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FRONTAL FREE: What’s Your Point?

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!

I’m sure it would be paradise to kids if, at any given moment, they could face a grownup who’s addressing them, look the adult in the eye and say, “What right do you have to tell me what to do/think?” Then again, they only respond that way when they feel cornered, whether it be physically, emotionally, functionally, etc. While this makes things difficult when trying to teach kids anything, the paradigm also implies a destructive situation, where adults expect the kids to be voluntary, gentle sponges, ready to sit there and absorb whatever information we throw at them.

Imagine sitting in a room with a message to deliver to the person walking in. You have no idea where that person was before walking in. You don’t know what they’re thinking, pondering, worrying about. And they have an instinctual coping mechanism of associating people with other people, as a means of seeking familiarity with a situation and, therefore, a comfort level in anything that comes at them and their capacity to handle it.

So, here comes a kid – maybe your student, maybe it’s your own kid, maybe even your kid’s new friend – and you don’t know how to approach them in order to teach your lesson or communicate your message. At this point, sure, I calm down and observe them, maybe asking some open, innocuous question to gauge their response, mood, attitude du jour. But then I try to ask myself the same question, the mantra I roll back over repeatedly throughout my time with the kids.

What is my point?

In Jewish education, if you’re truly trying to reach and influence and instruct and educate a Jewish child, you really should figure out what the point is of what you’re doing. For me, honing in on that purpose, that underlying goal of Jewish education, involves am examination of the philosophy of the institution I’m in, be it a synagogue, school, camp, etc., or even the family of the child I’m teaching, especially if I’m tutoring one-on-one. Then I consider how often the kid received any Jewish education during the week as well as their exposure to it at home. This is why I occasionally have class discussions on traditions and legacy and customs and holiday celebrations: not to test the kids but to ask what do they do, where do they go, what do they make or eat or create to celebrate any holiday?

My point certainly changes over time, not so much evolving as morphing to fit the needs of the children and the situation at hand. Honestly, if it’s raining outside and I’d planned a day of games for the kids, no matter what I say, they still might feel like dragging their feet or complaining about broken pencil tips even when I tell them I have fun things to do with prizes and open rules and – they don’t care if they don’t care. If they’re not in the mood for learning, then my point is to get them in that mood, get them to where I want their attitude to be before launching into anything else.

The other day, I had a student who reads Hebrew well but flat out refused to read, at all, shutting down and clamming up even though she’d just spent 10 minutes before class loudly chatting with friends. Guess what? My priorities changed, right then and there, to getting her and the others onto the same page before moving on. So, remembering that the kid LOVES mythology, I asked her to read the translation of the line of prayer I wanted her to read, then used it as a launching pad into talking about metaphor.

The line I wanted her to read, which four other kids had just read aloud before I got to her, talks about G-d’s house. I asked her what it could mean for a god to have a house. She demurred. Another kid jumped and said it could refer to a temple of worship, and I responded by confirming that it might specifically have meant the Temple in Jerusalem. What else, I said. Another mentioned that G-d’s house might be the world, since G-d built the world to suit His plan, then that’s like building your own personal home or space.

With all that said, I circled back to the kid in question and asked her not about the prayer itself, just to make sure she didn’t shut down again, but now that she was listening to her friends, I asked generically about a god having a house. She said, it could refer to Olympus. I responded, devil’s advocate, that Olympus was the mountain that the pantheon lived on. She argued back, no, Olympus was the name of Zeus’ palace. I asked if it was his or if all the gods shared, and she said it was his palace, but the gods all met there. I led her into a tangent arguing about gods versus Titans, who was who, who won, which god represented what, if Prometheus was a god or a mortal, what was a demigod like Perseus, and she loved it.

And she didn’t read a thing in Hebrew that day. What she did, though, was get engaged in conversation, not isolate herself, hear her colleagues involved both in that conversation and in the Hebrew reading so as to normalize it all in her eyes, then bound off to recess in the building auditorium, where she and her friends sat with notebooks and pencils and proceeded to write out the names and attributes of every single Greek divinity they could remember. I tried to contribute and was cut down each time, either for coming up with someone they’d already written down or coming up with a name that didn’t belong on the list.

What’s the point, indeed. That table, the writing of the names of mythological creatures, that was only mildly related to the context of the prayer that, frankly, I wasn’t interested in discussing but, rather, just wanted the kids to try reading the first 3-4 lines. Something that should’ve taken 10 minutes at most ended up taking 30 minutes of time, in which the kids got a solid context, from me and each other, of the meaning of the words. I used that talk to get into translation, which I then used to break down longer words on the board, which led to repeat discussion of Hebrew roots and morphology, etc. etc. etc.

We were supposed to practice the prayer. And we did. But we also discussed and learned why the prayer was there, what it meant, and what the kids might be thinking of while reciting or singing it. And we reinforced their reading skills along the way by doing more than just reading it over and over. If you read the same word, you’ll memorize the word, and good for you, until I show you the same word but with a prefix or suffix on it. If you’re a kid and you read until you memorize, or you sing or chant something into rote memory, you aren’t learning a thing about reading Hebrew, and you’re truly cheating yourself out of the opportunity.

But that’s what I did, then what they did, and what we did, and what happened for the first part of class. That’s not delving into the point of what we did, or I did that day. So what was the point, and how can it be universalized to fit an overall mantra on teaching the next generation of Jewish souls?

The point, the mantra, was that I wanted to spot the kid in that group who was having the toughest time and find a reasonable, relevant, but respectful way to get her back into our good graces. Yes, I stopped the reading activity. But then we together broadened the activity into something more meaningful before I ultimately did bring the activity back to having kids practice reading the Hebrew. Again, whatever happened, happened, but my intention was to do what I could to get that kid back on track with what the class was doing overall.

In fact, while the mantra might be “each kid is their own person and has a right to be included in the class,” the broader goal I have almost every time I enter the classroom is to have the children leave the classroom at the end of that day with a smile on their face about Hebrew school. Their lasting impression should be of a place of fun and philosophy, offering ideas but asking for their input, where everyone’s ideas are valid and experiences valued. They feel how wonderful it is to celebrate their Jewishness, creating and developing their own Judaisms ahead of their b’nai mitzvah.

And at the end of a really good day, I can’t get them to leave.

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