Last week was the most fun, and possibly the most successful, week in my Hebrew school teaching career. And in some ways, I didn't even teach: I just set the stage, and let the kids roll.
I can't remember how the idea came up. Maybe it was when I asked my students -- I teach the fifth through seventh graders in our b'nei mitzvah prep program -- whether any of them might be interested in recording our services from time to time for those who are homebound. I think that's when the kids asked if they could make a podcast as part of their learning with me, and I said sure. This year we're studying Torah, writ large, so the podcast would have a Torah focus.
After that, they asked pretty much every week: can we make a podcast now? So I spent some time looking at the syllabus I'd put together for the year, and pondering when might be the right time to scrap the roadmap and go somewhere new. I decided the podcast should center around the story of Joseph. Working on it now is seasonally-appropriate (we'll start reading it in shul on December 8), it's a rich and multilayered story, and it's substantial enough to give them a lot to dig into.
Over the Thanksgiving break I asked the kids to read the Joseph story. (And some of them actually did.) When we returned to Hebrew school, I outlined the process I had in mind. The podcast would take place in four acts -- a structure I admit I borrowed from This American Life. Act One: the kids would retell the Joseph story in their own words. Act Two: midrashic explorations of the Joseph story, staying in the Biblical milieu. (They might write scripts where they explored one character's motivations, or another character's emotional reactions.)
Act Three: they could take the story as far-out as they wanted to go. Set it in a science-fiction future, make Joseph into Josie or Josephina, set it on a planet where everyone is a cow (yes, they actually suggested that last one): up to them. I knew that this was the part they were really excited about. When I asked them to write something creative about lulav and etrog, a while back, one of my kids wrote about a Quidditch game where Harry was riding on a lulav to chase the golden etrog. I knew they would find some goofy way to relate to Joseph.
The podcast would close with Act Four, in which I would interview them about what the process had been like and what they had learned from the experience of immersing in their own creative takes on the Joseph story.
We started last week with Act One, the retelling of the Joseph story. I asked them to tell me the story of Joseph, prompting them occasionally if they seemed likely to skip over an important plot point. I transcribed their words, printed copies of that script, and handed it around the room. We recorded the script together in class. For Act Two, I had anticipated that they would want to work in pairs or small groups to write short scripts which explored aspects the Joseph story in their own ways, but to my surprise, they wanted to work all as a single group, and to find their own responses in realtime, as a kind of improv theatre. So I pressed "record" and let them roll.
I spent a few evenings last week doing some technical work: going through each recording and boosting the sections of the audio which had been too quiet, finding a theme song through the Free Music Archive's list of Creative Commons-licensed material available for remix and reuse. (I chose a track by the Boston-based Debo Band - "Aderech Arada (Kiddid Remix)" -- you can learn more about the band and about the track here at the FMA.) This afternoon in class I'm planning to work on Acts Three and Four. Then I'll have some more editing work to do, and we should be able to release the podcast right around the time that congregations around the world are reading the Joseph story!
I'm not sure this podcast will be a major contribution to the world of Jewish commentary on Joseph. But the process of making it has gotten my students excited about Torah and excited about Hebrew school, and as far as I'm concerned, that's priceless. And their insights, and phrasings, are fresh and often surprising. (Did you know that Joseph's brothers failed to recognize him, when they met him as Pharaoh's vizier, because he was all decked out in bling?) I'm proud of my kids for embracing this Torah story, even if they're embracing it with silliness.
And I can't wait to see what they come up with next.
Edited to add: if you're curious, you can listen to the first Ne'arim podcast here at my congregational blog.