Ten Ways Textbooks Enable Programmatic Experiences

Last week, we discussed why we believe in textbooks, and articulated why we think they’re important. In that article, we kept mentioning that textbooks aren’t boring if they’re used properly. Of course, that sort of talk flies in the face of the assumption that the only way to use a textbook is to read it out loud — paragraph by paragraph and line by line, or to instruct students to sit and read by themselves. It’s an incorrect assumption.

Textbooks can enable exciting, interactive, programmatic learning experiences. They should not be equated with static, frontal — boring! — learning. Learning with textbooks can be more exciting than learning without them. Textbooks can increase the amount of active learning that takes place in classrooms. They can be the sources for debates, drama, creative experiences, research and a lot of other idea learning moments.

So what do we mean when we talk about using textbooks “properly”? Here are ten exciting, interesting, and fun ways to use textbooks in the classroom:

1. Text Study

  1. Take a textbook and turn to a page with a text on it. (A Torah Aura Productions assumption is that textbooks should be books of texts).
  2. Working in Hevruta (pairs, small groups, or as the whole class) have students go through the four steps of text study: recitation, translation, explanation, and discussion. (This technique is articulated by Samuel Heilman in his book The People of the Book.) Good textbooks have guide questions to facilitate this process.

    Recitation means reading out loud. Translation happens even with an English text. It is a restating of the text in one’s own words. Explanation is an isolation of the problems in the text or caused by the text. Discussion is a process of personal association and problem solving. It is also choosing among solutions to make personal meaning out of the text.

  3. Go over the text as a class. Share insights and deepen understandings.

Text study is the original Jewish programmatic experience. The process of meaning making is inherently personal, interactive, and intellectually active. It has nothing to do with absorbing information. Done well, it in no way resembles anything frontal. Rather it is active interaction of the class with the word-set being presented.

In Being Torah, students are asked to read Genesis 12, the story of Abram leaving home and coming to Eretz Yisrael. Using color coded words (with different groups of the class reading different colors) the class performs the text (like a drama). They discover that the word “land,” is used seven times, “Abram’s” name is used seven times and that there are seven verb-clauses in the blessing given by God. Having made this discovery (and having already learned that the repetition of words a fixed number of times is not a coincidence) students are left with the question, “What is the Torah trying to teach by connecting Abram, the Land, and blessing?” The gates of solution are now open. We have read the text. We have found the problem. The solution is now in the students hands. In the process of solving the Abram-problem, students also get to work on their own relationship to the land of Israel.

We may involve a book. We may use reading out loud as a way of revealing clues. But, the resulting process is active and interactive and empowers students as the decisors of meaning.

2. Resource for a Project

  1. Break the class into small groups (or plan to have students work alone).
  2. Assign a project to the class. Give them only the broad outline.
  3. Have the class turn to a given page in the textbook and have them read the material that will be the background for the project.
  4. Give the students time to work on the project.
  5. Share the creations. Discuss if appropriate.

Project-centered learning can be an important part of the instructional vocabulary of a classroom. It involves students taking content and utilizing it to produce a creative endeavor. This is an educational strategy that can be applied to textbooks or written into textbooks or their teacher’s guides.

Here’s an example. We have a new Israel book called Yisrael Sheli. It is designed for third grade. One of the chapters deals with a visit to Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust memorial. Students are told that they are going to make a holocaust sculpture. They are asked to read the chapter that has background on the holocaust, background on Yad Vashem, and a number of pictures of sculptures that are presently at Yad Vashem. Students are then give a long piece of soft wire (and perhaps other materials) and are given time to create their sculpture. The class then shares and explains their renditions. The project would make little sense and teach little without the textbook material. The textbook material literally becomes three-dimensional because of the project.

Project center learning should be a major part of a teacher’s repertoire. Through application and translation (the processes that are part of the project process) students personalize and internalize the learning. Projects turn textbooks into programs and projects have substance because of textbooks.

3. Poster Sessions

  1. Divide the class into working groups.
  2. Assign each a parallel section of the textbook.
  3. Give each group a colored graphic image download from the internet, a poster board, and a few markers. Some paper and pencils may be useful.
  4. Have each group prepare to teach their section of the textbook to the class. Have them create a “poster” that they will use as the visual for their presentations.
  5. Have groups present their section of material to the whole class.

Poster sessions that involve research and presentation are a good way to master material. It provides a way of inviting students to bring the lesson alive themselves. While their mastery will be greater to only one section of the material, the reality is that the remainder of the class will probably get more from the oral presentation than from their own quick read of the material.

It works like this: In Artzeinu, our fifth-sixth Israel book, there is a chapter on the Old City of Jerusalem. The chapter is divided into quarters of the city. The teacher’s guide directs teachers to divide their class into three groups: one for the Muslim Quarter, one for the Jewish Quarter, and one that will cover both the Armenian and Christian Quarters. Each group is given a piece of poster board (two for the Armenian/Christian group), a couple of downloaded color images, a glue stick, and some markers. They are then asked to prepare to teach the class about their quarter and to use their poster as a teaching tool. Students are given time to work. Then the lessons about the quarters is shared.

4. Simulations/Trials/Debates

  1. The teacher notes that the textbook presents two or more sides of an issue.
  2. The class is divided into groups, each of which is assigned a specific opinion.
  3. The group uses the section(s) in the textbook to prepare for their side of the program.
  4. Using the metaphor of the program (model congress, trial, debate, election, etc.) Students present their positions.
  5. The event is debriefed including letting students present their own positions on the issue.

A textbook can be designed or utilized to create really dramatic learning events. They can help students to flesh out their thinking about an issue; experience in a powerful way, a moment in history; and master the details of either. These modalities, simulations, trials games and debates create memorable learning experiences. This is a different model of the master and application of learned material.

The Torah Aura series You Be the Judge: A Collection of Ethical Issues and Jewish Answers is designed to be utilized as a trial. The teacher divides the class into juries. The text presents a legal case that encapsulates a value conflict. Working in juries (small groups) the case is discussed and the value choices are considered. The jury votes and creates a majority and minority spokesperson. The teacher then facilitates a discussion where the majority and minority opinions are presented and confronted by the ethical ramifications of each choice. Finally, the class reopens the textbook and studies the summary of Jewish sources that presents the Jewish value conflict and the probable Jewish decision.

Likewise, The Circle of Jewish Life, our fifth-sixth grade lifecycle text, is organized in such a way that each chapter culminates in the simulation of a life cycle event. The class visits a mock shiva and/or a funeral and stages a wedding.

These kinds of really active learning experiences can be among the memorable learning experiences. They remove any hint of frontal learning and create the interactive learning experience where the mastery and presentation of material is in the hands of the students. This is both a good design to build into textbooks and teacher’s guides, and a great model to retrofit on existing passages in textbooks.

5. Scripts

  1. The teacher finds a text that breaks easily into voices with a minimal amount of narrator. Biblical texts are good for this. Rabbinic texts are often good for this. And, some stories work well, too.
  2. Parts are assigned and often casting can be like a Greek play where a chorus reads certain parts.
  3. The class performs the text/story/etc.
  4. The “cast” discuss the motivation of each character, the matching tone of the performance, and the choices made as an interpreter.

There are more ways to read out loud than down the row, paragraph by paragraph. Sometimes turning an oral reading into a performance can change the way the text comes across. With biblical texts, because there are few stage directions, the same text can be read sarcastically or lovingly, and the meaning changes. With rabbinic texts a complicated dialogue can come off the page and the arguments are clarified. With stories, their drama can be enhanced.

Torah Aura’s use of drama (and scripted texts) grew out of two places. First, Dr. Stephen Passamaneck used to teach Talmud with a technique he called “The Pumbedita Players.” Pumbedita was a city in Babylonia with an important Talmudic academy. He would assign parts and have students work out on their own the parts of the texts they were supposed to read. From this, two thing were learned. First, that the Talmudic text is very much a drama. Second, that having a specific person orally present a specific voice in the text made the argument much easier to follow. This is why in such series as Talmud with Training Wheels, we present the Talmudic text as a script. (Unlike Dr. Passamaneck, we sort out the parts and give access to the dialogue.)

Our second source for using scripted text is Dr. Robert Alter, who wrote a book called The Art of Biblical Narrative. In it he makes it clear that when the Bible tells a story there are basically only two things: (a) dialogue, and (b) the description of action. There is virtually nothing else — almost no description. Feelings are usually expressed as observable actions, like, “His face fell,” “His nose burned.” This makes the Bible directly into a radio play.

In a number of our works, particularly Make a Midrash Out of Me, we present the biblical text as a script. We make it ready to perform. New oral midrashic traditions such as Bibliodrama and Storahtelling make use of the same stylistic elements in the text.

Reading out loud, the very act that distances some people from the use of text books, can sometimes be the very key to their programmatic strength. What starts out as words on a page becomes drama and becomes a text open to interpretation.

6. Case Study / Problem Solving

  1. The class is presented with a case.
  2. Working in some grouping they struggle for a solution. They may even act out the case to determine possible solutions and their outcomes.
  3. The solutions are collated.
  4. Jewish texts are brought in as suggested solutions.

Our first know use of this process in Jewish education was in a book called At Camp Kee Tov: Ethics for Jewish Juniors by Helen Fine. This was a chapter book that took place at a summer camp. In each chapter there was an ethical dilemma. While this is similar to our use of “courtroom simulations,” here the range of solutions are not yes/no verdicts. The teacher would stop and work with the situation. Then, the class would read (yes, read—it was a different era) the next part of the chapter where the old camp gardener, who knew more than any rabbi, would solve the case with a story from the Talmud or the Midrash. This then lead to the unpacking of that story.

At Torah Aura, we’ve used the case study method has been used to train teachers and madrikhim (high school teaching assistances). It’s also an important method for teaching the application of Jewish ethics. A good example is Randy’s Naval Piercing (an instant lesson).

Randy wants to have her navel pierced. For the sake of the case, her mother is fine with it, but the Jewish summer camp where she wants to work refuses to let her be a staff member with a piercing. This real case (Is the camp right or wrong?) leads to the reviewing of about sixty pieces of text and the forming of the students own responsum (Jewish answer).

Case study is not only a popular technique in a lot of university courses, but is an old Jewish form that goes back to the Talmud. “What if…” begins lots of good Jewish questions.

7. Four Corners (or sometimes three).

This is a variation on the case study method.

  1. Students are given a case (in the textbook).
  2. The text proposes three or four different solutions to the problem.
  3. The teacher places a “poster” of each solution in a corner.
  4. Students read the text and then move into the corner they believe holds the best solution.
  5. Students in each corner form a group and discuss why their solution is best.
  6. The class as a whole discuss, debates, etc. the question.

The idea here is that learning takes place on three levels. (1) Students start with a passage that presents them with an informed view of the solution and some insights into various solutions. (2) They then make a choice, commit to one set of values. Discussion deepens this commitment and insight. (3) Debate then texts it with challenges—further deepening the understanding.

The book I Have Some Questions about God is designed for this exact process (or this process with variations). The book is built around twelve God questions. Each question is answered by three or four stories, each presented by a different rabbi. Students discuss the questions, choose their answers, and then discuss both the similarities and differences.

8. Outline for a Series of Visits or Visitors

  1. The class works through a chapter and discusses its major points. (This working through can be experiental).
  2. A visitor comes into class and present their actual story that parallels the chapter’s content.
  3. The class works through another chapter.
  4. The class “goes on a field trip” to a setting that actualizes the material presented in the chapter.
  5. The process is repeated with variations that are appropriate for each chapter.

We didn’t invent this formula. We learned about from Eileen Hamilton, director of education at Touro Synagogue in New Orleans. She took our book Apples and Oranges: Judaism and the World’s Religions, her group of difficult eighth graders, and matched them with a combination of visits to various religious institutions and guests speakers. It worked wonderfully for her and her school. Ilene found that the chapters in a textbook prepared her students with adequate background to appreciate the experiences. And she found that the visits and visitors deepened, actualized, and personalized the material in the textbook.

Textbooks are not an all-or-nothing proposition. The textbook is a classroom resource that can be used in the order and the amount appropriate to the school’s and the teacher’s vision. It can be matched and balanced with all kinds of experiences — offering the best possible learning experience for students.

9. Open Space Talmud Page

  1. Students open their textbook to a given text.
  2. Working in pairs, small groups, alone, or as a whole class, students read the text, answer guide questions, and write notes in the margins around the text.
  3. The teacher posters a huge version of the text (with a lot of white space around it) on the wall.
  4. Students are given a marker and invited to write their best insight somewhere around the text. They are to sign their comment.
  5. Students are then invited to make a comment on someone else’s comment. This can also be done by having students add a post it note to the large document.

This is the combination of, or rather the parallel between learning modalities, one ancient and one modern. The ancient one is the Talmud. On the Talmud page the text is in the middle and the commentators surround it. Most of the commentators respond to the take (or what is missing from the take) of earlier commentators. The newer one is called “Open Space Technology,” and its a method for large groups to organize thoughtful discussions and self-direct the agenda of the gathering.

The “Open Space Talmud Page,” a hybrid of these two methods, works like this: Start in a room, and on the walls put up big pieces of butcher paper (you can also use a large tag board, a chalkboard, or a SMARTBoard). Usually there are texts on the big pieces of paper (you can also use topics or thought provoking questions). People write comments on the texts as they roam around the room. Then as they continue they comment either on the original text or on other people’s comments. The room becomes a map of the group’s thinking.

Here is a working example. The Circle of Jewish Life teaches the structure of the sheva brakhot (wedding blessings) by presenting them as two progressions of three ideas. It also gives students a chance to personalize their meaning. Think of that text resource working that way. (1) Students work through those texts in hevruta, writing notes in the margins. (2) Student go to the wall sized version of the text and leave their notes in its margins. (3) Students then take Post-It™ notes and add their comments to the handwritten comments that had already been written. (4) Students are given time to read the whole creation and add any additional notes they want to — including comments on the comments on the original comments. (5) The class reviews the entire process, outlining the content and sharing major opinions.

The basic insight here is that the process could happen if you skipped the textbook. Without the time “making meaning” out of the sheva brakhot using the tools that are the textbook, the commentary process would be empty, because there would be no substance with which to create. The textbook makes the Open Space/Talmud experience possible.

10. Recipes, Craft Projects, and other Creative Projects

  1. Learn something concrete or conceptual from a textbook.
  2. Do an art project — any kind of creative endeavor.

You can study havdalah and make a spicebox. But that’s not the same experience of studying spiceboxes, learning their history, examining their style and symbolism, and then making a spicebox. One is an art project, the other a Jewish learning experience. Both are projects!

Torah Aura has a series called Whole School. It is designed to allow you to teach the same subject (like a holiday) every year and always teach something different. Some of the years deal with basic meaning, the story of the holiday and the like. Two in particular are overt projects. Once in seven years there is a cooking project that not only gives the teacher and student recipes and directions, but also provides context and background of the recipes. If it is hallah, we go into the history and backstory of hallah. We understand the braiding, the taking of the Hallah, and a lot more. Students understand hallah and then create their own version, going home with their own recipe and directions. Likewise, in another year students study and make a hallah cover. Again, it is more that a simple art project, it is a Jewish act, created in the context of an artistic and symbolic tradition. Students examine examples of artistic hallah covers, they learn about the role of the hallah cover, and then they make their own. In both the case of the hallah and the hallah cover, the text on the page and the experiential program in the classroom are interacting as partners.


The use of textbooks as a foundation for programmatic learning accomplishes two other long term learning experiences:

  1. The use of textbooks model respect for books, save the environment, and don’t utilize dishonesty. In contradistinction to photocopies, textbooks can save trees, last a student for a lifetime, and show respect to intellectual property. When photocopies are used, the Jewish tradition is disposable, trees are killed, and learning winds up in the wastebasket.
  2. Much experiential learning is an oral-aural experience. When textbooks are used as a foundation, not only is their room for depth and sophistication, but visual learners are honored. Some of our students need to learn through seeing (while others do learn better by hearing, etc.) But textbooks do provide the visuals.