School Wide Gemara Shabbat Project
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Rabbi Mordechai Soskil
School Wide Gemara Shabbat Project
Judaic Studies
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This year I had the opportunity to help create a project that made our study of mesechet Shabbat relevant and engaging and fun for kids!  At Maimonides School the study of Talmud is a very important value.  It is so important that we dedicate more time to the study of gemarah than to any other course.  And yet, unbelievably, a course that some parents and students have trouble really appreciating is Talmud!  So the limudei kodesh team and I set out to try and create a project that would put the students in the center, as creators of knowledge, and not just as consumers of knowledge.

(Attached are the project instructions handed out to students as well as rubrics and information for teachers.)

The way I tend to start new projects is by sharing a vague and amorphous vision for what I want the end product to look like.  I try describe what I think will be a good product and then I seek partners for moving toward the fuzzy vision, totally eager to change what I was thinking, totally interested in creating something different than I could have developed on my own because of the creative energy and experience of my teammates.  Of course, I was immediately challenged, “what are your goals?”  Together we were able to articulate goals that helped shape the direction of the project.  But to be truthful, this experience was more of a mobius strip than a straight line.  As we realized what we thought would make a good project we looped back to check the activity against the goals.  Sometimes we kept the activity and changed the goal.

 In the end we decided on:

1) To give the students a “fun” experience around learning.

2) To make the limudim of mesechet shabbat practical via a hands on experience.

3) To give the student an opportunity to make them ACTIVE participants in learning.

4) To build community around Torah study.

Like in all new endeavors there are some people that jump on as problem solvers and some people that participate as problem listers.   And as much as I would like to simply be frustrated with the problem listers, they are often right.  There are practical hurdles that have to be leaped in order to bring any vision to fruition.  In our case, one of the obstacles had to do with the time of the year that the project was unfolding in and a concern about workload in our very academically focused environment.   In the end, these types of concerns lead us to decide that the 12th grade would not participate in this inaugural project, and that the 11th grade would have a different type of project than the 9th and 10th grades.

Our 9th and 10th grade studied one melacha of shabbat.  They had to learn and explain one sugya in the gemarah that deals with their melacha, they had to describe how the melacha was used in the times of mishkan, and then they had to explain any relevant toldot and gezeirot of chazal.  They also had to explain what practical steps might be necessary to avoid doing the melacha in REAL LIFE.  The students were then told to produce two things.  They had to create a representation of their research either on display board or via PowerPoint, Prezi, or other media.  They also had to create an artifact that would expand on one aspect of their research.

There was a kickoff meeting where I met with the 9th grade and then the 10th grade to outline the project.  (And then there were problem listers and problem solvers right away.)  We went through the goals, the vision, the requirements, and the rubric for the project and I answered a few questions.  I think the most important thing that happened at that meeting was that I told the kids, “Look, this is something new for our school.  Your rebbeim and I have tried to create something we think will be exciting learning, but there are very likely things we hadn’t thought of.  There are probably problems we don’t know about yet.  So when you have a question we’ll have to get together and figure it out.  We (you, me, and the rebbeim) are creating something new here.”  It was going to eventually be clear that there were things we hadn’t thought of yet, I thought I might get that out in the open and invite the students to feel like creators in this endeavor as well.

The 11th grade project was importantly different in the product they were asked to create and in the way their teams were formed.  In the 9th and 10th grade the students were paired up among classmates with some intervention by the rebbe.  In the 11th grade we allowed the students to make small teams of about 5 students from across academic levels.  The 11th grade was asked to go to a place (like the quick oil change place at the end of the block or the bagel store) and video or take pictures of the activities there.  Then they had to identify what melachot were being done.  After listing the melachot they had to expand briefly on one of them, explaining how the melacha had been done in building the mishkan and any relevant gezeirot of chazal.  They were asked to produce an electronic product, and most of them created short videos of their work.

While both projects technically accomplished our goals, I think the 9th and 10th grade project was a better educational experience, and I would repeat the project with almost no changes.  The 11th grade project was fun, but on the whole, the students didn’t learn that much or really even apply their learning in a meaningful way.  If perhaps we included a class presentation to the 11th grade, where they knew they were going to present their work not just to the teacher via email, but to their peers, they may have been more careful in their analysis of what they saw.

The 9th and 10th grade presented their research in class by teaching a lesson.  Certain classes even had to prepare source sheets for their classmates.  The Ivrit b’Ivrit classes presented in Ivrit, which was wonderful to see!  On a certain day the research was presented, along with the artifacts in a “fair” (think sceince fair, but it was a melacha fair!) to the middle school.  It was a huge hit.  Some members of the administration were most impressed by how prepared and poised the teens were when they presented.  Personally, I was most impressed by many of the artifacts which included, a homemade thresher, hummus, cake, beef jerky, and a working electric circuit which the students built. you can see many of the projects here.

Perhaps even more important to our school community than the Talmud project itself was the collaboration of the limudei kodesh teachers on creating the project and the mere EXISTENCE of the project itself.  With the project we were able to declare loudly that the expectation that learning would just be in the triangle of book – student – board was destroyed.  Now it’s clear that Talmud study will be 3 dimensional.