Teaching the Fifth Grade

By Rabbi Julie Wolkoff. D.Min.

I enjoy teaching. These days, I teach nurses, social workers, and case managers. I facilitate bereavement groups and speak to caregiver support groups. It’s different from what I used to do. I used to teach Confirmation and Bar and Bat Mitzvah classes. I taught adult education, religious school and spent a number of years teaching in day school.

Much as I like what I do now, I do miss teaching Jewish texts and traditions. I love it when I run into or hear from former students. They tell me about their current lives and some are doing exactly what I would have expected; exactly what they said they would be doing as adults. Others continue to surprise me with their choices.

But if you ask me what kind of teaching I like (or liked) the best, with all due respect to all my former students, I would have to say it was the years I spent teaching fifth grade religious school. I am grateful to a congregation and educator willing to hire an under-employed rabbi finishing her doctorate to teach in the religious school. More than just a help paying my bills, it provided needed balance to my days as my doctoral work was with Jewish nursing home residents.

One of the best things about teaching religious school was that students in the fifth grade are wonderfully betwixt and between. They are just moving beyond concrete thinking, but still need hands-on activities. They are direct and very “here and now.” They love to talk – about their families, their friends and their ideas of how the world works. They can’t wait to share their stories. They are willing to try things, even things that might seem silly. They go along when their teacher changes things “on the fly,” but they like having the planned schedule on the board and knowing where the class is going. The boys and girls in my classes also liked to be in groups together for activates. There was no concern about “cooties” and they weren’t yet interested in dating each other.

The fifth grade curriculum was Jewish holidays and life cycle. You might think that a rabbi knows all about these subjects and would have no problem teaching them. I’m sure that’s what I thought before I ended up in the classroom. They had a lot to teach me.

Some of my more memorable moments with them include:

  • Bringing in willows (cut from the tree on my Conservative colleague’s lawn) on Hoshanah Rabbah. Marching around the classroom beating them against the floor, the desks and each other. (A first, and I’m sure a last as well, in this Reform congregation.) And I’m certain I didn’t apologize enough to the custodial staff for the mess we made.
  • The afternoon class when we had the first noticeable snowfall. My students were far more interested in watching the snow than in learning Hebrew. I asked if they had had the opportunity yet to say shechecheyanu over the snow yet. They said “no.” One of the hard and fast rules was that your class did not go outside during religious school. I took them out. We went though the classroom door to the congregation’s lawn. We ran around in the falling snow. And we gathered together and said shechecheyanu.
  • Teaching about Hanukkah. Me: “Hanukkah is a minor holiday . . .” My students: But Rabbi, it’s 8 days!” Me: “Hanukkah is a minor holiday that lasts for 8 days . . .” My students: But Rabbi, we get PRESENTS!!”
  • When a student taught me why brides and grooms don’t go to the mikveh together before the wedding. (I thought it had something to do with modesty. What do I know?)  “Because if a girl saw a boy naked before the wedding, she wouldn’t go through with it.”
  • Sitting in a circle learning to bentsh gomel. A student recited the blessing. We all read the response. Then the next student said the blessing and we responded. We did it until everyone had had the chance to say gomel.

I have many other memories of those classes. My time with the fifth grade stood me in good stead a few years later when I went to work at a Jewish day school. It was in religious school that I learned to write report cards and how to schedule a day balancing classroom learning with experiential activities. My fifth graders taught me to expect the unexpected in the classroom. They taught me that when you ask an open-ended question you get all kinds of answers, each of which could take the lesson in a different direction. They taught me that when students think they have distracted you and taken you off your lesson plan, you have the opportunity to add all kinds of teachings into the day and they will listen and ask more questions.

They taught me that the rabbis of the Talmud must have also taught fifth grade.

“Much have I learned from my teachers, more from my colleagues but most of all from my students.” (Taanit 7a)

Rabbi Julie Wolkoff, D.Min, CT, is a hospice chaplain in Massachusetts. Find her at: http://fabricfiber.wordpress.com/

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