Talmud Torah Educational Update: Achieving goals and moving forward

Edmonton Talmud Torah students commemorated Remebrance Day this year with several activities. The No Stone Left Alone ceremony at the Edmonton Jewish Cemetery, with grades 5/6 students, was particularly meaningful.

By Natalie Soroka

(Edmonton) – We are now beginning the third of our five-year year strategic plan, and we are excited to share the progress that has been made by Talmud Torah Society’s (the Society) Education Committee in meeting two of our areas of focus: 1) ensuring and promoting high pedagogical and academic standards in Judaic and Hebrew Studies, and 2) meeting the needs of individual students.

In year one (2021-22), the Education Committee began the process of reviewing the current Hebrew Language Arts (HLA) and Judaic Studies (JS) program, by surveying other Hebrew day schools in Canada to determine what they were doing in this area. Information was gathered and it quickly became apparent that we needed some expertise in curriculum development to assist us with our review and revision process. We hired Judaic consultant Nurit Reshef, a former teacher and consultant with Edmonton Public Schools.  Nurit was instrumental in writing the original HLA and JS curriculum.

During our program review it was determined that in order to provide consistency and continuity from one grade to the next, a common resource to teach Hebrew throughout the school was needed. In consultation with teachers, the Society purchased new HLA material for the 2022-2023 school year to be used school wide, and chose the iTaLAM program as its core resource. iTaLAM is a digital blended Hebrew language and Jewish heritage curriculum that is used in many day schools across the country.

In order to meet the needs of a broad spectrum of learners, the Society also provided critical funds for English literacy intervention and recruited volunteers to help students in grades 1 and 3 English Language Arts (ELA). This allowed one teacher to work with small groups of students to target their individual learning needs. The literacy intervention teacher was also able to work with students who benefited from extra academic challenges.  The positive feedback we received from this program was overwhelming!

Progress continued into year two (2022-2023) with on average twice monthly meetings with teachers to discuss relevant topics and to collaborate as a team. A substitute teacher was hired (and paid for by the Society) to have one-on-one meetings with individual Hebrew teachers, which allowed the Education committee to gather information on what was being taught in each class.

Nurit worked on aligning the iTaLAM resources with the EPSB HLA Curriculum to add, details, topics covered and a scope and sequence document based on the iTaLAM program. Scope and Sequence documents are a summary of what is taught, and include outcomes, objectives, and concepts that are being addressed, along with the order in which these will be taught. What has resulted from this work is a draft HLA Implementation Guide for K-2.  Teachers in these early grades now have a manual available to help them determine specific content to teach, along with illustrative examples, suggestions and resources

Recognizing the success that the school had with the English intervention program the previous year, the Society continued to support this program while also providing critical funds for the school’s Hebrew support program. Hebrew support started with a push-in model of instruction in the classroom, where two teachers were present in the class at the same time working with small groups of students. This was especially useful as the teachers had varying degrees of experience with the iTaLAM program, and this scenario allowed them to learn from each other. Over the course of the year, the support provided in each classroom varied and in some instances a pullout program was better suited due to the needs of the students.

To further supplement the Hebrew Program, Hebrew speaking volunteers were recruited to provide Hebrew enrichment activities to native Hebrew speakers, while other volunteers helped in Division 1 ELA. In March 2023, the Society provided funds for an additional teacher for English literacy in grades K-3. It was determined by the principal that the most effective use of these funds was to split the large grade 1 class for designated subjects.

The need for a more robust Kindergarten Hebrew program was also a committee priority, and the Education committee recommended that a Hebrew specialist be assigned to the KG program. As a result, Bianna Kuskin, who has an early childhood education degree and a great deal of experience with this age group was asked to teach the Hebrew portion of the program. Throughout the year, Bianna developed a program that introduced the Alef Bet to students using various learning activities, she used best early literacy practices to teach the students aspects about Hebrew phonological and phonemic awareness. Bianna created emergent booklets for the children to read and practice vocabulary words, as well as focusing on various concepts of print. All this information was compiled into a Kindergarten Implementation Guide, and is ready to be used in subsequent years. This program will give our students a great early foundation in Hebrew.

The Education Committee began the prayer review process by collecting resources on this topic. Important questions were discussed, such as What are our goals and expected Learning Outcomes? (i.e., Do we see prayer as an educational tool for connecting students with the Jewish people and tradition, or do we focus on prayer as a vehicle for forging a personal connection with God?).

One of the main goals of looking at the topic of prayer was to address the issue of spirituality and making prayer meaningful for all levels of observances. In constructing our draft Prayer Implementation Guide we adopted 3 approaches to Tefillah — as character education; as a way to strengthen one’s relationship with God; and as a way to connect to community and the Jewish People. This document reflects outcomes from the EPSB Judaic Studies Curriculum, along with a number of guiding questions. We included lists of the prayers in Hebrew for each grade and suggested resources and lesson plans for teaching each of the prayers. The teachers were eager to participate in this process, as it provided them with specific directions while also allowing them latitude in how the material could be presented. The Society also replaced the aging Siddur Meforash siddurim with new class sets of Koren Youth siddurim for grades 1-6.  At the end of Grade 1, students receive this same siddur as a gift to take home.

Throughout the year, we met with Early Learning Centre administrative staff to discuss ways to create a foundational and robust Hebrew program in early childhood programs, as well as coordinate activities in order to maximize learning between the Kinderarts and Kindergarten programs.

To round off the year, grant money was secured in the amount of $5,000, generously donated by the Edmonton Jewish Community Charitable Foundation, for Hebrew classroom readers. It is our hope that these additional books will provide extra practice for the students, both in the classroom and at home, in order for them to improve their decoding, comprehension and fluency skills when reading Hebrew.

The 2023-24 school year is now underway and the Education Committee is once again working towards achieving several goals. The Society was fortunate to secure a very generous donor that provided funds for customized school kippot. As Talmud Torah is an inclusive community school where students are welcomed from all Jewish backgrounds, kippot were given to all students. Talmud Torah has a long-standing tradition of wearing a kippah during the day, particularly during the Judaic studies program. There are many reasons for wearing a kippah, and we believe that this custom creates a special atmosphere, and that wearing a kippah proudly unites us with Jews around the world.

This year, we will be building upon our work and piloting both the K-6 draft Prayer and the K-2 HLA implementation guides. The committee also expects to begin developing the Scope and Sequence document for grades 3 and 4 HLA, as well as begin a review of the K-6 Bible program. Finally, the committee anticipates being involved in EPSB’s Judaic and Hebrew curriculum review. This is a process that EPSB undertakes every few years with all their locally developed courses.

It’s a busy year ahead!

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