Writer: Johannah Sohn
It is hardly news that teaching Hebrew in complementary schools is challenging. Traditional religious school models with five to seven hours of frontal instruction a week struggle with the endeavor. The difficulty is only amplified for schools that have attempted to integrate experiential education into their philosophies and deviate from traditional teaching methods. With a national push toward making religious schools more fun, innovative, relevant and dynamic, schools are incorporating experiential methods of instruction that may remind you of that excellent summer you spent at camp.
How then, can we move forward with traditional instructional goals as they pertain to Hebrew in experiential settings? What steps need to be taken to give Hebrew language acquisition velocity and attention?
The Hebrew language goals of complementary school programs vary greatly. Some schools include conversational Hebrew, giving the students a taste of what the spoken language sounds like and feels like as a living language. Others work on writing or understanding Hebrew for fluency in prayer. Many students graduate from religious school with the ability to read Hebrew but with little to no understanding of what they are reading. Many parents have told me that they have no connection to t’fillah, despite completing religious school and enjoying their b’nai mitzvah experience. Nobody ever taught them what they were saying, only that they needed to be able to say it. The majority of schools are concerned with ensuring reading fluency, because- let’s face it- our students need to be able to read in order to prepare for b’nai mitzvah.
At the Jewish Learning Community of Adat Ari El, we have experimented with a number of curricula available to complementary education programs, none of which harmonize well with our program given their intense focus on b’nai mitzvah preparation. Asking the students to listen to a teacher lecture for twenty minutes and then sit down with a textbook and pencil is an approach that works for many programs, but not ours. Reading drills and repetition are appropriate methods for traditional religious schools but do not align with the philosophy behind our program. The over emphasis on preparation for b’nai mitzvah, in my view, is the Jewish version of “teaching to the test,” and perhaps the least effective way of inspiring a life-long love of learning. However, inspiring a life-long love of learning is precisely the goal of my complementary school program. We aim to provide students with opportunities to experience Judaism, to grapple with and extract their own meanings from our history and Texts, and to create a space for our students and families conducive to living inspired, committed Jewish lives.
What pieces of this challenging Hebrew conundrum are needed in order to give the endeavor the attention and velocity it deserves? We have been searching over the past several years and can say we have some pieces in order and still others need more work. In our Jewish Learning Community, the Hebrew language is a serious part of our curriculum. We view our educational mission as an opportunity to “create culture” rather than “transmit knowledge,” with several pieces making up the puzzle:
We spend more time praying than teaching about prayer and we familiarize our students with the siddur rather than textbooks.
We begin each session with t’fillah led by our rabbi and cantor. After reviewing our curriculum, the three of us (rabbi, cantor and myself) sat down together to develop a list of t’fillot that our students should know by the end of their time with us. Every week our students enter the sanctuary and prepare for their day of learning with a twenty minute prayer experience. We do understand that this is not a new idea and certainly not one unique to our model. We looked at the camp experience and thought about the incredible benefits of student’s immersion in Jewish life and attempted to emulate that. When our teachers introduce t’fillot in the classroom, they hand out siddurim and encourage the students to read the English and begin a conversation of what the essence of the t’fillah might be. We intentionally use siddurim and not textbooks that distill the information down to the “appropriate level” for the students. This gives the student an actual source to embrace (or not), create their own meaning and become familiar with the structure of the authentic text.
We present our students and families with authentic experiences, such as shabbatonim, when the need for Hebrew is critical and provide a safe space to learn and experiment.
Beginning in fourth grade, we take our students on two shabbatonim during the year, once in the fall and once in the spring, and spend the weekend together davening, eating, learning, and celebrating Shabbat. These weekends reinforce the t’fillot our students have heard on a weekly basis, and provide opportunities for genuine participation and leadership. Just as summer camp immerses students in the language, culture, and traditions of Judaism for multiple weeks at a time, our retreats afford our students a similar (albeit briefer) experience. Along the same lines, the winter family retreat for the entire community is an integral part of our program. This retreat reminds parents (or introduces the idea) that the Hebrew language can help create a communal prayer space and to connect them to their children’s Hebrew learning experiences.
We subscribe to a theory of language acquisition called Total Physical Response and implement Hebrew Through Movement.
Hebrew Through Movement is one piece of our Hebrew language puzzle that perfectly fits our program and philosophy. With the theory of language acquisition called Total Physical Response at its core, Hebrew Through Movement focuses on the coordination of language comprehension and induction with physical movement. For example, instead of telling the children that the word likpotz means “to jump,” our teachers model the action for the children and they figure out what the word means. We have two Hebrew specialists who visit each classroom every week for a twenty minute, high energy, exclusively Hebrew lesson. The students are active, engaged, having a fantastic time, and learn a tremendous amount.
While the Hebrew Through Movement curriculum does include conversational Hebrew, the creators have expertly woven holiday terminology, brachot, t’fillot and high interest modern Hebrew together to create incredible learning experiences. Just as many camp settings integrate Hebrew language into their announcements, everyday vocabularies and culture, we too have adopted these tools. Once words are introduced in Hebrew Through Movement, teachers, administrators and students exchange the English word with the Hebrew vocabulary. Our students love this part of the day. More importantly, this allows them to connect personally (and physically) to the Hebrew language.
We reinforce Hebrew decoding using relevant, exciting technology.
The final piece of our experimental Hebrew puzzle is the use of web-based reading tutoring in our fourth, fifth and sixth grade classes. We acknowledge the importance of Hebrew reading fluency not only in conjunction with language comprehension, but also with the feeling of connection to the language. Our time in the classroom is limited and our students are committed to a number of other activities. This year we are using WebEx, an online meeting platform, to match small groups of students with a tutor to practice Hebrew reading. We focus all of our reading fluency on t’fillot and use scanned pages from the siddur as the text in the sessions. (I would prefer to use the actual siddur; we are limited by the virtual nature of the session.) Our students participate in reading drills, as they would in a classroom, and are mesmerized by the technology.
For me, this endeavor presents a philosophical struggle; on the one hand it is clear that this element of our program reinforces and supports reading skills introduced in the experiences of the other pieces of our Hebrew puzzle. On the other hand, reading drills are on my personal list of “reasons why religious school was a terrible experience to which I would never want to subject my own child”. Hence, I was shocked when we received such positive feedback about the reading drills! Initially our concern had been to ensure that our students had a level of reading fluency that connected them to the actual prayer experiences we offered in person, using a method of instruction that felt interesting and significant. However, as it turns out, they enjoy the computer time so much that that they happily complete thirty minutes of reading drills and to my great delight, have even requested more.
I believe that we are heading in the right direction to ensure the Hebrew language component of our program is given the attention it deserves, while continuing to attempt to provide a setting conducive to meaningful learning experiences. There is a significant amount of work to be done to continue refining our process but we know one thing; our students are happy to likpotz into our educational program each week, and that is half the battle.
Johannah Sohn is the Director of the Jewish Learning Community at Adat Ari El in Valley Village, California. She holds a Masters in Education from the American Jewish University and is pursuing a doctorate at Northeastern University and Hebrew College in education with a focus on the use of gaming in complementary school programs.
Chazan, B. (2003), ‘The philosophy of informal Jewish education’ the encyclopedia of informal education, www.infed.org/informaleducation/informal_jewish_education.htm.
 “Hebrew Through Movement” was developed by r. Lifsa Schachter, Professor Emeritus, Siegal College with the support of Nili Adler, Marcia Anouchi and Gloria Grischkan, and the Hebrew teaching staff of The Temple – Tifereth Israel & Temple Emanu El, Cleveland, OH. It is based on Dr. James J Asher’s Total Physical Response (TPR), as well as the work of Bina Guerrieri who was one of the pioneers in applying TPR to the teaching of Hebrew.