By Rivke Pianko, Judaic Studies Teacher, Westchester Hebrew High School
The question discussed at the recent Jewish Futures Conference was “Whose Torah Is It Anyway?" As a Judaic studies teacher at a Modern Orthodox high school, the big ideas discussed at the conference resonated with me and pushed me to envision how today’s youth view text. Brett Lockspeiser opened my eyes to the power of open sourced sites and the potential for collaboration in an online community. Irwin Kula challenged me to think about the messages I want to share with my students, beyond using the text for the sake of legitimizing one’s own opinion. Matt Bar showed me the power of using a medium that students are both comfortable and familiar with to teach text. Jen Krause taught me the importance of understanding the culture of my students, in order to leverage their knowledge to help them become better learners. Charlie Schwartz inspired me to encourage my students to “dig deep” into the text and to strive to help them find the deeper meaning. Lastly, the five recipients of the Young Pioneer award from the Jewish Education Project reminded me to inspire my students to find a passion, mission or goal and to pursue it using the ideas embedded in the text.
When Charlie was discussing the need for educators to emulate Hillel and encourage our students to go out and learn, I could not help but think of my own personal teaching methodology that I am using at Westchester Hebrew High School (WHHS). I see my mission as one which creates a platform whereby students can appreciate their Jewish identity and see the relevancy of Judaic studies in the world around them. I try to challenge my students to understand the text, analyze the text, and most importantly, to look for ways to relate the lessons and ideas found in the text to their own lives. With teacher support, my students created MemegilatEsther, a blog that serves as an example of my mission.
It all began when I taught Megilat Esther to my students. We used a variety of media, including pictures, songs and movie clips based on the text and traditional commentaries. In April, a few students approached me excitedly and told me that in reviewing for my test, they had designed memes based on topics in Megilat Esther. (They were also wise enough to ask for extra credit for their efforts!) The students’ enthusiasm and desire to use pop culture references to understand the themes and messages that we discussed in class were inspiring. So much so, I decided to offer this extra credit project to all of my students. When over fifty percent of the students completed the extra credit assignment, my colleague Netanel Munk and I realized that our students' enthusiasm and creativity should be recorded in a format that would encourage them and others to delve deeper into the text. We chose to create a meme-based blog focusing on Megilat Esther, which was part of the students' final exam in Navi (Prophets) class.
The students were assigned a few pasukim (passages) from the Megilah. They were responsible for creating a meme or picture that best represented the pasukim and then writing an analysis of the pasukim. The goal was to encourage the students to review the material they had studied all year and to take ownership of it by portraying their own interpretation of the text. The success of this project became apparent after I received an email from an eleventh grade student who expressed her appreciation of the blog. She explained that when she learned the story in the past, she was always bothered by the portrayal of Esther in the text as a beautiful woman who used her looks to save the Jewish people. After a deeper analysis and creation of her own meme, she realized and was able to demonstrate that Esther used more than her looks to save the Jewish people.
This project was one way that I encouraged my students to dig deeper into the text. I have discussed the success of this particular project with my school administrators and colleagues and we are excited about the prospect of incorporating modern techniques in teacher traditional topics. What methods are you using in your classes?
Rivke Pianko is a Judaic Studies teacher at Westchester Hebrew High School. She has been a DJLN member for two years and is a past recipient of The Jewish Education Project's "Young Pioneers Award" (2012). She is also a participant in the Educational Leadership Advancement Initiative (ELAI), a fellowship presented by The Lookstein Center, working with The Jewish Education Project, made possible by a generous grant from UJA-Federation of NY.