Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Actors

Written two years ago...after a local education day

Yesterday, I got to teach Sam again.

At a local educators’ day, I was standing outside the door, waiting for teachers to filter in when a young man approached me. “Morah Mary,” he said, “do you remember me? You taught me in third grade and now I’m back to learn from you again.”

Do you remember me? “Of course, I remember you,” I replied as my eyes filled with tears.

I remember one day early in the school year, after class I complimented you on your high participation and the quality of questions you asked. You grimaced and said, “But you really shouldn’t compliment me: I didn’t want to come today. My Mom made me.” I remember writing you a note that evening and explaining that although Mom may have “made” you come to class, Mom wasn’t in our room and she didn’t “make” you walk in with a smile…she didn’t “make” you raise your hand…. she didn’t “make” you help the kid seated next to you…..

I remember that you were part of a group of six friends who thought the best part of religious school was the chance to see your friends and get caught up on each others’ lives. What you had to share with each other was infinitely more interesting than what I could teach. At a parent/student meeting to brainstorm solutions, I remember wryly responding to a parent, “Putting one in each corner of the room might work, but my classroom has only four corners….” After that meeting, you were the student who came up to me to apologize for being thoughtless and disrespectful, and you vowed to improve.

I remember your face when we’d talk about how what we were learning connected with our daily lives – and the way your face would light up when you were able to make a personal connection.

I remember the questions you asked – thoughtful, provocative, eager to put the pieces together.

And I remember the last day of class. You weren’t there. I was so disappointed. I wanted to say goodbye – to find a private moment to let you know how privileged I felt to have had you in my class that year.

Five minutes after class, you and your Mom walked in. You were obviously distraught. Mom explained that you hadn’t wanted to say goodbye, but realized that you had to. We spoke for a moment – you looked at me with your soul in your eyes. I took your hand and remember saying, “Some day, Sam, you’ll be a religious school teacher too – and you’ll be blessed with students just like you.”

What I learned from Sam those many years ago was a simple, critical lesson. I shared it with him and his colleagues in the workshop I taught yesterday – in order to be “master teachers,” we must let our students touch our hearts and be willing to touch theirs in return.

Yesterday I got to teach Sam again – and he got to teach me. Baruch haShem – my life has been blessed!

Sunday, August 24, 2008


Okay, so where was I? (That’s the problem with “vacation” – it’s hard to regain your momentum!)

Improv. theatre…. setting …. the script…. oh, yeah – the props! Now I remember.

“Props” can be anything that help your script come alive: things that your students can experience – taste, touch, smell, hear.

If you’re teaching a lesson on what I used to call “the Jewish uniform” – bring it in! Bring in a tallit (or three). Let your students finger the fringes. Let them trace the Hebrew letters on the atarah/collar. Let them tent themselves in the tallit/prayer shawl as they repeat the blessing after you. Let the tallit settle on their shoulders – show them how to fold the edges up, so they are able to hold a siddur/prayer book at the same time. Let them experience laying on tefillin – examine different styles of kippot.

If you’re teaching about Passover – let them smell and taste the maror/horseradish; let them chop the apples and add a little grape juice – and have that as snack instead of challah; let them break the matzah to hide an afikoman.

If you’re teaching about the Dead Sea – fill a basin with super salty water. Place it next to a basin of clear water. Let them take turns dropping objects into the basins and watch how they float in the super-salty water.

If you’re trying to evoke the solemnity of Kol Nidre – or the joy of Simchat Torah – play instrumental music softly in the background while students are working.

When you learn about Chanukah together, have them bring in their Chanukiyah from home – and let them tell the stories associated with their personal Chanukiyah.

Let them hold the lulav and hear the branches whisper as they are shaken east, west, north, south, up and down. Let them gently scratch the surface of the etrog and smell its lemon-like odor.

When you study Torah with your students, use a Chumash that includes both Hebrew and English, if possible. If that’s not possible – photocopy the page you’ll be studying together. If that’s even beyond what you can provide – type your text as it’s found in a Chumash, including the verse numbers interspersed within the text.

Take them to see a Torah scroll up close. Let them help undress it and carefully roll it out. Let them use the yad/pointer to point to the Hebrew words – and let them tell you “there are no vowels!” Let them touch the wood of the etz hayim/rollers. Let them be responsible for dressing the Torah, hearing the clink as the breastplate is settled into place – and the jingle of the bells in the crowns. Let them feel the texture of the Torah cover – and open and close the ark carefully as it is replaced.

Then take a moment to catch your breath – and think about the experience.

Use lengths of material as costumes when studying biblical characters…. as tents when they’re Israelites wandering in the desert….or pioneers settling in the Land of Israel… or to block off a special area in the classroom in which they can repair to think calming thoughts.

The more we make the learning real, the easier it is to engage our students. The greater the level of engagement, the greater the likelihood of retention. Using all of our senses in teaching and learning helps make the learning come alive.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Just Back From CAJE33

I’m just back from CAJE33 in Burlington, Vermont – where I had the opportunity to connect with old friends, solidify relationships with beginning friends, and make new ones.

Along the way, I participated in some great workshops. Ongoing professional development is key to staying fresh and continuing to learn and grow.

For a Powerpoint of the information I presented in the “Success Stories in Congregational Education” poster session, click on “What’s New” at my website:

I enjoyed my time in Vermont – but it’s good to be home and back in a routine!

The Script

Even though I’ve likened teaching to improv. theater – you still need a script. Some days you’ll be able to follow it fairly closely. Some days, there’ll be a detour along the way. Other days, you may as well throw it out the window and go for the “teachable moment.”

I’ve known some teachers who rarely prepare a lesson, insisting that they know their content well enough that they can “wing it.” I’ve never yet met one who is as successful as s/he thinks at doing that. The kids get the short end of the stick when teachers don’t prepare. Somehow, that doesn’t seem fair to me.

So what should your lesson plan consist of? Let’s start with some general questions:
  • What’s the “big idea” that you want to teach…. this year? … this unit? …this lesson? [Enduring understandings]
  • What should the students be able to do at the end of the lesson? [Objectives]
  • How will you know that can attain those objectives? [Assessment]
  • What strategies will you employ to get there? [Remember that students learn best in a variety of ways (auditory, visual & kinesthetic)]
  • What materials will you need to use? [texts, videos, web info, flashcards, journals, guest speakers/demos]
  • How many of your strategies will allow students to interact directly with the materials? [The greater the interaction, the greater the engagement. Learning is not a spectator sport.]
  • In what order will you present the information? [Look for flow and natural segue ways]
  • How much time will you need for each component? [Remember to allow for set up, transition and clean up times]
  • What will your madrich/madrichah (aide) be doing in order to help students reach your instructional objectives?
  • Before students leave, what opportunities will you provide for them to reflect on their learning for the day?

And finally, you’ll need to provide for your own reflection time. Here we go back to my big three questions (with which I began this blog in June, 2008):

  1. What worked – and why?
  2. What didn’t work – and why not?
  3. What will I do differently next time?

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Setting the Stage - Act 2

Regardless of what kind of space you and your class occupy, there are certain portable accoutrements that shout “This is a Jewish educational environment!”

What are some of them?
  • A tzedakah box
  • Some indicator (flyer, brochure, poster with information) about the recipient of your students’ tzedakah funds for the year
  • An aleph-bet chart
  • A chart featuring the words to the blessing for studying Torah
  • A daily agenda
  • Kippot
  • Classroom rules. I used to call mine “Mitzvot shel Kitah Gimmel” (the commandments of third grade)
  • A Hebrew “Word of the Day”
  • Song poster(s)
  • Classroom job chart
  • Sh’ma
  • Jewish calendar
  • A "Welcome" sign on the door
  • An attendance chart
  • If your students' parents pick them up at your classroom door, a "Notice for Parents" posted on the hallway outside the door involves them in what's going on in your classroom

A milk crate and a luggage carrier (with bungee cords) have made my life much easier over the years!

Along with these items, I also always carried a pencil box containing enough sharpened pencils, scissors, glue sticks, markers, tape (masking and clear), paper clips, a mini-stapler, and a hole punch for my class to use.

Is it a bother? Yes.

Why do it? It puts your stamp on the space you’ll be occupying for 2 or more hours a week. It says to your students, “Our time together is important enough for me to go to the effort to make the space ours.” It helps focus attention on our work at hand. These items serve as visual reminders for the rules we’ve agreed upon, our classroom priorities. They help join us as a community. The supply box sends a clear message that we don’t use the objects in our classroom that belong to others because we have our own things.

It takes an extra little bit of time to put it all up at the beginning of the class period, but it ensures that you'll be in the classroom to greet the students when they arrive. It takes a few minutes extra at the end of the day to pull everything down, but that provided some time to reflect on how things had gone that day.

A word to the wise: If you forget to remove any of these materials at the end of your class, be prepared that they will probably NOT be there next week.... and the person whose space you've occupied may be very irate that you left them behind. Check lists, my friend. Check lists help us remember!

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Setting the Stage - Act 1

If we’d walk into your classroom, what would we see?

Is it welcoming? Bright, cheerful, organized?

Does it reflect your students’ involvement? How can you tell that your class occupies this space, for at least a small amount of time each week?

Is it a “Jewish space?” What makes a space Jewish?

Very few of us have the luxury of having our own space – most of us share with at least one other group: sometimes more. If we’re fortunate, our classroom is located in a larger Jewish space (synagogue building, JCC, Jewish camp). In that case, the “big picture” has already been established and there may well be symbols of Judaism visible/audible to our students: mezuzot, Hebrew letters, books with Jewish content, kippot, posters, signs, music, oral Hebrew ….

Some of us work in secular settings: for example, rented public school space or a community center.

Still others share places used for non-Jewish worship or study, such as a church or interfaith center.

Each setting provides its own challenges and opportunities for us to “set the stage” for our students.

When we’re using rented space, the biggest challenges are that 1) nothing can be posted permanently; 2) we can’t store things so that they are readily accessible; and 3) we have little control over the room setup.

Unfortunately, we often look at those challenges and decide that there is nothing that can be done.

Fortunately, that’s not true: there are some things we can do!

We can take chairs off the desks and turn them upright – we just need to remember to replace them at the end of class. In secular school settings, students often have to do this at the end of the day, so you’ll be scaffolding on top of a habit they already have.

We can re-arrange some of the furniture to make the space more conducive to our needs – we just need to remember to move things back at the end of the day. Digital pictures depicting the room as seen from different angles are immensely helpful.

We can laminate posters – and tape them up at strategic places (the door, over the chalk/whiteboard) – we just need to remember to remove them before we leave. A checklist helps with routine reminders.

We can bring displays in –using two tri-fold pieces of cardboard (aka “science fair boards”) clipped together with binder clips – for center work, displays, and sharing information with groups of people.

And that’s just a beginning…..

Friday, August 1, 2008

Teaching is Like....

...improv. theater!

The teacher is both the protagonist and the director of the performance; the classroom is the set. The script is the lesson plan and the learning materials are the props.

It's like improv. theater because the students don't have scripts -- or at least, some of them don't. The teacher's challenge is to respond to the improvisions the students throw his/her way. The goal is for the teacher to remain in character -- and continue to teach!

In this staging, the teacher controls the setting (environment), the script, the props, and stage directions. S/He has some control over the pacing of the lesson - but not total control because the students' improvisations can easily throw things off balance.

As a teacher gets to know the students in the class better, s/he is better able to predict what kinds of improvisations the students might throw into the mix. Generally speaking, if the relationship between the teacher and students is respectful, the improv comments/behaviors of the students may actually enhance the lesson and cause the learning to soar to a different height or along a parallel path that provides additional insight for all.

Those items the teacher can control (setting/environment, script, props, and stage directions) can easily affect the quantity and quality of the improvised role of the students.

In the next week or so, we'll be taking a closer look at each of these pieces.