Aliza Rosenbaum has been teaching Judaic Subjects to seventh and eighth grade students at Hillel Torah North Suburban Day School in Skokie, Il for seven years. She has spent much of that time experimenting in her classroom in the hopes of developing the most effective ways to teach and work with her students. In 2017, she applied for the Sefaria’s Educational Partnership Initiative to see what might happen when Sefer Devarim (Deuteronomy) goes digital.
The result, Aliza explains, was student-led learning come to life: “It’s the best – it’s how I’ve always wanted to do it.” In the past, she would select a given text, translate it, print it for her students, and they would have to respond to accompanying questions. However, it never felt to Aliza like they were truly learning as much as they could be. They were completing their coursework, to be sure, but because so much of the process was done for them, the students weren’t really owning their work. Unsurprisingly, she found that it was hard to get thoughtful answers out of them. With the introduction of Sefaria to her classroom, “it’s been a world of difference. They’re doing it on their own.”
Indeed, while her students are learning the same one or two perakim, or chapters, of the sefer each week that students in her class always have, the process through which they learn is now vastly different. Instead of merely responding to prompted questions, Aliza’s students now create their own resources weekly. Each student is responsible for producing one Sefaria sheet per unit: some weeks they create classical explanatory source sheets, other times they develop their own questions and craft worksheets. It isn’t just homework that’s changed, however; class time is now generative and interactive as well. Throughout the year, she and her students played with different tools that expanded what it meant to explore these biblical sources. Students manipulated texts, divided up pesukim (verses), color coded, bolded, highlighted, created explanatory keys, and added comments.
Equally as exciting as the changes she is seeing in her own classroom are the changes she is seeing in her students beyond it. When her students were assigned a research project on Sefer Tehillim (Psalms) in another class, for example, they voluntarily headed to Sefaria, comfortable with the charge to do independent research, because “they saw how easy and accessible a resource it was.” The agency that Sefaria affords Aliza’s students likewise contributes to a newfound sense of pride they have cultivated around their Jewish studies. Whereas in the past, if they wanted to learn about something, they might go to a website and find a dvar Torah that someone else wrote, they now have primary sources unprecedentedly available to them.
There is pride not only in what Aliza’s students are now capable of, but in what they have created, too. By the school year’s end, her students had created an entire portfolio on Sefer Devarim, complete with source sheets on every perek. If or when these students learn Sefer Devarim again, they’ll have this living resource to return to. Indeed, while she admits that she was hesitant at first about making the transition from print to digital in Limmudei Kodesh (religious classes), Aliza now sits squarely in the digital camp. These enduring digital records of her students’ work are a far cry from the days of loose papers and disposable notebooks that often get thrown away in an end-of-year clean-up. As she explains it, “This is so much more long-term.”
Aliza believes her classroom’s use of Sefaria is not only a gift to her students but to other learners on Sefaria as well. One notable example: because so many mitzvot noted in Devarim are repeated elsewhere in Tanakh, Aliza had her students work on linking thematic connections in Perakim 14-15 of Sefer Devarim. Her students worked independently to identify mitzvot in these texts and then tag the connections they discovered on Sefaria.org, accompanying each with a reflective note explaining the link between the two. This coursework has real world value in addition to pedagogical value: those connections now live publicly on the site, and anyone studying the text can benefit from then. No longer passive consumers of Torah, her students are now active participants in the great, millennia-old conversations around these texts. To both Aliza and her students, “It’s been the coolest thing.”
To learn more about Sefaria’s upcoming education opportunities for the 2018-2019 school year and to apply to be a part of them, click here.