Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Confessions of a Third Grade Tefilla Teacher

The following post was submitted anonymously. Care to share, agree or disagree?

The way I see it, there are two sides to our dilemma on Tfillah. Them and me.

THEM: Do children in third grade know what they are saying when they daven? Should they know the meaning of what they are saying? When kids (or anyone) read words that are unfamiliar and hard to understand, it can help turn something potentially meaningful into something meaningless.

Secondly, I think the fact that the children say the tfillah with the same brachas and the same songs each day can get very old and boring for them. On Rosh Chodesh actually, I always find that there is some excitement and more participation, as we say Hallel- a tfillah which is not recited every day.

Finally, let’s consider the developmental aspect of it all. How much can an 8/9 year old truly grasp when it comes to the whole concept of tfillah?

ME: In my years teaching and parenting, there is one thing that has become very clear. You’re excited, they’re excited. You’re bored or uninterested? They sense it in an instant, and they turn bored and uninterested as well. I have to be honest; I always found it very hard to connect with the tfillah. My personal feelings towards tfillah undoubtedly spill over into the class. And my brilliant students sense it, that I’m sure.

I always dread the parts of the day where I have to ask the children to do an activity or go to a specialty I am sure they do not enjoy and are not interested in. I always find that the disciplinarian in me becomes stronger as I almost force certain children to a dreaded music class or Hebrew grammar group. This is the way I feel sometimes about tfillah. At 8:30 every morning we must daven. We have no choice. Making the children do something they do not want to do is never fun.

Lastly, (it is confession time) The first half hour of the day I want to be preparing for class. My mind is very often on our lessons for that day. I would love the extra prep time like the English teachers have. While I know that tfillah is part of my job and essentially part of what I ‘teach,’ I am still struggling with making it feel as part of my curriculum as opposed to a separate entity.

WHAT I’VE TRIED: My most successful ‘trick’ in getting the children more “into” tfillah is what I like to call the “color war captain” method. When I stand on my chair and punch my fist, when I cheer them on and tell them that their tfillot sound beautiful, it can create this energy in the room that is infectious. My class has been known to do the “bang-bang-clap” to aleynu. I’m into it, they’re into it… The problem with this is that it is extremely draining for me. And by the time 9:00 rolls around I’m exhausted.

In third grade one can always fall back on bribery. Charts, stickers, checks, homework passes etc. I have always had mixed feelings about bribing children to daven. Maybe at such a young age where the concept of tfillah is a hard one to grasp it’s ok?

Finally, we began a program called “tfillah-minute” in school a couple of years ago. After davening each day the children sat down, and for one minute, we spoke about a certain aspect of tfillah: the meaning of a bracha, the reason for saying a bracha etc. It was an organized and systematic program where we focused on one part of tfillah at a time. I had success with this in my class for one year. The next year was not as successful because of the nature of the group.

While I think I understand the issues, and have come up with a few solutions, I have not been able to nip this in the bud completely. How do I become more into it? How do I get my students to become more into tfillah?


  1. As a teacher in a Hebrew School, I feel that tefilla is sometimes like a pep rally. This frustrates me as I feel I am modeling how to pray that is totally dependent on an adult their to lead and excite. This isn't really teaching! What can I do!

  2. I teach in a one-day-per week religious school in a liberal synagogue where many of the children come from intermarriages, etc. It is my job to make tefilla "come alive." In addition to connecting the tefilla to the children through meaning - (ex. With the amidah, teaching "avot" - asking the children "how many of you have asked for something because an older brother or sister got it?" We ask for merit b/c of what our ancestors did. It might be a bit of a stretch, but they "get it"
    Another way is through melody. Many of the Shabbat melodies sound like a funeral dirge. Shalom Aleichem, Mi Chamocha being prime examples. Try some "alternative" and more cheerful melodies with these.