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Lessons You Can Touch

Chaia Frishman

Ever since some long-ago math instructor put two stones together to teach addition, teachers have been using props and tools. Meet chinuch innovators whose innovative approaches make learning come alive

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

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CONTAGIOUS CONNECTION Rabbi Yitzchok Pollock of Yeshivas Chofetz Chaim Talmudical Academy in Baltimore, Maryland reflects: “When you have their attention and teach in a way that makes you, the rebbi, happy, it’s contagious, and you can connect with any student.”

E ven today, in our age of digital communication and distance learning, any parent observing a child in a toy store knows that kids learn best by tactile interaction. From a menahel in Far Rockaway who uses animal feet to teach kashrus, to a rebbi in Florida who shows his students how to separate the wheat from the chaff, meet chinuch innovators whose innovative approaches are making learning come alive.

RABBI YOSEF COHEN│ARIE CROWN HEBREW DAY SCHOOL│SKOKIE, ILLINOIS│20 YEARS IN CHINUCH

Ten years ago, when a friend at shul struggled to understand a gemara sugya on money, he jokingly asked Rabbi Yosef Cohen to come up with a system to teach the differences between a pruta and a sela. “He asked me, ‘What would be if we minted thousands of coins and everything was bought and sold this way? Instead of selling a can of Coke for a dollar, what if we sold them for prutas?’ ” “To be sure, the biggest talmidei chachamim have a hard time with these masechtas, because practically, we don’t use that monetary system,” Rabbi Cohen explains. “But I didn’t realize how a small comment would revolutionize a city’s curriculum.”

He hit the ground running, asking a wooden nickel promotional company to mint six different colored coins.

So began the Pruta System Program, originally marketed to the students as an incentive program. Rabbi Cohen, who currently teaches the eighth grade, began distributing prutas to the middle school students. “You asked a great sh’eilah on the Gemara? Here’s a pruta. Put all the seforim back in the beis medrash? Have a pruta. You were kind to a classmate? There ya go, have a pruta.”

The idea picked up speed when students realized that they could trade up their prutas to eventually buy selas. Soon enough kids could list the exchanges in their sleep: eight prutas in an issur, two issurs to a punyon, two punyon to a maw, six maw to a dinar, four dinar to a sela. And the need for coins grew.

“Kids would have cleaned the cafeteria floors after lunch in school to get a coin,” quips Rabbi Cohen. “They each wanted to acquire the next coin to eventually trade up to the coveted sela.” (You’d need 768 prutas for a sela, in case you were wondering.)

As it became clear that the program was gaining momentum, more touches of authenticity were added. “In the Gemara, it talks about an arnak, a money pouch, so we had these blue velvet sacks created and handed them out to the boys to hold their coins.” In addition, bookmarks with the exchange rates were handed out as a cheat sheet, until the boys could calculate the figures on their own.

The entire middle school division participated in the program, which ran for eight weeks and culminated in a Yom Hashuk, a marketplace replete with a “money changer,” where the boys could buy anything from seforim to tchotchkes.

“If we built our homes using measurements of amah, or kept track of our bowling scores using gematrias instead of numbers, think of how much information and basic mathematical skills the kids could learn every day,” Rabbi Cohen says.

The program was so successful that every school in Chicago — from the Modern Orthodox day school to the chassidish cheder — has adopted it. Its popularity has spread across the country as schools in New York, Baltimore, Cincinnati, South Bend, and Florida have implemented it as well. Now doesn’t the metric system seem less daunting to learn?

RABBI YESHUA WEINSTOCK│YESHIVA OHR YEHUDA│LAKEWOOD, NEW JERSEY│23 YEARS IN CHINUCH

It’s a bird, it’s a plane… no wait, it’s still a bird! Truth be told, it’s more like a mini-aviary that you encounter walking into Rabbi Yeshua Weinstock’s pre-1A classroom, where he cultivates a love of learning through nurturing the love of Hashem’s airborne creatures. Several years ago, Rabbi Weinstock, then a primary-grade rebbi, looked for ways to make the classroom exciting. Joining forces with a fourth-grade rebbi, they procured a nest of parakeets. He then bought a cockatiel, picked up a macaw that someone was giving away, and asked pet stores if they had birds they needed to vacate.

“For every bird I bought, I bought a book,” he says. “No bird was too big of a challenge.” Five years ago, Rabbi Weinstock started commuting daily from Williamsburg to New Jersey to launch the first class Pre-1A class of Yeshiva Ohr Yehuda in Lakewood. The birds, of course, came along. If you walk into Rabbi Weinstock’s class now, you’ll meet an African gray parrot, an eclectus parrot, sun connors, a quaker parrot, and parakeets, along with a nest of eggs the latter just laid. There’s also a litter of bunnies. (“The babies are adorable, but the second they get too big, we bring them upstate and give them away.”)

In Rabbi Yeshua Weinstock’s Yeshiva Ohr Yehuda classroom in Lakewood, New Jersey, kids’ curiosity is piqued because there is much to ask about their winged friends

Each September, the new class is divided into those who want to jump right in and get to know the birds, those who watch from the sidelines, and those who are petrified (thankfully, they’re in the minority). While class is in session, the birds roam freely, often landing on the students’ shoulders or their heads. Far from a distraction, the birds are like members of the class — and they actually add a calming effect. In fact, the free-roaming birds encourage the children to learn. The kids’ curiosity is constantly piqued because there is much to ask about their winged friends. “Kids react based on how they see the adults react,” Rabbi Weinstock says. “I teach the boys about tzaar baalei chaim. I tell them it’s normal to be scared, but to screech and carry on will be detrimental to the bird — the parrots have feelings, too. They’re cooped up in a cage, nebach, and we have to feel for them.”

The kids also see how the rebbi models responsibility when he spends his precious early morning hours before school cleaning the room, and caring for the birds, cages and all. The kids do get attached to the birds, and that’s a useful life lesson, too. Once a male eclectus flew off out an open window, and the students were very upset. That’s when Rabbi Weinstock taught them how to cope with a loss.

Having these birds in the class makes happy children, and a happy mind is an open mind — truly a rebbi and students’ parrot-dise!

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