My approach to teaching is to take a “discussion-based constructivist approach” to learning, encouraging children to arrive at their own understanding of Torah through text-based study and a great deal of discussion. I constantly encourage them to think, ask questions and to arrive at their own insights into the Torah.
Instilling a love, enthusiasm and passion for Torah study is more important to me than whether or not a child understands any given verse on a particular day. A sense of humor plays a big role in achieving this; don’t underestimate it and try not to let a serious mood spoil your homeschool learning.
Most Room613 classes proceed in the following manner: We study a text, engaging in discussion about it, often analyzing every verse. I present classic Torah commentaries, as well as some more modern ones. We can sometimes spend a whole half-hour class on a single verse. Unlike most schools, I am usually not concerned with “covering ground” and reaching a certain point by a certain date.
Out of this process, we begin to construct a very personal understanding of meaning in the Torah. Much of our discussion has to do with gaining psychological insights into Torah personalities and possible motivations for their actions—often original insights suggested by the students.
This approach may or may not work for you, depending on how you prefer to teach and learn, your children’s personalities, your relationship with them and other family dynamics, but I am sure you can find some aspects that will be relevant and useful.
I always spend time before class preparing by going over commentaries and asking questions based on them as we study. After posing a question, I will often tell the class (for example), “I didn’t make that up, it is asked by the Ohr haChaim!”
I always start with Rashi, as he generally offers the simplest explanation of a verse. Usually I choose a few shorter Rashis, or maybe part of a long one, and I sometimes teach them in English.
I will then move on to other meforshim such as Kli Yakar, Baal haTurim, Seforno, and others.
I am going to take a sample verse from the Chumash – Parshas Noach (perek 6, pasuk 9) – and show you briefly how we might analyze it in a class.
Eileh Toldos Noach. Noach eish tzaddik tamim haya b’dorosav. Es HaElokim hishaleich Noach – These are the generations of Noah. Noah was in his generations a man righteous and whole-hearted; Noah walked with God.
To begin, depending on the age of your child, you might have them read the verse a few times, in Hebrew and/or English. Look at the verse; ask him or her if there is anything unusual about it. Perhaps he or she can create a list of questions or draw a picture – a graphic representation of the verse. If you are familiar with mind-mapping, that is also a great tool for parsing verses.
Here are some sample questions based on the verse above:
1) Why does it say “Noach Noach” (the name is repeated, which leaves room for interpretation in the original Hebrew)?
2) What does “tzaddik tamim” (righteous and whole) imply? What does “tamim” (pure) add to the description of Noach?
3) “In his generation”—what could that imply? Was he righteous or not? (It sounds like his righteousness was relative.)
4) What does it mean that he “walked with G-d?” (Compare with Avrohom who “walked before G-d.”)
Now here’s the Rashi for the first few verses of Noach:
Questions based on Rashi:
• What is the connection between the Torah mentioning Noach, praising him, and the idea of a blessing?
• “In his generation”—how does Rashi explain this? Is this good or not?
Even Ezra – Ish Tzaddik b’leebo, b’ma’asav tamim.
“Ish Tzadik”—in his actions. “Tamim”—in his heart/emotions.
This would probably lead to a discussion of what it means to be “righteous in action,” as opposed to “whole/pure in heart or emotion.”
Here are more sample discussion questions based on both Rashi and Even Ezra:
What does it mean to be “righteous in one’s actions?”
Can one do good things and be a bad person?