HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

Inheriting the Past, Building the Future: Developing Historical Thinking in Upper Elementary Students

by Lisa Micley and Stan Peerless Issue: Teaching Jewish History

Drawing on an online program in Jewish history they created, the authors elucidate best practices for engaging upper elementary students and offer suggestions for designing classroom activities.

Elementary Students

History is a challenging subject for day schools to teach effectively at the upper elementary level. Historical thinking in young students is limited and an effective history program needs to engage them in order to foster meaningful learning. An article on “Historical Thinking in the Elementary Years: A Review of Current Research” by Amy von Heyking of the University of Alberta offers a number of points that can guide us.

1. Thinking historically does not just mean thinking about the past; it involves seeing oneself in time, as an inheritor of the legacies of the past and as a maker of the future.

2. Many studies support the claim that elementary children and adolescents can develop quite sophisticated historical thinking skills within an appropriate context of active engagement with source material, alternative accounts and teaching that scaffolds children’s emerging understandings and skills.

3. Understanding change over time is central to historical thinking. … Researcher Keith Barton has indicated that upper elementary students are quite adept at observing changes in material culture, technology and social life and can categorize events according to broad historical periods.

4. Barton also found that children who were able to appreciate the subtleties of historical change were those who could make connections with their own experiences. Again it is clear that historical investigations of questions relevant to children are most likely to lead to more sophisticated historical understandings.

The frustration of the Jewish day school educators teaching history in upper elementary grades derives from the fact that the materials and methodologies they are using are not designed for the type of historical thinking that these students are capable of employing.

The Program

Following a focus group we conducted at last year’s North American Jewish Day School conference, we created a Jewish history program at the upper elementary school level guided by essential questions in an interactive asynchronous online model. The program, under development by Behrman House, is an adventure in which contemporary Jewish children use a time travel app to find answers to questions that they encounter in their own lives. The topics covered in the five modules include Pesach, the synagogue, Israel and the Diaspora, Jewish languages and Hanukkah.

The program includes a number of important educational features that follow the principles outlined above. The students are invited into the story and become personally involved in the adventure through the characters in the story. Each module begins with one or more essential questions that derive from something experienced by the children in the story. Students experience the Jewish past in a way that relates to their contemporary reality. They engage actively with the content by simulating research in an online Lexicon of Jewish life (the Lexicon of the Center for Educational Technology in Israel is used as a resource for historical material); by analyzing authentic Jewish texts, historical events, or art; and by drawing conclusions based on their research. Without memorizing any dates or information about historical periods, students come to recognize the development over time of various rituals and concepts in Jewish life.

The Theory in Practice: A Sample Module

Let’s look at a sample module in order to demonstrate how the educational insights and methods cited above are incorporated into the student learning.

Relevant Essential Questions

The “Israel and the Diaspora” unit opens with Josh Davidson, the child in the story, skyping with his cousin, Yehoshua ben David, in Beer Sheva. The conversation ends abruptly when an air raid siren in Beer Sheva goes off to warn of incoming missiles from Gaza. While Yehoshua heads for his shelter, Josh shares the experience in a Facebook post and expresses his opinion that the United States should support Israel in eliminating the threat from Gaza. Subsequently, Josh gets some surprising responses to his post with the message that if he likes Israel so much he should move there. Josh and the students are thus engaged in the essential questions regarding dual allegiance, presented in a manner that they can understand and feel.

Active Student Engagement

Josh and his sister Jenny decide to use the time travel app to go back in history and find out how the Diaspora started and how it affected the relationship of the Jewish community to Israel. Students accompany Josh and Jenny as they join a group of exiles in Babylonia in 586 BCE who have gathered to hear a letter written to them by the prophet Yirmiyahu (Jeremiah 29:28). The students are asked to help Josh and Jenny write an exile survival guide based on the letter, including the following components: remembering the past, living in the present and hoping for the future. Similarly, in subsequent lessons, the students are asked to write Facebook posts for Josh.

Change Over Time

After reading in the Lexicon about the return of the Jews from Babylonia to Israel, Shivat Zion, they decide to go back in time to see how the story ended. They set their time travel app to “Shivat Zion” and are surprised to find themselves in the city of Shushan in Persia, rather than in Israel. They discover that not everyone returned to Israel when given the opportunity and that those who remained wear Persian clothing, speak Aramaic and even have Persian names, like Mordechai and Esther. They learn, as well, that Jerusalem still remains the center of their lives, as reflected in their financial contributions and frequent visits.

The next stop on their odyssey is Jerusalem at the time of the “Great Rebellion,” which led to the destruction of the Second Temple. There they witness the controversy over whether or not to negotiate with the Romans. They accompany Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai as he reestablishes the Sanhedrin in Yavneh and enacts new laws that are designed to preserve Jerusalem in the memory of the people in their new reality. Josh and Jenny, along with the students, learn about the concepts of zeicher le-mikdash (remembering the Temple) and zeicher le-churban (remembering the destruction) and many of the customs associated with them.

In the final segment of the module, Josh and Jenny travel back in time to attend the First World Zionist Congress in Basel, where they also witness the controversy between Herzl and Ahad Ha‘am as to whether or not all Jews should ultimately live in Israel.

At the end of the odyssey, Josh and Jenny and the students who accompanied them realize that the role of Jerusalem in the lives of the Jewish community has changed over time due to changing circumstances. They also discover that there are often different interpretations of events and texts within the Jewish community. Just as this was true at the time of Shivat Zion and of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, so too it was the case in Basel, and remains the case today.

Personalizing the Experience

An important aspect of the time travel in the program is that through it the students gain a greater understanding of their own experience. One example is the realization that the scene that they witnessed in ancient Shushan is very similar to their experience of the Jews in America. Similarly, after learning about the concepts of zeicher le-mikdash and zeicher le-churban, the students complete an activity that enables them to understand the origins and meaning of a number of the related customs that they have experienced in their own lives: breaking the glass at a wedding, praying in the direction of Jerusalem, the “Hillel sandwich” at the Passover seder, the fast of Tisha B’Av, etc. They are then asked to create their own visual zeicher for their rooms at home.

Implications for Teaching History to Upper Elementary Students

What are the implications of the above assumptions about the historical thinking of upper elementary school students for teachers teaching Jewish history, or teaching the historical context of Jewish studies content, such as the holidays?

The first principle that can be derived is that history teaching does not begin in the past. Rather, it must begin in the present, with the actual experiences of the students and with issues that they or their contemporaries face. It is those current issues that should generate the essential questions that shape the learning experience.

The second principle is that students should be introduced to the broad strokes of historical change in Jewish history rather than to isolated events that occurred on specific dates.

The third principle is that the historical changes found in history must be explicitly tied to the personal lives of the students and their contemporary reality—their family and community customs, their family history, their personal experience and expression of issues facing the Jewish community at large. Furthermore, the students must be actively engaged in processing the historical knowledge attained to discover and formulate those connections.

It is important to point out that, although in this model the learning of the student begins with his/her reality, the teacher does not have to begin his/her planning with the contemporary setting. Rather, the opposite is in fact often the case. The teacher may wish to teach a particular historical event or the origins of a particular custom or concept. The theory presented above suggests that in such an instance, the teacher should consider ways to connect the historical event to the children’s contemporary reality in order to tap into their style of historical thinking.


By the end of his journey in the above demonstration of the theory, Josh has found the answer to his essential questions, concludes that he must maintain a strong connection to Israel and Jerusalem in his life as a Jew in the Diaspora, and feels better prepared to face future decisions regarding the place of Israel in his life. Effective teaching of Jewish history can provide students with a learning experience that fulfills the function of historical learning as described by historian Gerda Lerner: “It gives us a sense of perspective about our own lives and encourages us to transcend the finite span of our life-time by identifying with the generations that came before us and measuring our own actions against the generations that will follow. … We can expand our reach and with it our aspirations.”¿

Rabbi Stan Peerless, a former day school teacher and principal in North America, lives in Jerusalem where he is an independent educational consultant and an associate in JETS, a Judaic studies online and distance learning provider. peerlestan@gmail.com

Lisa Micley, an educational consultant who specializes in teacher mentoring and curriculum development, is serving as project manager on this adventure in Jewish history in development by Behrman House. lmicley@gmail.com

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