I teach calligraphers to become Torah scribes, and I teach schools and congregations about Torah scrolls and the Jewish scribal arts. I think all Jews ought to be able to access the magic of Torah, so one of the things I try to do, in my teaching, is to reach everybody. This often involves adapting lessons to include people with needs I’m not used to encountering. I’d like to share some of the ways that I make that happen.
Teachers use lots of different activities in classrooms to communicate information in many different ways, because not all types of communication work well for everyone. When we talk to different age groups, we adapt to an age-appropriate delivery. Adapting for special needs is a bit like that, but taking into account the difference in people’s bodies or brains, rather than difference in age.
Recently I gave a workshop at a Hebrew school in which all of the students were to have a go at doing Torah script. One student told me that he physically can’t write; he finds writing so hard that he’s allowed to type all his schoolwork. I could tell he wasn’t happy, but I encouraged him to have a go anyway, because I had a dozen other kids who all also needed attention. He left early, after coloring every inch of his paper blue.
This was an example of my entirely failing to adapt the lesson for him. I was so focused on “This is a writing workshop” that I forgot that there are multiple educational goals to such a program.
I should have remembered that the content of the lesson was not just “have a go at writing Torah script.” In trying to get this student to engage with my chosen way of delivering the content (“do this writing activity”), I failed to make any of the content accessible to him (he left early and did not engage). I could have adapted my delivery (by saying “Let’s print this” instead of insisting he write it) and given him a different version of the content (“What’s the prettiest font you can think of? Why would we choose a pretty font?”).
Sometimes the stakes are even higher, like when I’m teaching calligraphers how to write Torah scrolls. A Torah scroll has to be made correctly. There’s not a lot of room for compromising on content. But even in a high-stakes educational context, there is room for adaptation. Students can do things differently without compromising on content.
I have taught students with significant learning, motor and visual impairments; some of whom have gone on to write kosher Torahs. This is not to sacrifice those students on the saccharine altar of inspiring the able-bodied. Rather, it is to illustrate the concept that education can often be adapted beyond all expectation, and adapted education can achieve real things. Fundamentally, it is about figuring out what the essential content is and discovering a way of communicating it to the student.
It can be scary for educators to do this. You have to admit to yourself that some of your content is not essential. And sometimes you have to adapt on the fly, which means improvising, and that means maybe getting it wrong sometimes. But we owe it to our students to at least try. It may be scary for the teacher to try to adapt, but it’s a lot scarier to be the student who knows there will be no adaptation.
Jen Taylor Friedman is a Torah scribe and educator. She is currently based in Montreal. She and her students write, repair and teach about Jewish sacred scrolls. Their website is www.stamscribes.com.