By Ziva R. Hassenfeld
In her recent piece on Mechon Hadar’s new Standards for Fluency in Jewish Text and Practice, Lisa Exler advocates for an approach that emphasizes student collaboration when studying Jewish texts in havruta. She suggests that the standards, alongside appropriate teaching techniques, “can transform classrooms and schools, empowering students to own their relationships to Jewish texts and to one another.” This is a powerful and compelling vision of successful Jewish text education, but even as Exler emphasizes the importance of collaboration, she ultimately treats the process of textual interpretation as an individual project. In her view, havruta is a sounding board one uses to clarify one’s own ideas.
But discussing texts with peers is not simply an opportunity to exchange interpretations, rather it is an opportunity to construct interpretations. Ideas about text come into being through talk, contingent on the dialogue that unfolds, and collectively constructed and reconstructed in the course of discussion (Aukerman, 2015).
I saw this in action in a second grade classroom I observed recently. Continue reading
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
By Arielle Levites
As part of a larger study of student understandings of rabbinics—what it is, how it is learned, and what it’s for—it was clear to the research team that it would be important to include the voices of day school educators who teach rabbinics. We interviewed ten educators, including those who teach rabbinics and those who supervise its teaching. We sought diversity by denomination (of the school and its students), geography, perceived sophistication of the school’s curricular approach by the standards and benchmarks team, and the educator’s pre-service preparation (rabbinic ordination, graduate level study of education, academic study of rabbinic text). We asked them how they conceptualized rabbinics and what understandings they wanted to develop in their students.
The educators we spoke with respected the complexity of rabbinic texts and the possibility that one could teach for multiple understandings. Yet when asked what understandings they prioritized in their teaching, almost everyone emphasized promoting an understanding of rabbinics as a model for reasoning and ethical decision making. Continue reading
By Ziva R. Hassenfeld
This year marked the beginning of an exciting new chapter in Jewish education. A few weeks ago, Prizmah, a new organization comprising the five major day school networks, held its first conference. Thousands of educators from across the country gathered to compare notes, share best practices, and chart the future of Jewish education in North America.
This moment represents an opportunity to take a fresh look at what day schools, regardless of their particular ideology, share: the study of Jewish texts, however defined. For the last 15 years, the Jewish Day School Standards and Benchmarks, developed by the William Davidson School of Education at JTS, have offered a clear picture of what it looks like to read Tanakh successfully. The first standard, for example, states that students will be “independent readers of the biblical text.” They should notice textual details and ambiguities, and will be able to “cite a text to prove a point opinion or claim.”
But how do we get students to that point? Continue reading
By Elliot Goldberg
I’ve argued that the teaching of rabbinics begins sooner than you might think. How would early childhood educators respond to my theories? I went on the road to find out.
Recently, I spent two days with the faculty of a Jewish early childhood center in a Jewish day school, to launch their participation in the Legacy Heritage Instructional Leadership Institute Rabbinics Initiative, a project of the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education at the Jewish Theological Seminary. One of the consultation’s goals was to raise teachers’ awareness of the ways in which rabbinics was already a part of their curriculum.
From the onset, teachers had some reservations about the notion that they were teaching, or were teachers of, rabbinics. That they were teaching in a Jewish school whose curriculum was shaped by Jewish values, the Jewish calendar and Jewish practices was apparent, yet faculty shared a commonly held assumption that the starting point for the study of rabbinics begins when a book from the rabbinic canon is placed in front of students.
There is a certain logic to this assumption. Because, for the most part, we encounter the rabbis – and their stories, thoughts, ideas, and values – through texts, we equate the discipline of rabbinics with the study of rabbinic literature. Because rabbinic literature is often complex and, due to its language and logical structure, can be challenging to learn, we wait until students have acquired the appropriate skills and intellectual maturity before we engage them in the study of rabbinic texts.
Yet, while rabbinic texts might be absent from the early childhood environment, rabbinic literature has significant influence over many of the topics in the curriculum. Jewish early childhood programs, therefore, do teach rabbinics. Continue reading