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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.

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