The Bible Lab: A Principal's Perspective

by: Frances Levy

This article originally appeared in Ten Da’at, vol. 4, 1, 1989. Appears here with permission.

Any new and creative school activity is bound to encounter some skepticism from professionals and laymen – especially when it requires a new budget line – and the Bible Laboratory at Akiva School was no exception. But after a year of use, the Lab has become an integral part of the school and the overall response to it has been very positive.
In order to appreciate the goals of the Lab, one must briefly examine the educational philosophy of our school. We are strongly committed to developing all thinking and linguistic skills (and in Quebec this means fourteen hours per week of French in addition to Hebrew and English) into one integrated, academic program. Approaches to teaching and learning remain the same regardless of the specific subject being taught. A laboratory experience for religious studies is thus very much in keeping with this attitude.
In addition, the presence of the Lab has raised the profile of Jewish studies, in general, and the Bible, in particular, among all members of the school community. The very same Bible Lab posted on the door in large letters, evokes questions and comments from all and sends a strong message about the seriousness with which we approach religious studies. Introduction of the Lab into our school accompanied a move to larger quarters. The availability of the extra space was a requirement for opening it. The furniture for the Lab consists of tables and chairs, not desks, differentiating it immediately in the minds of the children from a “normal” classroom. It is decorated with appropriate posters, charts, maps and pictures, including color photocopies chosen to complement the Bible unit under discussion. Multiple copies of concordances, atlases and other appropriate books fill the shelves. Located as it is across the hall from the library, the Lab’s resources are complemented by those of the library, and are equally accessible to staff, students and parents. Children able to do advanced, independent work with Jewish texts found the Lab, with its library of reference works, an excellent place to work.
Our Bible Lab, known as the Maabadah L’Tanakh, is also used for other activities and meetings including several parent programs. On Curriculum Night, for example, we hosted an exhibit of reproductions of illuminated Bible manuscripts and unusual Bible atlases, which introduced the Lab to parents and provided an interesting and attractive subject for an innovative unit on the Bible. A similar adult education program on the history of the Passover Haggadah was held in the Lab where the resources and setting contributed to studying the Exodus and the related holiday celebrations.
Within the academic framework, the initial Lab session focused on a very concrete lesson, the role of archaeology in Bible study. To this end, we buried copies of ancient texts and artifacts, as well as broken clay pots and other available items in sand boxes or bins and held a series of excavations. Items discovered, including inscriptions from Biblical times, copies of Canaanite artifacts, and later objects (mosaics, coins and texts), provided opportunities to study the concepts of typology and stratigraphy and served as the jumping off point for many subsequent lessons that examined the significance of the discovered objects.
A series of Lab exercises, coordinated with the regular Bible classes, moved to more abstract and textual lessons, such as decoding paleo-Hebraic script, identifying unknown texts with a concordance, use of the concordance, organization of the Bible, discussion of how one determines the meaning of an unknown word, determining unknown words in Biblical poems, the presence of foreign loan words in the Bible, etc. These units of work were conducted through the use of Laboratory Manuals designed for each of them. As with other kinds of laboratory exercises, students investigated on their own, following a step-by-step process of discovery, of testing hypotheses, and of forming conclusions, guided by the Lab instructor and assistant (the class teacher). These activities were limited primarily to grades 5 and 6 (the oldest grades in our school) who used the Lab every other week. During the first year, younger classes used the Lab less frequently to construct models of the Mishkan, the Temple and Noah’s Ark, and to observe a sofer stam writing mezzuzot. The Lab also served as a vehicle for professional development. A number of classes for Bible teachers focused on how to use its unique features, and student teachers from the local university’s Jewish Teacher Training Program shared in some of the experiences as well.
A few suggestions to consider in developing a similar program:
1. The Bible Lab proposal was originally designed for use in high school. While many of the principles governing its operation are applicable in elementary school and help set the groundwork for more sophisticated study at the secondary level, one must be careful not to overstep the level of the students. The Lab was successful in grades 5 and 6 and should work with younger students. Its greatest potential is still with the older grades.
2. Do not underestimate the investment in either time or funding that is required to develop the Lab properly. Once undertaken, the project cannot be allowed to fail, and proper execution requires much staff and administrative time, a steady supply of books and other equipment, and the services of a good consultant who can design the materials to suit the needs of the school.
3. In its initial steps with the Lab, the Akiva School received some financial assistance from an innovative Projects Grant of the Jewish Education Council of Montreal (equivalent to the local Bureau of Jewish Education). Such support can aid in starting Bible Labs elsewhere.