Debbie is the executive director of Hidden Sparks 

Pathways to Differentiation in a Judaic Studies Classroom

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A page of Gemara can be daunting for any student to navigate. It is set up with the discussion text in the middle, without punctuation and in Aramaic, and with rabbinic commentaries situated around the text running to the margin.

In a typical yeshiva day school, by seventh grade, students are expected to know their way around a page of Gemara. Yet Benjamin (not his real name) usually sat in class with his hood over his head, appearing inattentive. His teacher concluded that he had attention issues and asked for help from his Hidden Sparks coach. However, when they observed Benjamin together, an unexpected picture emerged. 

As the team unpacked Benjamin’s struggles, they also observed his very strong higher order thinking skills. The way in which the daf (page) of Gemara was being taught was predominantly frontal, with the expectation that students would follow along with the teacher. The team noted that Benjamin was able to follow along and actively participate in verbal discussions, but when he had to engage with the text, he seemingly shut down. They wondered if the layout of the page was overwhelming for him. For example, a student with spatial challenges may find an original page of Gemara very challenging and exhausting. 

At the heart of Hidden Sparks’ work is the belief that every child has unique talents, strengths, affinities and challenges. Teacher and student awareness of individual learning and behavior, strengths and challenges, empowers schools to create solutions that meet the needs of the wide variety of learners with whom they work, building on students’ strengths and making modifications to meet their challenges.

Opening a Window to Let Students Thrive 

Benjamin’s coach-teacher team set out to limit the obstacles he faced by differentiating the way that the content was presented to him. They created a “reading window” that would help. Benjamin immediately was able to focus on the text under discussion, while shading out the parts of the page and commentaries that he didn’t need to focus on. For younger students, this may be a window cut out in a piece of cardboard, while an older student may highlight areas in the text. Removing or lessening the obstacles often immediately helps to lower a student’s frustration and anxiety. Observing Benjamin’s strengths and challenges and adding this accommodation helped the teacher begin the path towards differentiation. 

Then the team set out to work on tapping into Benjamin’s superior higher-order thinking skills. How could the teacher communicate the discussions on the daf in a way that would spark Ben’s engagement? The teacher was willing to try new approaches. And so began the journey that would transform Benjamin’s participation and positively impact the rest of the class. 

When the teacher moved from center stage and began to use Benjamin’s cognitive strengths, initiating new teaching approaches, he expanded the differentiation in his class. By considering the student’s interests and learning profile, he was able to shift the process, the how of learning the content. The teacher introduced debates, asked students to think about how they would advertise or report a concept on an Instagram page, and engaged the whole group in discussions, with students taking on different roles. Benjamin emerged as one of the most engaged students in the class, and all of the students benefited from the shift in the teacher’s instructional approach.

Getting Started 

Beginning on a differentiation path doesn’t require a whole class overhaul. When teachers understand who their students are as learners, small steps and simple changes in how content is presented or how a student is asked to demonstrate their learning can make a big difference. 

Strategies such as providing students with choice, presenting reading material with different levels of complexity, scaffolding or breaking down large projects into smaller chunks can all go a long way in helping those students whom the teacher knows are struggling, and most likely, the class as a whole. For teachers who are thinking about how to differentiate instruction, even just beginning by considering where students are developmentally, and accommodating to their strengths and weaknesses, leads to a shift in how they plan their teaching. While some teachers may experience that this approach can take more time in the short term, over time they can see the benefits for themselves and their students.

Consider alternatives to a paper and pen test for assessing student’s learning. Encouraging students to show us what they have learned in different ways (debates, role play or diorama) is another aspect of differentiation. When students are given the opportunity to show that they have learned the content in a way that uses their interests and strengths, it is differentiating the product that the students complete.

Elevating the Field 

We know that differentiation is an area that needs further attention. According to the recent large-scale CASJE report (“Mapping the Market: An Analysis of the Preparation, Support, and Employment of Jewish Educators”), Jewish day schools are facing a personnel shortage and retention problem: only 26% of their Judaic studies teachers were required to have mastery of instructional methods/strategies upon hiring, and 49% of them leave their positions within the first five years. Whereas many of the challenges facing Jewish day schools are complex and difficult to solve, boosting teachers’ preparedness and skill set with instructional methodologies that meet the needs of diverse learners is an achievable intervention that can provide immediate, practical and transformative assistance for children who struggle and can help shift teacher mindset and practice to help the rest of their students.

A leader in this field, Carol Ann Tomlinson, notes, “Teaching is difficult. Teaching really well is profoundly difficult…. Differentiation suggests it is feasible to develop classrooms where the reality of learner variance can be addressed along with curricular realities…. The idea is compelling. It challenges us to draw on our best knowledge of teaching and learning. It suggests that there is room for both equity and excellence in our classrooms.”

This is one of the reasons why Hidden Sparks is partnering with Prizmah on a six-part series for heads of Judaic studies departments, Leading Your Judaic Studies Team In Differentiated Instruction, to bolster their abilities to guide their teachers in increasing the levels of differentiation in their classrooms. By working both on a systems level with school leaders and directly with classroom teachers, we can help enhance and strengthen our capacity for nurturing within all of our students a love of learning and a sense of optimism about their future.