i.d.e.a. schools

Author: Tikvah Wiener

By in Blog Comments Off on Wonder and Magic in Education

Wonder and Magic in Education

High Tech High’s Educational Leadership Academy (ELA)

This school year I have the pleasure of being enrolled with three Magen David Yeshivah colleagues, Rabbi Michael Bitton, Mrs. Sabrina Maleh, and Mrs. Esther Tokayer, in High Tech High’s Educational Leadership Academy (I’m grateful to Joshua Venture Group, whose funding is enabling this opportunity). HTH’s ELA program consists of three onsite residencies, regular check-ins with a critical friend — a HTH educator assigned to each school team — webinars, and a Google+ community that allows our school team to receive readings and resources and connect with the other school teams in our yearlong journey.

MDY team with Marc Shulman

The Magen David team with our critical friend Marc Shulman and Talia, a graduate student who’s at the schools for the year. She also joined us to project tune us!

I’ve just returned from the first of the onsite visits, inspired, transformed, humbled, amazed, and thoughtful.

As I posted on FB as I was on my way to the onsite residency, I watched a video about HTH five years ago and was immediately impressed with the school. OK, those who know me know I use hyperbolic language when discussing HTH, so I’ll confess and say offline, I told colleagues I heard angels sing. So that’s, you know, being inspired on a pretty deep level. I’d visited HTH twice before the residency, so one of the things I was looking for on this trip was the dirt. I mean, what’s the place really like behind the scenes? Are the schools — or the High Tech village, as it’s now called, since the original HTH campus is now a complex of about five schools, K-12, and a graduate school building — really educational Disneyland, or just a really good-looking set on the Universal Studios tour?

Well, the workshops were immediately engaging, full of thoughtful, meaningful protocols we could use in an array of settings, and the educators we spoke to continued to impress, even while talking freely and openly about the challenges they faced with kids. They were the first to say that the High Tech schools have the same problems other institutions have — kids are kids and the things they do, feel, and say require the same careful responses they do in any setting. But we also continued to see exceptional work everywhere we went, and our student tour guide, Diana, was charming and articulate, as she took us around the schools and shared with us her experiences as a student, her parents’ response to the constructivist educational approach of the school, and her own take on the school’s culture.

HTH with student guide

The Magen David school team at High Tech High, with our student tour guide!

The High Tech Philosophy

Cutting across all the interactions we had with the various stakeholders in the school — from Larry Rosenstock, the schools’ CEO and Founding Principal to Laura McBain, who facilitated the residency and runs PD for the schools, our critical friends, the educators in the schools themselves, and, of course, the students — was a shared purpose, what the school calls a shared intellectual mission. This consists of the school’s two main pillars, deep learning and beautiful work, which rest on a foundation of equity. Those three identifiers pop up differently in variety of ways throughout the school.

Capturing Generosity

The school’s strong sense of mission can be seen everywhere: here, it’s in a multi-disciplinary project, asking students to consider the role of philanthropy from literal and figurative lenses: philosophy, journalism, a camera . . .

Capturing Generosity photos

How does the shared purpose manifest itself? A few examples:

1) Protocols and norms were a constant in the workshops. Having a clear set of rules to follow made it simple to establish an atmosphere of respect. In fact, since the norms made it easy for us to honor and listen to each other, we could quickly get to an analysis of what deep learning means. Deep learning, in turn, leads to beautiful work, since the thoughtfulness required for deep learning leads one to excel and produce high-quality products. So, while the schools’ three key characteristics might not, on the surface, seem easy to define or even connect to one another, it didn’t take long to do just that.

2) At all the workshops, the High Tech educators participated in the exercises as if it were their first time doing so. They were as involved in the activities as we participants were and as respectful of the protocols. As a result, we not only had norms we were engaged in and also reading about and viewing in student work, we had living models to copy from. Again, our ability to learn deepened as a result of the presence of our critical friends, but we also saw in them the atmosphere of respect the school has cultivated and the way it goes about instilling its pedagogy.

3) The students: at the end of the day, we’re in education because we love kids. Scott Swaaley, an educator from the schools who’s featured in the film, Most Likely to Succeed, had dinner with me and my Magen David colleagues one evening. Scott had awesome insights into HTH and education in general. One of them: “We need to make education a rational career choice for people.” Amen. Right now we crazy people do this because we really love kids. And one of them on our student tour showed us how the schools’ philosophy was working:

When asked if she would feel comfortable talking about her IEP, she said, waving her hand, “Oh, sure. I have no problem talking about that.” That comes from a place where she knows she is seen as someone equal to any of her peers. I’ve seen many kids beaten down by a system that tracks them, sometimes in excruciatingly stratifying ways. True fact: I’ve heard students refer to their math class as “dumb Honors math,” since there was a low and high Honors class in their school. The High Tech Schools, because of their commitment to equity, don’t track; instead, all classes are differentiated, and any student can opt to complete Honors work in any course. Larry told us about 70% choose to do so, because they see their peers doing Honors work and say, “Hey, I can do that.” Larry has a strong belief that we don’t leverage peer pressure in a positive enough way at all.

MDY team with Larry Rosenstock

The Magen David team with Larry Rosenstock; he led a two-hour workshop on one of the days of the residency to share his wisdom and insights

When asked about homework, the same student said the school doesn’t give her much, saying her teachers are mindful that she has interests she might want to pursue outside of class. When we asked her about them, she said since she’s a junior, she takes a free SAT class, attends lectures at a university, so she can get Honors status in her Biology class, and goes to soccer practice. She also says she has free time when she just wants time to herself.

Again, this schedule speaks to a sense of respect for the whole person, for the fact that as learners, we need to be in school doing work that is meaningful and relevant, but to be out of school choosing activities we want to pursue — some that deepen learning or get us ready for college or both, and some that are ways we nourish ourselves, physically, mentally, or spiritually. I think deep learning can occur better in school when we allow ourselves time to adequately refresh. (I also wonder what the workplaces of the future will look like when this philosophy spreads and consequently creates a new type of mental attitude. The overloaded schedules our kids have are simply a mirror of the adult world’s generally overtaxed work life.)


One of my first stops on any trip to High Tech High is the classroom of Jeff Robin, art teacher extraordinaire

Jeff and staircase to nowhere

Jeff shows us his and a physics teacher’s latest project: Staircases to Nowhere

staircases to nowhere

The Staircases to Nowhere line the hallway, currently as works in progress

Wonder and Magic

As you can tell, I’ve returned convinced that the High Tech Village is educational Disneyland, as I thought it was when I watched the edutopia video so many years ago. I’m amazed that the video was able to capture something deep and true in 5 minutes, a reality that has borne up over three visits to the schools and multiple encounters with myriad educators and students in them. Now I understand better the principles by which the schools operate and look forward to delving even deeper into them, but there’s something more . . . .

One of the similarities I see between Disneyland and the High Tech schools is that they both aim to produce a sense of wonder and magic. Larry talks about that sense of wonder in Most Likely to Succeed, when he describes the students on the schools’ exhibition nights, events when parents and the local community come to view student work. Larry strongly believes we all have a need to create something and share it with the world, and we all want to experience the wonder, as Larry says, that the student has when realizing, “I made this and someone is coming to see it.”

As for the magic: it was a word that popped up when our critical friend Marc Shulman used it when he was working with our team and again when we selected quotations that had meaning for us when contemplating equity in our schools:

“I’m here to tell you that magic can be taught . . . . You teach it by allowing people to go into those spaces where the magic is happening.” — Chris Emden

It’s happening at the High Tech Schools. It’s happening.

an art room at HTH

An art room at one of the High Tech High Schools

By in Blog Comments Off on Growth in the New Year

Growth in the New Year

The new school year always coincides with the Jewish new year, and this turns out to be a good thing: reflecting on ourselves and our desired goals as human beings should include what our aims are as educators for the year and for coming years. This year, I’m also reflecting on a first year at Magen David Yeshivah High School (MDY) — as Chief Academic Officer, I oversee General Studies and the implementation of project-based learning (PBL) across the curriculum — , as well as on the I.D.E.A. School Network’s first year. The Network helps Jewish and independent schools implement PBL and educational innovation, and when Dr. Eliezer Jones, General Studies principal at Valley Torah High School (VTHS), and I won funding from the Joshua Venture Group for the Network, it was deliberately with the idea that the Network’s goals were congruent with the ones we had in our schools. Last year was Eliezer’s first year as well at VTHS, so we both had similar experiences in acclimating to new schools and at the same time using the Network to help spread PBL at our institutions. As we set out on Year 2, I want to share some of the practices we found successful as well as the plans for growth we’re laying out.


The truth is, when I came to Magen David, the school had already laid out a PBL calendar for the year: each department was to pick a month and at least one grade in which it wanted to experiment with PBL, and teachers got professional development from instructors at High Tech High — public charter schools with a learning-by-doing philosophy — at the end of the 2013-14 school year and additional PD in PBL at the beginning of the 2014-15 year. The calendar turned out to be a great idea: By the end of this past school year, students had experienced PBL in Art History, Biology, Chemistry, English, History, Jewish History, Jewish Law, Jewish Philosophy, Spanish, Torah, and Talmud classes, and those teachers who had become enamored of PBL tried it out in all sorts of large and small ways throughout the year.

What a Scandal!

One of the most successful and inspiring PBL units of the year was the English department’s school-wide “Scandal” day. English Department Chairperson, Mrs. Rachel Harari, and her talented department, not only carefully planned the day — in which students were divided into PR “companies” and given a person or entity that needed an image rehabilitation — the teachers also did a run-through of the day beforehand, so they could troubleshoot any problems that may have arisen. The practice of doing a project before the students is one English department teacher, Mrs. Roxanne Maleh, learned about when she and a group of Magen David educators joined the I.D.E.A. Schools Network on a trip to High Tech High in February 2015. To learn more about the amazing Scandal PBL Day, as we like to call it at Magen David, watch this video, created by Ari Mendelow, who’s part of the I.D.E.A. Schools Network Creativity Team:

PBL in Jewish History

Immediately after last year’s August PD, Mrs. Frieda Cattan, a Jewish history teacher at Magen David, decided to design her course curriculum around the driving question of “How did we as Jews get here today?” Smaller driving questions drove smaller units within the curriculum; for example, students learned how to identify important artifacts for museum exhibits, as they worked in groups to argue why an artifact they had been assigned from the ancient Near East could be considered the most important one of its day. Students presented artifacts such as the Cyrus seal; Nehemiah’s wall; the four-room house; Ezra’s scroll; and more to a museum curator from the YU Museum. She gave important feedback to the students about the content of their presentations and their presentation styles. This year, Mrs. Cattan is building on her PBL curriculum from last year by engaging the help of the YU Museum right away. The museum has already emptied an exhibition case for the students and will guide them as they decide which artifacts they should select as the ones to properly represent different eras in Jewish history.

Students in Mrs. Cattan's 2014-15 Jewish history class spontaneously decided to create simulations of their artifacts. This year, Mrs. Cattan will require students to do so and provide a rubric for this creative element of the unit. Pictured here is a student version of the Cyrus Seal.

Students in Mrs. Cattan’s 2014-15 Jewish history class spontaneously decided to create simulations of their artifacts. This year, Mrs. Cattan will require students to do so and provide a rubric for this creative element of the PBL unit. Pictured here is a student version of the Cyrus Seal.

Sukkah PBL Day

Another project that became more fully developed from last year to this one is Rabbi Joseph Esses’ Sukkah PBL unit: last year, Rabbi Esses pioneered the project in his Talmud class. Students worked in pairs — in chevruta — to learn different laws about kosher and non-kosher Sukkoth. Then each group built a kosher and non-kosher version of the Sukkah law they had studied and presented their work to the school before the holiday. This year, the entire school partook in the activity: on the last day before Sukkoth vacation, Friday, September 25, the school gym became a wood shop class, the cafeteria became an arts workshop, and students worked all over the school in different classrooms on filming videos and writing essays for the project. The students had conducted research on the laws of different Sukkoth and on Biblical themes of the holiday the day before; on Friday, when they arrived in school, they were told how they were going to put their research to use! One really fun part of both the Scandal and Sukkah PBL days is the element of surprise: students come to school on the day of the school-wide PBL days and are then gifted with an incredibly fun learning experience that is hands-on, creative, and exciting. What a way to break for the Sukkoth vacation: on a high from a project that connects hand, head, and heart and that gets the entire school involved in the learning. Here are some highlights from the day:

sukkah pbl day 2015 r esses and haber

Rabbi Joseph Esses, right, pioneered the Sukkah PBL day last year, and Rabbi Joey Haber, left, worked with Rabbi Esses to bring the project to the entire school this year!

kids building sukkot

Students built 11 types of Sukkoth in 3 hours, including a double-decker Sukkah, a round Sukkah, a Sukkah with a slanted wall, a Sukkah with a wall with vertical slats and a Sukkah with a wall with horizontal ones.

sukkah pbl day 2015 drilling

These boys are building; other students made time-lapse videos and commercials, while still others wrote essays and designed the decorations, which had to unite the law of the Sukkah and the Biblical theme.

sukkah pbl day 2015 lb

“Amazing” was how one student described the day; we love learning that causes this kind of smiling!

Part of the fun of the PBL days is that everyone gets a chance to get creative -- even the teachers. In the center there is Mrs. Roxanne Maleh, one of the school's English teachers.

Part of the fun of the PBL days is that everyone gets a chance to get creative — even the teachers. In the center there is Mrs. Roxanne Maleh, one of the school’s English teachers.

sukkah pbl day 2015 vertical

The Sukkah with a wall with vertical slats.

welcome jews of all stripes

Part of the design challenge for the students was to create a Sukkah that connected its decorations with the law of the Sukkah and the Biblical theme they were assigned. This Sukkah, pictured in the above two photos, has a wall partly made up of vertical boards. The group also had to research Aaron, Moses’ brother and one of the members of the Ushpizin, a group of Biblical figures, one of whom “visits” the Sukkah on each of the nights of the holiday. Since Aaron is associated with peace-making, the group building and decorating the Sukkah worked together to create the design theme, which plays off of the idea of the vertical boards by welcoming Jews of all stripes to the hut.

Year 2: Calendar and Interdisciplinary Learning

Though clearly the PBL calendar worked well last year, the truth is, Magen David has moved to a different place this year. The teachers don’t view PBL as something that’s going to start and finish by a certain date. Instead, the teachers have embraced a more fluid notion of how to implement the pedagogy, realizing that they have to incorporate it organically into their courses. In fact, on the third day of PD this year, one Magen David dedicated solely to PBL, the General Studies department decided they wanted to create interdisciplinary themes they could weave PBL units into from all courses. The departments will be studying their syllabi throughout the year and working with the Judaic Studies department to determine the most effective themes for each grade.

Of course, that doesn’t mean PBL is on hold for the year. Quite the opposite. In fact, one important change we made to the curriculum, one we were energized to do by our visit to High Tech High, was to begin to combine English and History courses into one Humanities class. We’re piloting the interdisciplinary class in the 9th and 10th grades, with Mrs. Roxanne Maleh teaching the freshmen and Mrs. Kim Djouejati teaching the sophomores. Creating a Humanities class allows us to cover course curriculum in a more thoughtful and deliberate manner, by using historical and literary texts that are aligned and that support each other and that the teacher can organize under a driving question. For example, using the evolution of civilizations and an exploration of how power structures develop, Mrs. Maleh will be asking her students to consider what makes a society great, what gives people power, and how do we stand up to power if we believe it is being abused. In short, she is asking the students how they can be upstanders. (We want to point out here an important characteristic of PBL: that it’s part of affective learning and development; the PBL units participants designed at the Sandbox also ended up contributing to social and emotional learning. PBL is about whole-person learning.) Though not all the freshmen and sophomore English and history classes have been combined, even the ones that are not are benefitting from the conversations now flowing freely between the two departments.

Mrs. Kim Djouejati's sophomore Humanities class began by considering the UN's 8 Millennial Development Goals

Mrs. Kim Djouejati’s sophomore Humanities class began by considering the UN’s 8 Millennial Development Goals

humanities kim's goals

Then, Mrs. Djouejati presented her eight goals for the year as a teacher

humanities development goals

Finally, students developed their own eight goals for the year. English teacher Mrs. Stephanie Shamah developed this ice breaker last year, and she and Mrs. Djouejati refined it for this school year. One practice becoming very common at Magen David is launching the school year with a creative ice breaker that ties into a course’s curriculum and the year’s or a unit’s driving question

Built-in Innovation Time

Last year, Magen David adopted a modified block schedule, something Stanford professor Denise Pope recommends; check out the new book she co-authored, Overloaded and Underprepared, in which she and her colleagues offer different suggestions for making the school day more manageable for students. The teachers at Magen David have definitely been benefiting from the block schedule and have found that they have to modify their teaching methods to accommodate the block; teaching a frontal lesson for 80 minutes is just not feasible. Many schools implementing PBL employ a block or modified block schedule, but another feature that helps foster pedagogical change is common planning time. At the High Tech High schools, teachers meet every morning for an hour. So far, that’s not possible at Magen David, but Rabbi Saul Zucker, Magen David’s Principal, has added a weekly common planning time period for the teachers. The fact that the teachers know they can consistently meet ensures that the large changes we want to make, ones that need time to incubate slowly, can be done in a professional, thoughtful manner.

Privileging Creativity

One comment that resonated at the East Coast Summer Sandbox was made by Mrs. Marjorie Hirsch of Torah Academy of Bergen County. At the end of the two-day conference, she said she was struck most by how PBL “privileges creativity.” By actively inserting creativity into the curriculum and giving it rubrics as we would any other skill we want the students to master or knowledge we want them to have, we are putting it on an equal standing with other parts of our coursework. An emphasis on creativity is definitely a large part of the I.D.E.A. Schools Network ethos, of PBL, and of the schools the Network is working with. In fact, at the 2014 Summer Sandbox, educators had to use art supplies to create a representation of what school looks like to them. One group showed that in the center of school were classrooms and classes and on the outskirts were the opportunities for passion-based learning and creativity that the traditional classroom often doesn’t typically privilege. Our aim is to continue to ask schools how they might bring passion-based learning and creativity into each and every classroom. We love Maker Spaces, Innovation Labs, Idea Boxes, whatever you want to call them. In fact, we love them so much, we think they need to be part of the everyday classroom experience. This past year, Ari Mendelow actually created a video for the Network that challenges us to think about a Creativity Standard and about engaging in more outside-the-box thinking:

So creativity is definitely an area we want to continue privileging this year.

To that end, we make sure that one element we include in all of the Network’s workshops and conferences is art supplies. Simply by putting supplies in front of participants we see that they become creative, and when they become creative, they naturally pass that onto their students. Here’s how it worked at the Sandbox and at Magen David:

Ice breakers at the Sandbox often include time to work with art supplies

Ice breakers at the Sandbox often include time to work with art supplies

sandbox la supplies and books

This year we also raffled off books that sparked creativity, ones that included Invent to Learn, Creativity, Inc., Makers, and Creative Schools. We love how excited participants got about the books they won!

this is not a box

Yeshivat Noam’s Aliza Chanales and Shira Greenspan, Facilitators at the East Coast Sandbox, challenged participants to get outside the box in this spin on the cardboard challenge, an activity that’s become very popular in schools.

We saw this cardboard gorilla at the Franklin Institute over the summer. We challenge you to create a cardboard challenge that ties into your curriculum and adds value to what you're teaching.

We saw this cardboard gorilla at the Philadelphia Zoo over the summer. We challenge you to create a cardboard challenge that ties into your curriculum and adds value to what you’re teaching.

What we find when we put art supplies on tables is that often participants use them even when they're not asked to do so. What does that say to you? What would happen if you did that in your classrooms?

Participants created this poster to feature their driving question: Could we as teachers create an opportunity for our students to positively impact the environment? The participants hadn’t been asked to use supplies, but we find when they’re on the tables, participants often use them even when they’re not asked to. What does that say to you? What would happen if you did that in your classrooms?

At Magen David, we don't create one space where art or tech or other media are centered. Instead, we make supplies, tech, and media available to all teachers -- and give them training on how to use them -- so they become an organic part of the classroom.

At Magen David, we don’t create one space where art or tech or other media are centered. Instead, we make supplies, tech, and media available to all teachers — and give them training on how to use them — so they become an organic part of the classroom.

One addition to our school last year was a world and Jewish history stairway timeline. Conceived of by -- once again -- Rabbi Esses, all teachers and students can add to the timeline important dates and events. To start the year, Mrs. Natalie Greenberg, Magen David's art teacher, paints a wall to be the background for the "Lascaux cave." Her art history students will add the figures, and Mrs. Maleh's Humanities class will add figures as well, mimicking the way cave artists added to the caves at different times.

One addition to our school last year was a world and Jewish history stairway timeline. Conceived of by — once again — Rabbi Esses, all teachers and students can add to the timeline important dates and events. To start the year, Mrs. Natalie Greenberg, Magen David’s art teacher, paints a wall to be the background for the “Lascaux cave.” Her art history students will add the figures, and Mrs. Maleh’s Humanities class will add figures as well, mimicking the way cave artists added to the caves at different times.

Connecting with Others

One valuable part of our growth as learners is constantly being able to connect with others, whether it’s other schools in the Network, ones we work on PD with, educators in our PLN, or folks we meet on social media. At Member School Yavneh Academy, for example, we’ve been so impressed with the extensive research Director of Educational Technology ChanI Lichtiger and her team did in the area of Maker Spaces. When the school launched one last year, it included a multitude of opportunities for all students to experience the joy of Making. Member School ADAT Ari El has not only launched an Innovation Lab this year, it also has a wonderful new reading space — yes, slow learning and reading are still important parts of school! — and it has an exciting focus on Design Thinking. In fact, Head of School Dr. Johannah Sohn is combining her PBL PD with Design Thinking questions she wants her teachers to consider and create. One question she wants her teachers to ask themselves is how might they redesign their classroom space to make learning more personalized and collaborative? If you want to think about block scheduling and reshaping your calendar so it allows for more project-based and deep learning, then check out the work being done at Fuchs-Mizrahi. Our contact there is Rabbi Yehuda Chanales, who is part of my PLN, and I always like hearing about his school’s innovations. Of course, check out the super-awesome Aliza Chanales and Shira Greenspan, whose work at Yeshivat Noam, the East Coast Sandbox host, is always inspiring and creative. Here’s a sample PBL unit by Aliza, about Superhero Elements! And if you’re struggling to find a way to combine PBL with an AP curriculum, get in touch with Dr. Eliezer Jones, at Founding School Valley Torah High School, who’s piloting PBL in the AP Psychology class he’s teaching this year. I personally am looking forward to being part of an Educational Leadership program at High Tech High this coming year, with my Magen David colleagues, Rabbi Michael Bitton, Mrs. Sabrina Maleh, and Mrs. Esther Tokayer.

Change can sometimes feel overwhelming, but connecting with others is a way to make it fun and more approachable. That’s why we value the fact that team-building and collaboration are such key parts of PBL, not only in the classroom but outside of it as well.


Reflection is also a crucial component of PBL, and having the High Holidays coincide with the beginning of the school year means we begin our year in a contemplative mode that naturally leads to our considering the successes and challenges of the previous year and a commitment to growth in the new one. The Network is excited about the opportunities it had to foster growth in the schools we worked with and about the possibilities that lie in the year ahead. There are so many new ways for educators to learn and develop, and we hope you’ll share with us the ways you find to explore, get creative, work with others, and make learning authentic and real for yourselves and your students. Have a great year!

IdeaSchool - sleep learning

By in Blog Comments Off on Have a Creative New Year!

Have a Creative New Year!

idea school logo horizontal

We hope your school year has gotten off to a wonderful start. Since it’s the beginning of not only the school year but also Rosh Hashana, we wanted to wish you a healthy and happy new year, and also one filled with creativity and the joy of new discovery. The latter qualities may not seem like a natural outgrowth of this season, which is associated with introspection and, at times, inner struggle, as we wrestle with who we are and who we want to become. However, that struggle is, in fact, at the heart of the creative process. Here is Julie Burstein, the creator and founding executive producer of Studio 360, the Peabody award-winning weekly public radio program which explores the artistic and creative process:

It is difficult to watch our children struggle, whether it is with illness, schoolwork or in differences with their friends. At work and in our communities, it is usually frightening to acknowledge failure, to discover that we need to develop a new approach to a problem we thought we had solved. In our relationships with family and friends, it may feel easier and less hurtful to avoid the friction of opinions different from our own. But what artists show us is that these challenges are not just unavoidable: struggle, failure and difference can become sparks for our creativity (http://www.sgiquarterly.org/feature2012Jan-2.html)

Though creativity is an integral part of every profession and passion, Burstein goes on to detail the lives of artists such as Chuck Close and Richard Serra and Pulitzer-prize winning writer Richard Ford, who all worked through the struggle of various disabilities in order to succeed. Those struggles included dyslexia and learning disabilities that our own students struggle with and that, at the time Close was growing up, were unrecognized. Back in the 40s and 50s, Close revealed, “I was just dumb.” Close said, “I learned early on that since I wasn’t athletic, I couldn’t run or throw or catch a ball, I needed to do something to keep people around me. I began to realize that one of the things I could do that my friends couldn’t do was draw.”

Creativity emerged from the struggle that these individuals had with the way the world worked around them and their desire to locate a place for themselves in that world. Part of the reason we’re invested in the I.D.E.A. Schools Network is because we know there’s still work to be done in making sure all of our students feel comfortable with who they are as learners and see themselves able to contribute with their talents and passions to the classroom world in which they spend so much of their day and to the larger world around them.

In fact, while we aim to bring the joy of new discovery to our schools and classrooms, we know that it can often be found by connecting our students to the outside world. Take the recent cave discovery in South Africa of a new species of hominin. The remains were discovered by spelunkers and eventually renowned paleoanthropologist Dr. Lee Berger was able to study the site. He noted, “I do believe that the field of paleoanthropology had convinced itself, as much as 15 years ago, that we had found everything, that we were not going to make major discoveries and had this story of our origins figured out. I think many people quit exploring, thought it was safer to conduct science inside a lab or behind a computer.” What the new species Naledi shows us, Berger concludes, “is that there is no substitute for exploration” (New York Times, September 10, 2015).

Soon after we end the High Holy days, we begin anew the cycle of reading the Torah, with Sefer Bereishit [the Book of Genesis], in which God, of course, creates the heavens and earth.  

Being creative and fully exploring the world are ways we can engage in imitatio Dei and feel closer to our Creator. Our job as educators is to bring to light the multifarious ways our students can be creative explorers — as students of Torah, artists, scientists, historians, mathematicians, writers, athletes, tinkerers, and more. We wish you all success in doing so and look forward to additional opportunities to learn, grow, create, and explore again with you.

Shana tova,

Eliezer, Tikvah, and the I.D.E.A Schools Network Team

Here we are at 5:30 AM one morning as we set off on one of our favorite explorations: of the High Tech Schools in San Diego, CA!

Here we are at 5:30 AM one morning as we set off on one of our favorite explorations: of the High Tech Schools in San Diego, CA!









By in Blog Comments Off on Play the School Day Redesign Game

Play the School Day Redesign Game


The Summer Sandboxes

Summer Sandbox gaming school

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

Challenging Problem:

The I.D.E.A. Schools Network has been asked to create a PBL school and needs your help restructuring the school day.


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?

Gaming School

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.

Summer Sandbox gaming school 2

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

Summer Sandbox gaming school 3

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

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!

Rethinking Education

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.


Of course, check out Overloaded and Underprepared: Strategies fro Stronger Schools and Healthy, Successful Kids by Denise Pope, Maureen Brown, and Sarah Miles

Another relevant article is “Tenafly considers giving tired teens relief at school,” North Jersey.com, by Deena Yellin, May 31, 2015.

By in Blog Comments Off on Fostering Creativity

Fostering Creativity

I’ve recently been speaking with Dr. Elliot Rabin, who edits the RAVSAK journal Hayidion, about the power of creativity in the classroom. I told Elliot about the exercise that Larry Rosenstock, Founding Principal and CEO of the High Tech Schools in San Diego, CA, and his faculty do in professional development sessions they run: they ask educators to discuss the most memorable learning experience they’ve ever had. Larry talks about the fact that most often the experience that people recall best is one in which they were creators.

High Tech International High School, one of 11 schools in the High Tech Village in San Diego, CA

High Tech International High School, one of 11 schools in the High Tech Village in San Diego, CA

Creating as Learning

Last year, Azul Terronez, High Tech Middle School Humanities teacher, and Marc Shulman, High Tech MS Math and Science teacher, did the memorable learning exercise at Magen David Yeshivah HS, one of the I.D.E.A. School Network’s Founding Schools. When I thought about my most significant learning experience, this is what I came up with:

My best friend growing up was Joni Hofstadter; she and I were inseparable as children, in and out of school, and in the sixth grade at Emek Hebrew Academy, we decided we wanted to bring the story of Ruth to dramatic life. We asked our principal — Rabbi Philip Wachsman — for permission, and I remain eternally grateful to him not only for not quashing Joni and my enthusiasm but for giving us the freedom to bring our idea to fruition. In my memories of the project, I don’t recall a lot of teacher involvement; I have a feeling of being given the creative leeway to work on our project however we wanted to.

To complete this self-directed project, Joni and I read Ruth closely and wrote a script from the story. We then selected a cast from our female classmates and worked with them as well as on painting extensive sets and getting costumes for the show. We rehearsed endlessly and then performed the show for our parents and school community. 

I can still feel the tremendous sense of accomplishment I had from this creative endeavor, which unbeknownst to me at the time was the first project-based assignment I had completed. I can also tell you the learning experience had deep emotional, social, and religious significance for me. I had done it with my best friend and classmates, a group of young Jewish girls who had just brought to life one of the most compelling and inspiring Jewish women in our history. I can still hear the voice of Osnat Surkin, the beautiful Israeli girl who played Ruth and sang the words of devotion that Ruth utters to Naomi when she insists she will not leave her. And I can still feel the sense of camaraderie as my classmates and I painted and rehearsed, begging any teacher who would let us for class time we could appropriate to get ready for our play.

The Power of Creative Learning

Contributing to the power of this educational experience was the fact that it was so creative; it engaged almost all of the arts — drama, song, the visual arts (in the set design), and creative writing (in the script). It’s hard to imagine the experience would have been as deeply rewarding and resonant if those creative elements hadn’t been a part of it. They were the foundation on which the learning, collaboration, and presentation rested.

What if school were always like this? A place where students engaged passionately, creatively, and collaboratively in what inspired them? What if classes focused as equally on the social, emotional, and religious development of a child as they did on his/her cognitive development? If curriculum were designed to address the hand, head, and heart?

Transforming School

Larry Rosenstock has been actively transforming how school is done for the past 15 years, and his commitment to creative learning is changing the educational landscape, particularly at Magen David Yeshivah HS, which has sent educators at different times this year to the High Tech schools, on visits and to attend workshops. As a result, we’re making significant changes to the way we run our school. Just this past week, I was invited with Ms. Naomi Weiss, Magen David’s teacher mentor, to a Presentation of Learning in Mrs. Leah Cymet’s sophomore Spanish class. The class, comprised only of young women, had been tasked with creating a business presentation and a commercial for a product. The class had chosen to “form” a luxury goods business and created a prototype of a purse they were going to sell, a billboard, business cards, and a commercial for the company. The students presented their information and had filmed the commercial entirely in Spanish, showing fluency and command of the language. After the presentation, the girls reflected on their experience with the PBL unit.


Sophomore girls assigned each other roles in this creative PBL unit. Needed for the project were writing, presenting, video production and editing, and artistic skills



They commented on the collaboration and communication skills they developed and also on the deep learning that occurred because of the project. One of the young ladies, Rozie Shamah, said she learned more Spanish from the project than she would have in a traditional classroom, because 1) the experience wasn’t about just opening a textbook, and 2) she needed to know the words she had to use in the commercial. She also noted that listening to the commercial over and over again as she edited it perfected her recall of the words. The girls also told us that they learned how to be good critics of their work: they said they had to make the work excellent, and that need forced them to find ways to give constructive criticism in a helpful and productive manner.


One of the class’ business cards. Students told us they wanted to improve their digital literacy skills for the next project by learning Photoshop


When Ms. Weiss and I asked additional questions about the learning process, the girls continued: they said they developed their creativity skills, not only needing them to come up with multiple ideas but also to adapt organically to the dynamic way the project unfolded.

The Result

What I felt in the classroom as I asked the girls questions and as they answered freely and sincerely was an enthusiasm for their work and for the teacher who had given it to them. They were full of gratitude and love for Mrs. Cymet, calling her the best teacher and praising her for being an effective project manager, one who gave them guidelines but also the freedom to develop the project as they saw best. Mrs. Cymet, in turn, praised her “smart, talented, extraordinary girls.” There was a lot of love in the room.

What the project reminded me of was all the positive feelings that I associated with my Ruth PBL unit, including — during this month of teacher appreciation — gratitude towards the administrator who let me and Joni run with it. What gets unleashed as a result of learning that is filled with opportunities to create and be creative is a host of beneficial emotions that make the experience not only deeply satisfying but also highly memorable.

Moving Forward

Today at Magen David HS, we had one of our last professional development days of the year. We’ve come almost full circle: in a month, it will be a year since I joined the school’s administrative team and engaged with the faculty in the exercise the High Tech teachers had us do. I’m amazed by the openness to creative learning the school’s faculty has shown, and today gave us the chance to get creative about our curricula for the coming year.

The school’s principal, Rabbi Saul Zucker, has even built into the schedule for next year common planning time for the secular and Judaic studies staff, so we have opportunities to meet to continue our interdisciplinary discussions. Larry Rosenstock has said that when he enters schools and asks them if they’re serious about cross-disciplinary projects — the ones his school has made famous — he always asks them if teachers have common planning time. If the answer is “no,” he walks out and tells the school to call him when they do.

math and art meeting

Professional development today consisted of time for departments to discuss interdisciplinary projects for the coming year. Here, the math department meets with the head of the school’s art department Mrs. Natalie Greenberg. On the table are samples of projects from the High Tech schools, all of which can be found on the schools’ website


We’re getting ready to wrap up another school year and begin summer vacation, a time loved by children for the freedom it affords, but also for the opportunities for play it offers. Freedom and play spark our imaginations and are at the root of creativity, and they are things we should actively foster in our schools. They are what excite us about learning and, ultimately, what make it so memorable and rewarding.