Planning - Choosing Which Parts to Tell

Many parshiot in the Torah are complex, long, and filled with far more than we could possibly teach in one or two lessons. How do I decide what to tell and what to emphasize each week?

Download the Parshat Hashavua Planning Sheet (pdf)

Choosing Which Parts to Tell

Whenever I sit down to plan to teach a parasha, I begin by reading the original Torah text, keeping in mind my overall goals for teaching Torah. If this is a narrative section of Torah, then I try to sketch out the main narrative points. Sometimes, these fall easily into a short outline of several important events. Other weeks, there are many different parts of the story or too many details to tell. When this happens, I have to make decisions about which parts I will include. Often, there are stories in a given parasha that seem basic to Jewish cultural literacy. The story of Avraham welcoming the guests to his tent and the story of Moshe at the burning bush are both stories that we would expect children who have studied Torah to know. Some parshiot involve narrative details without which the larger story does not flow. We cannot skip the section about Yosef being thrown into the pit if we want the later stories about his reunification with his brothers to make sense. Finally, some sections in the Torah reflect important themes which we want to emphasize as part of the students’ Jewish education, either because the themes are connected to their Jewish identity or because they may teach values or ways of life that we would like our students to incorporate into their own lives. These themes are ones I would choose to emphasize, whether in a narrative or non-narrative parasha.

After I read the parasha itself, one of my favorite resources to use is the “First Steps in Learning Torah with Young Children” series published by BJE of Greater New York. For each parasha, the authors choose a few sections of text and suggest a way to present the narrative. They usually connect this text to a Jewish concept that relates to children’s lives, and they also provide suggested activities for early childhood classrooms. While I often choose to include more details from a given parasha than what these authors chose, I find that they provide an excellent starting point as well as wonderful extension activities.

Organizing For Me and For My Students

Outlining the main narrative points that I plan to tell from each parasha is helpful to me as an outline while I tell the story. But just as I need this outline to help me organize all the information in a given parasha, my students also benefit from organizers that help them to pay attention to the most important information. As I plan my telling, I know that some children will listen and remember every detail, while others will not possibly be able to hold on to all the information. So I need to decide ahead of time, what are the most basic elements that I want to be sure that every child will remember. Often, I make a list of any names and places that I want them to know, as well as the two or three main points. As I tell the story, I try to emphasize these through repetition and highlight them so the students know they are important to remember. Sometimes I list them on a chart, sometimes I stop and ask review questions as I come to these parts, and sometimes I stop and say, “This part is REALLY important” before going on with the story. I find that if I have made my list beforehand of key narrative points, basic names and facts, and most important “big ideas,” then I am better able to teach in a way that ensures that every student will get the essence of each parasha.

Looking for Connections

As I plan, I also look for points of connection that I want to emphasize to my students. If I notice that a character in the parasha has the same name as a child in my class, I can predict from experience that this will generate excitement. The parasha may include a story of a child being born, and a child in the class may have just had a new baby sibling. Sometimes these connections will help children to understand a story by bringing their experience as background knowledge. If children can think about their own experiences with brothers and sisters, they may better understand the jealousy among siblings that comes through in so many of the stories in Bereshit.

While I want children to connect the stories of the Torah to their own lives and use that information to help them understand, I also want them to be able to think about the ways in which these stories take place in another time and context. As I plan, I look for places in the text that will not make sense to the children without some clarification. People lived in tents, not modern houses. They got water from a well, not a faucet in the sink. They were traveling in a desert, not through a forest or a city. Emphasizing these points over and over help young children to understand how life was different “back in the Torah times” and to visualize the narrative in a different way.

As much as I want my students to relate to the Torah as a narrative text filled with wonderful, exciting and interesting stories, that is only one piece of what I want to accomplish in teaching them Torah. As I plan, I also need to think about what elements of Jewish identity and values I want to emphasize and whether they are found in a particular parasha. For example, our connection to the land of Israel is one that is rooted in the Torah. When I teach those sections of Torah, I plan an explicit connection to what we learn about the modern state of Israel. First graders in my class also learn about prayer as a way of communicating our thanks, our wants, and our needs to God. When I find an example in parshat hashavua of someone using prayer in this way, I plan to emphasize that and connect it explicitly with our own experiences during tefillot. Later in the year, when we arrive at parshiot that are no longer filled with stories but instead filled with rules and laws, I look for particular examples that the students can relate to and can apply to their own lives today. Thus, the study of Torah is not only about “far away and long ago,” but also about our lives as Jews in the here and now.