Advancing 21st Century Skills through Tanakh Education

Sharon Freundel

One of my Tanakh professors, in defense of his chosen academic specialty, would say, “Everything else is around it or about it; this is IT.” Community day schools have no better way to instill knowledge of and commitment to our Jewish heritage than to engage students in the study of the ancient texts of Torah, Nevi’im and Ketuvim that we all share. How we teach IT will make a meaningful difference in how our students relate to Tanakh now and in their future lives. Twenty-first century pedagogical practice can guide us on how to assure that our lessons instill a Torah perspective into our students’ lives.

In his book The Global Achievement Gap, Tony Wagner posits that our students must acquire and develop seven skills to succeed in today’s world: critical thinking and problem solving, collaboration across networks and leading by influence, agility and adaptability, initiative and entrepreneurship, effective oral and written communication, accessing and analyzing information, and curiosity and imagination. Current thinking stresses that when we do not have a destination in mind before we begin a journey, we may end up anywhere. If we are not mindful of what we want our students to know and to be able to do, they could end up with the “achievement gap” that Wagner addresses.

The Tanakh Standards and Benchmarks Project of the Jewish Theological Seminary has provided tools to help us determine our destination. In this approach, the teacher first figures out what he or she wants the children to know and to be able to do. Following that, the teacher identifies big ideas (BIs)—also known as enduring understandings—and essential questions (EQs) relevant to the unit the students are going to encounter, and a performance assessment based on Bloom’s Taxonomy, utilizing both basic knowledge and higher-order thinking skills. Only after this initial reflection and work does the teacher create lesson plans, always keeping in mind the big ideas and essential questions.

The Jewish Primary Day School of the Nation’s Capital is in its second year of using a Standards and Benchmark approach to the teaching of Tanakh. We teach primarily to two standards: “Students will become independent and literarily astute readers of the biblical text in Hebrew,” and “Students will develop a love of Torah study for its own sake and embrace it as an inspiring resource, informing their values, moral commitments, and ways of experiencing the world.” Through both the content of Tanakh and the process of learning with Standards and Benchmarks, our 21st century children move forward in the journey of acquiring the seven skills mentioned above.

Critical Thinking and Problem Solving

By definition, learning the peshat (literal) meaning of a Torah text and figuring out what the Author is telling us and what moral messages we may glean from this represent exercises in critical thinking and problem-solving. Standards and Benchmarks advance these skills through the formulation of EQs and BIs. For example, when learning the story of destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Bereishit 18-19), students encounter big ideas such as “Take responsibility to do what is right” and “Actions have consequences” together with essential questions like “To what extent are we responsible to help others?” and “To what extent are we responsible for other people’s actions?” With guided instruction and independent practice, students confront these and other major ideas which develop their critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Such questions as “Was Avraham right to argue with God?” and “If you were Lot, what would you have done?” make even young students confront tough issues.

Collaboration across Networks and Leading by Influence

Chavruta learning provides a method of teaching collaboration. Whether students are in chavruta to read and translate text or to dissect pesukim and the messages contained in them, they learn to listen to someone else’s opinion, express their own, and come to some sort of accord to present their findings to the class. The dialectical discussions in chavruta are intrinsic to Jewish learning, as illustrated in Chagigah 16a: “Hillel and Menachem did not debate; Menachem left and Shammai entered.” We know about Hillel and Shammai precisely because they disagreed. Who has ever heard of Menachem?

Agility and Adaptability

In the early grades, students learn Tanakh stories such as those of Creation, Noah’s Ark, the forefathers and foremothers, and the slavery in Egypt and redemption from it. They may learn parashat hashavua, being exposed on a weekly basis to stories from both peshat and derash perspectives. By third grade, they need to confront the text differently, as the approach to text will change. In addition to listening to stories, they learn to read and parse the verses, drawing meaning from each word, and to differentiate between the text itself and midrashim derived from it. For some, this is a stark awakening. For others, it offers an exciting development. Once the teachers add the layer of parshanim, the students possess another methodology for delving into the Torah text, while still utilizing previously learned methodologies, developing their agility in applying different modes to learning Tanakh.

Initiative and Entrepreneurship

Once the children have been introduced to the methodologies of Standards and Benchmarks, the teachers give them more latitude to make the texts their own, whether by coming up with their own EQs and BIs after perusing and chunking verses, or by responding to higher-order thinking questions such as “What is the moral message that the Torah is trying to teach us in the story of Sodom?” Each child can relate to the text according to what resonates for him or her, and not infrequently, we hear from parents that their children have come home and shared what a particular text means to them.

Effective Oral and Written Communication

Performance assessments are written using an engaging scenario, as explained below. Three tasks then follow: the first assessing basic knowledge and the other two measuring various skills as outlined in the next section. No matter what the scenario or what the tasks, at least a portion of every performance assessment includes a written assignment. For today’s students, effective written communication will likely be key to any enterprise they undertake. Not only do they need to think through what they want to communicate; they must communicate it in an intelligible, coherent manner. In addition, during the course of each unit, teachers give a number of opportunities through class discussions and formative assessments for every student to compose and share both verbal and written thoughts and ideas.

Accessing and Analyzing Information

Some of the first benchmarks in Standard 1—“students will become independent and literarily astute readers of the biblical text in Hebrew”—include “Knows the alpha-numeric of Hebrew,” “Articulates the names and order of the Five Books of Moses in Hebrew,” and “Differentiates between section, book, chapter, and verse of Tanakh.” Having this knowledge allows the children to access and place the text. Additional benchmarks help them develop skills to facilitate analysis of the meaning of the text on multiple levels: “Understands verb prefixes and suffixes,” “Identifies roots in verbs and nouns,” and “Recognizes repeating words and roots.” The benchmark skills for all of the standards are spiraling and cumulative. By the time the average learner graduates, he or she should be able to do an independent leyning or translating, explaining, and analyzing a previously unseen text. The latter two skills in performance assessment measure how each student has mastered analysis and evaluation of the material learned in the Torah text. For example, in the Sodom unit, the three tasks might be: writing a summary of the Sodom narrative, giving Lot advice on what to do when the residents ask him to turn over his visitors, and composing an essay about whether Lot was a tzaddik or not and whether he deserved to be saved. These three tasks incorporate both lower- and higher-order thinking skills.

Curiosity and Imagination

As mentioned above, every performance assessment begins with an engaging scenario. This puts the students in an “imagination mode,” so that the performance assessment becomes an exercise in creativity. Returning to the example of Sodom, the engaging scenario might be something like: “Archeologists recently discovered remnants of a newspaper from the time of Avraham with the headline ‘SODOM WAS DESTROYED!!!’ Unfortunately, the newspaper was ruined because it was in the desert and left to the elements for 3,700 years. You, an expert in document restoration (the art of restoring the document to its original state), have been called in to recreate the following newspaper articles.” Task 1 then becomes a comic strip which summarizes the story beginning with Avraham’s conversation with God and ending with Lot’s escape from the city. Task 2 involves writing an advice column on what Lot should do, and Task 3 calls for an opinion piece on the editorial page about whether Lot deserved to be saved, including three reasons supporting the stated position with quotes from the Torah to back up the opinion. Each task comes with a mastery list, so that the student can check off each part of the task as they complete it.

Students report that they love learning using EQs and BIs and enjoy doing the performance assessments as well. They certainly assimilate more than they did with other methodologies. We have seen other advantages as well. The approach encourages teachers to reflect much more about what they teach and how they teach it. It calls for more objective measurements of what the students have actually learned rather than what the teacher has taught. The method is constructivist, with the students themselves uncovering a great deal of the knowledge and developing their skills.

We have also encountered some challenges with this approach. Each unit takes a great deal of time to develop. Even after a full unit has been written, it needs revision based on results of the performance assessments. Perhaps the assessment itself was confusing, or perhaps the results demonstrated that the students did not achieve mastery over the goals the teacher targeted for that unit.

Each unit also takes a great deal of time to teach. We have found that the minimum instructional time for each full unit is approximately one month, and the performance assessment can take up to five class periods to complete. Schools need to approach this methodology understanding that it lends itself to iyyun (depth expertise) rather than beki’ut (breadth expertise). This teaching approach fits most naturally if we look at Tanakh learning as a lifetime pursuit rather than as a grade school activity. If we truly instill Standard 8 (“Students will develop a love of Torah study for its own sake and embrace it as an inspiring resource, informing their values, moral commitments, and ways of experiencing the world”) into our students, then indeed, they will spend their lifetimes learning IT.&daims;

Sharon Freundel is the director of Hebrew and Judaic studies at the Jewish Primary Day School of the Nation’s Capital. She can be reached at

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HaYidion Teaching Tanakh Summer 2012
Teaching Tanakh
Summer 2012