A young person in the sixth grade is beginning to gain a sense of their own personal identity. As their ability to process the world around them expands, so too does their ability to explore beyond what they may be told by a parent or teacher and discover what is meaningful to them.
Personal connection is paramount when it comes to Judaism. A sixth grader has the opportunity to look at their connection to Judaism and decide what, if any, place Judaism has in their everyday life, and why it is or is not important to them. This makes the role of a religious school teacher all the more essential.
In a religious school setting, it is relatively easy to transmit information. I can ensure that an article is read, a game is played, a lecture is listened to. The far harder thing, and the far more powerful thing, is to actually allow the experiences and the lessons to which these young Jews are exposed to make a lasting impact and become internalized. Sixth grade is a critical juncture for development, and the work of religious education is important for ensuring a lifetime of continued learning and engagement.
Over the past eight months, I have had to shift the way I think about putting together my lessons. I have had the special opportunity and challenge of teaching Jewish history, from the world of the Bible all the way to today. With each passing week, I have been confronted over and over again with the question “How do I make this relevant to the life of a sixth grader?”
History, at times, can feel so distant — events that happened a long time ago to people very different from those with whom these children are familiar. It isn’t initially apparent how this material might be meaningful to them. With older learners, more experienced learners, we can often get away with the answer “It is important to understand the history of the Jewish people in order to become a part of that history.” That would be my answer on one foot to a high school student or an adult learner. But it won’t be enough for a sixth grader. A sixth grader has yet to fully internalize their own relationship with Judaism (and with history), and so a link with a collective may not personalize the concept enough. Instead, it is my obligation to find a way to make each experience relatable and personally engaging to a modern sixth grader.
Making this task all the more challenging is the fact that sixth graders are also ever-evolving. What works on a Sunday in October may not have an impact in February. Agility is required — an ability to maneuver within the situation as the students need it, to adapt quickly to the environment. A strong educator in a middle school classroom is able to meet each student where they are, to show them something new, and to explain in powerful terms why that new piece of wisdom is relevant to their own life.
As a student-educator, I have had the privilege of getting to navigate these questions and explore how to answer them for others. Along the way, I have been required to constantly reevaluate my own answers, to find my own notion of “why,” in order to properly articulate why any of the information I teach can or should be pertinent to a sixth grader. As my students and I continue to evaluate these questions, I can feel our personal Jewish identities forming and growing which, in turn, helps to create the next link in the Jewish chain.
Austin Zoot is a second year Rabbinical Student at Hebrew Union College. This year, he has served as an education fellow at Wise Temple.