HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

Iyyun Tefillah Through the Eyes of Inquiry

by Suzanne Messinger and Beth Fine Issue: Tefillah
TOPICS : Tefillah Pedagogy

Schools often struggle with the study of tefillah—finding time for it and strong pedagogical methods. Here’s a solution employed by one school.

When Judaic studies teachers at our school, the Jewish Day School of Metropolitan Seattle, carve out precious time to reflect on our practice and review the spiral of our curriculum, we charge into conversations about Torah and Hebrew, we reflect on the ways we encourage our students to grow as friends and responsible people, but we often shy away from discussing tefillah. The topic feels abstract yet fraught with significance, the skills require rote competence combined with alert intellects and hearts, the pedagogic goals and approaches differ by teacher background. A majority of our students have no contact with prayer outside of school until they approach their bnei mitzvah years, while those who do attend services can be found in synagogues throughout the denominational spectrum.

How do we structure the learning so that students find prayer relevant and meaningful, a source of joy and growth? How do we encourage our students to develop a sense of attachment to prayer that enriches their lives and thus enriches and sustains the Jewish community? No wonder we are unsure how to approach teaching tefillah! Yet our recent experiences in teaching through inquiry have borne rich fruit in this and other subject areas.

Our day school has embarked on an exciting journey over the past several years, as we embrace inquiry as a pedagogical approach to curriculum development throughout the school. A wealth of resources are available for general studies; we must use our imaginations to extend the inquiry paradigm and methodology into Judaic studies and in particular into teaching iyyun tefillah, a focus on deep understanding as well as prayer skills. In this article we give an overview of our approach to inquiry, share the outline of two units which use inquiry to examine prayer and open a conversation with other schools that may be on a similar path.

At JDS we use the inquiry cycle (as defined by Kath Murdoch in Classroom Connections) as the curriculum framework to design and implement teaching units. The inquiry cycle is based on the belief that inquiry is a process of learning that guides learners in constructing meaning about themselves and the world. This structured learning path focuses on engaging the learner actively in the process, developing thinking, interpersonal and research skills and creating a sense of responsibility in the learner for their progress and work.

Students engage actively with material and with each other, building meaning through doing rather than listening. They work in twos and in small groups, practicing listening to each other and valuing each other’s ideas while expressing their own thoughts with confidence. Students are taught to ask questions and think critically about ideas. They notice and pursue areas that most interest them, developing the skills to present their self-directed learning to others. Students come to see their work as significant, feel a responsibility to share their learning and take action in the world.

We have developed a couple of inquiry units in third grade on two pieces of tefillah: Birkat HaMazon, the prayer after eating, and Havdallah, the set of prayers that end Shabbat. (See sidebar.) We begin with an enduring understanding, a significant idea. This transcends the specific case study—the unit on building blessings could easily be adapted for studying the Amidah, for example. Next, we present the essential questions which structure the content. Each question guides our learning through texts and other resources, active engagements, burning questions and reflections on learning. Each inspires activities that encourage students to think, experience, practice, challenge and integrate the embedded skills and concepts.

The inquiry cycle is made up of 7 stages: tuning in, finding out, sorting out, drawing conclusions, going further, taking action and reflecting. This learning cycle lends itself to meaningful study of prayer.

The first essential question of each unit sets the stage for tuning in. It is purposefully designed to give the students the opportunity to make connections between themselves and the enduring understanding. In these two units, these questions initiate learners to engage in prayer: how does this text connect to me, how is it relevant or significant for me? The goal of tuning in is that on the very first day of the unit, each student can begin to feel how the topic is relevant and meaningful to him or her. Students make connections and their connections get at the why rather than the what of a unit.

The next essential questions are designed to guide both the teacher and students through new, shared learning experiences. Finding out is an invitation for students to construct new knowledge and understanding of the topic. Teachers give students the opportunity to explore several resources and participate in a variety of learning engagements. These include guest speakers, field trips, hands-on explorations, books, magazine articles, movies and Internet resources. Teachers choose engagements that actively involve students by allowing them time to explore and observe, make choices and engage in conversation.

For example, in the Building Blessings unit, the teacher scattered different blessings around the room. Students walked from blessing to blessing reading them, using a T-chart with the categories “I think / I wonder.” This encouraged students to notice what they already knew about blessings and what their questions were at that point in the learning. These questions were then used to guide peer-to-peer and class discussions.

The cycle then moves into finding out and sorting out, when the learner develops new understanding and skills in relation to the topic—in this case, learning how to chant and understand the prayer. During the going further stage, students discuss and research their and their classmates’ questions. Using the inquiry cycle both structures and deepens the teaching. Each activity builds on the last, allowing students to organize their own thoughts and the newly acquired knowledge in a useful manner, and then asks students to use that knowledge. This is very different from teaching students a prayer in a rote manner and then asking them to sing it back as proof of learning. Here we grapple with big ideas, with philosophical dilemmas, with the reasons for prayer, with our own doubts and hopes.

Throughout the inquiry cycle, teachers provide opportunities for their students to ask and record their burning questions. When an engagement or discussion sparks a question that warrants further discussion or research, students affix it to the burning questions board. These questions then become the starting point for rich classroom discussions and independent research in the going further stage of the inquiry cycle.

In the Walking the Lines of Time unit, students came up with some of the following questions: Why are the five senses used in the Havdallah blessings? How does fire remind us of God? What would help me have a good week? What is a Messiah? Who was Elijah? How come there is so much wine in Jewish tradition? How is wine made?

One of the most exciting parts of the inquiry cycle occurs when students have completed their shared learning experiences. The taking action phase asks learners to do something with the learning, whether acting in the world, sharing the learning with others or pursuing areas of interest and questions which arose. The teacher asks, What next? Now that you are experts in this topic, what will you do with your learning? How will you show what you know, share it with your community or take action in response?

The final question in the Building Blessings Unit asks, What is our responsibility to make the phrase “give food to all” come true? Last year the third grade class decided to raise money for a local charity that fights hunger by having a craft and bake sale. The class determined tasks that needed to be accomplished and broke into groups. One group researched local charities and made a recommendation to the class. Another gathered recipes and ingredients, so we could bake goodies in the school kitchen.

A third collected materials and created crafts. One group worked on advertising, writing a blog and creating posters. Other students priced all the crafts and treats, brought in change and kept track of the profits. Our class raised $700 for an organization called Hopelink. This year’s class may choose a different way to take action and partner with God in fighting hunger.

We hope that this discussion has sparked your thinking about how teaching through inquiry could enrich your teaching of iyyun tefillah. One of the most powerful elements of our school’s transformation over the last several years has been the power of collaboration. We come together in a room to dream about enduring understandings, the big ideas we want our students to encounter, as well as the case studies that would illustrate that big question. We work through creating essential questions, the road map of the learning process.

We are confident that our practice would be enriched by ideas from other schools, and similarly hope to have something we could contribute to your school’s growth. We think that putting our heads together and collaborating with other like-minded faculties on developing inquiry units in iyyun tefillah would be an exciting and potentially rewarding endeavor. Join us?

Suzanne Messinger

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Most day schools are committed to cultivating Jewish prayer, tefillah, as a spiritual practice. In practice, they often find the obstacles formidable: lack of curriculum, knowledgeable and passionate prayer leaders, student interest, awareness of goals, to name a few. Articles here aim to help schools clarify their approach and strengthen the educational bases of school tefillah.

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