Flying Camels and Rollerblading: Active Learning in Teaching Talmud

by: Tova Warburg Sinensky

Tova Warburg Sinensky teaches Talmud and Jewish Philosophy at Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls and serves as a community scholar at Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood, New Jersey. In this article, she presents a variety of active learning techniques she regularly employs in her Talmud classroom with an attention-grabbing twist.

Long gone are the days when the study of Talmud was reserved only for aspiring Talmidei Hakhamim. The birth and flowering of the Yeshiva Day School movement has ushered in a new reality in which virtually every student studies Talmud. This phenomenon presents both opportunities and challenges. Certainly, teaching Talmud to all students allows us to engage students in the “bread and butter” of Judaism, and to powerfully impact our students’ religious passion and commitment. The challenge, however, is that studying Talmud is intellectually demanding. This is especially true for students who struggle with both undiagnosed and diagnosed conditions that affect the ability to learn, such as language, auditory, and visual processing disorders. These students often find learning Talmud to be extremely difficult, experiencing it as a subject that is impossible to master and therefore boring and irrelevant. While there have been other approaches suggested (Berman, 1997), the purpose of this paper is to demonstrate an approach that I have employed, broadly termed “active learning,” which I have found to be quite successful in overcoming these challenges while simultaneously accomplishing the skills and content objectives that Talmud teachers aspire to achieve.

Active learning “derives from two basic assumptions: (1) that learning is by nature an active endeavor, and (2) that different people learn in different ways” (Meyers and Jones, 1993). There are a plethora of active learning techniques (henceforth “ALT”), ranging from debates to role playing to student-generated blogs. Because students differ as to their learning modality (visual, auditory, kinesthetic/tactile) and mode of learning they find to be most engaging, it is important to pepper every lesson with a smorgasbord of ALT. What follows is a sample unit plan in which I utilize a number of these techniques to accomplish the three objectives that I have for every sugya: to engender excitement for and enjoyment of Talmud, to demonstrate that Talmud is interesting, and to facilitate learning. As the reader will discover, some of the strategies that I employ at the beginning of the lesson are more “eccentric” and exciting than others. However, I believe that the excitement generated at the beginning of the unit precludes the need for every subsequent strategy to be as unconventional. While this type of “active learning packed” lesson would certainly benefit all students, it is my hope that the reader will utilize this “model” unit as an impetus for thinking about how to incorporate ALT into our teaching of weaker students in particular, thereby facilitating their comprehension of, excitement for, and love of Talmud.

The Sugya

And Rava said: Two [witnesses] came and said: In Sura on Sunday morning a man killed someone and two [other witnesses] came and said: On Sunday evening you were with us in Nahardea. We assess: If from morning to evening one can go from Sura to Nahardea, they are not zomemin (false witnesses). And if not – they are zomemin. Is this not obvious? You might have thought that we should suspect a flying (unusually fast) camel. [Therefore, Rava] comes to teach us [that we do not suspect such a camel.] (Babylonian Talmud Makkot 5b)

I walk into the room, and write the words “Flying Camels” on the board. I inform the students that this is the “title” of our new sugyah, as titling sugyot creatively serves as an excellent trigger to introduce a unit as well as a way of assisting students in remembering the sugyot that they have studied. I am met with a mixture of perplexed and excited faces. I have accomplished my first goal: communicating the message that Talmud – which many associate with a black and white sea of unintelligible words and irrelevant concepts – is potentially colorful.

ALT: Brainstorming

I ask the students to discern, based on the title, what the sugyah will be about. Almost every student raises her hand to offer one or more suggestions. I keep the students in suspense and tell them that in order to figure it out, they will need to learn the sugyah.

ALT: “Gemara Lab”

I announce to the students that we will be doing our first “Gemara lab.” A Gemara lab, I explain is where we test out scenarios and issues discussed in the Talmud. I ask for three volunteers: a scribe, a timer, and a mathematician. We make our way downstairs to the multi-purpose room, which will serve as our laboratory. I distribute a “lab sheet” that includes spaces to write down the following information:

  1. The average time it takes a member of Mrs. Sinensky’s class to get from chair “A” to chair “B.”
  2. The time it takes for Mrs. Sinensky to get from chair “A” to chair “B.”

The timer says “go,” and the first student walks at her typical pace from one end of the room (demarcated by chair “A”) to the other end of the room (demarcated by chair “B.”) The scribe reports her time. Each student follows suit. As each girl walks down the “runway,” her peers cheer her on. After all the students have gone, the mathematician calculates the average time that it takes for a student in Mrs. Sinensky’s Talmud class to walk the distance. The number is announced, and the students record it. I then put on my roller blades (which I had been successfully hiding in my bag), and the students erupt in a frenzy of excitement and disbelief. I rollerblade across the room, and the timer announces my time to the class. They record the time on their lab sheet. I rollerblade back to our classroom, inevitably photographed by my tech-savvy students who all have camera phones.

ALT: Write, Pair, Share

I instruct the students that their mission is to decipher the relationship between flying camels, our lab and the sugyah that we are about to learn. As I do with every sugyah, I distribute a havruta sheet. It contains a list of munahim (Talmudic terms that signal the start of an answer, attack, inquiry, etc.), a blank outline of the sugyah that they will fill in, a list of hard words and their definitions, and guiding questions. We now explain the meaning and function of the two munahim for this sugyah: peshita and mahu de-teimaka mashma lan, and I write this information on the board. In order to further clarify their function while maintaining student interest, I use each in a sentence about my summer vacation. In order to assess whether the students understand the function and can apply it to a new context, I ask each student to compose two sentences about her favorite food in which she uses the munahim properly. Each student then pairs up with her havruta, who reads and corrects her sentences, and then I call on students to read their sentences to the class. I collect the sentences to review them to ensure that all students have mastered the material.

ALT: Cooperative learning, student-generated graphic organizers

With their havrutot, the students use the munahim and other “clues” (for example, new speaker, parallel phrases) to figure out how to break the Gemara into steps and fill in the outline on their havruta sheet by writing the words in each step and labeling each step appropriately (attack, proof, etc.) The students feel empowered to complete this task, as they know that they will succeed if they “use the clue” and the munahim that we have just learned. We regroup as a class, and I call on individual students to explain how they broke the sugyah into steps and why they chose to do so in that way. I simultaneously draw an outline on the board.

ALT: Cooperative learning

I remind the students of their mission: to figure out how flying camels and our lab relate to the sugyah. They break into havrutot and work on translating it, using their outlines, list of words, and guiding questions for assistance. Questions such as, “What do the first witnesses say?” and “What is Rava’s opinion about this case?” appear on the sheet. As they navigate their way through the text, they write their answers on their havruta sheet. A few minutes into the period, students begin to call me over and say, “We got it!” or “You were the flying camel!” or “Now I see why we did the lab!” These students feel accomplished, and the students who are still working are driven to complete the “mission” as well. When most of the students have completed the task, we regroup as a class and I call on the students to read and translate. We then review the answers to the guiding questions.

ALT: Brainstorming

We are now ready to do some analysis together. On the board, we compile a list of reasons why one might suspect that the witnesses had “flying camels” (the hava aminah, or initial assumption) and a list of reasons why the Talmud concludes that we do not suspect this (the maskana, the Talmud’s conclusion.)

ALT: Highlighting

The students now complete the following assignment individually. While this highlighting assignment requires the students to understand not only the relationship between the lab and the concepts in the Talmud, but also its relationship to the text of the Talmud. Highlighting is also an excellent way of determining if students are able to identify the question, answer, attack, etc. in the Gemara. Questions include:

  1. Highlight the words that indicate that in assessing if witnesses are zomemin, we go by the average time it takes to travel from Sura to Nahardea.
  2. If the witnesses can travel from Sura to Nahardea in this amount of time, are they zomemin? Highlight the words that indicate this.
  3. Highlight the words that would match with the following: “maybe they wore rollerblades!?”
  4. If the witnesses wore rollerblades, are they considered zomemin? Highlight the words that indicate this.
  5. The students hand their sheet in at the end of the class, and I hand them back the next day for review and corrections.

Not every sugyah is as amenable to such an “out-of-the-box” lesson. However, I strongly believe that by thinking creatively, any piece of Talmud, even the most difficult and prima facie disinteresting, can be made intelligible and interesting by utilizing even a few active learning techniques. Others that students enjoy include starting the class by presenting a scenario (orally or in writing) that is relevant to the students’ lives that parallels the discussion in the Talmud. Students are given two to three minutes to discuss it with their neighbors, and then regroup for a class discussion. This strategy is so effective because it immediately communicates the message that Talmud is relevant and therefore interesting, thus providing the students with an incentive to plow through the difficult text.

Two other tried and true techniques, perhaps more amenable to female students, involve using drama and art. The first is playing paper bag dramatics, appropriate for a sugyah that contain scenarios. Students are divided into groups, and then act out the different parts of the case using randomly chosen objects. Finally, having students draw their own pictorial representations of the sugyah and displaying them to their classmates serves as an effective and fun review exercise.

My weak students’ (from weak to strong) persistent requests to design and execute their own “Gemara lab” for other sugyot and the consistently high “rating” of my ALT sugyot on my “Survey Says” section of my assessments indicates that active learning is a method of instruction that levels the playing field for all students. Its emphasis on utilizing multi-sensory teaching tools ensures that all students have the opportunity to acquire knowledge through their strongest sensory channels. Employing ALT allows for even the weakest students to glory in the excitement of learning Talmud, a subject they may have never dreamed they would come to tolerate, let alone embrace.

I thank the following family members and colleagues whose ideas, comments and critiques were instrumental in the writing of this article: Tamar Kaplan Appel, Elana Flamenhauft, Rivka Kahan, Dena Knoll, Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, Tzvi Sinensky, Chaye Lamm Warburg and Tamar Warburg.

References

Berman, Scot A. “So What?” Talmud Study through Values Analysis.” Ten Da’at 10:1, 1997: 17-31.

Brandes, Y. and Lichtenstein, A. (2007). Notes from ATID: Talmud Study in Yeshiva High Schools. Jerusalem: Legacy Heritage Fund Limited.

Grumet, Zvi. “Goals of the Day School Movement: Torah Scholars, All?” Ten Da’at 7:1, 1993: 34-36.

Handelman, Susan, Saks, Jeffrey, ed. (2003). Wisdom From All My Teachers: Challenges and Initiatives in Contemporary Torah Education. Jerusalem: Urim Publications

Jones, Thomas B. and Meyers, Chet (1993). Promoting Active Learning: Strategies for the College Classroom. California: Jossey-Bass.

Office of Instructional Consulting. “Active Learning Techniques.” Indiana University Bloomington: School of Education. 1 Feb. 2009. Available at www.indiana.edu/~icy/document/active_learning_techniques.pdf.

Prince, Michael. “Does Active Learning Work? A Review of the Research.” Journal of Engineering Education 93:3, 2003: 223-231.

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