Beyond the Source Sheet: New Modes of Exploring the Jewish Library
With the onset of COVID, classes moved online and digital texts proved to be crucial to continuing instruction while students were learning outside the walls of the classroom. Now that teachers and students are returning to the school buildings, digital texts can continue to provide opportunities to model authentic learning and create lifelong learners. This article will point towards exciting ways to reorient pedagogy using digital texts as a core feature of instruction and will provide examples from teachers who have used the digital library to open the world of the Torah to their students. With proficient use of new technologies for learning, students develop their familiarity with the Jewish library, set off on their own paths of discovery, expand the range of texts that they access, and gain new understandings of the Torah.
A robust digital library positions students in an easily navigable and stimulating Beit Midrash, allowing students to move from one work to another with ease. Shifra Elman, a teacher at Kehillah Jewish High School, is using the digital library to introduce her students to the Jewish canon. Elman models navigating the library and students with little or no Judaic background engage with the library by opening books, seeing their position within the library, perusing the texts, and reading about the books and their authors. She finds that “there’s something about being able to touch them and click them…that they can grasp more readily what this canon is.” Matan, a high school student from Maryland said that through using a digital library, he learned how vast the Tanakh is. “A whole other world was opened for me.” Dahlia, a high school student from California, agreed when she said, “I have a much better sense of the variety of texts.” Another key feature of a digital library is the extensive interlinking between texts, which makes the connections more apparent and easier to navigate than footnotes or other indicators in printed works. Links show the students the relationship between text and commentary and the process of Torah which cites prooftexts and is in conversation with other works. Understanding these relationships and having the skills to confidently navigate throughout the library prepares the students for deeper investigations into texts.
Once students realize the breadth and depth of the library and they have the tools to access it, they can follow their interests, answer their own questions that arise from text study, and become comfortable exploring multiple approaches and opinions on different questions. Toby Kaplowitz, a fourth-grade teacher at the Krieger Schechter Day School, encourages her students to dig deeper into the text by exploring multiple commentaries. Using books, students at this age are often only introduced to one commentator, Rashi. With the digital library, dozens of commentators are available to them. Students have discovered Ramban on their own while preparing a text and together they have learned their first Hizkuni while searching for answers to a question that arose during class discussion. Kaplowitz notes, “What’s been interesting for me to see is how my students are beginning to understand the idea of challenging a text, looking closely at the text and asking higher-level questions when they are curious.” Because all the connections are at their fingertips, students develop the habit of looking into the library when questions arise.
Easy access to connected information and the ability to click to go deeper helps encourage students to question and investigate. This is true even when the students cannot understand or fully absorb all the information presented. When looking at a new text, teachers can ask their students to notice the number of commentaries written about it. If the number is large, students can contemplate why the text has generated so many comments. They can assemble a list of questions about the verse and propose answers. Then, after reading some of the commentaries, they can determine if any of the commentators addressed their questions, what questions they asked, and what were their answers. This type of inquiry helps learners realize that one verse can generate many questions, that there isn’t just one answer to a question, and that commentators can disagree with each other. The vastness and interconnectivity of a digital Beit Midrash highlights the scope of the timeless Jewish conversation around these texts and helps students go beyond what is accessible to them in printed works.
A digital library empowers students to drive their own learning experience. No longer do the teachers have the responsibility of being the sole providers of texts to their students. Students are more easily able to pursue independent research, with teachers available to support and scaffold the experience as needed. Lucy, a high school student in New York, noted that being given the freedom to click through texts on her own enabled her to take the time to analyze texts that she discovered. She was grateful that she could make her own discoveries when she said that she could “see the development of an idea by clicking through [the library]”. It is also worth noting the value of a library that is portable and can be opened up anywhere in the world. When students leave the confines of the classroom, whether they are in college, traveling, or working, they can bring their digital library along with them. Having strong skills in navigating the digital library gives them the ability to continue their learning, both formally and informally, wherever life takes them.
Digital libraries are facilitating a dramatic change in pedagogy. Teachers model authentic learning by demonstrating to students how and why they might delve into texts. While the overall objectives of a lesson are preplanned, the actual route taken can be flexible; teachers can click through connections in real-time to show students how to answer questions that arise when learning a topic or text. As digital natives, students are quick to adapt to these tools and to begin using this library to follow their interests, problem-solve, and chart their own path through the texts. Just as they find materials on Google that they can’t yet understand or which prove to be irrelevant to their quest, students learn to select texts on their level, push themselves to reach a little higher, or ask a teacher for help in understanding a difficult passage. Working in an expansive digital library while supported by skilled educators and a rich learning environment, students build a mental map of the landscape of the Jewish library and learn to explore Torah in ways that will continue to serve them throughout a lifetime of continued study.
Rachel Buckman is the Senior Education Associate at Sefaria. Prior to making aliyah in 2017, she taught for over 20 years, both in person and remotely, in day schools throughout North America.
Sara Tillinger Wolkenfeld is Chief Learning Officer at Sefaria, an online Torah library and exciting interface for Jewish texts. She is passionate about building the future of Torah and expanding Jewish textual knowledge for all learners.
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