Learning about Learning

Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education, Brandeis University

Category: Learning (page 2 of 5)

Imagination and Interpretation

By Ziva R. Hassenfeld

The painting "Pharaoh Gives Sarah Back to Abraham," painted by Isaac Isaacs in 1640My students and I were in the middle of discussing Genesis 12:10-20, the story in which Abraham asks Sarah to say that she is his sister as they descend to Egypt. The Torah, however, does not record any dialogue when they arrive in Egypt, so that we don’t know what, if anything, Sarah said. Later, when Pharaoh, who took Sarah as his wife, discovers that she is indeed a married woman, he asks Abraham why he said she was his sister.

Saul, a passionate and excited student, raises his hand with a possible resolution.

Saul:  Okay so I think it’s possible that no one said anything and when people saw him–like Avram just walked up to Mitzrayim. And Sarai didn’t introduce herself as his sister and Avram didn’t say anything about that and they just assumed “Okay she’s his sister, let’s take her to Pharaoh.”

Jane calls out: They didn’t lie but they didn’t say anything

Saul: And they didn’t lie but they didn’t correct. And then the courtiers went to Pharaoh and were like, “Oh ya, there’s this girl she’s Avram’s sister.” So then Pharaoh assumed that Avram told them that Sarai was his sister.

Ziva: Love it! Stronger with textual evidence. I think–textual evidence  doesn’t have to be spelling it out for you. This is literature. This is Torah. There can be hints.

There is an interpretive activity that lies at the heart of “advanced” literary analysis as well as rabbinic hermeneutics. It focuses on the details in the text–the words, the syntax, sometimes even the individual letters–in order to make meaning. This privileging of the smallest units of analysis guides new criticism’s close reading and often directs the flow of a daf of Gemara, so that every letter, every seemingly superfluous word, every missing word, teaches us something.

For most of my career as a Jewish studies teacher, I held this type of interpretation up as the gold standard. The value of Saul’s interpretation would stand and fall on whether or not he could make a textual case for it. I wanted to teach this style of interpretation because I believed it prepared my student for both literary and religious text study.  When I was a high school Tanakh teacher, many of my students rose to the challenge and met my expectations. They made meaning out of extra vavs and repeated phrases. They juxtaposed subjects called by proper name and subjects called by pronouns. Some of my other students did not care for it and eventually found themselves utterly uninterested in the study of biblical texts. It was with these students in mind that I entered my doctoral program in curriculum and teacher education.

Five years (and one doctorate) later, I am back in the Tanakh classroom, this time in an elementary school. Immersed in the study of biblical texts with these younger students, I am noticing something I never experienced teaching high school. Continue reading

Understanding Students’ Orientations to the Study of Rabbinics

By Arielle Levites

What does it mean to a student to understand rabbinics?

While rabbinic texts have long played a central role in the development of contemporary Judaisms and Jewish day school curricula, we don’t know very much about students’ learning. While we have some sense of what teachers and other experts think constitutes an understanding of rabbinics (Levisohn 2010, and Kanarek and Lehman 2016), there is little data about what students actually know about or are able to do with particular texts, or what sense they make of rabbinics as a whole.

In the spring of 2017, as part of the Mandel Center’s Students’ Understanding of Rabbinics project, we interviewed twenty students recruited from two Jewish community day high schools about their study of rabbinics. The students we interviewed offered three major types of approaches to understanding rabbinic texts: Continue reading

Day Schools Produce Jewish Leaders when Teachers Thrive

By Ziva R. Hassenfeld

This post was originally published by The Wexner Foundation

Two educators talking“Teachers cannot create and sustain the conditions for the productive development of children if those conditions do not exist for teachers,” wrote Seymour B. Sarason, Yale professor and psychologist.  Sarason points out a truth that is self-evident to most teachers, and, upon reflection, applicable to all of us:  We cannot teach what we are not actively engaged in.  If we wish to develop our students with a curiosity, inquiry, and proclivity towards the critical thinking that propels learning, then we must provide teachers with the opportunity to be curious, inquire, and think critically.

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The Blessing of Relationship

By Ziva R. Hassenfeld

My toddler and I were outside of our house, drawing on the sidewalk with chalk, as we often do while my husband puts our baby to sleep. Out of nowhere, after weeks of drawing tic-tac-toe boards and hopscotch courts, my daughter drew two circles, connected them with a line, and said, “Look, Mama! It’s a car!”Child's drawing of a car

In that moment, I experienced a new kind of parental joy.  My child, unprompted, had reproduced a key illustration of my most beloved scholar’s work, an idea which sits at the center of my research.

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Pedagogy of Partnership and the Power of Relationships

By Orit Kent and Allison Cook

What do we mean by teaching and learning? What do (we want) people (to) learn? And how do they learn both subject matter and values, ways of being in the world?  Orit Kent and Allison Cook, co-founders of Pedagogy of Partnership, look at how teaching and learning happens in relationships — particularly in the context of student relationships and Torah learning. They aim to expand our understanding of what education is through the process of relationship-centered learning.

Two boys studying textImagine the following day school scene:

Morah Rebecca: “OK guys, time to wrap up your discussions!”

Fourth-graders shouting: “No! We are having SUCH a good Torah discussion. Can we have a few more minutes? Pleeeeaaase?”

Morah Rebecca: “This is the third time I’ve tried to wrap up. It is wonderful the discussions you are having. I’m hearing some great theories on the possible meanings of the word ‘yifga’enu’ [He will strike us] and who exactly the ‘us’ can be referring to and also about Pharaoh’s possible motivations in these psukim [Torah verses]. I’m putting on a timer: two more minutes, and that is really it! We have to come together to do the wrap-up and then you have to go to gym.”

This scene happens often in this fourth-grade Jewish studies classroom. Amazingly, these fourth-graders do not want their Torah discussions to end — they will choose to miss parts of recess, lunch and gym so that they can have a few more minutes in class. They have been learning Torah through the Pedagogy of Partnership (PoP), a student-centered approach for developing specific attitudes and skills to learn in relationship with Torah and with peers.

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