HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

Beginning in First Grade

by Bryna Leider Issue: Teaching Jewish History

In the Montessori model, students begin the formal study of history at age six; they cover the span of time from the beginning of the universe through the Renaissance in first through third grades. For those accustomed to early civilizations being taught in sixth grade, it seems an impractical choice, but any Jewish educator should be able to recognize the possibilities. What day school does not successfully teach first graders about Ancient Egypt before Pesach? Why, then, do most schools claim to begin Jewish history in fourth grade and why are educators so convinced that young children are unable to acquire these concepts?

Maria Montessori wrote extensively about the need for a Cosmic Curriculum, which in current education vernacular denotes a holistic, cross-curricular education. In Jewish schools that use the Montessori Method, students learn history in tandem with studies on the parashah and the chaggim. In actuality, all day school students in first through third grades learn Jewish history through Torah and holidays. The only difference is that teachers in Jewish Montessori schools are systematic about its inclusion and therefore make sure lessons directly relate to Jewish history goals.

In a Cosmic Education, a child constructs an understanding of one’s miniscule presence in the enormity of space and time while simultaneously being a crucially important and impactful presence. This idea, which could have been just as easily lifted from Jewish mysticism, is first developed through storytelling. Children hear five extended and dramatic tales that set the tone for the future study of history.

Jewish Montessori schools include a theatrical version of Bereshit and then an interactive introduction to the entire span of Jewish history. In this activity, which typically takes place outdoors, a very long piece of cloth or rope is used as a timeline and is unrolled as a teacher introduces key events. Pictures or objects are laid out along the sequence and children literally walk alongside their history.

In Montessori, all of the study of history ties back to the timeline. After the grand introduction, the students practice sequencing Jewish history cards, pictorial representations of pivotal events. The cards are assembled in open spaces on the floor and are manipulated over and over again. Once students can complete the sequence easily, it is set aside, but is later revisited and extended with each consecutive holiday.

Before Chanukah, a first grade teacher might slowly unroll a long black ribbon. At one end, he or she would place a card with a picture depicting the beginning of the world. A gap would be left and then a card representing Noach would be added. Another gap would lead to Avraham and then overlapping cards representing the avot and imahot would be placed in the sequence. The teacher would explain that the overlap demonstrates that they knew each other.

The teacher might add a card representing matan Torah and then a longer gap at which a menorah might be placed, representing the time of Chanukah. After an even longer gap, a photo of the class or school would be added and the ribbon would continue, with more remaining visible on the spool, representing time that has yet to pass. Before Purim, this process would be repeated, but a card representing Purim would be added before the menorah, indicating that the story of Purim took place before the story of Chanukah.

After children are familiar with the entire timeline, they work with more narrow snapshots of time and add details. Before Asara be-Tevet, second and third grade students at Luria Academy explored the historical significance of the Beit Hamikdash by combining map work and timeline work. They identified where Jewish people were living prior to the destruction of the first Temple and how some were then dispersed. They compared this dispersal to what came after the destruction of the second Temple. After practicing the chronology and marking the geographic locations of key figures in the mesorah as well as four generations of their own families, they were able to have informed conversations about how the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash changed the way the Jewish people lived and practiced.

We worry about how to lift our past from the pages of a textbook, but the answer is in front of us. Acknowledge that you are already teaching Jewish history in early elementary and resolve to approach it more methodically. Empower Judaic studies teachers to function as history teachers. Invite teachers of Jewish studies to talk to general studies teachers and to upper elementary teachers. Use the tools of Montessori and the best practices of early childhood to make the process engaging and the information enduring.

Bryna Leider is the education director at Luria Academy of Brooklyn. bryna@luria-academy.org¿

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Teaching Jewish History

Is Jewish history the linchpin to Jewish identity formation, the weak link in day school Jewish studies, or perhaps both? Jewish history provides students with critical links to their past and gives them the context for their own experiences. Discover insights in this field from senior scholars and educators, and find creative new initiatives being used by teachers in day schools today.

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