In our school, kindergarteners traditionally create Megillot Esther featuring each child retelling the Purim story. However, this approach ignores the individual learning styles and needs of our students. We rethought this method in order to tap into the interests, skills and talents of the students in the class and focus on process over product.
Reimagining what has been done in the past can be a daunting task. Last year, as we prepared to teach Megillat Esther in our kindergarten class, we set out to do just that. Our goal was to to create a naturally differentiated process, to enlist the various talents and interests of our students, to give agency to our students’ voices, to put process before product, and to engage in deep, meaningful conversation, through a multidisciplinary approach to learning the Purim story. As our class employs a co-teaching, collaborative team-teaching approach, with three full-time teachers in the classroom — a full-time general studies teacher, a full-time Hebrew immersion teacher, and an assistant teacher — the learning and conversations occurred in both Hebrew and in English. The result was a true project-based learning experience, where, through the vehicle of Megillat Esther, the children honed their skills in the areas of collaboration, self-expression, Hebrew language, writing, speaking, listening, illustrating, and building.
Over the past few years, the teachers of the class had been rethinking the efficacy of what had been done in years past concerning the teaching of Megillat Esther. Little by little, we began to make changes in a project which seemed too focused on a product and less focused on a process. Traditionally, each student came home with a personal Megillat Esther which was illustrated and retold by that student. The students would sit individually with the teacher and retell the Megillah story. This took hours and hours of time when the classroom teachers were focused on a singular student and project. Additionally, this process focused only on the simple task of retelling, without reaching the higher-level thinking outlined in Bloom’s Taxonomy. Furthermore, while this project allowed for the expressive student to shine, it was often painful to observe shy students, or students with language processing challenges, to struggle through this project. Over the past few years we experimented with reducing the number of pages, adding group or whole class dictations, as well as utilizing QR codes to include a verbal retelling of the story. However, this still did not seem sufficient. What once was considered enough, is not adequately oriented towards the needs of diverse learners, nor does it meet the depth of thinking and engagement we believe our students should experience.
As we considered the vast and varied needs and the strengths and weaknesses of our individual students in the 2017-2018 school year, we knew that this unit needed a complete overhaul. We thought about how to make the process more creative and diverse. We wanted students to apply knowledge, analyze, evaluate, and create based on the Purim story that we were telling. We wanted to tap into the interests, skills, and talents of the students in the class. This was a class that loved to build. It seemed clear that building needed to be included in the process. The writing of many of the students, especially their inventive spelling, had recently blossomed. This was an opportunity to hone that skill in a way that felt real and authentic. However, knowing that there were still students who found writing in full sentences a daunting task, a separate writing component came in the form of labeling. The process of creating the Megillah became one that was, all at once, focused on developing, strengthening, and refining skills in a joyful, differentiated manner.
Prior to Beginning:
Before beginning the process of creating a Megillah, we met with the students as a class to elicit their ideas of how we might create our class Megillah. While we approached this with preconceived ideas of our own, the students’ ideas were far more creative and varied. The children thought about creating the characters in the Purim story out of Legos, Play-Doh, and photos. They imagined building the setting of Shushan out of graham crackers, a floor puzzle, and Magna-Tiles. They thought of retelling the story both orally to be recorded and in written form. We took voracious notes and then met individually with the students to fill out their preference sheet of what they would most like to collaborate on. We soon realized that the “other” category on the preference sheet was just as telling as any set category printed on the list. The margins were scribbled with notes and bullet points of comments the students made as we met for their individual conferences. Students’ ideas were coming alive in ways we could never have imagined.
The student preference sheet became a guide for dividing the children into groups each day. While we wanted to honor individual preferences, we also thought it important for every child to try each aspect of the process. After trying different disciplines, some children were surprised at how much they enjoyed certain aspects of the process, then voicing their desire to amend their preferences. It became an opportunity for us tap into the growth mindset of the students; talking about the importance of trying new things and how sometimes the things you thought you were not good at or not interested in are the very things you find most rewarding and exciting.
At the start of each day, a part of the story was learned. The story of Purim is long and complex. There are twists and turns, not to mention concepts which might be surprising to a child of the 21st century. We divided the story into eleven parts based on what we saw as the logical pauses in the plot line. The story was told through various means including acting, puppetry, and visuals — tapping into the strengths of auditory, visual and kinesthetic learners. Most importantly, time was devoted for the children to voice their thoughts and opinions about the events in the story. Lively debates ensued on the topics of marriage, love, and the role of women. When discussing Vashti, for example, the children were mixed as to the merit of her punishment. While some children felt that she should have listened to King Achashverosh, “since, he is the king!” others proclaimed, “Vashti is the Queen and she is as important as the King! She can decide that she will not come to dance!” Having discussions such as these made the story more relatable to the children while moving up Bloom’s Taxonomy from simply remembering and understanding to analyzing and evaluating. Simultaneously, the children had an opportunity to engage in respectful debate. When they agreed with their peers, children were encouraged to say, “I agree with [child’s name].” When they disagreed with a peer, the children were encouraged to voice their thoughts openly but in a respectful manner.
Each day, as the children set to work on the Megillah, the room was a hub of activity. The class was divided into five groups: oral retelling, written retelling, labeling, character development, and setting. The children in the oral retelling group would divide up the storyline and each retell part of the story as one of the teachers took a voice recording of the students. This was later attached to a QR code so the Megillah “reader” could listen to the story told aloud. The character development group would decide which characters were essential to that part of the story and create those characters out of the material of their choice. Similarly, the setting group would decide which aspect of the story was most important to represent and then decide how they would create that background. The groups varied from day to day, giving children an opportunity to work with and learn from different children. In an effort to ensure that each aspect of the story was included, the children would retell the part of the story they were about to represent. Children who had difficulty remembering details had an opportunity to re-hear part of the story again from their peers, with a teacher present to help if any confusion arose. Those who mastered the story had opportunities to be the “teachers” and learned how to retell it so other students could hold onto the information. Children who had not yet mastered the story, could review the material from another voice and perspective. Important discussions then ensued: What materials would be used? How would they divide responsibilities? How would materials be set up? Which aspects of the story would be highlighted? (See the table at the end of the document in the section titled “Individual Megillah Pages” to see the illustrations, writing, and to listen to the retelling of each page.)
Inevitably, social challenges arose. Who was taking control and not collaborating? Who was speaking too little? Whose voices weren’t being heard? Since this process was also about group work, compromise was often necessary in order to reach consensus. With three teachers in the classroom, we were able to observe and propel each group forward. We could help to moderate conversations, ensuring that children were listening to one another and true collaboration was occurring. Simultaneously, we reminded the children of key components of good conversations: a balance of talking and listening, looking at the speaker, facing the speaker, responding in a respectful manner. We were careful not to “have the conversation” for the students nor take over the decision making; rather, we helped to scaffold the conversations so that true collaborative growth could occur.
The Purim story also provided an opportunity to heighten the social and emotional awareness of the children. While we were mindful of ensuring that the story we conveyed was age appropriate for our students, there remained aspects of the story which elicited strong feelings. As the story was told and discussed, some children began to voice their emotions concerning some of the parts of the plot line. The class became a safe space to have these discussions, as the teachers and students legitimized the feelings of the students in the class. We helped the students put names to feelings. Realizing that sometimes their peers may feel differently than they do, the students demonstrated a level of empathy with their classmates. We honored the varied feeling of the students by rethinking part of the plan, and adding a page devoted to emotions.
As they were completing the Megillah, the children wanted to celebrate their accomplishment alongside their families. Because of the unique nature of this Megillah, and its departure from previous Megillot their siblings may have brought home, we thought it was important to share the process with the parents and provide a tutorial on how to use the Megillah. We sent home a letter alongside the Megillah explaining the process and providing a “how to” on using this unique text. The response from families was exceptional, giving the children an opportunity to share their process and their pride in the finished product with the people they love most.
At the completion of the project, we thought it was important for each of us, and the students, to reflect on the process. The students had an opportunity to share their thoughts in a whole group conversation on the process. Similarly, the classroom teachers reflected on the process as a team. We met to discuss what we believed worked best, what made it successful, and how it could be improved in the future. Upon further reflection, we felt that the students would have benefitted from individual time to reflect with the teachers, just as they began the process with individual conferences. In this way, we would have been able to hear important insights from the students, which they may not have been comfortable sharing in front of the whole class. We created this reflection sheet which can be used or modified for future projects.
We began by mentioning how daunting it can be to rethink something which has been done in the past. But we discovered in this process how incredibly rewarding it can be as well. While in the past students would lose momentum and excitement in the Megillah process, we now saw their passions and engagement ignite. The children were as invested in the process as we were, and motivated us to continue being careful listeners to their thoughts and needs. The children, not the project, was the starting point. What occurred was a process which allowed each child to grow. At the end of this unit, the children not only could retell the story of Megillat Esther, but they became better writers, collaborators, Hebrew speakers, listeners, builders, illustrators, debaters, and classroom citizens; while we, in turn, became better teachers. By employing a differentiated approach, each child’s needs were met, and each child had an opportunity to grow to his/her next level. As we think about our teaching this year, we have learned an important lesson that we carry to our new crop of students. We continue to be careful to see our students as individuals, with different needs, strengths and weaknesses. As we approach the varied topics of our dual curriculum, we are mindful to teach in a varied way, creating a learning process which taps into the students’ interests and strengths and agency to their voices. Finally, we have become better watchers and listeners of our students and continue to use our students as the starting point for their learning.
Individual Megillah Pages:
In the fall of 2017, Erica Edelman and Hen Lerrer began working together, teaching in a Hebrew Immersion kindergarten classroom at SAR Academy. While Erica has been teaching at SAR for 8 years, this is Hen’s second year at SAR. Erica has her undergraduate degrees from the joint program between Columbia University and JTS and a Master’s degree in Elementary Education. She began her career teaching in New York City public schools in both kindergarten and first grade. Hen hails from Tel Aviv, Israel and came to the United States in summer of 2017 as a shaliach from the WZO, and to teach Hebrew Immersion at SAR. Hen has a B.E.D. in Special Education and a Masters in School Counseling. She worked as a kindergarten teacher in Israel for over 10 years, including at Gan HaChalomot, a kindergarten in Tel Aviv specializing in working with children who are dealing with cancer. Both Erica and Hen are passionate educators who believe deeply in the power of the individual child, and the importance of truly listening to the personal, emotional and cognitive needs of each student.