numerous questions as to what is the role of the teacher and what training/support he/she might need.   

In one high school, the person doing the research looked specifically at the difference it might make by supporting the teacher minyan leaders. In a middle school that set-out to change its minyan structure, the researcher noted that “one of the biggest limitations of this project was taking into consideration our staff and their abilities. For many of the teachers in the school, leading tefilah is not an enjoyable aspect of their jobs. Many disclosed a level of discomfort with tefilah and their own personal questions and challenges with God, the liturgy, Jewish traditions, etc.

A number of the researchers commented on the nature of student- teacher relationships as it impacted on tefilah. ”If students see me as an enabler of tefilah rather than as a policer of tefilah, that would be worthwhile.”

D.    The Developmental Stage of the students must be taken into account

A full picture of the developmental issues concerning older students, particularly in regard to their religious development, is a very important topic in and of itself, but is beyond the scope of our research.  Nevertheless, we want to share some insights into this area based on the observations of the researchers and the comments of the students.

 Several of the researchers spoke of their students’ difficulty with prayer: their questioning the existence or nature of the God to whom they were to pray, issues of good and evil in the world, the efficacy of prayer, etc. This was true not only for the high school students – which we might expect - but for the older (grades 7 & 8) middle schoolers as well.

Authority issues also play a role. This results in a certain amount of “push-back”. Social issues connect here as well. The peer group is very important to most young adults.

Peer pressure presents challenges. “For high schoolers, maybe we are expecting too much to ask them to “connect to prayer” certainly in their freshman or sophomore years?”

 Additionally, a number of researchers asked a fundamental question about a lack of connection between prayer experiences and the “real” world in which they live.

A lack of clear goals and  accountability on the part of students may contribute to  apathy

Few schools have well articulated goals for the time set aside for tefilah. If there were goals, they did not seem to be clearly articulated and if articulated, they still might not have buy-in from the students. 

Even in places where students expressed a desire to pray, many felt uncomfortable with their technical prayer skills. Quite a number of students (spanning all ages in this research) expressed displeasure with not knowing what they were saying in tefilah or that they had been doing the same thing year after year – and still hadn’t gotten it. Schools generally do not assess prayer skills or knowledge in a formal way.

This lack of academic/performance accountability seemed to often lead to a general apathy (most often in grades 7 and up). In several settings, the teachers saw most students sitting quietly, but unengaged, and at worst, disrespectful or difficult to control.

E.    There did not seem to be a direct correlation between knowledge of the prayers and the engagement/enjoyment by the students and visa versa

The knowledge students gained in studying about prayer did not always lead to greater enjoyment or more engagement with the tefilah. The converse was also true. Actually, a correlation was shown between those who thought they had learned more (whether or not they actually had) and their connectedness to tefilah.

F.    The environment of tefilah seriously impacted on the middle schoolers’ participation.

The lack of attention to logistical issues and the physical surroundings (siddurim, the room in which tefilah is held, the number of participants involved, etc.) can undermine the prayer experience for our middle schoolers, while the attention to these details can enhance the experience. When insufficient attention is paid to the surroundings, students may see it as reflecting a lack of seriousness about prayer. The same is true when they feel that tefilah is being approached with insufficient respect. While this may seem obvious, clearly it was an issue in several of the projects.

III. Conclusion

Above all else, we have learned what we knew intuitively; that prayer is hard for everyone as is developing a clear articulation of our goals. Not only are we challenged by the goals and the material, but our students are not always in a place where they want to engage these challenges. In the words of one researcher, “these students live complicated lives. Pressures from home, peer relationships, physical changes and self-esteem issues all come together to make the adolescent years potentially very difficult to navigate”.  Another teacher remarked that she had re-thought her erroneous assumption that [it is the] good kids [that] like tefilah. ”All people struggle with tefilah and the teenager with 10 periods ahead, social concerns, potential familial or personal issues, all arise in the 40 minutes of personal time to engage in tefilah.”

These research projects have not only highlighted the challenges, but have pointed us in some positive directions as well. Based on the research described above, we need to: find more ways to get student input, empower and promote student leadership, address the role of teachers and offer them support, clarify our goals, and pay greater attention to physical space and developmental issues. Furthermore, other areas call out for additional research. We devote time in school to tefilah, which in itself  is a reason to make sure that it is done well. Yet,  we are also hoping to develop life-long pray-ers. To do so, we need to give the subject of tefilah in schools, its due diligence.

לא עליך המלאכה לגמור ולא אתה בן חורין להבטל ממנה  (אבות)