The following is a post published last summer on the Lookstein
website. I reviewed
Saul Wachs' approach in January but I think Golombek does a phenomenal job of drawing out his key ideas. This essay is targeted for elementary school teachers and expresses a sincere desire to hedge off a potential davening crisis or drought for older students. If there is scholarly or otherwise eloquent article that explains best practices for engaging high school students and tefilla
, please share. Golombeks and Wachs' approach might help our tefilla
situation in a few years, but I fear that the "autopilot tefilla"
continues to quietly spoil the davening atmosphere.
Engaging Souls: Bringing Elementary Tefillah to Life by Eric
Ask a teacher to teach the same short story to children every day for eight or
more years, and they will likely look at you like you are crazy! Yet, in a
sense, that is the challenge of teaching tefillah. We have the same
tefillot, more or less, that we use with our children day after day for their
entire school career. Unless there is a conscious effort to create a rich
tefillah experience, group prayer is at risk of becoming a mindless task, with
children (and adults!) on autopilot.
In truth, “autopilot tefillah” can appear good in elementary services because
of the natural love of young children to sing. Tefillah expert, Saul
Wachs, calls this “the Trap” of elementary tefillah (Wachs, 2009). This is
because autopilot elementary tefillah leaves nothing in place when children get
older and singing does not have any appeal. It is critical that elementary
children form a relationship to tefillah so that by the time they get to middle
school, they understand it and value it.
In my opinion, a successful elementary tefillah program
depends on how well it addresses the three questions of the davener:
How do I pray?
What do the words mean?
What do the words mean to me?
The first question we address when we teach children to pronounce the words of
the tefillah properly, to utilize nusach appropriately, and to be knowledgeable
of the choreography of the service (eg. when to stand). The other two
questions are often neglected in the elementary tefillah service. When we
address the second question, we are teaching children to identify key lines and
important vocabulary in the tefillot. We are also teaching them to
identify the big idea of each prayer.
The third question is even more
complex because it asks us to foster a relationship with the tefillah. We
need to have children create personal meaning of the various prayers that they
read. The arts are a key avenue for developing this relationship because
personal meaning emerges from personal engagement with a text. The arts
invite that engagement. Through soul stirring music, through story
telling, through movement and through the visual arts, doors into the prayers
are opened and children are invited in.
Let us examine these four doors in depth. In the following sections I will
share successes I have had using the arts in teaching tefillah to elementary
students at Associated Hebrew Schools in Toronto.
Mix up the music: Elementary children love to sing, so it is a mistake not
to make the most out of this avenue into the elementary child’s
spirit. Take a look at the tunes being used for tefillah—are they the same
as last year’s and the year before that? A great way to breathe new life
into any elementary tefillah service is to change up the tunes. Search
through YouTube, talk to the musical leaders from synagogue and camp, and talk
with children. Do not be afraid to adopt an inspiring tune to new
words. But, choose tunes that your kids will like as well as
you. Look for jazzy beats and music that speaks to kids. If you can
bring musical accompaniment to tefillah, it will add an incredible dimension.
One cautionary note: more is not
necessarily better when it comes to introducing new tunes. I find that I
can introduce two or three new tunes each year. I teach the tunes slowly,
with children mastering one part at a time. I make sure that I connect the
teaching of the song to overall learning about the tefillah. By moving
slowly, children develop a relationship to the specific prayerthey are
One underutilized musical
tradition is niggunim. Niggunim are wordless tunes that are chanted
communally. They are from the Chassidic tradition and can be an incredibly
powerful tool. Because niggunim are wordless, anyone can participate—even
teachers who are nervous around Hebrew or who may even be non-Jewish. The
chanting of a niggun can build the energy in a room and transform individuals
into a community.
A relative to the niggun, and an
excellent accompaniment to the niggun, is communal drumming. Teach
children to drum along on their laps, at tables, or on the floor. You can
build unity by having children all drum the same patterns, or you can encourage
individualism within the community by having them improvise their own patterns
while maintaining a common beat. After a drumming tefillah, I can
often observe children drumming all day long.
Tell a story: Good story
telling opens the minds of children to discussing difficult issues without it
getting personal. It is much easier, for example, for a child to talk
about a character in a story that should do teshuva, repentance, than for that
child to share a time when he or she did a wrong that required teshuva. Of
course, you need to choose stories with some meat to them—ones that require
children to struggle with an issue and that connect to your learning objective
for the prayer. Your sources for stories span the history of the Jewish
people. I have used stories that range from the Tanach to rabbinic
writings in the Talmud and Midrash to folktales to modern writing.
There are two keys to increasing
engagement during story telling, especially with a large group. The first
is to tell the story in a dramatic way. Regulate your volume to capture
the mood of the story. Use voices for the characters that
speak. Pause at dramatic moments. All of these techniques develop
over time but practicing the story before telling it is an important way to
prepare for good story telling. Also, inviting a “guest” to be the story
teller can be a great way to engage teachers who are required to be at tefillah
but often feel like their sole role is to police.
The second key to increasing
engagement during story telling is to give children a task prior to
beginning. For example, ask children a question that directs their focus
to your objective for the lesson. This is the question that you will start
your post-story discussion with. If tefillah occurs in a classroom with
children at desks, you can have children actually write their answers as you
are telling the story, or they can fill in a graphic organizer. If
tefillah occurs in a large group such as in a synagogue, consider having
children do something once they have an answer. I often tell children to
put their hands together once they have discovered the answer to my
question. Setting a task for children during story telling helps prevent
most kids from zoning out during tefillah.
Movin’ Movin’: When you get
kids moving, you are guaranteeing engagement. Dance and dramatic movement
can be powerful ways of connecting children to tefillah. In this section,
I would like to focus on one particular technique that I have found extremely
powerful for engaging daveners of all ages. I call the technique the
“human opinion graph”. The idea is to pose a question and have
children physically move to give an answer. One could argue that human
opinion graphs are not really art. However, because human opinion graphs
are a visual expression of the beliefs of the participants, I feel their
inclusion here is appropriate.
Here are four versions of human
opinion graphs that I use frequently:
- Sit/Stand: This is a good technique for doing a quick survey. You
ask a yes/no question like: do you believe God has a role in our day to
day lives. If yes, please stand. If not, stay seated.
- Corners: Set up four chairs in each corner of the makom
tefillah. Put a sign (or have a child hold a sign) on each chair that is a
possible response to a question. Daveners must then choose the response
that most matches their answer. For example, if you had just been made
king and God said he would give you any wish, what would you wish for: a
long life, victory over your enemies, riches or wisdom? (I use this and
the story of Solomon to introduce the blessing “Ata Chonen" in the amidah)
- Human Bar Graph: Similar to Corners, in the Human Bar Graph, you set the
chairs up in a row at the front each with a response. You ask a question
and the children have to sit in a straight row behind the chair that matches
- Values Continuum: The idea here is for the leader to make a statement
that children can strongly agree with, strongly disagree with or be somewhere
in the middle. An example of a statement might be: God is the source of
all bad things in the world (I use this to introduce the blessing yotzer
or). Children who strongly agree move to one end of the room, and those
who strongly disagree move to the other end. Most children place
themselves somewhere in the middle.
Visual Arts: There are ideas
which are simply not captured through words. For this reason, artists
throughout the years have attempted to express the meaning of tefillot through
drawings, paintings, photography and other forms. At our tefillah, we can
invite children to express their ideas about key lines in various prayers
through the visual arts.
For example, when we studied the
kedushah, I told the children the story from Isaiah 6 where the angels are
calling to each other. But, what did this scene look like? What do angels
look like? I challenged children to create pastel drawings of the line
“kadosh, kadosh, kadosh”. In this case, my first step was to show children
a wide variety of artistic depictions of this scene. I did this to open
their minds to the idea that angels are not necessarily chubby, little boys
with wings. The creations of the children were creative and
imaginative. We hung the angel pictures in our makom tefillah and one
angel image became the centre of the parochet our fifth graders were making as
their “moving on” project.
Eager to try some of these ideas
in your next tefillah gathering? Great! But, before you do, examine
your school’s culture of tefillah. Using any of these may require a
shift in the adult understanding of children’s prayer at school. It is
important not to underestimate the attachment teachers, administrators, parents
and even children have to the way tefillah is done. In particular, many people
have strong feelings about how much praying should be “sacrificed” for learning
A good way of thinking about this
issue is as a tension between kevah and kavanah. Kevah are those parts of
the prayer experience which are defined and unchanging. Kevah focused
tefillah is filled largely with the recitation of prayers from the siddur.
Kavanah is the part of the prayer experience where daveners are engaged in
understanding and relating to prayer.
There is no way to introduce
arts-based learning to your tefillah without sacrificing kevah for
kavanah. If this is an issue at your school, I strongly suggest having
this discussion with your stakeholders before you shift the kevah—kavanah
balance. You can introduce this idea of kevah and kavanah and you can even
do a “values continuum” activity with them—although adults tend to prefer to do
this on paper rather than with movement.
In the end, you should come away
with an idea of how much time should be spent on kevah and how much time on
kavanah. At my school, I spend a third to half of tefillah on building an
understanding of and a relationship with the text. While this may seem
like a lot, in a thirty minute time slot which includes getting settled at the
beginning, I am left with ten to fifteen minutes. However, with good
planning, and by breaking activities into smaller chunks, it is possible to do
great things in this time.
Through engaging our children in
their tefillah, we inspire your children to be great daveners because they have
a personal relationship with their prayers. And, we set the groundwork for
the successful continuation of tefillah in middle school, and for the rest of
our children’s lives. Truly holy work.
Reference: Wachs, Saul P.
(2009). Towards a theory of practice. New York (NY): The Solomon
Schechter Day School Association.