To access Torah’s rich narratives, students require solidified language skills and strategies. At Shefa, reading comprehension and writing strategies explicitly taught in ELA classes provide a springboard to dive into Torah. This Judaic Studies curriculum created for Shefa is a replicable model for cross-curricular integration and differentiation.
In today’s classrooms, no two learners are the same. Different reading levels, writing skills, and language skills fill the chairs and minds of each and every classroom, even those that attempt homogeneity. In schools across the country, teachers are charged with the herculean task of artfully differentiating across curricular subjects in order to help students successfully access text, skill, and information. The difficulty, however, is that content and skill often have an inverse relationship. For most students, when learning new content, familiar skills must be easily accessible in order to help the student understand and command the information. Similarly, when learning a new skill, such as utilizing appositives in writing, the information used to practice this skill must be familiar to the student. Thus, framing new content with familiar skill allows for students to think and reason with the subject matter on a deeper level.
Given that using familiar skills helps students process subject area content, the lack of application in Judaic Studies seems glaringly puzzling. Where is the continuity across curricula? The books of Tanach, and more specifically in this case, the Chumash, are rich with stories, character motives, motifs, solutions, and resolutions. Why then do we not utilize the same strategies that are a part of the English and Language Arts (“ELA”) curriculum to teach skills such as identifying main idea, determining saliency, analyzing characters, inferencing, and identifying cause and effect? If research suggests that writing with complex language helps students comprehend and think critically about new content, why not teach students to articulate their thoughts using subordinating conjunctions and appositives, so that they can clearly and poignantly discuss the narratives of Chumash?
As both a Judaic Studies teacher and a language and literacy specialist in the Language Arts department, I see firsthand how the reading comprehension and writing strategies we teach explicitly in ELA can transform students’ ability to access content that they could not previously unlock. Therefore, I sought to integrate the ELA reading and writing programs into the Judaic Studies curriculum. In this way, students of varying skill level could access the beauty of Torah and conceptualize it on a deeper level. Although the content is new, the skills and strategies targeted are familiar, thus alleviating cognitive demand and enabling students to reason and analyze at a more sophisticated level.
In order to transfer and apply reading comprehension strategies, each Judaic Studies class begins with a review of a story grammar map, including important characters, setting, problem and key events. A character chart is also created for students to track important characteristics, both external and internal, throughout the unit. Students also use Cornell note taking worksheets (also referred to as 1/3, 2/3 notes), which allow for conceptualizing groups of Pesukim together, while closely reading for salient details.
Throughout the unit, I target writing skills as well. Students are provided with sentence stems, subordinating and coordinating conjunctions, and new vocabulary words associated with the Parsha, and asked to write about what they learned. Using strategies from The Writing Revolution, also known as the Hochman Method, taught in writing class, students are able to demonstrate their comprehension of the text through writing. For example, given the words, since/jealous, a student produced: “Since he was jealous, Korach started a rebellion against Moshe’s leadership.” The innovation of this method is that it allows for differentiation without “watering down” the content. For example, while some students are still solidifying the use of the conjunctions but and because in sentences, others are able to use higher level conjunctions that convey the same meaning, i.e even though and since. While the aforementioned example demonstrates the use of since, another student produced: “Korach started a rebellion against Moshe because he was jealous.” The two sentences demonstrate the same understanding of the material. In this way, the integrity of the content remains the same, while the language is easily differentiated for students of varying levels.
Through this approach I also target reading and understanding Rashi’s commentary. Students are explicitly taught how to categorize the type of comment that Rashi is making, and then formulate questions based on the identified category (i.e. word definition/ grammar, sequence, contradiction, explaining a character + motive ,and repeated words). To assist students in identifying the type of comment being made, I created note taking worksheets, similar to the Cornell note taking guide to support their comprehension. Each worksheet includes a Rashi category checklist to help students recognize the comment type. To further aid students in formulating Rashi’s implicit question, students are provided with sample questions and question strips related to the categories in order to develop their language and questioning skills.
The culminating project for the unit on Korach is a two paragraph essay about Korach and his punishment. Provided with a story grammar map to track the story, students independently wrote both a summary and a persuasive paragraph about Korach’s punishment. The essay required students to employ the following skills: structuring complex sentence, summarization strategies, identifying salient details, and writing a paragraph that included a topic sentence, supporting details, transition words and a concluding sentence. The writing process mirrored the steps followed in writing class: brainstorming, outlining, drafting, editing, and revising.
These strategies provide a foundation for comprehension and ownership of the content. These students were previously passive classroom participants. They were the children who did not share Parsha at their table; however, provided with the framework to navigate the content, these students are engaging deeply in the stories of Tanach. The story became one that students are now able to discuss with fluency, sophistication, and clarity.
Over the past few years, Jewish Day Schools across the country have reached out to the Shefa School, asking for guidance to help their teachers tackle the task of differentiation and reaching all learners. As an institution, the Shefa School provides a model for explicitly teaching students critical thinking skills in language arts and writing, so that they can draw upon those familiar skills in any subject matter. The creation of such a model for the Judaic Studies curriculum makes the Shefa School’s impact and innovation even more poignant for the young Jewish minds filling our classrooms.
Shulamit Roth, MS CCC-SLP, is a language and speech pathologist at the Shefa School. She received her BA from Stern College for Women and an MS from Brooklyn College in Speech and Language Pathology. With 10 years of experience in serving students with language based learning disabilities, Shulamit began her career as a clinician at the Soifer Center for Learning and Child Development in White Plains, NY. After working in private practice, she served as a language and literacy specialist in public and private schools in both Boston and New Jersey, including Brookline Public Schools, The Carroll School, the Maimonides School, and Yeshivat Noam. In transitioning to the school setting, Shulamit sought to carry over her clinical experience to help teachers understand their students’ learning profiles and infuse their instruction with language supportive strategies. In this regard, she consulted with teachers to modify and develop curriculum to best reach all types of learners. Her passion for teaching Jewish students with language-based learning disabilities brought her to the Shefa School, where she teaches language arts, writing, Judaic Studies, and small language enrichment groups. Shulamit is excited to be a part of the Shefa School revolution, developing Judaic Studies curriculum and instructional approaches that can be utilized in Jewish Day Schools for all learners.