Active Learning in the Halakha Class - Mark Smilowitz


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Description Active Learning in the Halakha Class Mark Smilowitz Mark Smilowitz taught Jewish Studies in high school and middle school, both in the United States and in Israel. He currently works in teacher training, teaches in Midrasha, and produces a weekly podcast on teaching for the Lookstein Center In this article, he describes an approach to teaching halakha which enables the students as researchers. The approach opens new
  1   Active Learning in the Halakha Class Mark Smilowitz Mark Smilowitz taught Jewish Studies in high school and middle school, both in the United Statesand in Israel. He currently works in teacher training, teaches in Midrasha, and produces aweekly podcast on teaching for the Lookstein Center In this article,he describes an approach to teaching halakha which enables the students as researchers. Theapproach opens new vistas for student exploration and can be easily adapted for almost anydiscipline. The approach outlined here was developed in order to solve a problem facing the teacher of halakha. It is likely to be a good pedagogical approach to any discipline that involvesstudy of primary texts, but it can be particularly useful in the halakha class, as Idiscovered when I used it while teaching in the Northwest Yeshiva High School inSeattle. The halakha program there is designed to teach, among other things, proficiencyin reading and understanding the classic halakhic codes, primarily those of the Rambamand Shulhan Arukh. Those codes and the classic glosses on the latter, such as theMishnah Berurah for Askenazim and the Kaf Hahayyim for Sephardim, are the booksmost commonly used in synagogues, homes, and yeshivas for the steady, ongoing studyof halakha, or when looking up a particular halakha.The problem is that the terseness of these codes tends to leave students and teachersunder-stimulated by the material. The Shulchan Arukh, for example, makes practically noreference to issues that Twersky describes as, exegesis, interpretation, derivation,awareness of controversy, and its curt style reflects in part the virtually completeelimination of ideology, theology, and teleology. The halakhic code of the Rambam is alittle better in this area, but not much. As result, the teaching of halakha is reduced to anattempt to simply make students learn rules and regulations in such a way that students perceive that the same kinds of intellectual demands are not being made of them thatother texts do. Students who aren't immersed in the world of halakha study, and even some who are,remain unaware of the rich, conceptual framework that surrounds any given law. For example, when I was in yeshiva, we were taught that every law can be studied andunderstood by exploring three things: its source, its nature, and its scope. But our studentstend not to know that or another conceptual map; and if they know it, they may not to bemotivated to do that exploration; and if they are motivated, they likely don't know how todo it.The technique discussed here is designed to draw students into that halakhic world asactive participants, not merely spectators who passively watch the teacher explain it. Byactive, I mean cognitively active, so that they are thinking creatively and critically. Usingthis technique, it is the very problem of the terseness of the text that becomes themotivator for students to do further research; a seemingly un-engaging passage becomes  2a cause of interest. Before outlining this method, it is worthwhile to re-orient ourselves tothe nature of student questions in the classroom. Two Kinds of Questions Classically, teachers and students alike tend to view questions as stemming from problems; if nothing bothers you, you don't ask. Even progressive methods devised tomake students active learners through questioning seem to view questions as stemmingfrom problems. For example, the inquiry training model relies on presenting studentswith puzzling events that will naturally arouse their curiosity and stimulate their questions. This approach deliberately selects episodes that have sufficiently surprisingoutcomes to make it difficult for students to remain indifferent to the encounter. Perhaps you've seen a science exhibition where they put a blown up balloon into liquidnitrogen, and it comes out shrunk. The kids are naturally stimulated to ask why it doesthat, because the outcome is surprising. This is precisely the kind of curiosity-generatingactivity that would kick off a unit in the inquiry training approach.But let's consider another way to stimulate curiosity. Take a regular balloon, a normalobject that doesn't automatically generate questions, and hold it up in front of a classroomas is, and tell students they have two minutes to write down as many questions as theycan think of that will help them understand the balloon better. Tell them not to hold back, but to let their imaginations go. When I do this experiment on myself, I find that Isuddenly become interested in things I wasn't interested in before – science questionssuch as why balloons lose their air after a while, manufacturing questions like how balloons are made, or maybe economic questions like how do they decide how much balloons cost. When one is prompted in this manner, instead of curiosity generatingquestions, it is the discipline of questioning that generates the curiosity. We might refer tothis latter kind of question as a research-oriented question, as opposed to a problem-basedquestion, because asking this kind of question is often the key to researching a topic.My guess is that most students only know about problem-based questions and are never taught to ask research-oriented questions. Neil Postman expressed his “astonishment atthe neglect shown in school toward” the art of formulating questions. “All our knowledgeresults from questions, which is another way of saying that question asking is our mostimportant intellectual tool. I would go so far as to say that the answers we carry about inour heads are largely meaningless unless we know the questions which produced them.” Using this method in Halakha Class Because there exists a world of questions that experts in halakhic research habitually ask,not because they're having difficulties but because they know that these questions willlead them to the richness, complexity and beauty of the halakha, our goal is to engagestudents with a passage in one of the codes by inviting them to discover these questions,and then giving them the tools to discover answers.The technique I used involves six stages:  Stage One: The teacher presents the initial text. We begin a new unit of study by reading a new halakha from one of the codes. I wouldseek a relatively simple passage so that students could focus their questions more on  3issues about the halakha itself and less on technical, textual issues. On the other hand, ithelps if the text has some elements of nuance or ambiguity in order to encourage studentcuriosity. I found Rambam's Mishna Torah served these needs well. It is also desirablefor the halakha to involve normative practices the students are likely to encounter (e.g.,the requirement to pray three times a day, the prohibition of deception in business andsocial interaction (geneivat daat), the requirement to wait between meat and milk, howmany shofar blasts we have to hear). Consideration also should be given to thesubsequent halakhic works that the students will see at the research stage, so that theselater, more explanatory halakhic works, such as the Mishnah Berurah, Arukh Hashulhan,or Kaf Hahayyim, will reveal elements of controversy or surprise about the law, or use itto illustrate some broader halakhic principle that is worthy of attention.  Stage Two: Students write their questions. After reading this new text the students have two minutes of quiet time during whichthey are to write down the questions about the halakha that, if explored, will lead them toa better understanding of it. Instructing the students to write their questions is muchdifferent from asking, “Are there any questions?” It teaches students to understand thatthey must have questions, and if they don’t have any, then they just have to think of some. That is how to create a researcher.It is at this stage that the terse style of the halakhic codes are transformed from being a problem to being a stimulus to active student involvement. The missing ideas andreferences we mentioned above, the things we wish were included in the text, are the verythings students should be asking about. At this stage students should be exploringquestions such as: What is the source? What is its srcin? Is it from the Torah? TheRabbis? How is it related to a similar concept we learned? Are there any exceptions?What are its parameters? Who's obligated in it and when? Is it under dispute? What is its purpose? Do we practice this way today? These missing pieces are the stuff their questions should seek to discover.Students should be encouraged to let their imaginations go so that their questions caninclude ideological issues or historical issues about the work and its author, including thequestion of why the book was written in such a terse style. For those challenged by thisexercise, the teacher can gently prod. Imagine you were observing this halakha andsomeone who doesn't know anything about halakha saw you doing it and they wantedyou to explain it to them. Would you feel comfortable doing that with your currentknowledge level? What more do you need to know? It should be clear that while the questions we focus on in this discussion are endemic toall or most halakhot, they are not meant to be asked mindlessly without giving attentionto the unique aspects of the halakha at hand. On the contrary, while there is certainly acommon question bank for all halakhot, when students are given time to think aboutany given law and its particular formulation, it inspires its own special emphases andunique formulations, as well as completely unique questions.  Stage Three: Students share their questions.  4Each student shares with the class their one most important question, and the teacher records on the board a list of research questions. If there are additional after one circuit of the class, students will now have a chance to add them.  Stage Four: Consolidating the list. Listening to the student-generated questions, the teacher assesses where the students arein relation to this particular text, and the discipline in general Are they getting hung up onthe language? Are they getting the idea? Are they concerned about philosophical or theological issues? Do they understand the technical nature of halakha as a legal system?Have the students had any personal experiences that affect the way they learn thishalakha? Are they having emotional issues related to this halakha? If the teacher identifies issues that may hold up progress, it may be wise to address them before goingfurther. There may be other questions raised that are important but not appropriate to beanswered in the context of the current unit, and the teacher may choose to save suchquestions for a rainy day lesson at some future time. But most of the questions will become the agenda for the student research that comprises the next stage. The teacher canadd some of his or her own questions, and explain to the students why this kind of question is important. This modeling helps the students move towards asking richer, more productive questions.When all the questions are up on the board, they are categorized. Together with the class,the teacher groups the questions. Which are about the text (e.g., why did the text usethese words in such and such order) and which are about the topic (what is the source of this law)? While the former may or may not give new insights into the law, the latter usually leads to broader and deeper ideas. Some questions are more generally abouthalakha. Other questions are unique to the case at hand and require students to think about the special and unique issues raised by this particular halakha. Different texts lendthemselves to different categories of questions, and choosing a variety of texts over theyear exposes students to an array of question types. As the students practice asking their questions, they become better at asking the ones that will be most effective in producingdeeper and more meaningful knowledge, a skill that is reinforced with the study of subsequent units.These four stages would typically take one class period. After the class I would type upthe questions and distribute them the next day – that list would become the student-generated agenda for the rest of the unit of study.  Stage Five: Students consider possible answers.  Now it's time for students to find answers to their questions, based on their pre-knowledge and their own analytical skills. It's a good idea to have them do this in smallgroups, after which the groups share the answers they generated with the entire class.This exercise is a good preparation for finding answers through research – when studentssubsequently see their own answers (or variations on them) in later commentaries, theywill recognize them and understand them more deeply than if they had never consideredthem before.  Stage Six: Students seek answers in additional sources.
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