HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

Lessons from Montessori for Jewish Day Schools

by Debra Kira Issue: Formal-Informal Education
TOPICS : Pedagogy

The author shows a method for blending the student-centered approach of Montessori with the goals of Jewish education.

Often students are presented with a formal Judaic curriculum in an attempt to instill a sense of Jewish identity through knowledge. I must admit that prior to being a parent and a Montessori administrator, I felt that this was the most effective way in which to “make” students learn. I provided texts and gave formal lectures to “instill” the knowledge I wished them to have.

Through informal tactile learning, an integrated Judaic Montessori classroom creates a lifelong learner eager to find his or her Jewish identity and foster a love for Judaism.

Yet through research and experience, I have found that Jewish knowledge and awareness comes more naturally and powerfully from activities at home and at school, rather than through scripted lessons. An integrated Judaic Montessori classroom provides this experience through informal tactile learning, and thus, creates a lifelong learner eager to find his or her Jewish identity and foster a love for Judaism. Although this concept seems to be simple, the implementation of the model and the true integration of a Judaic curriculum in a Montessori classroom is complex.

Educating children is a skill involving attentiveness and an awareness of the individual child. Each child comes to us as a seed, and we must find a way to assist in his growth so that he will continue to grow after leaving our classrooms. Discovering the correct way in which to reach each student is an integral part of this education process. I can assure you that this is difficult to achieve this through the repetition of formal assessment drills in a conventional classroom setting. Nevertheless, it has taken me years to understand, appreciate, and promote the techniques that are best used to provide students with optimal Judaic education that will promote a strong Jewish identity.

Maria Montessori’s methodology offers the most effective educational options for this model. Tactile learning, emphasis on respect, individualized education, and independence all helped to draw me in to this approach. However, the Montessori models in existence often separate the Judaic curriculum from the rest of the program. In order to instill a love for Judaism and foster a strong Jewish identity, the Judaic curriculum has to be combined with the secular aspects of the program. At the UOS Goldberg Montessori School in Houston, Texas, we have created a model for integrating Judaic practice and learning into the pillars of the Montessori curriculum. In the classrooms teachers serve as guides, presenting the lessons and allowing the students to practice and master their work.

The Montessori classroom incorporates the informal education that fosters love of learning and a true Jewish identity. The Montessori classroom has six main areas of learning that integrate Judaic content into the Montessori curriculum: Practical Life, Sensorial, Language, Math, Geography, and Science.

Practical Life activities are based on the ways in which people in our culture relate to each other socially as well as the ways in which they complete everyday tasks. The exercises are real-life activities using fully functional objects matched to the size of the child’s hand and strength. They provide children with endless opportunities to imitate the everyday behaviors of people and in the process gain independence, develop concentration, and build determination. The Judaic curriculum is integrated within Practical Life through the pouring of grape juice into Kiddush cups, the braiding of challah, and the spooning of seeds at Tu Bishvat. Students learn the brachot for the foods that they are preparing in this area. They can be observed squeezing oranges for juice, reciting the brachah independently, and then enjoying their snack.

Included in the Math exercises is the counting of Judaic objects, counting the days of the Omer, and counting the mitzvah leaves representing the daily mitzvot that the students perform.

Sensorial activities invite children to use their senses in order to master their learning. These exercises are based on sets of graded objects with design specifications as precise as those of scientific instruments. Each set of objects materializes, isolates, and grades one quality including texture, color, volume, mass, length, temperature, shape, sound, and smell. One common activity found within the Sensorial center of the classroom involves students matching different colored kippot with color cards. Students aged three to six practice alephbet yoga, using their bodies to make the shapes of the Hebrew letters while learning them.

Language development, according to Montessori, is intertwined with the development of movement. As a child’s ability to move develops, the field of activity expands and so does the need for language. Movement and manipulation are a feature of the way that children use the Montessori language materials. Activities began with early language and progress to reading, writing, and early grammar. Both the Hebrew and English alphabets are part of the Language program. Students use sandpaper letters to begin the tactile experience of learning the sounds. They then use the moveable alphabet to create words that match objects. Judaic teachers create these materials to ensure that Hebrew language is equally presented in the classroom.

Math activities work with the array of intriguing objects that Montessori designed in order to represent abstract mathematical concepts in the form of concrete objects. When children use the Montessori mathematics materials, they explore mathematical concepts using movement and their senses. Included in the Math exercises is the counting of Judaic objects, counting the days of the Omer, and counting the mitzvah leaves representing the daily mitzvot that the students perform.

Geography activities use maps and other materials to learn about landforms, continents, countries, and states. An example of this is learning directions, such as with the tent of Avraham. Also included in Geography is the study of Israel and the creation of pin-punched maps of the region.

Science activities introduce students to an array of scientific units that include biology, weather, nutrition, electricity, and ecology. Science experiments are performed in the classroom. Pupils learn about the concepts of floating and sinking in relationship to Noah as well as color mixing in relationship to the rainbow, and about the life cycle of a plant during Tu Bishvat.

It is the tactile manipulation of materials that reinforces the concrete learning within the Montessori classroom. The teachers cannot write manuals and use formal templates to assist in the creating the “perfect” Jewish education. Administration cannot provide a formal education for the staff in order for them to present an informal education to the students.

One day I was in a primary classroom performing a standard teacher observation. Frequently in Montessori classes the teacher is an observer as the students master their work. I sat back and watched my teachers as guides. They had provided the students with the materials and instruction necessary for them to complete lessons and then sat and merely guided them in the direction of the work. Students happily were preparing the besamim for havdalah in Practical Life, created a rainbow of colors in Science to correlate with the story of Noah, and were counting tzedakah that had been collected earlier.


I became curious to know if the children were simply playing, since this was a three to six year old classroom, or if they truly understood what lessons were being taught. Though I am a certified Montessori administrator, I regressed to my traditional school model and began to investigate through oral assessment of each child. Student after student informed me of what work he or she was mastering and why it was important. One small child then reminded me that this is a Montessori classroom, and she needed her space to master her alephbet. Our students didn’t need any formal, scripted work to gain a true understanding of the Jewish curriculum and how it created a strong Jewish identity. They only needed it to be introduced and to be granted the opportunity to literally “get their hands on it” in order to use the knowledge to help them grow.

Since this observation, I have learned to trust the students and their guides. I enjoy watching them blossom through tactile learning and through the support of the educators. I no longer find a need to stay up late at night scripting a text to be recited; I let their voices guide them. We have provided them with the materials and knowledge through activity. I can relax knowing that all children need is the access to this information, and they will thrive.♦

Debra Kira is Head of School at UOS Goldberg Montessori School in Houston, Texas. She may be reached at debra.kira@uosgms.com.

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