Making Joyful Learning an Active Experience

William Davidson School alumna Nancy Parkes came to Jewish education after a career in sports medicine. Her commitment to social, emotional, and spiritual learning embodies her own personal experience as an elite athlete and trainer who recognized the power of the mind-body connection. It was her personal Jewish educational journey that lit a spark for advanced graduate work in social and emotional learning, leading her to create a new model for congregational learning and ultimately propelling her to devote the rest of her career to helping educators acquire and adapt social and emotional skills and strategies.

“Like trying to keep a beach ball under the water,” is how Nancy Parkes describes the intense emotional pull Jewish education has for her. “Jewish learning fills my soul like nothing else.”

Using an analogy from the world of sports is not surprising for Parkes, a former elite tennis player herself whose first career in sports medicine brought her traveling around the country with championship University of Connecticut teams.

“So much success in sports has to do with emotional and social well-being,” said Parkes. “As I embarked on my second career in Jewish education, I knew instinctively that these same ideas would inform my practice.”

Upon receiving her MA from the William Davidson School in 2006, Parkes became assistant director of the congregational school at Temple Israel Center in White Plains, NY and ultimately created a new model for the school as its director. A sought-after speaker and consultant, she is currently completing her EdD at Davidson with a dissertation entitled, “Obtaining a Heart of Wisdom: Social and Emotional Learning in the Congregational School Setting.” In addition, she founded JTeachNOW, which promotes social and emotional learning in Jewish education.

The path Parkes took to the William Davidson School started when her three children attended Jewish day school in Rockland County. “I started to learn along with them–my children were really my first Jewish educators as an adult.” Turned on to learning after her adult Bat Mitzvah, she took classes at Drisha, and Rabbi David Silber ultimately encouraged her to strengthen her Hebrew skills at JTS.

“At the William Davidson School I completely switched gears in my career,” said Parkes. “I was part of an incredible cohort of women who were pursuing Jewish education as their second career, and I took advantage of everything,” including a summer working at Ramah Day Camp in Nyack.

That summer, Parkes, who had not attended Jewish camp herself, witnessed enormous joy every day. She was convinced that joy was the salient way to connect kids to Judaism, something she had learned in her William Davidson School classes and now saw first-hand. “Working at Nyack further proved to me how motivating emotions are when it comes to Jewish identity, practice, and love of Israel.”

Sure she would pursue opportunities in Jewish camping, Parkes was encouraged otherwise by then Dean Steve Brown. “He told me, ‘we need you in congregational schools,’ and I knew he was right,” said Parkes.

Parkes joined the staff of Temple Israel Center in White Plains with a clear goal: “I wanted that unmitigated joy in my school, the passion that comes through active participation. I wanted teachers to be knowledgeable and joyful.” She was fortunate to be able to recruit and hire a number of Davidson graduates as full-time educators.

She found that having talented educators was only the start. “I could do all the professional development I wanted with teachers and get them on board, but the students were so used to being passive learners. They didn’t have the skills to be active learners.”

Parkes participated in the 4M Project, a joint program with JTS and Hebrew Union College on social and emotional learning. In unpacking what it means to teach social and emotional learning skills, Parkes understood and related to the ideas as an athlete: success starts with skill development.

“Every athlete needs to be taught the skills of their sport. They also need to see what those skills look like in action. Coaches encourage their athletes and tell them when to use certain strategies until it becomes part of ‘just what they do’ in certain situations. And lastly, they practice, practice, practice. These same steps are needed to acquire social and emotional skills,” said Parkes.

The “skills of the sport” in Jewish education, according to Parkes, are more than technical skills to acquire content knowledge. “Social and emotional skills are necessary so that students can be active participants in their learning,” she said. “Our goal is for them to develop healthy identities and relationships, to learn to manage their emotions and feel and show empathy for others so that they can make a difference in this world.” As Parkes puts it, “we want them to be living the Jewish education and values they are learning.”

As an example, Parkes described the way they rethought Israel education at Temple Israel Center. “Our goal was to convey complexity, to transmit some knowledge about modern day Israel as well as Jewish history,” she said. Out of this goal and what Parkes knew about the power of social emotional learning emerged the kernel of the idea for a school-wide Israel marathon, the brainchild of one of her full-time teachers who was a William Davidson School graduate.

They distributed bibs just like in a real race, and students ran around the outside of the synagogue building with stops marking real sites in Israel. Faculty were not on the sidelines but were active participants in the “race,” which incorporated Hebrew vocabulary as well. The race ended with presentations by students to their peers and the school community, which included a “mayor” who awarded them each medals. The “cool down” period was time for reflection.

“Once the learners were physically and mentally active and emotionally engaged in a positive way, the amount they were able to absorb was astounding,” said Parkes. “They had motivation to learn and as a result they remembered a lot.”

Parkes sees spiritual education as an integral part of the social and emotional learning process. “Every child had spiritual needs,” said Parkes. “Can we give them spiritual skills? Of course!”

“We may teach gratitude or prayer as a technical skill, not as a spiritual practice,” Parkes said. “But when we convey to students that the way they behave—by practicing kindness for example—can bring God into a moment, it is enormously empowering.”

At Temple Israel Center, Parkes noticed how educational changes made an impact on educators and learners alike. As the congregational education model was redesigned, Parkes began teaching her educators social and emotional learning skills and then studied the impact of these skills through action research techniques she studied with William Davidson School professor Meredith Katz. “What affected me the most,” said Parkes, “was seeing changes in teachers. It made a difference personally and professionally,” said Parkes. This research, which became the core of her dissertation, showed that social and emotional learning mitigated educator burnout, made teachers more effective in the classroom, and helped them feel better about what they do.

Parkes wants to advocate for Jewish educators to be recognized as heroes and spiritual partners, “first responders” alongside rabbis and cantors. She also wants congregational education to become a career of choice for promising young leaders. “I want the stars of youth movements and Hillels to be drawn to careers in congregational education,” she said. JTeachNow proposes a teaching hospital model where new professionals have two years of training under a mentor and then go on to direct their own schools.

From the tennis court to her first career as an athletic trainer and now to Jewish education, Parkes brings an emotional perspective to her work, with the “winning prize” a legacy of meaningful learning and joy. “Learning is an emotional experience,” she said. “So is teaching.”

Hear more from Nancy Parkes in her ELI Talk, “So Shall You Make It: Igniting Change in Congregational Learning.”