Learning about Learning

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

Tag: pedagogy (page 1 of 8)

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

Helping Early Childhood Educators Become Teachers of Rabbinics

By Elliot Goldberg

Are we doing all that we can to support the development of early childhood educators as teachers of the Jewish tradition? Previously, I’ve argued that the learning of rabbinics begins in Jewish early childhood education settings. Awareness of the place of rabbinics in the curriculum gives us an important new perspective about the education of our youngest learners. Strengthening our schools’ ability to use the rabbinic canon to deliver a strong Jewish experience requires additional steps.

I recently spent two days with the faculty of an early childhood center (ECC) embedded in a Jewish day school, as a part of the Legacy Heritage Instructional Leadership Institute of the Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education at the Jewish Theological Seminary. The visit was part of a two-year initiative to strengthen the teaching and learning of rabbinics in the school.  A portion of the visit focused on developing an approach for incorporating the learning of Mishnah Bava Kamma, chapter 3, which deals with an individual’s responsibility for damages caused by personal property in the public domain, into the students’ school experience.

As we studied together, the ECC faculty made connections between the Mishnah and themes that are a part of school life at the start of the school year, especially teaching values and routines about cleaning up at the end of an activity and putting away personal property. It was striking how many examples of case law from the Mishnah resonated with situations that arise in a school’s hallways and classrooms. Our conversation about the various pathways we could use to bring the rabbinic material that we had studied into the classroom (a topic about which I hope to share more in the future) generated excitement and enthusiasm.

As we worked, a teacher raised her hand and asked a wonderful and challenging question, “How will we find texts as we explore other topics later, when there is no one here to provide them for us?” Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

When General Education Research Informs the Teaching of Sacred Text

By Rafi Cashman

We in the Jewish education community are really beginning to dive into general education research when it comes to teaching (and learning) sacred text. The Mandel Center’s recent two-day conference on developing independent readers of Tanach was a wonderful experience of how productive such a gathering can be—especially when conducted with a group of talented, thoughtful and committed educators. I entered the conference having spent the last three years with the Tanach PLC at my school trying to use the research on early literacy and reading complex texts to inform our teaching practices in the middle school. But our group felt as though we were doing this work alone, and encountering a larger body of research that we weren’t always sure how to apply. I left the conference with deeper knowledge, a series of new questions, a new community of practice, and new ways for thinking about the relationship between literacy research and the teaching of Tanach. Continue reading

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