I had a chance to chat recently with Ken Gordon, my good friend and colleague who’s on The Idea School Advisory Board. Ken and I first found each other on social media, when a group of Jewish educators were meeting regularly online for #jedchat. Ken Gordon suggested we all read a book called The Sorcerers and Their Apprentices, which was about the MIT Media Lab. At about the same time, I was really getting into project-based learning, having founded a PBL club called RealSchool, so the book resonated with me tremendously, and I called Ken to have a real life conversation with him. Our friendship and collaboration took off from there. (Who says nothing good comes from social media?)
Project Based Learning (PBL) is educationally sound and a wonderful way to energize and engage students in the learning process. Students learn how to develop and apply critical thinking skills as well as how to develop clear and effective presentations and then communicate their accomplishments both orally and through journaling or written reports. They learn how to work collaboratively with others as a team. These important skill sets also prepare students for success in college.
The Buck Institute of Education’s PBL World felt like a teacher’s Disneyland. The event, which I attended this year, takes place in Napa Valley, California, where hundreds of educators and administrators from all over the world gather to learn more about BIE’s Gold Standard of Project-Based Learning.
What is it that you hope your children will become as a result of their Jewish day school education? As a parent of young children and as a Jewish day school educator, I want my children and my student to grow into knowledgeable and literate Jews, capable of sustaining engagement with their Jewish learning and identity throughout their lives. I imagine that I am not alone in my hope that my children will be simultaneously invested in building their lives around Jewish and Torah values, while also contributing to a broader, secular community. I would imagine that we would want our children to think critically and deeply about the complexity inherent in their Jewish identity and observance, while still feeling immense pride for and love of their religion, sacred texts, and cherished traditions.
In almost every religion, philosophy and discipline, there are two equal-and-opposing forces: good and evil, yin and yang, negative and positive charges. Freud called them Eros (love or life) and Thanatos (death), and modern psychology talks about approach and avoidance, while economics discusses risk tolerance. Our genes are wired so that we can quickly discern whether something is safe or dangerous, and we view experiences through the lens of the familiar or comfortable and the new or discomfiting. Personalities vary along this spectrum; some of us race to the next challenge, while others prefer to stick with what they’re good at.
When I first began teaching six years ago, I was a traditional educator, and that’s not surprising: I was reproducing how I was taught as a student. But then I discovered project-based learning (PBL), which very much intrigued me, making me think about how this methodology could make learning fun, relevant, and meaningful for students. When I began learning about PBL, I was introduced to the Buck Institute of Education’s original “wheel” of PBL elements, shown below.
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?”
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?”
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.
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?