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.