Giraffe, sea critters open kingdom of Hebrew to kids

Debbie Findling may not know how the zebra got its stripes, but she can put spots on a giraffe and use them to teach children Hebrew.

A giraffe made of laminated poster board stands at the front of the classroom, Hebrew words written in magic marker all over its body. Students attach the English translations, written on Velcro "spots," to the animal's body.

"The kids love it," said the education director of Berkeley's Congregation Netivot Shalom. "What sounds like more fun? Listening to a teacher standing at the front of the room or sticking spots on a giraffe?"

Giraffe spots are just one of many games Findling uses to get her students's attention. She'll teach other educators how to play, as well as how to make the game boards at Sunday's Biting the Apple conference at Temple Emanu-El in San Jose.

Findling joins more than 20 presenters at the third annual conference co-sponsored by the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay's Shoresh teacher-training program, under the aegis of the Center for Jewish Living and Learning, and the Jewish Educators' Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater San Jose.

About 200 teachers are expected to attend.

Workshop topics include making the best use of music, art and drama in the classroom; implementing biblical narrative to address key issues of adolescence; how to act as a peer teacher coach; and special education challenges.

Unlike some large-scale education conferences, filled with one-shot lessons that don't always transfer to the classroom, Biting the Apple hopes to provide teachers with both theoretical knowledge and creative, practical skills that can be implemented in a variety of educational settings.

"The goals are threefold," said Paul Epstein, Shoresh project coordinator. "We want to increase teachers' levels of Judaic knowledge and provide both professional training and skills specific to the Jewish classroom."

Led by local rabbis, cantors and educators, the workshops are set up to "titillate teachers and principals creatively, and begin to create a bank of resources between teachers," Findling said.

"There's a wealth of ideas and resources out there. If we can begin sharing what we've created, we won't have to continually reinvent the wheel."

In workshops like Findling's, teachers can create their own games — making long-term teaching tools.

For example, the giraffe game can be laminated, wiped clean and covered with new words to increase vocabulary. More advanced learners can match conjugations to their root words. Teachers need to make only one giraffe, which can be used again and again, with new "spots" as needed.

"This way teachers don't waste hours and hours of precious time," Findling said.

Giraffes aren't the only creatures she brings into the classroom, though. Findling also uses fish, eels and octopi for an "exploring-the-depths-of-Torah" game.

Dividing students into teams and assigning each a submarine, kids move through the ocean [drawn on a blackboard] by answering questions about Torah, holidays and Jewish history.

With each correct answer students move their submarines into the next corridor, prodded along with written messages like, "Your submarine has gone deeper into the depths of Torah."

Like the giraffe game, "exploring the depths of Torah" can be used over and over to teach a variety of themes. The game board — a colored-chalk ocean and set of submarines — remains the same. Teachers just draw up new questions.

The game is successful, Findling said, because it's fun for students and the learning isn't rote.

"We're creatively engaging [kids] in exploration of a theme. It's how we study Torah. The twists and turns. Metaphorically speaking, you can't just stay on the surface. You need to look under the shells, beyond the fish," Findling said. "Plus, the kids are running back and forth to the chalkboard to move their submarine, so it's physical. And they're working as a team, so they get to talk.

"There are wonderful ways to engage students and teachers don't have to talk at all."