The World Is My Teacher

The World Is My Teacher

Matter, Metamorphosis, and Miracles in Grade 1

For your miracles, that each day are with us, and for your wonders and goodness, that are at every moment, evening, morning, and midday.

When a six year-old says, “I am going to look beyond the obvious,” he/she is thinking at a higher level of consciousness than is generally expected in Grade 1. Nonetheless, Rachely Tal says it’s the upshot of “Matter, Metamorphosis, and Miracles.”

The premise of “Matter, Metamorphosis, and Miracles” is twofold: an appreciation of miracles transforms how we think about the world, and we behave better for it. I discussed this integrative program – and its empirical, spiritual, and metacognitive mix – with Tal, Galit Babitsky, and Elissa Wolf, first grade teachers at The Toronto Heschel School. They use the wonder of miracles to demonstrate that the world can always teach, that change is the true constant, and that attention to detail delivers great learning.

We don’t proclaim miracles, explains Babitsky, we notice something extra-special and seize a learning moment. Perhaps we notice because it seems unusual; perhaps because it doesn’t. We can see everything as a miracle, something God makes happen to call our attention to it. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel writes,

The great quality of a miracle is not it being an unexpected, unbelievable event in which the presence of the holy bursts forth, but in its happening to human beings, who are profoundly astonished by such an outburst.[1]

The teachers present miracles as evidence of tangible natural change, not magic. How does that bud blossom into something so beautiful? Why do those ants know where to go? Wolf says the enthusiasm for learning that materializes as the children find miracles is itself very inspiring.

Their explanation of miracles begins with “Moses’ Miraculous Method,” a term coined by Greg Beiles, and now part of school lore. In the hot desert, many bushes burn in the heat and many shepherds walk by the smoking twigs. One shepherd, Moses, stopped to look closely, ask questions, and deliberate on its significance (Exodus 3); the result was an encounter that changed his life.

The children become Miracle Detectives, in training to take the time to notice that miracles happen all around them. They practise close observation. They leave the classroom, step outside, stop, and look around carefully. Tasked to be aware, both in the moment and day by day, they search the school’s field and garden for changes transpiring naturally. In booklets, they note descriptions of miracles they find: plants sprouting, new twigs, weeds.

Their questions become self-aware and self-reflective: What am I seeing here? Is this a constant or does it change?  How is this happening? And why is it happening to me?  Was it because I was looking at nature? Because I was paying attention?  Engagement with attention puts the children personally in the miracle, and they like it: What did I notice?  What can I learn from this? What might God want me to learn from this? They are seeking miracles in a non-traditional way, neither as an indecipherable mystery nor as something to accept passively. They notice the reciprocity.

The children contemplate the elements that make them notice: looking carefully and mindfully, using all their senses to find as many details as possible, asking questions, looking again – they learn that their thoughtful attention reveals miracles, which is probably what God wants.

“Matter, Metamorphosis, and Miracles” weaves through several Grade 1 classes.  Tal shares that singing the learning makes it second nature. Going about their work, students sing the steps to seeing a miracle in Hebrew, “I was walking by, I noticed, I stopped, I looked closely, I asked a question, I had a deeper understanding, I was amazed by the miracle.” Tal includes Hebrew vocabulary for snow, rain, thunder – one constant change in Canada is our weather.

In their Language Arts Writer’s Workshop, students write personal narratives expanding a precious moment through descriptive words and details. The method corresponds to the sequence for miracle sleuthing:  Pause, observe, and identify details; then learn, reflect, and write. The process is profound on its own, and very Jewish.

In science, the children study three states of matter in nature – solid, liquid, and gas – and change agents that affect them. Moses’ Miraculous Method compares to the Scientific Method – observe, question, hypothesize.  Students see how the agency of temperature changes water from ice to liquid to vapour. They undertake a proof exercise:  shaking cream, sugar, and milk in a bag surrounded by ice to produce ice cream. God provides nature; our interventions deliver delicious results.

The teachers explain that, for young children to grasp the full meaning of agency, reflections on responsibility are needed.  For example, Chanukah commemorates the miracle of oil lasting eight nights, against all expectations.  The halakhah (rule) requires a Chanukah light to last one hour, and so, to fulfill the tradition responsibly, the children investigate which oil – soy, paraffin, beeswax, or olive – works best.  Testing a range of considerations, paraffin is most efficient, but least ecologically sound. Olive oil wins.

In math, students meet the miraculous utility of numbers. They absorb the importance of the unit of 10 in our counting system – 10 fingers, 10 toes, 10 for minyan, 10 Commandments, Yom Kippur on 10th of Tishrei. They then find Miraculous Matches which are pairs of numbers between 0 and 10 that will always add up to 10, such as 2+8, 4+6, or 9+1. Miraculous Matches also help with subtraction between 0 and 10 because if 9+1=10 then you can know that 10-1=9. This early competency in Miraculous Matches gives young children a strong facility to add and subtract, first at lower levels, then higher. Based on visualization and a sensibility for the missing matching number, they can use it to estimate mathematically.

“Matter, Metamorphosis, and Miracles” levers foundational learning discoveries one to another. As a modus operandi – an M.O. – “Observe, notice, articulate” helps children develop consciousness and concretize thoughts.  Science studies introduce the nature of matter and the notion of agency, along with discussion on God’s role and our responsibilities. Miraculous Matches empower the utility of numbers as students accustom themselves to manipulate the numerical symbols our world relies on and solve problems that circumstances present.  When six year-olds recognize the world as their teacher, they own the wonder of miracles personally and forever. It’s a very strong start.

[1] Abraham Joshua Heschel, Israel: An Echo of Eternity (New York:  Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969), p. 6.

Pam Medjuck Stein , Chair of The Lola Stein Institute and Editor of Think Magazine

Pam co-founded the Lola Stein Institute in 2003. She was a founding parent of The Toronto Heschel School in 1996 and served on its Board of Directors as Treasurer, Co-Chair, and Director. She is active across the community and currently sits on the Board of Directors of the Canadian Jewish News, the Canadian Friends of the Shalom Hartman Institute and the North American Alumni Delegate Council of the Wexner Heritage Foundation. She and her husband, Michael Stein, recently established The Diabetes Leadership Foundation to strengthen organizations that mentor better diabetes self-management.

Pam earned a Master of Laws from the London School of Economics, pursued further training in cultural property in London and Paris and practiced law in Toronto. Pam introduced collective copyright management to Canadian visual artists in 1984 by establishing VIS ART Copyright Inc. linking Canadian artists to international copyright management through UNESCO. She has been Co-Chair of the LEAF Foundation (Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund) and a Fellow of the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies.



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