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Wednesday
Feb252015

GETTING OUR CHILDREN TO LOVE LEARNING GEMARA

Every parent accompanying his son as he reaches the appropriate age for Talmudic study surely knows the caution and anxiety in bringing him to this phase. Gemara demands a new type of thinking, alongside unfamiliar tools for learning and analysis. Rabbi Avraham Tzatzik, a prominent educator in the Chassidic-chareidi community and developer of theCycles in Gemaraapproach, speaks about the difficulties and challenges in transmitting the study of Gemara.

Translated by Michoel Leib Dobry

He would say: Five years is the age for the study of Scripture. Ten, for the study of Mishnah. Thirteen, for the obligation to observe the mitzvos. Fifteen, for the study of Talmud.(Avos 5:22) There are two principal ways to explain this Mishnah. According to the first interpretation, it takes five years to learn Scripture, another five years to learn Mishnah, and yet another five years for the study of Talmud. Therefore, even someone who began learning at the age of forty should act in this fashion, as the Midrash states regarding how Rabbi Akiva learned with his young son and had tremendous success.

The second explanation is far more profound: There must be a proper match between the form of study and the learner’s ability to grasp and understand the material. Before building a learning structure, it’s extremely important to devote adequate time to strengthening its foundations. As we see again with Rabbi Akiva, in the merit of his building the foundations of Torah study together with his son, he attained the level whereby he could interpret the meaning of the crowns on the letters of Torah.

Practically speaking, our children already begin learning the chapter of “Eilu M’tzios” in the third grade, when they are eight or nine years old. The question is: Why? Why do we find ourselves reaching a situation where even as adults, we’re still missing many of the foundations of Torah study? We can learn the explanation for this from the words of Rabba bar Abuha to Eliyahu HaNavi, as brought in tractate Bava Metzia: “I am not sufficiently fluent in the four s’darim [of the Mishnah we focus on in Bavel (Mo’ed, Nashim, Nezikin, Kodshim)] – all the more so I am not fluent in [Zera’im and Taharos]”. We see that the comprehension of the Amoraim was less than that of the Tanaim.

If the comprehension of the Amoraim was less, then surely our comprehension is even less so. Therefore, we can’t just blame the education system that doesn’t teach according to the approach brought in the Mishnah. The facts are that our ability of comprehension is limited. It’s simply impossible to expect that we can master the entire Talmud even after we learn Scripture for five years and Mishnah for another five years.

How do we produce the best from this situation?

To receive a proper answer to this question and others pertaining to methods of connecting students to the study of Gemara, we turned to Rabbi Avraham Tzatzik, a leading practitioner of the “Cycles in Gemara” approach and prominent lecturer in all matters of education. Rabbi Tzatzik has worked his entire life in the field of education. He eventually became a student of one of the leading experts of our generation in the principles of Gemara instruction, Rabbi Yeshayahu Weber, and spent ten years as a senior staff member of “Machon Yad Tzvi” in Yerushalayim. He later developed the approach he lectures on and teaches by every day.

 

Before anything else, I first want to ask you: From what age do we start getting the child to love Gemara – and how do we achieve this in the best possible fashion?

Every encounter a child has with Torah content is an opportunity to get him to love what he’s learning. In general, this depends upon our ability to connect the subject matter to the child’s world through his more dominant spheres, e.g., intellectual, emotional, lingual, visual, physical. The learning experience does not have to be limited to stories or questions and answers.

The choice of appropriate action in creating an enjoyable and challenging experience, one that can enable both individual and creative expression together with attaining personal success, represents a key point in achieving the desired objective. In principle, when we succeed in connecting the learning material to our lives and sharing it with our child, we can also send him a message that Torah is a living entity that relates to his life as well.

Why is there a need to develop an approach on how to learn Gemara? Is this not connected to the essence of learning, regardless of the subject?

While the difficulties in Gemara study are derived in part from general learning problems, Gemara study in particular demands a simultaneous combination of various areas of expertise on a level of complexity far greater than that required in other fields of study. In addition, there are special skills needed to learn Gemara, and these also must be acquired by someone whose learning abilities are already quite proficient.

What are the central problems that prevent children from enjoying Gemara study and what is your message on this matter?

A student once told me in our first meeting, “It won’t do you any good – I just don’t like to learn Gemara!” I asked him if he liked rice, and he said yes. “And if you had to eat it with tweezers, would you still like rice?” I added. “Perhaps with the proper tools, you’ll also like Gemara.” After a few more meetings, this boy changed his entire attitude.

Similar to playing a violin, the pleasure derived from Gemara study is the result of the proficiency that one must strive to attain. The difficulty in grasping, understanding, and connecting the various parts can absolutely be a source of frustration and opposition. However, in contrast to learning how to play the violin, with the help of an appropriate learning approach, Gemara study can produce from the very outset a few tunes without too much squeaking.

Considering the tremendous challenges that Gemara study places before children, with or without special difficulties, in a pulsating world that offers endless possibilities at the click of a button, it’s not easy to convince a child to toil in studies that demand such energy to produce results, even enjoyment. I believe that awareness of the importance of our task as teachers and the types of difficulties encountered by various students enable us to reveal greater educational creativity, transform the learning into something far more impressive, and provide answers for minimizing the frustration that many endure during the learning process at different stages.

 

I’d like to bring things down to a more tangible level: Can a parent reading this article know tomorrow morning how to learn Gemara with his son in a better way?

In a nutshell, the idea that I want to convey to your readers is that in order to teach better, you must realize the nature of the teacher’s or the parent’s mission, define the objectives, understand the causes for difficulties in comprehending the learning material, and obtain the necessary tools for dealing with them. This can be most helpful even for a ‘born teacher’ who does everything instinctively.

There are parents who believe that the most important thing is for their son to be a “good Jew” and that it’s less important if he knows the Gemara material.

As I said at the very beginning, we have an obligation to enable every Jewish child to realize his portion in the Torah. This is not designed as a means to make him into a good Jew or an important scholar, rather a concentration upon the essence of Torah and toiling in its study. This obligation relates to every Jew, without any connection to qualities unique to one sector or another. It compels us to invest much thought and love in our children in order to send them off into life with the necessary tools for fulfilling the mitzvah of Torah study that corresponds to all the mitzvos.

Today, we know of numerous approaches to didactic and/or emotional evaluation. Even in cases of evaluations that offer a more or less appropriate approach for Gemara study, the teacher has difficulty implementing the overall suggestions that are truly fitting for the student’s needs. What is unique to your approach?

The “Cycles in Gemara” approach is based in general upon Rabbi Weber’s viewpoint on the requirements for Gemara study. With the passage of time, I have developed it into a practical tool to form a bridge between the evaluation and its recommendations, between implementation and a specific portion of the learning material. Practically speaking, even the comprehension of a single point in Gemara can be constructed from several stages, where each stage involves different learning skills. I relate to each comprehension stage as the “closing of a circle” necessary before proceeding to the next stage.

This “circle” can begin from various points. I don’t always have to start with reading and comprehending the study material, and I also don’t always have to put certain concepts before the actual learning. This brings us to the melamed’s creative role in teaching focused on objectives. Choosing where to begin each circle must pertain to the student’s needs according to his evaluated learning abilities and personal character.

In conclusion, can you please give me an example of how this is done?

For example, in order to understand the seemingly simple question of the Gemara in Chapter “Eilu M’tzios” (Why is the knot on strings of fish not considered a sign?), we have to close a few circles of understanding. First, we must remember the context of the question in terms of the Mishnah. Second, we have to understand the connection between the lack of a sign and the owners’ giving up hope of retrieving their lost items. Third, there is the connection between the owners’ giving up hope and the lack of any Torah obligation to restore the lost items.

On the foundation of this “background circle,” we will build a second circle that includes an understanding of the concept of “strings of fish” and how the knot can possibly be considered a sign. Based on these two circles of understanding, we can deduce how this influences the person who lost these items and the ruling on this possibility as it pertains to the finder. Only then can we compare between the law for one who finds strings of fish with a sign and the ruling of the Mishnah, thereby closing this circle of understanding that includes the question of the Gemara.

On the basis of this understanding, we can decipher the closed style of the Gemara’s question and identify its meaning: If such is the case, why doesn’t the person who finds the strings of fish have to publicize what he found? An experienced student of Talmud has already closed all these circles when he read the Gemara text, more or less intuitively, to the point that there’s only one way to understand the question. In contrast, there are children whom we have to walk through some or most of the learning stages while connecting all the abstract concepts to their own world.  In this way, they can reach a true understanding of the learning material, not merely repeating the words by rote.

A skilled teacher knows how to do this naturally. However, with the additional help of appropriate tools, he can consciously decide if it would be appropriate to start with an illustrative story or a diagram containing all pertinent data on a challenging question or text in the Gemara, while reviewing the relevant background and principles. At all times, the teacher must consider the student’s abilities to connect with one end of the string that can lead him to a closing of the circle.

 

Rabbi Tzatzik has invested most of his time and energy over the past decade in the teaching of Gemara. While he continually gives lectures on his teaching approach, he also sets aside personal time to teach children experiencing difficulty in their studies, including in Chabad institutions throughout Eretz Yisroel, the United States, and South America. “I see the task of making Gemara study accessible to those having trouble in their learning as a shlichus of the highest order,” he told us at the conclusion of the interview. “My experience shows that it doesn’t just have an influence upon the learning ability of such students, but also upon their emotional and social conduct, and their religious observance.”

 

HOW DO WE BRING THE STUDY OF GEMARA TO THE CHILD?

Ten tips for teachers and parents

Before we start learning with the child, we must think carefully about what we really want to achieve, and of course, coming well prepared to teach him. It would be appropriate to seek the advice of experts in teaching Gemara regarding additional methods beyond what we already know. After receiving this advice, formulate a workable approach with the student and stick to it. A regular learning pattern provides stability and a routine of Torah study helpful to the child. Confusion often prevails within the student when there is a lack of coordination between the teacher and the tutor or the parent, i.e., when each one teaches in a different style, this can make things more difficult for the child.

We must internalize the fact that all the concepts and thought processes that we take for granted while learning Gemara are not necessarily happening to the student. We must be certain that the student fully understands every detail and every sentence that we read with him. Don’t assume anything.

It’s important to learn in advance how to identify the difficulties and challenges in the learning material. Identifying them during the learning process makes things harder for the child. When we prepare the class material, as we should, we will be able to determine where the difficult sections in the Gemara are and we’ll make sufficient time available to explain them in a variety of ways, not necessarily in a direct manner.

Recognize and understand the child’s special difficulties. While it’s not easy for a classroom teacher of thirty students to achieve this purpose, with the passage of time, a good teacher will know how to determine the strengths and weaknesses of each student. Every child comprehends and understands in a manner different from his friends. We must know what is the ‘toolbox’ for each student in order to know which tool he needs the most, through which he will properly understand the Gemara he is learning.

Be open to different ways for connecting children to different Gemaras. Even if we learned a certain approach and apply it well, it’s always good to be familiar with other approaches, just as our Sages say regarding “different faces, different opinions.” Therefore, it would be appropriate to use several learning approaches and not restrict ourselves to only one method. We often face a situation where the child understands the material in a certain Gemara through a certain approach, but another Gemara requires a different approach.

During these times, there is an obligation to connect the learning material to the child’s world, personal experiences, and fields of knowledge. He must feel that the subject matter contains concepts and principles that he can use in his daily life, not things detached from modern-day reality. It is definitely possible to replace the “ox” and the “donkey” that Reuven lent to Shimon with a computer toy that one friend lent to another.

It would be appropriate to speak less and actively involve the child more. When the child becomes part of the learning process, he pays better attention and internalizes the material more successfully. In addition, teachers should also make a proper balance and focus on the subject matter, as the main objective often gets lost in all the activities. Similarly, it would be fitting at the very start of class that the student know exactly what they’re learning – what section, its beginning and end, the relevant commentaries from Rashi and Tosafos. There are some students who need the section copied on a separate sheet of paper. This can lessen and even remove entirely all fears of a full page of Gemara, as their eyes focus on specifically what is needed.

Bring the child closer to the precise language of the Gemara. This is important in order that eventually he will know how to learn himself even when we are not at his side. It would also be appropriate before each section of the Gemara to give a sort of introduction – background on the subject of the sugya, certain basic halachic and Talmudic concepts. Similarly, create a few breathers during the class. In the natural course of a Gemara class, there are a lot of details. It often happens that a student misses a portion of the class and is subsequently unable to close the gap. Therefore, it would be a good idea to make a summary at least twice during the class, thereby allowing those who miss something to catch up and rejoin everyone else.

Consider every experience and learn from mistakes. It’s very important to get feedback from the child after the study session. This should be done by asking relevant questions and getting an understanding where our investment has proven itself and where it hasn’t.

A final and most important piece of advice in conclusion: Many children who tried unsuccessfully to learn Gemara at a younger age decide that they’re not good in Gemara, and we hear them say things such as, “I don’t know how to learn Gemara.” In such cases, no matter how much we invest in them, it won’t do any good because they’ve blocked themselves off. We must remove these barriers by creating for each student a series of small daily successes, whether in understanding the text or actual learning.

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