Monday, October 19, 2009


What a treat to be immersed in the "easy to read and explain" narrative of B'raisheet!! Here are the stories we all know and love - the ones we remember from the picture books of pre-school and the simplistic Bible stories of the primary grades. Isn't it so much easier to teach stories our students already know?!?

Thought for the teacher: If you are teaching the same 'story' year after year, are you really surprised that at some point the learners are bored? Or that at the end of their formal Jewish educational experience they distance themselves from the childish knowledge that is the extent of what they have been exposed to?

Let's continue to try something different. And let's begin by updating the challenge we faced in teaching B'raisheet
Here's the challenge -
  • how do we make the 'old' story of Noah and the Flood and the Tower of Babel 'new' in the eyes of our students?
  • How can we transform a narrative that our learners have been reading and hearing forever into something they find important?
  • How can we get from "How did the animals get onto the ark" to some really big thinking about what the point is in studying Torah?
  • How can we help our students answer the fundamental question I think all learners should be able to answer, "What did you learn today/this week/this month that is important?"
Big Ideas:
  • Not all the important ideas in Torah are stated outright.
  • Filling in the blanks in Torah is really important for understanding its message to us.
Some Important Questions:
  • What do we know about Noah from the text?
  • How do we know about Noah from the text? Who is telling the story?
  • What did you learn from Noah's experience that is important to you in your life?
  • What lessons are there for us in the story of the Tower of Babel?
Learning Activities:
  • Read the story of Noah line-by-line, stopping at the end of each verse, as if you have never seen or heard it before. Each time you stop, try to describe what you have just read. Also, try to predict what will happen next. Did anything you read surprise you? Explain.
  • The first word of Chapter 6 verse 16 is "tsohar". This word is called a "hapax legomena". You can read more about this here in an article from the Jewish Encyclopedia. How can we understand a word that appears only once in the entire text? Why is that a problem?
  • Read the comments about the word "tsohar" here in the post on October 27, 2006. What did you learn? Is it important information?
  • Read the story of the Tower of Babel the same way you read the story of Noah, and go through the same process. Do you think God punished the people or rewarded them in this story? Explain your thinking.
  • The United States is a country made up of many diverse populations, coming from or descended from hundreds of native countries, with hundreds of native languages spoken by its population. How is this a good thing? How is it a problem? How is your thinking influenced by the story of the Tower of Babel?
  • What new understanding of Torah in your life do you have as a result of these activities?
  • What important ideas have you uncovered in studying this parasha?
  • What else are you curious about that we have not studied together - and how might you learn more?

Teachers Need...

You may have noticed that the lesson ideas posted here are not prescriptive. In other words, they offer suggestions and choices to the teachers using them, along with a structure for thinking about what is important in the teaching and learning.

This is intentional. It is not that I couldn't present a script for direct use - first say this, then that, and finally the other - but rather that I don't believe that is a best practice.

Teachers should be treated with respect - respect for their motivation, for their knowledge, for their abilities. Requiring the use of a script presumes that without one the teacher would be unable to work effectively. I just don't think that is the case.

I do not believe lessons should be, as is sometimes recommended, 'teacher-proof', as if anything other than word-for-word lessons leads to inferior learning.

What I do think is that teachers need support in getting better at what they do; they need opportunities to work together to improve their practice; they need the time and space to reflect on their experiences and challenges; they need to be treated as the professionals they are.

You may want to read the article in Education Week at this link: Stress, Control and the Deprofessionalizing of Teaching for more thoughts on this topic.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Doing Jewish

Jewish text does not have a monopoly on wisdom or ethics. It does, however, contain both in great abundance. One of the valuable lessons our learners ought to take with them forever is that the foundations for what many see as universal values are embedded in Jewish thinking. Some of the greatest ideas of our civilization are in large part based on the great ideas of Judaism, and we can take justifiable pride in that concept.
This post is a suggestion for using media and popular culture to support learning of Jewish ideas.

Big Ideas:
  • People have the capacity to choose freely between good and evil
  • Everything one does is part of who s/he is
  • Jewish wisdom insists we take responsibility for our decisions and actions

Question our learners should be able to answer:
  • What evidence do we have in Jewish texts to support these ideas?
  • Which of the stories below is, in your opinion, the story of a hero? What supports your opinion

Learning Activities:

A book has just been released in which Capt. Sulllenberger tells the story of his life and the events we know as the "Miracle on the Hudson", the safe landing of the jet he was piloting and rescue of all aboard.
One of the statements quoted in the Wall Street Journal's article by his co-author has within it the following quotation.

'Sully has heard from people who say preparation and diligence are not the same as heroism. He agrees.

One letter ...came from Paul Kellen of Medford, Mass. "I see a hero as electing to enter a dangerous situation for a higher purpose," he wrote, "and you were not given a choice. That is not to say you are not a man of virtue, but I see your virtue arising from your choices at other times. It's clear that many choices in your life prepared you for that moment when your engines failed.

"There are people among us who are ethical, responsible and diligent. I hope your story encourages those who toil in obscurity to know that their reward is simple—they will be ready if the test comes. I hope your story encourages others to imitation."

Sully now sees lessons for the rest of us. "We need to try to do the right thing every time, to perform at our best," he says, "because we never know what moment in our lives we'll be judged on."'


Dr. Tina Strobos is 89 years old and lives in Rye, NY. During World War II she lived in Amsterdam and was part of a family that saved many Jews by hiding them in their home. You can read about her here.

Why would she take such gambles for people she sometimes barely knew?

“It’s the right thing to do,” she said with nonchalance. “Your conscience tells you to do it. I believe in heroism, and when you’re young, you want to do dangerous things.”

'... such an outlook has an origin, what Donna Cohen, the Holocaust Center’s executive director, calls “learned behavior.” Dr. Strobos comes from a family of socialist atheists who took in Belgian refugees during World War I and hid German and Austrian refugees before World War II. Dr. Strobos had close Jewish friends and, for a time, a Jewish fiancé, Abraham Pais... . '


Here are some quotations from Jewish sources to read and think about. What does each quotation mean? How are they similar? How are they different? Choose one and use it to explain why Captain Sullenberger and Dr. Strobos did what they did.

from Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers:

"Hillel says that in a place where there are no 'humans', try to be 'human'"
,ו ובמקום
שאין אנשים, השתדל להיות איש.

from Proverbs:
י בְּנִי-- אִם-יְפַתּוּךָ חַטָּאִים, אַל-תֹּבֵא. 10 My child, if sinners attract you, don't follow them.

כז שֹׁחֵר טוֹב, יְבַקֵּשׁ רָצוֹן; וְדֹרֵשׁ רָעָה תְבוֹאֶנּוּ.11:27 One who seeks good will find it; but one who searches for evil, it will come to him.

Culminating/Assessment Activity

Create a bulletin board on which you post articles which illustrate any and all of the 3 quotations you learned. For each article be sure to specify which idea it illustrates, and a short paragraph explaining why it does so.