Travels in Discomfort

Mrs. Leah Herzog
Judaic Studies teacher and Israel guidance counselor
Ma’ayanot High School
Teaneck, NJ

In almost every religion, philosophy and discipline, there are two equal-and-opposing forces: good and evil, yin and yang, negative and positive charges. Freud called them Eros (love or life) and Thanatos (death), and modern psychology talks about approach and avoidance, while economics discusses risk tolerance. Our genes are wired so that we can quickly discern whether something is safe or dangerous, and we view experiences through the lens of the familiar or comfortable and the new or discomfiting. Personalities vary along this spectrum; some of us race to the next challenge, while others prefer to stick with what they’re good at.  

The mantra of the MIT Media Lab, where professors and students get to use technology to try to improve the world, is “fail fast to fail forward.”  Or, as Dr. Randy Pausch put it in his Last Lecture: “Experience is what you get when you don’t get what you want.”  The willingness to try and perhaps to fail, but perhaps to succeed, and in any case, to learn and to improve, is foundational to Project-Based Learning. In my experience, this mindset is also foundational to a mindful and meaningful life.  

When I was first introduced to Project-Based Learning (PBL) in the spring of 2013, I viewed it with skepticism at best. PBL struck me as a repackaging of both Dewey’s constructivism and Montessori education. In particular, as a Tanach (Bible) teacher, I couldn’t fathom how to use PBL to enable my students to become facile and fluent in biblical exegesis, which is primarily in Hebrew, and always requires at least some degree of expert (aka teacher) guidance. As an Orthodox Jew, I was concerned that the core of Jewish studies—faith in G-d, acceptance of revelation and adherence to millennia-old laws and traditions—could be set aside in the democratic, relativistic attitudes that are embedded in PBL.

I was still skeptical when I signed up in the summer of 2013 for the I.D.E.A. School Network’s PBL conference, the Summer Sandbox.

The learning curve was steep, and the three days of the conference were intense. The vocabulary of PBL was new and daunting. I attended a session with Rabbi Aaron Ross, a Judaic Studies principal at Yavneh Academy in Paramus, NJ, and already then a seasoned PBL educator. As he spoke, I thought to myself: How can I ever do this? This is too much work! The way I am doing things is just fine; I’m a pretty good teacher!  What is BIE [the Buck Institute of Education, which provides resources and training in PBL]? What makes them so great?  

My anxiety fueled my cynicism; in other words, my fight-or-flight response was triggered, and my instincts told me to scoff and run. But then I talked to myself like I would to a student: Relax. Just listen. Process what you can. You don’t have to learn all of this at once. And you don’t have to get it perfect. There isn’t even a test!  

As the three days went on, I felt like the curves were softer and the road smoother. I was able to think about my curriculum in ways that were new, but also natural to me. In my world view, everything is connected; why shouldn’t students connect socio-emotional learning with real-life applications and skill-and-content acquisition, and also engage in guided trial/error/success and reflection?  At lunch one day, I grabbed the readily-available markers and a huge piece of paper and sketched out all my ideas and connections. I described it as a “brain explosion.” I carry it with me still, to remind me of the energy and excitement that grew out of my willingness to believe in the PBL process, and in myself.

The following summer was the second East Coast Sandbox. During the previous year I had implemented a few PBL units into my curriculum, with some success and some failure. I still felt far from comfortable with the educational model, both in terms of my understanding and my practice, so when Tikvah Wiener, who runs the Sandboxes, asked me to be a facilitator at it, I started to laugh. How could I be a facilitator and presenter if I was still such a beginner?  

Tikvah told me that it was okay to be imperfect; what better way of teaching “fail fast to fail forward” and to encourage students to take risks and to push themselves than to model doing so? I still remember how nervous I was, but I also remember the joy that comes with welcoming people into a world that you have found to be safe, nurturing, and energizing. Facilitating turned out to be a truly wonderful experience.

My life as a teacher, as my life as a person, is somewhat more complicated by the fact that I am visually impaired. I have a degenerative retinal disease called retinitis pigmentosa (RP), and I have no peripheral vision, very limited night vision, and some central vision loss.  I now use a white cane when I am out, and I have a lot of trouble in new spaces.  At school, no one remembers that I am impaired because I function as a sighted person.  

But I have been mistaken as an alcoholic or an addict, as I stumble, trip, grope and crash my way through the world. I often need to hold an arm or a shoulder just to walk a few paces, and I gave up driving in the summer of 2000. In general, my physical life is circumscribed by my impairment, and my mental and emotional energy is often spent just getting through a day. The normal life of a teacher—preparation, writing, and grading—are all challenging for me.  What is most challenging, however, is travel. If you think about how huge and multivariable an airport is, and combine that with my own loathing of airplane flight, you can easily fathom why I thought I would never travel by myself again.  

In the spring of 2015, Tikvah asked me to come to LA to help as a facilitator at the West Coast Sandbox.  My mouth opened, and I was primed to say no, I can’t. All that came out was “Um, um. Wow. Um, thanks for asking me! Um, can I think about it?”  

At the end of June, I flew alone to LA.  My husband drove me to the airport and got me through security, and my good friend picked me up at the baggage claim at LAX, but I did the rest on my own. I got onto the plane, I got into my seat, I used the remote, I got off the plane, I found the baggage claim area. And I asked for help when I needed it and accepted offers when they were proffered.

The whole experience was a PBL—an overarching goal, group work, trial-and-error, real-life application, reflection, and at the end, a deliverable: me.  The experience in LA was transformative. I flew alone. I met, introduced myself, and worked with complete strangers. I presented a PBL unit about which I was not certain, but passionate. I saw a part of the US which I had never seen before (and LA really IS its own planet!), and I gained a huge measure of confidence, hope and joy.  

This summer, there was no Sandbox.

This summer I went to Europe. I flew to Rome by myself. My husband couldn’t take me to the airport, so a friend dropped me off. I got into the airport and accepted help immediately, starting with finding the machine to weigh my bag. I got from check-in to boarding alone, but I thoroughly enjoyed the golf-cart ride that I got as a handicapped person. I got on the plane (and then off the plane and then on again) without my husband or anyone else.  My cane was out, but so was my enthusiasm.  

In Rome, I was helped down the stairs to the tarmac, shuttled privately to the airport and whisked through passport control while a huge line waited. My luggage was retrieved, and I was guided to a taxi which took me to our B&B, where my 18-year-old daughter arrived two hours later. My daughter and I spent a week in Rome, Tuscany and Florence. It was amazing, magical, enthralling. It was also exhausting for both of us.

My impairment and and my cane went with us everywhere, sometimes parting the crowds (at the Colosseum) and sometimes still not preventing me from tripping and falling. The Vatican was an ordeal. But the light in Florence was a revelation, and in crossing the Ponte Vecchio, I realized a lifelong dream. Still, when my son arrived in Florence on our last day, my daughter said to him, “You’re in charge of mom now.”  

Eliana and I outside the Colosseum

Eliana and I outside the Colosseum

My daughter returned to the US, while my son and I continued by train to Vienna for three days and then on to Germany. This part of the journey was a heritage trip to find and see the places where my parents and grandparents came from.  There was more guiding, more handholding, and more challenges. Perhaps the biggest challenge was walking down a very long, very steep and very uneven flight of stone steps that led from the Philosopherweg down the mountain to the Neckar River. By the time I reached the bottom, my breath was ragged, I was near tears and my legs were shaking. But I held up my cane and my fingers in a victory sign; I had tried and succeeded. I went to Germany to find my father. I returned feeling whole, and having found myself.  

From the Philosopherweg, overlooking Heidelberg

From the Philosopherweg, overlooking Heidelberg

I travel in discomfort. In some way, we each do. PBL asks of us to accept that discomfort and at least walk alongside it. Although I travel in discomfort, I don’t ever travel alone. I travel with the support, love and encouragement of so many friends and colleagues. Before, during and after my Europe trip, so many people told me, “I’m SO HAPPY for you!” It took me a while to hear the unspoken, “I was afraid you couldn’t—or wouldn’t—travel anymore because of your eyes.”  

Perhaps the most important piece of PBL is trust. You need trust to be willing to withstand discomfort, to try and to fail, and to develop resilience. Every relationship, even with yourself, is predicated on some measure of trust.

PBL stands for project-based or passion-based learning. Maybe it should stand for Passion-Based Living.