If Not Now, When: Connecting Jewish Concepts of Time to STEAM

Vanina Sandel and Zvi Weiss

Educational systems operate on a timed schedule, and curriculum, especially at Jewish schools, is often a reflection of the holidays and events of the season. While the themes of the calendar year provide easy content and predictable timing for Jewish studies curricula, there can be equal advantages to leveraging the calendar for the development of curricula in other domains—in particular, STEAM. We have found that some subjects are best broached organically within the timing of the curriculum rather than close to the holiday itself, allowing for rich scientific learning that can be used later on during a Jewish celebration.

Experimenting with straw-filled and straw-less bricks at Passover, or coming up with innovative approaches to hanukkiyot or dreidels are obvious holiday-related STEAM opportunities. Jewish concepts of time can also encourage connections to STEAM-related explorations. Here are a few of the ways that we apply STEAM to themes of Jewish time.

Understanding the Jewish Calendar as a Topic in the Study of Space

Mishenichnas Adar, marbim besimchah. When Adar begins, joy increases. Ta’anit 29

In third grade, as students study space they learn about the rotation of planets and celestial bodies. As part of this unit of study, they are given a journal in which to track their observations of the waxing and waning of the moon, the basis of the Jewish calendar. By tracking the dates between Tu Bishvat and Purim, students get an important understanding of the lunar cycle as it relates to Jewish holidays. Being able to identify the first of Adar by tracking the moon creates an opportunity for understanding how in ancient times holidays were able to be celebrated at the same time in different locations.

Studying Arvit as an Opportunity to Study Circuitry

Golel or mipnei choshekh, ve-choshekh mipnei or. Rolling light from darkness and darkness from light. Arvit Service

In fourth grade, students study the Arvit service as well as the ceremony of Kiddush Levanah, the Sanctification of the Moon. As students dig deeper into the prayer Ma’ariv Aravim, they focus on the imagery of darkness and light, and the definition of day and night in a Jewish context. In this process they revisit and build upon their third-grade encounters with the sun and the moon.

They are given the opportunity to experiment with becoming yotzrei or, creators of energy in the form of light through the study of circuitry. As the students build electrical circuits, they are able to design lunar decorations that illuminate the space outdoors where they participate in Kiddush Levanah. Spiraling curriculum to explore new aspects of previously learned material, connecting those concepts both to different aspects of time (i.e., day and night), and introducing concepts of engineering to these lessons all reinforce and build new associations and relevance to Jewish concepts of time.

Counting the Omer with STEAM

And you shall count for yourselves—from the day after the holiday, from the day on which the waved Omer offering is brought, seven complete weeks. Until (but not including) the day after the seventh week, you shall count (until) the fiftieth day, and you shall bring a new meal offering to Hashem. Vayikra 25:15-16

The tradition of counting the Omer is often taught close to Passover, so that when the students are celebrating the second night of the holiday, they can begin to fulfill the mitzvah of sefirat HaOmer. This theme of measurement of time provides the perfect opportunity to combine math and Jewish studies, since the mitzvah clearly states the counting, the weeks, the multiplication of the weeks and days.

The Omer can also be used as an opportunity to explore science. In fifth grade, when students learn about meteorology, one of the hardest concepts to visualize is that gases have density. An even harder concept is that each gas has a different density. The atmosphere has five layers, meaning there are five different densities that can “pile up” one on top of the other.

Since it is hard to imagine the concept of gases “piling up,” this year we used liquids as a more concrete means to visualize the concept. The fifth graders were challenged with creating solutions with sugar and water, five solutions with different amounts of sugar and hence different densities, adding food coloring to identify each solution. Using a dropper, they dripped the solutions into a clear straw, one solution at a time. Starting with the most dense, proceeding to the least, students observed how the solutions “pile up.”

Using these lessons on density, the students were given the challenge of creating an Omer counter. In the end, students decided to use seven acrylic transparent cylinders, marking each cylinder in seven equal parts. The students chose a category of materials (liquid, solids that are found in nature, seeds and others), then researched the density of a variety of items in their chosen category. When the Omer is counted in April-May, each cylinder is to be filled with different types of materials, some solid, some liquid, each chosen based on properties that had been learned in science class.

During the Omer, students pour into that week’s cylinder 1/7 of a material that stacks above the prior day’s material. Before pouring the material, students need to calculate the volume of each material needed, using skills that they have learned in their math class, and consider the properties of that material. For example, higher density liquids need to be on the bottom. However, in the case of seeds, students found that placing sesame seeds above avocado pits result in the seeds trickling through the gaps between the pits, so that the lower density seeds need to be placed at the bottom. Over the course of the 49 days, a display showcases the various densities and other properties of the materials, while illustrating the counting of each day of the Omer.

Given that shortly after Purim with the start of the COVID-19 pandemic our school transitioned to a virtual classroom platform, the final aspects of the Omer counter is being created by students at home, with each student responsible creating a tube to serve as a seven-day counter. As the Omer is counted daily across the school, different clusters of seven students will be assigned to share their combined efforts with different classrooms throughout the school each day.

A Flexible Calendar

Ve-im lo achshav, eimatai? And if not now, when? Avot 1:14

While it is important to have an overall concept of the educational path for the year, it is also important to understand class culture and individual student needs and interests as they evolve throughout the year. By taking concepts that were of interest to the students and finding ways to show their relevance throughout the year, learning becomes more meaningful, accessible and timeless.

In the instance of the Omer counter, we noticed student fascination with notions of density and buoyancy, and student interest in projects involving those concepts. Looking for an opportunity to create further relevance to this topic, we decided to give the Omer challenge immediately—in February, and not wait another two months for the calendar to invite the challenge.

Often teachers find themselves lacking in time. For example, how does one find enough time to do justice to the teaching of Sukkot when the holiday begins only five days after Yom Kippur (two of which are often a weekend)? Similarly, the Omer is often shortchanged due to the calendar restrictions of Passover break.

With this in mind, in mid-February the STEAM educator conducted a hevruta learning session on texts related to the Omer, challenging students to connect their learning of the Omer to their STEAM lessons. While the timing may not have aligned with the preparations for Purim that were happening throughout the rest of the school, the depth of the connections that were made by the students will have a greater impact, both in terms of the context within STEAM learning and the flexibility of time to learn deeper without the limitations of the calendar. The Omer counter was created in advance to be used to count the Omer at the actual time, extending the lessons of density beyond its slot within the scope and sequence of instruction.

By allowing ourselves to connect topics of instruction at times that are relevant to the learning rather than according to calendar sequence, we can further solidify our students’ ability to make connections between STEAM and religious life, and deepen the relevance and engagement of learning.

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HaYidion Time Spring 2020
Spring 2020