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I hate games, so of course my students love them!


Even back in kindergarten, I hated playing Duck Duck Goose and Musical Chairs and Mother May I, and Red Light Green Light. I hated the competition, and I hated the humiliation when I couldn’t remember the rules, and the hierarchies that decided who would be a winner and who would, forever, be a loser.


“I’m not a loser like you, Mommy. I’m a winner.”

A million years later, though, it turns out that games are a favorite at synagogue school, and the kids beg to play them over and over, spewing long lists of rules that I’ll have to learn in order to do it just right. They walk into the classroom, ignoring the worksheets and pencils on their desks (I love worksheets!) and they beg to play Jewish Jeopardy or Bingo or Tic Tac Toe before class even starts. They loved the day when we had an active shooter drill, because it meant competing with each other for who could hide best, and for who could make another kid laugh before laughing themselves.

When school first started in September, my idea of a perfect class session was: a handout to start things off; some practice with Hebrew letters; a sing along to learn one of the Hebrew prayers; and then a discussion about what the prayer meant to them; and then maybe a vocabulary list. I wrote one lesson plan after another along those lines, even after I discovered how hard it was to get the kids to sit in their seats for even two minutes at a time.

I figured I’d just need to come up with better ideas for how to reward them for cooperating. One of my first ideas was to give them a dance break, so they could work off their extra energy. I even bought a little speaker to attach to my iPhone, so they could hear the music over their own (very loud) voices. But they weren’t excited by the Nefesh Mountain songs I chose for them (Jewgrass music!!!), and then the new little speaker stopped working halfway through the song, and meanwhile the boys had decided to create a maze on the floor and crawl through the desks until the desks started to fall like dominoes.

Then I brought in sugar free candies and whole wheat pretzels for rewards, which seemed to get their attention, but it also distracted them and led to attempts to steal the snacks from the top of the cabinet (they are much taller than they look, somehow). And then I ran out of candy too soon (who knew sugar free peppermints were so popular?), and they started to complain about who got more pretzels than who, and how unfair the world is, and, by the way, teachers are always nicer to the girls! I’m still working with the snacks, because they are a good motivator, but I’m trying to be more consistent in who gets them and when.


“I like treats too, Mommy!”

I’ve had a lot of other ideas along the way for how to encourage the kids to finish at least a little bit of my lesson plan before half the class makes airplanes out of the worksheets (hint: half the class are boys). I thought of bringing in stress balls early on, when I noticed that a few pencils had been shattered, and the others were scattered across the floor, but I realized quickly that with the amount of energy and aggression in the room the stress balls would literally be bouncing off the walls, and the children’s heads.

I even thought about bringing Cricket in once, to keep some discipline, but her barking would have prevented even the small amount of work I was getting done. And I knew I couldn’t bring Ellie, because she would have peed on the floor, or cowered under my desk, with so many noisy little people around her.


“I could play with the children, Mommy. I just need to bring my friends.”

Some of my ideas actually worked out, though, like having the kids do Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes, in Hebrew, and making the shapes of the Hebrew letters with their bodies. But they get bored very easily, especially when they suddenly realize they’ve been tricked into learning something.


“You can’t trick me.”

I finally gave in to the pressure to play a game with the kids a few weeks ago, and they gave me a big list of rules I can’t remember, except that there were two teams, and when one team missed an answer the other team got the “rebound”. I used the game as a way to get through a word list I’d brought in for them, and for the first time they were actually able to get through a whole list, in both classes. To me, it felt tedious and mean and competitive, but to them it was awesome!

I don’t understand the draw, nor am I especially skilled at running games, and I have no creative ideas of my own for new games to play. So the following week I had the kids do student teaching (so they could teach me), and of course, after teaching alien languages and candy eating tricks, they focused on running games. There were clapping games and hiding games and games where we had to sit on the floor and games where we all had to leave the classroom. There were no games, unfortunately, that incorporated learning Hebrew. I’m sure you’re surprised.

But somewhere along the way I realized that if I give a little, they give a little back. I even had one kid ask for a harder worksheet. He decided that if he was going to have to get work done anyway, in order to earn the game he wanted to play, the worksheet should at least be challenging. So, they are teaching me, and they are very generous with their lessons, and eager to tell me when I get things wrong, which seems to happen often.


“I’ve got a long list. Start typing.”

I’m still going to try out all of my own ideas on them, trying to make the learning itself more fun, and productive, at the same time. And you never know, maybe some time during the year they will become less concerned about who’s winning and who’s losing, but I’m not holding my breath. They’d win that competition easily.




If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?



About rachelmankowitz

I am a fiction writer, a writing coach, and an obsessive chronicler of my dogs' lives.

84 responses »

  1. You sound like an amazing teacher 🙂

  2. First, that’s a beautiful picture of Ella at the beginning. Second, I would rather have my appendix removed than do what you are doing. Best wishes in dealing with these rambunctious kids.

  3. I used to teach an English class to a bunch of French teenagers. I would break the learning sessions into manageable bites with a half-time for refreshments with my homemade baked goodies. I used to make up most of the exercises using things I knew the kids were interested in, largely sport. It probably helped that they came voluntarily to class. You certainly sound as if you’re engaging hearts and minds which is half the battle.

  4. Just got your book. Looking forward to it !

  5. I straight up wanna hear “Heads, shoulders beans on toast” in Hebrew 😀

    Also currently looking up “Jewgrass” music which sounds great. You can’t beat teaching kids without them realising them by incorporating music I don’t think.

  6. Sounds like you are finding your groove and that everyone is winning.

  7. Kids are really smart. It does sound as though you are keeping up well.

  8. One of my text books would introduce vocabulary that would be used to tell a joke or funny story at the end of each lesson. I was surprised at how motivating it was to learn the new words to see what kind of story might be at the end. Maybe something like that could help? Kids love corny jokes.

  9. Is Jewish Jeopardy similar to Muslim Monopoly or Christian cribbage?

  10. I ran a mission school in South Africa for a couple years. Most of the best teaching moments involved play, and it was actually fun. Competition doesn’t have to be cut throat – and a prize can be the right to wear a crown, or sit on a throne, or wave a baton while the other kids sing something. One of the games they liked best, which I’m sure you could adapt to learning Hebrew, was mental arithmetic. I had Suns written on cards, which I’d call out, and the first to get the sum right got the card. We played outside, standing up, and just for five intense minutes. It was tremendous fun! After a while I split them into groups so the stronger kids competed against each other and the weaker kids had a chance to win in their groups. Sometimes the prize was a piece of candy … Sometimes it was a star on their forehead, or the right to choose the end of day story. But it was always fun.

  11. ramblingsofaperforatedmind

    Sounds like a challenging class! If the kids have phones or computers, try Quizlet or Kahoot. Running dictation can be fun chaos if kids are really competitive. Good luck!

  12. Once you start learning from them, and I see you have, then they will start learning from you. You’re doing fine, Rachel. 🙂
    Best wishes, Pete.

  13. Bless you for having the resolve to make learning interesting for your students. And kudos to you for recognizing you to are a student (of life?) in this endeavor.

  14. I’m in awe of you taking on a class. I wouldn’t have that confidence or patience, but it’s a learning curve from both sides, and I think it’s terrific you’re getting their feedback as you progress. Well done!

  15. That’s wonderful what you’re doing. Isn’t there some way you can suggest a game for Hebrew and apply it in a similar way as the other games with your word lists?

  16. You’re doing great with teaching. Always remember learning goes both ways.

    If you need craft ideas, drop me a line. Made Havdalah candles with 3rd grade a few weeks ago. Getting ready to make yad with 4th-6th.

  17. When I teach kids, which is rarely, and by rarely I mean never in my life, I find you’d do well just giving them I-pads and some video games and then leaving the room for an hour or two for a nap. Leave some sugary treats behind too. (I kid, I kid…you do good stuff.)

  18. Love the narrative and the precious pictures too!

  19. My sympathies. I lasted exactly one year as a middle school teacher. Then I went to college teaching! I would go with the active games. My grandson learns best hanging upside down in his chair while he reads. Go figure!

  20. That made me laugh; anyone who has attempted teaching of any sort will recognise those children and the psychology of teaching.

  21. I recommend joining NYC Teaching Fellows ^_^ Field training will have you learning tons of tricks, if you get paired with a good co-teacher!

  22. I love reading your teaching experiences, you’r so real and honest, and a good teacher! I too taught developmental reading at a community college. It was hard. One idea I tried that these 20-50 year old students liked was a kind of card game called Story Starters. it was a deck of cards. maybe t hey have something like that in Hebrew, and maybe you’ll find something at an educational store. thanks for liking my soup!

  23. Sounds like you’re doing great. Hats off to you. I wouldn’t do what you’re doing for all the tea in China!

  24. This sounds like my class – and I teach college level accounting! 🙂
    Honestly, from a teacher’s perspective, I think you’re doing an amazing job. They will LOVE you for working with them and figuring out what works for them and they’ll learn so much more than you, or they, realize. And you’ll have so much fun at the same time!

  25. You are an amazing teacher .
    Have fun teaching!
    Teachers don’t retire from reading.😊

  26. 🙂 You have captured the energy of this age very well. We used to play bingo in chemistry class to learn the periodic table. I always liked that.

  27. Have you tried to play hangman with your word list? It might be a good compromise

  28. Oh Oh Oh! Are you teaching spelling? My sister taught me to spell words by singing the letters – to this day I sing Camptown Races when I write encyclopedia – and it was so much fun!

  29. I think your students are very lucky to have you for a teacher.
    It might be fun to make flash cards using pictures of Cricket and Ellie
    (such as the precious ones in this article) to teach Hebrew words.
    (or maybe even make a slide show. For a test, you can show the
    slides with the picture and English word. They would write the word
    in Hebrew on their test paper. They would compete only with their own scores
    and acquire points only for the improvement .. i.e. 8 right the first test,
    10 right on the second. They would garner two points toward a privilege or a
    perk. The joy of seeing your puppies’ sweet faces is a grand incentive.
    They draw me here and I linger over their pictures and then I read your words
    and linger longer! This blog is a treasure.

  30. You must be the best teacher ever! How I wish my kids had you, esp our youngest who is blind. Long story here, he was doing so well, but last year after seizures, and contd medication is now aggressive. We try every creative idea to keep his mind active. I appreciate how you think out of the box. Its folk like you that build the next gen. And their parents too. I wish there were more like you in colleges and hospitals and social circles. Stay blessed.

  31. Thanks for the great post! This is my first year teaching religious school, and I find that I am learning so much on the fly! Having students teach us is such a great strategy. Empowering the students to take charge of their own learning, and find meaning in why they are even learning the content in the first place is helpful. Thanks for sharing!


  32. I’ve always avoided competition. Feat of failure? Low self-esteem? Who knows. Just listen to what the dogs say. 🙂

  33. I like that you do not give up. kids are unpredictable but your patience must be neverending. I love that they flipped the teacher student thing around and now are working with you. I will add your book to my reading list and hopefully review it in the new year.

  34. Kids are terrifying, aren’t they? I know I should be going into schools to read my books to children (since they are children’s books) but I’m just too chicken to face a room full of the little darlings. I admire your courage and persistence and sheer patience. It’s obviously paying off!

  35. Two thoughts.
    First be careful with the sugar free candy. We were not allowed to serve it at our school (public) because in some people it cause severe stomach distress.
    Second, I know it is a lot of work but I made puzzle pieces with difficult vocabulary. I would take cut up file folders, write the word on one side, leave some space and then have a picture (or Hebrew word) on the other. Then I would use scissors and cut apart the words. I had table groups. Half got the left side and half got the right. They had to match the pieces to correctly identify the vocabulary. We worked on table points. At the end of whatever time (days, periods, etc.) the winning group would get a cheap freebie from me. When I taught kindergarden it was stickers. When I taught sixth graders free time (even 10 minutes) was a winner. I also printed free detailed coloring sheets from the internet. There are plenty with Judiac symbols.
    The fact that you spend so much time planning and prepping is a testament to your devotion and care for their success. Good job.


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