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Words from the Head of School

On Being Student-centered

Dear Brandeis community,
In the Mishneh Torah, his twelfth-century treatise on Jewish law, Maimonides wrote that “the teacher should not sit on a chair, while the students sit on the ground. Rather, either everyone should sit on the ground or everyone should sit on chairs.” That was in a chapter on laws of Torah study, and it’s a quote I’ve referred to a great deal over the years. In context, the quote refers to the legibility of teaching—make sure everyone in the room can see and hear one another. In my reading, it also speaks to the deep mutual respect that is at the core of the teacher-student relationship, where both parties have knowledge to share and to gain. When we wrote in Brandeis 2023 that “student-centered, inquiry-based, and real-world learning is the future,” we knew that in every one of those instances, in a variety of ways, each is also deeply rooted in the traditions and even the laws of Jewish education.
I have been thinking of Maimonides’s approach to classroom setup this week, as I have made my way around school. The morning meeting and advisory check-ins that happen every day in every classroom are a wonderful example of precisely the model Maimonides described. In that first few minutes of the day every day, you will see lower students sitting in a circle on the rug with their teachers, greeting one another by name and getting centered in themselves and their day. In middle school classrooms, students and teachers both have often migrated to chairs and couches, but the clarity and connection of the morning rituals remain.
I have also been thinking about how the Maimonides quote suggests agency on the part of the students. By insisting that students sit at eye-level with their teachers, he suggests that they have ideas to contribute, not only to receive. This connects to the great Brazilian philosopher of education Paolo Freire’s notion of the banking concept of education, which he wrote very much in opposition to. The banking concept sees students as empty vessels, limited in their agency and capacity for creativity and critical thinking, to be filled by the knowledge and information held entirely by the teacher. In contrast, Freire argued that students of any age come into a classroom with a great deal of knowledge and creative capacity to share, and the teacher and class should honor those interests and truths, in order to most effectively connect. (I suspect Freire and Maimonides both would have set up their classrooms similarly, and both would enjoy their days with our students here at Brandeis.)
This week I have seen teachers affirming the agency and the creative and critical capacities of our students in so many ways, including when a group of middle school students proposed an exciting (and still top-secret, alas, so no details here) new project. The response was not, “Well, we don’t do that,” or “That isn’t how it works here.” Instead, the educators posed supportive questions—what will you need to be successful, how do you imagine this unfolding, how might we help you in making it happen? I saw teachers and leadership responding in person and over email to this group of students with excitement and enthusiasm—the pedagogical equivalent of getting down on the floor with them, setting out chairs for them—letting the students’ curiosity and creativity guide the process. Stay tuned for more on this top-secret project—in the meantime, remember to get down on your kids’ level as much as possible. In doing so you’re affirming their humanity, yes, and also following a millennium of Jewish law.
Wishing you all weekends full of shared thinking, my friends.