I once had a professor who lectured to the air. This professor encompassed boundless knowledge I wished to learn, but when he taught, he was oblivious to the students. He began his lessons without bringing everyone to the same page, and he spoke too fast for me to absorb the material. Most importantly, I feel the professor failed to check for understanding. How did he know if his lessons were successful? It was then I realized how much teaching and learning is a reciprocal process.
This past semester was my first time teaching my own lessons, and I was nervous. After observing some classes and placing myself in the students’ shoes, I remembered the experience I’ve related above. I realized that what I needed to do was listen to the students. I soon learned how to perceive whether they understood me or whether I needed to clarify a concept, slow down or be more interactive. I did everything in my power not to be like the professor I remembered. I want to truly engage my students in their learning.
This semester was also my first time teaching what is called “ivrit b’ivrit,” teaching Hebrew in Hebrew. It was a vulnerable experience, as Hebrew is not my primary language, but I continually checked for student comprehension. Listening to my students and responding to their learning needs taught me how to be a better teacher for them. They didn’t know it, but they were the real teachers in the classroom.
The Rockwern Academy where I teach uses the TaL AM curriculum for teaching Hebrew and Judaic Studies. My main objective has been making Hebrew language class more accessible for students by incorporating different techniques based on Howard Gardner’s “theory of multiple intelligences.” This theory posits that students have different cognitive strengths and proclivities, including logical, kinesthetic, visual, musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal and naturalist “intelligences”
As it is difficult to center the lessons on all of the intelligences, I attempt to teach for the main learning styles: visual, audio and haptic (or physical, nonverbal). For each Torah portion, I create a PowerPoint to offer students a visual aid while I teach. When I taught the Torah portion Chayei Sarah, in which Rebecca gives water to the servant and his camels, I discussed with my class what it means to take part in g’milut chasadim, acts of kindness. After checking for understanding with the Hebrew comprehension questions in the book, I incorporated a kinesthetic component to the class. The students were broken into groups and demonstrated examples of g’milut chasadim in short skits. This technique got my energetic students out of their seats and kept them engaged.
I also engage the interpersonal and intrapersonal intelligences. To do this, I keep in mind the concept of “connectedness,” which is best explained by Parker J. Palmer. He explains that “good teachers possess a capacity for connectedness. They are able to weave a complex web of connections among themselves, their subjects, and their students so that students can learn to weave a world for themselves” (The Courage to Teach, p. 11). With each Torah portion, the TaL AM curriculum emphasizes a theme. I like to take these themes one step further. In Chayei Sarah, I took the theme of g’milut chasadim and helped my students find meaning in the Torah portion, relating it to their lives today. More than just remembering all of the details, I want my students to realize that the Torah is the source of Jewish values.
What I have learned the most from my fellowship is that teaching is a trial and error experience with every topic, every student and every class. Just as important as it is to continually assess my students and check for understanding, I too need to assess myself. I need to continually evaluate what I can improve upon to ensure the learning of my students. Both my first and third grade students have taught me that their classroom is really my classroom, and in order to be a good teacher, I need to be a good learner.
Allison Cohen’s fellowship is teaching Hebrew and Jewish history in Hebrew at Rockwern Academy.