Teaching it Right the First Time

I used to teach in High School. It was very rewarding, but at times I felt like pulling out my hair. I couldn’t get some kids to remember assignments, translate basic pesukim or recall the story accurately no matter how many times we reviewed. I couldn’t figure out where the problem was and how to correct it.
Last night I saw this video – http://www.learner.org/vod/vod_window.html?pid=9 A Private Universe produced by the Annenberg Foundation that made me think about that experience and how what we teach when really impacts kids’ lives.
The video is 20 minutes long and traces how both Harvard graduates and high school students had no idea why there are four seasons and different phases of the moon. The video follows one very bright high school student who has bizarre ideas about moon phases and seasons. The video then shows how with the successful intervention of a high school teacher these misconceptions are somewhat laid to rest. However, the brilliant high school student clings to some of the mistaken ideas despite the best efforts of her teacher.
My Ah-ha moment came at about 4 minutes in. The narrator says “These students have had virtually no instruction in science”
I’ve just spent a good chunk of my life analyzing K-4 science curriculum and I beg to differ. Our kids have not had virtually no instruction in science. The kids learn about seasons in nursery, kindergarten, first grade, and third grade. They learn about the phases of the moon in 3rd grade. If you are lucky, they have had a lot of great instruction in science. If you are not, our kids have had a lot of instruction in science that was superficial, simplistic or incorrect.
The video shows that this initial learning sticks and is very hard to undo. How is a kindergarten teacher supposed to explain the impact of the Earth’s revolution and its tilt on the seasons to a bunch of 5 year olds? Teachers try and, in large part, succeed in having the 5 year old understand on a 5 year old level. The problem comes when the learning from kindergarten does not get updated to match the sophistication of the other learning. Someone needs to explicitly challenge a student’s kindergarten level idea to update these basic concepts. Sometimes the reteaching works, often times it does not. One might argue that it is better to avoid teaching something rather than teach it on such a simplistic level that it is essentially incorrect.
Chazal have already taught us that girsa d’yankusa – what we learn when we are young – leaves an indelible impression on us. If simplistic or incorrect explanations mess up a Harvard graduates’s understanding of the universe, what does learning incorrect or simplistic Torah do to our children? How many of us have absurd notions of the Avos and Imahos because we have not updated our knowledge to our current level of sophistication? How many of us envision Rochel Imeinu sitting on a camel outside her tent because of the parsha pictures we have seen as little kids? Do we ever question whether our ideas are grounded in Torah?
This year I am teaching third grade.Today, I was teaching the topic of Yaakov getting Esav’s bracha from Yitzchak. Even at eight years old, the kids had preconcieved notions of what was in the pesukim. When challenged they said to me ” I don’t know where it says it, but I know it is true.” Exploding these ideas took hard work, but once I made the kids look at the pesukim they were astounded how much of the story they really did not know. Only then, were we ready to learn.
There is nothing simple about teaching elementary school. In everything I do, I am laying the foundation for their ability to learn in the future. I teach them shorashim, how to translate pesukim, read Rashi, halacha, and parsha. I also teach them how to keep an organized binder, hand in homework responsibly, and be a mentch. I want them to succeed in high school where my other students never had the chance.
The seforim I used to teach high school are still open on my desk. Each day, I have to evaluate what I should teach and what ideas are too complex and can only be taught when the students gain a greater level of sophistication. Yesterday, I taught what I thought was a great Rashi for third grade. The words were easy, and there were a few new vocabulary words I wanted to reinforce. The Rashi said that Rivka asked Yaakov to bring two goats to serve Yitzchak because one would be a replacement for Esav’s dish and one would be for the Korban Pesach. We rewrote the rashi script and translated the words. All was great until one student raised her hand. “How could Rivka make a korban Pesach if they hadn’t gone down to Mitzrayim yet?” Uh-Oh. I didn’t see that one coming. How do I explain the eternity of Torah law and its influence on historical events to eight year olds? Would a superficial answer corrupt them from learning it completely when they are ready? Or, could I teach them something true and understandable on their level?
I make these decisions everyday when teaching third grade. I know the other teachers are equally concerned about teaching truth to the students from the time they are in nursery. I have made some mistakes and that is an awful responsibility. But having these goal in mind helps minimize those mistakes.
As parents and educators, we must always envision our children as being our Harvard graduates. We must see them as the bright, capable adults they will become and teach them so that they will be successful when they get there. We must realize that what they learn as toddlers and children will impact the heights they reach as adults. It’s an awesome responsibility and priviledge that we are entrusted with. A lot of faith has been placed in us and we just have to work to do it right.