Homework “in” Hebrew School?

Debi Mishael

Debi MishaelYou might be surprised to learn that homework is done in my Religious School classroom. Before you dismiss the thought that it could work in your class, let me explain why it happens in mine.

I teach a Wednesday night, 8th grade class for my local congregation. My students are typical teens with too many demands on their time. Several years back, I noticed that some of my best students were absent more than I liked. I would frequently hear, “I’m sorry. I had too much homework to do. I couldn’t come to class.” I work hard to design lessons that are engaging, interactive and meaningful for my teens but they are useless (the lessons, not the teens) unless I have them IN my classroom. In a competition between Religious School and AP Chemistry, I’m afraid, Rashi and I take second place.

Not willing to concede defeat, I instituted a new agreement with my students. Instead of staying home to complete their public/private school work, they should bring it to our Religious School classroom. I would set up a table in the back of the room and let them work on it. My rationale was simple. A long as they are IN my classroom, I have a chance to catch their attention. The added bonus is the implicit messages I am sending to them that a) I understand they are overwhelmed with responsibilities and b) their mere presence is important to me. I miss them when they are not present.

Karen was one of my students who often missed class. She was enrolled in all advanced placement classes. Each morning she arrived at school an hour early for track practice and stayed after for drama rehearsal. One night she arrived to our class with books in hand but asked if she could sit in the circle of desks with the rest of the class instead of the designated homework table. As the rest of the class engaged in a provocative discussion from a Torah Aura Instant Lesson, comparing Biblical, Talmudic and modern references to suicide and euthanasia[1], Karen had her nose in her calculus homework. Then, to my surprise, she looked up and asked, “How is Samson from Tanack any better than a Palestinian suicide bomber today?” In that moment I knew I had success. Karen’s nose may have been in calculus but enough of her attention was with us to stir a very interesting class conversation. That discussion would never have happened if Karen had been doing her homework at home.

I respect the realities of my students’ lives and in turn, they respect that I have a genuine desire to help them see how Judaic studies are also relevant in their lives. On that note, I should tell you that I do assign homework to my students on occasion. However, I only assign homework that is relevant and my homework is optional.

Students from Joshua’s work group enjoy taking partial credit for his homework efforts.

Students from Joshua’s work group enjoy taking partial credit for his homework efforts.

My Dad is self-described pessimist who is always happy. He expects the worst and then is always surprised and happy when good things happen. That’s the way I look at the homework I assign. I don’t really expect any of the students to complete it. Then, when some students do, I’m thrilled. I can’t force them to engage but I can provide interesting opportunities for those who have an interest to learn and do more outside the confines of the class. Homework in the Fall might be to sleep one night in a sukkah. Most of our kids get a chance to לישב בסוכה ‘Lay-shave BaSukkah’ sit in a sukkah, but few experience camping in the backyard. Those that choose to try it have wonderful memories and a new understanding of living a life tied to the elements of weather.

One year our class did a short unit on Rosh Hodesh but we noticed that unlike most Jewish celebrations, there were no foods associated with it. The homework assignment was to choose a food to connect with Rosh Hodesh. Joshua came to class the next week with a filled cookie dessert and a list of 12 fillings and how each is connected to a different month. (see his list at the end of this blog)

I have used my “Homework Policy” for many years now and it generally makes everyone very happy. There was one notable exception. One Shabbat morning I ran into Nora’s Mom. She came over and told me how mad at me Nora was when she came home from Religious School this last week. “Really,” I said, “I didn’t know there was a problem?” She proceeded to tell me, with a smile on her face, that Nora brought her homework to class but accomplished nothing. It turns out that my lesson was too interesting and she spent all her time participating with her classmates! “Oh, I’m sooo sorry,” I said with a grin and chuckle.mishael 1-16-14 pastry fillings

[1] Torah Aura Body Ethics: Suicide IL by Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky & Joel Lurie Grishaver.