Wrestling with Big Questions in Third Grade

Posted by PCJE Alumni on February 10, 2022
Topics: Classroom Techniques/Activities, Expand Your Mind, Positive Classroom Culture

Wrestling with Big Questions in Third Grade

by Jessica Rivo, Teacher and Jewish Studies Curriculum Lead at Temple Beth Ahm (Rambam Day School), and Pardes Day School Educators Program ’17-’19

Teaching Parshat Hashavua to my third graders at Rambam Day School (in Miami) has been a thrilling experience. Often, I write the parsha as a script, with characters and a narrator. My students relish drama and are all eager to have a role. At other times, we sit in a circle on the floor and do a choral reading. I’ve found that these methods are a very quick and effective way to cut to the heart of what’s in a parsha – the conflict and the exposition. (While I would like to introduce chevruta learning, we only have a limited amount of time–a 30-minute Judaic integration period–each week.)

When I taught Vayishlach this year, I emphasized that we embrace the tradition of Yaakov/Israel by wrestling with G-d and with the Torah, and that we do that by asking questions. Thus, as part of our Torah reading protocol, I ask my students to summarize the portion on a Google slide and include one question and one possible answer that they have about it. My class, ever curious, has learned to pose substantive, creative questions. 

“Why,” Ari asked, “would G-d destroy Sodom and G’morrah, if G-d promised never again to destroy the world after the flood?”

“What do you think?” I probed. 

“Well, I think that perhaps he destroyed it so that G-d could build a better world. Or maybe G-d is imperfect and was swept away by emotions.” 

“Hmm,” I reflected, “those are both thoughtful answers.” 

Similarly, Lily asked why Avraham had two wives and Yaakov had four. I explained that the Torah was written in a time of male privilege; she nodded her head thoughtfully. I asked her to reflect on how that time period differs from her life, in which she has a leadership role as our class’s student council representative. 

While my methods for teaching Torah are simple, during conferences with parents, I learned that Jewish Studies is some students’ favorite subject (I also teach General Studies). I suspect that there are two reasons behind this. First, the Torah gives students a unique opportunity to explore sophisticated questions of theology, gender, family, and more. Second, the conversations that I had in the Pardes Day School Educators Program about addressing G-d and gender in the Torah prepared me to facilitate authentic yet age-appropriate dialogue. I also work in a Reform Jewish school, and the Reform community tends to be more theologically liberal. So, I have the liberty to state that G-d is not male–that the “He” pronouns are a result of the Torah being written in a certain cultural context, that G-d is not physical, and that, as Ari was grappling with, G-d might be imperfect. 

As I continue to build my Torah-teaching practice, some questions I have are: 

  1. How can I model the methods that I use for other teachers, so that my impact goes beyond my classroom? (I am the Jewish Studies lead teacher on my school’s curricular team, and as we realign and reimagine our curricula in all subjects, I should hopefully have the opportunity to explore this question.)
  2. What are the implications of cutting out certain parts of the Torah, in the interest of time? For instance, I didn’t see any problem in eliminating the moment in Vayeshev when Joseph comes across the stranger in the field. I did, however, feel that our discussion of Sarah’s motives in chapter 16 of Lech Lecha could have been more rounded, perhaps through adding midrashic or other sources. We were too quick to criticize her for cruelty towards Hagar, rather than understand the deep pain she must have felt. 

These are questions with which I will continue to wrestle and honor.

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