The two pieces below are complementary reflections on the same Fellow’s experience, one from the Fellow and the other from her mentor.
The Hebrew School students sit around the table with nervous anxiety, apathy, or boredom as they wait for their turn to read. Each student reads, maybe six words, and then sits in silence until every other student has read and their turn comes around again. For many, this classroom scene was the norm for their weekly Hebrew School lesson, and those who sat in a classroom like this ten or twenty years ago know the underwhelming atmosphere that permeated Hebrew School. I was one of those students, and because of my experience, I now teach my 6th grade Hebrew School class completely differently than anything I experienced.
In trying to find a path for my students that would be educational, meaningful, and fun, I thought through how to keep the students active (with rotations), engaged (with small groups), excited (with games), and interested (with meaningful prayer reflections). It was “out with the old, and in with the new” as I made every effort to make the classroom a space not for sitting, but for movement and engagement. Splitting students into three groups with the help of my madrichim gave more students the opportunity to practice their reading skills more often. In small groups, the leader is able to tell each student what line they are going to read, so they can sit and practice while other students are reading. This small change helps the accelerated students not to get bored and allows the students who need improvement to find their confidence by practicing for a few moments before they have to read aloud to their small group.
My most successful innovation has been turning “speed dating” into a tool for developing confidence and reading ability. To set up the “speed dating” exercise, the classroom tables are put into a “U” shape with chairs both on the inside and on the outside of the “U.” Then, placed in front of each pair of chairs (students will face each other) are two sheets of paper with the prayer from the students’ homework. Approximately four to six words are highlighted on the sheet (the same portions are highlighted for each pair), and each pair has a different set of words. Students are asked to raise their hand if they feel really confident in their ability to read the prayer from the homework assignment (I always reinforce the message that just because you are not confident at the start of the class, it does not mean you will not be confident by the end of the class). Students who raise their hand begin on the outside of the circle, and their job is to make sure their “date” on the inside of the circle properly reads the highlighted portion. The students on the inside of the circle will read their highlighted section over and over again for approximately one minute. Students with higher reading abilities are asked to focus on their emphasis/accent, while students who are still working on their fluency are asked to improve their reading fluency each time they read the highlighted section. After one minute, the students on the inside of the circle and the students on the outside of the circle rotate to the right (so that everyone has a new partner and a new highlighted section to read). This method has proven very successful due to its emphasis on repetition and its ability to keep students active.
I have also created an environment in which students are able to truly think about the prayers and decide what those prayers mean to them. After the class nears the mastery of a new prayer, we sit together with an English translation and read the translation out loud. Afterwards, students are given ten to fifteen minutes to think about what the prayer means to them. During this time they are asked to write an original prayer based on the prayer we just discussed, or simply to express how the prayer makes them feel. Of the V’ahavta, one student writes: “You shall always be our God, the God, my God, eternal God, oh never-ending Ruler of Your glorious kingdom always, now, and forever. We shall always love you God, as you have loved us. You have been with us in hard times and easy, in small moments and big ones. Then and now, past and present —always.” Another student writes about the Kedushah: “This prayer makes me feel like I can do more to bless and to thank God on a daily basis. I also think about how I can be thankful for what I have, thanks to God.”
The classroom environment has evolved into a safe space where students give their best effort, develop their thoughts, and have fun. Students stop to think about why they are at Hebrew School and they immerse themselves in the prayers. A few parents have told me that this is the first year that they do not struggle with their child to get them to practice at home. The students want to be able to raise their hands when I ask who feels confident in their ability to read the prayer of the week. Most importantly, the students walk into my classroom happy to be there, and I walk in happy to teach.
As a mentor in the TJF Fellows program, I am most interested in and aware of the ways in which the fellow I work with is shaped by the experience of teaching while also being shaped by the experience of her classroom learning. I’ve seen two distinct areas of growth this year in Rachael related to both of these arenas of learning.
As educators know, often the more we learn, the more questions we have. Hopefully as we build our knowledge we are able to ask more sophisticated questions. When I interview a potential teacher, I am more concerned by the person who doesn’t know what to ask than the person who has lots of questions. In other words, it is a sign of depth and understanding when someone knows what they do not know.
In the beginning of the year, our fellow asked very concrete questions about systems, structure, protocol and the like—questions that would ensure her success as a professional in our congregation but that did not reach into the heart of her work as a teacher. She came with teaching and planning skills but not necessarily with an understanding of the complexity and theory behind good planning and teaching. As the year progressed, congruent with her learning in the Fellows program, Rachael asked more and more sophisticated questions about lesson planning towards explicit goals; about what are and how to create enduring understandings; about not only teaching to students, but also engaging them; and about framing big ideas for her students. In a tumble of forward momentum, she started to understand how much more there is to know and the complexity of skills that are needed to do this sacred work well.
Additionally, as Rachael built a strong community culture within her class and got to know her students, I believe she began to be shaped as her students themselves drew out of her a desire to understand and facilitate the relational framework in her class. She saw the effect that relationship building has on her success as a teacher and on her students’ success in their classroom kehillah. She began to approach this aspect of her work with more intention, reflecting not only on her students’ learning but also on their experiences of community and connection. This was reflected in her lesson planning, her classroom management style and her increased confidence in her students.
The critical framework of integrating educational theory with classroom experience offers TJF Fellows opportunities to learn intellectually, emotionally and spiritually. Learning, practice and reflection—I saw these stepping stones clearly leading our fellow to deeper understanding and more effective teaching for herself and for her students.