“Reading is important, because if you can read, you can learn anything about everything and everything about anything.” So said Tomie dePaola, renowned author of over 200 children’s books, and as a reading specialist, I couldn’t agree more. Yet do high school students today recognize the importance of reading? Do they enjoy reading? With all the demands on their time and attention, particularly in a dual curriculum high school, students sometimes turn to shortcuts rather than reading entire books, and even highly proficient readers complain that they have little time to read for pleasure. In an effort to put the fun back in reading and to demonstrate the many ways that literacy enriches our lives, Kohelet Yeshiva High School held its first annual Literacy Day program this past November.
What is literacy? Defined not only as the ability to read and write, literacy also signifies competence or knowledge in a specified area. Through a choice of a dozen workshops, Kohelet students had opportunities to read and write in a relaxed and fun way as well as a chance to explore new ideas and new fields of knowledge. Workshop topics ranged across the curriculum and beyond, from learning to read music to having a conversation in Aramaic, from becoming philosophically literate to focusing on the power of language by playing word games.
For this first effort, I created a list of potential topics and then refined the list through consultation with other faculty members and with a student coordinator, Noa Batya Spero, whom I recruited in order to have student input and leadership for the event.
A voracious reader and prolific creative writer, Noa Batya led a workshop on “Flash Fiction,” which she described as follows: “If you have always loved to write but can’t commit to a novel or short story, then Flash Fiction is for you! In Flash Fiction you are given a character, setting and plot and then off you go, straight into the clutches of a story. These stories will be short and they will be many. We invite you to come and write to the very last word or at least until the time is up!”
Some session topics related directly to the curriculum and provided students with an opportunity to delve more deeply into a subject or to explore something familiar from a different perspective. For example, students attending the “Reading Rashi” workshop wrestled with this question: “What makes Rashi’s commentary timeless and relevant to six-year-old schoolchildren through mature adults as a necessary tool for learning Torah?” For a twist on the usual approach to studying Aramaic, another workshop trained students in “How to Have an Argument in Aramaic”: “Come to this workshop to experience Aramaic as not only the written language of Gemara but as what used to be a ‘living’ language. You’ll have fun and will probably enhance your Gemara skills along the way.” In a seminar on modern Hebrew poetry, a group performed a close analysis of “two poems from one of Israel’s greatest poets, Yehuda Amichai, that connect us with modern Israel through his poetic interpretation of our tradition.”
Other sessions addressed areas not covered by the curriculum, such as visual literacy and philosophical literacy. Teachers might choose to incorporate elements of these workshops into the curriculum in the future, both in general studies and Judaic studies classes, or even to offer a new elective. Next year, to foster greater cross-curricular connections, some workshops that did not have specifically Jewish content this year could be co-led by a member of the Judaic studies faculty.
Language of all kinds was a major focus of the event. Many students took advantage of the chance to begin to learn a programming language. The challenge was framed thus: “Imagine trying to communicate with someone who has very limited language ability... Computers only “understand” a very limited number of commands, and yet, look what programmers have taught them to do! Come and test your ability to communicate instructions using a computer programming language. Also, see if you can follow the computer’s instructions!”
Most popular of all was the “Word Games Workshop,” during which students chose from a wide array of games that included Hebrew Bananagrams and the Jewish edition of Apples to Apples. A reading marathon and workshops on Shakespeare and wordplay rounded out the choices for the day.
The program was well received by students and faculty alike. Workshop leaders reported a high degree of student engagement, and students appreciated the variety of options available to them. Typical of Jewish day schools in general, Kohelet’s students and teachers have a long day, a full curriculum and much to accomplish in each individual subject area. Programs such as Literacy Day can provide an added opportunity to step back and see the big picture of interdisciplinary study and real-world applications.
Just as important, these special programs can open students up to new fields of interest. When it is possible to try out a subject for one workshop session rather than committing to a semester or a full year, students might be more willing to take an intellectual risk. The Literacy Day program also gave teachers a chance to explore different subjects and to connect with students in a fresh way. For example, an English teacher led the workshop on visual literacy and a math teacher led the one on philosophical literacy. This type of teaching inspires students by example and underscores the value of lifelong learning.
A pilot venture this year, Literacy Day started small, with time carved out from the school day for two 45-minute workshops with a ten-minute break between. Going forward, a half-day of workshops might be combined with all-school activities such as an author panel as well as chesed projects that relate to literacy. To extend its impact, Literacy Day could be used to launch a school book club and a “One Book, One Kohelet” communitywide reading event. As with literacy itself, the possibilities are limitless.