In her book, “The Extended Mind: The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain,” Annie Murphy Paul makes a strong case that learning is a “deeply social act.” She explains how schools for centuries have viewed socializing as something relegated to recess and over lunch in the cafeteria. Real academics is what school is really all about. But the challenge, she continues, is that human beings are social creatures, and the social part of our operating systems never turns off. Therefore, it is best to figure out ways to “harness a social brain” while learning, teaching and growing.

What our JCDS middle school students experienced this past week is an excellent example of doing just that—harnessing the social brain in the service of learning and growing. The sixth, seventh and eighth graders had an exciting week of learning outside the classroom and, perhaps, “outside the brain” as well in three distinct ways.

The sixth graders had two days of service inside JCDS. As part of a larger JCDS community, they were asked to think of ways to contribute to the needs of our school facility. What resulted from their dedication, work ethic and collaboration were newly painted bulletin boards, a much-needed clean-up of our Beit Midrash, painted doors and signage, and filled-in potholes around the school.

The seventh grade safely returned from an amazing TEVA trip at Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Connecticut. Reflections from our students best describe their special learning experiences:

“TEVA is an awe-inspiring experience. When you first get off to the campsite, immediately you start to relax because of all the nature that surrounds you. In TEVA, you go on hikes and you sightsee. You also get to spend time with friends, hang out by the campfire, cook, filter water, and you don’t use any electricity. My favorite part would have to be the campfire every night. Sitting around the campfire is magical and really strengthens bonds within communities through singing. I love how when you go hiking and you get to the top, you really get to enjoy the view with your friends. During TEVA, you can be yourself. I really love TEVA and hope I can come back soon.”

Solo walk reflections by many student voices:

“It was so quiet. I just heard the voice of the forest [reflecting on ‘Imagine You’re a Bird’ activity], I could really imagine that and I really liked it. I tried to combine them all; imagine a bird seeing all the green…it’s very peaceful and I felt very thankful. It was a different view to look up and see the blue sky with all the trees over you. It didn’t even feel gross to lie down, it just felt peaceful to see all the leaves and hear the birds. I missed my friends even going on a seven-minute walk. I really liked walking alone and taking my time and feeling my thoughts.”

Last night appreciation:

“Feeling accomplished after the hike, time to talk with my friends, watching the waterfall was really calming after the hike. After the hike, I went to the bunk and laid in my bed and felt proud. Free time to talk and hang out with friends. Less structured time. Friends who helped me get through my big issues. Wasn’t raining during sundown and could see the sunset. Every walk that wasn’t a hike. Always surrounded by these wonderful classmates and I was always able to be with them, which I am very grateful for. I really liked the hike and I love that we have rule No. 5 to follow (Kavod). Cooking our own food. Appreciated making the fire and it was fun. Making the fire, cooking the food, spending time with friends. I enjoyed the whole experience and getting to be outside for two days and I thought it was really meaningful to see us as a community working together. I appreciated the awesome nature, especially the stream. I enjoyed doing things I didn’t think I could do and feeling accomplished. When you’re all the way at the bottom, you don’t think you can do it. I’m thankful that I got to have one full convo with everyone here. When I go home, it will be sad because they all are my family. I appreciated the hike. All my friends when I got hurt and they all came to make sure I was OK. The hike was challenging but felt good to get it done. Not having my phone. Thank you to the staff.

Our eighth graders returned from an epic trip to New York City, where learning came in the form of tours of the Lower East Side’s Tenement Museum and a boat trip in the New York Harbor over to Ellis Island, a visit to the historical marker, Stonewall Inn, the Broadway show “Come From Away,” which poignantly brought to life lessons gleaned from a visit to the National September 11 Memorial and Museum. Union Square, New York bagels and downtime together in the hotel contributed to deepening friendships and learning, all outside the classroom.

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