Enclaves for learning: Playgrounds to dream and act

“[MTEI] was, and is, a vocabulary, a language all its own. I learned how to speak differently, how to listen differently, how to think differently. Pedagogy became less a product and more a process, and shared building of a vision and a collective conversation of growth. Teaching stopped living in the classroom and started breathing in the whole teaching life of the school. And that spirit permeated all those seemingly disparate aspects of MTEI.

But more than that, I simply cannot believe how I keep cycling back to MTEI feeling like the safest growth space I’ve ever joined. I felt so welcome to be vulnerable and to share in others’ vulnerabilities, to connect my inner life to my working life, to see how inextricably they are connected for each and every stakeholder in the learning process. Our work together expected each and every member to bring their whole selves into our shared work.” -David R Cohort 9, Nov 2021

As tears flowed and laughter erupted across dozens of zoom screens, Cohort 9 emerged as graduates from the Mandel Teacher Educator institute (MTEI). MTEI is a 2 year cohort-based professional development program for Jewish instructional leaders across North America. When we began in November 2019, no one could have predicted what these participants’ experience would become. Just days after our second seminar in March 2020, the whole country shut down as COVID 19 ravaged communities across the world. Like most educational organizations, MTEI quickly pivoted to an online platform, working assiduously to transition the inquiry oriented, learner centered pedagogy to an online experience. 

That MTEI was successful in doing so is an accomplishment in and of itself, as was documented by a recent Rosov Consultants ’study of our participants’ experiences of “MTEI online.”  But I want to highlight something different here – and that is David’s feeling that MTEI is “the safest growth space I’ve ever joined.” I don’t take this comment lightly. As someone who has been studying relational learning communities over the past decade, I am deeply curious about what happened in this Cohort that helped David to have this kind of experience. And David is not alone. In our end of seminar reflections, many participants highlighted their experience of the transformation nature of the space we created. I find these comments especially remarkable given that we lost our physical space in March 2020. 

I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of “enclaves” that I learned from Israeli scholar and activist, Victor Friedman. He describes enclaves as social spaces or fields that are embedded within larger spaces/fields. In a recent article, Friedman and colleagues wrote: “These are spaces for critical reflection, learning, and alternative ways of being that can free people from dominant fields and enable them to think, feel, and act differently.” Enclaves are intentionally constructed learning spaces that invite participants to think critically about who they are personally and professionally, how they work in their field, to dream of possibilities for change and take steps towards that new reality. Importantly, the goal of enclaves is to effect change in the larger field in which they are embedded. 

MTEI has always considered itself a capacity-building program. By creating high level professional development for educational leaders, the aim is for these leaders to bring MTEI’s principles and practices back to their home organizations and to create change within their communities, with the crucial goal of improving and deepening student learning. In studying Friedman’s work, I now understand the MTEI cohort experience as an enclave, with a particular goal of transforming the nature of teaching and learning in Jewish schools. At this juncture of American Jewish educational history, how can the idea of enclaves help us as a field understand the centrality of “safe space” that goes beyond feelings of belonging? 

Personal transformation as a seed for collective change

As David so eloquently wrote above, connecting his inner life to work life was essential for his learning, and he came “to see how inextricably they are connected for each and every stakeholder in the learning process.” During this Cohort, we understood very quickly that attending to the well-being of our participants became an even more vital dimension of our curriculum. From “virtual coffees” that were offered beginning in April 2020 (where current participants and MTEI graduates could show up and bring whatever concerns were on their minds), to a structured session in our most recent seminar about self-care, linking the personal and professional became a more explicit part of our curriculum. Having a dedicated space for this kind of learning, elicited further reflection about space:

[S]peaking with a few other colleagues in a trusted and safe space was transformative for me. I admitted out loud some things I hadn’t said to anyone about my own practices of self care and how I’m surviving. I also realized I already do a few small things throughout the day to take care of myself, and most importantly, I identified next steps and some concrete ways to meet my self-care goals.” – Heather K. Cohort 9 Nov 2021

As we read in Heather’s comments, this kind of “trusted and safe space” invited participants to voice tender understandings about themselves that they may not have uttered before. They were able to not only recognize their own capacities but also was able to create a plan of action for surviving during this second year of the pandemic, which some of our educational leaders have described as even harder than the first. Rachel, another Cohort 9 participant, also commented on the centrality of being able to speak freely in our space. 

“Having a safe space to articulate life during MTEI and all that was happening beyond was so important. – Rachel N. Cohort 9 Nov 2021″

In sharing their insights on the notion of “safe space,” these MTEI participants are offering a view of space that invites a kind of self-reflection and articulation that integrates the personal and professional. This kind of integration allows and galvanizes energy to create change. 

Enclaves as Playgrounds to Dream

“MTEI has provided me the space and the playground to dream about the potential for what is possible for educators in my community.” – Rachel N. 

A vital dimension of enclaves is that they are spaces that invite creativity, dreaming and iterating so that new ideas can be taken out to the larger field. It is not enough that these new innovations are hatched in this space. The enclave must support the enactment in the larger field, to observe the possibilities and to effect change. Through processes such as design thinking and Future Creating Workshops (a participatory action research processes), this MTEI cohort engaged in dreaming spaces that led to concrete programs and actions that many then tried out in their home communities. As the MTEI program has evolved over the past three decades, we have become more intentional about the idea of “rehearsal” and practice. To make change, ideas have to be tried out, played with, refined, tried out again and honed yet again. By engaging in assignments in between our seminars, and participating in structured feedback processes during the seminars, MTEI participants support and challenge one another to “dream about the potential for what is possible” and take steps to realize those dreams. 

In sum, enclaves are vital spaces constructed with trusted colleagues to dream of fresh possibilities, to be vulnerable in articulating nascent ideas, and to experiment with innovative plans and designs. And we have learned in the last 2 years that it is possible to build enclaves in virtual space. As the field of Jewish education reflects on what we have learned during these COVID-19 years, and imagine what a “new normal” might look like, promoting and funding enclaves of learning and action is essential to harnessing and unleashing the power of collective thinking.

Miriam Raider-Roth, Ed.D. is professor, educational studies/educational & community based action research and director of the  Action Research Center, University of Cincinnati.

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