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Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Ki Tisa: The Roar of the Crowd

There's a scene in the Jimmy Stewart movie "It's a Wonderful Life" that's always bothered me. Yes, I know this is a Torah blog and that's a Christmas movie, but work with me.

Jimmy Stewart plays George Bailey, a man in crisis who gets the chance to see how the lives of his relatives and friends would change had he never been born. Even if you've never seen the movie, you can probably guess that their lives are greatly diminished in his absence. But I've always been more interested in the rest of the community. You see, with George Bailey as a community leader, the streets of Bedford Falls are neat, the shops are quaint, and the people are warm and friendly. But without George Bailey, the town -- now named Pottersville -- is seedy, the streets are lined with bars and X-rated clubs, and the people are mean and grouchy.

It's always troubled me, this view of group dynamics, which holds that people sink to their basest level without a strong and charismatic leader. According to this theory, it's the role of the leader to quell people's natural tendencies toward degeneracy, and to spur them to more cooperative and productive activities.

I think of this indictment of groups when I read this week's Torah portion, Ki Tisa. In Ki Tisa, we learn what the Jewish people have been doing while Moses has been up on Mount Sinai receiving laws from God. It's not a pretty picture! The people have created an idol -- the famed Golden Calf -- to worship, and they are dancing, drinking, and otherwise being, as Moses later puts,  "out of control."

As teachers and parents, we encourage our kids to behave like leaders. We portray individuals like Moses and Martin Luther King Jr., like Abraham of the Torah and Abraham of the Lincolns, as role models worthy of emulation. But in doing this, I think that we miss part of the picture. Psychologists tells us that middle schoolers hate to stand out. They want to look like everyone else, dress like everyone else, and act like everyone else. In short, they want nothing more than to blend in with the crowd.

Shouldn't we respect their inclinations, and try to figure out what makes a group successful -- even in the absence of a stand-out figure?

Why does one class of students continue to work if the teacher needs to leave the room for a moment, while down the hall, the kids will climb on their desks and hurl pencils at one another? Why does one group of middle-schoolers spend a Saturday night on their own, peacefully eating pizza and watching a movie in someone's basement, while another group of kids gets into trouble unless they are under the constant supervision of a parent? It can't be due entirely to the character of the individuals involved, since we all know children who act one way with one set of friends and the complete opposite way with a different set. What is the tipping point that turns Bedford Falls into Pottersville?

Can you find months an example in the Torah of a leaderless group that nevertheless behave cooperatively and productively? How does that group differ from the one in Ki Tisa? 

Above all, I think we need to recognize that groups -- whether families, school classes, or communities -- can do great things on their own. After all, there won't always be a Moses, or even a George Bailey, around.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

T'rumah: Oh Those Group Projects!

It's 2:30 in the afternoon, and I know what's coming as soon as I pull up to the curb at school and see the scowl on my sixth-grader's face. She climbs into the car, kicks her backpack, and skulks down in her seat.

"Guess what," she tells me angrily. "We have another group project!"

Group projects are the bane of a middle schooler's existence. They require patience, diplomacy, restraint, and a big-picture perspective -- characteristics and skills that don't always apply to your average twelve- or thirteen-year-old. Add to that all the drama that informs a middle-school environment -- crushes, shifting friendships, misunderstandings, hurt feelings -- and it's it's hard to imagine that any group project would have even remote chance of being completed.

My daughter is one of those kids who likes to stay on task, work diligently, and finish her assignments early whenever possible. So inevitably she gets grouped with at least one easy-going type who refuses to knuckle down until the eleventh hour. My daughter starts to make demands, the free-spirit calls her "bossy," the other kids take sides, someone winds up in tears, the teacher tells them to work it out, someone forgets to do his or her piece, another someone gets sick and stalls the whole process...

If there's one saving grace, it's that teachers tend to grade group projects fairly leniently. I think they know about the battle scars that inevitably result, and they try not to add to the pain. And some, no doubt, believe that the lessons kids learn about cooperation and collaboration may be more important in the long run than the quality of the finished product.

Funny enough, I've also discovered that middle-school groups tend to turn out some pretty special projects. Okay, maybe they're quirky and unusual, but that's what make them so interesting. As a parent and as a teacher, I've seen the most wonderful group projects appear -- posters, imovies, dramatic skits, painted crafts, and even decorated cakes -- that reflect a host of different personalities, and could never have been created by one student alone.

I think of middle schoolers and group projects when I read T'rumah, this week's Torah portion. In T'rumah, God issues directions to the Jewish people for building the Tabernacle, a kind of portable house of worship that will accompany the Jews through the desert. God tells Moses to have the people donate precious metals, skins, and specific types of wood. And God lays out dimensions and specific design requirements for the structure.

I can't help but see this task as a kind of group project, and I wonder how the Jews brought the thing to fruition. Did the strict rule-follower have the gold overlays ready before the acacia-table was built, and did this cause an argument? Did the free spirit want to play loose with the dimensions to see if the table might function better as a result? What if some of the group members were tired because they stayed up to watch American Idol the night before, so they lost count of the number of gold rings they were making? What if one of the members hadn't kept another's secret, and now the two of them were in a fight about just how long a cubit actually was?

How does the middle schooler in your life take to group projects? What role does he or she play? Does completing one group project help the next one go more smoothly? Is there any way to lessen the group-project stress?

Knowing what I do about human nature, I suspect that the Tabernacle didn't come out exactly as God specified.

And I suspect that ultimately, it was good the way it was.