April 21, 2024
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Creative Lesson Planning

I am generally struck while completing Sefer Shemot and beginning Sefer Vayikra that it is a time that Torah educators need to get very creative. After being immersed in the dramatic and wondrous beginnings of our people, and telling what is essentially the most epic and iconic story of all time, educators are then tasked with elucidating a legal text related mostly to the laws of kodshim. There is not a strong narrative in this parsha, or sefer in general. Parshat Vayikra lays out the four categories of korbanot: olah, shelamim, chatat and asham. The sefer centers around taharot and kodshim, and is so highly specific in its focus on the service of the Levites it is often referred to as Torat Kohanim. One can only imagine how this shift from Bereishit and Shemot to Vayikra requires unique and innovative pedagogy to engage a broad spectrum of learners in a meaningful way.

Now, I am personally a science teacher professionally, and not a Torah educator. I do, however, very much relate to this educational struggle. Sometimes I am showing videos of two-headed albino snakes while my students stare raptly in Biology, or jumping on a Zoom call with a former NFL player with my Physics students. And then there are also the moments where I endeavor to explain osmosis, my students’ eyes glazing over somewhere between boredom and misery as they interact with the terms “semipermeable membrane” and “isotonic solution.” If we are all being honest, movement of water through membranes is not the most exhilarating subject to most. And yet, the functioning of our kidneys, tear ducts and digestion are all essential to our makeup and contained within each human. So, too, are concepts of tahara and kedusha.

There is a long-standing tradition that children should begin learning Chumash with Sefer Vayikra, and not with Bereishit. The explanation for this is found in the Midrash: “Why do young children start with Torat Kohanim (Sefer Vayikra)? [Should they not] start with Bereishit? Since the korbanot are pure and the children are pure, let the pure come and deal with the pure.” (Yalkut Shimoni, Tzav 479). There are many ways to interpret this midrash. A message I personally take away from it is that the key to education is not always how accessible the content is, or how exciting it is, but rather if the student is inherently connected to the content.

As teachers we are often tempted to pull out all the bells and whistles, spend several hours creating a fun activity that will be completed in 10 minutes to try to engage our students in the content. There is certainly a place for exciting and out-of-the-box lesson planning. However, it is my perception that sometimes the most powerful approach is to connect the student back to their essence and what is already there. Usually in biology, given the subject matter, this ties back to the miraculous and wondrous workings of the human body. When students see themselves within the content, and strive to understand themselves, they are very naturally engaged. In our school, which implements the project-based learning model, all students take a crack at Newtonian physics, electrical engineering, writing personal narratives and inquiry beit midrash. Their projects they envision and create, and therefore their education, become a reflection of themselves, regardless of how naturally accessible the content is to them. Seeing the Torah as a reflection of ourselves also engages us more deeply as we strive to understand and live it, and connects us to the arcane, pushing us to approach the parts that can feel unapproachable.


Rivkah Gruber joined The Idea School faculty this year as a science teacher and is currently teaching courses in Biology and Applied Physics.

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