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What do we think about when we think of these terms? How are we — as teachers crafting lessons, resource room specialists supporting students, and administrators looking at curriculum design and course schedules — taking into account the varying needs of our students?
A Visit to Luria Academy and Room on the Bench
I recently had the privilege of visiting The Luria Academy, a Jewish Montessori school in Brooklyn, NY. Luria has a unique approach to meeting the needs of diverse learners, and that’s thanks in large part to Dana Keil, the school’s Director of Special Education and one of the fellows in my Joshua Venture Group cohort. Dana’s venture is called Room on the Bench, and it helps Jewish schools implement fully inclusive special education programs.
This is the type of program I saw at Luria when I visited with Naomi Weiss, who works with me at Magen David Yeshivah High School, supporting teachers in implementing the latest pedagogies, including those that include differentiation. Naomi and I were joined by Shelley Cohen, a relative of mine who founded and runs the Jewish Inclusion Project, which trains rabbis and educators in creating fully inclusive programming.
What Naomi, Shelley, and I saw at Luria was truly inspiring. The school has all the mainstays of the Montessori educational approach: students, grouped by age in multi-age settings, are taught to take ownership of their learning and become reflective about it. The students progress in their learning at their own rate, working alone or in small groups to master material and move through the daily and weekly assignments they have. Peer learning is common, and a peace and calm pervades the classrooms and school.
Perhaps this is why a fully inclusive program works so well in the school: the model means everyone gets “special” attention and an individuated learning plan. When an occupational, physical, or speech therapist or reading or other learning specialist enters the Montessori classroom, it isn’t an intrusion; it’s just a seamless part of a bustling and active room in which a myriad of learning experiences are occurring. One more doesn’t attract attention or seem out of place.
All Learners are Diverse
Education is now embracing models which emphasize personalized, self-directed learning and collaboration among peers, and as a result teachers’ roles are changing: educators are being asked to facilitate the learning that goes on in the classroom, not simply by standing in the front of the room, but by circulating among students who are involved in multiple tasks. In short, education is becoming a bit more Montessori-like, and that means we have an opportunity to rethink what we mean when we use terms such as differentiation, diverse learners, individualized educational plan, and special education. We have a chance to create a classroom that is a lot more democratic, one that is genuinely diverse, and not one that simply uses the term as a gentle euphemism.
Differentiation at the High Tech Schools
On February 25, I’m going to be meeting up with a group of Jewish educators who are visiting the High Tech public charter schools in San Diego, CA. These unique schools, founded and run by Larry Rosenstock, have a similar approach to differentiation as Luria does. That is because, as Larry has said, the foundation of his school is not a particular pedagogy or even the beautiful work that is the hallmark of the High Tech brand.
As Larry explains, the foundation of his school is equity: the idea that each student should have the same access to education and opportunities within it as any other. This is manifested in the school’s complicated algorithms that ensure a student in an underrepresented zip code gets chosen in the lottery system the public schools have established for its charter schools.
Over winter vacation, Magen David’s Associate Principal Mrs. Sabrina Maleh and Yeshivat Noam’s PBL expert and Middle School Science Teacher and Curriculum Designer Ms. Aliza Chanales did a winter residency at the High Tech schools. They had a chance to ask the special education teachers what it was like to teach at the schools, and the teachers were honest: they said it was sometimes difficult to get all the students to perform at the same level and complete the kind of high-quality work the school is famous for. So the fully inclusive model is not without its challenges.
Its benefits, though, are pretty impressive. On my first visit to the High Tech schools, this past June with Dr. Eliezer Jones, Eliezer and I spoke with middle school math and science teacher Marc Shulman. He told us about the way he differentiates math lessons in his fully inclusive class, noting some of the challenges he encountered in the process. But he also told us that because all the students are in the same classroom, once the math lesson is over and the class has moved on to another task, such as woodworking — a particular favorite of his — some students who were less proficient at math suddenly found themselves shining in the new activity. And some students who shone when they could do math on paper suddenly struggled when they had to apply it to the physical world. He watched as the roles of those who were expert and those who needed support were reversed.
When we silo kids from each other, putting them in fixed tracks and not letting them see each other in multiple settings doing tasks that trigger various modalities of thinking and doing, we may end up labelling students — and, worse, letting them label each other. These labels can be harmful in so many ways. One of the ways is that they make students believe they are not “smart.” We’ve been hearing a lot lately about Carol Dweck’s fixed vs. growth mindsets, and in the February 21-22 issue of the Wall Street Journal, Alison Gopnik writes about IQ and the fact that “[s]cientists have largely given up on the idea of ‘innate talent,’ a “change that might seem implausible and startling.” However, Gopnik explains:
Biologists talk about the relationship between a “genotype,” the information in your DNA, and a “phenotype,” the characteristics of an adult organism. These relationships turn out to be so complicated that parceling them out into percentages of nature and nurture is impossible. And most significantly, these complicated relationships can change as environments change.
James Flynn, at New Zealand’s University of Otago, and others have shown that absolute IQ scores have been steadily and dramatically increasing, by as much as three points a decade. . . . The best explanation [for the phenomenon] is that we have consciously transformed our society into a world where schools are ubiquitous. So even though genes contribute to whatever IQ scores measure, IQ can change radically as a result of changes in environment. Abstract thinking and a thirst for knowledge might once have been a genetic quirk. In a world of schools, they become the human inheritance.
Gopnik says, “Thinking in terms of “innate talent” often leads to a kind of fatalism,” but she states that the actual science of genes and environment means that if “we want more talented children, we can change the world to create them (my italics).”
Makers in Israel have started gathering for Tikkun Olam [Fixing the World] Make-a-Thons to help those with disabilities become as the video below says “closer to life.” I love that phrase. We all want to live “closer to life.” If we’re using language such as resource room and special education to distance students from the center of the learning experience and therefore from life, then we aren’t doing them justice. We need to rethink the way we enact diverse learning in Jewish day schools, and we should be assured that doing so is really quite a Jewish notion, given the deep sense of justice that permeates our religious life.
The Summer Sandboxes
The Summer Sandbox, the I.D.E.A. Schools Network project-based learning (PBL) conference, has run for three years on the East Coast and was introduced to the West Coast this past July. Educators attend the Sandbox to learn about PBL — what its components are, how to project design and create alternative assessments, how to weave creativity and innovation into a PBL unit, how to include student voice and choice — and the culture in which it thrives. We like to begin each day of the Sandbox with ice breakers that reflect PBL pedagogy and also get participants thinking in new ways about school and how it’s run. On the second day of both the East and West Coast Sandboxes this year, we asked attendees to redesign the school day, and this is a great activity to do at professional development or with students themselves. It would be interesting to see what kids come up with.
This was the “assignment” we gave our participants:
School Day Redesign
The I.D.E.A. Schools Network has been asked to create a PBL school and needs your help restructuring the school day.
EAT. PRAY. PLAY.
All we need to retain in the school day is lunch, a minimum of one prayer/meditation service, and physical exercise.
Redesign the school day using those parameters. Anything else about the current day can change.
Age: 6th grade to adult
Size of each group: 6-8 people
Context: professional development or student ice breaker
Time frame: 30-40 minutes
Materials: Large post-its for the group to write their schedule on. Sharpies. We had each group post their schedule and created a gallery of the schedules that participants could view.
We had the groups work for 20-25 minutes and then we shared out for 10-15 minutes. Our share out didn’t focus on what kind of school day the groups created. Rather, we focused on the process. Thanks to Dr. Yechiel Hoffman, for facilitating the share out on the West Coast and developing the reflection questions, and to Mrs. Leah Herzog, for facilitating the discussion on the East Coast. Here are some reflection questions we asked:
Who found the challenge fun? Scary? Hard? One or more? Why?
Did you stick to the rules of the game? Did you stick to your roles? Why or why not?
How did you work as a group? Was it easy to collaborate? Especially if you were in your roles?
We divided participants up by table, and an additional element to the ice breaker was that we had each participant play a role in his/her group. For example, we had the educators play the role of principal, director of educational technology, math teacher, parent, 2nd grader, 7th grader, 10th grader, and parent.
One of the elements that’s key for us in this “game” is the fact that educators get to experience what it’s like to be handed a challenge that they have to figure out. This lets them experience what it’s like as a student to be handed an assignment or project that is a little open-ended, with no right answer. It’s important for teachers to understand exactly what the PBL process feels like from the students’ point of view. In fact, creating empathy is something that’s key in PBL: when we were project designing at the Sandboxes, we noted that while we began planning PBL units with the curriculum we wanted to cover or the success skills — such as reading comprehension, collaboration, digital literacy, or oral presentation — we wanted to build, we ended by considering how our students would be growing socially and emotionally.
An example: when we were project tuning a middle school history PBL unit, we started by building into the unit the immigration curriculum that the teachers wanted to cover. The unit asked students to explore their own family’s immigration story — finding it no matter how far back it went — connecting it to various others’ throughout history and then to the early twentieth century in America, the focal point of the history unit. The unit built empathy by asking students in multiple ways what it meant to be “new” in an environment, whether that environment was school, a neighborhood, or a new country. Anti-bullying and anti-discrimination campaigns ended up being included in the PBL unit. While the latter was a more obvious way to get students to grow emotionally through the unit, the former was one that surprised us all, but made us realize how much the learning could permeate areas we had never intended it to go.
Another way this element of empathy was created through the ice breaker was by asking participants to inhabit a persona other than their own. Of course, watching participants sticking to the role of 2nd or 7th grader or sophomore was often hilarious — in fact, one group had so many recess and juice bar breaks that we had to ask them if perhaps they had given their students a bit too much voice in the decision-making process. But the exercise produced fascinating results. When we reflected on the activity, one participant at the West Coast Sandbox commented, “I kept finding myself reverting back to being me. I had to remind myself to play the role I was assigned.” Others admitted that they had found the roles too hard and had simply abandoned them, planning the school day in their own voices. We were able to point out at the reflection the importance of trying to get into someone else’s shoes and feeling what the world looks like from their view.
A New School Day
Of course, the actual exercise was appealing to us as well. One of the goals of the Sandbox is to push participants to change paradigms, to really challenge the status quo. Educational Consultant Jonathan Cannon talks about this frequently, asking educators if they’re stuck by TWWADI: The Way We’ve Always Done It. Interesting for us to note was that many groups didn’t really change the structure of the school day all that much, even given the parameters of the game. Other groups really blew up the school day schedule: they had interdisciplinary blocks of learning that were not divided by subject but by thoughtfully designed learning experiences that covered a multitude of disciplines. Whatever disciplines weren’t covered by one learning block were covered by another. In this new paradigm, teachers and students worked in teams to produce the projects, and learning blocks were bracketed by time throughout the day to eat, pray or meditate, exercise, and reflect. In short, the day provided opportunities to learn in a rigorous, creative way, but also to sit back, take a break, or to think about learning in a mindful way.
Overloaded and Underprepared
In Denise Pope, Maureen Brown, and Sarah Miles’ new book, Overloaded and Underprepared, the researchers ask us to question the status quo of loading down students with so many subjects and so much work that kids don’t have time to breathe, reflect, or perhaps even exercise properly, given the demanding schedules they have. Chapter Two of the book is entitled “A Saner Schedule” and asks us to re-evaluate the school day. Actually, the book came out on the first day of the West Coast Sandbox, July 23, so our ice breaker turned out to be a funny coincidence. Or not such a coincidence: we’re all thinking, it seems, that our kids are doing too much, that their school days and nights of extra-curricular activities are just too exhausting. For that matter, we might be noticing that despite advances in technologies that supposedly make our lives easier, we as adults are working too hard and are having a harder time than ever before achieving a work-life balance.
One suggestion that Overloaded and Underprepared makes is to give middle and high schoolers a later start time. This idea comes with the backing of recent neuroscience research which shows that the circadian rhythm of teenagers differs from an adult one. The fact that teenagers tend to sleep late and stay up late isn’t something that’s gone unnoticed — in fact, classic fairy tales show an understanding of this basic scientific knowledge, sending heroine after heroine into a deep sleep that anyone who’s been or parented an adolescent can recognize. Pope, Brown, and Miles immediately address the concern of whether a late start time leads to a late school day end that causes conflict with after-school activities and homework by putting forth the idea Sandbox participants came up with: block scheduling. The book also points out that a modified block schedule might be more realistic for schools, especially when they’re first embracing a new way to look at class time slots. A school may want its students to have math or a foreign language every day; frequent, shorter classes may be more appropriate for those courses, but others may benefit from longer stretches of time. Not meeting every day also means students aren’t doing homework for every subject every night.
Magen David Yeshivah High School, one of the Founding Schools of the I.D.E.A. Schools Network, moved to a modified block schedule last school year. The school, which is embracing PBL, understood that the collaboration and creative thinking it needed students to engage in couldn’t be done in 40-45 periods. As the school’s principal Rabbi Saul Zucker says, “We moved to block scheduling to afford our students blocks of time to delve more deeply into a lesson.” Magen David has devoted extensive time and resources — and is continuing to do so this year: twenty teachers from the school came to the East Coast Sandbox, and the Network is recreating one of the Sandbox days during the school’s professional development days next week — to showing faculty how to maximize learning in a block schedule.
As Overloaded and Underprepared points out, “[J]ust stringing together two traditional 45-minute lesson plans to fill a 90-minute block isn’t necessarily going to improve student learning and certainly isn’t taking advantage of what a block schedule might offer in terms of engaging pedagogy and curriculum” (24). Magen David faculty saw that right away and worked throughout the year on developing PBL units, crafting alternative assessments, using rotational models in the classroom, and generally giving students more opportunities to think creatively and produce creative work that reflected their learning. By the end of the first year of working in block scheduling modules, many teachers remarked that they didn’t know how they ever taught in only 40-minute periods!
The discussion ten or fifteen years ago was about how to integrate technology into the classroom; while that conversation is and still should be going on, a new one has developed around which are the right pedagogies to employ for today’s world and students. This redesign the school day game gets teachers and students involved in that question. We can’t wait to hear their answers.
The Need to Know
So far, Eliezer Jones and I have introduced the basic components of PBL and discussed how it includes significant content. This post will explore the Need to Know that is a crucial part of setting up a successful PBL unit. To review, let’s consider the component, described by the Buck Institute of Education (BIE):
Students see the need to gain knowledge, understand concepts, and apply skills in order to understand the Driving Question and create project products, beginning with an Entry Event that generates curiosity and interest.
We’ll explore the Driving Question in greater depth in a later post, but for those who need an explanation of it, it’s the question that drives the learning and that connects it to a real-world problem or application. For a quick peek at Driving Questions, check out this blog post from edutopia, one of our favorite sites for PBL.
Is This Going to Be on the Test?
As educators, we all know that unfortunately often the driving question for students is: Is this going to be on the test? We’re greedy, though. We want students to be curious and engaged, and we don’t want them to just be “doing school”; we want them to love learning and be lifelong learners. This is why the Need to Know is such an important component of PBL: it arranges and arrays the learning in such a way that it becomes vital for the student to know it.
Creating the Need
What, then, creates the Need to Know?
Looking at the BIE’s image of PBL components, I find it significant that the Need to Know is flanked by the Driving Question and Voice and Choice. A fascinating Driving Question will certainly spark in students a desire to know, but these questions must be appealing to students, not teachers. Teachers may have a Need to Know how force and velocity work, why World War I began, or what Hamlet’s problem really is, but students may not be particularly interested in those ideas. Instead, educators have to think about where students are and bring the Need to Know to their page. I might consider the following Driving Questions:
How might an understanding of force and velocity help me design athletic gear that will improve athlete performance?
How can an understanding of the way countries go to war help me understand how to fight terror today or improve relationships in my life?
Is Hamlet a teenager with a lot of angst or something more? How does understanding Hamlet help me understand myself and the difficult transitions I’m going through as an adolescent?
According to the BIE, once you’ve decided on a Driving Question (DQ) that will engage students, your next step is an exciting Entry Event that introduces the DQ and the project as a whole. More about that below.
I also think, though, that resonant driving questions suppose that students are interested in ideas that relate to them in some way, an assumption that the PBL component of Voice and Choice also makes. In fact, it’s a logical and healthy assumption that not only honors students’ inner lives but also all of our own. Learning takes on an added dimension when a student and teacher feel personally invested in it. Therefore, another way to get students to address a Need to Know is to give them Voice and Choice in class and find out what about the topic interests them.
A lot of teachers are creating Wonder Walls in their classrooms, asking students to write down what they want to know — either in general or about a specific topic in a course syllabus. Teachers can decide what they want to do with that information. For example, using Google’s 80/20 model, teachers can devote class time to allowing students to explore a topic of interest on their own. The passion for learning the Google model elicits can spill over into the rest of the course. Or, teachers can use students’ interests as a springboard for the learning in their class, building students’ interests into the course material.
For example, a Jewish history teacher at Magen David HS, Ms. Frieda Cattan, is covering Classical Judaism this year, and she began the course by asking her students what period of history they’re most interested in. Students then had to use props and other art supplies to bring that time to life on a poster board. Since Ms. Cattan’s Driving Question for the year is How Did We Jews Get Here Today?, she can use the students’ interests in a particular time period to help them wonder how we got from the Classical world to their favored period. Ms. Cattan can also have her students compare their favorite era with the Classical world, and since Ms. Cattan asked students to imagine a role for themselves in their preferred period, she can now also ask them to trace what that role looks like going back in time to the Classical world. In fact, endless opportunities pop up to connect the course syllabus to student interest, now that Ms. Cattan knows what those interests are.
Make the Time
One of the biggest concerns teachers have expressed when given these suggestions is how to make them work in a course where time is never sufficient: a course may have an important standardized test at its culmination or a particularly content-rich syllabus. We believe, though, that learning becomes easier when student passions are engaged, when the classroom is alive with the vitality of those interested in what is going on there. The truth is that the Need to Know has always existed in the classroom, but PBL, with its student-centered focus, places the onus of responsibility on the teacher to discover what might make his/her students not just interested in learning but truly compelled to discover what a course is all about.
Entry Event into a Unit on the Human Body
An engaging Entry Event, which enables teachers to spark excitement and interest about a learning unit, is a good way to establish a Need to Know. We love this teacher-made video which, as an entry event into a unit on the human body, got kids thinking about why an understanding of the body is vital to their lives. Note how the teachers incorporated their own passions into the entry event video. Passion-based learning always adds a personal dimension to class that everyone — teacher and student — benefits from.
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