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The Driving Question in PBL

Judaism is a religion that has thrived, been transmitted and stood the test of time on the value of questioning in order to seek, pass on and ensure the integrity of the truth. The Jewish people were given a written Torah that is often intentionally ambiguous, that without the oral tradition could not be fully understood or applied. The sages are constantly asking questions on the written Torah, debating the application of the oral Torah and seeking and explaining the answers to the questions that are raised. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks beautifully states, “Judaism is the rarest of phenomena: a faith based on asking questions, sometimes deep and difficult ones that seem to shake the very foundations of faith itself.” We do not shy away from questions. Just the opposite. We require them. This becomes clear to us at the youngest of ages when we are taught our first pasuk of Torah.

When Jewish children are introduced to the Chumash, they are quickly made aware of what is bothering Rashi, the great Torah commentator. When they begin to learn Mishnayot and Talmud, the questions raised and the debates that ensue are paramount to the truth-seeking process. How about the Pesach Seder, which hinges on the achievement of engaging the youngest of attendees to ask questions? It is truly beautiful! The entire process of Torah learning is one that is driven by questions, which is why, I suppose, I am very fond of Project-Based Learning (PBL).

Project-Based Learning is, at its core, an inquiry-driven approach to learning. Of the eight elements that make up PBL proposed by the Buck Institute for Education, the Driving Question is the most critical, as it is the element that lays the foundation of the project and propels it forward to its completion.

“There are no stupid questions” was the mantra I heard in almost every first day of class growing up. Most students understood this to be an invitation to ask questions; most of my teachers might have said I took it as a challenge. However, what most of us learned growing up in school was that the invitation (or challenge) was an empty one. Very little time was given to student-formulated questions. Sure, we were sometimes allowed to ask for clarification, but we were never taught how to ask the important questions. In fact, most of the questions came from the teachers when, after an hour of giving us answers, asked us if we understood. So, real questioning became an exercise in isolation for many of us. As Chuck Close poetically put it, “ask yourself an interesting enough question and your attempt to find a tailor-made solution to that question will push you to a lonely place where, pretty soon, you’ll find yourself all by your lonesome – which I think is a more interesting place to be.” However, in PBL, questioning does not have to be a lonely place and, when done well, is certainly “a more interesting place to be” in and out of the classroom.

According to the Buck Institute for Education (BIE), “a good Driving Question captures the heart of the project in clear, compelling language, which gives students a sense of purpose and challenge. The Question should be provocative, open-ended, complex, and linked to the core of what you want students to learn. It could be abstract (When is war justified?); concrete (Is our water safe to drink?); or focused on solving a problem (How can we improve this website so that more young people will use it?).” Andrew Miller, who I have had the pleasure of learning from multiple times and is an expert in PBL, bluntly and correctly writes that “Driving Questions can be a beast.” Amen, brother! They can be a beast in all the best ways a beast can be, if that makes any sense. However, Mr. Miller shows us how to tame the beast in this article on how to write driving questions.

The Driving Question is literally that. It is what drives the project. As the BIE continues, “ A project without a Driving Question is like an essay without a thesis.” It is a primary element that differentiates PBL from just a project. The Driving Question creates a continuous thread that ties the learning, the project, and often its real-world application together from start to finish. Without this, and many of the other elements of PBL, the project is just another activity among various activities that make up a static learning unit. Yes, the activities are part of an overall theme or learning goal, but if not thoughtfully connected, they can feel disjointed and appear irrelevant to the learning process. Having a Driving Question ensures everything that is done in a PBL unit is connected and focused on answering the question. The project is not the goal. Answering the question is the goal. The project is the learning process, as well as the outcome of the learning, in service of answering the Driving Question. This is unlike a project alone which is generally, at best, a representation of the learning, but more often than not, just a product of one singular activity among a series of disjointed activities in a unit.

Hopefully, this clarifies how the Driving Question is an essential element of PBL. I would also advocate the use of inquiry and the teaching of meaningful questioning, even if you do not use PBL. Suzie Boss, journalist and PBL advocate, recently wrote a great article for Edutopia that is resource-filled and focused on using student questions to drive learning. This would be a great place to start in understanding the use of questioning in the classroom and with that I leave you with this: What is the best way to teach students to formulate a good question? Drive on!

By in Blog 1

Yes, and . . . : Creating a Growth Mindset

Culture Change

I recently wrote about a road trip my colleagues at Magen David and I took to Northern California and how it reinforced the idea that a growth mindset is needed for real culture change to occur within a school. As I mentioned in the post, one of the ways the Los Altos school district fostered a growth mindset was by showcasing Tenets of Improv in teacher training rooms. I was impressed by these tenets when I read Tina Fey’s book Bossypants, in which she speaks about the power of coming from a “place of ‘yes'” and keeping an open mind. Here are some of Fey’s wise and witty observations:

1. You must agree. This doesn’t mean everyone has to get along, but it means you must agree on the given set of circumstances. For instance, if I say, “Wow, it’s great to be on the beach!” and you say, “We aren’t on the beach stupid, we are on the ski slope,” then the improv scene is dead. But if you say, “I can’t wait to get in the water, I hope it’s not too cold,” then we have a scene. We have agreed that this stage is now a sandy beach and we can keep moving forward.


I don’t recommend you agree with everyone in your life, but I challenge you to come from a place of “yes” and keep an open mind. Try to understand where others are coming from before discrediting them as “crazy” or “stupid.” “No” should be a last resort, and respect what others create.


2. “Yes” isn’t enough, you must “yes, and…” Add to the discussion. In the example above, the second person did not just say, “Yes we’re at the beach,” she said, “I can’t wait to get in the water, I hope it’s not too cold.” This statement adds value to the scene. Now the audience knows it’s cold and that we plan to enjoy the ocean as opposed to looking for gold or taking a yoga class.


To me, this rule challenges you to contribute. Whether you are developing an ad campaign or deciding where to eat dinner, put your neck out there, give your thoughts and have a say. Two minds are always better than one.

los altos improv

Tenets of Improv from the Los Altos school district

Developing an Inquiring Mind

In order to foster this growth mindset at Magen David, we recently held a professional development day where we shared some quotations from works that emphasize its importance. One of the works is Warren Berger’s A More Beautiful Question, which participants of the Summer Sandbox read and which challenges readers to develop an inquiring, curious mind. Here’s a thought-provoking statement from the book:

“In many cases, our Google queries are so unimaginative and predictable that Google can guess what we’re asking before we’re three words into typing it.”

Berger spends his book explaining the importance of developing the kind of mind that might outsmart a Google search:

“[T]he most creative, successful business leaders have tended to be expert questioners. They’re known to question the conventional wisdom of their industry, the fundamental practices of their company, even the validity of their own assumptions.”

“Inquiring minds can identify new opportunities and fresh possibilities before competitors become aware of them.”

“[T]hroughout his life Einstein saw curiosity as something ‘holy.’”

Many people are reluctant to change: they may have fixed notions about what societal structures look like or be fearful of the new and untried. Berger writes:

“[Q]uestions challenge authority and disrupt established structures, processes, and systems, forcing people to have to at least think about doing something differently. To encourage or even allow questioning is to cede power—not something that is done lightly in hierarchical companies or in government organizations, or even in classrooms, where a teacher must be willing to give up control to allow for more questioning.”

Berger stresses the importance of challenging the status quo:

“With the constant change we face today, we may be forced to spend less time on autopilot, more time in questioning mode . . . . In such times, the ability to ask big, meaningful, beautiful questions—and just as important, to know what to do with those questions once they’ve been raised—can be the first steps in moving beyond old habits and behaviors as we embrace the new.”

“A beautiful question [according to Warren Berger] is an ambitious yet actionable question that can begin to shift the way we perceive or think about something—and that might serve as a catalyst to bring about change.”

The Benefits of a Growth Mindset

Dividing the World into Learners and Nonlearners

Carol Dweck’s book Mindset is a logical companion to Berger’s, as Dweck’s research shows the potential people unleash within themselves when they embrace the kind of openness to growth and learning that Berger advocates for as well. Here are some salient points from Dweck’s book:

“I brought children one at a time to a room in their school, made them comfortable, and then gave them a series of puzzles to solve. The first ones were fairly easy, but the next ones were hard. . . . Confronted with the hard puzzles, one ten-year-old boy pulled up his chair, rubbed his hands together, smacked his lips and cried out, ‘I love a challenge!’ Another, sweating away on these puzzles, looked up with a pleased expression and said with authority, ‘You know, I was hoping this would be informative!’ . . . What did they know? They knew that human qualities, such as intellectual skills, could be cultivated through effort. And that’s what they were doing—getting smarter. Not only weren’t they discouraged by failure, they didn’t even think they were failing. They thought they were learning.”

“What are the consequences of thinking that your intelligence or personality is something you can develop, as opposed to something that is a fixed, deep-seated trait?”

“Alfred Binet wrote in his early-twentieth-century book Modern Ideas About Children, ‘A few modern philosophers . . . assert that an individual’s intelligence is a fixed quantity, a quantity which cannot be increased. We must protest and react against this brutal pessimism . . . . With practice, training, and above all, method, we manage to increase our attention, our memory, our judgment and literally to become more intelligent than we were before.’”

“Babies don’t worry about making mistakes or humiliating themselves. They walk, they fall, they get up. They just barge forward.”

“Benjamin Barber, an eminent sociologist, once said, ‘I don’t divide the world into the weak and the strong, or the successes and the failures . . . I divide the world into the learners and nonlearners.”

I find that last line to be quite powerful: How might we create schools where we’re not dividing students by academic standing or skill but rather focusing on making sure our students are learners? How might we create schools where everyone feels challenged to be a learner, to smack his lips, as the boy in the above story does, when presented with a difficult challenge? 


Carol Dweck’s Mindset Principles, summarized

Teachers as Learners

One of the ways to begin thinking about students as learners, instead of beings into which we download information, is to make ourselves — as educators — into constant learners. One of the biggest obstacles we face in doing so is, of course, a lack of time. Schools often don’t have enough professional development days in the school year and those days are often consumed with administrative trivia or the next big event on the horizon, but not on a macro-commitment to culture change. Schools invested in culture change have a conscious awareness of this problem and have come up with multiple solutions.

One is to hire personnel whose main task is teacher training. For example, I’ve been fortunate enough to connect over the past few months with several educators in charge of teaching and learning and curriculum development in their schools. We’ve been speaking on the phone about once a month and emailing questions and observations when we have them. These educators include Rabbi Avi Bossewitch, Dean of Academic Affairs at Hebrew Academy in Miami Beach; Rabbi Yehuda Chanales, Director of Curriculum and Instruction at Fuchs Mizrachi in Cleveland; Barry Ehrlich, Director of Curriculum and Instruction at Maimonides School in Boston; and more recently Melissa Perl, Director of Judaic Studies at Kohelet. The first thing we did when we all spoke was acknowledge and feel grateful for the commitment our schools have made to meaningful change by acknowledging that someone in the building has to own ongoing, meaningful professional development (PD).

A well-devised PD plan has, in fact, been one of Magen David’s goals this year. Having selected main areas of growth — skills development, edtech, creativity, and PBL — the school began the year with PD in those realms and has focused its monthly PD days on one or two of those initiatives. In fact, in early December, teachers presented to each other units or lessons that they had used to build student skills. What was great about the sessions was that they also incorporated the other initiatives the school has undertaken. For example, Jewish history teacher Frieda Cattan shared how her trimester of PBL honed many skills she wanted her students to develop. History teacher Joanne Auman showed how creative assignments such as clay map making (shown below) created an atmosphere of joyful learning and helped build student skills. Math chair and teacher Moshe Omri Duani shared how the school’s writing initiative helped his students sharpen skills, and Rabbi Michael Bitton, the school’s Director of Educational Technology, (surprise!) shared an edtech tool he used to sharpen skills in a Talmud class.


Students in Ms. Cattan’s class developed a myriad of higher order thinking skills through a PBL unit on the Return to Zion time period of Jewish history


Students in Mrs. Auman’s Global Studies class made clay maps they will be sharing with visiting 8th graders in late December


Yes, that’s a math teacher presenting on how math skills improve through writing!


Rabbi Bitton talks about padlet and other apps useful in skills building

Moving Forward

Creating a growth mindset is a key part of effecting the kind of culture change schools are aiming for today. It’s a crucial step, because I think it’s easy for an educator to feel overwhelmed by all the innovations happening in the field. It’s important for schools, then, to identify the areas of growth they really want to focus on: those areas should align with a school’s mission and vision and should be embedded clearly and consistently into an institution’s professional development plan for the year. In fact, everyone benefits when a school’s overarching goals are made clear to all stakeholders, and we’ll be writing more about that in upcoming posts.


Wonder Walls are all the rage now, and we love ’em. Warren Berger would love them, too, as they build curiosity and spark inquiry. But no one in a school should be wondering what the school’s vision is; every stakeholder — teacher, parent, student — deserves to know where an institution is heading!

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A Road Trip Redesigned



This past month has been an exciting one, filled with diverse learning experiences, and it’s reminded me of the importance of challenging oneself by leaving one’s physical and mental space. The month began with a trip I took with my colleagues at Magen David Yeshivah High School, Associate Principal, Ms. Sabrina Maleh, and Director of Educational Technology, Rabbi Michael Bitton. Sabrina, Michael, and I traveled to Silicon Valley where we met up with Stanford University doctoral candidate and JEDLABian Matt Williams [You can also catch Matt on the Summer Sandbox videos; he facilitated this year’s Sandbox and led workshops on culture change on Day 3].

Matt generously set up tours and meetings for Sabrina, Michael, and me, giving us insight into the many facets of workplace culture, Design Thinking, Maker Spaces, Fab Labs, and project-based learning that we were setting out to explore.

Day 1


On Monday, November 3, after a hearty breakfast at Izzy’s Brooklyn Bagels, Matt, Sabrina, Michael, and I set out for a tour of Google headquarters.

Sabrina Michael and I at Google

Matt and I at Google

Among many other things, Matt Williams arranged our tour of Google

Google interested us because we wanted a look at its workplace culture, and we weren’t disappointed. As you can see from the entry point we posed in front of, the place has a Disneyland-for-adults feel that is echoed throughout the complex. Though I’m not sure if Google employees think it’s the happiest place on earth, the company does aim to keep its workers content, a fact that’s apparent from the Adirondack chairs scattered in casual groupings in outside spaces to the volleyball court set up near the employee-run herb garden. A mobile barber shop was parked in one parking lot, and a laundry room enabled employees to do their wash throughout the day. Of course the fitness room was state-of-the-art, but the biggest talking point — one that I heard repeated often — was the fact that Google has a rule that no employee is allowed to walk more than 150 feet without encountering (free) food. Yes, a Weight Watchers branch had to open onsite, mostly for first-year employees who hadn’t yet learned how to ration.

My one question as we left Google was whether the company was catering to employees in order to create whole-person well-being or because workers needed so many amenities because they didn’t have a home life. . . . I don’t have the answer yet, but here are some of the things I enjoyed hearing and seeing about the most:

Michael at Google Earth

Yes, that’s Michael Bitton at the helm of a giant Google Earth, honing in on various parts of the world, including Israel and NY

Magen David

7801 Bay Parkway, Brooklyn, NY lights up as Michael hones in on Magen David Yeshivah HS

Google herb garden

An employee-run herb garden is only one of the many passion-based “hive communities” that have popped up at Google. All are self-run, with their own listservs and protocols.

town hall

Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Google’s founders, conduct weekly town hall meetings, where they share news and let employees voice ideas and opinions. Yes, the color scheme is consistent throughout the complex. You will find no purple at Google, and you’ll find company bikes that are painted in the famous Google palette.

Google was exactly what I thought it would be — though with a larger gift shop that carried a broader range of goods than I had anticipated. Still, hearing about Google’s famous culture and seeing it up close were two different things, and I was grateful for the trip into one of the epicenters of innovation. I have to remain positive: remember, everything I’m typing right now is being picked up by one of these:

Google car

Professor Lee Shulman

After Google, our next stop was a meeting with Dr. Lee Shulman, educational psychologist, professor emeritus at Stanford University, former president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, and past president of the American Educational Research Association (yes, this is all one person). Professor Shulman also happens to be a warm and witty man who graciously shared his wisdom and advice with us. Speaking with us for well over an hour, he told us to tackle culture change by looking at obstacles as opportunities. We’ve been using Lee’s growth mindset language ever since we left his office. You can get to know Professor Shulman and gain from his positive, humorous, Jewish, and cold-cut-filled take on life through his writings, some of which are more insouciant than others.

Stanford University’s d. School

After leaving Professor Shulman, we then headed to Stanford University’s d. School. Let me give this place some context: I have been slightly obsessed with the d. School ever since I saw David Kelley’s TED Talk, ” How to Build Your Creative Confidence.” Seeing that Talk led me to investigate all things IDEO, Kelley’s firm which employs Design Thinking, and that led me to the d. School, the Design Thinking school Kelley started at Stanford, with Steve Jobs’ blessing (Kelley and his firm designed products for Jobs for over 20 years. Apple’s first mouse? Designed by IDEO).

Design Thinking

Here’s a brief explanation of what Design Thinking is:

And here’s the d. School manifesto, on a napkin.


Know, too, that Maya Bernstein of Upstart Bay Area has been working with the Jewish Education Project in NY to bring Design Thinking to Jewish education. We’ve been talking Design Thinking on JEDLAB lately as well, so join the conversation there.

Seeing the d. School in person did not disappoint. It was every bit as sharp, fun, and packed with post-it notes as the videos and websites make it out to be, and the fact that it now has a Maker Space only makes it that much more appealing. I also enjoyed seeing a prototyping cart with all sorts of random objects on it that reminded me of the seemingly useless items now filling the shelves of my office but which I am confident will one day be used in creatively cutting edge ways by Magen David teachers and students. Here’s a glimpse of the d. School, with its emphasis on ideation, prototyping — in both analog and digital form — and failing fast to fail forward:

Make d school

who is at the d school

design school

pretotyping manifesto d school

I love this: can you see the bottom? It says, “Maker sure you are building the right it before you build it right.”

experience prototyping
elmo loves iteration

d school iteration on making

so many stickies at d school

Eco-friendly Silicon Valley makes way for the stickie-note-obsessed d. School!

prototyping cart

A prototyping cart

d school maker space

The d. School Maker Space, complete with a retro-looking 3-D printer

d school maker space tools 1

Stanford’s Fab Lab

From the d. School, it was just a hop, skip, and jump away to Stanford’s Fab Lab. The difference between a Maker Space and Fab Lab? Not much. There were a lot of cool toys lying around both spaces — things a do-it-yourself-er might like to tinker with — such as 3-D printers, laser cutters, tools, and other widgets. This interest in Making as Learning that’s grabbed hold of educators is no doubt the result of more equitable access to formerly high-priced items such as 3-D printers. Dale Dougherty, founder of the Maker Movement, discusses in the following video how Making is making its way into education. I showed this video at the Yavneh Academy Board of Education meeting that took place as soon as I returned from my trip. It got us all thinking about ways we might include Making in the curriculum:

Stanford’s Fab Lab:

invent to learn fab lab

Sylvia Libow Martinez and Gary Stager’s book has become a sort of Bible in the Maker Movement

dinosaurs fab lab

Cool things you can make with a laser cutter!

fab lab playfulness

The Fab Lab had the same sort of playfulness we encountered at the d. School. “Who says work can’t be fun?” was a recurring theme throughout the day — from Google to our meeting with Lee to the d. School and Fab Lab

fab lab tools

Day 2

Professor Ari Kelman

It’s hard to believe all that I just wrote happened on one day, but that’s what camp — I mean, a serious business trip — is like. Day 2 was just as much of a learning experience. Matt, Sabrina, Michael, and I began the day with Professor Ari Kelman, the Jim Joseph Chair in Education and Jewish Studies at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education. Just reading the book titles in Professor Kelman’s office was an education, but Ari, like Lee, also generously shared his wisdom with us. Ari — and Matt — study the Jewish ecosystem, so hearing the opinions of those studying the field of Jewish education from 30,000 feet high was important: those of us who are busy with managing what on some days feel like tiny twigs can sometimes lose sight of the forest.

The Los Altos School District

One place that is busy tending a very well-run forest is the Los Altos school district, our last stop before we headed on to our next adventures — more about those in another blog post. Visiting Los Altos brought our trip all together: the district engaged in Design Thinking to create its teacher training program. In fact, the teachers’ professional development rooms looked exactly like the d. School.

The district also had created an exciting STEM program, decorating its STEM classrooms in inviting ways that inspired students to create and innovate. We peeked in on a group of 8-year-olds who had been given the challenge to balance a LEGO house on no more than 10 index cards without being able to use scissors or glue. The first girl who completed the task did so in about ten minutes, but the truth is that all the students who entered this self-selected class began ideating and iterating from the moment they walked into it. Their motivation reminded us that when students never stop being curious and always look at work as play, then what results is the kind of joyful learning that takes place in kindergarten — and places such as the d. School and Stanford’s Fab Lab.

los altos passion learning

Passion-driven learning creates high levels of engagement — in students in the Los Altos school district as well as in employees at Google who have their passion-driven hive communities within the company

los altos what would happen

Creating an inquiry-based classroom begins with posting thought-provoking questions . . .

los altos einstein

. . . and quotations. This one, of course, underscores the fail forward mentality we also saw at the d. School and the Stanford Fab Lab

los altos teacher challenge

Teacher Katie Farley instructs her students on what to do for their LEGO Challenge, a task the students are willingly undertaking during their lunch period. Katie, by the way, taught at Maimonides day school in Los Angeles!

los altos student ideating

los altos lego

Sabrina, Michael, and my trip to Northern California, as I said, came full circle in many, many ways. Here’s a dot which connected our first and last two stops: did you know Google’s first servers were on . . . LEGO?

los altos ilearn

The teacher training rooms at the Los Altos school district were designed by the d. School’s K-12 Teaching Team

los altos pail

Shades of the Summer Sandbox: the pail as pen holder! And note the d. School-mandated post-it notes.


I’ve been thinking about learning as play for quite a few years now, but it’s a very different thing to think about it than it is to see it in one of the country’s top universities and enacted on a district-wide level in one of the most innovative school districts in the country.

If you’ve been toying with how to begin playing, innovating, making, or designing in your school or classroom, but have been afraid to, perhaps you’ll be inspired by what’s going on in Northern California. And also remember how we began this post — by reminding ourselves to get out of our comfort zones. The Los Altos schools make sure their teachers do so by posting these tenets from the rules of Improv, an art form that demands that players remain open to what their partners throw at them. In other words, Improv requires a growth mindset as opposed to a fixed one, something the curriculum planners at Los Altos told us was at the heart of their professional development plan. We hope it will be at the heart of yours too:

los altos improv

By in News & Updates 2

The Maker Movement in Jewish Education



September 21 saw a group of Jewish educators — and students — attend the NYC Maker Faire. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the Maker Movement, here’s a good definition from techopedia.com:

Definition – What does Maker Movement mean?

The maker movement is a trend in which individuals or groups of individuals create and market products that are recreated and assembled using unused, discarded or broken electronic, plastic, silicon or virtually any raw material and/or product from a computer-related device.

The maker movement has led to the creation of a number of technology products and solutions by typical individuals working without supportive infrastructure. This is facilitated by the increasing amount of information available to individuals and the decreasing cost of electronic components.

Techopedia explains Maker Movement

The maker movement is primarily the name given to the increasing number of people employing do-it-yourself (DIY) and do-it-with-others ( DIWO) techniques and processes to develop unique technology products. Generally, DIY and DIWO enables individuals to create sophisticated devices and gadgets, such as printers, robotics and electronic devices, using diagrammed, textual and or video demonstration. With all the resources now available over the Internet, virtually anyone can create simple devices, which in some cases are widely adopted by users. For example, MintyBoost, a popular DIY USB charger kit built using an Altoids tin, batteries and a few connectors, can easily be created using instructions online, or purchased from other makers who sell their devices.

Most of the products created under the maker movement are open source, as anyone can access and create them using available documentation and manuals.

However, the maker movement also incorporates creations and inventions that never existed before and were developed by individuals in their homes, garages or a place with limited manufacturing resources.

And here’s founder of Make magazine and Maker Faire Dale Dougherty explaining his vision for the Maker Movement in education (think Maker Spaces merging with libraries!):


Since Project-Based Learning (PBL) emphasizes student interests and passions and because Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) is such a focus in schools now, it’s no wonder that the do-it-yourself joy of making is seeping into schools.

A lot of times. though, we’ve seen the rush in education to play with the latest gadget (OK, pun slightly intended) without an initial, thoughtfully laid-out plan about how to use our new toys. Of course, at the very essence of the Maker Movement is a kind of spontaneous tinkering, but because class time is so precious, educators want to know how the Maker Movement contributes to a school’s — and in the case of Jewish education — to a Jewish school’s primary goals and concerns.

Jewish educators who attended the Maker Faire asked themselves just those questions, but it wasn’t just Jewish educators who got to voice their opinions. Students as well contributed to the discussion:

photo 1 (2)

I had a great time at the Maker Faire with Oren Mendelow, video and tech whiz of Kushner Academy; Ari Mendelow, a Rutger’s engineering student; and Ronit Langer, a Frisch School senior interested in a career in STEM. Amitai Cohen, another Frisch senior who has been a techie for years, joined us later in the day

photo 4 (1)

We bumped into Rabbi Tzvi Pittinsky (@TechRav), Frisch’s Director of Educational Technology, at the Maker Faire!

What Did We See?

What exactly happens at a Maker Faire? Well, you get to see a lot of cool gadgetry; think Inspector Gadget meets LEGO meets 3-D printing meets the Green Movement:

photo 1 (4)

Yes, that's a crocodile being pedaled by humans!

Yes, that’s a crocodile being pedaled by humans!

photo 2 (2)

This eco-friendly sculpture is made from recycled plastic bottles and bottlecaps and is something Mrs. Ahuva Mantell, Frisch’s art teacher who attended the Maker Faire and who runs the school’s Environmental Club, no doubt enjoyed seeing

photo 4 (2)

The bottle sculpture was next to a stand discussing the drink of the future, a mood-altering beverage that sounded as if it were something right out of The Jetsons — or Brave New World

Other highlights from the Maker Faire were 3-D printing demos — here, there, and everywhere — , arduino boards and Raspberry Pis up the wazoo, lifestyle cars, and all things LEGO. Check out this Apple store made out of the legendary building blocks. The “store” was next to a booth about E-nabling the Future, a network that uses cheap 3-D printing materials to create prosthetics for children who cannot afford expensive ones. Especially because children are always growing, they need prosthetics they can easily replace.

photo 3 (5)

One of the things that’s fun about the Maker Faire is the juxtaposition of the very serious and socially responsible with the whimsical and weird. In fact, here are some products that would enable both, wood shop “printers” and home builders:

photo 2 (3)

photo 1 (5)

photo 4 (3)

You don’t need serious tools or expensive shop-bots to build, though. Simply take apart old electronic devices and see what you can create. Mrs. Mantell taught me that a couple of years ago; she’s been re-purposing all sorts of materials for years!

Another thing I liked about the Maker Faire was the opportunity it offered girls interested in STEM. From 3-D printed dolls and dresses to wearable technologies that caused clothing to change color when the weather altered, the displays and demonstrations showed me, Ronit Langer, and Magen David faculty member Naomi Weiss what was possible for girls who had gender-traditional interests as well as a technological bent:

photo (2)

A 3-D printed dress

photo 5 (1)

A demonstration on wearable technologies

Post-Maker Faire Party

After the Maker Faire, Ronit Langer, Naomi Weiss, and I headed to the Solomon Schechter School of Queens, which hosted dinner for anyone interested in discussing what we had seen during the day. Thanks to Head of School Shira Leibowitz and Director of Educational Technology Rebecca Penina Simon for helping me plan the event and for graciously letting us have it at SSSQ. Rebecca is running the school’s Maker Space, so I was especially eager to hear what she had taken away from the day. We were joined by Janine Lalander, SSSQ lower school Science teacher, Yavneh Academy’s Director of Technology Chani Lichtiger,Technology Coach Claire Hirschhorn, and fifth-grade teacher Sharon Sherman, as well as Montessori School advocate Daniel Petter-Lipstein and his daughter Liora.

Over a delicious dinner from Carlos and Gabby’s, we discussed:

Where to fit a Maker Space into a curriculum:

Rebecca and Shira shared how they did it: they created 8th-grade electives, and those students interested in Making signed up for Rebecca’s class. Rebecca used her Twitter PLN and training and guidance from Maker State to prepare for the course, which you can read more about in her informative and exciting blog post.

SSSQ’s Maker Space is filled with self-selected students, so we also asked ourselves what we might gain from introducing all kids to Making at a young age, giving them exposure to it in the same way we give them exposure to the arts and a wide range of disciplines.

Why have a Maker Space:

Though a Maker Space is obviously a great way to teach students STEM, we all concluded that an equally important by-product of Making is that it produces joyful, active learning and promotes creativity. It also shows students that they can have a self-generated idea that they can bring to fruition.

In addition, our group discussed the pro’s and con’s of keeping a Maker Space separate from course curriculum, keeping Making in its own discrete space, or, alternatively, combining it with course content. What if students were to learn about dinosaur fossils and then have to 3-D print them? Or study urban design and then light up a model city?

Or how would Magen David Talmud teacher Rabbi Joseph Esses — who also attended the Maker Faire — change his Sukkah-building project if he had ShopBot?

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Though we didn’t come to any set conclusions over our meal, we all agreed that the Maker Movement was something we wanted our students to be a part of, and we left feeling committed not only to ensuring that happened but to helping each other along the way.

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The Maker Faire post-party helped us sort out our thoughts on Making and Tinkering! Consensus: we’re in!

By in Blog Comments Off on Is This on the Test?: Establishing a Real Need to Know

Is This on the Test?: Establishing a Real Need to Know

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.

Wonder Walls

wonder wall

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.

An Example

J hist

It’s up to you as an educator to decide what to do when your students tell you they’re interested in the 80’s (poster on the left) or Elvis in the 60’s (poster on the right)

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.

Additional Resources

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:

Suzie Boss on Project Launches

Here is PBL guru Suzie Boss on how to do project launches in an exciting manner.