Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The tiger and the apple -- educating America

Rarely do I find myself in agreement with columnist David Brooks (and rarely do I comment on books I haven't read), but there's a lot of wisdom in his column reacting to Amy Chua's Battle hymn of the tiger mother, the controversial new memoir about one Asian intellectual's tough love approach to child-rearing. Brooks says that activities that, on first glance, might look like wasteful play -- like the sleepovers Chua denied her children -- are, in fact, vital places for learning:

Practicing a piece of music for four hours requires focused attention, but it is nowhere near as cognitively demanding as a sleepover with 14-year-old girls. Managing status rivalries, negotiating group dynamics, understanding social norms, navigating the distinction between self and group — these and other social tests impose cognitive demands that blow away any intense tutoring session or a class at Yale
The wisdom here is particularly pertinent at a time when we are -- at least in the public schools -- putting more and more emphasis on the most formal elements of schooling: on the so-called basics where achievement can be easily measured by standardized tests. It is notable, however, that this craze to strip schools of play and extra-curricular activities has not extended to the most prestigious of private and religious schools where an enriched curriculum of sports, arts and other non-basics is sometimes even more intense for kids than their formal learning.

It is also notable to observe -- as Steve Jobs sadly drops the reigns at Apple for health reasons -- that some of our very most successful people are ones who got a minimum of formal schooling by the standards of the Chua's of the world. Jobs only finished one semester at off-beat Reed College in Oregon. He credits a very-much-non-basics class he later audited there -- in calligraphy of all things -- for giving him the background for some of his most important contributions to Apple's success. In a commencement address at Stanford University, Jobs later stated, "If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts."

The one place where I most definitely disagree with Brooks, however, is when he states that the skill set for participating well in groups is one that cannot be "taught formally, but it is imparted through arduous experiences." Obviously, as one who is completing a course in Group Dynamics and who uses group experiences in Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) to help people develop awareness of group dynamics, I believe that group skills can be taught -- or at least fostered -- in a formal setting. But I do agree that the benefits only come from "arduous experiences" participating in groups. I simply believe also that those experiences can be guided in beneficial ways.

May you find time for play and other informal learning experiences as well!

Goodbye group, we hardly knew ya

We do have one more class tomorrow, but today was the last meeting of my T-Group that has been part of the intensive three-week Group Dynamics class I have been taking at NYU. Over the nine meetings we had, I felt I was starting to get to know my group members, and I was a bit sad to see it come to an end. It was a very different experience than most the groups (we usually call them IPR, or interpersonal relations, seminars) I have been a part of in CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education).

The most salient difference was that there was a very specific primary goal for the group of using it to learnabout group dynamics (while that's certainly one goal for IPR in CPE, I, at least, have never witnessed a supervisor making it explicitly the main focus for IPR).

Another big difference is that the class was split into two groups. One would meet for an hour while the rest of the class observed, and then vice versa for another hour. I've never heard about anybody doing anything like that in a CPE program, but I can say it's an approach that has some merits. I certainly learned much from the experience of observing the other group, and then writing process reports about what I had observed and about how the theory we have been studying contributed to my observations.

I have a lot of reflecting to do about what I've really learned over these three weeks, but I'm sure that my practice as a facilitator of IPR groups will benefit from it. I'm grateful to my fellow students for sharing with me and for the professor's leadership.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

A weekend of song at the sea -- Minna brings voice to Reading

Minna concluded an inspiring Shabbat Shira weekend with a "sing-in" at the Jewish Community Center here in Reading. It was such a joy to see this part of her young rabbinate -- the part that is about linking Torah and voice to build community and to seek personal and collective liberation -- come into expression in such a wonderful way. She played many of her own songs as well as ones to honor the recently deceased Debbie Friedman. The weekend featured a new group of Community Singers she helped organize. It was a great way to honor the Shabbat where we stand at the reading of the Song of the Sea -- the song that the people Israel sung (Exodus 15) when God saved them at the sea.

Here is a video of one of Minna's most recent original songs (not on any album!):

More videos of Minna singing here.

The weekend also involved the children of the community. I especially love how this little guy below is "playing along" on his guitar.

From Shabbat Shira Weekend Sing-in (2011)
Here's another shot I like.
From Shabbat Shira Weekend Sing-in (2011)

Mazel Tov, Minna!
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Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Washington Square at dusk, Winter 2011

Scenes like this make me wish I had been a New York City kid. Looks like fun!

Sunday, January 09, 2011

A deeper level of pain -- nausea, hate, history and Arizona

Even though I had never heard of her before, I felt almost physically ill when, after Shabbat was over yesterday, I read about the Arizona shooting of U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords by a lone gunman. Short of genocide, there is no more horrible crime than political assassination. It is an attack on all of us, on the very idea that we can rule ourselves through a peaceful democracy. JFK, RFK, MLK, Sadat, Gandhi, Rabin -- it brings tears to my eyes just to write these names down together, and they are just a sample of the many who have died at the hands of assassins in my lifetime.

Sometimes -- when I read about the recent assassination of the Pakistan's governor of Punjab -- I manage to comfort myself by thinking that such things don't happen "here." But, as the Arizona shooting -- where at least six lives were lost, including that of a Federal judge and of a nine-year-old girl -- is a reminder, I'm just fooling myself when I think things like that.

But, as great as my initial disgust was, it went to a whole other level when I heard Giffords was Jewish. The entire long history of Jews being murdered for ideological or political reasons -- a history where the Holocaust is only the most horrible of so many occurrences -- suddenly came rising up in my heart and mind. I am sure I am only one of countless Jews who were suddenly asking themselves these kinds of questions: Did he choose her to try and kill because she is Jewish? Is it possible that this horror that has happened so many times before is happening, again? Can such things happen in the country that has been the safest for the Jews in all history? Am I safe? Are people going to try and kill me because I am Jewish?

We live in an age when so many people want to deny that that there is such a thing as a hate crime or hate speech. For those of you who feel that way, I offer you my reaction when I heard Giffords is Jewish -- the fear this crime brings up in me because I am Jewish and because it happened to a fellow Jew.

What make a hate crime a hate crime is that it does not stand in isolation -- it is the connection of that crime to a systematic pattern of hate, discrimination and violence against a particular group that makes it a hate crime. When someone draws a noose on the dormitory door of an African-American student leader, it is that history of violence -- and the fear that history engenders -- that makes it more than a crude, sophomoric prank. That's why it's different when white and black people use the "N" word. In the mouth of a white person directed at a black person the "N" word automatically creates associations with all the crimes white Americans have committed against its African-Americans -- lynchings, slavery and acts of discrimination. This is true even if the white speaker did not intend any of these associations. But, in the mouth of a black person -- a person who is not part of the crime-committing group -- the "N" word has no such power to associate with mass oppression.

Certainly, I do not know if the shooter in Arizona was acting out of antisemitism, so I cannot say if it was a hate crime directed against the Jews. But I know it is possible.

This coming Shabbat is Shabbat Shira, when we read of God saving the people Israel by splitting the sea, thus guaranteeing the success of their effort to escape the oppression and slavery they knew in Egypt.

May it be the will of the Blessed Holy One that we will all be freed from the oppression and violence that comes from the hate amongst us. And may all of the wounded and bereaved from yesterday's shooting find healing and comfort.

A pioneer in Jewish healing has died

I only saw Debbie Friedman perform twice. The first was at a healing service, long before I became a rabbi, with Michael Strassfeld at the Ansche Chesed synagogue on the West Side of Manhattan. And while I did not become the kind of big fan of Friedman's effort to blend folk music with Jewish spirituality that so many of my friends did, the example of that healing service was a key inspiration to me. It helped show me, as Friedman did for so many people, the potential for Jewish spirituality to create deep meaning even for those who felt alienated from the more traditional expressions of Judaism they had grown up with -- especially for people who are suffering.

May her memory be a blessing for all of us.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

They just don't get it -- the theology of True Grit, recoil and the mark of Cain

Hollywood just seems stunned by the Coen brothers' True Grit. The movie reviewers all seem to know they like it, but they seem struck dumb as to why they like it. And, as this story from today's New York Times expresses, they can't quite get why the public seems to like the movie more than the reviewers do. In their reviews, the movie pundits seem somehow tentative, as if they are wondering if the Coen's are putting some joke over on them and they're afraid they're the only ones who don't get it.

Well, they don't get something, but it's not some joke that the Coens are putting on. What they're not getting is the religious and spiritual nature of this movie. They think, the Coen's are so dark -- so how could they be doing something to do with faith?!

But a deep faith does not have to mean seeing the world through some kind of rose-colored glasses. Real faith -- as those of us who have worked the halls of hospitals as chaplains know so well -- can mean a willingness to be able to admit to just how terrible and unjust a suffering person's situation might be. True faith might mean maintaining a belief in God's incredible goodness and healing power even in the face of profound injustice in the world. And true faith might also mean -- as it does for Mattie, the main character of True Grit -- choosing to take action in the face of injustice. For Mattie, the injustice of her father's senseless murder is a call to try and restore what justice can be restored. In a sense, she is following in her father's footsteps -- the father, who, in her words, was acting as his "brother's keeper" when he tried, with no gun of his own, to talk his drunken, rifle-toting tenant out of foolishly confronting others with violence -- when she chooses to be her father's keeper, by pursuing justice from the tenant who murdered him.

The Coens -- like the original novel that they follow more closely than the original film that featured John Wayne -- adore the 14-year old Mattie as this kind of courageous, faith-motivated Angel of Justice. She, not the Rooster Cogburn character that so dominated the original movie, is the center of this film. It is not the first time the Coens have so adored a gun-toting, justice-seeking woman in one of their films -- the sheriff Margie in Fargo acts as a kind of glowing, compassionate corrective to the bleak landscape of cold snow and killers around her.

But there is a profound difference between Mattie and Margie. Mattie is not just pursuing justice, but also revenge from someone who personally wronged her -- pursuing it with violence. Cogburn warns her of the implications of using violence when she shows him the giant pistol she inherited from her father -- he warns her about the "recoil".

And it is recoil (spoiler alert!) that nearly kills her at the end of the movie. As she triumphantly kills her father's murderer with a rifle shot, she is surprised by the rifle's recoil and falls into a pit full of snakes, one of which bites her, nearly fatally and at the cost of her arm.

In a story so full of biblical imagery and passages, we should not ignore the significance of the snake, the very animal that stole our innocence in the garden of eden story. Mattie literally makes a "fall" here. This fall -- this loss of innocence -- comes from her choice to use deadly force. The very same deadly force used by her father's murderer -- the murderer who walked the earth with a dark mark on his forehead, a literal "mark of Cain" branding him, the man who would kill his "brother" rather than keep him.

True Grit is really about us -- us Americans. It honors our love of faith, a love that seems unique in the contemporary Western World, and how it can bring out the very best in us. But it is also a warning, a warning that our sense of righteousness can also lead us into temptation -- the temptation to kill rather than love. After all, it is up to us to decide whether this world will be one of love, or one of violence.


By the way, one of the best things I have read about True Grit is this column by Stanley Fish. He, also, seems a bit confused by True Grit and its religious nature. But, in the final paragraphs, he shows he does recognize it for what it is

I wrote briefly about True Grit before. There's a link in that blog post to an NPR story about the novel that also has an excerpt from its opening pages -- worth reading! (As is the novel.)

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

The mystery of groups (in chaplaincy training)

A funny thing about Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE): almost every CPE program has a "group" component -- usually called IPR, for Interpersonal Relations Seminar -- yet nowhere in the (ACPE) standards is a specific rationale given for this. Nor is an IPR even required as part of a unit of CPE under the written standards. It's almost as though the importance of an IPR is just supposed to be "understood."

Yet, I think it's anything but obvious why chaplains, or other pastoral caregivers like clergy, need an IPR as a required part of their training. After all, IPRs are not based on anything rooted in religious or spiritual traditions. Rather, the theories underpinning most applications of IPR come from the secular field of group therapy. The names providing the theoretical underpinnings for most IRPs come from among the giants of group therapy -- Agazarian, Bion and Yalom. Why do these names stand beside those of Moses and Abraham in clergy training? Surely, a less mysterious reason than -- well, every CPE program has an IPR -- has be be given.

I hope to gain greater clarity about these issues in the coming weeks while I take an intensive three-week class at NYU in Group Dynamics. While the professor does not have to answer the question of why there are IPRs in CPE -- this class is a required class for students in counseling who may very well be called upon to lead group psychotherapy sessions themselves -- I will have this question on my mind throughout the course.

This, of course, is not the first time I have sought to address the question of why IPRs are in CPE -- every
time I run a CPE unit myself I have to explain it to my students (the slide presentation to the left is something I use for that; more thoughts on groups here). But I am grateful to have a chance for a fresh look at this question.

Up until this time I have had an "it's all about the group" approach to CPE. That is, I haven't really thought of IPR as being a very distinct part of the CPE curriculum. The entire curriculum is a group experience in my view and all the theories we have about how groups behave and develop apply to the entire program, not just to the hour or two a week of an IPR (which, I prefer to call "Open Agenda" as my first CPE supervisor did).

Today, in the first session of my NYU class, as I watched the professor work, it occurred to me that it is possible to think of IPR in a very different and more focused way than I had before -- as a distinct part of the program where the goal is to teach students enough about group process and theory that they might develop the skills to be able to run group therapy-like groups themselves.

Such a more focused approach -- one that is specific about using the IPR group as a tool for learning the dynamics of groups (as my NYU professor asks us to engage in group-therapy-like experiences together to become our own "laboratory" for the purpose of learning group dynamics) -- might make sense especially in a first unit of CPE: the standards for Level I CPE include as an outcome that students will after the unit be able to "recognize relational dynamics within group contexts." (Standard 311.5)

My own spiritual development has not involved much of group-therapy-like groups (with the exception of a few tricks I've learned from Parker Palmer). But I know that, for example, some -- like Philadelphia rabbi Ira Stone and other organizations -- have adapted the 19th century Mussar tradition, to set up modern groups -- each called a vaad/וועד -- to, in the words of Stone's web site become a "community of learners dedicated to transforming themselves, their relationships, and
their institutions by fully integrating the values of Mussar into daily practice and daily life." Each vaad typically meets on a regular basis in a way similar to group therapy groups meet regularly -- although the focus of a vaad has a clear spiritual overlay.

Both of the books assigned for my current class are ones I already own -- a huge classic text by Yalom (the "bible of group therapy" according to my professor) and a more approachable how-to-style book called Groups: proc
ess and practice. Our professor has asked us to read the first couple of chapters of this book for tomorrow's class. Here are some of
the discussion questions she gave us for our reading:

Chapter 1

1. Why do we use groups for counseling purposes? Can you distinguish between counseling in groups and doing group counseling?

2. What is the difference between group process and techniques?

3. Why is a theory about groups necessary for working with groups?

4. What are the four different kinds of groups discussed in this chapter. Please be prepared to give examples of these kinds of groups – from your own experience or from other's experience.

5. Regarding multiculturalism in group work – what is the definition of culture? How is culture likely to be relevant in groups?

Chapter 2

1. What are you thoughts about the list of personal characteristics of the effective group leader listed on pages 30-38?

2. Which of the group leadership skills presented on pages 38-46 seem most important to you and why?

Chapter 4

1. Please be prepared to describe the process of forming a group described in this chapter. What do you think about it? Any issues left out? What are likely to be the hardest struggles in forming a group? Any ideas about how to respond to these struggles?

I look forward to learning more about group theory in the coming weeks, and to having more opportunity to reflect on my own group practice. I doubt I will abandon my "it's all about the group" approach. But I may come to a different understanding about how to run the IPR/Open Agenda portion of my programs. And I hope to be able to become more clear in explaining to my students why we have an Open Agenda portion of a CPE program. It's just not good enough to just leave it a "mystery."