Introduction to the Zekelman Standards

The word curriculum means different things to different people. But one thing remains constant: curriculum changes dictated by governments around the world are ongoing. In the general studies arena, both the American and Australian governments, and indeed governments around the world, are constantly working to improve upon their educational mandates. Various initiatives and programs over the years have attempted to change the face of education. Supporting these changes are publishing companies that are continuously updating and revamping their textbooks and workbooks to meet the new government requirements. While this all might sound frustrating for a teacher, at least the teacher has many, many resources to support these initiatives and changes.
Enter the Jewish curriculum world and there is a vast difference. First, there are no government mandates regarding what must be taught in a Jewish curriculum, and we are very thankful for that! However, Jewish schools around the world were, and many still are, struggling with the fact that there are no universal standards for Jewish education and therefore there is no standard curriculum, textbooks, or teacher editions available for teachers to use in their classes for their core subjects. Teachers are often required to create their own resources based on sketchy curriculum outlines. Each school decides what it wants to teach and what Jewish skills it will impart based on its community, mission and ethos.
The Menachem Education Foundation began a process in 2010 to create standards for the teaching and learning of Tanach and Toshba (Mishna/Gemara) for the benefit of all Jewish schools around the world. These initial standards were entirely revamped in 2013, further extended to Year 8 in 2014 and updated and refined in 2016. Standards inform curriculum. They clearly spell out the type of knowledge and skills students need at each year level to be able to graduate as lifelong Torah learners. The students are taught the correct respect and appreciation for the G-dly wisdom they are learning and its role in the everyday life of a Jewish person.
These standards have attracted international attention and are now informing classroom instruction, resource development, and above all, student learning. Teachers, parents and students themselves are noticing the difference.

Looking inside the Standards

When teachers think of Jewish curriculum, or even standards, what comes to mind is the knowledge and skills and at times, the values that they want to impart via various subject matters.
What is often overlooked is that each Jewish studies subject has distinct principles, which must be understood and followed in order to learn that subject as Hashem intended. These principles are what we call Enduring Understandings and the Zekelman Chumash standards make these understandings explicit for the teacher. Through Essential Questions, teachers constantly explore and apply these principles in their classrooms.
For example, when studying Chumash, it is not enough to know the content of the Pesukim learned or even how to read and translate the words. Attaining grammatical skills is also not enough. The approach to learning Chumash must be based on the understanding that it is Divine knowledge. It is only in His kindness that Hashem made this knowledge available to us as an opportunity to fully connect with Him. As such, we know that a blessing must be said before we study Torah. We recognize the holiness of each letter, word and vowel and therefore analyze it so carefully. We are aware that ultimately Divine knowledge can never be fully understood by man, and there will therefore be parts of the Torah that we cannot fully grasp.
For example, the infinite aspect of Divine knowledge is what allows us to study the Torah on four levels: פשט, רמז, דרוש and סוד. When commentaries give varying views, we can understand that they can contradict each other for they may be speaking from a perspective based on one of these varying levels. Furthermore, we then live with the Torah every day, as we know it is not a history book, or a book of moral and values, rather a Divine present, filled with messages that we can take into our daily lives.
The Zekelman Standards use Enduring Understandings and Essential Questions to guide the key principles for each of the six main sections of the standards. These include: 1. Tanach Essentials 2. Chumash Content 3. Vocabulary and Language 4. Passage Comprehension 5. Rashi Skills 6.Meforshim.
Stay tuned for the future articles in this series as we explore each of these six sections