Feb 03, 2021
Since the Covid-19 pandemic began, teachers of all subjects have had to cope with a sudden switch to online instruction. Our Pedagogy Poll asked Yiddish instructors to comment on their classroom strategies and experiences teaching outside the university classroom. Our hope is that we can not only show what teachers are currently doing, but spark ideas for instructors who may be wondering how to teach effectively online — an important mode of teaching even beyond the pandemic circumstances reigning at the moment.
Our poll focused specifically on teaching outside the university classroom. The pandemic has seen an explosion of new online learning opportunities—the Workers Circle has expanded its course offerings; summer programs such as the Uriel Weinreich Program in Yiddish Language, Literature & Culture, Trip to Yiddishland, Yidish Vokh, KlezKanada, and Yiddish New York all went virtual in 2020; and organizations like YAAANA and YO-Yiddish Ort jumped into the ring with vibrant new Yiddish programming. Jewish community centers and synagogues have enhanced their online adult education programs as a means of connecting at a time when regular programs and services have been almost entirely disrupted. And some teachers have created their own online courses or taken on private students in response to an increased demand for Yiddish classes. Respondents to our poll teach at a number of different institutions, some at multiple ones, and had to quickly transition last spring from in-person instruction to online platforms such as Zoom, Adobe Connect, and Skype.
Respondents reported that their Yiddish classes range from about four to ten students on average and meet about once a week for between one and two hours. Students are multigenerational and include children or grandchildren of Eastern European immigrants/native speakers, people in the conversion process, and even partners or parents and children learning together. Many have previous language proficiency, most notably in Hebrew, German, and Slavic languages. Dave Fried commented that all of his students “have some sense of nostalgia regarding Yiddish,” regardless of age or background. While most respondents said they teach beginners, their responsibilities range from teaching the alphabet to facilitating reading circles and include not only grammar and reading but topics in historical and contemporary Yiddish culture.
Whereas in the university setting, students may sign up for Yiddish classes as a language requirement or via a “Yiddish-adjacent” field of study, the current poll suggests that student recruitment for adult learning is largely driven by word of mouth and social media, as well as advertising by sponsoring institutions. Instructors maintain and build their cohort of learners by informing them about other Yiddish-related activities. Since students will quickly outgrow an initial alef-beys class, it’s important to keep them aware of other opportunities, such as reading circles at higher levels and the summer intensive Yiddish programs. Miriam Borden states that she invites students to various “Yiddish events . . . concerts, shmues-krayzn, leyen-krayzn, plays, workshops, lectures . . . everything!”
Instructors build curricula from a variety of materials, from traditional textbook-based instruction to self-created course plans to conversational prompts. Some different textbooks mentioned were the new Yiddish Book Center textbook In Eynem, which contains a comprehensive multimedia component that works well for online learning; the old standby Uriel Weinreich’s College Yiddish; Sheva Zucker’s Yiddish: An Introduction to the Language (2 vols.); David Goldberg’s Yidish af yidish; Miriam Hoffman’s Key to Yiddish; and Lily Kahn’s Colloquial Yiddish. One challenge with using conventional textbooks is that not all students may be able to acquire them (Abby Howell shared that in face-to-face classes, she “usually has to have several copies of the textbook to lend to students that can’t afford one”), and not all textbooks exist in digital format to make them easy to use in a virtual classroom. Teachers must balance the need to create PDFs of textbook sections for classroom/student use with legal and ethical concerns around copyright protection. Other drawbacks that some instructors mentioned for many of these textbooks are the lack of an answer key or index, and the assumption that students already know the alphabet from page one. Respondents complained that some textbooks included too much English, and Avi Hoffman noted the importance of using a text with “strong cultural conversational material.”
It is striking that every respondent mentioned using multiple sources for class material; rather than relying on simply one textbook, they mix and match and bring in a variety of supplementary resources. One teacher described a curriculum that was “self-created, based on the tables of contents of various textbooks, often prepared in haste.” With so much new online Yiddish content being newly created or digitized, teachers have more flexibility to add material to the syllabus as it becomes available—which helps impress on students that Yiddish is a living language rather than one stuck in the past (see the previous In geveb poll on the place of the Khurbn in Yiddish language classes). Respondents mentioned using archival resources such as the Yiddish Radio Project, Arbeter Ring primers from the early 20th century (which can be found in the Yiddish Book Center’s digital collection), articles from the Forverts (particularly those that include an audio version), as well as songs, film clips, historical newspaper clippings and advertisements, diaries, and Yizkor books. Borden states: “Archival materials are great for demonstrating dialectical and orthographical variation. I also love the way they contextualize Yiddish locally and ground the language in tangible history.”
Songs (see Jessica Kirzane’s article on teaching Yiddish through song), poems, and plays were also mentioned as a useful pedagogical tool. Borden commented that “Songs are . . . living historical documents that are great to bring alive in the classroom. I try to pair songs with grammatical concepts we’ve covered in class: e.g., ‘Der rebe Elimelekh’ for the present tense, which I’ll pair with a YouTube video of Theodore Bikel’s rendition, thus opening a discussion of the intersection of Yiddish song/performers and American folk music.” Anye Koyfmentsh offered the idea of learning speeches from the play Purim Shpil by Alef Katz: “It is perfect for memorizing—all rhythm and rhyme!” Another instructor spoke of creating vocabulary lists for poems and having students read them in small groups, then watching them set to music in a YouTube clip.
Other resources mentioned by instructors include the multimedia learning tool YiddishPop and videos from sources like the Forverts Yiddish cooking series, the Workers Circle cultural programming, and the YidLife Crisis web series. One advantage of the virtual classroom is that the teacher can easily share their screen to play a video or project a slide and drop a url into the chat window for students to save and access later. These multimedia offerings help keep students engaged and break up the monotony of staring at printed material on the screen. Teachers can further support students by creating a Google Drive as a repository for materials covered in class or sending summary emails after each meeting to remind students what was covered. However, this engagement may come at a cost. Koyfmentsh commented that “Since we’ve moved online I use the textbook much less, which is a shame. We should be doing grammar exercises.”
Instructors commented that while they don’t focus on the religious component of Yiddishkayt, they often address holidays as they come up in textbook readings or in the calendar year. As Paula Teitelbaum notes, “References to religious rituals and topics are already integrated into many Yiddish literary texts, so the teacher’s job is to make sure the students understand what they are.” Meyer Weinshel says he tries “to complicate what constitutes ‘religious’ and what constitutes ‘secular’ Yiddish/Jewish culture past and present.” Borden adds that she tries to “expose [students] to cantorial music and the relationships between Jewish performers, ritual performance (in a synagogue), and the Yiddish/Broadway stages.”
Instructors stressed the value of balancing reading, speaking, and listening in each class. One challenge that virtual learning has brought is making sure each student receives the attention and assistance they need. Fried commented, “In order to try to give everyone a fair amount of attention, and keep things flowing: at the start of class, I give everyone a letter for the day . . . א ב ג ד ה [...] and this is the turn-taking system.” A number of teachers suggested group work as beneficial for learning; in Zoom, this can be facilitated with breakout rooms where students schmooze, work on grammar exercises, or read together before coming back to the main virtual classroom. The instructor can then drop in to help the different groups in turn.
One way the classes taught by our poll respondents differ from traditional university courses is that typically students are not assessed. Fried said, “Something I tell students early on, they can do as much/little review as they want—it’s up to them . . . We’re (mostly) all adults, taking Yiddish to enrich our lives . . . this isn’t like high school with homework and pressure.” Our respondents stressed the need to use assessment as a positive way to show students themselves how they have progressed, rather than an external means of evaluation. Weinshel commented that he avoids formal assessments but has students “decipher texts that are unknown to them in a way that is appropriate to their level (answering questions about the title, author, the place of publication, etc.).” Alex Dafner stated that he likes to “distribute materials prior to class or as follow-up via email, etc., with inviting, intriguing intros, questions, links and encourage students to do the same for the whole class.”
Perhaps in part because of the lack of assessment and accountability in adult education classes, motivating students can be difficult. Teitelbaum emphasized “managing student expectations in relation to their goals and the instructional and practice time we have together. Many of my adult-ed students are extremely motivated, hard working, and come to class prepared. Some cannot be convinced to put in the time outside of class, or they do not have the time.” Flexibility with adult learners seems key. Rather than shaming students for not completing homework, respondents suggested limiting homework to 2–3 exercises a class or having students choose from a variety of assignments and report back on how they went rather than turning them in for a grade. Howell stated: “These are grownups—I don’t have leverage over them and it genuinely doesn’t matter to me how fast or slow they learn the language. So I ask them what would help them learn, and we try it out, and then we check in, and we keep iterating.”
Howell offered a concrete list of sample activities for adult learners to choose from:
- Reread the story we read in class
- Write a translation of the poem we read from memory
- Write a very literal translation of the poem
- Retype the poem we read in class to practice your Yiddish word processing
- Copy a verse of the poem in your best calligraphy
- Research the author and prepare to give a short presentation next week about what you learned
- Find 5 words from the reading that you don’t know, and make flashcards for them
- Practice reading the dialogue as if it were lines in a play and there is an important audition
- Call your grandmother and ask her to help you with your Yiddish homework
- Listen to the audio recording of the dialogues from the chapter we just did
- Start learning the vocab for the next chapter
- If you were the Weird Al of Yiddish and were going to write a parody of this poem, what would it be called?
Although the virtual environment has increased learning opportunities, particularly for students who may not have had physical access to a Yiddish class in the past, it has brought technological challenges as well. Though everyone in a class uses the same platform (such as Zoom), students may be accessing it via different devices, from phones to laptops to tablets. Along with learning how to use new technology themselves, teachers must provide instructions on tasks such as turning on webcams, opening chat boxes, uploading documents, sharing screens, and muting and unmuting microphones. Offering additional support in the form of hard copies via mail or contactless drop-off, or instructions by phone and email, puts an additional burden on teachers that might not occur in an in-person class. One option to cope with variables such as internet speed or outage caused by a weather event is to record asynchronous lectures, though some teachers already record their class sessions for students to view again later.
In a time when most of us are not connected physically to many people, Yiddish classes can serve as a point of community building and support, particularly with the increased opportunities for learning and the different means of expression for students to not only observe but engage in themselves. As Esther Singer wrote: “We have students bringing accordions to class and enthusiastically belting out the Arbetsloze Marsh, we have students writing creative fiction, sharing the stories we study with their elderly parents, translating Dolly Parton songs into Yiddish, teaching things to their kids, or just generally getting a thrill out of learning entertaining Slavic words. Many people tell me class is the highlight of their week, and if Yiddish is not for sharing with others, I don’t know what it’s for.”