While there are different ways to do this, basically the activity consists of the following:
1. Choose a number of subheadings within any category. For example, for Chanukah, topics could include (depending on the age you teach): sources, history/the story, lighting the Chanukiah, halachah, customs, etc. (Usually you want to limit the categories to 5 or 6 different ones, lest the activity become too repetitious.) Or, see alternative #1 below for using questions, as opposed to topic, to engender thinking.
2. Divide the class into small groups of 3-5, depending partly on how many categories you have, but no more than 5 to a group. Give each group a large sheet of paper (with the topic recorded on the top) and a different color magic marker. (You can either give the sheet to the group seated around the table, or hang the sheets on the wall.)
3. Explain to the class that they will be given a topic and a limited amount of time. (This can be anywhere from 30 seconds to 3 minutes depending on whether this is a background knowledge probe, a review of what they have learned, or a way to generate thinking.) Their task is to brainstorm together, writing down all the terms or ideas that they associate with that topic, using the color marker they have been given.
4. When the time is up, give each group another group’s sheet (in rotation) or move to a different sheet on the wall – while holding on to the same colored marker. The members of the group should read what the other group/groups have written, and add on other terms or ideas that they have. (After a couple of rounds, you need to extend the time as it will become increasingly difficult to add new information.) Keep rotating the groups until each group has dealt with each topic.
Be sure you think through what you will do at the end of the activity, as a follow-up to make the exercise more worthwhile. For example, Susan Rubel (a reading consultant in Middletown, CT) shares the following:
“I like to go beyond the simple brainstorm and have the group who started with the sheet look it over when it returns to them, note all the other ideas that were added after it was passed around to the other groups, and then circle the three terms that they think are most essential, most important, or most fundamental to the topic at the top of their sheet. That way, they spend some time critically evaluating all the possible terms and topics and making decisions about which are most representative of or most closely associated with the given topic.”
In any case, and especially if you are raising questions (see alternative #1), you want to allow for some reflection, categorizing, summarizing or sharing of main ideas. If you are using this as a background knowledge probe, you at least want – as you proceed to teach the topics – to tie what you do into the lists the students generated.
1. Rather than listing factual information, one can use questions as the topic headings, such as, “Are their parallels between the Hanukkah story and our own experience as Jews in America?”, “To what extent was the Hanukkah story one of Jew against Jew?”, “What was the miracle of Hanukkah?”, etc. If so, rotations will need the maximal time for discussion.
2. You could ask one member of each group to remain behind as you rotate the groups. This will allow him/her to explain/clarify if there are any questions regarding what the previous group wrote. (No one should remain behind more than one time.)
A number of years ago, I observed Jessica (Lissy) Trey (cohort 3) use a similar approach in her Tanakh classroom. She had asked students to raise questions regarding a Biblical text. She chose a number of their questions and put them on large sheets around the room, beneath the textual quotes. Students moved from sheet to sheet, entering their own thoughts/answers to the questions their classmates had raised. This was used as a lead-in to studying some of the commentaries.