Let Me Count the Ways: Finale

Since the fall of 1996 we have had the privilege of including Carol Oseran Starin’s column Let Me Count the Ways as part of the Torah Aura Bulletin Board. The Let Me Count the Ways column has offered teachers and educations a vast array of ideas for everything from teaching Torah to dealing with parents; from building a professional library to planning for the school year. Twelve years of Carol’s columns have spawned two Let Me Count the Ways — Practical Innovations for Jewish Teachers volumes, four years of Jewish Classroom Planners, many years of CAJE sessions and thousands of ideas. We could not be more proud of the work that Carol and her crew have done.

This is Carol’s last column for the Torah Aura Bulletin Board. She thinks she is out of ideas, but we think we will hear from her in the future. To Carol we offer a heartfelt Todah Rabbah. We are very proud of you and all you have given us.

– Jane, Joel, Alan, and Josh

by Carol Oseran Starin

Let Me Count the Ways was a small idea that began as a casual conversation — and grew into a 10 year commitment. I’ve always been the kind of teacher that looks at a paper towel tubes and asks and wonders how to turn them into hannukiyot. So the idea of sharing teaching ideas with colleagues throughout the country was very appealing.

The 5 Things column quickly attracted a network of contributors – teachers, colleagues, friends – that morphed into “the 5 things advisory group.” The mega lesson I have learned is that we don’t have to be the holders of all knowledge – the answers lie with our colleagues. We need only ask. I learned that I didn’t need to be responsible for knowing all the answers to the questions I posed each week. My colleagues contributed topics, ideas, solutions, advice, resources, and humor. I think that’s my “5 things take-away.” We teachers walk into our classrooms, close the door the behind us and think we need to have all the answers. I’ve learned to leave the door open, walk across the hall, ask a colleague for a suggestion. The answers are close by. You might even use the 5 things model at teacher meetings: Given a problem, issue, or challenge, what are 5 ways to tackle it?

For this last column I’ve chosen, from the 200 columns, 5 of my favorite solutions – a story, a strategy, a resource, a project, and an insight.

1. Paul Epstein contributed the ‘granddaddy’ of index card activities.

Each day as students come into the room, the teacher stands at the door to greet them. Teacher hands each student an index card – a 4×6 for this use. Students write their name and the date on the card, then head for the “question of the day.” Students write their response to the “question of the day” and keep their card for the rest of the period. During class students use the card to: take notes, write key points, list what’s not clear; write any questions they have. At the end of the period, students use the back of the card to fill in a sentence completion (e.g. My main concern about what’s going on in Israel is ________________.) or to complete an “I learned ________ statement.” (e.g. I learned that Jerusalem _________________.) These kinds of statements go beyond the mere writing down of facts – to demonstrate learning not learning about. This activity offers students an opportunity to express their opinions, create a new image, demonstrate a new skill. Students can also give feedback about the lesson.

Now, here’s what Paul does with the cards. He collects them at the end of the session. He never has to take attendance because he has dated the cards. His attendance record is accurate. The cards can serve as a set induction or as a transition activity. The cards can become the basis for the narrative on the report card. By saving the cards, what you have is a mini-portfolio. You can actually quote what students have written. This system is also great for substitutes to use. The retuning teacher gets to see what the kids did last week. The cards can be color-coded by day, class or hour. For example, first hour classes get yellow cards. Second hour classes get green cards.

2. We never really know what our students are learning. We never know what they notice, what touches them. Dan Bender sent this story about one of his students.

Most synagogue sanctuaries have a wall or tree covered with memorial plaques. Most people pay no attention to them. But, you never know. Dan’s school held its weekly religious school assembly in the Temple sanctuary. One Sunday he was trying to get the kids to sit in the front row when he noticed a third grade girl sitting near the last row. He told her to move up front with the rest of her class, but she said she wanted to stay where she was. When asked “why,” she pointed to the plaque on the wall near the forty-ninth row and said, “This is where my grandma is.”

3. The power of a dollar. The power of creativity and entrepreneurship. When we climb Maimonides’ ladder, we end up in a place much higher.

Dorothy Glass created a multi-faceted tzedakah project for Hanukkah. But it can be used at anytime. She gave each of her 2nd grade student two things: 1) a personal card saying that one dollar had been donated in each child’s name to the Jewish Federation’s campership fund; and 2) she attached an actual dollar bill to a “tzedakah certificate” which said: “This dollar is yours to give for tzedakah in any way you choose.” She also included a few reminders about Jewish ways of giving.

Her students came up with some incredible ways to use — and grow — that dollar. One student bought wax with his dollar. With the wax he made candles. He sold the candles for $5 each. He grossed enough to buy a wheel-chair that he sent to his handicapped friend who lives in an orphanage in China.

4. Idie Benjamin taught us a lot about ways to help small children understand big ideas.

For learning about some big Rosh Hashanah ideas, Idie shared a strategy for getting inside the idea of “new.” She brought to class a pile of ratty old clothes mixed with new ones. Students were invited to go through the pile comparing the garments. The discussion then turned to what’s new in students’ lives, (shoes, clothes, classroom, teacher, friends, sibling, etc.) Then the conversation turns to Rosh Hashanah – a new hallah shape, a new sound (shofar) and new behavior to replace old, worn-out behavior.

Idie answered the call for Pesach ideas by writing that “it’s hard for young children to understand matzah without first understanding bread.” In her classroom she wrote recipes for both bread and matzah on large chart paper. First the class made hallah from scratch (a several hour project). On another day students made matzah. With those two experiences under their belts, students could then compare the making of bread to the making of matzah – the number of ingredients, the number of steps involved, and the time it takes to make each.

5. Blank Books ! I love them!

While I haven’t been a classroom teacher for years, I’ve bought a couple hundred blank books for teaching projects. They are hardbound and professional looking books. They come in different sizes and are affordable for classroom use. A blank book can become a journal or diary. A blank book can become a hagaddah, book of Jewish memories, a Hebrew dictionary. Last year I created a father-son genealogy project for which each father-son pair received a blank book. On the cover was a blank family tree form for them to complete together. And on each page of the book was a sharing activity to do or talk.

A final note.
Yesterday I was shopping at Pottery Barn where I found a large container of paint color samples – 30 rectangles, each a different color, 2 ½” by 3 ½” and fastened by a brad. I shoved one in my purse, thinking now what are 5 things kids could do with these neat paint chips?