In that Beit Midrash – and in the ones at the other Jewish institutions that nurtured me on my way to becoming a rabbi – I learned to love a particularly Jewish approach to learning. An approach that valued learning being done in groups or pairs, instead of the individual-focused and paper-writing-obsessed model of academia. An approach that might have seemed aimless to the person unfamiliar with it. An approach that upheld, in particular, the seemingly aimless value of Torah Lishma/תורה לשמה, Torah study for its own sake (as opposed to studying to achieve any particular goal). But, it would not quite be accurate to say Torah Lishma has no aim. Its aim is about cultivating something in the individual – transforming him or her to be a better person, one closer to God. One who knows better how to follow God's will. One who knows better how to care for his or her fellows -- something like the aim of learning through personal transformation that we have in chaplaincy education.
This summer – my first leading a chaplaincy education program on my own – I've had a chance to figure out how I can bring the educational and spiritual forms I have learned on my Jewish path to the multi-faith sphere that is Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE).
Last week we hit the middle of our program, a time when many programs do a mid-term review where the students take stock of what learning they have done, where they have been surprised and what they would like to do with the remainder of their time in the program. Many times this is done by each student writing a paper on their own. When I was a summer student, our supervisor asked us to express ourselves artistically by making collages that we shared with the rest of the group.
But I wanted to bring the model of the Beit Midrash – literally the House of Inquiry – into CPE. I decided that our learning should be done out loud and together. I did ask the students to reflect a bit on their own first and gave them some questions to think about. But most of the work was done out loud. We devoted about 25 minutes to each of our five students (mostly young, Protestant seminary students) over the course of one long morning and then spent 30 minutes reflecting on how we had been functioning and developing as a group. The students were very active in asking each other questions and most of the time I was able to do what I like to do most as a group facilitator – just sit back and enjoy how well the group is functioning on its own with only the slightest of interventions from me.
To be honest, it was only upon reflection that I realized how well what I had chosen to do fit the model of the Beit Midrash that I want to bring into CPE. I also realized that another aspect of how I had organized my summer program well reflected the live-learning and collective/group-learning values of the Beit Midrash – I have a minimum of ndividual writing requirements in my program. Most programs set an individual requirement for how many verbatims (detailed written reports on a patient visit) a student needs to write during the unit. Most of those get presented to the full group, but if there's not enough time in the group not all of them get presented. I, however, turned this kind of requirement on its head. I started with a group requirement for the number of verbatim presentations we would do (three a week, more than some other programs), and asked the students to set up a schedule on their own of who would present when. No verbatims would be written and not presented.
Above I mentioned that when I was a summer student, we had done an artistic mid-term evaluation. As a person who personally prefers the written word as a means of expression (I can't even draw a straight line!) I hated this! So, I was surprised to see art playing such a central and effective role in our mid-term evaluation last week. Early in the week, an art therapist at our hospital had come in and done an exercise with our students. He gave them a simple exercise to carry out in clay – create a representation of a wall, of yourself and of the relationship between the two. I was stunned to see how the sculptures the students created reflected so well what I had assessed their learning issues to be. We were able to use the images from these sculptures during our discussions as a springboard for analysis and as metaphors for what the students were experiencing. It was very rich and helped make the mid-term evaluation the great success I believe it was.
I am so proud of my students. They are working so hard to engage the very challenging learning issues that the work of caring for people in an intense hospital environment brings up every day. I hope they find blessing – and much learning – in the weeks remaining!