Let Me Count the Ways: 5 Ways To Create A Joyful Jewish Classroom

by Carol Oseran Starin

In the Talmud we learn that Torah is acquired by 48 means or qualities (Pirke Avot 6.6).

These qualities include: study, attentive listening, reasoning of the heart, awe, fear, humility, painstaking examination of a subject.

I’ve always loved this passage because it looks like a prescription for good teaching. How wise were the sages of the Talmud! One of those 48 ways to acquire torah is through simhah—joy. That’s the subject with which we’ll begin our “5 Things” columns for this new year of 5764.

How can we create a joyful Jewish learning experience in our classrooms? What’s involved? Here’s a list of ways:

1. Students feel safe, warm and comfortable—physically and emotionally.

The classroom climate is one where there is no hitting, bullying or name calling. Students feel safe expressing their opinions and ideas. It is a safe place to talk about feeling and fears, to struggle with ideas, and to learn how to discuss controversial issues without personal attacks.

The classroom is physically comfortable and attractive. Invite students to work with you to create bulletin boards and places to display their work. It should be THEIR classroom, not something done by you FOR them.

Make your Jewish classroom into a holy space—a makom kadosh. Fran Pearlman has a teacher who made a parokhet (the curtains on the ark) as the entrance to her classroom. Behaviors and attitudes changed when students began the day by walking through the parokhet.

2. The learning is meaningful.

Students know why they are learning what they are learning and the lessons are stimulating. You are continually making connections between the learning and their lives. Examples: “We must treat guests in our classroom with kindness because Rivka
“We learn from Esther that………..”
“We are like Haman when ……………”

Use Jewish rituals and minhagim (customs) to celebrate accomplishments.
• Celebrate “Shehehiyanu moments:” losing the first tooth or getting a driver’s license or new clothes
• Create a siyuum to celebrate the completion of a project, book of the Torah, or unit of study
• Learn and say appropriate blessings for new sibling, new home, safe return from a trip, recovery from an illness
• Use Rosh Hodesh as an authentic Jewish time not only to celebrate the new month, but to do some special classroom learning

Do some reading about “Understanding By Design.” Take a look at Joel’s article about Teachers Guides in TABB, Volume 10, Number 12 (you’ll find it on the Torah Aura website). Be sure that both you and your students always the know the ‘big idea.’ http://www.ascd.org/readingroom/books/wiggins98toc.html

3. Students have friends.

This is particularly important in supplementary schools. Our students come from many neighborhoods. Many of our students don’t know each other. Hebrew school is sometimes a very lonely place for kids. It’s hard to be joyous when you are lonely. Every time you plan something, ask yourself – how can I help students get to know each other?

Here is a list of suggestions for creating situations in which kids must learn and talk together:
• Design lunch, recess and transition activities that “force” kids to talk to each other
• Design your classroom in ways that encourage group work, cooperative learning groups, study in hevruta
• Create a mitzvah project everyone works on together
• Institute a buddy system in which kids must call each other to find out about homework and to collaborate on a project
• If appropriate, extend the learning to e-mail discussions
• Create a class directory (include birthdays) so kids can contact each other
• Structure learning that promotes interaction, encourages cooperative work, and empowers students to learn from and with each other
• Peer teaching
• “Whisper to your neighbor’
• “Ask 3 before me”
• cooking together

4. Students are living the Jewish values they learn.

Teachers and students live Jewish values, connect the values with their Jewish terms and demonstrate those values in their behavior, their work and their actions. Every student and every teacher knows Jewish ways to talk and act. Classrooms don’t waste paper, water, electricity, food. Students and teachers reuse and recycle. Students never hear (or overhear) teachers being unkind to one another. Students are not embarrassed.

5. Students know they are in a special place.

Make your classroom a special place to be. Create a project, unit, or theme that is unique to your classroom. Students will know that when they “get to Mrs. Goldberg’s class” they will plant the pea patch. Or when they get into kitah gimmel they will be responsible for planning the edot fair.

Coordinate these special projects as a faculty so there will be no repetitions. Students won’t be able to say, “Oh we did that last year.”

A joyous classroom in not about having fun. It’s about the joy of learning and joyful experiences that are possible because of classroom climate and careful, thoughtful teacher planning.