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FRONTAL FREE: The Fiction of Circadia

Dave Smolar is co-founder of Kikayon Productions, creating turn-key solutions for Jewish education. Our “TORAH TIME LIVE!” Parashah Play series is now for sale! From Creation to Mt. Sinai, click on “Our Store” for more!

This shouldn’t take long, but it might. And as always, my situation might be specific to Hebrew school but should apply universally to any teaching activity geared towards grades 5 and up [ages 10+]. Kids, folks, crowds are different in the morning than they are in the late afternoon and evening. I know, this isn’t rocket science nor is it breaking news, but I’m just here today to shine a light on it.

It needs to be addressed, in a world of curricular goals but infinite pedagogic methods and modules, that we have to prepare lessons while taking into account a myriad of factors. But those factors, while limiting our scope, shouldn’t hamper us but, rather, guide and fashion how we approach each topic and how we unpack the material for the kids. Of any or all of these factors, many of which are clearly independent variables that could never be foreseen and, consequently, must be dealt with on the spot, there are the predictable behaviors and expectations of students in proportion to the time of day of the lesson and activity.

And I’ve known teachers, master teachers with decades under their Torah belts, who completely eschew any classroom or activity planning whatsoever, depending only on a combination of their classroom management skills, wrangling kids into appropriate and acceptable decorum, and their Spidey® sense, knowing right away which games to play or stories to tell or art project to develop in class based on the overall tone of the kids in the room that day. And I applaud those teachers. And I am them, at times, though I don’t think “winging it” to be an ideal plan for success, nor is it ultimately an inclusive way to teach, as I’ve often heard from students of these teachers, and their parents, who complain throughout the year that their kid’s needs are overlooked in lieu of the rest of the class.

While it’s easy to predict that kids will be more tired on a Sunday morning in consideration of the fact that preteens, for the most part, are just getting to the point in their lives where they’re finally allowed to stay up and watch “Saturday Night Live” or some other social late night activity [or maybe a Shabbaton], it’s just as easy to predict that the mid-week Hebrew school kids will be tired after a 630am wakeup and full day of school, thin lunch, sugary snack, and schlep in the car or bus to your classroom.

This means, as it seems, that the students are always tired, regardless of the time of day. Chronobiology, be damned.

So in planning classroom lessons and activities, we use what we know, or think we know, to our advantage whenever possible. But when we overthink whether the students will be tired walking into class on a given day, we end up with the Catch-22 that could lead us, frankly, to thinking the kids will be tired EVERY time they walk in the classroom. And if that’s the case, or at least, if that possibility is an impediment to your attempts to plan anything at all for your class, then simply take that factor as a given and take it out of your equations.

I would argue the contrast between “being tired” and “acting tired.” Kids are tired, kids are nudgy, kids like to complain, and it’s age-appropriate for preteens to act this way. Notice that I said they “act” this way, not that they truly “feel” this way. Kids want to be heard so badly at this age, they often instinctually revert to the non-verbal cues, almost as if they’re assuming that nobody will pay attention to them if they simply open their mouths and say how they feel.

From this, we realize that many of the kids now have a decade of experience of being taken, brought, driven, and dragged from place to place without their consultation. And even if that’s not entirely the case, by the preteen years, they have the emerging need to make their own choices for their own lives while still assuming that a grown-up will say “no.” It makes sense that they’d feel that way, and that their manifest behavior reflects this notion.

They want to want something, and even if they don’t really want anything, they feel they should want something. Wait, but they also assume that nobody will give them what they want no matter how they ask for it, even though they don’t really want anything. So they jump over the steps of identifying and clarifying what they want as well as asking for it out loud, and they skip right to the point of internalizing their resentment for grownups or leaders or older kids or anyone who might take their request and hold it over them, tantalizing them with…well, nothing.

It’s this feeling of “I’m never gonna get what I ask for, so I’m gonna sulk to get attention” that must be addressed. And it’s my assumption, every single time I’m in front of a group of kids ages 10+, that they’ll have this attitude. They’re not tired, they’re not lazy, and they didn’t suddenly forget the English language. There’s no such thing as spontaneous illiteracy, and I would guess that sudden onset nominal aphasia would probably be ruled out as a reason that they’re non-communicative.

So I leave you with this notion. While teachers, leaders, and program facilitators want so much to include every single child – and that’s a great instinct – we must assume that kids need the time to ease into the classroom each time, even when you’re bringing them back from recess or break. They don’t want to be lectured, they don’t want to feel like someone’s going to pounce on them or fire 100 questions at them, and they aren’t so eager to launch into a complex activity with a lot of rules and boundaries.

I try to gauge my students’ attitude and energy level by standing out in the hall for 30 seconds, listening to who’s talking, what they’re saying, and if it’s relatable to Hebrew school. Then I walk in. Sometimes, especially if it’s a small group, I join their conversation and have it bloom into a more pointed discussion related to one of my lessons of the day. If they’re very quiet that morning, I often take out the Hebrew texts and workbooks and have them do a few pages, then review and have them read answers aloud. The next activity would start with reading something aloud, then asking what they think, getting them talking about their own experiences, and families, and traditions.

Then they have to get up. Have them act out a story, or dramatize a situation they were just relaying, or even offer up alternate resolutions to a moral conundrum you’ve presented. Then gradually move the class into a more independent activity, where they’re either doing individual projects, working as teams, or creating and running their own activity. By the end of the day, they see themselves developing and facilitating their own program, insinuating both a sense of independence and a feeling of ownership in the group.

Those are the feelings the carry out the door. And those feelings of belonging and responsibility will grow until they return. And when they return on the next class day, they’ll openly express to you their excitement for certain activities, their enthusiasm for creating even more new experiences, and their sincere appreciation for where they are. And you will share with the students the joy and mystery of our Jewish legacy, which must be rebuilt and renewed by each generation.

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