Friday, May 16, 2008

Keying Into The Future

It has been a privilege to work with students as they have explored the dimensions of Tefillah through making their own electronic siddurim. I would like to encourage other middle school teachers and high school teachers to embark on this kind of project. As part of the study of the origins and structures in Jewish prayer, this project comes as the culminating project following a 2-3 month unit on tefillah using texts from the Mishnah, the Mishneh Torah, and the siddur.

Curricular and logistical modifications:

On the basis of this year’s success, I plan to run this curricular program again, albeit with some modifications. First I would beef up the "tefillah" requirement of the student-made siddur so that the siddurim have enough material to count as a legitimate siddur. At present, these creative student projects they don't include the full "matbea" (the standardized prayers from barkhu through the end of the amidah), so we can project the student siddurim on a screen before the student body, but they aren’t complete enough for a full prayer experience.

A class size of 15 kept me busy; supervising 20 might be possible, but I don't recommend classes of more than 20 because the teacher might not have the ability to supervise that many students at once with their individual projects unless they work in pairs. If the students work in pairs, I recommend that the siddur be saved on a teacher's i-Pod, flash drive, or in another medium in case one or the other student is absent. Quite often, when one partner was absent, the other could not move forward because he or she did not have the data.

I recommend against using a weekday morning minyan period; with interruptions, technical glitches and other issues, the 30 minute tefillah period that I had on Wednesdays was insufficient to produce anything more than a couple of slides per student over the course of about 6-8 weeks.

Keys to success: hardware

Schools wishing to implement this kind of curricular project need to be sure that students have access to reliable computers. If students don't have their own laptop, they should have a safe memory storage device to call their own so that they can save their work at the end of each class period. The teacher also needs to be comfortable with the software. Apple's Keynote is much more successful than Microsoft's Power Point because of the ability to manipulate Hebrew, and because so many Power Point presentations have formats and default settings that are appropriate for a trade show, while Keynote presentations tend to look more attractive and photographs look more natural.

If the students struggle with manipulating images and text on their computers, then I recommend that teachers see this as a learning opportunity that is half about prayer and half about using a computer. Prepare about 12 class sessions. A few students still needed extra time. It takes about 40 minutes to produce 1-2 thoughtful Keynote/Power Point slides.

Keys to success: curriculum:

In the 6-week lead-in to this project, the students studied several passages of Mishnah from Tractate Berachot. They studied passages about the priority of saying the Shema on time; about blessings for occasional moments and about having a strong sense of intention. They also studied several passages from the first chapter of Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, Laws Concerning Prayer. This academic context became part of the on-line siddurim as the students developed and expressed their own theology of intention, timing and liturgy.

The curricular content should reflect the school’s interests and priorities. While there may be some discomfort about seeing our sacred prayers projected onto a screen as if it were a movie or even a prayer meeting in another religion’s house of worship, the students understand this medium, and they are thrilled to see the ancient tefillot of our siddur in such a contemporary format.

I found that the siddurim provided a positive emotional outlet for the students. By February, day school students tend to become tired of the routine of Tefillot, and the students who develop and share these siddurim truly enliven tefillot and inspire their classmates to see the tefillot in a different way (the water theme siddur, the humorous siddur, the woodsy theme siddur, the more cosmic/astronomical siddur, the more spiritual siddur...). The project is attractive to students in the younger classes and they anticipate it with some excitement. Ironically, I found that however much the students learned about the 19 blessings of the amidah in lower school and however much they have exposure to tefillot, some don't fully learn the structure of the siddur (barkhu, two blessings, shema, one blessing, amidah, aleinu) until they actually create this sidur of their own. For that reason, the project also served as a culminating day school experience.

I would be very pleased to discuss this individually with other readers of this blog. Please send me an e-mail to my school e-mail address: jlevingston@pjds.org.

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