This is part of a series of articles exploring the diversity of Hebrew learning strategies at congregational schools.
Several years ago, Temple Micah in Washington, D.C., switched its school schedule from two days to one. With limited time for everything, including Hebrew, educators there had to make some choices about curriculum and process.
Their main Hebrew goals are that students develop a love of the language as part of their Jewish identity, and also feel comfortable in a prayer setting where Hebrew is being used.
“It’s different from learning Spanish in school. It’s a language connected to our people. This is part of who we are as a people, even if they won’t be able to understand it or speak it. It’s a foundation,” says Rabbi Josh Beraha, director of congregational learning. “I also want them to have a sense of accomplishment. I want them to feel good about learning.”
With those goals in mind, the educators realized that “one-to-one language learning was best for the kids, rather than have them learning in a class with 20 other kids,” according to Beraha.
The question then became how to deliver individualized Hebrew learning to more than 100 students. They realized it would be near-impossible to do it in the one school day, and so created a program that matches students with online tutors.
Beginning in third grade, each student is assigned a tutor and a time slot between 4-9 pm over various days. Some of the teachers are in the Temple Micah religious school; others are in New York or Florida. All meet with their students online through Skype of Facetime.
“What’s great about it is that there’s no being ‘behind’ other kids,” according to Beraha. “Some teachers can develop great relationships with kids because of the one-to-one. This kind of learning has so many benefits.”
Students work through a variety of materials online with their tutor, including Alef Bet Quest, Derech Binah, Aleph Isn’t Tough (“I like teaching ‘up’” Beraha says), and Mishkan T’filah Journal Edition. But there is no set curriculum or standardized measurement because “what works with one kid may not work for another. If they want to work through the V’ahavta prayer, great. If they want to read a Hebrew newspaper, that’s great too,” Beraha says.
“I don’t want Judaism to feel like it’s a workbook to be worked through,” he says. “It’s not about learning one thing and then learning another thing in a linear way. We work out of messiness, and we believe that the lesson is the least important thing that’s happening.”
There is no formal assessment, but after each tutoring session, teachers add their notes into a shared document for the school to monitor student progress.
Despite the benefits of the online-only Hebrew learning – flexibility, individualized learning- it hasn’t all been smooth sailing.
Beraha says the management of such a schedule has been difficult. And he recognizes that just because a student and teacher can connect digitally does not make in inherently better.
“If a kid connects on their iPhone on the way to baseball practice without their book or materials, that’s not good,” he says. “It’s a fine program for the kids it works for, and maybe we’ll make some changes to it. At the end of the day, we keep our goal in mind and adjust as necessary. That’s part of the learning process.”
Originally posted on the Behrman House Blog