The Importance of Reflection

Frieda Cattan, Magen David Yeshivah High School
Brooklyn, NY
2016-17/5777 school year
Jewish History
Grade 9

Discovering PBL

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.

It took me time to figure out how I would implement PBL in a Jewish history class, but together with the help of my Magen David Yeshivah High School colleagues Tikvah Wiener and Naomi Weiss, we created a scaffolded PBL unit that included each of the PBL components. I implemented the unit three years ago for the first time, and while doing so posed many challenges -- as anyone who has tried PBL for the first time can tell you -- overall it was a great success.

The Components of PBL

My driving question for the year was “How did we as Jews get here? How have we arrived at our particular place and time in history today?” We started that exploration in the ancient world, where the driving question I chose for that era was, “What artifact best represents the time period, and why should a museum curator include it in an exhibition?”

Step One: Research

To answer the driving question, I gave each student a partner/group and an artifact from the time of the ancient Near East to explore.

Students conducted research as part of their in-depth inquiry and had to use primary and secondary sources. Guided by the librarian, the students learned how to differentiate between a reliable and unreliable source, gaining mastery in the 21st-century competency of using the Internet in a sophisticated manner. The research also satisfied their need to know how we got here as Jews, showing them that our journey to 21st-century America started long ago. Overall, the research portion of the project gave the students grounding in the time period, giving them the significant content they needed to progress through the project.

A trip to the Metropolitan Museum not only introduced students to the research process, it sparked their curiosity and got them excited about our project!

A trip to the Metropolitan Museum not only introduced students to the research process, it sparked their curiosity and got them excited about our project!

Step Two: Creating a PowerPoint

Students sifted through their research and created a PowerPoint, becoming competent in a 21st-century digital skill. They had freedom during this part of the project to decide how to organize and present their information, making decisions about text and images that would best represent their research and begin to answer the driving question. Students also had voice and choice in where they wanted to work. Some were more comfortable in the classroom with a chrome book from a cart, and some chose to work in the school’s Mac lab. Honoring how students work best was important to me, as was creating a comfortable classroom environment.

Students develop digital literacy with online research and PPT creation

Students develop digital literacy with online research and PPT creation

Step Three: Creating a Replica of the Artifact

I view creativity as a 21st-century competency, and so I had the students visually represent their artifacts. They were allowed to choose the way they would do so -- another way voice and choice became part of the unit -- and wrote a supply list of materials they needed. It was amazing to see how real the artifacts looked and how excited students became about completing this part of the PBL unit.

Students get creative as they make replicas of their artifacts

Students get creative as they make replicas of their artifacts

Note: one misconception about PBL is that it’s “arts and crafts” and “not rigorous.” Skeptics see students creating things like artifacts and think PBL is silly. Bringing an artifact to life by recreating it, however, was another way students grappled with what their artifact was, how it related to the time period, it svalue and significance in understanding history, and why a curator would choose to select it for a museum exhibit. Therefore, making a replica was only part of a larger, more sophisticated unit.

Step Four: Oral Presentation

An important 21st-century competency is oral presentation. Taking a test shows individual mastery of course material, but students must feel comfortable sharing information in a public setting. When you have to articulate a concept, you also show mastery of it in a different way than when you write it on an exam. Students realized that unless they really understood their research, they couldn’t present it in a coherent, persuasive manner.

Students make their presentations to the class

Students make their presentations to the class

Presenting orally also prepares students for the workplace, giving them confidence and sophistication in the real world.

I gave my students tips on how to be a successful public speaker. First, I shared a personal story with them of a time at my own elementary school graduation where I was asked to make a speech. As I stood at the pulpit and looked at the audience, I got choked up, broke down in tears, and ran off the stage. But I worked on this challenge over the years and chose a career as a teacher, where I have to get up every day and speak to an audience!

Sharing my own story with my students was very helpful, as was this video I showed them about Steve Jobs and how he perfected the art of public speaking. His take away tips were very practical and easy to mimic.

Step Five: Critique and Revision

Critique and revision is one of the most important components of PBL. In more traditional classrooms, we often don’t take the time to let students review and revise their work and reflect on their progress in real time, as their learning is happening; but I explained tomy students that “Feedback is a gift.” Of course, I had to convince them of that. I had to change their mindsets and show them that feedback isn’t criticism but something to help them grow and develop, as it did for me as a teacher. Again, sharing some of my personal stories inspired them to be open to their classmates’ critiques.

Another important way to effect this mindset shift is to make sure the classroom is a safe space. The activities we had done already as a class created an environment where students felt comfortable and loved, so adding critique and revision to the class became possible. I also showed the students Ron Berger’s The Story of Austin’s Butterfly and highly recommend this video for anyone -- teacher or student -- skeptic of feedback. It will convert you instantly, as it did me and my students.

Students become empowered and learn the importance of iteration by giving and receiving feedback

Students become empowered and learn the importance of iteration by giving and receiving feedback

At the critique and revision portion of the class, each group of students presented their research and artifact, explaining why they thought their artifact was most appropriate for a museum exhibit of the time period. After receiving feedback, the groups had one week to revise their presentations before the “final production.”

Step Six: Public Audience

For the final presentation, I connected with a curator and a program director from the Yeshiva University Museum. They came to Magen David Yeshivah to hear my students’ presentations and give their own feedback, which by then my students felt very comfortable hearing. Getting freshmen ready to present their work to museum curators and employees took a lot of prep time, but my students felt incredibly proud of themselves over what they had accomplished and saw that the research they had done, the knowledge and skills they had gained, and the activities in which they had engaged all had a purpose in the real world. In fact, someone from the real world had come to validate their hard work.

YU Museum curator Mrs. Bonni-Dara Michaels (right) and Program Director Mrs. Ilana Benson (left) hear student presentations. Presenting to a public audience gives authenticity to student work, making learning matter in the real world

YU Museum curator Mrs. Bonni-Dara Michaels (right) and Program Director Mrs. Ilana Benson (left) hear student presentations. Presenting to a public audience gives authenticity to student work, making learning matter in the real world

Step Seven?

 You may have thought we were done. I mean, we went through all the components of the PBL wheel, but actually I have one more, and in my opinion, the final step of the project is the most significant and the most meaningful: reflection.

Reflection allows students to think about their project in a deep way, about how they performed and how they can improve. When I did reflection with my students, I gave them BIE’s self-reflection form to fill out. The students found it difficult to do so at first; they struggled with the reflection process, but ultimately they felt accomplished at what they discovered about themselves and confident enough that they wanted to share their reflections with the class.

They became aware of their strengths and weaknesses, their likes and dislikes. They expressed what parts of their work they were very proud of and what they thought they could do better at going forward. In fact, on the day we shared reflections in class, they began to argue over who was going to speak first;  they all wanted a chance to before the bell rang. Listening to the students’ reflections was so powerful. Here are some examples of reflection questions I gave and some student responses:

1.    What was the most enjoyable part of the project?

“The most enjoyable part of the project was seeing what we researched come to life through creating a replica of our artifact.” -- S.K

“Getting together as a class and listening to each other and interacting, instead of taking a boring test.” --  V.C.

“Orally presenting was my favorite part even though it was scary; I like facing my fears.” -- O.I.

“I loved giving feedback and receiving it. It was really helpful and made me more confident.” R.L.

2. What was the least enjoyable part of the project?

“I found the research very hard. There were many aspects that we could have focused on and it was hard to choose.”

“Revising over and over again.”

Taking feedback; it made me question my work.” -- E.D.

“Getting paint all over me while making the artifact.” --R.S.

“Presenting. I was nervous and thought I had forgotten information.” -- E.B.

“The audience. Having the principal [in the room] gets me very nervous.” -- E.K.

3. What is the most important thing you learned in this project?

“How to [improve] my teamwork, and how to [project] confidence when speaking.” -- E.K.

“How to deepen my research.” -- J.Z.

“That feedback is a gift, to take it and improve.”

“Every time you publicly speak, you get better.”

“I learned so much about the past and through the artifacts, I could really observe and feel it as if it were real.” -- S.Z.

“I learned how to make a Powerpoint.” -- R.L.

4. What do you wish you had spent more time on or done differently? 

“I wish I had more time to learn how to publicly speak and let my words flow more.” -- R.F.

“I wish I had spent more time rehearsing my slides so that I didn’t have to read off the Powerpoint.” -- M.S.

I wish I [had] spent more time on our artifact because we worked hard and didn’t [get] the results we expected.” -- R.C.

I wish I spent more time revising so I [could] perfect the Powerpoint.” -- S.M.

5. What part of the project did you do your best work on?

“My artifact [looked] very real.” -- P.W.

“I did the best on gathering information.” -- R.B.

“I think I did the best work on my artifact. It was very fun to create and the outcome was beautiful.” -- E.D.

“I did the best work on my presentation. I didn’t use the words ‘um’ or ‘like’ once.” -- V.C.

6. Their reflections were also a benefit for me as the teacher. When asked how the teacher could change this project to make it better, they responded:

“By not putting more than three girls in a group.” -- V.C.

“More time for our Powerpoints.” -- R.C.

“Present only to the teacher first, then the class, then the principal.” -- T.C.

“Let us pick our own partners.” -- R.F.

“I give her an A+.” -- S.S.

“I thought Mrs. Cattan gave us ample time and materials and coordinated everything perfectly.” -- P.T.

“I like how she split up the parts of the project, scaffolding steps.” -- S.C.

“It was perfect.”

“I think you did a great job creating this project. I had a lot of fun and learned many new skills and facts that I never knew before. I also felt independent because this project was ours. It was fun to finally be able to think for ourselves.” -- P.W.

“I wouldn’t change it in any way.”

Through reflection, students discovered the value of spending time thinking about themselves as learners. Their reflections also enabled me to reflect as a teacher, and my PBL unit has changed dramatically over the last three years as a result.

When I started doing PBL, the wheel, as you can see, didn’t have reflection. Since the Buck Institute of Education revised it, however, creating Gold Standard PBL, look what’s been added:

Upon reflection, I couldn’t be more pleased.

Magen David Yeshivah High School Jewish History teacher Frieda Cattan takes us through her freshman PBL unit, Return to Zion. The driving question" What artifact best represents the time period?


For a great list of reflection questions, check out this resource.