Our Goal in the Classroom: Seventh Grade Chumash

This post is conceived to be of particular use to other Jewish educators, and perhaps to parents of my students, but it is not expected to be of much interest to the general public. The public at large can expect to find it monstrously boring. Apologies in advance! – L.Z.

In beginning to put some of my classroom methodologies down on this virtual sketchpad, I am reminded of a conversation I had with a parent in my first year of teaching. The parent was concerned that when he asked his Sixth Grade daughter what she was learning in my Chumash Bamidbar class, the answer sounded limited, shallow, and inconsequential – maybe it was Nazir at the time, or Sotah, or Parah Adumah. Where’s the beef, the parent wondered? How about some cool Midrashim or a classic Ramban! I recommended to the parent that rather than ask his child what she was learning in Chumash class, he ask her how she was learning. The next day I received a full (though unneeded) apology. The previous night the parent found out what the child could do with a Chumash that she could not have done a few months earlier – and how excited that made her. The subject matter, the “lab material,” was to a large extent an excuse to gain the kind of skills that would open up the world of learning to her. I would argue that as teachers and as parents, we need to less often ask what our children are learning and more often ask how they are learning. The how will last far longer, apply itself to more subject matter, and attach itself not only to the child’s mind but to his heart.

This question exists both on the micro, day-to-day level as we plan the typical classroom experience as well as on the macro level as we consider our yearly classroom goals. When we approach a year of learning, the first questions we must consider are those which will give us answers about the children’s future beyond the next year of learning. Working backwards, we can then determine how each term should look, each unit, and eventually each day. Unfortunately, we sometimes forget this and instead plan a year of learning with our charges much like a traveler with many good ideas for stops along the way with but no eventual destination or reason for arriving there. Such a person can make many interesting stops and feel very accomplished in the short term, but his larger satisfaction will remain unquenched because he never really accomplished anything significant. In contrast, if one knows that his goal is to drive to a city ten hours away, he can then break that trip down into smaller components: two five-hour driving days, for example, with two stops each day. That gives him additional information about when he needs to leave home, about how long he can spend at each stop, and where he should be up to by the end of each day of driving. To the first driver, ignorance is bliss. The destination he will never reach will not hurt him. But as teachers, we cannot afford to live as pleasure-seekers alone.

This year I was asked to teach Seventh Grade Chumash Shemot/Vayikra for the first time. I immediately asked three questions (mainly to himself, because I had just finished learning Sefer Bamidbar with the same group): 1) What skills are they particularly strong in which need to be reinforced? 2) What is the next major body of skills which needs to be mastered? 3) What is the most we can possibly expect an incoming Eighth Grade Chumash student to look like and be able to do?

It turned out that while the exiting Sixth Graders had strongly improved in their ability to decode and interpret basic Chumash text, their Rashi skills were still sorely lacking. It became immediately apparent, and I told them this much on the first day, that their Rashi skills would need to look like their Chumash text skills by the end of the year. An Eighth Grader, I concluded, could not only read, translate, and analyze Chumash text, but Rashi as well an in equal measure.

That helped to form a raw outline – I now had a destination – but there were still important shorter-term decisions to be made. What would a Parsha Unit look like? Or were Parshiot even the best units? What would a day look like in this class? How could assessment be used to augment the year’s goals and bridge the gap between strong text skills and strong Rashi skills? And the perennial “skills” question: how can a skills-based class not put learners to sleep but instead inspire, excite, and energize them?

At this point I need to attach a file for you to look at so you will see what I came up with. You are looking at the first Parsha Packet of the year, for Parshat Yitro. Because I determined that the learners’ text skills were strong but could use reinforcement, all of my “P’shat” (text) expectations were boiled down to a single line near the top of the page: “פשט: P’shat of the entire Parsha – be able to translate any Pasuk given to you from the Parsha.” Enforceable by graded work, but without the kind of guided instruction they would have had in that area a year earlier.

The rest of the document is devoted to Rashi. Most of Page 1 is a list of pre-selected Rashi’s, broken down by Perek and Pasuk. But the far-left column is very important. At some point in considering what it means to be as good Rashi learners as text learners, I needed to consider what that exactly would mean in terms of actual day-to-day skills. Three of those occurred to me, which also mirror real-life learning and would give the learners a consistent pattern with which to gauge their own learning: anticipate, translate, dissect. Notice that every Rashi needs to be dissected, which is defined earlier on the page as the learner’s being able to “identify Rashi’s answer and question, summarize and explain Rashi, and answer basic questions about the Rashi.” In the cases of other Rashi’s, the learners might be required to translate the Rashi verbatim on their next test. In a few cases, they are also asked to try to anticipate Rashi’s question before beginning to learn the Rashi.

The function of the translate component is to take particular Rashi’s that have identifiable, common language and ask students on their next assessment to rehearse those Rashi’s as a way of demonstrating their ability to work with Rashi’s common language. Whether a particular Rashi is included in this category is partly a function of time; all Rashi’s are learned in class using an all-Hebrew Chumash, but the extra step of needing to be so comfortable as to be able to translate a Rashi word by word adds an element of challenge not necessary for Rashi’s without identifiable or common phraseology. In other words, in some cases a learner can show his mastery of a Rashi that he has already learned in the original Hebrew by answering questions about it without needing to show that he can translate every uncommon word. He clearly was able to translate every word (with my assistance) during the learning phase, so assessing in a more summary way gets at the same goal without testing vocabulary of phraseology that may be less identifiable for Rashi. For other Rashi’s, particularly when his phraseology is of the sort that will appear constantly in other Rashi’s, the translate component is important. It is the teacher’s job to determine beforehand which Rashi’s meet which goal. Expecting the learners to translate every Rashi might do them a disservice by taking time which could be spent on Rashi’s with more identifiable language and spending it on ones with less.

Anticipate is the component least required of them at this point, but only because that (and, to lesser extent, the translate component) will be the point of growth for the skills throughout the year. From a philosophical or affective perspective, anticipate is hugely important because it bridges the gap between seeing Rashi as an abstract, distant figure I am required to ask for help and seeing him as a helpful friend who has a decent shot at aiding me in my particular learning. A colleague asked me why the anticipate column isn’t more full. I explained that filling it up artificially with Rashi’s that the learner has almost no shot (at this point in the year) of actually anticipating defeats that purpose. Better, at this point, to have relatively few anticipate Rashi’s that the learner may actually anticipate correctly and thus begin to feel that Rashi, at least in those cases, can be that helpful friend, rather than encourage them to try to anticipate Rashi’s that they will probably guess incorrectly, in which case slave-driver Rashi will still beat out friend Rashi in their mind.

So far we have discussed the larger goals and how they are applied to a unit of Chumash, but we have not yet considered the day-to-day classroom experience and how it answers our first question in this post: how do the learners learn? Part of the answer comes from the top of the page in the packet, where the learners are given a “State Date,” an “End Date,” and the approximate number of class periods before the next test. (This information is based on the tentative calendar they are given at the beginning of the year.) Working in groups, the learners conquer the packet collaboratively at their own pace. They can use the later pages of the packet to record their observations, but most type them and share them as a GoogleDoc, which allows for nearly real-time collaboration with me rather than waiting weeks for my feedback. (Every student has an account in the school’s GoogleDocs Portal to facilitate this kind of work.) When Parshiot lend themselves to projects or presentations, all the better.

Collaboration, give-and-take and self-management are the answer to how the learners learn. By creating a mini-structure for themselves within the boundaries of when the next test is, the students garner independence that can be applied to real-life learning, as their learning feels more real-life already and more closely mirrors real-life learning. The Rashi skills are geared to their needs right now with room to expand – more anticipates and translates are added as the year progresses, along with more Rashi’s altogether. The learner sees tangible progress over a fixed amount of time through ambitious, attainable, and altogether relevant goals using common-sense expectations that are rooted in a particular area but which are ready to grow with them as the year moves along. The comfort that comes with knowing that the goals and expectations will always look familiar is mixed with the anticipation of seeing those goals expand as their skills improve.

The importance of assessment has been clearly demonstrated in the research, and it is very clear that it must mirror the original goals of the learning. See the attached Parsha test in the model described above. It is not long, but it does not need to be. The students’ main assessment is the work they have been doing all along. The difference is that through assessment, the learner comes to appreciate and coalesce the learning that he or she has done through a unified medium. The goals themselves, however, should be as consistent (and as transparent) as possible through the entire learning-assessing process.

Those are some of the goals that we have in the classroom as applied to a particular class, Seventh Grade Chumash Shemot-Vayikra.

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