A classroom is sometimes synonymous with boredom. After a certain amount of time, students drift away from the material and doodle in their notebooks, look out the window, or even begin to fall asleep. Most teachers would chide their students and tell them to pay attention.
But if this happens in Phreddy Nosanwisch’s fourth-grade spiritual technologies class, he’ll ask the students if they want to go for a run instead.
It might seem unusual, but running is not a free recess. At least not in Nosanwisch’s class. Rather, it reinforces this day’s particular lesson on spiritual singing. As each of the students keeps pace along the running path, Nosanwisch tasks one student to set the pace for both their run and a song, encouraging the others to follow along. With it, he places emphasis on breath control and rhythm, foundational tools of singing — and, coincidentally, running.
By the end of the lesson, the students learned something new about their spirituality, channeled their energy for the lesson in an alternative activity, and were primed for their next class that day.
“It was amazing to see them connect, and then to see that energy get us to where I’d hoped the lesson would go,” Nosanwisch said. “And they had a Hebrew lesson right after the run. My guess is that they probably paid a bit more attention to the Hebrew because they got to spend 30 minutes running.”
For the past two years, Nosanwisch has taken the Marsha Dane Stern Hebrew School at the Conservative Synagogue Adath Israel of Riverdale by storm. How did he win the kids over? A commitment to learning outside traditional norms, and a focus on building community among his students.
Nosanwisch’s class focuses on new ways to interpret and practice the Jewish tradition, particularly to improve spiritual, personal and emotional growth.
Nosanwisch recalled a particular lesson about spiritual movement and dancing, which he rooted in a story from the Talmud about a rabbi known for extreme prostrations and movements when he worshipped by himself. His lesson for that day? Have the students move around, throwing themselves up and down, and calling out while they did it.
But his classes aren’t just a second physical education class. In addition to these motions, previous lessons also included quieter, more introspective practices like art-making and meditation.
“It’s a pleasure for me, always, to find new ways to express myself and to look through these ancient texts and find different ways to engage with them,” Nosanwisch said of his students.
Even before he worked in children’s religious education, Nosanwisch was always a people person who enjoyed artistic approaches to daily life. He worked in storytelling, stand-up comedy and music prior to arriving at CSAIR. But while he enjoyed this creative work, he always felt there was something missing: There was no dialogue between himself and his audience.
This, however, is certainly not the case in front of his students.
“In a classroom, it’s people in community,” Nosanwisch said. “I think that the developing (of) that robust conversation was the thing that was missing, and once I got to do it, I was like, ‘Oh, this is it. This is the thing that I didn’t know I was missing the whole time.’”
In his two years at the Marsha Dane Stern Hebrew School, Nosanwisch has taught third, fourth and fifth grade. His innovative work in Jewish education led to his selection for the 2020 Jewish Education Project’s Robert M. Sherman Young Pioneers Award.
Though he will receive an award for teaching, Nosanwisch admitted that he often learns from his students just as much as he hopes they learn from him.
“I’ve actually learned to question the things that I thought,” he said. “Sometimes I go in there (with a lesson) like, ‘Oh, this is going to be awesome,’ and they pick holes in it. And I get to go home and think, ‘Wow, there were so many parts of that lesson I just sort of assumed were true. And now that I’m poking into it myself, I have to wonder.”
Nosanwisch’s journey into children’s education began around the time he became a parent. He notices how his identity as a teacher of young children intersects with his identity as a father to his two children, son Honi and daughter Erev Willow.
“One day, Honi and Erev Willow will be learning with all kinds of different people,” Nosanwisch said. “I think it inspires me to show up with the same level of engagement that I would want for them. When I walk into the classroom, I want to be able to give my students what I would hope somebody would give my children.”