Differentiation: Road Maps to Torah Study

Day school students come to the study of Torah with all kinds of abilities and challenges. There are students for whom Hebrew is their first language, who swim through the words of Torah text with ease; students whose learning challenges make breaking the code of Hebrew almost impossible; students who think abstractly but cannot find a pencil, and students who think concretely and cannot find the main idea in a piece of text. Nonetheless, Torah study is a core part of a day school program. As Mishnah Peah says, תלמוד תורה כנגד כולם—Torah study is as important as all other mitzvot. It is critical that we develop ways to welcome all students into our learning environment and to spark in all students a love of Jewish text study. This article addresses how differentiation can allow a teacher to adjust curricular goals and tasks to specific student needs.

Differentiation offers a teacher a necessary set of skills for today’s day school classroom. But before we turn to the teachers, the larger school community must lay the necessary groundwork if this complex approach is to succeed. First, day schools must be able to answer the question “why study Torah?” with a guiding vision, an approach to methodology and defined content and skill objectives. Many schools know what they teach and how they teach, but may not have articulated why that is so. Before we look at how to differentiate the learning activities in the classroom, we need to know why we dedicate precious time to Torah study and what we strive to achieve through this endeavor.

Is the school’s guiding vision to give students enough background so as to make life choices based on Torah learning? Is the vision to encourage a love of Jewish text study and therefore encourage future Jewish academic work? Is it to engrave the rhythm of weekly Torah study and reading so as to encourage our students to be active participants in synagogues throughout their lives? It is incumbent upon us to articulate both our vision of Torah study in particular and Judaic studies in general to our families, as well as their ancillary benefits (critical thinking, presentation skills, text analysis, facility with partner and group work, to name a few). However an individual school defines the purpose of studying Torah, this vision must guide the way the curriculum is designed.

A clarified vision becomes a roadmap of student learning, which allows teachers and students to reach their goals by varied routes. Along with this roadmap, teachers need two more sets of professional tools: a grounding in differentiation as an approach to curriculum planning which benefits all students, as well as a deep and detailed understanding of their students’ learning styles. Both of these areas require professional development (classes, conferences), collaboration with colleagues (book discussion groups, meetings with in house and private learning specialists) and sufficient time to process and assimilate the new information. Day schools must invest time and money in teacher training for differentiation to succeed.

One approach to differentiation which I have found theoretically sound and easily applied to Torah study is that of Kathie Nunley (see her website www.help4teachers.com). Nunley identifies three principles in designing a differentiated curriculum: choice, accountability and critical thinking. She reminds us to encourage our students by giving them choices, support our students by holding them accountable for completing the task and inspire our students by helping them to think deeply and critically. Nunley uses a menu approach called the Layered Curriculum which organizes sets of tasks by level of complexity. Students work through required and choice activities on the basic, intermediate and advanced levels. These principles benefit all types of learners by making our classrooms relevant and lively. But they also provide a seamless structure for adjusting tasks based on individual learning profiles.

While Nunley’s work was originally developed for public high school classrooms, it can be easily applied to Torah study in an approach I call Layering Torah. I have organized the learning activities around sets of Torah text and a menu of activities, some required and some optional. The activities are grouped on three levels of complexity that correspond to three traditional questions which guide Torah study: what does the text say, what does the text mean and what does the text mean to me. On the first level students focus on reading the text, finding vocabulary words or the names of familiar characters, searching for the shorashim (Hebrew roots) of verbs and other basic skills. The second level has students begin to build meaning through activities like matching Hebrew phrases to English phrases, illustrating or diagramming individual pesukim (verses) or acting out parts of the text.

The third level asks students to connect the text to themselves through creative writing, art and drama as well as grappling with commentaries and midrashim. The Layering Torah system ensures that all students work on all levels, experiencing the range of learning objectives while still making personal choices. It is differentiated with the interests of every student in the room in mind. As the year progresses, students begin to design their own learning activities and thus contribute to their classmates’ understanding. This move to take charge of one’s learning is infectious; students become excited by trying activities designed by classmates, and may begin suggesting ways to adjust or extend tasks to better meet their interests or learning style.

A differentiated structure encourages all students to work to their strengths as well as stretch themselves in areas of discomfort, and thus experience the joy of success. Yet further adjustments must be made to the system so as to meet the learning needs of students with pronounced learning challenges.

Students with attention issues abound in our classrooms. This challenge often brings related issues, including lack of organization, difficulty following directions and difficulty staying on task. These students benefit from an approach which is highly structured, with activities presented in a consistent manner. A set of tasks that looks overwhelming in September becomes comfortable by November, as students become familiar with the structure. These students also need to know they will be held accountable for completing a reasonable amount of defined work. They benefit from checklists and menus which help them make choices, track their progress and reach for success.

Some students with deficits in attention need no more support than the menu used by all students in my classroom. Others benefit from an adjusted menu with fewer choices, modified tasks and less text on the page. Many students need teacher assistance in making good choices and using their time wisely. The Layering Torah system allows most students to work independently, and therefore allows the teacher to focus attention on those students who most need individual support.

Other students may have a range of language-based challenges—auditory processing, dyslexia, nonverbal and verbal learning disabilities, to name a few. In order to help these students succeed in Torah class, the teacher needs to understand their specific needs and clearly define the learning goals for each activity. If my goal is for a student to identify the shorashim in a piece of Torah text, I may want to give certain students a tool like flash cards with shorashim to manipulate and match with words in the text. Another student may be successful in locating the shorashim, but will struggle if asked to transfer those words onto a separate worksheet. A third student may need to work with the text in translation or in a small directed group with teacher support. A fourth student may have interesting thoughts to share about deep questions, but need a teacher to scribe his or her answers.

There are many students who struggle when faced with tasks that involve personal or social risks. They may be intimidated by making choices, by moving from individual to partner to group work or by working effectively in these varied ways. These students may not have defined deficits, but their learning style makes deciding what to do and with whom to do it tricky. What a gift it is for these children to work on these areas of discomfort in a structured environment. Some students need help in choosing tasks for the first several months of school; the teacher can talk through his or her deliberation out loud and model how to weigh different options. Eventually, most children take on this privilege with confidence. Other students need support in deciding when to work alone, when with a partner and when with a group, as well as assistance in navigating the social issues which arise in group work. Layering Torah allows a teacher to work one on one with students and help them make their way through these challenges, while the rest of the class works independently.

Torah study involves process and product, a way of learning and an outcome of knowledge, both of which are important pieces of Jewish heritage. When we give students the tools to tackle text and connect with Torah, we connect them to their people’s past, to themselves, and to their own future. Each of us who are tasked with this sacred work need to think carefully about our goals, our students’ learning needs and our methods for unlocking the joy of Torah study for all of our students. Our schools must develop a clear vision of the purpose of Torah learning based in discussion with faculty and the community, a clear road map to guide our journey into the Jewish future.♦

Beth Burstein Fine has brought experiences in informal Jewish education and social work to inform her teaching in several grades at the Jewish Day School of Metropolitan Seattle for the past seventeen years. She can be reached at bfine@jds.org.

Beth Burstein Fine
Teaching Tanakh
Knowledge Topics
Teaching and Learning
Published: Summer 2012