Teaching Torah
Journal Reflections

9/17 Journal Reflection

What do I hope my students will gain out of studying Torah? Why study Torah?

This is something that I gave broad consideration when meeting with my mentor teacher for Jewish studies, and when determining my "hopes and dreams" for the year. For someone who is a great Torah scholar, they might have a very different goal. Their goal might be to instill a love for Torah, or to gain an understanding of the Torah. I really hope that I will be able to explore Torah with my students, and model for them how to do this. I hope the takeaway for them will be the curiosity for studying Torah and the tools to investigate Torah topics.

Ideally this would take the form of students who get enough information where they will be able to formulate questions on their own. For example, most Jewish children know what Rosh Hashana is, and what we do on Rosh Hashana. But by introducing the students to the concept of four different New Years throughout the Jewish calendar, they might be curious to learn why there are four New Years, and when they are. If they investigate this, they might have some questions about what is a new year. If the New Year isn't one day starting the entire year, then what is it? Is this why it's called "head" of the year?

This type of instruction and investigation would ideally lead to an enduring interest in Torah, and a greater proficiency in Torah. Now, why do I want to impart a curiosity and proficiency in Torah? My belief is that there is enduring and timeless wisdom in the Torah.

Another reason I think students would gain from Torah study is the narrative of our ancestors. Torah study connects this generation to the past generation (they, too, studied this text), and it also connects the Torah to contemporary times. I care about this continuum, and most adults and Jews care about this continuum, but what do elementary school children care? Understanding that they are a part of a continuing tradition, and understanding that their ancestors had valuable insights is something that I think will be interesting to them (trying to envision the lives of ancient Israelites) and worthwhile for them to value.

Laura - This is well done! I like the formulation of "enduring and timeless wisdom" - the key is to connect that wisdom to the kind of wisdom kids are seeking. That's one of the issues behind my question for next week: What will resonate with your students?..... Yasher koakh (all the power to you) on a job well done.

9/24 Journal Reflection

What section of Lech Lecha would you teach your students? What resonates with you? What would resonate with your students and why?

Lech Lecha
13:1-13 "Let there be no strife between you and me"

Here's the scene: Abram and Sarai have just returned from Mitzraim. Abram had been merrily following G-d's directions to settle in Canaan, but was detoured to Egypt because there was famine in Canaan. They just returned from this terrible ordeal (bad things always seem to happen in Mitzraim--Pharoah grabbed Avram's wife Sarai, despite Avram's best attempt to protect her by claiming that she was his sister (!) and G-d had to intervene to save Sarai). They have reunited with Lot, Avram's nephew, and are hanging out in the Negev Desert. They still have a good deal of belongings, including a sizable flock (some are Lot's and some are Avram's), and gradually strife dampens the mood.

Read: 13:1-13 "Let there be no strife between you and me"

The students could re-enact this based on the passage: come up with roles: Avram, Sarai, Lot, shepherds, maids, etc. They might come up with something about how the tribes of the two houses were fighting, and how Avram came in and resolved the conflict by going their separate ways. The fifth graders at JCDSRI overwhelmingly LOVE skits, so I think role-playing would fit in with their interests. It also helps them engage with the text, and really get inside the scene.

For me, I like creating an image of the scene as well. In a lot of ways, I think my interests in Torah reflect closely the interests of fifth graders. I chose this topic because I found it interesting--Avram had just come back from this ordeal in Mitzraim. He was probably pretty happy to be back and around family. When I read this, I thought about what could possibly come between these two men: Avram and Lot?

I think that the students will really be engaged in this type of text and activity. There is so much room for dialogue and so many gaps to fill in, and the important thing is that they get to use their own brains and engage the text directly to come up with ideas. By having them fill in the story, they understand that the Torah isn't always written literally, in a straight line, and sometimes we have to read in between the lines.

It will be so interesting to see what kind of storylines they come up with to explain what led Avram and Lot to go their separate ways.

Leslie: I added some ideas based on your comments. Thanks for the helpful questions. 9/29

10/1 Journal Reflection

How would I respond to a student asking: Is the Torah true?
"Wow. That is such a useful question. Is the Torah true? Scholars, researchers, scientists, historians, and people like me and you have been considering this question for as long as the Torah has existed. What do you think?"
This would be a great opportunity for a class discussion, especially in fifth grade:
  • What makes something 'true?'
  • Is the Torah historically accurate?
  • Does the Torah speak to people?
  • Does the Torah contain wisdom that people find useful?
  • Do people connect with the stories of the Torah?
I think these questions would lead to a great discussion where students would feel empowered to share their personal beliefs about G-d, the Torah, prayer. It's important to keep it a heartfelt, honest, respectful and positive discussion, but not one that would discredit any student's belief.

I'm not really afraid of any question a fifth grader could ask because I can always retort, "Well, what do you think?" I'm concerned that students will pry into my own personal beliefs, just because I'm not willing to commit to any one belief, and I'm open to the concept that my beliefs could change. I'm not sure I would know how to field questions like:
  • Do I have to believe in G-d to be considered a Jew? (I dunno) Am I considered a Jew if only my dad is Jewish? (As open as I am to all walks of Judaism, my personal answer to this one would be "no")
  • Do you have to keep Kosher to be a "good" Jew? Keep Shabbat? (I don't even know what a "good Jew" is!)
  • Miss R, why do you have a tattoo?

10/8 Journal Reflection

Journal Reflection: What were my reasons for choosing this particular section to teach? What is the one BIG IDEA I want my students to understand?

I chose to focus on the blessing of Jacob (Genesis 27:1-29). I think it's the most important aspect of this parsha, and it's interesting that children know this story already. I'm intrigued by the set up of the story and the characters: Jacob exploits his brother in a moment of physical weakness for personal gain, and then he and his mother conspire to trick Isaac and Esau for a blessing. Why is Jacob the protagonist? Why are rooting for him? Why do we traditionally think of Esau as evil?

Being human is doing good things and not so good things.

What does the Torah/Toledot tell us about human nature?
When is it OK to accomplish something by lying or tricking? What do we do when we have lied or tricked someone?
Have you ever lied and gotten away with it? What should you have done, even after you lied?
How do we know who the 'good guy' is? Who's the bigger mensch, Jacob or Esau?

10/22 Journal Reflection

What were two new things you learned about teaching Torah from our time with Shira? Describe them in detail.

I really like how Shira uses a routine in teaching the parshiyot, but allows for some flexibility. She uses a very interactive method of getting the students to interact with the text: she has them act out the parsha. One thing I struggled with when thinking about how to act out Parshat Lech Lecha was involving most or all of the kids. Shira gave us some really good tips on how to do this: always assign the voice of God as a character, a narrator, a tree, a conscience, etc. This can be applied when teaching Torah at any grade level. Fifth graders might be able to handle more dialogue and description than first graders, and maybe the lower grades would need less text to read. But in general, I like that the idea of acting out the parsha can be done at all grade levels.

I also like the Torah Talk she uses, where the students are given the platform to know that their opinions are valid. It's a great way to check in with the students for understanding, and also to track their spiritual development. Students feel free to ask questions and add comments in a very open and inviting environment, and not feel like they shouldn't be asking a question.

10/29 Journal Reflection

Observation protocol:
  • Did the lesson go according to plan?
The order of the lesson was switched—first the students looked up the information in their Tanakhim, and then came up with the main points of the parsha. There was also no time at the end of the lesson for filling in the graphic organizer for commentary ideas. Other than that, the lesson went basically according to plan. Since Eliana accounted for time constraints, she anticipated that they wouldn't have enough time to do a lot of brainstorming about possible commentary ideas or filling in their graphic organizers. There were no major obstacles in the lesson that caused the purpose of the lesson to deviate greatly. She deviated from the plan to have the students add one idea for possible commentary and have them write down the ideas. Instead, the ideas came more organically, as natural questions arising from children's curiosity.
I think the lesson hit its objective: to draw on students' prior knowledge about the parsha to revisit and expand their understanding of it in order to generate a summary and commentary. The students asked thoughtful and thought-provoking questions about the parsha as they compiled a list of major points of the parsha.
A large part of the success of the lesson was due to Eliana's clarity. I feel like there was some confusion in the beginning of the lesson, especially when it comes to paperwork, but she did a lot of the preparation and organization for the students. She is planning on using this format for future parsha lesson, and wants to streamline the summary process. By giving directions every step of the way, she is able to introduce the students to the process and familiarize them with it.
The students were very participatory. They had many ideas to add to the summary list. Most of the ideas on the summary list were student-generated. Eliana had to do very little prompting.
The structure of this lesson allows to overall understanding of the story, and does so fairly efficiently. The students have already learned the stories in Beresheit, so they are able to draw on their own background knowledge, which is essential for this lesson format. I hope that this format will allow for some flexibility—namely focusing on generating questions about one aspect of the parsha. I will likely create a shorty list of summary notes, or try to get through that part more quickly in my own lesson so that we can spend time discussing possible commentary topics and delving more deeply into thinking about Jacob's character.
I found it useful to know that students may not know what you think they know. It may be important for me to not rely on them knowing the story already.

11/12 Journal Reflection

What are you most excited about in your lesson plan? What are the potential pitfalls or concerns you have about teaching this lesson?

I'm most excited about bringing a fin platform to learn about the parsha: via acting it out. In planning this lesson, I was restricted by the structure: the students take notes on the summary and then move onto the commentary. I wanted to do something different, something that I thought of doing, and I also thought about what the students said they were most excited about in the beginning of the year. I think it will help accomplish one of the bigger goals of teaching Torah: sparking an interest in Torah, and making it relevant to our lives. Any opportunity to go beyond reading something is a worthwhile endeavor. I'm a bit concerned that the students will be a bit silly while acting it out.

Another concern of mine is that I'm having a hard time thinking of the kind of questions and wonderings the students will come up with. Perhaps they will be stuck on coming up with ideas to explore. A lot of times, I feel like certain students get writer's block, and spend 20 minutes staring off into space. I need to make sure that I have some good ideas to explore in case students aren't coming up with them on their own.

11/19 Journal Reflection

  • What worked well?
  • Why did it work well?
  • What would you have done differently? Why?

What went well:
Overall, I feel like the transition to the lesson went well, and the transitions in the lesson. A lot of this was because I think it flowed naturally, and also the students are already familiar with what they have to accomplish during this time. When I started to write points on the board that they needed to write down, they really got to work. I was satisfied with the level of conversation during the groupwork. Most students were using the character's actions to analyze who the good guy and who the bad guy were. I think the intellectual capability of some students helped carry the discussion within certain groups. I feel like I made good on-the-spot decisions, and reacted well to students' questions.

What I might have done differently:
I didn't give them enough time to write down the first pasuk. I should have given clearer instructions on materials. I definitely should have chosen more responsible students for the play. Also, I didn't think that they might not have known what a think-pair-share is. A short explanation might have helped.
I don't think huddling with the students who were performing was a good idea. This could have been done before class started.
I learned very quickly that taking notes while watching doesn't work! I'm glad I didn't rely on this for their summary notes. I should have given them 4 minutes of quiet time to write down the notes after the play (for them to develop the skill of summarizing).
Also, the audience didn't inherently know who the characters are. (It could have been introduced before.) After the play, it took a while to get the class back on track (until I started writing notes on the board). I feel like I should have given more time to wrapping up the lesson, and asking more students to share their thoughts.

12/3 Journal Reflection

Reflect on the following with regard to Holtz, chapter 3 (pp. 73-96):
  • Which of the orientations did you find most intriguing and would you like to learn more about? Why?
    • I guess I'm the most attracted to literary criticism. This takes into account what the author might be thinking and going through. I find merit in evaluating a text in context. If the Merchant of Venice was written during a time of great and accepted anti-Semitism, does that change how we view Shakespeare? Was he writing on the topics of his time, within the worldviews of that period? Or was he a virulent anti-Semite? I like that this orientation involves some deep investigation and critical thinking.
  • Describe your understanding of the orientation.
    • I understand this orientation to mean evaluating a text based on when and under what conditions it was written. For the Torah, this means taking into account the politics at play, the norms of society at that time, the motives of the author.
  • Which orientation(s) would you like more clarity on?
    • I would like to delve into personalization more. How do we go beyond the author's meaning, and find our own meaning in texts? I'm trying to do this with the fifth graders and the parshiyot. I also want some clarity on this orientation. Is it the same as personal connection? Is a personal connection merely seeing into the motives and emotions of the characters? How is personalization going beyond this?