The AHA Moment

      
Shabbat lunch at my father’s and the question comes up, “How’s the new school doing?”  An update on parlor meetings and parent/donor interest inevitably turns back to “explain it to me again.”

As I start to explain Project-Based Learning’s holistic approach to learning in which English, History and other humanities are not taught as separate subjects, I hear the near universal objection from those steeped in our traditional subject-by-subject learning model:

“How can you not teach English? Don’t you know the story?”

“Which story?” I ask.  (In 85 years my father has accumulated a LOT of stories!)          

So he tells the story of how the scientist, a Ph.D. in Biology, got her big break almost 30 years ago. After returning from a conference, the scientist was asked to write a report for the rest of her company about the proceedings. The CEO was so impressed by her ability to write clearly that he asked her to start attending management meetings to take notes and write up the minutes. Additional promotions followed from there.

AHA! Now you know why we need Project-Based Learning. We want all our graduates to be as valued by their future colleagues, employers and collaborators as your scientist.

At The Idea School, students and graduates with superior communication and writing skills will be standard, not exceptional. Instead of multiple choice tests to see if students successfully memorized the significant dates of the Napoleonic wars, they will give presentations of how Napoleon came to power, what led to his downfall, and what we can learn from it.

Yes, our students will spend less time memorizing lists of vocabulary words. They may never spend time with different colored pencils highlighting the parts of a sentence. 

What they will do, is acquire the writing skills needed to communicate and explain what they have learned and then apply that knowledge in real time to answer real world questions.  As discussed above, those are the critical skills that will lead to their success as adults.

History teachers are often asked by students “does spelling count in this class?”  At The Idea School, spelling, grammar, word choices and even font styles always matter.  Why?  Because when you apply to colleges and for jobs, write grant proposals or pitch a new educational model, presentation is as important as content. 

How a Design Challenge made Ancient Jewish History Real

Ms. Rebecca Berger
Jewish History, 6th grade
Sinai Akiba Academy
Los Angeles, CA
 

I had been teaching Ancient Jewish History to 6th graders in a Jewish day school for 10 years, and every year when I reached the point in the curriculum when I attempted to teach the transition between Biblical and Rabbinic Judaism I struggled. How could my students conceptualize such a huge shift in Jewish practice? And more importantly, why would eleven-year-olds care?

In order to address these dilemmas, I sought  the support of veteran Project Based Learning educators at the I.D.E.A. Schools Network Summer Sandbox. Reimagining my 6th grade Jewish History course, I created a trimester-long design challenge. I asked my students, “Just as the early rabbis had to completely reimagine Jewish life to ensure Judaism’s survival, how might we reimagine Jewish life so that Judaism continues to thrive for the next 2000 years?”

The Planning Process

Using the Understanding by Design method, I established my Enduring Understandings and Essential Questions:

Enduring Understandings:

  • Judaism’s current practice is based on the past but must remain meaningful in the present.
  • Jewish innovations require balancing tradition and change.

 Essential Questions:

  • Why does Judaism continue to change?
  • How might we make Jewish practices more meaningful and engaging?
  • What makes a practice “Jewish”?

I then delineated what I wanted students to know and be able to do by the end of the unit and finally, designed both formative and summative assessments.

 

Implementation

Students experienced all of the steps of the design challenge process--empathy, defining the problem, research, radical brainstorming, prototyping, revising, and reflection. I was amazed when students collected more than twenty potential challenges including such topics as the expense of B’nai Mitzvah, kavanah in prayer, and intermarriage. Students worked in self-selected teams on the challenge that was most meaningful to them and received feedback from their peers on their initial prototype ideas and prototype revisions using the critical friends protocol. Finally, students presented their prototypes to an authentic audience including camp, religious school, and Hillel directors, rabbis, professors, teachers, and family members.

Authentic Audience is Essential

The afternoon of the Design Challenge Presentations, the students’ nervousness and excitement were palpable. Students were dressed professionally, proudly donning their presenter name tags. Fifty 6th graders, their parents, teachers and community leaders gathered together as student representatives shared their reflections on each step of the design challenge process. Then students and guests divided into groups for prototype presentations, and students received feedback from both their peers and guests using the critical friends protocol. With the help of teacher facilitators, students’ presentations served as a catalyst for a multi-generational, rich conversation around issues that matter to our community.

While the design challenge process might have achieved my goal of having the students understand how Judaism needs to change with the times, it was especially meaningful because of the interactions it fostered among students, parents and communal leaders. During the dessert reception following the presentations, students rushed to tell me how the synagogue’s youth group director loved their idea and is going to help them plan their Jewish Game Night. Rabbis shared how the conversations with parents and students helped them gain insight into how kids think about prayer, and one parent gushed, “This is why I send my son to Jewish day school!”

One 6th grade student reflected, “When I was given this assignment, I thought it was just a hypothetical situation, but now after having presented to leaders in this Jewish community, I realized that my ideas could someday become actualized.” Significantly, the design challenge process--and authentic audience--spurred my students to see themselves as kids who have the power to effect real change.

Final Thoughts

Just as we try to teach our students that it is necessary to fail in order to move forward, I had to embrace that mindset myself. For example, I wasted an entire class period trying to get my students to “define the problem.” When I failed to teach my students how to write effective user need statements, I sought out a coach, read online, and figured out what I needed to do differently when we revisited this step the next class session. Similarly, though intellectually I knew all the benefits of inviting an authentic audience for students’ presentations, I had a moment of fear in which I confided to my supervisor, “What if the students’ presentations are horrible?” to which she immediately responded, “So we learn for next year.” I am grateful to work in a school environment that supports risk-taking.

Through this design challenge, not only did my students learn about the transition from Biblical to Rabbinic Judaism, but they also truly saw themselves as part of a tradition of Jewish innovation. As one student asserted, “My personal goal as an innovator is to make Judaism live forever.” As a Jewish educator, I can’t ask for more than that.

The Power of the Arts in Judaic Studies

Mrs. Daniella Botnick
Judaic Studies, Tanach
Fuchs-Mizrahi School
Cleveland, OH

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This year I was given a group of five junior and senior students who all were uninterested or unable to take Gemara. I was asked to teach them anything related to Judaism that they would connect with, and I decided to try to focus on midrash, as this way the students would be exposed to some form of Rabbinic writing. I also chose midrash because of its often metaphorical approach that need not be taken literally and lends itself to multiple interpretations. As I began teaching, I experimented one day with taking a midrash we had just learned and asking the students to  convey their connection to the midrash through drawing. We had just learned the midrash about why Chana's tefilla became the paradigm of a perfect prayer, and I conveyed to them the idea that what made it so powerful was Chana's ability to honestly open up to G-d and speak her mind freely. I asked them to draw how they thought Chana felt throughout her tefilla. The drawings they produced were phenomenal, but more importantly, the students seemed extremely engaged throughout the process. 
 
I realized I was on to something. 
 
So I stuck with this approach -- I would teach a section of pshat [literal meaning of verses in the Torah] in Tanach, and then I would teach some midrash on the topic. I would then ask the students to draw their interpretation of the midrash and attach a "write up" that explained how their art connected to the pshat and drash [Rabbinic interpretation] of what we learned. Most of the girls in the class preferred the medium of fine art (using different forms of paint, pastels, paper and canvas), but one preferred taking photos and writing poetry. I'm sure if I had a larger group of students I would have had some students write songs or create drama. 

The course was more successful than I could have imagined it would be, and we culminated the year with a very successful art exhibit where many people came to hear the students explain the meaning behind their artwork. The most successful part of this exhibit for me was hearing from my students who were interviewed for a video we showed at the exhibit about why they liked learning in this manner. They explained that prior to this year, they had felt disconnected from Rabbinic writing, as if it were "made-up" stuff that didn't seem relevant to them. Throughout this course, however, they felt like they had a voice in understanding and interpreting the pshat through their own eyes, while still being able to appreciate the perspective of the Rabbis on the text.  

Because of the success of the class it will be offered again to students interested in taking art and exploring midrash. A few tangible successes that emerged from the course was that one of my senior girls decided to go to learn in seminary for a year in Israel. This decision was, in large part, due to her reconnection to learning Torah. Another junior student insisted at the end of year that she had to learn Honors Gemara next year. Whether or not she does is not the point for me: obviously something has been reignited in her soul. I am truly humbled by the power of the arts to help reconnect people to their Judaism and to learning traditional text. This year was an amazing experience, and I'm very curious to see how next year will be.
 

Why Now? Why The Idea School? Why Me?

Richard Langer, Board Member

In the few days since I joined the board of The Idea School, conversations with friends, acquaintances and family have all started with at least one or two and sometimes all three of these questions.

Why would a proud and dedicated Frisch parent who always talks up the school become so involved in this new venture?  Why would someone who already has a full calendar of late night board and committee meetings take on more of the same?  Why do we need another high school at all?  Most of all, what is it about The Idea School that makes it so compelling?

Why now?  

Simply put, the existing Yeshiva high schools (2 for girls and 3 for boys) in Bergen County cannot absorb all the students coming out of our growing day schools.  That is why the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey is supporting our efforts.  That is why we are creating up to fifty seats in our first freshman class in fall 2018 to meet the demand.

Why The Idea School?   

Smaller Jewish communities don’t have the luxury of choice and experimentation. Many Jewish communities struggle to fill all the seats in one day school or high school. We are blessed with six day schools that have the opportunity to experiment and differentiate themselves without the pressure for “one size fits all” curricula, which in some cases turns into “one size fits none”.

Having choices is a blessing and a little friendly competition keeps our schools committed to high-quality education. The plethora of schools, shuls, kosher shopping and dining make Bergen County attractive to new families.  New families in turn create new opportunities for all these organizations and businesses to grow and flourish.  

Yet care is needed in a community with so many choices. We have to be vigilant that competition does not lead to narrow bands of differentiation.  A parent told me the reason they chose a particular school for their daughter was because the girls learn Talmud from photocopies and they rejected the school where the girls learn from a volume of shas.  In other words, everything about the schools was the same so the decision came down to the smallest differentiators.

The Idea School is purposely not “more of the same.”  Our Project-Based Learning model offers a unique Yeshiva high school experience. Side by side with building a great high school, we will be developing open-source materials and providing hands-on training for teachers to learn and take back to their home schools.

Parents and student can learn more about our educational model at https://www.theideaschool.org/mission/ and https://www.theideaschool.org/approach/, or by attending one of our upcoming parlor meetings.  To see how the model has worked in the world of education, watch this video about the High Tech Schools in San Diego, CA.

Why me?

So what motivates me to work nights and weekends bringing The Idea School from concept to reality?  The answer starts with our co-Heads of School, Tikvah Wiener and Rabbi Michael Bitton.  I met Tikvah during her time at Frisch when she became a teacher, mentor and friend to my oldest daughter. Since meeting Michael I have become convinced that they are the right people to lead this venture.  

I believe in our educational model.  Before moving to Teaneck, I was a parent at the Netivot Montessori day school in Edison.  The experience convinced me that alternatives to the traditional subject based classroom with lecture, recital and homework are needed in our schools. The net result of the Project Based Learning model is that teachers spend more time one on one or in small groups with students, and students take a more active role in their education. I have also been impressed with the effect that alternative educational models have on the social structure of schools with more collaboration and partnership leading to fewer incidents of bullying and isolation.

Finally, I am passionate about building Jewish institutions committed to best practices in both daily operations and corporate governance. I look forward to working with Tikvah, Michael and my fellow board members to create a school committed to transparent, open communications and a true partnership with parents, donors and other community organizations.

To get involved with The Idea School or to make a donation, please visit our website www.theideaschool.org or email us at tikvah.wiener@gmail.com.