Tags: teaching


musings upon the dog's graduation from puppy school

We graduated dog school today, my puppy and me. We attended four out of five sessions, did our homework most weeks, and got pretty good at "Sit!" and sometimes even "Lie down!". Today was the last session, so certificates and gifts were handed out. The squeaky tennis ball we brought home; the pretty certificate, with Waan's name written under the word "Diploma," is in a trashcan two blocks from the dog school.

Why give graduation certificates, I mused on the way home. For five weeks we had the right to come to class where, if we paid attention and practiced on our own time, we would learn tools for making obedient dogs. There were no tests, no required displays of competence, no hoops to jump through (figuratively or literally) - so why make a fuss? Beyond the obvious, that is. Dogs do not need graduation certificates. But apparently the teacher is responding to some cultural current that says, if you paid the fee and turned up a few times, you do this thing called Graduation, and you get a certificate.

Is this a cultural current I should be responding to for my own students, then? In my mind, graduation is something you do after years of mind-bendingly hard work in an academic context, and it signifies that you have earned a certain standing in the hallowed halls of academic achievement. It never crossed my mind that "graduating" might be something you do for anyone who paid the fee and showed up. But perhaps I should be doing that? Perhaps that is why I have fewer students this semester than last?

I would like to be able to test my students, yes. If it were not so time-consuming to do well, I would have already written a comprehensive test paper that my students could use to gauge the extent of their knowledge. But I haven't, since I can get a sense of how well they know the material by working with them and that works for me. Perhaps they don't have that sense, some of them; to that end, having them sit tests would serve them well. Graduation would then signify that they'd achieved a certain level of competence.

My students have the right to come to scribe school where, if they pay attention and practice on their own time, they learn tools for making competent scribes. An end-of-semester summary check-in is probably a good idea: "you have these tools in your toolset now, these are your strong points, these are the things to practice if you want to make progress." But graduation certificates for simply paying the fee and showing up? About as meaningful as the dog's certificate is to her, I rather think.

Okay, so from the dog's graduation certificate I have learned that my students would probably benefit from testing as a way to measure their own competence, even if I myself don't really need to administer tests to do that. Further, that progress check-ins and summaries are probably a good idea, as are plans for further study with their particular goals in mind.

But no toy diplomas. Or squeaky tennis balls.
shiny jen

making toy tefillin

I did a quick photo-series explaining how to make toy tefillin.

Toy tefillin

Originally I made them because Chum said that his Kid got fascinated by his tefillin when he was davening in the mornings, and he thought that Kid would be well-served by having some kiddy tefillin, so as to be able to join in.

So I made him some. Kid loves them, I hear, and Chum can daven in peace.

Apparently the grandson of the Alter Rebbe used to make toy tefillin out of potatoes (scroll to section 26), so for those who say toy tefillin teaches sacrilege, go take it up with the Alter Rebbe, and also with the fluffy sifrei Torah people.

I'm posting instructions because ChumsKid isn't the only one out there, they're awfully easy to do, and we're all about resources here. If they're so rough-and-ready as to be incomprehensible, I can make more detailed instructions, but I should think they're okay for most.

That said, for those who aren't artistically inclined, I can probably knock up a few pairs in time for Hanukah, if anyone's interested, profits split between Yeshivat Hadar and Project Renewal. Comment below or email if interested.

Originally posted at Dreamwidth. Re-enabling comments over here because dreamwidth fail at LJ integration. Pity, because they have principles.
shiny jen

small fixes, big solutions


We discovered an error in [our] Sefer Torah this Shabbat. The error...involves a Tav that should be a Hay.

There are two aspects to dealing with this; the theoretical and the practical.

The theoretical side represents hours and hours of study. Before you go anywhere near fixing a Torah, you've got to know why this is a total disaster, for instance:

and you have to learn the several thousand other potential disasters that a sofer has to know how to avoid.

However, the practical side of a fix like this is actually very easy. It's a tiny bit of knife work and a tiny bit of ink work.

I've put in the hours and hours of study, and we live in a digital world. Suppose Esther lives hundreds of miles away from any sofer, and her Torah has this problem. She takes a picture of the problem in the Torah and emails it to me. I can look at it, and chances are I'll know how to fix it. If she knows how to use a knife and ink, I can send her something like this:*

and she can fix the problem. She can be my hands over hundreds of miles. If necessary, we could use a webcam, so that I can see exactly what she's doing.

Of course ideally Esther's community would have a fully-trained sofer. But in the real world, I think this could be the next best thing. It's better than reading from a non-kosher Torah, and it's better than having the Torah languish unused until a sofer happens to come to town.

I think this could happen. I could take a day and teach people how to use these:

and how NOT to use them (can you identify the things there that you must NEVER NEVER use on a Torah?).

In a day, someone is not going to learn all the rules about how to fix letters (what do you do with something like that thing to the right? do you need to do anything?), but I believe they can learn enough that they can make basic repairs under remote supervision.

One might say that letting half-trained people loose on Torahs is a dreadful idea, with unlimited potential for havoc to be unleashed. However, of course one would teach boundaries. Fences around tricky areas. When not to attempt something. The importance of not overestimating one's ability. And it might very well be better than the present state of affairs, where entirely untrained people attempt repairs that are quite horrifying.

* NOTE: Don't try this at home. This is not Torah writing. This is Times New Roman. It would not look quite like this on a Torah.


That's my vision. I reckon I can teach someone to do this in a day, if they've got some arts-and-crafts background. Anyone want to have a bit of a Manhattan guinea-pig day?
shiny jen

scribe school

Picture a room with a couple of soferim in it, writing Torah. A proto-sofer is practising letter samekh. The sound of a lecture on the weekly Torah portion floats in from down the hallway. Another proto-sofer takes a deep breath; she's about to start writing her first mezuzah. Her teacher is there, keeping an eye on her as she turns months of hard study into a real scroll.

A rabbinical student drops in with a megillah; he can't quite work out what he's doing wrong, but someone with more experience can get him back on track. Bolstered with good advice, he goes on his way, passing on his way out another proto-soferet who is coming from her Talmud class. Letter samekh is set aside and the two pull out books and tackle halakha. Mezuzah girl, taking a lunch break, helps them out when they get stuck.

They leave - they have Bible class now - and another student arrives. She's an expert on the Ancient Near East, a university professor and rabbi. She lives in the next state and studies on her own, and comes in every few weeks for an hour's lesson, after which someone is bound to get her into a discussion about texts from antiquity, and everyone will get very excited. After she's gone, work resumes, perhaps punctuated by occasional exchanges of advice or the sharing of a thought on the text. Someone will fetch some tea, someone will take a minute to look up a halakhic ruling. Letter by letter, their scrolls grow.

In the late afternoon, a round-eyed eleven-year-old comes in with her bat mitzvah teacher. They're taking a break from a Torah reading lesson, and coming to see the Torah being written. A Torah scholar spends an hour working on her own calligraphy; she doesn't want to be a sofer, but she likes practising here with the scribes. Her Seeing Eye dog sleeps under the table; she's practically blind, but she finds calligraphy inspiring. Everyone else finds her inspiring.

Around suppertime, a sofer and a proto-sofer arrive from their day jobs. Over supper, they catch up, talk shop a bit, and then set to reviewing some of the basics. They'll almost certainly end up chasing a tangent through the rabbinic literature. Someone will bring an academic perspective, someone will share a midrash; they may finish the evening discussing practical concerns, or philosophy, or awed speechless by some particularly astounding idea.

Sounds nice, doesn't it? And the great thing is, it's not just a pretty dream. It happened last week, and the week before, and the week before, and God willing it will happen next week and the week after and the week after. Baby scribes and proto-scribes and getting-better scribes, people sharing what they know and what they've learned, writing and studying and listening together, and all the while the Torah grows and grows. It's very beautiful.

(I can be emailed for more info.)
shiny jen

(no subject)

I visited a Hebrew school today, to talk to the children about how a Torah scroll is made. We unrolled a Torah and looked at it carefully, I passed out materials so they could have something to touch, and we talked about what, and about why.

Children in Hebrew schools often have excellent questions about the Torah. Sometimes they make me think pretty hard. Often the answers are on several levels,* and I have to think fast and decide which level of answer is most appropriate for the age group, the level of Jewish literacy, and the denominational setting. I don't know how formative an experience it is to meet the Torah scribe, but there's always the chance something I say is going to colour some kid's religious experience, so I'd better get the right colour. It means working with Hebrew schools is always different, always a challenge, and always interesting.

This group had some unusually intense thinkers. In addition to some particularly sharp Torah questions, I was particularly charmed by one child who nobbled me afterwards while I was packing up my bag of toys. I'd mentioned (tangentially) how kosher slaughter is effected with a very sharp knife, and this kid wanted to know why sharp was important, and what would happen if you used a blunt one. So we talked about helping in the kitchen, and how it's easier to use a sharp knife on a tomato than e.g. a plastic knife, and went from there to how the same would apply for a goat, and what effect that might be supposed to have on the goat's experience of it. Kids don't usually stay focused enough to ask me stuff afterwards, and particularly not about things like that. That was a nice experience.

* Anything starting with "why," for starters.
shiny jen

(no subject)

I'm so evil sometimes.

Student S has been learning with me since the beginning of the year. We spend three and a half hours together on Wednesdays, practical and theory, and she works in her free time as well so she's making awesome progress.

And looking at her latest work this Wednesday, I reckon she's about ready to start a proper mezuzah. I know this will come as something of a surprise to her, because she tends to underestimate herself, so I just drop it in, ever so casually, over her shoulder while she's working - Okay, this is looking really nice now...I'd say you could start that mezuzah whenever you feel like it - knowing perfectly well that she's going to be entirely gobsmacked (Huh? Me? Mezuzah? Yikes!), and anticipating amusement.

Which was rather evil, imo. But it was funny.
shiny jen

(no subject)

The book "21 Truths About Heaven" doesn't have any customer reviews on Amazon. I find this simultaneously amusing and reassuring.

Scribes' class last night (the unoffical hardcore class for serious fledgling scribes). We're doing the laws of hak tokhot at the moment, the concept that you can't turn something into a valid letter by scraping at it. It's pure formalism, in a way - it doesn't look any different, whether you make it by scraping or inking; you can't tell the difference - but it's also a sort of homiletical point: you can't form Torah from destructive acts. The letters have to be made with additive processes, not subtractive processes. The creation has to go in one direction, adding to the body of the letter, not taking away from an existing body. Me, I like the formalism better, I'm very much one for abstract concepts, but it's nice that there are both aspects.

Relatedly, Calligraphy for Fun (i.e. official Wednesday night class at Drisha) is looking at erasing God's Names. That too is a formalism, in a way: you mayn't destroy certain combinations of letters which represent God. Formally, the problem is basically with letters which were written to indicate God. Printing, for instance, isn't necessarily a problem here, because the letters weren't written with specific, verbalised intent and hence don't technically have the status of a Name Which May Not Be Destroyed. But it's not just the formalism. The formalism is an articulation of a broader value, namely how do we want to treat these things? A printed Bible doesn't, perhaps, technically have the status of a Torah vis-a-vis disposal, but disposal makes a statement about the item, which is what's really being addressed. If we toss printed Bibles into the trash along with newspapers, that's basically saying a Bible is just like a newspaper. Saying that printed matter also requires respectful disposal is formalising the idea that Bibles ought to be treated differently from newspapers.

What I like about this is how there's the kernel of formalism, the ruling that one may not destroy the items in a small category. Then there's the broader application of the formalism, the idea that all sacred texts should be disposed of respectfully. Then there's the unarticulated underlying values expressed through the formalism - that disposal affects status and that one ought to treat certain types of content in a different way. And this reflects an even more fundamental human tendency to sanctify things.

I want to say it's a bit like matrices, although I'd have a lot of trouble expressing just exactly why. They feel the same. Lots of layers which do different things depending what the other layers are doing.
shiny jen

(no subject)

My Drisha calligraphy class features both calligraphy and learning classical sources relevant to calligraphy. This week we started looking at sources dealing with erasing God's Name and why you shouldn't. Here's the sourcesheet, for those of you who couldn't make it but are interested anyway. PDF, Hebrew and English. I'm planning to post the calligraphy worksheets once I get round to scanning them.

Fun teaching, incidentally. I adore, absolutely adore, when someone suddenly gets something and a sheet of scratchy scribblings turns into lines and lines of lovely flowing curves. I love being able to make that happen for people. I hope everyone comes back next week.
shiny jen

(no subject)

I'm teaching a Hebrew calligraphy course at Drisha (in midtown Manhattan) this semester, on Wednesday evenings.

Each class will be in two parts - a bit of text, and a good deal of practical.

Texts: some of the basic texts about women being (or not being, rather) Torah scribes, some of the rules for scribes, and some of the fun pieces of Talmud dealing with writing.

Practical: I teach practical very one-on-one. Thus, people can use the course to achieve different things. One person may want to acquire a full set of variable calligraphy skills. Someone else may want to learn enough technique to do a wedding invitation but not a great deal beyond that. Someone else may want to learn how to use quills. The only thing I will not be teaching is the sofer's craft; that I teach privately (on Tuesday evenings).

You don't have to be female or Orthodox to participate (both popular Drisha misconceptions), and they have tuition discounts for those who need them. Register here.
shiny jen

(no subject)

Calligraphy: two years ago I limited my Limmud class to twelve because I wanted to be sure of being able to work with everyone, and I had to turn away several people. This year I didn't limit the numbers, because I'm a better teacher now and figured I could give more than twelve people a good experience. I wasn't expecting thirty people, though. I had to start turning people away when I ran out of pens.