This year at the synagogue school we are trying out a new way of teaching Hebrew, called Hebrew Through Movement (HTM). The idea behind HTM, and James J. Asher’s Total Physical Response before it, is to try to follow the process by which infants acquire their first language. The examples Asher gives are: parents will say “take the bottle” and then put the bottle in the baby’s hand, or they’ll say “wave bye bye” and then model how to wave a hand. The child then responds physically, rather than verbally, with a long silent period before words are spoken out loud.
I watched a ton of videos on how to teach Hebrew through Movement, and I read the background articles exploring the whys and wherefores, and I studied the official curriculum multiple times to create my lesson plans, but I still wasn’t sure if it would work in real life. I even tried to practice with the dogs ahead of time, but they were not especially enthusiastic. Cricket resented having to follow any command at all, and Ellie was constantly in a distracted (squirrel!) frame of mind, and I was worried that their reactions were a harbinger of things to come.
So, I was nervous on the first day of synagogue school, when I would have to try out HTM on actual children. I modeled stand up and sit down, while saying the commands in Hebrew, and then I asked for volunteers to try the actions with me, but no one raised a hand. I took a deep breath and smiled and asked one of my teenage teacher’s aides to do the actions with me instead, so the kids could see someone else following along and not falling on her face. The kids started to follow along, anxiously. Part of the problem was the mask muffling my voice, and part was that we’re in a social hall instead of a classroom this year to allow for social distancing, which also creates an echo, but most of the issue was stage fright with their new teacher. Me.
One girl in the back of the room told me straight out that she wouldn’t be participating, and I told her that was fine, because I always accept No as an answer. I want synagogue school to be fun, but more importantly, since we don’t have tests or homework or grades, I don’t really have the leverage to convince someone to participate if they don’t want to, and I refuse to yell or shame someone into going along.
Gradually, I added the commands for walk, and stop, and the kids decided that stop meant stop exactly where you are, even if one foot is up in the air and you are about to fall over. When the giggling started I knew we were onto something. Within a few more minutes everyone was participating, including the girl in the back who definitely didn’t want to participate, and it had become a game, and fun!
When we went outside for a mask break a while later, we did another session of Hebrew through Movement, adding the commands for run and spin to our repertoire. We added balletic arms to our spins, and funny faces to our walks, and each time I said the Hebrew word for run the kids acted like they’d been shot out of a cannon.
The only downside was that, with all of the standing and sitting and walking and stopping and running and spinning, my body started to rebel and I got very close to throwing up a few times, despite filling my thermos with gingerale before I left home. When I finally left the building for the day, I felt like I’d been run over by a truck.
But still, it was so much fun!
By week three I was getting into trouble for the noise level, because the kids really like to shriek while they are running, and then they fall on the floor and giggle hysterically, but it’s such a joy to see them having fun that I’m reluctant to tell them to keep the noise down.
When I realized that my remote students were having trouble participating (even for our in-person day we still have some kids who zoom into class), I planned some doll-participation exercises, and suddenly stuffed animals were launching into the air, spinning themselves dizzy. I don’t think the kids even noticed that they were learning Hebrew, because they were so busy putting face masks on their Sloths and Teddy Bears and action figures, and racing around their bedrooms.
Eventually we’ll move on to more complex sentences, like, walk slowly to the door, or run to the window and touch your head, or point at the Rabbi, laugh, bark, and run away, but for now we’re still on simple commands.
I would love to invest in cushioned Hazmat suits, with helmets, for the in-person students, or better yet, full bubble wrap for each kid, and sound proofing for the walls so we can make as much noise as we want, but that’s a little bit beyond our budget, and some of the parents might object. Party poopers.
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?