“At five years old [one begins the study of] the Bible. At ten the Mishnah. At thirteen [one takes on] the [responsibility for] the mitzvoth. At fifteen [one begins the study of] the Talmud…”
–Pirkei Avot 5:21
When I began teaching my fourth and fifth grade students at The Valley Temple in the fall of this school year, my main concern was how to speak to them on their level. If I talked “down” to them, my students would feel that I was babying them and become frustrated with me; if I used language that was too complex or vocabulary that was too difficult, my students would be lost in the lesson and become frustrated with me. I knew that I needed to find middle-ground, the correct balance of speech so that I could meet the students where they were as nine-, ten-, and eleven-year-olds. At the end of this very fruitful and rewarding year, I am reflecting on a tougher question: how to match the students’ maturity and my approach to subject matter.
The goal of Jewish educators in religious schools and day schools is to provide students opportunities to grow their Jewish identities through learning. A teacher who presents material before the students are ready may successfully challenge the students, causing them to grow, but if the students find this new material too challenging or irreconcilable with their own values or truths, I fear they may reject the source of the challenge (Judaism) altogether. A teacher who waters down or omits a subject is placing responsibility upon a future teacher to fill in/complete the students’ education.
In creating lessons for my fourth and fifth grade students, I have contended with each of these options for various tricky subjects in Judaism. Once, my fifth grade class had myriad questions for me regarding the requirements of women who prayed at the Western Wall. (While ours is a Hebrew class, the fifth graders had just learned about the Wall from their core curriculum teacher). I weighed what I saw as my three options: 1) I could answer all of their questions, delving into the domination of Israel’s religious politics by the Ultra-Orthodox, and discuss the world of Women of the Wall; 2) I could gloss over the questions and briefly explain that a woman covering her knees at the Wall is seen as more respectful; 3) I could inform them that they could ask their questions to their core teacher next week, and that we were going to promptly start our Hebrew lesson. In this scenario, I chose the first option. Our class had a fruitful, albeit Hebrew lesson-less, discussion about Israel’s religious dynamics and how the Ultra-Orthodox community dominates Judaism’s representation in the government and public eye. I initially was very confident in my decision and proud of the immediate results. However, since the lesson I have wondered: What permanent damage may I have done to these students’ relationships with Israel? Will they be forever turned off by Israel because when they were young, they learned that they as Reform Jews could have little-to-no say in religious politics in Israel?
Here’s another scenario, this time with my fourth grade students: We have been studying the prophets over the course of the year. The other day I was planning my lesson on the book of Jeremiah. I found a compilation of selected excerpts from the book in one of my favorite teaching resources, The Explorer’s Bible series by Behrman House. In the past, I have chosen to use this resource because I feel that the language level of its translations is appropriate for fourth grade and that it provides relevant activities to accompany the text excerpts. For my Jeremiah lesson, however, I chose The Explorer’s Bible excerpt compilation because it presented a neat, watered-down view of Jeremiah that would show my students the basic narrative, and leave out the messy parts of the biblical book. In this instance, I decided to not challenge my students’ abilities to cope with violent metaphors of God’s destruction of Judah. Based upon my impression of the majority of the class, I felt that my students would not be able to handle such imagery and that it could damage their developing concepts of God and God’s relationship to the Jewish people. I also recognize that any of the students could feel deeply betrayed by my depiction of Jeremiah if they were to, say, read the book on their own, or learn about it in some class in the future.
My last example: I completely skipped over the book of Ezekiel in my fourth grade prophets’ class, despite the fact that a student or two were familiar with a quote from the book and asked to study the book in greater depth. I have been personally grappling with the book of Ezekiel in recent months because of the graphic sexual violence imagery in chapters 16 and 23. I did not wish to share my struggle with my students, nor did I find it appropriate to present this specific material to this audience of nine- and ten-year-olds. There are two reasons I decided to skip over the entire book (instead of the two most difficult chapters). First, I did so in the interest of time, so that we could cover fewer prophets in greater depth rather than more prophets on a surface level (except Jeremiah, whose study remained at the surface level). Second, I wanted to spare myself and my students any awkwardness that could stem from conversing about these scenes in book of Ezekiel. For me, these two reasons were enough to skip the book. However, I recognize that any student who reads Ezekiel or learns about the book could feel betrayed, just as in my Jeremiah example.
As a Jewish educator, I know that I am responsible for what and how I teach. I have judged what I felt was age-appropriate content for students, and what I felt was certainly not. I own the decisions I made in my educational experience this year, and I own whatever consequences they may bring. But I still wonder about what may arise from my decisions, and I think this process is important in my own growth as an educator. I ask you—educators, parents, students: What do you think about the choices I made? Are their options I did not consider? What would you have done?
Leslee Estrada-Lisnek taught fourth grade prophets and fifth grade Hebrew at The Valley Temple this year.