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By Amanda Pogany

This year a group of our veteran alumni embarked on an exciting project on how to use Havruta more effectively in our classrooms, led by Dr. Orit Kent from the Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education at Brandeis University.  We gathered at Brandeis for a two day workshop in which we were introduced to research based frameworks for havruta learning, including six core practices of havruta.  Since then, we have been translating these ideas into our classrooms.  We have been working on developing havruta lessons and study guides for our students that will help them deepen their havruta work and we've met monthly to share and reflect on our work and videos from our classrooms.  In the upcoming year, we look forward to sharing many of our ‘take-aways’ with you.  Below are some reflections by the participants.  We hope that our reflections will inspire your thinking on this important topic.

Participants in the first phase of the project were: Evan Wolkenstein (1), Haley Delugach (5) and Tamar Rabinowitz (1), Jewish Community High School of the Bay; Jessica Lissy Trey (3) Hannah Senesh; Keren Romm (5) CHAT; Michal Cahlon (5) Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy; Seth Goldsweig (2) and Hana Macmull, Robbins Hebrew Academy; Elisha Stein (4) Barrack Hebrew Academy.

Reflections on Havruta:

We began the year by observing our students working in havruta. What follows are some of our insights.

  • I am more aware of the ebb and flow within each havruta group, taking more time to focus on individual havrutot.  Previously I found myself 'bouncing around' from group to group, but the process of filming one havruta has opened my eyes to trends and an intellectual-emotional momentum that builds over the course of the text study.
  • I noticed that my students have different learning styles. One student may like to see the whole before going into the parts, while another student may need to understand the parts before seeing the whole. Do we try and put kids together with the same learning styles? (as opposed to cognitive abilities and other variables?)
  • I can identify the dominant partner in the havruta. How can I have kids assess their power in the havruta? Should I identify those students who “speaks the most” and for the next session, their job is to just listen?
  • Havruta learning is like a rabbit hole; the further down I peer, the further down it goes. I find myself asking questions about ‘how and why’ which I had always taken for granted because, as a Pardes student, havruta was ‘muvan ma'alav.’
  • I am thinking a lot about how dependent I am on worksheets for structuring and running my class. I see how the worksheets in some way truncate conversation. The students share one thought about each question and then move on to the next. How can I get them to engage in a deeper more authentic way with a text?”
Reflections On Listening and Articulating

The first set of havruta practices and skills that we explored was Listening and Articulating.  First, we introduced the practices in our classrooms by asking students to reflect on what each role looks like.  Then we worked on integrating the practices into the students’ havruta learning experiences.
  • I was impressed by how students struggled to learn/focus on the substantive material while simultaneously being conscious of their roles as active listener/articulator.  I feel that it will take a good amount of time for these techniques to become so ingrained in their דרך חברותא that they cease to be an obstacle.
  • It was fascinating to hear the majority of my sixth graders state categorically that if their partner is fidgeting or doodling, the partner is not really being a Listener. It was equally fascinating to hear them negotiate what constitutes acceptable doodling and fidgeting and what does not.
  • It was surprising for me to see how many of my students can 'talk the talk', but have no idea how to 'walk the walk'.  They know the things they think they 'should' say about what havruta is- partner work, deepening their individual understanding of the text, etc.- but when it came to actually listening to one another and working to help their havruta articulate their thoughts, many partnerships deferred to the 'stronger' student taking the lead (therefore, the 'smarter' student gave 'the' answers and the 'weaker' or 'less popular' student became a yes-man).
  • I've usually had conversations with students about listening and responding, but I used to do them BEFORE they began working with their hevrutot. This time, I reinforced it to individual students during their havrutot and then we DEBRIEFED together, and the students had a lot to say about 'what made them feel seen, heard, and felt’.”

Reflections on Supporting and Challenging

For the second set of practices, we took the same approach; first introducing and unpacking the practices and then integrating them into the learning.  Supporting and Challenging were more complex for the students especially when they had to take on the role of being the supporting partner or the challenging partner
  • I am struck by how some of my students can intellectually talk about what ‘supporting’ and ‘challenging’ means, but when putting it into practice, they revert to ‘I like what you said’  and seem to take on the role of ‘supporting’ as being a cheerleader.
  • I also noticed how some of my ninth grade class think they have been supporting and challenging the whole time, and I wonder how I can get them to really be conscious of what they are doing well and what they are not doing well. While I am aware that this level of unconsciousness may be appropriate for the developmental stage that they are at, I do wonder how we can raise their consciousness in a way that is helpful and promotes learning.
  • How do you help students support each other, if they themselves are struggling with what the text is saying?
  • Some of the students seemed to thrive on the structure I put in place to practice supporting and challenging.  I think they may have used it as an opportunity to show kavod to their havruta's ideas where it might otherwise have seemed 'uncool' to do so.  For other students I sensed that the structure focused them in a way that free-form havruta would not.”