Teaching the Whole Child by Evaluating Students’ Voices

Winter, 2016

Source:  Jewish Educational Leadership 15:1


To teach the “whole child” necessitates that we understand that child, including being attentive to who she is and wants to be throughout her time in school. It follows that hearing the student voice should play a significant role in studying texts. After conducting a one-year qualitative, collaborative action research study in one Modern Orthodox Humash class, my data show that giving students opportunities to dialogue authentically with parshanim (classical commentaries) and the teacher is essential to teaching the whole child, especially in a religious studies class.

This paper presents an overview of the study, highlighting three pivotal curricular and instructional choices that made it possible to teach the whole child: planning with backward design, humanizing the parshanim, and creating the “Balancing Textual Authority with Student Voice” rubric.

These curricular and instructional choices were successful because they placed the students first, listing them as the first ingredient in the learning process. They also integrated the opportunities students had for identity and religious exploration with explicitly teaching social-emotional, academic, and life skills. This naturally placed students at the center of the curriculum, leading to more meaningful differentiation according to students’ interests, learning profiles, and biblical Hebrew text skills.

In conclusion, engaging the whole child compels Jewish day school educators to reconsider what is valued as knowledge in their classrooms, including valuing our students as equal partners in Jewish discourse and paying careful attention to the details of what our students are saying, asking, and doing in the classroom. Their communication gives us insight into the issues with which they might be grappling. Valuing students’ voices and respecting their individual journeys enhances our ability to encourage spiritual and academic growth. Findings from this study indicate students need time to reflect on the opinions they form throughout their learning with respect to who they are as people and their journey. By emphasizing identity exploration and academic skills, such as critical thinking and historical understandings, Sarah was able to teach students social-emotional skills such as active listening skills, comprehension skills, and perspective taking. As a result, the curricular and instructional interventions changed students’ perceptions of their roles in class. They gained the confidence to think critically about the parshanim and saw themselves as part of the ongoing Jewish dialogue. Indeed, a transformative curriculum such as the MOIC framework in an authority-centric classroom can promote transferable social-emotional, academic, and life skills.

Updated: Mar. 07, 2017