I have taught first grade at a Sunday school for four years. Each year started off the same. I would meet with the director of education and talk about the curriculum for that year and the overarching classroom themes. I would spend some time exploring and setting up my classroom, and then plunge headfirst into teaching Judaism to children. At the end of the year, I would write vague evaluations describing how the students had evolved as students and reached undefined goals. This process involved very little reflection, and the students were simply players against my role as teacher.
The TJF Fellowship at Temple Sholom has enabled me to take a step back from this experience and realize that I am not merely a teacher but also a student. I must constantly learn from my students by listening to what they want and need. I am now learning how to respond to their needs by making changes to the way that I teach.
Temple Sholom itself is going through many internal changes. The synagogue has done some major reflecting on what type of organization it wants to be and what type of message it wants to send out to the community. Rabbi Miriam Terlinchamp has been a champion of the idea that Judaism does not and should not need to take place only within the walls of a building. Thus, Temple Sholom sold their building last year and is currently in the process of moving to a new location. The synagogue also recently hired a new director of education, Valerie Habib, who is working to enhance the Jewish education system at Temple Sholom.
I am currently teaching fourth- and fifth-grade religious school and Kitah Bet of Hebrew, the more advanced students. We have just finished the first semester of the year, which was also the first semester that I have ever taught a Hebrew class. I have taught religious school for many years, and I am excited to learn how to teach Hebrew. Our last class of the semester was a perfect opportunity to reflect on how I have been building my Hebrew-teaching skills.
This past semester, I was tasked with teaching the students how to read the first two prayers of the Amidah: the Avot and G’vurot. On the last day of the semester, I asked the students to split into two groups and make a skit about the theme of each prayer. They could be as creative as they wanted, as long as they chanted the prayer during their skit. I put all of the skills that I have learned the past few years into practice. First, I let my madrichot (teaching aides) be in charge of each group while I observed; I also encouraged the students to read from the paper instead of trying to recite the prayer from memory, and I listened intently to what they were planning. The students enjoyed the project, and they worked hard to make a meaningful skit. At the end of the class, they presented what they had created. For the Avot prayer, the students wrote about their connections to their parents and grandparents, since the theme of the Avot prayer is remembering the deeds of our ancestors. The group with the G’vurot prayer wrote a skit about the Maccabees, praising God’s power in the story of Chanukah. At the end of each skit, the groups chanted their prayers. I listened with pride when each group started strong, but the pride instantly turned to frustration as I realized that neither group could continue through their prayer. I was disappointed. I thought to myself, “If only they had paid more attention to reading the prayers, if only they looked at their prayer books during tefillah. I wish they had gone slower and just read the words!”
I also instantly realized that this project made the students feel insecure about their Hebrew. So I asked them what would help them feel more confident with the prayers. I received answers about exploring more conversational Hebrew (i.e., learning how to read and understand) and singing the prayer together every day.
I spent the next few days running this Hebrew lesson over and over in my head. What did they do wrong? What could they have done better? Suddenly, it hit me. It wasn’t them, it was me! I had been teaching how I know to teach; I’ve been teaching Hebrew school like it was religious school. I had been teaching the students more about the prayer than how to read the prayer.
I clearly heard the cries of my students. “We want to learn how to read Hebrew,” they seemed to scream at me. After meeting with Valerie about next semester, we decided on a plan to restructure the class for next year. My Hebrew class will still be learning liturgy, specifically relating to the Torah service, and they will be learning about the prayers. One major change will be that the liturgy will not take up the entire hour and fifteen minutes of the day. In addition to learning about liturgy, the students will start learning some basic vocabulary and have basic conversations with each other. They will also decode games in the classroom as a way to review the letters and increase their comfort with the Hebrew language.
For the first time in many years, I have listened and heard what my students are saying. I am now studying ways to respond. The Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati fellowship program has helped me to see that I am not just the teacher in the synagogue Sunday school, but I am the greatest learner in the classroom. I must study the students, listen to what they say — and what they do not say — and then find ways to allow the students the best chance of becoming engaged with Judaism in the future.
Samantha Gerstein is the Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati fellow at Temple Sholom.