Promoting Torah Literacy: Strategies from the Field of Literacy Education
Imagine that you are a new teacher about to engage with your students in a study of the weekly Torah portion. You envision a classroom where students think critically about the text and engage in discussions that probe for deeper meaning, but you aren’t sure where to start. The Teachers College Reading & Writing Project at Columbia University, has developed a powerful curriculum for teaching students to think critically about text. Grounding our practice in this field’s methodology will make our Judaic studies instruction more meaningful for our students.
Literacy education has identified several key strategies of effective readers: asking questions, making predictions, making connections between texts and your own life, and making inferences. These same skills can empower our students to get more out of biblical texts by visualizing the stories of Torah, asking questions about characters’ motivations, making inferences about why characters are acting the way they do, and beginning to synthesize theories about these characters based on their actions. This article describes the way in which literacy resources and three common literacy teaching strategies were used to help students develop critical thinking skills during a unit on Megillat Esther, and suggests how school leaders might support teachers in implementing literacy resources and strategies.
This spring, my co-teacher, Mary Setton, and I, in a combined 3rd/4th grade class at Beit Rabban in Manhattan, prepared for a mini-unit on Megillat Esther with a pre-assessment that asked students to think about the traits of major characters. The majority of students responded with standard caricatures. Haman was “mean,” Esther was “nice” and “beautiful,” and Achashverosh was “silly.” When we asked students for evidence of these traits, they often had trouble answering. We wanted to teach our students to go beyond stereotypes and make inferences based on the text, to think critically about these characters and begin to understand the complex politics underlying the Purim Story.
I began by telling my students, “Today I want to teach you that good readers pay attention to characters’ actions and use them as clues to figure out what kind of person that character is. Watch how I do this for Achashverosh. In the third year of his kingship Achashverosh makes two huge parties, one for all of his officers, and one just for the capital city of Shushan. I’m thinking that this is kind of irresponsible. He’s the king! Shouldn’t he be trying to make laws or protect the people? Why is he spending all his time on parties? I’m thinking maybe he really cares a lot about what other people think, so he wants to impress them with parties.” I recorded on the chart: “irresponsible” and “cares what other people think” next to the evidence of “his first action as king is to make two huge parties.”
The chart described above, listing Achashverosh’s actions and the inferences that we made, is called an “anchor chart” because it serves as an anchor, or constant reminder of the skill of making inferences. Literacy teachers use “anchor charts” like this one to reinforce their critical thinking instruction. They refer back to these charts to remind students to use the critical thinking skills that they have been taught. Later in the unit, during discussions of other characters, I would be able to point to this chart saying, “Remember when you paid attention to Achashverosh’s actions and used them as clues to figure out what kind of person he was? Try that for the characters that we read about today.” This would reinforce the skill and remind students to use it.
Like any other skill, critical thinking requires constant practice. Literacy educators often use a strategy called “turn and talk” to get all of their students practicing a thinking skill out loud with a partner. In order to get students to use inference by paying attention to characters’ actions, I asked my students to “turn and talk” to partners and try to make some inferences based on another of Achashverosh’s actions.
When Vashti refused to come when Achashverosh wanted her, he asked his advisors what to do and then followed their advice to get rid of her. At first, many students were shaky and unsure, but when they realized that I honestly expected them to make some inferences, they rose to the task. I was able to support groups that struggled by asking them questions to draw out ideas. After a couple of minutes I stopped the talk to record ideas in the chart and summarized saying, “I heard a lot of different ideas from you and I’m so proud of how you are making inferences based on Achashverosh’s actions. Many of you said that maybe Achashverosh is a person who worries a lot and that he listens to his servants instead of thinking for himself. Others inferred that maybe he is impulsive and doesn’t think through the consequences of his actions.” An advantage of “turn and talk” is that every student gets the chance to talk and practice the strategy that has been taught.
As we moved on to further study of the Megillah it was exciting to see the kids’ theories about characters deepening beyond the simplistic “good guy/bad guy” formulations as they began using the inferencing skills we were teaching. One student question, “How could Achashverosh agree to destroy an entire community without even asking who they were?” led to a discussion of what we can infer about Achashverosh from this action, as we thought about whether Achashverosh was a foolish king, or perhaps just didn’t care about the people under his control.
Integrating the methodology of literacy education into Judaic studies can benefit both general and Judaic studies. Teachers in both areas can work together sharing their understanding of how to create critical thinkers, moving towards a day in which all teachers use the same language to talk about critical thinking and emphasize those skills.
Skills commonly taught as “reading skills” are used by effective thinkers in all disciplines. By integrating the Judaic and general studies we not only bring insights from literacy into our Torah study, we also provide students with an opportunity to bring Torah insights into their thinking about every area of life.♦
To Learn More
tc.readingandwritingproject.com: The website for the Teacher’s College Reading & Writing Project—see especially the Resources tab
A School Leader’s Guide to Excellence: Collaborating Our Way to Better Schools by Carmen Farina and Laura Kotch
Units of Study for Teaching Reading by Lucy Calkins and Colleagues at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project
A Curricular Plan for the Reading Workshop (Grade Specific) by Lucy Calkins and Colleagues at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project
Yael Sacks is a teacher at Beit Rabban. She can be reached at email@example.com.