Gesher: Powerful Learning in Cross Grade Groups
Last week, before the Thanksgiving break, Schechter Manhattan students and faculty gathered in mixed grade groups to participate in a virtual gratitude scavenger hunt. Students in grades K through 8 discussed their understandings of gratitude and then “searched” for things they are grateful for to share with each other. Something outdoors they enjoy looking at. Something that tastes good. Someone they enjoy spending time with. An essential worker that they are thankful for during this time.
This community-building activity was part of the unique Gesher program, in which the entire student body is divided into cross-grade shvatim or ‘tribes.’ Each of the shvatim gathers during the Gesher programs throughout the school year to connect, build community, learn and share holidays. Students get to know each other through shared activities, such as experiencing kabbalat shabbat, completing a STEAM challenge, reading together, or celebrating an upcoming holiday. During the pandemic, when students in different grades need to be physically separated, we are still connecting across the grades at Schechter Manhattan, using digital tools to gather in Gesher shvatim.
The cross-grade learning and communal experiences of Gesher provide Schechter Manhattan students with critical learning opportunities that motivate them towards high levels of achievement and prepare them for the challenges of high school and beyond. When our youngest students interact with and get to know the older students, they are welcomed into a caring learning community. When a fifth grade student shows genuine interest in a Gan student’s writing or ideas about tfilah or solution to a STEAM challenge, the Gan student gets the message loud and clear that learning is valued by everyone in our community and they have important ideas to contribute. When the younger students see older students accomplishing academic tasks that are as of yet out of the younger students’ reach, they imagine themselves growing towards those higher levels of accomplishment. This enculturation into a learning community and aspiration towards ever growing levels of achievement is highly motivating. It is an important way that we nurture a culture in which students choose to work hard to learn new things.
Older students also learn a lot from interactions with younger students. As they get to know students across developmental stages, they build relationships with people who are different from them, who have different abilities and needs. This affords them practice in perspective taking and empathy, trying to understand another person’s ideas and feelings. These are critical skills for successful collaboration and relationship building in academic, professional, and personal settings.
The powerful learning of Gesher hinges on the development of genuine relationships. The students get to know each other and become invested in each other’s well being. For example, when the Gan students sing the four questions at our yearly model seder, the rest of the school is thrilled for them, not only because they are very cute, but also because the older students really know them, care about them, and are gratified by the Gan students’ growth and accomplishments. Likewise, when a first or second grade student asks middle students questions about their engineering design project at STEAMfest, they are drawn to advanced content by the older student who they already know and look up to.
Schechter Manhattan graduates have shared with us how helpful their cross-grade experiences were when they moved on to high school. Having many years of experience talking with and getting to know students from different grades, when they arrived at high school they were not intimidated by the prospect of getting to know students in older grades. If they had an interest– in arts, literature, social justice, sports, or whatever passion they wanted to pursue– they felt ready to approach the older students and get involved. And this capacity for engaging all sorts of people puts Schechter Manhattan alumni at an advantage in the varied communities that they join.
The Gesher program is a good example of how our goals of creating a warm community and of students reaching high levels of academic achievement are linked and mutually support one another. It helps them to grow into menschen, caring people, and also strongly enhances their academic and personal success.