How To Plan an Engaging and Effective Text Study Shiur

By Marisa Harford

As a member of several independent Jewish communities, health care
as well as a learner and teacher at the NHC Summer Institutes, herbal
I have had the opportunity to attend many excellent text study classes — and some that could have benefited from better planning. For some of us, ed
Jewish text study is fascinating and exciting, a core way we connect to our traditions and to our communities, while for others, text study can be intimidating or off-putting. In this article, I explain the planning process I use in the hopes that it will be helpful to other facilitators in creating engaging and effective classes.

Of course, planning is only half of the battle — skilled facilitation is another aspect of creating a successful shiur (study) — but in my experience, planning is the most often neglected area.

The content of this article is not based on any one educational theorist but rather on the many influences I have absorbed in my 10 years as an educator in both the public schools and informally in the Jewish community. I make no claims to originality, but am not recapitulating any one particular methodology. The steps outlined below assume that you are entering into the process with an audience and topic already in mind.

  1. Consider your desired outcome(s) first. Some common purposes of a text study session in a havurah or independent Jewish community might be to help participants:
    • Attain knowledge of a particular subject
    • Engage in a debate and grapple with various voices on a controversial issue
    • Decide how they feel personally about an issue/ help them understand the relevance of that issue to themselves
    • Develop their text study skills
    • Form community through studying together
    • Energize them around a cause, e.g. for social justice
  2. Clarity about your goals will help you design a learning experience that will feel purposeful and fit you community’s needs. Keep your desired outcome(s) in mind while you are planning so they can shape the choices you make along the way.

  3. Consider your audience and the constraints within which you are working. To the extent that you know the following, it is important to keep these aspects in mind:
    • Number of participants
    • Participant age range
    • Participant comfort/ experience level with text study or texts in Hebrew/Aramaic
    • Are the participants a homogeneous or heterogeneous group? Will you need to provide multiple versions of the source sheet or discussion questions at different levels?
    • Time allotted
    • Space provided and physical amenities: For example, do the chairs and tables move easily so that you can arrange them for chevruta (partner) study and then turn them to face each other for a whole-group discussion? Is there a whiteboard for writing up notes or a projector for multimedia presentations?
    • Shabbat- and holiday-appropriate activities: Depending on your community, some or all participants may not be comfortable with certain activities on Shabbat and holidays, so make sure to take that into account.
  4. Create a set of key questions. What sparked your interest in the topic? What are the big ideas and main controversies or possible points of interpretation and/or disagreement? Narrow down these big ideas to 1-4 juicy, meaningful key questions. A key question should not be answerable in a simple, factual statement; rather, it should prompt discussion and debate. Do not be afraid to narrow down the number of questions. For a one-hour class, one truly meaningful key question can do the trick.
  5. Cull your sources. Because this is Jewish text study, you presumably have many, many sources you can choose from that are relevant to your topic – Tanach (Bible), Mishnah, Gemara (Talmud), midrashim, responsa, philosophical works, contemporary commentators, non-Jewish sources, etc. Cast a wide net when doing your initial research, but then when you have established the purpose and key questions for your class, spend time selecting a much smaller number of texts that specifically fit your purpose and key questions and will be accessible to your participants. Consider the order in which the texts will be presented. Especially if you have a thesis that you want to communicate to the participants, think about their encounters with a series of texts as steps along a journey towards the destination of your big idea. How will these particular texts you’ve selected, presented in a specific order, guide the participants through the ideas you want them to explore?
  6. Decide on an entry point activity for your participants to help them relate to the topic before diving in. Some ways of establishing an entry point are:
    • Giving participants a small snippet of text (a powerful quotation, film clip, poem, etc.) that relates to your topic and asking them to share their quick initial reactions
    • Asking participants to give a quick response to one of your key questions as a “whip around” (every participant gives a 1 sentence answer to the question or prompt; can be done in small groups or partners)
    • Eliciting participants’ questions about the topic (“what do you want to learn about____?”) OR eliciting participants’ prior knowledge about the topic (“what do you already know about_____?”)
    • Asking participants to introduce themselves and say why they were interested in the topic (can be done in small groups or with a partner if the group is larger than 8-10)
    • Giving participants time to free write, draw, or talk with a partner for 3-5 minutes in response to one of your key questions
  7. Consider learning methods and write your “lesson plan.” Decide how you will facilitate the participants’ learning and chart out the order of those activities and how much time is allotted for each. Try to limit any lecturing or Q-and-A with the facilitator to 15 minutes; even adults fall asleep after that much time. Don’t forget to provide time for transitions between different activities. Here is a sampling of types of activities that can be part of a text study class, from perhaps the most common to less-common (but very effective) strategies:
    • Chevruta study — make sure to provide discussion questions
    • Small group study or discussion — again, make sure to provide discussion questions
    • Independent reading of a text (with a focus question) and then sharing out responses with the whole group
    • Whole group discussion
    • Journaling or free writing
    • Structured debate with different participants assigned to argue for different sides
    • A “jigsaw” – Divide into several groups, each of which is assigned a different text or a different key question to explore together. Then, form new groups so that one person from each old group is in each new group, and the group members share what their round 1 group discussed with the new group members.
    • “Silent discussion” – put the text(s) up on the wall/on tables on big sheets of paper. Participants write comments on the paper next to the texts, or annotate the texts, and then other participants can comment on those ideas, creating a written dialogue.
    • Using art (drawing, etc.) to express individual interpretations of a text
    • Bibliodrama / creating skits to express an interpretation of a text or dramatize a debate
    • Problem-based learning: Give the participants a real-world problem that can be solved/ explored with knowledge or ideas from the texts you provide
    • A game or “quiz”
  8. Reflect on your plan. Are the texts and learning activities consistent with your overall purposes and your audience? Will the participants leave with a clear sense of what they learned? Will it work within the allotted time? Will the participants be actively engaged the whole time?
  9. After you teach, gather feedback from participants about the session to help you improve for next time.

Marisa Harford attended her first NHC Summer Institute as an Everett Fellow in 2003, and co-chaired in 2009. She is on the NHC Board of Directors.

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