Sunday, February 27, 2011

Teaching Tefilla - Not Just Davening Together

Tefilla in school is hard. For many teachers, it may be the worst part of their day. Trying to make it through a 30-40 minute (or more) Shacharit with students who perhaps do not know what they are doing and who likely are not enjoying the experience can be an experience appropriate for one of the deeper levels of hell. Add in the little games that go on (going to the bathroom, getting a tissue, furtive messages telegraphed across the room or over the mechitza, notes for tests hidden in siddurim, etc etc etc), plus the fact that the teachers are trying to balance their stewardship of the minyan with their own davening, and you have all of the ingredients for an educational disaster.


This year, we have been using some of our professional development time with our teachers to talk about and to work on tefilla. While we are trying to do many things at once in this context, the most significant message that I have pressed with our faculty is to think about tefilla as if it were an academic subject. Even though there are no grades or tests (and I do not advocate instituting them), we have to approach tefilla the same way that we would approach any other class.


Begin with the end in mind. This time-honored curriculum-planning principle, often associated with the Understanding by Design model, should be the first step in approaching tefilla as a subject. What are we trying to accomplish by davening with the students. Our school runs through 8th grade. Do we expect all of our graduates to be master daveners? Is that realistic? Do we at least expect them to know their way around the frequently-used sections of the siddur? Do we expect them to know when to sit, stand, and bow (what I call the calisthenics of davening)? The list of questions that can be asked here is endless - and the fact that the questions are even being asked is the most important step of all. We are not simply davening-with-the-kids-in-the-morning-because-that-is-what-we-do. Rather, we have clear goals, or at least working goals, and we are trying to achieve them.


Next, figure out how we are going to move towards achieving those goals. Here is where things get a bit tricky. A good educator is willing to change things up in class when the current pedagogical approach is not working. Have kids work in groups. Use more technology. Alter the material from what was originally planned. And yet, even if tefilla is a disaster, most schools get no further than perhaps singing a bit more or moving around the students' seats. That's educational thinking? Not at all. If we approach tefilla as a subject, then we might be willing to tinker with some of our more sacred cows. Smaller groups which spend some time discussing davening during davening itself. Spending more time on certain parts while perhaps skipping over others occasionally. A little bit of dancing during Hallel. Obviously, not every suggestion will go over with every crowd, but as many ideas as possible should be put on the table.


But what about OUR davening? So comes the cry from those Rebbeim and teachers who lead the minyanim in their schools, and it is a sincere cry indeed. If my tefilla five days a week is to be in school, I would like it to be as "real" as possible. A nice thought, and I agree with the sentiment that part of the role of a school minyan is to prepare students for the daily minyanim that they will hopefully attend. However, we have to make sure that they leave us with a willingness to still attend minyanim. If that means that we have to daven a little faster, or a little less, or in some way different than we would prefer - that is our chosen lot in life. Plenty of people who would love to take their time davening have no choice but to daven at the 6:30 minyan in their shul that ends at 6:56 because their bus comes at 7:13 - our sacrifice is different, but with hopefully a payoff for our students.


[And yes, every school should have a posek that they consult before making changes that seem to run counter to, or have only a brief familiarity with, halacha. But you will be surprised how much wiggle room there is.]


If you are not yet doing so, I implore you to change your thinking about tefilla - treat it as an educational moment, not just davening. Think about it - some of our students will go into the sciences, some into math; some will continue to learn Gemara for the rest of their lives and others will not; but every single one of them will be davening daily, weekly, or at some consistent point in their lives. That makes tefilla the most important subject we can teach them. Let's do it well.

2 comments:

Jennifer in MamaLand said...

Thank you for this - it's very helpful, and an area that is VERY important, as you say.

I'd love to hear more about methodologies for introducing tefillos in younger grades - ie what to introduce, and in what order, and how.

In a sense, this is much easier in our homeschool, because much of tefillah is cuddle time, just hanging out together on the sofa through at least birchos hashachar (we get up for Shemoneh Esrei).

There's nothing adversarial here - if a kid needs a washroom break, she gets one; if someone's restless, I try handing them a tambourine. :-)

(and even at home, they enjoy leading the davening themselves once they get a bit older)

I think perhaps Rebbeim and teachers have an obligation to daven before or after if they have to supervise davening. If a school davens at 7:30, or even 8:30, can't they usually arrange to catch a later (or earlier) Shacharis for themselves?

It may be an inconvenience, but just as I'm not paying my daughter's science teacher to do his own research projects, or her English teacher to write her own poetry, I'd like to think I'm not paying her tefillah "teacher" (supervisor) to stand and daven.

I'd like her (or him) to watch the kids and perhaps figure out what are priorities to introduce in a biur tefillah class later on, what middos to work on, etc.

If kids know they're being supervised wholeheartedly, aren't they less likely to misbehave?

p.s. It would probably also help for teachers and hanhalah to emphasize that on days "off", parents should supervise their kids' davening and perhaps even offer them mussar based on the individual strengths and weaknesses.

Just a few thoughts from a homeschooling mama who also happens to have two kids in high school... :-)

Rabbi Akevy Greenblatt said...

Great Post!
I think you are right that davening should be seen as a teachable moment and a "Class".
I am sharing your email with our other admins as we are also currently looking at our school's Tefilla curriculum.

Thanks for Sharing
Akevy (akevy613)