Why Textbooks Are Important

The re-thinkers and re-visionists and re-imaginers are coming for your textbooks.

That’s right. They want to remove the textbooks from your classrooms. And the blackboards, too. And maybe even the teachers. They’re coming for your textbooks because they’re well-meaning Jewish leaders, and they want to put a spark back in the classrooms in your school. They want learning to be fun and meaningful and worthwhile (and not dull and stale and boring). They look at camps and Israel trips, and appreciate what a good job those folks do at Jewish education. So they decide that schools should be just like camp, and they come to take away the desks and the blackboards (or the whiteboards), and they come to take the textbooks, too.

We think this is a problem, and not just because we’re textbook publishers. Rather, we became textbook publishers because we think this is a problem.

Torah Aura Productions was founded in 1981 by a group of innovative Jewish educators who looked out at the field of Jewish education and found materials that were shallow and dull. We started a company to create new tools for teachers that would be exciting and meaningful. From the beginning, we’ve always believed in re-imagining synagogue schools, but we refuse to take an extremist or aggressive approach to school reform, because we’re afraid to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

We got into this business because we didn’t think Jewish children should have to sit stoically at their desks as teachers attempt to mindlessly drill facts and Hebrew reading skills into their heads. We’re dedicated to publishing textbooks of a much higher quality, and we defend textbooks because we believe that well-designed curricular materials have the power to make a real difference in the lives of Jewish students.

Here are eight reasons we believe textbooks are important.

Textbooks Should Be Books of Texts

The Talmud recalls a moment when Judaism changed. It says (Bava Kamma 82a) that Ezra, after the return from the Babylonian Exile, instituted tikkunim (fixes) to the Jewish tradition that included the regular reading and translating of Torah in every village and hamlet, and that he also told the elders to sit in the gates of the city on market days and use the Torah to judge between the people. These changes instituted the Judaism we now live, a Judaism of texts. This was first of all, the democratization of Torah, taking it out of the Temple and moving it into the hands of every Jew. The process of translation grew into the interpretation of Torah, the creation of Midrash, and gave every Jew the freedom and responsibility to decide what the Torah means. The process of using the Torah to resolve issues between neighbors grew into the ability of every community to apply Torah to the situations in their communities.

Our Judaism is a Judaism of words. It is a Judaism of Jews struggling with extracting meaning from texts and wrestling with the application of these words to real life. Classically Jewish friendships have been built talking to each other over a platform of texts. Simply put, had Moses come down Mount Sinai with a collection of learning activities rather than the Torah, the Jewish people would not have survived.

Rashi’s second comment on the Torah begins, “Ein ha-Torah ha-Zot Omeret Elah Darsheni,” “The Torah only asks, ‘Explain me, make sense out of me, make a midrash out of me.” For Jews, texts are conversations. We meet each other. We become friends through our shared struggle with words. That is why we are Yisrael, God wrestlers. Rashi’s first comment on the Torah was quoting a textual interpretation of his father, Rabbi Isaac.

The premise here is this: text books can be good or bad, but what Jewish schools need today is good textbooks. Abraham Joshua Heschel is often misquoted on the subject. He is often quoted as saying, “What we need more than anything else is not textbooks but text people.” He said that, but he wasn’t bashing textbooks. In actuality, he was talking about the importance of teachers. The quote comes from a speech (later published as an article) entitled “The Spirit of Jewish Education.”1 In it, Heschel said:

To guide a pupil into the promised land, [the teacher] must have been there himself. When asking himself: Do I stand for what I teach? Do I believe what I say? he must be able to answer in the affirmative. What we need more than anything else is not text-books but text-people. It is the personality of the teacher which is the text that the pupils read; the text that they will never forget. The modern teacher, while not wearing a snowy beard, is a link in the chain of a tradition. He is the intermediary between the past and the present as well. Yet, he is also the creator of the future of our people. He must teach the pupils to evaluate the past in order to clarify their future. 2

Taken as a whole, the article is about the need to teach not just facts about Judaism, but to enable students to derive meaning from living a Jewish life. Heschel observes that religious schools effectively teach students the basic blessings said before eating bread or drinking juice, then bemoans the fact that few teachers exploit the opportunity to explore the “grand mystery and spiritual profundity” conveyed by the blessings’ words.3

People who take Heschel out of context suggest that relationships (“text-people”) are more important than book learning (“text-books”). But examining the entirety of Heschel’s argument, he’s not saying that relationships are more important than learning, but that relationships enable learning. Guided by Heschel, we believe that good text-books are designed to be used in the context of real relationship. So let’s talk about good “text-books” that let “text-people” do their best work.

A good textbook is not merely a well designed collection of facts with exercises that review those facts. A good textbook is filled with words that are worth remembering. Those words need to demand interpretation and choice. They need to ask, “What do these words actually say?” and they need to ask, “What do you believe about this text’s message?” Texts demand clarification, that why the first step in text study is the reading and translation of a text — even from English to English. In the final step, “The students’ concerns and words merge with the issues and language of the text… This, the ultimate step of the process, is the point at which life and lernen become one.”4

To watch this in action, let’s look at a transcript of a Being Torah lesson. Students have compared the story of Abraham welcoming strangers and Rebekah providing hospitality to Abraham’s servant. They learn (by comparing color coded words) that the two passages both involve repetitions of the words “run,” “hurry,” and “please.” Asked what lesson is taught by comparing the two stories we have this dialogue. They are asked to write their own answer, share it with this class, and then review an answer by someone else in the class whose answer they like.

SONDRA: Rebekah was the perfect bride for Isaac because she was just like Abraham. Both of them hurried and hurried to make strangers welcome. Just like Abraham, she cared about the “mitzvah” of hospitality. This made her the right woman to be the next mother of the Jewish people because she was kind, generous, and a great hostess.

(Sondra on Jonathan): He thought that Rebekah was the right woman to be the next mother of the Jewish people because she did hesed.

SH’MUEL: Rebekah was the perfect bride for Isaac because she was just like Abraham. Both of them hurried and ran to make strangers welcome. Just like Abraham, she cared about the “mitzvah” of hospitality. This made her the right woman to be the next mother of the Jewish people because she was generous and did more than necessary.

(Sh’muel on Ashley): Ashley thought that Rebekah was the right woman to be the next mother of the Jewish people because she has a lot of confidence in herself.5

Here we have a Biblical text decoded, analyzed, and personalized. While the answers are similar (because they respond to the same data set) they are also individualized in the way word and express this insight. We get “kind, generous, and a great hostess” on one hand; “She had a lot of confidence in herself,” on the other.

In other words, a good textbook is a series of discussions that have impact, that allow for self-clarification and self-actualization, that build connection, friendship, and community. The needs of Jewish learning are very different that those of secular learning. We don’t care about the ability to review a chapter and prepare for a test, we care about moments of introspection and being the next step in a student’s becoming.

Textbooks Should Encourage and Develop Hevruta

Hevruta is an Aramaic term for two overlapping ideas. First it means a study partner. Second it means a friend. One classic form of Jewish learning involves ongoing study with a partner. Partners prepare lessons before they are taught. They read, translate (into their own words), question, and explain material that will then be gone over by their teacher. Traditionally, these partnerships last a long time–years. Often when they are used in Jewish schools today the timing is considerably shorter (including different each session). But the Rabbis (Avot d’Rabbi Natan 8), make it clear that studying together leads to deep friendship and deep friendship leads to a deeper ability to study together.

While much of Jewish educational efforts are spent trying to keep students from talking to each other, we should actually be trying to get them talking together. According to Glenn A. Drew, executive director of the American Hebrew Academy, hevruta is

…based on the notion that each person has access to a piece of the truth and that we should talk to one another as a means of getting closer to the truth. By doing so, each student gains a greater understanding of themselves, the world in which they live and the subject matter.6

He adds that the hevruta method is about students coming to learn that they “must have trust in their partners, speak honestly, and listen to one another.”

Friendship is a key to Jewish survival. Friendships are the reason that most students stay in school, return to camp, and visit Israel. One goal of every Jewish classroom should be to build friendships and hevruta is a good way to do that. A good textbook presents opportunities for hevruta learning. Not only does it invite conversation, but it invites (and directs) conversations that two students can have together. There needs to be room in a textbook for students’ opinions and interpretations to matter. This has to include but go beyond feelings, to a place where what a student draws from and creates because of the textbook matters. Good textbooks respect students as innovators and problem-solvers. They leave space for dialogue and have faith in the students’ ability to respond.

In Make a Midrash Out of Me we have an activity called “The Canaanite Gazette.” Students work in hevruta to create interviews with characters in the Biblical text. These interviews invite students to create individual midrashim that parallel traditional investigations of the text. Here is an example:

Imagine that you are a reporter for the Canaanite Gazette. Conduct the following interviews.

1. Ask God: “What did you see Noah doing (as compared to what you saw other people doing) that made You comfortable with him?”

2. Ask Noah: “Why do you think God picked you? What makes you different?”

3. Ask Noah’s Sons: “What was it like being part of the only “Righteous Family” in the neighborhood?”

4. Ask Noah’s Wife: “How do you feel about all the work it takes to save the world?”

5. Ask any animal: “Tell the story of the flood from your perspective.”

What results is students using the information they have gleaned from studying the actual biblical text, opinions they have formed while studying the text, lead to articulate and original expositions of the text. It is both a process of interpretation and a creative expression. The activity is empowered by it happening with a partner, or being rehearsed in hevruta, before a classroom performance.

Good Textbooks Have Content and Structure that Leads to Activities

In their book Active Jewish Learning, Mel and Shoshana Silberman explain:

Yes, there is a whole lot more to teaching than telling! Learning is not an automatic consequence of pouring information into a student’s head. It requires the learner’s own mental involvement and doing. Explanation and demonstration, by themselves, will never lead… to real, lasting learning. Only learning that is active will do this. What makes learning “active?” When learning is active, students do most of the work. They use their brains…. studying ideas, solving problems, and applying what they learn. Active learning is fast-paced, fun, supportive, and personally engaging. Often, students are out of their seats, moving about and thinking aloud.7

Good textbooks need to lead to moments of active Jewish learning. They need to turn classrooms into memorable moments. To be clear, text study and hevruta learning have great experiential potential, but they are not the only vehicles for effective Jewish learning. Good textbooks provide multiple active possibilities.

Let’s look at an example. In The Circle of Jewish Life, the marriage chapter includes the following elements:

a. A Story about God’s Involvement in Marriage

b. The Wedding vow

c. A Piece about Relationships

d. A Summary of a Jewish Wedding

e. Texts on Mikvah

f. A Crossword Reviewing Vocabulary

g. A Series of Resources for Design Your Own Ketubah

h. The Story of Akiva and Rachel

i. The Text of the Marriage Service as a Script

j. X-Raying the Sheva Brakhot

k. A Piece on Commitment Ceremonies

About half of these are directly text study. Of those, most of those work nice in hevruta. There are a few expository pages, but most of the rest are hands on activities. Editing a Ketubah text, designing a Ketubah, etc. (We are not counting the crossword puzzle as active Jewish learning. It is just an exercise needed to help in mastering a lot of vocabulary). But in the end the whole chapter turns into a huge activity, a model wedding. The wedding service presented as a script becomes the hub of a whole class activity.

Good Textbooks Provide Scope and Sequence

Jean Piaget makes it clear that things like chronology and other organizational structures can’t be mastered until students enter the fourth development stage, concrete-operational, sometime around puberty.8 That means that teaching things like sequential history makes no sense much before Bar/Bat mitzvah. But that doesn’t mean that learning doesn’t need structure. Lev Semenovich Vygotsky, a Russian educational psychologist, taught that scaffolding is an important teaching strategy that is based on a concept of the zone of proximal development. The zone of proximal development is the distance between what children can do by themselves and the next learning that they can be helped to achieve with competent assistance.9

In scaffolding instruction a more knowledgeable other provides scaffolds or supports to facilitate the learner’s development. The scaffolds facilitate a student’s ability to build on prior knowledge and internalize new information.10

The idea of scaffolding is that the teacher (or the text) can facilitate development by providing the right learning structures. Let’s take a Torah Aura example. Yisrael Sheli is a third grade Israel book. Its main purpose (and the main purpose of all our Israel materials) is to connect students to Israel. It does this through the interaction of two things: the stories of people who shaped the history and development of Israel and a visit to places in the Land of Israel. So we have (1) Solomon was a King of Israel, (2) he was famous for being wise, (3) King Solomon built a Navy in Eilat, (4) Eilat is a beachside community with coral and lots of fish. Students will not know the years that Solomon lived and who was King before or after him. Odds are that most of them will not be able to locate Eilat on a map. That, too, comes later. But, we will have built two connections. Solomon once figured out which woman got the baby. And, Eliat is a fun place to go diving. We anchor the two with King Solomon’s Navy. With those two concepts anchored, other connections will grow. This is an act of scaffolding towards history and an act of scaffolding towards geography while establishing a connection to a person and a place.

Too much curriculum today makes sense to the curriculum writer and not the student. One can divide the school year for each grade by God, Torah, and Israel. It looks really good on paper, but the chance of the thematic work done in second grade connecting to fifth grade’s thematic match is small. The chance of knowing how any three lessons fit together is less. Books designed to address the student’s learning progression help to make connections and provide both parallels and sequences.

Textbooks Actively Honor Visual Learners

Much of recent education has been built around the theory of multiple intelligences. It suggests that different learners have different learning styles, there are ways that an individual learner learns better and ways that this learner has a harder time learning.11 This is sometimes presented in the simplified earlier model called VAK (for Visual-Auditory-Kinesthetic) that was first developed by psychologists and teaching specialists such as Fernald, Keller, Orton, Gillingham, Stillman and Montessori.

As we translate the theory of multiple intelligences into a post-textbook, post write-on the board, post-frontal kind of classroom, this shifts into a preference for oral learning and an under-serving of students with a visual preference. In other words, there are students who learn best when they have visual resources (like books) at their disposal. The growing informality of material, the more learning that is small group tasks (without printed material) and the more programming shifts to big all-school or all-grade programs, the less we support learners who need to see in order to process effectively.

The solution is to offer learning that doesn’t entirely abandon one learning style for another. Good textbooks can support interactive, activity-oriented learning, and when they do so they offer a win-win. Using this kind of textbook keeps much of the learning programmatic and exciting yet still honors the learning style of visual learners. Camp-style learning works well for many students, but educational psychology reminds us that we have a number of students who need to see it in order to learn it.

Torah Aura Hebrew and Prayer materials have a pattern. Teacher (or teacher and class) examine a prayer. This gives students a chance to both see and hear the material at the beginning. Then they are told to work in hevrutot. Students rehearse the material with each other. They are working with both seeing and hearing as they perfect the performance of the material. Finally, they present and the teacher has a chance to make any corrections. The process (unlike many self-learning programs) provides students with audio and visual reinforcements on their journey towards mastery.

Textbooks Allow Students to “Go Ahead”

Sometimes it’s hard for teachers to remember that students will not dedicate 100% of their attention to what the teacher is saying and doing. Students with diverse learning styles – especially those with ADD and ADHD – have taught us that their “survival secret” is drawing, doodling, and “browsing” (more on this in a sec) through class. In order to have their ears open to what their teacher and classmates are saying, these students need to also engage their eyes and hands. There is a bunch of research, especially in special education, that tactile involvement (like playing with koosh toys) helps students to concentrate on lessons.12

One of the things that students do when they are half-listening is flip through their textbooks, an activity that educational psychologists call “browsing.” When browsing, students are not only listening to the teacher, they are engaging with the material by contextualizing the information and reading to see “what’s next.” Research conducted by journalists suggests that captions (and sidebars) are the most mastered part of books (and magazines) thanks to the “flip factor.”13 Textbooks actually allow students to learn on their own (and often when you are teaching them) by reading and flipping ahead.

Textbooks Improve Tutoring

One of the third rail issues in Jewish education is tutoring. Some students use it to keep up, some to avoid attending. But more and more, because of shrinking hours, growing awareness of learning difficulties, greater pressure, etc. we are providing tutoring at school and at home for students.

Textbooks help tutors. Using textbooks gives them a structure to share with the classroom, and doesn’t force them to guess what track is appropriate. When tutors have access to a textbook, they can work out a course that parallels and reinforces what is being done in the classroom. This is much harder to do when the classroom teacher is “winging it.”

Textbooks are Really Important for Novice Teachers

Many education schools teach the mantra, “A textbook is not a curriculum.” They tend to imply that real teachers write their own curricular materials. At Torah Aura Productions, we agree that a textbook is not a curriculum (even when it has accompanying workbooks, teacher’s guides, flash cards, and assessment tools). A good curriculum is always a dialogue between community, school, students and teacher. Curriculum should be a balancing act that evolves as the classroom experience progresses. We make curricular tools that enable the process that is curriculum.

We have created our material with the belief that great textbooks and accompanying material can be a foundation on which schools and teachers can build curriculum. We believe that teachers teach students and the teachable moment and need to make lots of choices. We believe, and research shows, that textbooks and guides can be the best way for novice teachers to make such choices.14

The research on the subject is best summed-up by the abstract to a study by Deborah Loewenberg Ball and Sharon Feiman-Nemser:

Based on data from a longitudinal study of teacher preparation conducted at a large Midwestern U. S. university, this article describes and appraises what elementary teacher education students were taught about textbooks, what they learned, and what they did with these lessons during student teaching. Although the student teachers were enrolled in two different teacher education programs, all of them developed the impression that if they wanted to be good teachers, they should avoid following textbooks and relying on teachers’ guides. They believed that good teaching means creating your own lessons and materials instead. These ideas proved difficult to act on during student teaching when the student teachers worked in classrooms where textbooks formed the core of instruction and they confronted the fact that they were beginning teachers lacking knowledge, skill, and experience. This article points out that deciding what to teach beginning teachers about textbooks poses a significant dilemma for teacher educators. Although many textbooks have weaknesses, student teachers lack the knowledge and experience needed to develop their own curriculum. The authors argue that, rather than telling novices not to “teach by the book,” teacher educators should consider contextual constraints and the limits of beginners’ knowledge and skills and teach beginning elementary teachers how to learn from using published curricular materials.15

In Jewish education, where we often struggle with untrained teachers, avocational teachers who rise to the moment to fulfill community needs, we should provide them with the supports needed to create effective classrooms. We applaud and encourage innovation, improvisation and the development of teacher-created alternatives. We want teachers to go beyond our books and use their talents fully. But we want them to have a well-researched, well-written, well-thought-out, and well-collected set of resources that go in teacher and student hands to serve as the stage on which the drama of the lesson takes place. Contrary to the folk belief that textbooks interfere with the learning process, both research and our experience suggest that they enable great teaching and learning – especially for novice teachers. The idea for the Ball and Feinman-Nemser paper came from Sharon’s experience learning how to be a great Torah teacher from our book Being Torah and its teacher’s guide.

Many of our books (You be the Judge, Make a Midrash Out of Me, Journeys and S’fatai Tiftah, to mention a few) contain content and research that almost no teacher could do on their own, and certain not weekly, to create amazing teaching and learning experiences. They are content-rich and provide for teacher as well as student learning.

Torah Aura has never believed in overly scripting teachers or taking them out of the equation, but rather we aim at creating books that empower teachers to create exciting, interactive, rich, and enjoyable moments of learning in their classrooms.

In his book Managing the Jewish Classroom, Rabbi Seymour Rossel relates the following:

A Jewish communal worker once asked me “What is the one thing that, if you could have it, would significantly improve the quality of Jewish education?” Without hesitation, I replied, “Great teachers.”

“That’s right,” he said, “If you have great teachers you don’t even need textbooks.”

“Wrong,” I said. “If you have great teachers, they never do without textbooks. They know how to use them.”

…Texts are just one of the tools in the kit of the master teacher. But texts are the hammer. And it is a poor carpenter who refuses to learn how best to use a hammer.16

  1. Abraham Joshua Heschel. “The Spirit of Jewish Education.” Jewish Education, Fall 1953, pp. 9-20.
  2. Ibid, p. 19
  3. Ibid, p. 15.
  4. Samuel C. Heilman. The People of the Book: Drama, Fellowship and Religion. Chicago: The University of Chicago, 1983.
  5. Joel Grishaver. “The Technology of Making Meaning, A Systematic Inquiry into the Task of Enabling the Teaching of Jewish Texts,” (monograph). Los Angeles: Torah Aura Productions, 1988.
  6. Glenn A. Drew. “Momentum (mō méntəm).” Blog post, 10 Dec., 2008. http://aha-info.blogspot.com/2008/12/momentum-m-mntm.html.
  7. Mel Silberman and Shoshana Silberman. Active Jewish Learning: 57 Strategies to Enliven Your Class. Los Angeles: Torah Aura Productions, 2009, p. 9.
  8. Jean Piaget. The Child’s Conception of the World. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1928.
  9. Eileen Raymond. Learners with Mild Disabilities: A Characteristics Approach. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon, 2000, pp. 169-201.
  10. K. Chang, I. Chen, and Y. Sung. “The effect of concept mapping to enhance text comprehension and summarization.” The Journal of Experimental Education. Iss. 71, No. 1 (2002), pp. 5-23.
  11. Howard Gardner. Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. New York: Basic Books, 1983.
  12. Michael Gurian, Patricia Henley, and Terry Trueman. Boys and Girls Learn Differently!: A Guide for Teachers and Parents. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2002.
  13. Lorie Oglesbee. “Captions: Looking at a picture without a caption is like watch television with the sound turned off.” Communication: Journalism Education Today, Winter, 1998.
  14. Deborah Loewenberg Ball and Sharon Feiman-Nemser. Using Textbooks and Teachers’ Guides: A Dilemma for Beginning Teachers and Teacher Educators. Toronto: Ontario Institute for Studies in Education/University of Toronto, 1988.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Seymour Rossel. Managing the Jewish Classroom: How to Transform Yourself Into a Master Teacher. Los Angeles: Torah Aura Productions, 1998. p. 98.