Gen Ed Torah is a blog series by Rabbi Lee Buckman, in which he reviews current literature in education and applies it to the world of Jewish education.
A Pesach Reflection: “Everything I Learned about Engaging the Silent Child I Learned from Nechama Leibowitz”
Every class I ever taught had a few students who were the first to raise their hands even if they had nothing to say. Likewise, a handful of students regularly preferred to remain silent even when they had something intelligent to add. The quiet ones may have been intimidated by the ones with fast hands or afraid of failure or scared of speaking extemporaneously. How do we engage them and level the playing field?
The master at engaging students was Nechama Leibowitz, the eminent Israeli Tanach teacher, around Pesach time 24 years ago at age 92. She was an extraordinary pedagogue who taught taxi drivers and future teachers, secular Jews and religious Jews, members of Knesset and street cleaners, my wife, and me. Anyone who sat in her class learned not only how to analyze the classical biblical commentators but also how to get students to actively grapple with thought-provoking questions and improve their understanding of the subject matter.
Nechama would begin class with her signature question: “Ma kasheh l’Rashi?” (“What textual irregularity is Rashi addressing?”) She would emphasize that she didn’t want us simply to paraphrase Rashi’s words. She would remind us that Rashi said it well the first time, and it would be chutzpah to think we could do better.
Furthermore, she explained that a kushiya (a conundrum, difficulty, or problem) always involved a counter-text or an alternative hypothesis. If our answer was, “Why did the text say X,?” she would answer, “Why not?” The most widely known illustration of her point was the Haggadah’s Ma Nishtana, which in Hebrew aren’t the arba she’elot ( the four questions) but arba kushiyot (The four paradoxes). The question isn’t “Why is this night different?” (Why not?), but why aren’t the Pesach table rituals the same as all other ritual meals where we are permitted to eat chametz or matzah and have no obligation to eat maror, dip vegetables before the main course, or recline?
Nechama succeeded in engaging an entire class by first demanding everything in writing. Otherwise, she feared her students might hide behind the raised hand of an eager student who would offer a correct answer. In the class my wife and I attended, there were about 100 students. Nechama wanted every student to think through the problem. She waited for each of us to commit in writing before she resumed the class discussion. She also demanded a terse answer, often just one word. It was easier for her to check 100 answers if she had only one word to read. However, beyond that, she felt that if we couldn’t sum up the difference between one commentator and another in one word, it would be an indicator that we should keep working to determine how they differed.
As we wrote our answers, our octogenarian teacher shuffled up and down every row of students in her brown-checked polyester outfit and checked every student’s response. It didn’t take her much time to circulate through 100 desks and let us know if we were on track. No student could dodge her. As a result, it wasn’t just the wise child who had to think hard or who was called upon to share her answer. Every student received feedback and the encouragement to participate – the simple child and the one who didn’t want to ask. Then, after she saw every student’s answer, she called on a student to share her or his answer, an answer that she knew was right. Even the reticent child would want to speak up.
At the end of the school year, I kept memories of her pedagogy alive by working on some of her gilyonot, a series of mimeographed questions on the parasha printed on off-white grainy legal-size paper. Most teachers’ least favorite responsibility is grading papers. Not so for Nechama. She invited anyone to send her responses to her questions. For 50 years she gave handwritten feedback on the papers of a vast, unseen, eager audience that spanned the globe. I think we sent her postage money, but she took no pay. She was a human internet website with a virtual classroom of thousands. When she reached 40,000 responses, she stopped counting. To this day, I have kept two of her hand-corrected responses that she sent on blue tissue-paper aerograms.
If Nechama Leibowitz were alive today during the pandemic, she would look at Zoom education as a powerful high-tech means to engage all students in the classroom. You can readily identify a Nechama-designed Zoom class. It is one where teachers assign a thought-provoking question, set a time limit, send students into breakout rooms with a hevrutah, float around and join rooms to check in on discussions, post an announcement to all rooms with teacher observations, require the students to post their answer in a chat box to the teacher and invite everyone to rejoin the whole group for a lively discussion that engages not just the wise child or the one whose hand goes up first but even the silent child.
WHAT DO YOU THINK?
Rabbi Lee Buckman
Rabbi Lee Buckman lives and works in Jerusalem. He heads up the Israel office of the Holocaust Claims Conference which funds education, research, documentation, and films related to the Shoah. As well, Lee is the Executive Director of JEDvision, which provides educational services, consulting, and executive coaching to Jewish organizations and institutions globally. Prior to making aliyah, he served as Head of School at three institutions: TanenbaumCHAT, the Greenfield Hebrew Academy, and the Frankel Jewish Academy. Lee has been a Lookstein Center contributor for more than 10 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.