Friday, March 22, 2013

An Integrated Day of Learning on Fate and Free Will

Fate and Free Will: A Freshman Integrated Day of Learning

One of my responsibilities as Coordinator of Interdisciplinary Studies at The Frisch School is to create integrated days of learning for the grades, based on their curriculum and the integrated theme we’ve chosen for each grade. The ninth grade theme is identity, as freshmen confront who they are in high school in new and complex ways. Over the course of Chanukah week, we had a chance to have discussions about religious identity by tying the ninth graders’ studies in ancient Greek history and literature to their understanding of what it means to live in such a Hellenized-type world today.

On March 5, we once again had a chance had freshmen contemplate their identities, particularly how their choices in life form who they are, by having them participate in a day-long program of integrated learning centered around the theme of fate and free will.

The Inspiration for the Day: The theme of the day arises from the students’ Biology and English classes. Students have just finished a unit on Genetics and in English spend second semester occupied with works that question how much of our behavior is destined and how much is of our own making. Thus, coming into the day, freshmen have already been thinking about how their genes contribute to their personalities and behavior and how individual choices shape them as well.

Freshmen use their iPads to take a designer baby survey
The Day’s “Curriculum”: Since we have a 1:1 iPad program for the ninth graders, we began the day by having students hold up their iPads to a QR code displayed on our auditorium projector. The QR code led them to a designer baby survey where the students chose physical traits and artistic, athletic or academic abilities that then led them to have “children” with differing genetic mutations.

After taking the survey, English teacher Doug Dunton introduced the genre of science fiction, and the students watched Gattaca, a dystopic film about a society in which one can succeed only by having been genetically engineered at birth. The main character describes the genoism that permeates his world: “Society has turned discrimination’ into a science.However, the main character of the film discovers that “there is no gene for the human spirit.” He rises above society’s expectations and prejudice and becomes, even with his genetic deficiencies, one of the elite of his world.

Over the course of the rest of the day, students attended various classes having to do with fate and free will. In English class, students discussed the film and considered whether they’d make the same choices if they took their designer baby surveys again, and in Biology lab the students created their own baby bots. In History, since students spend the year studying ancient civilizations and Jewish history, they learned about ancient Greek and Christian attitudes towards fate and free will and compared them with Jewish ones.

The Talmud lesson of the day, created by the school's mashgiach ruchani*, Rabbi Josh Wald,  is always a favorite. Students learn about technologies that solve problems with infertility and genetic diseases: pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) and in-vitro fertilization (IVF), and then analyze whether it is halakhically acceptable to utilize those technologies. The lesson is a fascinating one, as the Talmud teachers demonstrate how Torah is a living, dynamic entity, constantly adapting and growing to meet new realities. Given the prevalence of Tay-Sachs and other Ashkenazic and Sephardic genetic diseases, it’s important for students to realize that there are medical solutions to these problems that are halakhically acceptable to use.

A wall painting from the Egyptian New Kingdom shows
Ramses II beating slaves from different regions of the ancient world
Prepared by the head of the Jewish Philosophy Department, Dr. Shira Weiss, the lesson on the Jewish approach to fate and free will began with the question of whether the hardening of Pharaoh's heart in Sefer Shemot or of the hearts of the Jewish People in Sefer Yeshayahu is incompatible with free will.  The presentation includes Rambam's, Rav Joseph Albo's, Prof. Nechama Leibowitz's and the Rav's views of fate and free will and ends with the Rav's message that though man may be inclined towards indulging his negative traits, he must learn to use his destructive tendencies in service of his constructive ones.

This lesson obviously was a good one to learn right before Pesach: though Pharaoh seems to have all the power in Egypt and is in fact in control of his own people and slave peoples such as B’nai Yisrael, he in fact is just as imprisoned as anyone he rules over, because he doesn’t have the ability to change his actions. By becoming a free people, B’nai Yisrael are given the opportunity to serve not a despotic, mercurial ruler, but one who wants them to tame their basic instincts by being holy and good and therefore a positive force in the world.

Wrap-up: The day's lessons ended with a wrap-up that included a clip from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. It is in the second story of the Harry Potter series that Harry realizes he shares many of the same traits as Voldemort, the darkest evil wizard of the magical world. However, Professor Dumbledore tells the young hero that it is not the similar characteristics that Harry shares with Voldemort that are important; it is the actions that Harry chooses to take in the world that will distinguish him from his malevolent nemesis. Harry learns that though he was endowed with physical and personality traits that he cannot control, he does have control over his actions and the person he wants to become.

Freshmen working on their wrap-up projects

One freshman created this finely rendered line drawing
Making Use of 1:1 for Freshman Integration Day
For the last two periods of the day, the students had to use three ideas they’d learned over the course of the day, connect them in a significant manner and then represent them artistically with the Educreation app. Because Educreation also allows you to narrate your work, students were asked to explain their artwork and how it reflected three of the key ideas they’d learned about fate and free will.

The students enjoyed the break from regular classes and, since we grouped them randomly for the day, the chance to mix with different students than the ones they normally attend classes with. Most importantly for their emotional and religious development, the freshmen discovered that Judaism doesn’t give you a free pass to behave any way you want to. You cannot say “it’s in my genes to be lazy” or “my parents are to blame for all my faults.” Rather, Judaism asks each one of us to take responsibility for our own actions and to work to change our negative qualities so we can better serve God and humanity.

As the ninth graders read in the letters we gave them at the start of the day,  Life is like a game of cards. The hand you are dealt is determinism; the way you play it is free will. -- Jawaharlal Nehru


* a mashgiach ruchani is a spiritual advisor

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