Opening the world of Torah Learning to our Children

Part 1: Biographies wanted

Last week, one of the greatest Torah sages of the last few generations, Rav Ovadiah Yosef, died. As my husband described him, Rav Ovadia zt”l was a cross between Albert Einsten and Martin Luther King Jr, whose genius was unmatched and who elevated the lives of an entire ethnic group in Israel.

I wanted my third graders to have a taste of Rav Ovadia zt”l’s greatness so that they could be inspired to work hard and  to appreciate the greatness & uniqueness of our Torah giants.

For the last two year, I have been presenting a Torah personality to my class once a week. Our gedolim unit is consistently the favorite period of the week for my students and myself. This past week, I presented them with the biography of Rav Ovadia Yosef. We watched a video of his funeral, saw pictures from his life and then I read a biography I had written for the occasion.

I could tell the biography truly resonated when one of my students, who happens to be my son, insisted that he read the biography aloud to the entire family at both Shabbos dinner and lunch.

Another student came in on Monday and asked if we were learning another biography that day. When I told him that we only discussed the biographies on Friday, he looked crestfallen. He said to me, “But Mrs. Hochheimer, I can’t find any gedolim biographies written for my reading level!”  Sure enough, the books I found in the school library and in my home were either a compilation of stories that lacked historical context or were too long to hold the interest of a third grader. My student had already read the graphic novels of the life of Rashi, the Rambam, Rav Shmuel Hanagid, and he wanted more.

What my student wants is the Jewish equivalent of  the David Adler’s Picture Biography series that includes major highlights in a person’s life with some illustrations. There is a Jewish biography series with beautiful pictures, but these books focus on one or two stories and leave out the biographical data that illustrate why one gadol is different from the other and how he was a product of is time period.

Part Two: Halacha Books needed

My husband is teaching fifth grade and want to integrate Halacha and Ivrit. He felt his students were ready to write “teshuvos” where they respond to halachic questions proving their opinion by citing research from relevant seforim and books. For the project to work, the books and seforim need to be able to be understood by the students independently. This has not been a simple task. Books that have the appropriate content are written on an adult level, and the books written for children are superficial and lack the necessary information. Putting together source books for this creative project has proven more challenging than anticipated.

Part Three: Trade Books

Contrast the time invested in creating a halacha project with the resources available for a social studies project.

Today, my co-teacher showed me her fifth grade’s projects. Groups of students are researching the Western Hemisphere to create annotated maps which they will present to the class. After being taught some background knowledge by the teacher, and being given supplies and access to two dozen trade books, they were set free to do the project on their own. The kids are enjoying owning their learning and discovering new information independently.

The reason this project is successful is because the students have access to appropriate trade books that doesn’t frustrate them when they are learning. Trade Books, which are books found in the children section of a library, are very helpful in contrast to textbooks which had been the mainstay of classroom learning. As non-fiction literature has taken a more prominent place in the core curriculum, trade books have become an important part of the secular studies classroom. Unlike textbooks, trade books are written in a human voice, will explore a topic in depth and allows students to read different books about the same topic so that they can learn from multiple perspectives.The kids enjoy these books more than reading their textbook since the books are authentic literature and geared to their reading level. Students discover that they can learn on their own without a teacher as long as they can open the pages of a book.

Part Four: Problem Defined

The Jewish nation IS the people of the book. Yet, our students don’t have access to enough Judaic trade books so that they can learn Torah without adult participation. Our students need books with pictures, simple sentence structure and complex information written appropriately  for their cognitive level. Each topic needs to be explored in  multiple books so that our students can learn how to research and synthesize new information into a cohesive whole.

There are some great children’s books that teach Torah in an engaging and age appropriate manner. My book shelf at home is full of them, and my own kids have learned so much Torah from these books. However, there are just not enough of these books so that our students can begin to research and learn in our classrooms without adult help.

Judaic Publishing is a not a financially lucrative business. It would be impossible to expect publishers to publish books that schools, which are going broke, can’t afford to buy anyway. So what can we do? How can we stock our classroom shelves so that our students who love to read can choose to learn about cities in Israel instead of about life in Ancient Greece? How can we gather research materials for our Torah projects without investing hours and hours of time?

Part Five: Solution

The question is how do we create literature written for kids on a wide variety of topics while keeping costs down?

Unfortunately, my question is better than my answer.  Ill offer my ideas, and I’d love to hear yours as well.

1. Our community has some great clearning houses for Jewish curricular material. has the archives for the over 50 years of Olemeinu magazine online. The Olemeinu Magazine has some great reference articles about Judaic subjects that are age appropriate. Please let me know if there are other affordable content sources out there that I could make available to my students in my classroom.

2. On Jewish education websites, teachers generously share worksheets & project ideas. What if teachers would start to create books that other teachers could print for their classroom?  So many of us teachers love to write. We can self-publish and help each other. Let’s get some books out there.

3. Who else can we get to write these books?  Well, middle school & high school teachers . . . here is the challenge. Your students are doing research projects anyway. They are using the internet, seforim, and research books to write about Torah topics for your classes.  What if, as part of their research projects, they had to write a children’s book as well? You could teach them how to find images online that are not subject to copyright, and they could learn how modify their writing based on their audience. Knowing that their work is going to be used by other kids to learn will also motivate them to do their best.  Their hard work won’t disappear once it has been graded and will provide a real service teaching Torah to other Jewish children.

4. Let’s talk about the need to expand our classroom libraries. When we acknowledge the problem, solutions present themselves in unexpected ways.

Part Six: Conclusion

I started by describing the greatness of Rav Ovadiah Yosef and his impact on the world of Torah. He delved into the world of Torah as a child and never left.

Each of our students has unlimited potential. What a six year old learns will never leave him. Our students love to read. They love to explore. Let’s make sure that if our students want to learn more, they have what they need to do so.