I walk into the classroom, all eyes on me. I remind myself that I have done this before, and that I am prepared. Little did I know at that moment the challenges I would face and the obstacles I would have to overcome. This year, as a Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati fellow, I was placed at Rockdale Temple in their Rak Noar program. My responsibilities included teaching the seventh- and eighth-grade class alongside a seasoned teacher and creating exciting events for the students as the Rak Noar Youth Group Advisor. Coming into this year, I was confident in my skills as a teacher. I knew that I have a flair for the dramatics and the arts, and that I could use my passion to connect to my students. What I did not know was that I might have to teach a curriculum that was unfamiliar and that I did not choose.
In the fall semester, I was told to teach a class called “Hot Topics.” The idea behind the class is to bring a sense of modernity and relevance to Jewish ideas. For example, it became clear that my students were struggling to work through their opinions and emotions on the exponential growth of gun violence in schools. I was able to use Jewish texts and theologies to show my students that Judaism has a stake in this conversation, while providing them a space to talk about their fears. This type of curriculum was not one that I was previously familiar with, and I was excited to dive deeper into these subjects.
Before I could be confident in leading such a curriculum, I knew I would have to go back to my teaching roots and set up classroom norms. I recognized that these hot-topic conversations could be triggering for my students as well as myself, so it was important to me to set up some guidelines for my students to follow. I strongly believe that the creation of a set culture—one that strives to be safe, respectful, and inclusive—in a classroom is imperative to the success of the class. In my experience, teacher and student alike find comfort in agreed-upon expectations and mutual understandings. By creating a culture based on classroom norms and expectations, students are more likely to thrive by demonstrating an understanding of the material. Only once a set of standards have been established can a teacher integrate creative lesson planning and activities that engage all learners into the classroom.
Learners come in all shape and sizes. Each one needs something different in order to succeed. Jewish education is no different. Whether I am teaching Hebrew or Jewish history, it is important to consider the methods I am using to present the lesson. I had students in my class who learned better if they could visually see what I was talking about, and I had some who appreciated abstract thinking. I had a student who used an aid, and I had students who struggled to find the energy to come to class at all. I believe teachers have to set reasonable expectations for the learners but also for themselves. Not every student will be engaged with every lesson. Hopefully, by the end of the school year, each will have walked away feeling empowered to engage with the ideas that the teacher presented.
When I was building my second-semester curriculum, one which I would have more control over, I wanted to ensure that I was addressing the needs of all my learners. I planned to approach the topic of the Holocaust in a unique way that would not simply repeat what was done in previous years or in their secular education. I chose to look at the narratives of the Holocaust, and not just the Jewish ones, although my lesson plan was weighted more heavily toward the Jewish accounts. I decided to call this semester, “How are Holocaust Stories Told.” I was able to bring in various medis to help my learners get a deeper sense of what events of the Holocaust might mean. For the visual learners in my class, I brought in the movie Run Boy Run,and we read parts of the graphic novel Maus. For the auditory learners, we read survivor testimonies out loud, Jewish and non-Jewish alike. And for the kinesthetic learners we often moved about the classroom (not staying stationary) and got to examine how stamps were used to tell the story of two different massacres.
These topics are sensitive, so it felt important to consistently return to the classroom norms and expectations we had set at the beginning of the school year. I would also frequently check in with my students to assess their emotional states. The students knew that, at any given point, they could step outside for a breather and request to speak to me one-on-one.
I walked into the Rak Noar program on the first day with certain expectations. But I quickly learned that I should expect the unexpected. My students met each topic with a level of maturity that surprised me deeply. They participated and lifted one another up, never tearing each other down. I am very grateful for the opportunity to work at Rockdale Temple this year. I learned a great deal, and there is still so much for me to learn. As I complete my fellowship, I bring with me the following lessons from this year: in order for me to succeed I need to always draw upon my passions for Jewish life and learning when I plan and teach, I need to be clear in my expectations for the class and continuously follow through with these goals, and I need to always be humble enough to ask for help and actively seek out new resources and ideas.
Tzvia Rubens is a second-year rabbinical student and the current Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati fellow at Rockdale Temple in Cincinnati, Ohio.