I have been working with my BetterLesson coach, Valerie, for the past two years to make my Jewish Studies classes more student-centered by focusing on building my students collaboration, reflection, and discussion skills into my classroom. Last year my primary focus was the use of digital tools like Seesaw as an instrument for my students to reflect on their work and engage in collaborative digital discussions which I found to be very successful. But at the end of last year, Valerie and I noted that thanks to our efforts, the digital discussions were going very well in my classroom, but the in-person discussions were not going as well. Jewish Studies classes in Bible and Rabbinics, the major part of Jewish Studies, emphasize text study, mostly in a foreign language [Hebrew and some Aramaic]. However, I have found that student skills in text study are not necessarily as strong as they once were, and perhaps related to this, student interest in acquiring these skills is not as great as I remember from my early years. Without proper care, it is easy for Jewish Studies classes to be teacher-centered, with an emphasis on teacher presentation rather than student learning. It is also easy, and sometimes tempting, to focus on the nitty-gritty text-skills and lose the larger picture of meaning and values, which regardless of skill level, should be of interest to most, if not all, students.
With this is mind, Valerie and I decided to focus my second year of work on developing my students' discussion skills so that they could engage in student-led text-based discussions. Throughout this year my students learned how to closely read challenging texts, to ask interesting questions about them, and to discuss with their fellow students their findings. In this way, my students developed a sense of ownership of the material. To this end Valerie and I decided to devise a strategic plan to scaffold my students' skills in engaging in a fully student-led discussion. We started by having my students engage in a Carousel Discussion to show them how to "talk" to each other through writing. Then, my students engaged in Fishbowl discussions which allowed them to both engage in and observe strong student-led discussions. And, finally, my students engaged in Socratic Seminars which were fully student-led discussions. I also supported my students to learn how to engage in student-led discussions by teaching them how to build their academic questioning skills and use talk stems to support their discussions. Each of these techniques has its challenges in the specific application to my classes, and its corresponding rewards all of which I describe below. As I look back over the year, however, I am pleased with the sequencing of these techniques, and with the results they generated in each of the grades I in which I used them. I am looking forward to using them in a more systematic way for next year.
I teach rabbinics, Bible, and Jewish History in the Upper School of a small Jewish K-12 school on Long Island. While the Socratic Seminar and Fishbowl worked exceptionally well in the 12th Grade, the texts and issues we studied and discussed lent themselves well to prior study, answering open-ended questions before discussion, it is more critical for me to develop their use in 9th and 10th Grade. There, the level of the students is obviously not as sophisticated, so more intervention and planning is needed to get the desired results. This has caused a shift in the way I think about the texts I use and how best to study them.
In the past the emphasis has been on intensive text study: translating a text from Hebrew mostly, and occasionally some Aramaic, in order to be able to discuss the underlying issues. The text study can be tedious, since it requires a fair amount of dictionary work. Even when more intensive scaffolding is provided, such as providing questions which help the students decode the text, students express frustration with this part of the class. What compounds the problem has been the explosion of on-line resources, including English translations of virtually every text we might study. Indeed, there are so many that students can be directed to sites with better translations and instructed to avoid those with inferior ones.
I began the year with a Carousel discussion in 9th Grade as a way to get the students to think about the texts in a different way. By posting selections of texts with guiding questions to which the students respond, I hoped to get the students to engage in text study in a different way. This worked reasonably well; my main takeaway is the need to carefully consider the selections and the kinds of questions so that the students are better able to decode the text. As I look forward to next year, I expect to more intensively review the texts with the goal of making the decoding process more interesting while maintaining intellectual rigor.
From the Carousel discussion I moved on to having my students use academic questioning skills by using Bloom's Taxonomy to develop questions to ask in a discussion, and developed talk-stems to support those discussions In each of my Bible and Rabbinics classes I handed out the Bloom taxonomy wheel and the talk-stems. I found these two strategies to be successful in getting my students to think about the kinds of questions they might ask about texts and how to develop their own interests in learning.
The highlight of the year was the Socratic Seminar and Fishbowl Discussion. For each of these activities, students were paired up and given a number of questions to answer in writing about the text, some more basic, others more sophisticated and open-ended. At a subsequent class, we had the seminar. I asked one student each time to lead the discussion and I was surprised at how well this worked, no matter what the size of the group -- as few as 3, as large as a class of 20. The Fishbowl variation worked quite well. In the last iteration, I paired the students and gave the student in the outside circle a task related to the performance of their partner in the inside circle. I have not yet worked out the sharing of the video with the students, which I will certainly do next year if I am unable to do this year.
As I think about this year, I believe I covered a lot of ground. I introduced myself to a number of techniques which have prodded me to rethink my classes in light of these activities. My goal was to have my students engage in student-led academic discussions in which they generate the questions on their own and respond to the questions with evidence, and I believe I made a lot of progress in achieving that goal. I am confident I will do the work to build on this success for the coming year. My greatest learning from the past two years of working with Valerie is that the value of student-led discussions is manifold. Not only does it increase the interest level of the students, both as individuals and as a class, it allows for more interesting and meaningful assessments, which makes student evaluation easier for me. As the year comes to an end, I am pleased with my progress to date, and eager to do more in the coming year.