What Subject Am I Teaching? A Rebbi’s Perspective

    RABBI YONAH GEWIRTZ 

Many years ago, I attended a professional development Yom Iyun. One of the sessions was about teaching Sefer Shmos to fifth graders. Since that was one of the classes I was teaching, I attended the session, hoping to pick up some useful ideas.
The presenter’s theme was effective strategies to make learning Sefer Shmos less difficult for fifth grade students. He felt strongly that teaching Rashi’s question and answer was the wrong approach because, as he explained, fifth graders are not capable of comprehending two different approaches to one pasuk, i.e. the reader/learner’s initial, problematic understanding of the text, and then Rashi’s clarifying answer which removes the problem. Rather, he said, the pasuk should only be presented by the teacher the way Rashi ultimately explains it, without showing what difficulty Rashi had removed with his pshat. Then, Rashi could be read “inside” to show the students how Rashi expresses the idea.
This was not the way I had been teaching Shmos. I taught Rashi’s question and answer because I believed that it was important for my students to understand that Rashi was there to address and remove difficulties found in the text. Eventually, the students would start asking questions themselves, and they would learn to look to Rashi for answers. This could only happen if the students learned the types of questions which troubled Rashi and which should also be troubling them. My thinking was – and still is – that the goal of teaching Sefer Shmos to fifth graders is not to teach Sefer Shmos, but rather to teach the children how to learn Sefer Shmos. Along the way, the students will also learn Sefer Shmos.
If my thinking is correct, then teachers must ask themselves “what subject am I actually teaching?”
In our schools, children are first taught to read Hebrew and then – hopefully – some Hebrew language skills and dinim. Beyond that, our schools concentrate on texts: Chumash, Nach, Mishna and Gemara. If the answer to the question “what subject am I teaching?” is “I am teaching a book of the Chumash or a maseches of Mishna,” our students will come away from these text-based classes only having learned facts – narrative, perhaps some vocabulary, and/or halachos. The majority of this factual information will likely be soon forgotten.
If, however, our answer to the question is something like “I am using Sefer Shmos to teach important Chumash-learning skills” the children will come away not only having learned Shmos, but also with some of the capabilities they can use to study other seforim of Chumash.
If our answer to the question is “I am using Sefer Shoftim to teach the mussar and hashkafa contained in Sefer Shoftim” the children will be presented with a Torah weltanschauung and if it is presented effectively, they will also learn the narrative of the sefer. The factual information may even remain with them longer if it is associated with a developed group of ideas and attitudes.
Another example: If a rebbi teaching Elu M’tzios in Gemara feels he is teaching the boys to know and recite the steps of the Gemara (shakla v’tarya), his talmidim will memorize – and subsequently forget – those steps. They will likely remember some phrases, vocabulary and concepts, but forget others. Perhaps the goal of the rebbi should be to teach Gemara thinking skills – how and where a kashya arises, how the answer raises a new kashya, how original assumptions change, etc. And rather than just reading the Rashis after having taught the Gemara, he could show the students how Rashi helps them work their way through the Gemara. When properly presented, Rashi becomes a friend, not just another sub-subject they have to know for the test.
It is important for teachers to decide upon what subject they’re really teaching well before the school year begins and think along those lines when preparing the text and the teaching materials – review exercises, quizzes and tests. Arriving at the correct decision about what subject they’re teaching may require thought and consultation with colleagues, supervisors, and experienced educators. Perhaps the question could even be posed to gedolei Torah before the teacher arrives at an approach. And it is certainly helpful to consult with the class’s teachers from previous years to know what skills and concepts the class has mastered.
Ample time and thought are required for preparing the coming school year’s work. By the time the previous school year ends, teachers need to know their assignments for the coming year, so they can devote the time and thought necessary to develop their approach to the subject. Summers are needed to learn the chomer well and develop the materials that will be used. Preparing a class or a lesson should not be a last-minute thing.
For example, if the decision is made to teach a skill-focused class on a sefer of Tanach, the teacher must know the skills well. If a teacher has never learned how the taamei hamikra (trop) provide punctuation for the pesukim, it can’t be one of the skills that will be taught to the children. But since it is an important skill, perhaps the teacher should take the time to learn about it.
I believe the answer to the “what subject am I teaching?” question should never be the name of the subject/sefer printed on the students’ class schedule or their report cards. The subject being taught should always include skills and/or hashkafos which are found within the sefer, though they lie beyond the simple translation of the words. The subject being taught should always be something crucial for the children’s development as Torah Jews who will continue to learn throughout their lives and live their lives according to the Torah’s ideals.
Finally, regardless of how a teacher chooses to answer the “what subject am I teaching?” question, a high level of professionalism must be maintained. Even if he/she selects a non-skill-focused class – as did the presenter at that long-ago Yom Iyun – the teacher must still answer the question before the school year begins. The learning of the chomer must be done well and well-in advance, as should be the design and preparation of the teaching materials. Though the ability to make last-minute adjustments and modifications is a sign of a good teacher, last-minute preparation is a sign of an unprepared teacher. 

Rabbi Yonah Gewirtz served as a rebbi at the South Bend Hebrew Day School for over 30 years. He advises on matters of curriculum, standards, and assessment at the school. Contact Rabbi Gewirtz at rabbigewirtz@sbhds.org.