Differentiation in Tanakh Classes: Integrating Students Who Transfer From Secular Schools
Like many schools, ours accepts some students who are beginning Jewish day school in middle or high school. How can we support these transfer students’ integration into the Tanakh classroom?
We spent years experimenting with different models. Developing a separate track for transfer students didn’t work. Isolated from their peers, the beginners lacked role models for engaging in traditional text study. On the other hand, early attempts at immediate mainstreaming led us to the opposite pitfall: Beginners were overwhelmed and felt they could never catch up. We found, then, that differentiating for these students affords them the best opportunities for success in Tanakh.
Some background: At SSLI, Tanakh classes are already heterogeneous. Students are accustomed to classmates with various levels of Hebrew knowledge, academic achievement and home observance. Tanakh teachers already create differentiated lesson plans and assessments. Mainstreaming with differentiation for transfer students makes sense in our school culture. We have found that transfer students can be mainstreamed successfully if teachers help them prepare and scaffold their learning.
Help them Prepare
When they enroll, students with no prior day school experience receive a list of the most essential Jewish studies information they should know before school begins in September. The list begins with the most basic skills, like being able to decode the Hebrew alphabet, and concludes with more “advanced” knowledge, like knowing the names of the Hebrew months. Students who are ready to develop a basic biblical Hebrew vocabulary are directed to the list of 52 most frequent words in Tanakh, as identified by Larry A. Mitchel (A Student’s Vocabulary for Biblical Hebrew and Aramaic). The intake team guides the family to identify which items on the list are a priority for the student to prepare. A family member may help the student prepare, or a family may hire a tutor.
Once the school year begins, teachers give these students extra attention. In addition to diagnostic assessments and conversations, teachers speak twice as frequently with transfer students and their parents during the first month of classes to determine a course of action. Teachers continue to check in with each transfer student throughout the year and adjust the plan as needed.
Scaffold Material, and Gradually Wean from Scaffolding
Early in their studies, we try to pair transfer students with one another in havruta, so that when the rest of the class is working on translating a Bible passage from Hebrew, the beginners can use a translation. We tell them, though, that they will be responsible for recognizing some of the text in Hebrew. In the course of a unit, the class will focus on a number of key phrases. Before we quiz the class on those phrases, we meet with each transfer student to select which of the phrases they will have to recognize in Hebrew. At first, we may choose only two or three phrases. We gradually increase the number, continuing to involve the student in decisions of what will be formally assessed.
As transfer students become more comfortable in the school, we pair them with their more experienced peers. While this sometimes brings up concerns about Hebrew vocabulary, it exposes the new student to translation strategies. Most importantly, it teaches new students how to study in havruta.
What’s the outcome? By the beginning of twelfth grade, transfer students are integrated into the Tanakh classroom. They study Hebrew text as frequently as their peers, with the same level of comprehension. Students are proud of having become full-fledged participants in their school’s Jewish life.