By Colin Elizabeth Pier-Silver
As you can probably imagine, teaching a Shabbat School class of six students in a small congregation in the Midwest comes with its fair share of challenges. Two years ago, the challenge I faced was how to get my fifth grade tefillah class engaged in the siddur in a way that differed from what they were already doing twice a week in Hebrew school. We couldn’t write or use highlighters, YouTube clips or audio files. And simply reading through the prayers again in Hebrew would certainly lead to behavior problems, because by the time the students got to my class, they already had been sitting, listening, and iscussing for 45 minutes in their previous class. I had to think outside the box for this one.
The box that we were in was the book itself – the prayer book. My students were unfamiliar with the siddur, its organization, its history, its patterns and components. Because they all attend secular schools, they did not attend services regularly enough to pick up on these intuitively. They did not daven on a daily basis.
As a literacy teacher in the public schools for my 9-5 job, I analyzed this situation from that lens. Simply put, my students were not literate in the siddur , neither in the Hebrew nor in the structure of the siddur itself. Once I understood this as a literacy problem, I was able to attack it from that perspective. What would I do with students who did not have enough exposure to text, who had no context or familiarity with the whole nor its parts? I would create experiences that would allow them to create this for themselves. The brain is hard-wired to seek patterns. With enough exposure, and with the right scaffolding, my students would be able to see the patterns and then begin to start wondering why those patterns were there and what their purposes were.
The Solution Is Somewhere
Luckily for me, I had worked on a reading curriculum project over the summer for my school system. Through that project, I learned about textmapping. The premise is that by taking the pages of a book and turning them into a scroll that shows the entirety of a section of text, the brain can see the whole and then begin to understand its parts and their functions. When one turns the pages of a book, one cannot see the big picture. However, when those pages are taped side-to-side and then hung on the wall, and one can walk the length of the text, the body and the brain work together to take in the visual and physical cues. This was exactly the type of experience I needed to provide my fifth graders.
To start, I reviewed the steps to creating a textmapping lesson on textmapping.org. Then, I spent a good twenty minutes at the Shul’s copy machine, carefully copying each page of the Shabbat Shacharit service. Lugging the still-warm copied pages home, I gathered my tape, glue stick, and copies; sat down at the dining room table; and got to work. I glued and taped each page side to side. Fingers sticky, neck aching, I pressed on. For obvious reasons, the amount of paper and time needed to create the scroll is the biggest pitfall of this activity. However, it is well-worth the upfront investment as the scrolls can be reused for innumerable lessons throughout the years.
The pages for the entire Siddur Sim Shalom’s Shabbat Shacharit service stretched no fewer than 12 feet. I rolled it up and fastened it with a rubber band. The scroll was complete. Armed with my pad of pink, orange, yellow, green and blue sticky note flags; my scroll; a role of blue painter’s tape; and lesson plan notes from textmapping,org, the lesson was ready for Shabbat.
I presented the class and lesson as an introduction to the siddur. Immediately, my students asked, with great dramatic effect and some whining, if they were going to do the same thing that they do in Hebrew school. I held up the scroll and said, “You tell me.”
I had one student take the free end of the scroll and start walking toward the back of the chapel where we held our class. As he kept walking further and further back, the other students’ eyes got wider and wider. There were wows and oohs and ahhs until finally the scroll was completely extended and we used the painter’s tape to attach the scroll to the wall. “That is amazing!” they exclaimed. The effect of the 12-foot scroll worked almost too well; my students became a bit over-excited. We should have such problems in the classroom, right?
Once everyone calmed down a bit, I had all the students stand on the opposite side of the room, across from the scroll. They were impressed with its length and amazed that it was all for only one part of the Shabbat morning service.
Walk the scroll
The students lined up and they walked the length of the scroll from beginning to end, paced so that they weren’t all bunched up. They were simply to read headings and see more of what was on the pages, while also getting a physical feel for its length. As they walked, they pointed features out to one another, compared details, and shared thoughts. Thus, they experienced the collaborative nature of the activity. They were working together to construct meaning.
What do you see that is familiar?
Then, I asked all the students to stand back from the scroll again, and, one at a time, they were to tell me what they saw in the scroll that was familiar to them. They eagerly mentioned that they saw the Shema, the Barchu, and a kaddish. This was a way to assess who knew what prayers and if they were able to apply part of what they were learning in Hebrew school to this tefillah class.
Show me where . . .
Focusing our attention, like a funnel going from wide to narrow, I then asked the students to find specific words on configurations. Using removable sticky notes in the shape of an arrow, I asked the students to mark every time they saw:
- The Shema – blue
- A bracha, “Baruch atah Hashem, etc.” – pink
- Kaddish– yellow
- The Barchu– orange
- The word “Amidah” – green
Using the removable sticky notes and color-coding them was a way to make the patterns visible. They noticed that there were many more instances of brachot within the Amidah than anywhere else in the service. Also, they asked questions about the location of Amidah in relation to the other prayers. They commented that the Barchu and the Shema are close together, at the beginning, and don’t appear again. Finally, they realized that the kaddish both opens and closes the service.
I could have told them all these things, but the power was that they were able to construct the understanding themselves.
What is the sequence?
Once the sections of the service were familiar, and the names of the prayers in the Shabbat Shacharit service identified, I had the students walk to each in order, tap them, and say it aloud. They did this again and again, more and more rapidly, until they were able to recite the order from memory.
Was it effective?
To assess if this unit and its lessons were effective, I needed to look back at my original learning targets: that the students would have a positive disposition toward Shabbat school, toward tefillah, and toward my class, and that the students would know the sequence of the main prayers in the Shabbat Shacharit service.
Based on their level of engagement, their insights, and their observations once patterns began to emerge — and their request to bring the scroll out again and again during subsequent lessons — I concluded that I had achieved the first goal.
At the beginning of the second lesson, I asked who could remember the order of the prayers. I told them to go up to the wall, without yet hanging up the scroll, and tap out where each prayer was and say it. All six students were able to do this with 80% or greater accuracy.
We used the scroll in almost every class that year. Once the surface-level patterns and structure were identified, we moved onto deeper questions including why the Amidah is where it is; the progression of the prayers from the communal call to prayer of the Barchu; the loving relationship between Hashem and the Jewish people in the Shema; and the personal prayers, praise, and requests in the Amidah. We also were able to identify special prayers for holidays and understand why they were placed there and their functions. The scroll activity was the frame, and throughout the year we were able to fill out their understanding of tefillah by hanging that new information on what they learned already.
Upon reflection, later in the year I would have wanted to compare the Shacharit for Shabbat with the Shacharit for weekdays so that my students would be able to see the similarities and differences. In addition, the following year, I could have chosen to highlight musaf, or focused more on the Amidah itself and gone deeper. There are any number of ways to extend this, and further fill out their understanding of the siddur and its prayers. It is limited only by our creativity and curiosity.
This article is reposted from the NewCAJE online journal “Jewish Educator” with permission.