Five THINGS WE LEARNED AND STILL LEARN FROM PETER A. STARK, zikhrono livrakha
by Carol Starin
Peter Stark died tragically on January 3rd. I first met him at CAJE and later worked with him on the CAJE board (where we knocked heads a few times). Peter was so talented—he knew 7 or 8 languages, sang and wrote beautifully. Although I never saw him in action on a stage, I knew that he must have been a terrific actor. Peter was smart, sensitive, thoughtful. And, for years, he was part of the 5 things Advisory Group that provided guidance, advice, and input for the columns I wrote for the Torah Aura Bulletin Board.
In his honor, in his memory, and because through his words he still has much to teach, here are 5 teaching strategies—in his own words—that, over the years, Peter contributed to LET ME COUNT THE WAYS.
1. In a column called “Defining a Heymishe Classroom” Peter wrote
Creating a heymish classroom is an art. Depending on the teacher’s personality and the atmosphere and tradition of the school, a heymish classroom may be formal or informal. It requires a delicate balance of comfort, caring, and warmth—with structure. The key element is that the classroom provide a structured atmosphere that enables students to relax—this means that kids don’t have to deal with bullying, isolation, loneliness, continually changing rules of engagement –intellectual or interpersonal. They can concentrate their energies on learning.
If it’s true that schools teach less of what schools used to teach and more of what homes used to teach, then the heymish classroom becomes a more important model than ever. The classroom must provide a safe nest in which the student feels nurtured and from which the student feels free to try his/her intellectual wings. To do this, the teacher must be a role model, valuing students and their ideas, encouraging independence of thought and inquiry.
Peter offered a model to which those of us who are over 50—and remember the Our Gang comedies—can relate. He said that the greatest test and opportunity for modeling is the teacher’s word with the students who, in Miss Crabtree’s Little Rascals class, are at the “bottom of the class.” Today we may say that these students have divergent learning styles. But the Torah teaches that their souls were present at Mt. Sinai and they have just as much share in Torah as Alfalfa, Darla, or Spanky (Miss Crabtree’s cute ones, bright ones and loveable ones). It is up to the teacher to create an atmosphere in which these students, no less than others, feel free to speak up and test their ideas. If the teacher succeeds in doing so, every student feels safe, every student feels free to think and every student feels at home.
2. For a column on Using Journals in Our Jewish Classrooms Peter shared that a colleague has her students keep a journal of their discovery of a particular text.
For narrative texts, going back and revisiting what the text meant to the reader on first encounter is a particularly effective way of studying how the text tells its story. For legal material this is equally true, and it allows the student to focus clearly on what he/she thinks is clear, and what he/she thinks is NOT clear. The student is able to measure his/her learning by comparing what the text seemed to mean at first with what it meant after further investigation. When a text is particularly difficult, the student is encouraged (occasionally) to vent frustrations briefly but to continue to enter daily reactions to the text. Often the venting yields an insight into the passage that seemed frustrating. Finally, these personal journals are great sources for highly personal divrei Torah, because students can use them to narrate their own discovery of the text and teach what they have learned and how they have learned it.
3. For a column on Making Personal Connections to Pesah, Peter described how he took students inside the concept of slavery.
My students spent weeks making actual bricks from mud and straw, coordinating each step with passages from the haggadah. Students wrote papers comparing their expectations with what it was like to actually work as brick makers. At one point a group of students who found a chunk of soil that was hard to break up complained loudly that they had worse conditions than anyone else and that they “were like slaves around here.” They then discussed how much harder brick-making was than anyone expected and what it would be like to have to make bricks fifteen to eighteen hours every day. (Following this article is Peter’s complete lesson on brick-making.)
What does it mean to be a slave today? Retelling our story reminds us to get involved in what’s going on in our world today, to examine the injustices we see, to play an active role in our communities, and to make social justice a priority. Pesah foods, tastes, smells and texts trigger our hearts and minds to think of the suffering of others. With your class, make a list of those who are suffering today. Choose something from the list and get involved in making a difference.
4. For a column on the passion of teaching
My principal area of teaching is biblical texts. I tell my students from the outset that in my classroom we begin with the assumption that the text can stand up to their questions, so no serious question is out of bounds. Deducing what Rashi or Ramban or Ibn Ezra asks of the text is an important step, but my aspiration for my student is something deeper and more ennobling: for the student – even for a moment—to step into the shoes of Ibn Ezra, Ramban, Rashi or Rashi’s famously learned daughters and ask questions that address the text directly and that integrate knowledge of the real world with thought about the text.
These objectives are of a different order from those that help frame individual units or lessons. These are questions that inform my planning of my students’ encounter overall with Biblical texts. My question is: have I created in my classroom an atmosphere in which diverse students see text study as worthwhile and ennobling?
Then what fuels my passion is seeing independent thought begin to take wing in my students’ work. Even more so, when this occurs among those who are not the usual suspects—who are not those students accustomed to being academic stars.
When the passion wanes, I think of a 6t–7th and 8th grade student of mine—years ago, who was interviewed just prior to her middle school graduation about why we study certain subjects. She said, “We go to language arts so that we can communicate effectively and so we become familiar with great writing; we go to science so that we begin to see how the physical world works; we go to math to learn how to calculate and apply number skills; we go to social studies so that we will know more about people and places in the world; and go to Tanakh to laugh and to think.”
5. For a column about Using Writing in the Jewish Classroom Peter wrote:
One of my favorite writing assignments for a Tanakh class arose out of studying multiple layers of meaning in the Book of Samuel. For years I’ve taken students to the Dutch and Flemish painting collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where their assignment was to identify and describe a background detail in a painting, and then to offer an interpretation of how this background detail commented on the foreground subject of the painting.
One of my favorite students wrote a great essay about a still life of flowers, describing what one could see as one approached the painting. At twenty feet one sees a nice bouquet. At ten feet one sees that there is something beyond the flowers. At five feet one notices that the flowers are swarming with insects. On close inspection, it’s clear that these flowers are probably part of a funeral display, and that what seemed pleasant or innocuous actually comments on the impermanence of life.
The impermanence of life………………MAY HIS MEMORY BE A BLESSING
Making Bricks for Pesah…A Classroom Project
Peter A. Stark
Students replicate the labor of our ancestors, making bricks with (and/or without) straw, while studying Pesach-related texts. This is an easy and winning activity that prepares students to participate actively and personally in the seder table discussion of yetziat Mitzrayim. The description below has been broken into a lot of small steps for clarity, but this is not a complicated or difficult project.
- To give students a hands-on understanding of activities (brick-making) and feelings (slave mentality) described in the text
- To prepare students for the mitzvah of telling the story of yetziat Mitzrayim
- To open dialogue between parents and students, during which students are prepared and eager to discuss their own experiences in learning text
- To prime students to make active, personal contributions to seder discussion of yetziat Mitzrayim
Note: This project plan includes physical activities, discussions, and writing. It is assumed that the teacher already has command of the relevant texts and has lesson plans and material for teaching those texts. The discussion material provided relates the text to the hands-on activities described.
Age Range: This material may be adapted for use with elementary school students of different ages. I originally created this lesson for a mixed-age group of 3rd-5th grade students.
Time Frame: Three to five weeks of classes, with project work several times a week, leading up to a “Yom Botz,” “Day of Mud.” This project might be even more effective if it were possible to devote two or three whole days to the entire project, making bricks within a week. That adaptation might be useful for summer camps, as well.
- Parshat Sh’mot and Parshat Va’era, Exodus 1- Exodus 6
- Parshat Noah, Genesis 11:1-9 (bricks in Tower of Babel story, though that text specifies burnt bricks, while we are making sun-dried brick. However, student can discover that fact.
- Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer 24
- A bucket of dried-out clay soil, right from the ground, twigs and all (requires preparation; soil must be completely dry, which can take weeks, depending upon the container it is stored in)
- Trash bags AND/OR heavy plastic drop cloth
- Buckets or small cardboard boxes (about a foot cubed in size, open at one end, lined with a plastic trash bag)—must be waterproof
- Old screen windows OR small squares of screen, mounted in small square picture frames
- Old wooden spoons OR small wooden blocks
- Tiny rectangular baking pans OR clean, dry juice boxes (lunch-pack size, one of the wide faces cut open) OR similar-size containers folded out of cardboard
- A large bundle of straw OR lengths of any kind of dried grassy plants OR (as a last straw) dried lawn clippings (last straw, get it?)
- Childproof scissors
- Tap water
- Small disposable cups OR any other small vessels, used to add water slowly when the clay is mixed.
- Paper bags (supermarket size)
Procedure (broken down into small steps for clarity)
Stage I: First Steps
- Prepare materials well in advance.
- Introduce the project at the point when students are learning the Shmot passages cited above, or at an appropriate point in the annual teaching of Pesah.
- Send home a note announcing and describing the project and asking that students bring in aprons or wear appropriate clothing.
- At each stage below, teacher should demonstrate the physical labor required prior to students commencing the labor.
- Students will work in pre-assigned pairs.
- Materials should be labeled for each group and storage space designated where materials will not be disturbed during the course of the project.
Stage II: Preparing the Clay (1-3 weeks of sessions)
- The goal is to grate the raw, dried soil chunks, using the screen to filter out stones and plant matter. The result will be a very fine powder of clay materials.
- Distribute the screen frames (Materials, #5), the receptacles (Materials, #4), and the wooden spoons (Materials, #6).
- Demonstrate how to set up the receptacles, with the screen over the opening. Give students time to do so.
- Demonstrate how to rub the raw chunks of dried clay soil against the screen, creating a fine, dry powder that falls into the receptacle.
- Distribute a chunk of dry clay soil (Materials, #2) to each pair of students.
- Begin grating. As the clay soil is rubbed against the screen, plant matter included in the soil (twigs, etc) will collect on the screen. Discard this material as it collects.
- As the soil chunks are grated, big clumps that can be held in the hand will break into small clumps. Use the wooden spoons to force the smaller clumps through the screen.
- One student holds the frame securely over the receptacle while another grates the clay. Students should rotate tasks within each pair.
- Once students are used to the routine, the teacher may lead a discussion while the work goes on, or the teacher may lead singing of rhythmic work songs (Israeli pioneer songs of labor, the kind modern Israelis call “shirei Sochnut,” are perfect; seder songs may also be used).
- Work should be prolonged enough (per session AND length of activity over days and weeks) that students get weary of the routine, but not all class time should be devoted to the project.
- Build in time for cleanup and washing of hands after each session.
- Daily follow-up discussion and journal entry time (see below).
- This stage ends when each group has about a quart of powder. Rough measurements are fine.
- Each group should place its spoon into its pail. Set the pails of powdered clay aside in a dry storage area.