Sunday, February 12, 2012

A Reflection on Teaching

A friend of mine is in a graduate program in school administration. I say friend and I mean “friend.” There are people who are colleagues and there are people who you feel a connection of soul. He is one of the latter. He is not Jewish. He asks me bizarre questions on Jewish law, knows more Jewish concepts than most Jews and is a serious Christian. He is one of those rare thinkers whose left side of brain matches right side. He came to observe my classroom. These are his notes describing my Talmud class. I decided to use his excellent description as a moment of self-reflection on my teaching. In the italics is my commentary on his notes. I want to thank him for allowing me to do so.

Classroom Observation, Honors Talmud, Jewish Community Day School, February 8, 2012.

7.50 a.m. Arrived at the start of class. The students were not present yet—they were in another classroom watching the video announcements since there is no television in the Beit Midrash. The Beit Midrash is a converted music room—the walls are covered with soundproofing material and the windows have been covered over with imitation stained glass window stickers to make the place fee like a holy place. There is a portable white board along one wall of the room and a laptop and computer projector are set up a short distance from it so as to project a PowerPoint slide onto the board. It reads:

1) How do you decide which bracha to make first, then second, etc?
2) What valuable lessons does this teach you for your future?

I have really tried to make my classroom into a Beit Midrash (A “home of study” I want my students to understand that studying Torah is different from studying math or history. The windows and the back well covered with a photo-mural of the Western Wall in Jerusalem give it the feel of sanctity. There is a television in the classroom but I have left it broken. I often point out to my students that I don’t have a TV. (For some, that is like saying that I am a Breatharian that lives with out eating.) So no TV in class. I decided that that same instrument they use to watch “Gossip Girl” could not be elevated to Torah study.

A total of six long rectangular tables are set in a U-shape focused around the white board. On one of these tables, along the right part of the U-shape, toward a corner of the classroom the teacher, LW, has set out plate a three plates. One plate has almonds, dried figs, fresh grapes, and dates; another plate has slices of coffee cake; the third plate has carob chips. There is also a bottle of pomegranate juice on the table. Near this table are bookshelves filled with religious texts. Next to the bookshelves is an Aron Kodesh. [a decorated cabinet containing a Torah scroll]

The set up of the room is based on the Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish Law, that says that the teacher must be able to see every student and every student must be able to see one another. Learning Torah is about interaction, the teacher, the students are as much the lesson as the text under discussion.
In my Talmud class I provide a lot of food. There is a proverb. “Open mouths = open heart.” I am not sure who said that. Maybe it was me! Whoever said it is true. I also love to be hospitable. Its my "thing" both at home and at school. It was also our father Abraham's thing, so I am in good company.

7.54 a.m. The students arrive to class. There are a total of six students—four boys and two girls. As they come in, LW says, “Okay holy brothers and sisters, question on the board. Don’t touch the food yet. Sit down and answer the question. If you want tea, the water should be hot.” On a separate table is an electric hot water heater; two students head over and make themselves cups of tea, the rest sit around the table with the plates of food on it as if they were sitting down to a family meal except that they take out their notebooks and begin writing. LW sits among them and engages in light banter with the students as they’re sitting down.

I spend the first few minutes of class re-establishing our relationship. The Beit Midrash is a “bayit” a HOME. Students should feel at home. The presence of religious books, a teacher and a Torah scroll should inspire a sense of caution but beyond that they should feel comfortable in this space and comfortable with their teacher.
I am partial to tea with Torah. Some people drink alcohol when they study. I want my kids to prefer tea. Alcohol makes you stupid. Tea does not.

LW: What day is today?
Male student: The eighth
LW (in an Indian accent): Today is one day closer to death

A teacher of mine in India used to say this. I like my students to know who I am and to know who I was. I wasn’t BORN this way. I am the product of lots of different kinds of experiences. Besides, it cracks them up every time and relaxes them. The great sage Rava taught that all classes should begin with a joke, to set the students (and the teacher) at ease.

8.00 a.m. After all students have had a chance to sit down and write for a few minutes, LW begins class formally by asking for dedications and the names of sick people. Students call out names and after each one, LW says a brief bracha in Hebrew. After a minute or two of this, LW asks what else is happening in their lives. Students describe upcoming tests and projects and one student mentions a college basketball game that is happening tonight to which LW replies, “There’s a certain point in sports when my prayer becomes impossible. This section of the class ends with the students and LW praying together in unison in Hebrew.

This is all routine. When my former boss first described this dedication process to me, I thought it was terribly hokey. I now depend on it as a reliable way to focus class attention and to get students to be aware of each other’s needs. We offer the merit of our Torah study as a source of healing for sick family members, and for success in all their endeavors. It’s a way of linking Torh to other important areas of life.
We made the blessing on learning Torah, and as usual, I launch into at least a short discussion of pure Torah, usually Jewish law so the prayer is not said in vain.

After the prayer, LW points to a quotation that’s projected onto the white board. It reads, “Everything you need to know about love you can learn from prayer.” [I made that up] He then goes on to ask the students to answer the opening question.

LW: Here we have a plate of food for Tu B’Shavat things. How do we decide which bracha to make first? All items on the plate share a same bracha. Some have different brachas.

A bracha is a short prayer said before eating. There are specific wordings for particular kinds of foods. Fruits share a common wording. Cake and non-bread grain products another, and so forth.
After some discussion, LW sums up, “For blessings we want to go from the most specific to the most general.” Then he pivots the discussion, “What does this say about love?”

8.07 a.m. The students are ninth and tenth graders and do not jump in to answer. LW shifts his question to advice and offers up the following advice, “With apologies to the young women present this will be helpful to the gentlemen. When you say thank you say thank you as specifically as possible. Don’t thank your wife in general. Don’t say thank you for the dinner. Say this was the best broccoli I’ve ever tasted.” Then, as an aside, he offers more advice to the young men. “Gentlemen, whatever you do, don’t buy your wife a potted plant. I did that for my wife once. She told me, it’s enough that I have to take care of you, I don’t have time to take care of this too.”

I love teaching Jewish law. I want them to say the prayers before eating. I also want them to be able to connect that practice to other areas of their life. Prayer life is simple, “please”, “thank you” and “I love you.” I want to them to feel deeply that prayer is about relationship and that ALL relationships involve spiritual connection.

I teach boys and girls together. If I were someone else that might go without saying and without further comment. Teaching a Talmud class to boys and girls together (Traditionally girls do not learn Talmud.) is the time when I feel most like the sole observant teacher in the school. I am not uncomfortable with teaching boys and girls together or teaching Talmud to girls but I am very aware that it puts me outside the bounds of the other more traditional world that I live in. My traditional self is sometimes at quiet odds with the pluralistic and not-so-tradition bound tone of the school.

LW tells the students to take the next four to five minutes to get something to eat. Students get up and walk around the room. Some of them fix cups of tea. Others make small plates of food. LW makes a plate of food for me and gives it to me. Next door a rock music class is under way and the students comment on the song being played.

8.12 a.m. The students have all gotten food, juice and tea and are sitting back down at their seats around the table. One student sips some juice and says, “Mr. W— this is the best pomegranate juice I’ve ever had.” LW and students chuckle. Chit-chat continues and at one point LW discusses ways to make faux cheese from almonds.

So by now you have figured it out. This is not really just a class in Gemara (Talmud). Its also a class in life. Its about presenting a model of respectful interaction and mutual concern. Its about the nuts and bolts of Jewish life, saying prayers before you eat and having healthy marriages. That is the context for the text, a healthy well-balanced spiritual life.

8.14 a.m. LW begins the formal lesson on a sugya [stand-alone discussion] from the Gemara. The situation is about borrowing and collateral. Each student has his or her own copy of the Gemara in which they make notes. They take turns reading in Hebrew and LW works with them each individually as they interpret what they’ve just read.

8.19 a.m. They continue working through the sugya and LW weaves in a narrative of how the Gemara came to be in the discussion. Rabbis would receive people and answer their questions. The generations of Rabbis can be traced in each sugya and so what emerges is an intergenerational conversation. The specific sugya being discussed deals with who one should trust when a item of collateral offered up by a borrower is stolen from the lender. If turns out that the lender to be trusted regarding the theft—the lender knows who comes and goes from his house—but the borrower is to be trusted when it comes to value of the collateral since the collateral belongs to the borrower.

8.23 a.m. LW starts to sum up, “The borrower has a better idea of the value of the object so we trust him. But he’s also the guy that has the most to gain by not telling the truth.”

Students continue reading in Aramaic and LW continues to work with them, translating into English and discussing what’s going on in the text.

8.27 a.m. LW draws a distinction between Jewish law and US law. In Jewish law believability is established before testimony is heard whereas in US law the jury decides whether or not testimony is believable. LW uses a student as an example, he turns to a male student and says, “I think you more than anyone else will grow up to be a professional gambler. Now would we believe you in a court of law? No, because you’re on the fringes of society, you’re a gambler, so we wouldn’t consider your testimony.”

The kid is has a good head for math. He would be a great card counter. He also likes to win. Its important for kids to know that you KNOW them. You know their strengths (and maybe even a few of their weaknesses)

8.30 a.m. LW begins a series of rhetorical questions, each one deeper than the previous. “What’s the difference on believability? Why is one person believable and the other guy is not? Why do we not believe them both?” After a pause, he offers up, “Now we’ll get philosophical and have a Calvinist moment.” He sends a student to one of the bookshelves to get a copy of the Tanach. The student brings it back to LW who flips through it and has trouble finding the passage he wants. At one point he offers up, “Thank God for the principle of plausible deniability. It’s not in the Talmud but it should be.”

Wow, the dude with the beard knows about “Calvinism.” I flaunt my fancy education in class. I use a lot of big words and refer to concepts from other disciplines a lot. Torah does not exist in a vacuum; it is part of a real world. I am proud of being able to put Torah into a wider context for my students.

I am also ok with fumbling. I had trouble finding the passage. So what? It gives my students permission not to be perfect.

I am pretty sure that “plausible deniability” IS in the Talmud somewhere.

8.34 a.m. LW finds the passage he’s looking for. “A man will not become established through wickedness but the righteous will not falter.”

8.36 a.m. LW asks, “Why is it that the borrower needs to borrow?” Discussion ensues and eventually the idea that people who are rich are rich because they deserve it and those who are poor deserve it. LW and students alike express dismay at such a conclusion and reject it.

8.38 a.m. LW remarks, “I personally am very troubled by it. Even more troubled that the discussion ends here.”

Teaching Torah means being real and sharing the struggle. Sometimes I don’t get it. Sometimes I am troubled. I have to say that. I take this stuff seriously. I don’t jump to agreement. I also don’t jump to blind opposition. I don’t deny all my other experiences. I try to engage and help my students engage in honest dialogue with the Rabbis of the text and, in general, to feel comfortable with testing ideas out for themselves.

8.40 a.m. A student asks, “Why did they stop adding to the Gemara?” LW answers. “That’s a good question. No one really knows.” He then goes on to describe the last person who edited the Gemara and also mentions that discussions and exchange of opinions continue to this day so, in a sense, the Gemara continues.

8.43 a.m. LW, “What time is class over?” A student answers, “Two minutes.” LW responds, “Okay, we’re not going to start the next sugya.” At this point one student asks, “Mr. W— weren’t the Jews money lenders?” LW answers, “Yes?” The student responds, “So it just seems like the lender who is to be believed is most likely the Jewish guy and the Gemara is pretty nice to lender.” LW, enthusiastically, “That’s a really good point.”

I missed an opportunity here. What I should have said is “Look, the Talmud is still happening, RIGHT HERE!” Our discussion is not on that tiny page of closde text. Our discussion is on the page of LIFE. But, we are part of the same discussion and those Rabbis are here with us, right now. Linked to them in common discussion, we all pushed into a timeless present.

8.45 a.m. As the bell rings, LW closes class with a bracha.

The bell rings. So much for being beyond time. That last hurried after- bracha, the prayer in thanks for the food is like the stale rolls wrapped in napkins my grandmother used to stuff in my pocket. It is nourishment for the road, a little taste of the eternity of the Torah encounter. As long as the blessing of Torah is in our pockets, we are just a little free of the tyranny of time.


  1. Mir gefallt die herzigkeit! Beautiful! Moshe shapir ka'amart!
    Chazaq w'ematz be`avodatekha,
    y yk ykw ykwk (n nach nachma NACHMAN)

  2. This is an insightful look into your classroom! I hope you can share more of your teaching lessons via Twitter and YouTube :-)

  3. This post inspires me. The only formal teaching I do right now is with my congregation's b'nei mitzvah students, but reading this post makes me want to aim higher and serve them better. Thank you.

  4. Hi Lee,

    I told you I'd read your blog, and I'm glad I did. Thanks for the interesting post.

    Shabbat Shalom

    David Spain

  5. Shalom! I just found your blog. You are a busy man and so I hesitate to ask you. No obligations, if you do find the time to answer my questions I am very thankful.

    I would like to know more about "(...) begins class formally by asking for dedications and the names of sick people". I teach at a weekend school and it is quite hectic to get the students focused. What are dedications? Do you offer prayers for the sick? Also what is bracha and what prayers do you say before you eat (tranliterated Hebrew and translation would be nice).
    There are 25 students ages 7-16, all girls. Do you think allowing htem to sit with whom they wish is a good idea? I would say they all end up attentive and love the class but also do talk a lot together about very random things.

    Next, when I read "I flaunt my fancy education in class" it reminded me of a HAssidic man who worked with us and could not for the life of him figure out the word "snow bank"! He spoke American English too =) .

    Felisia Couto

  6. Very interesting! As a muslim I hope that more of our madrassahs(so similar to the hebrew term-beit midrash, I always love to see the connections between religious terminology in Arabic and hebrew) could teach in this sort of fashion with regards to our religious sources of law and belief(qur'an, hadith, fatawa etc). I wish you and your students a continued success inshallah(hashem willing).