October 21, 2022 | 26th of Tishrei, Parashat Bereshit 5783 / פָּרָשַׁת בְּרֵאשִׁית
Dear Beit Rabban Community,
After God created human beings, with our ability to speak, write and think, God said "And God saw all that God had made, and found it very good." (Gen.1:31)
In my years of teaching, one thing that I frequently observed is that many students dread the writing process. This is unsurprising when we consider that learning to write is an incredibly complex process. In order to write, you have to first possess language skills, understand that words are made up of sounds (phonemic awareness), know the letters and how to form them (letter naming and letter formation), and know which letters and letter combinations make which sounds. Once you have all that, you also need to know how to form a sentence and how to use punctuation. In order to clearly communicate an idea, you have to know something about grammar, syntax, and word choice. Plus, you have to be able to organize your thinking and put your ideas into words. This process was exhausting for many of my students and was at times daunting for me as a teacher.
In reflecting upon Parashat Bereshit, I am reminded of an idea about how the days of creation are in relationship with each other, where day one corresponds to day four, day two corresponds to day five, and day three corresponds to day six. The first three days form the backdrop and the second three are the details. When I learned this idea of the paired relationship between the days of creation, I immediately thought, “God is the originator of the writing process!” God demonstrated the drafting and revising process in Parashat Bereshit and helped us to see that when we write, we don’t get it all down with beautiful perfection in one try. It takes time to go through a process in order to get to a “final draft” despite many students’ desires to just write it once and be done.
Let’s look closely at this paired relationship between the first draft and the addition of details. On the first day, God creates light (as separate from darkness). On the fourth day, God goes back to the first draft to add more details with the creation of the sun, the moon, and stars. On day two, God creates the sky (as distinct from the earth), and goes back on day five and adds the creatures that fly (in the sky) and the creatures that inhabit the sea. On the third day, God creates dry land, the seas, and plants and trees, and goes back on the sixth day and adds the details of the animals that inhabit the earth, including the first humans. The process of God’s creation is a model for creating a first draft, going back and adding more details, and bringing the proverbial text to life. God also teaches us with Shabbat, that there is a moment when the creator takes a step back (and perhaps this is the hardest step) and says, ‘My task is complete and my work is done.’
Five years ago, the staff at Beit Rabban began exploring what was still an emergent controversy about the teaching of reading and writing and began the hard work of engaging in high-level professional development through a two-year course on the Science of Reading, called LETRS. Teachers then began the brave work of giving up some of our old practices to take on new ways of teaching. The teaching of reading and writing has become a national conversation, picked up in mainstream media (check out this article from the New York Times a few weeks ago) as our nation is going through a reckoning, with dramatic numbers of students not achieving benchmarks in reading and writing across the country. Schools across the country are slowly starting to wake up to the realization that we must use the data, the research that has actually been there for many years, that tells us how people learn to read and write, and what we need to do to make sure that our children get the education that they are entitled to.
There are so many things that a student has to know and recall in order to write even a simple passage. They have to be able to organize their thinking and clarify what they want to say. This takes a tremendous amount of effort and skill. Once a student is able to write, we then ask them to reread their writing and engage in the revising and editing process, which requires attention to detail, comprehension skills, reflection, and the ability to recall the “rules of language.” This entire process assumes that the student has reading skills, which are inherently tied to the writing process. It is a taxing cognitive process and each step of the process must be systematically and explicitly taught which is why at Beit Rabban, after first focusing on how we teach reading, last year we introduced a new approach to teaching writing, called Think SRSD which is an explicit and systematic approach that gives students strategies and tools to help them navigate the writing process.
This work we are doing at Beit Rabban to elevate our reading and writing instruction is inspired and informed by our deep commitment as Jewish educators to give our students the gift of access to all future learning through high-level competencies in all aspects of literacy. With Parashat Bereshit showing us that God is the original architect, designer, creator, and writer, we can draw inspiration from this as we teach our children to become creators, designers, thinkers, and learners. Our tradition of reading the Torah annually teaches that rereading is how we become critical, analytical thinkers, able to find new meaning in a familiar text. The creation story in Bereshit can inspire us to go back to our work and add more details, to be specific and intentional about our choices, and to know when to say, I have worked hard, and now it is good enough, and step back.
PS - In case you would like to hear more about the national literacy debate, and what has motivated our work at Beit Rabban, check out Emily Hanford’s new podcast, "Sold a Story"