Our school holds a Berachot (Blessing) Bee every year. We have readjusted the old format of the "bee", so that every child can succeed. We have used differentiated instruction, so even children with learning difficulties can excel.
The Berachot (blessings) Bee is not a program that is exclusive to our school, but the details that have been added to the concept, have made it truly unique. Similar to a spelling bee, the Berachot (blessings) Bee is a contest used in several Jewish schools to encourage children to learn the correct blessings on the food items that they eat. There are different blessings on different types foods – vegetables, fruits, baked goods – laced with many exceptions and complexities. At the heart of reciting the blessings before eating lies the fundamental Jewish value of gratitude, where we must thank G-d for the food that He has given us.
In the typical format of a spelling bee or any other bee, students prepare on their own. They are then tested to see who will compete in the final competition. After doing a similar bee, but for the blessings, in our school, we saw that this format was not working for us. What about the students with learning difficulties, such as reading difficulties and writing difficulties? Would they not have a chance to learn the material and compete? What about those that have stage fright and are too scared to compete in an oral competition against five different grades? Should they not have a chance to present the information that they have learned in a safe environment? Where was the differentiation? We realized that we needed to rethink the whole way that our competition was being executed.
Outline of the Program
- The students learn about different types of foods and how they originate.
- Students then learn about the different blessings that are recited on the different categories of food, including both the blessing that is recited before eating, as well as, the blessing that is recited after eating.
- The students are given a booklet of eight pages containing 150 different foods that they commonly eat, along with the blessings that are recited on the foods.
- Students study one page of this booklet at a time. Students can study at home, but they are also given time to study in school with their peers and with their teacher.
- The students are then given a written quiz on each page in a cumulative fashion. e., they are tested on page 1 on one day, then pages 1 and 2 on another day, then pages 1, 2 and 3 on yet another day etc. (The spacing between the tests is dependent on the grade level).
- The differentiation in each classroom begins by providing every student with a booklet of the visual images of each food, so they can study from it and to use it on the test if needed. Not every child will need the visual images, but for those that do, this is a very big aid to their success.
- The differentiation will continue when the students are assisted by the teacher that will come around and read the foods out loud during the written tests for the student that need, as well as, help the students write the answers.
- The teachers also tests the students orally, so if certain students cannot show their knowledge through a written test, because of learning difficulties that they may have, they can show their knowledge through oral testing.
- For the final competition, they compete in a written test that includes all 150 blessings. The written test is done in a quiet environment and students are provided the same visual aids, reading assistance, and writing assistance that they needed while in their individual classroom settings.
Narrative Description of the Program
Over the years, this contest has been perfected, specifically its implementation, to ensure that every child succeeds and in turn, develops positive feelings towards our Jewish heritage even with material as technical as the blessings.
We prepare the students for the final Blessings Bee by testing them first in the classroom environment. The students start of learning about the different types of foods and how they originate. They then learn about the different blessings that are recited on the different categories of food, both the blessing that is recited before eating, as well as, the blessing that is recited after eating. The students are then given a booklet of eight pages containing 150 different foods that they commonly eat, along with the blessings that are recited on the foods. The students study one page of this booklet at a time. Students can study at home, but they are also given time to study in school with their peers and with their teacher, because not all students have the ability to study on their own. The students are then tested on the blessings on quizzes based off of the study-booklet. The differentiation in each classroom is provided by giving every student a specially prepared booklet of the visual images of each food to study from and to use on the test if needed. Not every child will need the visual images, but for those that do, this is a very big aid to their success. The teachers will also come around and read the foods out loud on the written tests for the students that need that type of assistance. They will also help the students write the answers if the students have difficulties with writing. The teachers also tests the students orally, so if certain students cannot show their knowledge through a written test, because of difficulties that they may have, they can show their knowledge through oral testing. As a finalist, they compete in a written test that includes all 150 blessings. In our version of the Blessings Bee, the finalists are not selected solely based on their test scores, but according to their effort thereby imparting to the students an important life lesson – that effort counts and matters. If a student is weaker academically, s/he can still become a finalist if s/he puts in effort. It is the most beautiful experience to watch, because the students light-up with the knowledge that they have become finalists. We know that some students have overcome many challenges to become a finalist, so when the students are finally tested, they are not tested orally where they might be nervous and fumble, they are tested in a beautifully prepared auditorium and given as much time as they need to complete a written test where they can focus without any pressure. In addition, those students that need specific accommodations are given those accommodations – whether it’s being given pictures of the food item, the teacher’s help to read the test out loud, or even the teacher’s help to write the answers if need be.
In our school, we test the students on 150 different food items along with their corresponding blessings. Students from second grade to sixth grade participate in this contest, yet unbelievably, every year, there is a large number of second grade students that score higher than those in grade six. How is that possible, one may justifiably ask. It’s possible because when we show the students we believe in them, they in-turn believe in themselves.
Upon completion of the final round of the contest, all the finalists are awarded certificates in a very special ceremony prepared in their honor (where we tell all the other students – this can be them the next year!).
Another unique innovation is the prize that comes along with being a finalist, which has proven to be a strong motivating force in the contest. What is this special prize you might wonder? A fancy fidget spinner, a cool VTech watch, or maybe a brand new Ipod? No. The prize is a trip to MADA. MADA is a volunteer-based organization that provides its patrons with many social and crisis services free of charge. Their programs include a food bank, a cafeteria, furniture and clothing, shabbat meals, and other social programs for those in need. The winners of the Blessings Bee are given the opportunity to spend an afternoon there and volunteer at MADA’s center – whether that means cutting vegetables, packing food boxes, or preparing shabbat boxes that are delivered each Friday to those in need. This is what motivates them and pushes them to excel. They excitedly ask, “if we win, will we get to go to MADA again this year?”.
Every step of the way, we look at the students as whole, multi-faceted individuals. Not all students are the most academically inclined, but we make success accessible to those who want to try.
Areas for improvement
We are very happy with the program and how it is has evolved over the years. The area in which we could improve would be the fair at the end of the competition to celebrate all the winners. At the fair, we present the awards to all the finalists and then we have the students go around to do different educational booths on the topic of the blessings that were prepared by the different grades. The students really enjoy these booths, which are both educational and filled with fun learning-activities, however, the way the students go to each booth is slightly unorganized and we would make it more organized in the future by making a clear plan, so the students can appreciate the fair to its fullest.
Impact of the Program
Our school is divided into two campuses – a boys’ division and a girls’ division. This contest has already been going on in the girls’ division for a few years and it has now been applied in the boys’ division for the very first year with great success.
Not only that, we have used this method of testing to start a new program. This past year we introduced a contest on the laws of Shabbat and it was done in the same fashion. We had the students learn the 39 names of each of the activities forbidden on Shabbat and then we gave them examples of these forbidden activities. We tested them to see if they could learn which category these examples fell into. Again, like the Blessings Bee, we provided them with visual images of each example, teacher-help reading the exams, teacher-help writing the exams, and the ability to be tested orally. This method of testing can also be applied in other subject areas, including learning new vocabulary words in different languages, learning new terms in science, geography etc.
The message that we are giving to our students is that it is the effort that leads to success. None of your challenges can ever hold you back!
Letter from a Parent
“In regard to this contest, I must tell you about Leah, my second daughter. She is part of the Vanguard special education program in school, because she has memory issues, but that did not stop Morah Miriam from believing in her. So, Leah worked hard. She did not want to disappoint Morah Miriam. The elimination time came along, however, and BAM!, Leah was disqualified. The following shabbat, we had two of my older daughter’s friends/classmates come over, so there were five girls practicing for the finals. Leah was shy, because she knew she had been disqualified, but we practiced and practiced over and over. I could see Leah’s confidence growing, until she was screaming the answers with strength and confidence. It was magical. Monday morning came and Morah Miriam asked Leah, “Have you been practicing?” “Yes, Morah Miriam!” Leah replied. So, she got tested and to my surprise, Leah was back in the game!! I cried when she told me this. I just experienced a great act of kindness and encouragement towards a weak student. Deep in my heart I was a bit ashamed that I, her mother, accepted her original loss without a fight, but not Morah Miriam! And guess what happened! Leah placed number thirteen in the competition and my eldest daughter placed number three. They were celebrating the victory, because this gave them the privilege of going on a trip to MADA and to give back to the community, which is another life lesson. Thank you Morah Miriam for this competition and giving every student the chance to be able to succeed!”
Example page of study booklet:
Visual aids for the students to help them study and to use during the test if needed:
Video showcasing the Blessings Bee: