Each year, the sixth grade students at our school lead a Shabbat morning service. They read from the Torah, lead the prayers and blessings, and share their ideas about the concepts behind the service. All this is the result of a great deal of preparation in class; students learn trope so that they can read from the Torah, reflect and write about the meaning of prayers and their connections to them, and learn the words and melodies to familiar and unfamiliar prayers.
We have struggled with this in the past–devoting so much time in class for what on some level looks like rote learning (when, at our cores, we are very invested in the constructivist/critical thinking learning models)–but there is no doubt that the result is always beautiful and transcendent.
We were trained in the Understanding by Design method–a model of teaching and learning that posits assessments must be authentic i.e. like a real-world situation in order for them to have meaning, retention, and transference for the students.
That being said, isn’t this Shabbat service the most authentic of assessments? Despite the fact that it looks like memorization, students are learning the skills to participate in any Jewish Shabbat service that they attend. This skill they will use in the next year –which will bring them many many Bnai Mitzvah services and celebrations– but even more so, this is a skill they can use the rest of their lives.
It raises the constant tension in Jewish education about keva (routine) vs. kavannah (spirituality). Sometimes there is a benefit in just learning the motions– because once you learn the motions, then you can start thinking on a higher level and bring yourself to a deeper spiritual place. It is hard to reach a place of meaning during a worship service if you are stumbling through the words, or feel unsure of yourself. Now that our students have honed their skills at participating in a Shabbat service, they are in a place where they will be better setup to find that spiritual place as they mature.