Friday, November 4, 2016

Torah Im Derech Eretz at SAR Academy?

You think I'm joking. And in a way I am. But in a way I am not. Look at this educational curriculum.



Building vocabulary

Conjugating verbs in present and past tense

Writing expanded sentences that incorporate adjectives

Speaking with new grammar skills and vocabulary

It's first on the list, just like in Horeb. Imagine Jewish kids being taught the language of the Torah. What a concept. Doesn't happen in so many schools.


In Chumash, we help students build their skills for independent Torah study. This year, we learn Sefer Shemot, perakim 1 - 20. By mid-year, students learn daily with a chevruta. With the definitions of the most difficult words, students answer guiding questions as they learn each perek. One particular highlight of our Chumash curriculum is the unit in which the students learn the entire section of the makkot, the ten plagues, independently, with their study partners. This is a wonderful experience and is supplemented by review sessions in which the teachers point out relevant patterns and ideas they may have missed.


Answering comprehension questions in Hebrew sentences orally and in writing

Identifying shorashim and the speaker within each pasuk

Differentiating between peshat and drash explanations of textual difficulties

Using Rashi to understand textual difficulties

Compares this to schools where the rebbe grinds through chapter after chapter, no chavrusos, no review sessions with patterns, no identifying speakers or differentiation between  peshot and drash, just trucking on to the next page - daf yomi for children.


This is the year when our students are exposed for the first time to the treasures of the oral tradition, the Torah Shebe'al Peh. Since the interplay between the written and oral laws is key to any later study of Torah, our curriculum begins with an introduction to the whole concept of the oral law and to Mishnah in particular. Students then study the first five perakim of Masechet Brachot which focus on the Shema and Shemoneh Esrei.


Locating a perek in the Mishna

Identifying different opinions and themes in Mishna

Analyzing repeating structure of individual mishnayot

Supporting analysis of mishnayot with proofs from various opinions in the Mishna

This is my favorite. Imagine preparing children for Mishnah with an introduction to Oral Torah. How radical. What I have seen in school after school is Mishnah with no introduction. Just open up Mesechta Shabbos and start learning that two are really four and that the tailor can't go out without his needle and then find out that one can't light with moss that grows on ceders. As one kid told me, it's just a list of everything I can't do. Without an introduction, the Mishnah sounds like lunacy. One needs to be taught how the Oral Torah works with the Written, that the Mishnah was written in code, and that it was written down after thousands of years of oral transmission. (One also needs to be taught a philosophy of mitzvos and the moral purpose of restrictions, but I'll leave that to other material that also is not taught in many schools.) How much ground do they cover - 5 chapters with particular focus on two everyday practices. I know a school in Israel that has covered in one month 10 chapters of Mesechta Shabbos, most of it with material like "one may not light with pitch, tar, or castor oil." I'm not knocking the Mishnah. I'm must saying children need to be introduced to it in the right way.

It's hard to propose that a Torah Im Derech Eretz family send a child to SAR with its mixed gender classes, knee length skirts, Zionism, and feminism. But looking at this curriculum, one is tempted. There is an actual curriculum here, some teaching methodology, some sense of how a child's mind is stimulated, something other than grinding through texts that were meant to be taught orally with explanation. The "better" schools are big on the warmth of the rebbe. They attempt to replace educational methodology with warmth but this doesn't really work for intellectually inclined children of which they are many in the Jewish world. Hats off to you SAR.

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