Our Goal in the Classroom: 6th Grade Mishna/Gemara

Continuing a series on classroom methodology which, despite protestations from a non-teacher friend of mine, I cannot imagine anyone but teachers finding interesting.

What if we viewed Mishna and Gemara, as the Amoraim did, not as separate disciplines appropriate for different ages but as an augmentation or continuation of a similar field of study with overlapping and necessarily prerequisite and postrequisite skills? What if, rather than jump from Mishna to Gemara overnight (or over an empty summer), we viewed Sixth Grade as a year to develop nascent Gemara skills through the prism of a world of expanding Mishna skills? What if the symbiosis or synthesis of Mishna and Gemara were more of a curricular endeavor than a theoretical construct?

I asked those questions two years ago, and I would like to report here on my findings after two years spent developing a radically rewritten cohesive 6th Grade Mishna/Gemara curriculum. My initial hypothesis was that the students would not be farther behind in their Gemara skills by the end of 6th Grade, but even I was surprised to see that they had learned nearly the same amount of Gemara and more key terms, and that their ability to think analytically about a Gemara, and their engagement with the learning process and desire to learn, were at levels beyond what they had been before the change.

The skeleton of the system is straightforward, so here it is: A Perek of Mishna learned with the next skill closer to achieving a full and balanced understanding of the page of Gemara. Perek 1 (see link) of any Mesechta (we did Bava Metzia two years ago and Succah this past year, but any reasonable Mesechta would work throughout the program) corresponds to what I call Advanced Mishna Skills: identifying Case, Halacha, and Reason (מקרא, דין, טעם) in a Mishna and creating a מקרא-דין-טעם Chart; identifying problems within a Mishna (based in large part on discrepancies within the מקרא-דין-טעם Chart); comparing two consecutive or non-consecutive Mishnayot; and turning a Mishna or set of Mishnayot into a flowchart or table. Applying higher-order thinking skills to Mishna is critical in bridging the gap between the ostensibly “simple” Mishna and the “challenging” world of Gemara, a lot of whose challenge comes from our having oversimplified Mishna to begin with or our having learned it insufficiently or incorrectly. Remedying this problem can make Gemara much easier as the year moves along.

Perek 2 of the same Mesechta (link and link) adds Tosefta to the learning, asking the learner to compare Mishna and Tosefta. The students learn all of Perek 2 in Mishna, chart and analyze it as they did in Perek 1, but more independently now; and then they learn selections from Tosefta that the Gemara either could or actually does compare with the Mishna. That comparison might be because the Tosefta is adding to the Mishna, clarifying it, or changing/arguing with it, and it is the student’s job to determine which of those is taking place in each instance. This is so much of what Gemara is. Around this time we also start to learn about 50 key Gemara terms (link) as applied to “fake Gemara” that is either provided to them (same link) or that they compose (link). The first words we learn, not surprisingly, are תניא, תנן, תני, and תנינא, because those words indicate that the Gemara is about to quote a Mishna (תנן), a Beraita (תניא), or a Tosefta (usually תני or תנינא). The prefixes ד (as it says in a …) and וה (but wait! it says in a …) are introduced at the same time. In Perek 2, the transitional skills between Mishna and Meimra (the Gemara’s discussion of Mishnaic-era material) are beginning to be added in concert with their necessity as required for the kind of thinking that Meimra entails.

In line with our continually adding elements of what we colloquially call “Gemara,” Perek 3 of Mishna is learned in its entirety along with Advanced Mishna Skills, selected Tosefta, and now selected Beraita as well, chosen by the teacher (me) from somewhere in that Perek. Once they have done that, the elements of the Meimra, Amoraic-era discussion of the Mishnaic-era material, can fall into place far more easily. Because by now, I can give the students a page of Gemara and ask them, based on language and key words, to identify where each Sugya begins and ends, find every Mishnaic-era source that is quoted in the Sugya, learn those Mishnaic-era sources independently, and predict, based on the content of the Mishnaic material and the tone of voice in the Meimra before it (וה vs. ד versus no prefix), what the Meimra will be. And more often than not, they are right. Meimra (“Gemara”) is now working for them rather than against them.

Let me give you an example of this kind of learning in action (see link to follow along). The main Mishna (which the students learned as part of the entire Perek of Mishnayot) teaches that if an unpaid watchman pays the owner the value of his lost object, the thief, if he is found, will have to pay someone back:

… שילם ולא רצה לישבע … נמצא הגנב משלם תשלומי כפל …

But a Beraita which will be quoted in the Gemara (after the telling word “והתניא”) teaches the following:

השוכר פרה מחבירו ונגנבה, ואמר הלה (the other guy) הריני משלם ואיני נשבע ואחר כך נמצא הגנב משלם תשלומי כפל לשוכר.

So it seems that only expressing one’s desire or willingness to pay is enough to be absolved from paying the original owner if the thief is found!

The worksheet (linked to above) then offers a Tosefta – one not quoted in our Gemara – with apparently conflicting views of its own on the matter. The students, in this case, were encouraged to develop their own hypotheses as to why certain cases would require actual payment to receive restitution by the thief while others would necessitate merely expressing one’s desire to pay. Because our emphasis in this Perek was not solving the problem through means of the Meimra, the Gemara’s own resolution is not on this worksheet (although its identification of the problem is). We actually did cheat and see what the Meimra had to say, but the Meimra’s own resolution really didn’t matter to us at that point in our learning, because the purpose was identification and comparison of original sources.

By Perek 4 (see link), the learners are adding Meimra to their study of Mishna, Tosefta, and Beraita. They are asked first to identify the start and end of Sugyot, then scan each Sugya to find any Pasuk, Mishna, Tosefta, or Beraita that is quoted. They learn these sources before learning the Meimra that is woven between them. As they learn the Gemara, they are also asked to try to put in punctuation and identify and see if they can mark “Steps” in the Gemara, such as a question, answer, proof, rejection, or statement – but this is really Seventh Grade work that only serves as enrichment at this point.

All told, this past year we learned most of Mishna Succah (we left out the ends of two Perakim along the way), and three Daf Gemara scattered throughout different Perakim. Two years ago, we learned most of five Perakim of Mishna Bava Metziah and between three and four Daf Gemara. In comparison, three years ago, the last time I learned Gemara “the normal way” with 6th Graders, plowing through Tefillat Hashachar, we learned four Daf – so we have exchanged a Daf for skills that the learners can apply to any Sugya and an approach that takes their dynamic learning needs into account. I have been critical in the past of learning in a piecemeal way rather than Al Haseder (in order), but the excitement of the learners in relating to everyone else in the school that they had learned “three pages” by the end of the year showed me that the piecemeal approach, given all the other considerations, make it worthwhile, at least for Sixth Grade. (It didn’t hurt that I was not hesitant to apprise them of their progress along the way.)

One additional area of learning necessary to fully appreciate the expanding page of Gemara is Amoraic history and geography, which we learn on a separate track but integrate as much as possible into our main Mishna/Gemara learning. In the past we have covered the history component using Rabbi Berel Wein’s Vision and Valor, of which my school was once mailed dozens of copies, but the book is written above the level of most Sixth Graders. I am currently developing my own materials and will link them here at some point. Amoraic geography, neglected even by many who champion the history education, is critical for understanding, for example, what it meant to travel between Bavel and Israel; how easily or not the Babylonian Amoraim could have interacted with each other; or how the historical migration around and away from Israel is reflected in the geographical reality on the ground. I have several maps that I use for this study which I will scan and link here at a later date.

Learning Mishnaic-era material (ideally the whole Mesechta of Mishna, Tosefta, and available Beraita, if time allowed) before seeing the Meimra on that material is not cheating. Rabbi Pinchas Heyman (whose Revadim methodology I have studied from him and which forms the backbone of some of the ideas in my own approach) argues that the Hebrew-language Mishnaic material scattered throughout the page was intended as a form of Amoraic “Mareh Mekomot” to be learned before the Meimra. Learners can be given the tools to identify the start and end of a Sugya (such as two dots, תנו רבנן, קמ”ל, שמע מינה), find and interpret words which introduce Mishnaic material throughout the page (such as והתניא or דתנן), and learn that Mishnaic material. Once they have done those three steps, they can not only predict Meimra with fair accuracy but also march through it more easily because they know, to a large degree, what it is going to say since they have seen the Mishnaic discussion points already. To build off of Rabbi Heyman’s analogy, a Maggid Shiur who can only keep his students on their toes by failing to give them Mareh Mekomot ahead of time is not a great Maggid Shiur. A true Maggid Shiur is not afraid to give away these “secrets” because the real Chiddush of the Shiur lies in the intellectual challenge to be developed as a result of those Mareh Mekomot. The Amoraim, in that sense, were fine Maggidei Shiur.

Although there are certainly numerous challenges remaining in their life-long learning of Gemara, thoughtless pedagogy should not be allowed to create additional ones. Limiting challenges through more thoughtful choices is not “cheating” in the world of Gemara education any more than it would be to teach students prefixes, suffixes, and roots before embarking on the study of Chumash. Gemara will always be an intellectual challenge even to our brightest scholars, but it is not necessary to add layers of complication by not giving learners the road-map they need to begin their journey. Continuing Rabbi Heyman’s analogy, students who decide that they are too smart to use their Rebbe’s Mareh Mekomot are acting with arrogance and, of course, doing themselves a disservice. We should act no differently with the Mareh Mekomot given to us by the Amoraim, and we should encourage the learners under our care to find and use them as well.

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