One of my fond grade school memories is of receiving fresh mimeographs right off the machine. We would hold them up to our faces and deeply breathe in the pungent, sweet smell. The purple writing never failed to intrigue us. One more 20th Century function has gone the way of the horse and buggy.
Of those mimeograph pages, the ones I remember most are the “summer worksheets.” This stapled packet had knowledge and thought questions about the six chapters of Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of the Sages. Sometimes we were prompted to draw pictures to demonstrate our understanding of the mishnah being covered. We were strongly encouraged to complete each of the six chapters, and we received a token gift upon handing in the completed packet at the beginning of the next school year. No one mandated us to do the work; for those of you who know me personally, it won’t surprise you that I diligently completed the entire packet each and every summer. For all of us who have worked with children, we know there were plenty of students in my class who likely were not intrinsically motivated by worksheets intended for self-guided study.
For me as a child, the summer packet was one good method of keeping me connected to Jewish text and tradition during the 10+ weeks of summer break. For me as an educator, I have wondered if schools should mandate Judaic summer learning or just offer it. Do we risk succeeding in turning off more kids than we turn on. If students view Jewish text study or other Judaic learning as something “they have to do”, as something that “is intruding on their summer,” it may be harder for us to forge a solid enduring connection between them and Judaism. We can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, and it bears a reminder thatI historically honey was smeared on Jewish texts to entice younger children to open their books. I’ve landed on the belief that we should draw in students by creating engaging activities rather than by clubbing them over the head with ongoing study.
Here are just a few ideas of how that might be accomplished:
Offer students guidance on exploring various on-line sites for learning. These can range from Aish to Chabad to MyJewishLearning.com. In addition, on-line learning opportunities as Project Zug or 929 exist and are easy to sign up for and access.
Create some sort of competition around Parashat Hashavua study or other topics that offers a wide-range of opportunities for demonstrating learning (i.e. music, writing, puzzles, engineering, computers, etc.). Teachers also can create competitive games on digital platforms (e.g. quizlet or kahoot), with set times for students to play (think “HQ”) to determine the top scorer among those participating or even asynchronous competitions.
Offer book clubs or reading circles with targeted Jewish-themed, age-appropriate reading. Circulate guide questions for the students to think about before the meeting. The gatherings could be festive occasions with themed drinks and snacks and be held at different students’ [or teachers’] homes. What a wonderful way to maintain relationships during the long break, as well.
Deliver an informal weekly shiur/study session on topics that they might want to cover during the year that do not fit into the yearly curricula. The topics can range from text to philosophy to theology to culture to history, and they can feature an open forum for students to submit topics they would like to discuss. Consider recording the session and breaking it up into 5 minute clips to share or post on a webpage with opportunity for posting comments.
Create a blog or discussion board with a prompt about something Jewish to stimulate discussion on the topic. Students can express themselves freely, given that it is a free-flowing activity. It will also assist them in learning how to express themselves online and how to be resilient and formulate logical responses when their thoughts are questioned. You can consider a group on a social media platform, if your school policies allow you to engage with students through those channels. If not, find a student leader happy to facilitate a group using content you share.
Educators can create opportunities for visual arts based on Jewish ideas. For example, students could research a Biblical character and create a sculpture or a painting encompassing their new-found knowledge and their own vision of the character. Teachers could even set up a display case to exhibit these pieces during the following school year.
What are other effective ways to help students stay connected to their Judaic learning--especially in the digital age?
One additional public service reminder: summer learning is not just for our students, but for us also. If we want to encourage our students to become life-long learners, that means our own learning does not take a summer vacation. Even 5 minutes of additional learning a day about our heritage would be enriching -- be it text, history, philosophy, or even just a new fact related to the Jewish world.