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The Classroom is a Community.

Over the years, parents are always shocked when they hear me say that we have kids in our classrooms for less than two average work weeks (80 hours).

Unless your child is immersed in Jewish Day School, which quite frankly is not even an option where I live, that’s the deal.

So every minute in the classroom is precious. And every minute, it is tougher to keep our students’ attention as they are pulled in a zillion different directions.  Soccer. Swimming. Dance. Baseball. Marching Band.

You know the drill.

So how do we keep kids motivated to learn Hebrew and Jewish studies? How do we make our students feel connected to what we are teaching them?  It’s not always easy, especially when its 75 degrees outside and they seem physically and intellectually drained from the previous six hours in school.

But there’s no need to raise the white flag.  Religious school students are far more likely to become engaged if you keep a few core principles in mind:

1. Immediately establish that the Classroom is a Community. I have had tremendous success in motivating students by treating them respectfully and by genuinely caring about who they are in their entirety.  I tell them that being with them and teaching them is the best part of my day.  I also let them know that inspiring them to love Jewish learning is the best job in the entire universe.

And then I prove this to them by showing them. We must get to know our students and let our students get to know us.  It is incumbent upon us to build connections between people and create environments that allow for our students to know and respect their peers; we must build community. It is then that we know that God is present. Kehillot Kedushot are purposely and lovingly built. (See Martin Buber’s “I and Thou.”)

2. Remember “Relevance” and “Relatability.” And I say this not only because I happen to love alliteration. We all make snap judgments about people and kids are obviously no exception. Teachers who quickly set a tone that their lessons are relevant to life today are setting themselves up for a successful school year.

Don’t arbitrarily toss out references to the Jonas Brothers or the Red Sox just to prove you know who they are. But in a discussion about worshipping false gods, bringing up our celebrity-obsessed world is extremely relevant. Connecting Jewish lessons to contemporary pop culture – in the appropriate context – will separate you from the stereotype of the so-called “boring teacher.”  But of course, only share examples of what you truly know. Kids can always smell a faker.

3. Engage different learning styles in each lesson plan. Sometimes it’s difficult to fit in activities for all the learning styles, but if plans are always aimed at visual or audio learners, then you’ll lose the kids who are kinesthetic learners and/or experiential learners. While planning lessons, it’s crucial to consider multiple learning styles/intelligences, and make sure you hit all the learning styles over two class periods.

Students can and do learn in more than one way. In fact, students actually learn better if they process the material in several different ways. (See Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligence theory).

4. Bump up the praise — and ditch the High Five! Positive reinforcement is an invaluable classroom and parenting skill. But be sure to use specific praise.  “Good job” just doesn’t cut it.  And my least favorite “communication tool,” the HIGH FIVE, needs to be retired.

Instead, choose direct communication that shows our kids that we are truly listening to what they are offering. We need to push students to develop their ideas:

“Ira, I really like that you are thinking about how a new immigrant who wants to feel as though they belong in the “Golden Medina”  might change their outward appearance….Now please give us an example of such a change.”

In educational circles, there are now lots of debates about rewards.  Most educators believe that rewards don’t really work for all students, and if they do seem to work, it’s fleeting.

In a well-functioning classroom community, we should set community goals that foster cooperative learning and effort.  Kids experience that they are part of something bigger than themselves, offering a greater sense of belonging.  This is big-picture “Am Yisrael” stuff.  Judaism is relevant because each student is a vital link in the chain.

5. Forget about bribery. I do appreciate an intermittent hafta-ah katanah (small surprise) for the whole class, but constantly giving out candy turns kids into lab rats. It creates the expectation that every time kids breathe, they will get a reward.

Bribes, sugary or not, melt away motivation.  Constantly answering the question “What do we get if we do…” eats away at motivation.  Kids no longer want to be successful; they want a treat.

Creating an environment in which kids are not competing against one another, but are striving for their personal best, will propel even the most reserved kid to jump head first into the learning.

6. Classroom discipline should NOT be punitive. Sure, there will be times when your students won’t deserve any praise, let alone candy. When it comes time to reprimand, classroom discipline is most successful when students are guided and directed, rather than scolded.

Establish a code of conduct, a “covenant,” with your students at the beginning of the year. Set expectations for communal behavior and reinforce a classroom culture where students are lauded for respecting your shared goals and each other.  When the time inevitably comes that a student misbehaves, firmly explain to him or her why their actions violate the class covenant and ask how they intend to get back on course.

Positive peer pressure alone can often sway students to behave like mensches.

7. You are NOT teaching Bible trivia. Of course, facts are important. But just memorizing the names of the first few kings of Israel only provides the answers to future crossword puzzles. We can’t stop there. It is crucial that students develop an enduring understanding of the material we present them.

For example, what is the historical context in which the monarchy came into existence?  How have Kings Saul, David and Solomon shaped our history?  And for that matter, why don’t the Jewish people have a king or queen anymore?

8. Create a strong Classroom-Home Connection. While we are motivating our students, we need to also focus our attention on motivating families.  As in all learning environments, parents are our partners in Jewish education, too.  Without the support of families, our goals and objectives become nearly impossible.

If children feel that their parents are ambivalent about Judaism in general, and Jewish education is viewed as a non-priority to be shifted around like the little squares in one of those sliding tile puzzle games, then we are toast.

Let’s face it: There are lots of Jewish parents out there who send their kids to us to be educated, but who, for a variety of reasons, are not so connected to Yiddishkeit themselves. Parents need to see the relevance in their own lives and pass on that love of Jewish learning to their kids.  We can help parents achieve this through both formal and informal Jewish family education efforts.

Family Education makes a lasting impact in the everyday classroom!

Yes, even with this model, we might feel resistance from our students to be motivated to learn Jewishly.  And conversely, occasionally we witness children who soak up “the Jewish” like sponges, even though their parents are not overtly interested and connected themselves.

Bottom line: As education directors and teachers, we need to be an endless source of motivation, energy and ideas for inspiring our communities to become lifelong Jewish learners!

(Fellow educators: What tips do you have for keeping students engaged in the classroom and for motivating parents to extend our lesson plans into the home?)

Bringing Moses into the classroom as a guest speaker is a fun Hebrew School lesson relevant all year long

Bringing Moses into the Hebrew School classroom is a fun lesson relevant all year long

The Passover Haggadah tells us to think of the Exodus story “as if we all came out of Egypt.” The bitter herbs and the parsley dipped in salt water are supposed to be reminders of the tears of slavery.

It’s “We,” and “Us,” not “They” and “Them.”

Encouraging our children to forge an emotional connection to the Jewish past and the Jewish future is one of our primary goals as teachers and parents. That’s why I’ve found the Moses press conference to be one of the most engaging Hebrew School exercises over the years.

Look at the kids’ beaming faces in the group photo above.  They were some of my fifth graders at Boston’s Temple Israel, where I taught for six years in the 1990s. These kids — who incidentally are now having their own kids — acted like a movie star had walked into the room. They all wanted their photos taken with Moses and asked him ethical and theological questions that made me proud to be their teacher.

The Moses press conference is actually a lesson that is spread over several classes and involves a home study component. First, students are told that they are about to become Biblical-era journalists and that they need to know as much as possible about the Book of Exodus. They form their own media organizations — such as the Canaan Register-Times, the Sinai Enquirer or in a nod to modern times, — and research the background of the Ten Commandments and why it took so long to get to the Promised Land.

Feeding their curiosity is a press release teasing the upcoming appearance of the one and only Moses!


“In an unprecedented example of Biblical time travel, Moses is scheduled to meet with young reporters at Temple Israel for an informal press conference on Sunday, November 3.

Moses, a bearded prophet best known for leading the Jewish people out of Egypt after 400 un-fun years of slavery, will be in Boston on vacation. Besides Temple Israel, he has planned to take trips to Faneuil Hall, Bunker Hill Monument and the Swan Boats.

Among the questions he will be happy to discuss are:

• How did you do that trick with the Red Sea?
• Did it take long to write down everything in the Five Books of Moses?
• Why don’t you have a last name?

Of course, Moses also will be delighted to talk about the Ten Plagues, the Passover Seder, the fight he had with the Egyptian taskmaster, what it was like to look at the Promised Land but never get there, and any other incident in the Book of Exodus.”

(Click here to download full sample press releases used at Temple Israel and Congregation Shalom, two of the synagogues that Moses has visited in Massachusetts.)

Moses can be anyone from the community willing to put in the effort and kavanah. I’ve hosted seven press conferences over the years and have had college professors, parents and even my husband (pictured here) play the role. Of course, I advise that you politely ask your Moses to brush up on his Bible, too.  It gets embarrassing when the students have to correct the Prophet.

Also make sure that Moses talks in the first person plural, mentioning how “we” were freed after 400 years of slavery and how “our” feet got muddy walking on the Red Sea floor. This is definitely not meant to be a lecture, but an interactive exercise reinforcing our collectively shared experience with each other!

Students will take notes during the press conference and write up their reports in their respective media publications. As a trickle-down bonus, this lesson also incorporates creative writing, geography, anthropology, public speaking skills and critical thinking in addition to sparking meaningful discussions about Jewish values, spirituality, culture and identity.

The Moses Press Conference is a great way to engage Hebrew School students to think about Jewish values in a fun way

You can adapt this exercise to include additional Biblical characters to the mix. Perhaps inviting Miriam for a woman’s perspective about desert hikes or Pharaoh’s psychologist to analyze why he felt compelled to enslave others.

But it is important to note that this is NOT a Passover play. The costumes are cute and the role-playing is fun, but there is a serious exchange of ideas. If you pick your Moses well, he should push the kids to explore deeper issues.

I don’t claim authorship of this idea — I know numerous educators who have implemented variations of the same theme. Personally, I’ve mostly tried this lesson with fourth and fifth graders, but it certainly can be adapted for older students, who could tackle it at a more sophisticated level.

And the beauty of inviting Moses to the classroom is that you can keep inviting him back. Naturally, he’s very central to many of our sacred texts and cuts across many curricula. It would make sense to have Moses drop in on classes focused on Jewish history, Torah, Jewish Holidays, Prophets and Israel.

You could hold your press conference especially for Shavuot, our celebration of receiving the 10 Commandments on Mt. Sinai.

One last thing: You also don’t need to limit your pool of potential prophets to men.  Via the magic of Photoshop, here is my best effort at channeling my inner Moses!

Stacy Garnick was up for the role of Moses in the "Ten Commandments," but was narrowly beat out for the part by Charlton Heston

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This blog is dedicated to preventing another generation from dreading Hebrew School. I seek to exchange stories, ideas and tips with other parents, teachers and everyone who shares my love for Jewish history, culture, spirituality, arts, and Israeli produce. Care for a pomelo, anyone?

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