I recently spent eight days in the farmlands of Three Rivers, MI (where, by the way, I did not find a single river) on a summer Hebrew intensive. I realize this sounds rather impressive, a Hebrew “intensive” packed with flow charts, tense paradigms, parsing worksheets, and a severe lack of cognates. And the week was intense: we started at eight every morning and usually worked until close to nine at night. There were long days filled with flow charts, tense paradigms, and parsing worksheets.

But there were also plenty of stuffed animals, toy swords, fake crowns, and buckets of random playthings. Hebrew at Western Theological Seminary is taught by immersion, which means we speak biblical Hebrew as much as possible in class. It also means that we are essentially 2 year-olds learning a language, and the whole experience is interactive. We put on skits based on the Jonah story, dance to songs in Hebrew, and recreate stories with stuffed animals and stick figures. We play plunger games to match personal pronouns with their correct verb forms and memorize Hebrew blessings with hand motions. And we make a lot of mistakes and laugh at them. When you try to speak a new language and then conjugate yourself into the wrong person, things deteriorate pretty quickly.

All this actually translates into learning! After a summer of no Hebrew, I thought being thrust into an intensive would be a disaster. Instead, it only took about a minute and a half for things to come rushing back. If this seems to you like promotional writing for a certain pedagogy, you’re sort of right. It’s amazing how the mind retains information learned actively. But the point, I think, and what I was most surprised by, is the learning that happens when cognitive barriers are replaced with guard-down vulnerability. It’s a terrifying position to be in, for sure, but one that creates the space for fearless learning.

Most of us walk into the classroom with stiff collars and all kinds of posturing. We want to be the smartest or the most dedicated or the most determined. And though the competitive nature of many higher education classrooms isn’t always a bad thing, too often, I think, it values a chosen few over the rest of the class. In a setting where everyone makes a fool of themselves, the tendency for a few to always appear smarter than the rest decreases dramatically. What you get instead is more collaborative. Not all the time, of course, but that inner drive to be better than everyone else usually turns into a desire to learn with them.

And so I can waltz into a summer Hebrew class with hardly any review, and two things happen: 1) I’ve retained most of what I learned throughout the year before, and 2) we all start to learn anew, acting crazy, playing with giant teddy bears, and generally making ourselves look ridiculous.

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