This week, I visited Mr. Steinfeld’s Grade 10 New Stream Tanach class at TCK. The course is on the Book of Samuel and specifically the themes of love, loyalty, and leadership. The day of my visit, the students were asked to characterize different relationships in the book, e.g., Saul and David, David and Jonathan, Michal and David.

Three years ago, we implemented a new way of teaching and thinking about Tanach called Standards and Benchmarks where our Tanach curriculum was re-shaped.  It was a project spearheaded by Rabbi Michael Rootman, the head of the department at TCK, and Judith Shapero, TCK’s Vice Principal.  The teachers in the Tanach department have been revising the curriculum and organizing it around what’s called in the field of education, Big Ideas and Essential Questions.

Big Ideas refer to core concepts, principles, and theories in a field of study.  Essential Questions are questions that are open-ended, don’t have a single correct answer; they’re thought-provoking and demand higher order thinking. These Essential Questions point to the hard-won big ideas that we want students to understand.  They spark the curiosity of the students to explore the Big Ideas, the key issues and problems that are discussed in the subject.  The idea is to focus not on minutia but on large organizing principles and universal themes that then help the student gain insight into their own experiences.

In Mr. Steinfeld’s Tanach class some of the Essential Questions include:

  • When should we relinquish our personal perspective and desire for the sake of our purpose or role?
  • When should we listen to others and when should we just do what’s right?
  • How can we make sure that leaders do what’s right and not just what’s popular?
  • How do we deal with biblical texts that have a troubling message?

Some of the Big Ideas include:

  • All people, even prophets, have their personal bias and perspective.
  • Relationships with others (with God, community, other people) require that we look beyond our own personal needs and perspective.
  • The Divine perspective is not always the same as the human perspective.

The Standards and Benchmarks process has been transformative. The Tanach faculty at TCK is invested in ongoing learning and improvement, and our students are gaining a deep understanding of the important themes and questions raised in our Tanach.   The training for Standards and Benchmarks is currently underway in the Rabbinics department at both campuses as well.  We thank the faculty who have dedicated their passion, expertise and time, and we thank the generous donors for their support of these enhancements of faculty and student learning at TanenbaumCHAT.

The next time you ask a student “What’s the Big Idea?,” don’t be surprised if he or she gives you a serious answer.

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