Teachers cannot create and sustain the conditions for the productive development of children if those conditions do not exist for teachers,” wrote Seymour B. Sarason, Yale professor and psychologist. Sarason points out a truth that is self-evident to most teachers and, upon reflection, applicable to all of us: We cannot teach something in which we are not actively engaged. If we wish to develop our students with a curiosity, inquiry and proclivity towards the critical thinking that propels learning, then we must provide teachers with the opportunity to be curious, inquire and think critically.
This past spring we brought together a group of determined, topnotch, professional Jewish Studies teachers and educators to a two-day conference, Learning to Read in Jewish Education, held at Brandies University to discuss how educators can empower and equip students with the tools necessary to become independent learners of Tanach. We introduced the group to a framework from literacy education that broke independent reading into five necessary components: fluency, vocabulary, background knowledge, reading strategies and engagement in text discussion.
Given the focus of the conference and the limited time we had, we designed every session to focus exclusively on introducing, reviewing or applying the framework for building independent readers. In one such session we showed the group clips of classroom teaching. Each clip captured instruction focused on at least one of the five components from the framework. Each clip was intended to highlight a seized or missed opportunity to apply teaching strategies we had outlined.
This is what we had planned. But what unfolded before our eyes was richer than we imagined. We began the session by showing a teaching clip in which a teacher was teaching Shemot 1:7 (“The children of Israel were fruitful and swarmed and increased and became very very strong, and the land became filled with them”). She paused to ask the students what the word “fruitful” means. We had hoped to point out that the teacher used an I-R-E (Initiation-Response-Evaluation) sequence, simply telling a succession of students their responses were wrong, when it probably would have been more productive to guide students to using context clues to figure out what “fruitful” meant in this context. The teachers in the group got to that point within the first five minutes of discussion. But they weren’t finished. There was more to think about than simply a strategy for teaching vocabulary. The teachers felt there was a deeper meaning in the text, specifically in the word “fruitful.”
One participant offered this: “Yes, but once the students are able to see from context that ‘fruitful’ is a synonym for increase or multiply, there’s the question of why ‘fruitful.’ And I think the teacher intuited this when she paused on the word.”
“Right,” another jumped in “The teacher says, ‘whoa, whoa, whoa, what’s going on here.’ She wants this word to be an occasion for the students to realize that however fast the text goes, it’s inviting the reader to pause and think about what it’s describing. How people ‘increase’ and what hard work it is to ‘increase’ so rapidly.”
Another added, “Fruitful is an illustrative word. It is not simply a synonym. It adds a positive value judgment on this development.”
“Indeed,” a fourth added, “It’s poetic. An opportunity for the students to understand that the Torah does not always write in prose.”
And so the discussion continued as we sat back and learned from the group. We share this because what the educators did in this discussion is quite profound. They were pushing each other intellectually. They were reflecting on all three elements of the instructional triangle — the teacher, the student, the text. They engaged in a rich interactive discussion about teaching, rooted in a teaching moment, and uncovered together the potential that lies in the presumably rudimentary act of teaching vocabulary. Together, diving deep into an unplanned instructional moment, they emerged with profound insights into the purpose of vocabulary instruction in the Tanakh classroom. A single word can colorfully fill in a picture drawn with few words; it can give insight into the genre of the particular biblical text; it can hint at the subtle hand of the divine in the plot. All of this emerged from a clip that we had allotted five minutes for discussion. But the educators went deeper.
Giving teachers the opportunity to be curious, inquire and think critically about teaching is vital. And they need not only think about the big questions, like outcomes and Jewish identities. Discussing even the smallest units of analyses in teaching, two-minute clips from class instruction, can uncover treasure troves of insights. Giving teachers time to do this sort of reflection is intrinsically valuable, in that it can remind teachers that their craft is infinitely complicated and worthy of study. But it also has instrumental value, as Sarason reminds us. Creating and sustaining the conditions for the productive development of teachers is a pathway to helping teachers create and sustain the conditions for productive development of their students.
Dr. Ziva R. Hassenfeld, an alum of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship (Class 25), is currently a post-doctoral fellow at the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center. She is a former Tanakh teacher at Gann Academy, where she developed a curriculum that trains students to use multiple approaches to interpreting the Bible and to consider multiple narratives within the text. She earned her doctorate from Stanford University in the Graduate School of Education.