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What makes a great program? A conversation with Susan Tessel and Alana Hollander

by Alana Hollander, Community and Special Projects Manager, Jewish Teen Funders Network

Susan Tessel, better known as Susie, has been a colleague and mentor of mine in the Jewish Education field since I began working at the Jewish Teen Funders Network (JTFN) in 2016. As a regular at the Jewish Education Project (JEP), I’ve attended numerous workshops and events led by Susie and her fellow team. Last summer I had the rare opportunity to reciprocate an invite to her and a colleague to attend one of JTFN’s professional development programs. 

Afterwards, Susie and I met to discuss her experience. Inspired by our discussion, I recently reconnected with Susie to ask her to share her thoughts on the fundamentals of building a program.

Alana: The last time we met, you had talked about this thing called “the build”. I wanted to invite you to share more about fundamentals of building a program and how to be intentional about fitting it all together.  Where do you start?

Susan: When you talk about “the build” you need to know where you’re going. As Lewis Carol once said in Alice in Wonderland, “if you don’t know where you’re going, any place will get you there.” The build begins by identifying key takeaways and goals. Each part of the program should be specially designed to take you to another level, creating a blueprint that will keep you on track. The aim of all of this is for each participant in the program to leave with a new idea, mandate, or new resolve to act upon something they’ve learned.

From there, once you have established a structure, it is equally important to create an environment that is conducive to working together. Sharing common goals and aspirations creates a safer space and models how we’re all in this together – and that is how you form a community. The most important question to ask yourself as you build is “how can I connect everyone?” To me, this is one of the most important things you can do. 

Alana:  So I guess when you break it down, an icebreaker or connection question is a must?

Susan: ABSOLUTELY A MUST. This is non-negotiable.  When participants share about themselves you enable them to define how they are connected to both the group and to the material.  This connection builds throughout the day, deepening their experience. 

Alana: So once goals have been identified and the room feels connected what comes next?

Susie:  As educators we always strive to include A LOT. Sometimes there’s so much going on it’s easy to forget the middle part. Have you ever seen the movie a “Fish Called Wanda”? In the film the characters are planning a robbery. While discussing the heist, the characters go over the plan several times and they ask Kevin Kline’s character, “you got that?” and he says, “yes” and they say, “NO, but do you got that?” and Kevin Kline goes “well…yea… except for that whole middle part.” “The middle” is what makes up the central themes of the program. But, the middle can sometimes get blurred. It is so important at the end of the program to leave room to discuss what each person will take away. Your one thing is going to be different from my one thing and when you hear all the different takeaways in the room it is a perfect opportunity to reinforce learnings from the day.

Alana:  How do you address flow and leave space for great conversations? For instance, what do you do if you are having an AMAZING conversation but still have material that you need to get to?

Susan: Take a moment to read the room. I remember one program where we were worried about timing and cut someone off. The powerful moment that could have been vanished. You need to look for the signs. How are people engaging and reacting? What is their body language? If it is truly a great conversation-don’t stop it. If people don’t have a chance to speak, the entire group misses the benefit of what may have been shared. There is a caveat though; you need to know exactly where you are going, and how to get back.  It is a delicate balance.  It’s kind of like when you use GPS.  Even if you get off the highway and wind up in the backwoods, you should still arrive at your intended destination. 

Alana: I love that analogy. If you veer too far, or take a wrong turn you can always “recalculate” with a GPS. 

Alana and Susie at a Jewish Education Project event.

Alana: What was an “a-ha” moment for you as a programing professional?

Susie: There is nothing quite like the power of a good Jewish text that people can discover together. As I’ve mentioned- I LOVE connections questions. I think a big “ah-ha” for me was understanding how to link these two things together and use an opening question as a way for people to connect to one another through a Jewish lens or text study. Another big “a-ha” was figuring out how to thoughtfully moderate conversations. Do you ever listen to NPR?  Brian Lehrer is a master at politely moving a conversation along. When I first started teaching I would actually write down his conversation segues. He would say things like, “thank you so much we’re going to move on”, or “hold that thought”, things that are now second nature to me, but at the time they were not. Your job as a facilitator is to balance the momentum while also being kind and generous to the group.

Alana: Can you share a time you learned from a flop? 

Susie:  Through the years I’ve found that it is so important to start from a place of positivity. I’ve often found that if you start with a negative question that it can cast a shadow over the whole day.

Alana:  Yes! Recently, (actually the Jewish Education Project), we did an exercise that illustrated this. Half of the room was asked to write down a success while the other half was asked to write down a failure from their year. Unaware that each side was given different questions, the group then had to come up with creative examples for an exercise. Hands on one side of the room repeatedly flew up, while the other side was particularly quiet. It was later revealed to us that this activity was meant to exhibit how negative thinking can have a serious impact on our cognitive abilities and we got to witness this firsthand. 

Susie: I have used that example so many times as a cautionary tale to not start out with a negative question! Positive reads positivity. Also, framing is so important. Rather than turning to an arbitrary page in a textbook, why not share the journey you plan to take them on? If I ever feel like the group is missing the point, I make sure to take a pause and say “let’s just take a step back to consider why we are doing this and what we hope to get out of this.” 

Alana:  I feel like we’ve come full circle. I like that you have brought us back to the idea of framing— It seems to me that identifying goals should happen in two spaces, both on the page and with the participants. Goals on the page dictate the destination and by letting the learner know “I’m going to take you on a journey and this is where” ensures it is meaningful.

Alana: So what are the final steps to ensure a successful build?

Susie: The last aspect is always reflection. The last “brick” should reinforce what they’ve learned, what questions they have, and what are they still thinking about. One of my favorite things to ask is “what is one thing you’re taking away”, or “what is one thing you plan to implement or use?” In my experience, some of the most profound and meaningful lessons happen in those final moments of reflection.

Alana: Thank you so much for today.  This was amazing! Before I let you go, what should we be reading, watching, listening to?

Susie: So much! But I’ll leave y’all with this one- the book that is on the top of my list right now is “The How to Happiness.” The book shares the notion that everyone has a different access point to their thriving, their spirituality and to gratitude. How you access them depends on who you are and figuring out who are helps you thrive. The idea is everyone has this potential but the hierarchy is different for each person. Figuring out what you bring to the table, the uniqueness that is “you” is the gift you give to yourself. 

Alana Hollander is the Community and Special Projects Manager for the Jewish Teen Funders Network (JTFN), the central resource for the field of Jewish teen philanthropy.  In her role, Alana is dedicated to network outreach, providing innovative resources and creative support to new and existing programs and studying field-wide trends and impact.  A native New Yorker, Alana received her BA in Drama Studies from SUNY Purchase.

Susie Tessel is a senior consultant for the Congregational Ed team at the Jewish Education Project.  She is also the lead on micro grants and professional learning experiences and consults with congregations on new models and other initiatives.  Susie leads local and national webinars on Creating Spiritual Tefillah, Whole Person Learning among other areas.  Before that she was the Director of the Teacher's Center for the Board of Jewish Education in Westchester.  There, she wrote curricula, facilitated teacher training workshops and a variety of professional learning opportunities and initiatives.   Susan hails from Atlanta, Ga.  She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Pennsylvania, and sub matriculated and received an MS in curriculum from U of P as well. She has completed most of her doctoral work from Teacher's College and the Jewish Theological Seminary.