Modifying Hebrew Lessons for Students with Disabilities

How to Modify Hebrew Lessons for Students With Disabilities: Removing the Stumbling Block

When seeking to make a classroom more inclusive, there is a lot to consider. Toss in the abundance of terminology and many teachers find themselves feeling confused and frustrated. I have been a special educator for over 20 years and read a lot in this area, and even I find myself frustrated with the way certain terms are used interchangeably.

Let’s focus on the concepts of accommodation and modification and their use in academics for individuals with disabilities as there are distinct differences to their application in a classroom setting.

Here’s a terrific overview:
Accommodation vs. Modification

Accommodation is a strategy used to help a student with learning needs in the same curriculum as his/her peers while modification is a strategy used to help a student with significant learning needs experience the same curriculum as his/her peers.

Unfortunately, teachers in supplemental religious schools often feel untrained and ill-equipped to make such distinctions, especially when it comes to Hebrew instruction.

I can already hear them saying, “Ok, so I am teaching the Avot to my students. The Avot is the Avot. I can’t change the liturgy. How can I possibly meet the needs of a wide variety of learners?’

First, think about a different question: Why are your students learning the Avot? 
I’ll come back for your answer.

Now, let’s go back to the graphic above. Here’s a little more explanation. We accommodate our students’ learning needs when we allow them to use varying modalities and/or different strategies to meet the same goals as other students. We modify lessons for those students whose goals are different than the rest of the class.

Confused? Don’t be. Here are the examples. (Remember, you are working with the Avot, but you can do this with any prayer, text or Hebrew reading assignment).

Accommodations could include:
·        Providing extra time
·        Listening to a recording
·        Partner reading
·        Breaking the prayer into manageable sections

Modifications could include:
·        Identifying all of the alefs (or whatever letter(s) student may be currently learning) in the Avot
·        Listening to a variety of prayers being read or chanted and student identifies the Avot
·        Printing the lines of the Avot on strips of paper and student arranges them in the correct order (either from memory or while looking at the complete prayer)
·        Finding the Avot each time it appears in your synagogue’s siddur (prayer book).

Before you suggest that any of those modifications won’t work or worse, that such modifications aren’t fair, let’s go back to my earlier question: Why are your students learning the Avot?

I hope that your answer included: so that they become familiar with the liturgy, so that they become comfortable with worship, so that they can participate in worship services or so that they can lead a worship service. I would agree that those are all meaningful goals for why we teach prayer in a supplemental religious school.

Now, look back at the modifications I suggest. Each one of them helps to meet those goals.

Students do not have to all be fluent Hebrew readers. Students do not have to all read & understand Hebrew perfectly. They may not even read it at all. If our goal is to help our children to develop strong Jewish identities, pride in their heritage and a love of our traditions and faith, who is to say how that should be accomplished?

Go ahead, make the accommodations. Modify your lessons. You may just help your students develop a deeper connection to their faith. You may have just helped them to cement their place in the community that supports them.

It Is NEVER Ok To Use Disability As An Insult

words matter disability semantics

Our words matter. 

Remember the old saying, "Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me."? Not true. Not true at all. 

Words can hurt. A lot. And there is real potential for lasting harm. It's not just semantics.

So when I learned that an official in the Obama administration referred to the Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu as "Aspergery", I was relieved to see this statement from Jay Ruderman, President of the Ruderman Family Foundation:

“While it is perfectly acceptable for people to be critical of each other, it is unacceptable to use a term of disability in a derogatory manner,” said Jay Ruderman, President of the Ruderman Family Foundation. “The term “Aspergery” was used in a manner that is insulting to the millions of people around the world with Asperger Syndrome. It is never OK to insult someone by referring to them by using disability in a negative manner.”

The full statement from the Ruderman Family Foundation can be found here and on Businesswire. The original article by Jeffrey Goldberg can be found here.

Making Sense of Behavior: Girls, Boys, Attention Deficits and Stereotypes

My friends at The Inclusive Class recently posted the following visual on Facebook:

ADD ADHD Girls Stereotypes Behavior

It resonated, but I found myself thinking more about stereotypes than disabilities.

You’ve done it, haven’t you? Referred to girls as “chatty”, categorized their behavior as “drama” or blamed the way she is acting on “hormones”? I certainly have. And there may well be truth to each of those descriptions. But we do our children a disservice when we simply use stereotypes to explain away their behavior. 

That’s why this list really gave me pause. In looking at it closely, many are the sort of behaviors one might explain away as “girl stuff”. And while there are genuine differences in the way that boys and girls may demonstrate attention deficits, far more concerning to me is the way that adults tolerate (or don’t!) these behaviors. According to this article from, “Teachers tend to have a different tolerance level for the behavior girls with ADHD exhibit than they do for the behavior of boys with ADHD.”

Is this leading us to misdiagnosing and/or over-diagnosing children based on our own set of expectations or a lack of ability to manage behavior?

A famous quote: “If a child can’t learn the way we teach, maybe we should teach the way they learn.” 

Shouldn’t the same be true of the way we manage behavior? Why do we continue to force children into neat packages that can sit still and attend for hours at a time?

I have written about attention issues before. In Are We Giving Our Children ADD? I reflected on an article that asserts that we actually have and must train our “attention muscle”. My jury is still out on this concept. While I do think that there is merit to the idea that we can teach, and thereby improve, the skill of paying attention, I also think that we are simply expecting too much of our children when we force them to sit at desks and pay attention throughout an entire school day.

So let’s not assume that all of our girls have ADHD just because they like to chat with friends, and we must not discount the real effect that changing hormones can have on both girls and boys. Rather, let's become increasingly mindful about our expectations of behavior and the way in which we both categorize and tolerate those behaviors we consider problematic. Maybe it's just our expectations that are the problem.