(This was originally written as part of an interview process. The original assignment was 3 pages. I wrote 5. I had a lot to say. I didn’t get the job, but my essay was appreciated, so I thought I’d put it here)
I have been asked to lay out my academic and pedagogical approach to teaching Jewish texts, and what makes me passionate about doing so. To best describe my approach, I want to list the expectations I have for my own approach, with a little explanation as to why each item on the list is important, how I expect to implement it, and my own experiences with implementing it. I hope that this perhaps untraditional response better portrays my approach. I put these expectations into three different categories: What My Students Should Expect from Me, which describes the expectations for how I act and what kind of person I am; What Students Should Expect from my Class, which describes the expectations for my pedagogy and teaching style; and What I Expect from My Students, which describes the goals I have in my teaching. Without further ado:
What my Students Should Expect from Me
1. Honesty and Integrity
First and foremost, students must trust their teacher. They must trust that they are fair, that they say what they mean and mean what they say, and that they take their position of authority seriously. Especially when the teacher is representing a subject which is supposed to be associated with morality, honesty and integrity are supremely important, and if you don’t have that, you shouldn’t teach. Anything I have been able to accomplish in my life has been due to the fact that people trust me, and people trust me not because I don’t lie, but because I cannot. (My mother’s advice to my wife when we got married was in fact “don’t worry about him, he can’t lie”.)
2. Caring about all my students, not just some of them
People have asked me why I want to be an educator. And my usual response is, because there are students who are falling through the cracks, who we should be teaching. I grew up with a twin brother who was very different than me, much less bookish, more street-smart, and a constant discipline problem, a contrast to my goody-two shoes self. I never was able to deny the humanity of people who weren’t like me. In high school, I founded a Jewish philosophy club, because I noticed that many kids my age asked tough questions on Judaism, and those questions were being ignored because they weren’t seen as classically smart. As if to prove my point, the school took over my club, christened it “The Torah U’Madda Society”, barred entry to all those who weren’t in the top classes, and advertised solely in Hebrew. It was at that indignity that I decided I wanted to teach. Everyone is entitled to their portion of our tradition. Not just the people who are already there. Everyone. And I decided to make sure they got it.
In my first year of teaching, that attitude was noticed and appreciated by my students. Many students who were otherwise not interested in academics were interested in my class, and other teachers were surprised by which kids I was winning over. The fact that I was unwilling to give up on them, that they were just as important as any of my other students, was something they genuinely appreciated.
This also played a large role in how I taught. I began my class on Gemara with a primer on what Torah she’baal peh is and how it works, even if some of the more advanced students already knew that. Not only that, I chose to put it in terms everyone could understand. Instead of just saying “its what was passed down to the chachamim,” I put in terms of rules and interpretations of rules. Because I wanted the class to be accessible to everyone, not just the kids who already were into it.
- Caring about my students as whole people
One of the best pieces of advice on teaching given to me by one of my teachers was “Never hide in the teacher’s lounge”. By going to the teacher’s lounge during breaks, not only do you miss out on the ability to form a connection with your students, you miss out on being able to observe them in their “natural habitat”. People don’t cease being people when they enter your classroom, and if you want to teach those people, you need to understand them as whole people, not just students. Doing so will be enable to understand them in a manner much more sophisticated than a list of pluses and minuses. The social circle your students belong to or want to belong to, their home life, their hobbies or interests, all play a role in their performance in your classroom, and a good teacher makes it their business to understand their students. Understanding, for instance, that one student’s family had recently become religious without their input, goes a long way to explaining why they’re not behaving in your Judaics class. Parents frequently expressed admiration for my ability to understand their children, and my supervisor had to stop me from writing novella-length character sketches for my students’ report cards.
- Desire for them to succeed
I want every student in my class to get an A. My job is to teach and convey information, not to outwit teenagers. Furthermore, I want to find ways to celebrate the successes of all my students, even if it means snatching victory from the hands of defeat, by celebrating the thought process behind a wrong answer, for instance. One of my best students in my first year of teaching started off as one of my worst, until I pointed out that an answer he had given (without any research or paying attention in class) showed the workings of an agile talmudic mind in need of expression. The next day he came back and said “I’m gonna be your best student now”, and he was. All because I pointed out the merits of a wrong answer.
What my Students Should Expect from My Class
- Textual Skills
If my desire for my students is to give them their portion in our tradition that is their birthright, they need access to that tradition. Probably the biggest influence on my pedagogical approach was the two years I spent at Yeshivat Yesodei HaTorah, a now closed post-high school program whose focus was on teaching their students textual skills, with the goal of enabling them to find their own path within Judaism through their own readings of the relevant sources. Textual skills, in my view, are important not just because reading text is important, they are important because they enable independence. Someone who can read the text doesn’t have to take the meaning or content of a text on faith, and they can form their own ideas through their readings of a text unmediated by authority figures or translations, which are always interpretations. I believe we owe our students that ability and the freedom that comes with it.
- Big Questions
The dirty secret of Jewish education is that most students do not care about Judaism. Most students are uninterested in the exact times for prayer, or the laws of the holidays, or ritual in general. This is not their fault, or anyone’s fault, this is just the reality. Not recognizing that reality leads to the stratification of educational attention I am allergic to, as teaching about Judaic subjects becomes a process of self-selection.
However, middle schoolers and high schoolers are beginning to think about Big Questions; What are we here for? What’s the point? What is moral? What is fair? What is happiness? Instead of shying away from such questions, those ought to be the focus of our Judaics teaching. Part of my love of teaching Bava Kama is that it is only about cows goring other cows on the surface. What is it really about? Fairness. The definition of responsibility. What makes people different than animals. Whether past experiences tell us about what will happen. All that stuff is lurking right under the surface, ready to lead to vigorous discussions from all your students, not just the ones who already learn Talmud.
3. Conceptual Simplicity
One of the books that had the most influence on my teaching style was a book about college football. The book in question describes the genesis of the “Air Raid” offense, which took college football by storm in the late 90’s and 2000’s. The basic novelty of the system was not that it was able to confuse opponents with multiple plays, or their players were better. Quite the opposite in fact! They were able to succeed with a very small playbook and inferior athletes not recruited by the bigger schools, athletes often not good enough to become professionals. What made their offense revolutionary was its simplicity. Instead of asking the Quarterback to memorize a whole playbook, it asked the quarterback to know only a couple of plays, and instead of asking the quarterback to read a whole defense, it would require to the quarterback to ask himself a series of if-then questions. Did the Linebacker drop into coverage? Then you throw to this receiver. Do you see grass up the field? Then the deep receiver is open, throw to him. The real revolution was not the complexity, but the ability to boil down complexity to a series of concrete, easier to answer, individual steps.
That’s how I try to teach. I try to boil down complex processes into individual steps, “reads” as I call them, borrowing football terminology. The Talmud itself is structured for this kind of reading, as the Talmud gives you “code words” to indicate that its about to do certain things. Some words introduce a question, which is subdivided into different types of questions, some are answer words, some are introductory words, and so on and so on.
Where I took most advantage of this approach is my curriculum for Mishnah Bava Kama, where, after dividing “damage” into four different categories, like the mishna does, I had my students learn the unique qualities of each category, and then, through a series of “reads”, decide the proper law in a number of complex cases. One of the more complex and intimidating tractates in the talmud was thus essentially mastered by sixth graders.
- Appreciation of multiplicity
If there’s a theme that runs through my academic work, it is that traditional texts are best understood through a multiplicity of approaches, each of which has validity in the text but different lenses through which they view it. That means a few different things for my teaching. First off, that my approach to multiple interpretations is less “who’s right” and more “why do they think they’re right”, and understanding the methodologies of different interpreters and what lens they’re viewing the text through is particularly important. Second of all, that means there is a healthy respect for opposing views. Even if you disagree with an interpretation, it’s likely that the person who advanced that interpretation has a good textual reason for it. That goes for the Gemara, but that also goes for class discussions, and that also goes for how I understand my students’ own readings. Third, an understanding that multiple approaches to a text are possible hopefully leads to a nuanced, complex worldview, in which people are able to discuss hot button issues in good faith.
What I expect from My Students
1. Ability to read a text independently, and formulate their own, textually grounded perspectives on Judaism
They should be able to read a text on their own, without translation or mediation, and be able to look up sources quoted to them to verify their correctness. They should be able to take their reading of the text, and offer their own perspective on Judaism grounded in a coherent understanding of the text, and claim their portion in our tradition
2. Ability to take concepts and apply them to new situations
They should be able to take the concepts they’ve learned, those “reads” I spoke about, and be able to implement them to new situations, and build further concepts on the foundations of older concepts.
- A Worldview which values nuance and complexity
Understanding that multiple valid perspectives on texts and concepts can exist simultaneously should lead my students to understand the world in a complex way, which is able to see the multiple perspectives on any issue and the factors that influence each. This should be applicable not just to Jewish Studies, but to life in general. Judaism is not just a subject, but a way of seeing the world, and the Talmud indicates that part of that worldview is an understanding of multiplicity.
4. Ability to prove me wrong
If a student is able to prove me wrong based on a compelling read of the text or other texts, then I will have succeeded. The goal of teaching is, and should be, to be rendered unnecessary. Success is when you are able to laugh and say “my children have defeated me, my children have defeated me” (Bava Metzia 59b)