Our Stories

To Teach and To Learn Jewishly

September 16, 2020 by Nechama Malkiel (Faculty and Staff)

A picture of my fourth grade class’ havruta practice two years ago: “It is time to translate pasuk alef [verse A]. Listen for your name as I pick equity sticks to assign your partners.” Before I started my work with the Pedagogy of Partnership, the term havruta indicated that students would work together to translate texts. The possibility for depth of discussion, engagement, and long-term relationship building was missing from “havruta” activities. When I read the book A Philosophy of Havruta: Understanding and Teaching the Art of Text Study in Pairs, I was excited to discover research that teased out the dynamics involved in this traditional mode of learning. As a result of my work with the Pedagogy of Partnership, student inquiry now drives our class discussions and one-on-one havruta discussions. Students generate factual, interpretive, and personalization questions about the psukim [biblical verses] they study in their havruta pairs. They later submit their best questions of each type to me, and I curate them so that havruta pairs can discuss the questions at “chat stations.” The havruta pairs rotate through several such stations in a class period, encountering sets of the three types of questions. Students bring their text along with them to the stations and refer to the text regularly to back up their interpretations, find answers to factual questions, and compare their own experiences with those of the Avot and Emahot [patriarchs and matriarchs]. Student engagement has skyrocketed as students take ownership of their inquiry and are able to facilitate their own discussions with their havruta partner.

Pedagogy of Partnership has also emphasized the power of teaching heterogeneous groupings of students in Judaic Studies. I have found that the students’ right level of challenge with interpretive work is often quite different from their facility with decoding and translation of psukim [biblical verses]. It is extremely rewarding to see students who struggle with translation tasks take the lead in interpretive tasks, asking text-based questions and sharing interpretations that are based in evidence from the text. I have been amazed to see students who struggle with translation demonstrate insider knowledge of how Jewish interpretation works. In a discussion of whether Lavan planned to trick Yaakov into marrying Leah from the start, one such student posited that Lavan did in fact make this plan early on. As evidence for her interpretation, she pointed out that Lavan told Yaakov that he would give her to him (Breishit 29:19) rather than stating Rachel’s name outright. She derived that Lavan chose to refer to her rather than state Rachel’s name because in his mind, Lavan was referring to Leah. This student taught our class an exegetical tool that was then harnessed by her classmates in other discussions: in Torah study it is noteworthy if the name of a character is mentioned outright or whether they are referred to by a pronoun. In another unit, the students noticed that the text mentions that Yaakov took his eleven children across the Yabbok ford (Breishit 32:23). Why eleven, when we had learned that he had twelve children at the time—eleven boys and one girl (Binyamin was not yet born)? In the psukim that follow, Yaakov wrestles with an ish. One student proposed that the twelfth child may have been the ish who wrestled with Yaakov, perhaps because they disagreed with him about his approach to Esav. This student harnessed another exegetical tool that shows mastery of the traditional Jewish interpretations of texts: the answer to your question may be found in the text that surrounds it. I have been thrilled to pair students with havruta partners who are working on different leveled text materials. It is a joy to see students who are sometimes frustrated when working through the original Biblical Hebrew paired seamlessly with a havruta who breezes through the text skills work, because both students require the same level of challenge in interpretive tasks.

Pedagogy of Partnership has added a new dimension to our school’s Jewish mission. In addition to students learning traditional texts in Judaic Studies classes, they also develop facility in learning Jewishly, becoming acculturated into the traditional havruta mode of Jewish learning. I now have colleagues in other disciplines who are teaching the tools for havruta learning, so that students can learn Jewishly in several of their subject areas, beyond Judaic Studies classes. My colleagues and I now use the term havruta more intentionally, and in reference to so much more than translation work. It is my privilege to become not only a teacher of Jewish texts, but a teacher of Jewish learning, facilitating and witnessing my students’ initiation into the traditional and holy mode of havruta.

COVID-19 UPDATE: At the beginning of this stay-at-home period of Covid-19, I made it a point to reach out to my family members and close friends to maintain my well-being. I then realized that the interactions that define my “normal” are not just with my friends and family, but also with my co-workers and neighbors, who are the community that normally surrounds me on a daily basis. In these days of remote learning, maintaining interpersonal relationships with classmates is key to our students’ well-being, just as interacting with co-workers and neighbors is so important for adults. I am taking advantage of the havruta skills we worked on to build my remote learning community. My students discuss Torah in break-out rooms and sing our havruta song from their living rooms. The Torah text is the third partner that binds our class together in these difficult times.