Pesach projects often focus on producing beautiful seder artifacts and on keeping children engaged in the seder. When they meet these goals, as they did for my children, they are a real contribution to the religious quality of life of our children. But I think we can do much more.
These projects often do little to promote Hebrew literacy or the ability to explain the haggadah. Content is almost always memorized Hebrew and/or pre-digested English, with divre Torah printed out by the teacher for the kids to recite or read. Children can and often do enter high school unwilling and unable to read and translate on their own from the haggadah at the seder. This frustrated me as a parent, and I think it should frustrate you as well. We can do better. We don’t need to choose between education and engagement; education should generate engagement and engagement should inspire more education.
This year, my tutoring students are working on a Pesach project that I think can and should be transferred to the day school classroom. Each student completes his or her project in approximately 5 hours of one-on-one study, over the course of 4 weeks. My students are in first and third grade.
Here’s what we’re doing. For each student, I looked at the texts they had already learned and then chose a part of the haggadah that contained many familiar words, prefixes, suffixes, and structures. Each student is now creating, in his or her own handwriting, a word by word translation of his or her section of the haggadah. He or she can bring this artifact (or a photocopy, if their notebook is chametzdik) to the seder. This will allow them to read from the haggadah at the seder with full comprehension of both words and content. The passages are short, but, for these passages, they will have real comprehension and ownership. Even more important, they will have used and improved their text skills, so their reading comprehension will continue to improve.
The first grader, who has completed most of the first volume of Bright Beginnings Lech Lecha, is working on avadim hayinu. I anticipate that she will get through about three full sentences by Pesach. The third grader, who has completed both volumes of Bright Beginnings Lech Lecha and has independently decoded 2.5 chapters of Beraishit, is working on the 4 sons. At this point, it seems likely that he will finish all four sons, and possibly one more paragraph of his choice.
That may seem like a lot of independent decoding for 5 hours with a 7 or 8 year old, so let me explain a little of my method. I use this method year-round for Chumash (and, for older students, Nach, Mishnah, and Talmud) and, in the spring, for Pesach learning.
Every time the student encounters a word, prefix, or suffix, we write it and its meaning on an index card. These cards are kept in an alphabetized box, and the student is responsible to look up the meaning every subsequent time the word, prefix, or suffix is encountered, unless he or she remembers its meaning. When the students are a little older (usually fourth grade), the student learns to look up unfamiliar words in an appropriate dictionary (BDB or Jastrow) instead of me providing a definition. This is, at the beginning, tedious and slow. But it speeds up over time, and results in an ever-increasing working vocabulary. The student sees that reading is something he or she can learn to do independently. The student learns that he or she will be held responsible for his or her own learning. In the long run, it is well worth the effort.
So, for example, on encountering the word “hayinu”, the first grader is able (thank you Bright Beginnings!) to identify the shoresh and the suffix and look them up in her box. At that point, she makes a guess as to the meaning of the word. Sometimes she is not quite right in the meaning and says, for example, “We are”. I give her a corrected version, explaining as much of the relevant grammar as seems age appropriate. As she reads through the sentence, she records it word-by-word in her notebook with her translation. At the end of the sentence, she marks it as to which words need to move, and where they need to go, for correct English sentence structure. She prefers this method to rewriting the sentence in order at the bottom of the page (her brother’s preference). Each of these steps is familiar to her, having been practiced in Chumash for several months now. The third grader moves faster, working phrase-by-phrase and having a much larger working vocabulary, but the idea is very similar.
Both students enjoy using color to enhance their pages, both to distinguish lines and to look pretty. If there is time, they will also enjoy drawing pictures connected to their haggadah passages to show at the seder. There is a lot of room to supplement this work with pictures, artifacts, and stories, as long as it is in addition to the literacy work.
This year, many children will proudly bring pesach projects to the seder table. Some of them will have learned only content, while others will have learned both content and fluency with the words of the haggadah. Some children will have taken a month-long vacation from skills education, while others will have improved their skills while learning about Pesach. In a few years, some of our middle schoolers will be able to read from the Haggadah and assume it is their job to do so, while others will still be reciting their teacher’s interpretations. Isn’t it clear which way is better? Let’s demand more for our children.
This is the second in a series of essays on teaching Torah literacy. Click here to read the first in the series.