Jewish Education celebrates all kind of intellectual and pedagogical heroes. Volumes have been written about the philosophical underpinnings of the field and the icons of the field, in addition to countless case studies of inspirational teachers, heroes, educators, and thinkers who have changed the lives of their students.
Even with all of these phenomenal figures, past and present, there’s one leader that probably doesn’t get recognized as being a role model for Jewish experiential education and teen leadership. That person? Dewey Finn, the character portrayed by Jack Black in the movie School of Rock.
Before you dismiss this idea, take a moment and dissect the film. Dewey Finn is a slightly over-the-top musician that assumes the identity of his best friend and takes a long-term substitute teaching position at a local prep school. It’s a less-than-auspicious beginning… at first he does not know what to do with the students, and essentially gives recess the entire time when they are not with specialists.
During Music class, he passes by the room and notices that the students are surprisingly talented. He takes everyone and teaches them how to use their classical music skills in rock music. In addition to those playing instruments, he also utilizes the talents of others in the class for managment, wardrobe, lighting and even designated a few students as official “groupies.”
But Dewey does have an ulterior motive. He is determined to win the upcoming “Battle of the Bands” competition with its $10,000 prize, and convinces the students that the concert is actually a competition between other school bands in the state.
Later, it is revealed that Dewey is not who he says he is. The students, after working with Dewey and creating a strong relationship with him, realize that the whole thing is a sham. On their own, they decide to proceed with the Battle of the Bands competition and they end up winning the prize.
So where’s the connection to Jewish Education and teen leadership? The entire movie is a model of how one person can be a role model to young people. How can someone leverage their own talents, the interests of their students, and a desire to promote a culture of excitement and set an expectation of mastery in order to create effective learning? It’s a question that we have struggled with for Jewish teens for generations.
This case isn’t a perfect example, but it is educative. Despite Finn’s dishonesty, he captures something special and constructs a place where learning happens. While the initial spark comes from his own selfish interests, he is able to harness the potential and enthusiasm of his students to take them to a place of real success.
This is also a story about the power of relationships. It took a Dewey Finn to activate the potential of the class. Our classrooms, camps, and synagogues face the same challenge. Today’s teens are constantly looking for someone they can respect and have a strong relationship with. They need people in their lives that they can look up to and be inspired by, and can push them to new heights. This person can, and has, come in many forms. Clergy, youth professionals, educators and anyone that works with teens can serve in this role. By giving students experts in the subjects they teach, and allow our teachers to teach and our students to learn what they are passionate about, we will be able to set them up for success. Our challenge is to connect our passions with the students’ desire for mastery in a way which also satisfies our Jewish educational needs, but by starting with mastery and passion and then working back into specific content, it’s a much more constructivist, student-centered approach.