Today was one of those days that teachers dream about. A chance to see all my efforts over the year come full circle.
Here is how it happened.
We only had three pesukim left to learn in Parshas Vayeitzei. I had the class read the pasukim aloud without teaching them at all. Of course, as we were reading about Yaakov meeting up with the melachim, the class exploded with questions. Was Yaakov in Eretz Yisrael? How could the melachim of Eretz Yisrael come to greet him as Rashi says? Which malachim did he send to Har Seir? Surely not the melachim of Eretz Yisrael. In the beginning of Vayeitzei, he saw the melachim in a dream. Was this in a dream? The class started flipping forward to Vayishlach to discover more information about the melachim and their journey.
Finally, we finished the parsha with fifteen minutes to spare before recess. I was in a quandary. The day before, I had quizzed the class on the 30 shorashim in the perek, and they had done review work. I figured we could squeeze in the exciting parsha of behaalosecha in the extra time. Unfortunately, my parsha worksheets were in the office.
When I told the class my plan they asked if they could learn the next parsha while I was out of the room. I agreed if they kept the noise to a dull roar. I left and got sidetracked at the copier for a few minutes. When I returned, the students were sitting at the table and at their desks with chavrusas. They excitedly shouted “We finished to Pasuk יא – the eleventh verse!” I asked what that meant. They informed me that they had read and translated seven pasukim and were now asking questions about those pasukim.
Their eyes shone. They love to learn and know how to learn.
One of my theories of education is that students need to do the real thing. They don’t have Chumash class. They learn Chumash – just like their fathers and mothers do. As a teacher, my job is to provide them with supports so they can act like the adults.
A perfect model for this method of education is training wheels on a bicycle. With training wheels, a child learns to ride his bike and the feel of bike riding. Then the training wheels come off, and the parent holds on to the back, providing less support, but still helping the child learn how to ride. Finally, the parent lets go. The child begins to peddle on his own. He may fall a few times, he may wobble at first, but very quickly he rides off on his own. His legs are strong enough, and his sense of balance has been developed so he no longer needs his parents to help him at all. And then a wonderful thing happens, the child begins to bike ride with the parents and they explore new paths together.
The same thing happens in school. My students know what it means to learn Torah. They see their parents do it, they see older students do it and they want to do it too. Nebach, they don’t have the vocabulary or the maturity to learn as their parents do. So like the training wheels, they learn with a little help keeping them upright and moving forward. At first, they got a lot of help with vocabulary and reading. Later, in the year, once they had mastered the basic vocabulary, they only need help with the hard words. Then, the training wheels can come off so they can learn on their own. The final stage is when parent and child, teacher and student begin to learn together as partners in discovering the Torah. The progression must be gradual and deliberate to ensure that the child will get stronger and stronger until they are ready to be independent.
Today, I saw my theory vindicated. These kids are learning like real masmidim acting like they are sitting in a beis Medrash. They approach learning Torah with a sense of ownership and pride.
Teaching like this requires a change of mindset. A teacher can view himself like he is pulling a horse to water, as if he is doing all the hard work in the relationship. But with this attitude, when he is not around, his students won’t want to learn. He can view himself like the driver of a car, who determines the roads yet to be travelled. But again, no student wants to go down a path that is determined by others.
Or, a teacher can view himself like he is that parent, holding on to the back of a bicycle without training wheels. His most fervent hope is that the child will pedal off, leaving the parent waving as he watches his child disappear around the corner with new-found independence. When a teacher teaches with this mindset, the child senses that he is the master of his learning. The child will take ownership for his learning as he is able to set his own course in life and blaze new trails.