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By in Blog Comments Off on The Importance of Reflection

The Importance of Reflection

Reflection is one of the key components of PBL and for good reason. One of the things PBL affords students is the chance to understand why they’re learning what they’re learning. Students shouldn’t be sitting in class wondering how their course work relates to them or their world. Reflection gives students a way to contemplate the relevance and importance of their learning, and it also lets teachers know that the students are grasping the material in a deep and significant way. The feedback loop in PBL keeps students and teachers aligned in their learning goals.

Following is an example of student work that displays the kind of deep learning that can take place with PBL. The assignment — which offered students voice and choice, another key component of PBL — asked a class of juniors to discuss how they saw the American dream, after seeing it from a myriad of perspectives over the first semester of an American literature course. Students had read The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot over the summer; during the first semester, they also read The Scarlet Letter and The Crucible and had become familiar with Romanticism and the Romantic hero.

PBL also makes sure that student work has authentic purpose. In this class, students chose a type of injustice in America today and investigated it in groups, sharing their findings with the class; they also had to read one article from a New York Times series about American children living in poverty. Finally, the class planned and executed an Acts of Kindness Day on December 26, in honor of the 26 victims of Newtown and as a way to begin addressing unfair treatment in American society.

Here is Liat’s wonderful assessment of the semester. We particularly like the personal details she includes in the essay, discussing her great-grandfather’s experience with the American dream:

Reflections on the Semester
Had I been asked four months ago to define the “American Dream,” I would have answered with a laugh and resorted to cliche.  “To live the American Dream is to raise a family with 2.5 perfect children, and to own a large, spotless house–complete with a white picket fence and a dog (probably a Golden Retriever).” Had you asked me the same question one month ago, however, I would have hemmed and hawed and been forced to deliberate my answer–finally declaring that based on my discussions in English class, there is no concrete definition of the notion of the “American Dream.” But ask me today and you’ll find my answer is far more long-winded (five and a half pages, to be exact). To me, the American Dream was not, is not, and cannot ever be a static idea, but rather is one that is constantly changing and is reflective of our history.  But however one defines the American Dream at a particular point in our nation’s timeline, the concept of “opportunity” is a central theme throughout its course.

In the early 1600’s, the Pilgrims fled Europe for the New World.  In their version of the American Dream, America was not a place where individuals could practice religion as they saw fit; but rather, America was a haven from religious persecution, where the pilgrims could enjoy the liberty of starting their very own theocracy. The Dream underwent a transformation when the Bill of Rights was signed into law in 1791. It promised certain, inalienable protections to each and every resident of the U.S.A., including freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and freedom of the press.  A citizen living the American Dream could voice open expression of his ideas and be whomever he chose to be.  Following the civil rights movement of the 1960’s, an essential part of the American Dream’s new identity became the new freedoms the United States offered to minorities and people of color.  With the advent of feminism in the seventies, the American Dream morphed into one of equality of the sexes.  A woman could now own the American Dream in the same way as a man, expecting the same freedoms and opportunities which he enjoyed.

Alongside all of these versions of the American Dream, there has existed a parallel text of the American Dream.  In the late 18th century, enterprising opportunists first sought to buy huge tracts of farmland. In the 19th century, young men journeyed west in the Gold Rush.  In the early 20th century, Jewish immigrants left their homes and communities to reach the “Goldene Medina.” This trend continues through today, as America has been known as the land for great personal financial growth. There is, however, a huge flaw in the American Dream that I’ve witnessed throughout this semester’s class, and that is that individual Americans often fail to live up to these evolving expectations.

In the literary works that we have read so far this year, the American Dream has proved elusive to many characters–both fictional and nonfictional. In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Hester, a true romantic hero, journeys to America knowing full well that she will be living in a Puritan theocracy. Despite this prior knowledge, Hester still feels trapped by the confines of her community, and seeks refuge in the forest or by the sea. As my group came to understand, through a deep analysis of the symbols of town, forest and sea, Hester cannot truly escape the “town,” which represents societal and religious ideals, into the uncontained “forest” and “sea,” both of which represent the ability to make different choices and the capacity for human growth and change. At the conclusion of the story, Hester’s daughter decides not to follow her mother back to America.  I would suggest that both she and her mother have been disillusioned by the scope of the American Dream, and that the narrow freedoms it offers are still too restrictive.

Arthur Miller’s The Crucible can be read on an allegorical level as the story of the failure of the American Dream.  In the fifties, McCarthy began to point fingers at his political enemies, igniting a frenzy that was akin to the Salem witchcraft hunt of the 17th century.   Miller himself was blacklisted and, I believe, this experience taught him that the freedoms of individual expression are tenuous and not guaranteed, despite the promises of the First Amendment.  

In Tim O’Brien’s book, The Things They Carried, the author relates fictional stories of soldiers during the Vietnam War. During the war, young men were forcibly drafted into the army and into a war that they did not support, believe in or even understand.  I think that O’Brien is presenting a highly critical picture of the callousness of our leaders in sending these young men off to die, and is calling the government out on its failure to protect the rights of the individual.

In Rebecca Skloot’s, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Henrietta and her family are wronged by the American scientific community on multiple levels.  Henrietta’s personal freedoms were violated when the doctors failed to get informed consent on the use of her cells.  Though there was no active cover-up in the successive two decades, during which the civil rights movement was taking hold, I believe that her descendants were failed by silence–by the passive acceptance of those involved that there was no need to acknowledge Henrietta’s pivotal role.

At the beginning of the semester, when we were asked to write a Declaration of Independence, I declared myself independent from “The Patriarchy that is 21st Century American Society.”  I recognized a series of blatant strikes against the Dream as I wrote about male-centered language, male privilege, slut shaming, indecent media portrayal of women in the media, unequal job opportunity, and unfair wage gaps. I can only hope that I will not be disappointed in adulthood when it is my turn to transform my Dream into a reality, and that I will find the true equality of men and women that it promises.

As I sit here reflecting on this semester (or rather half reflecting and half lamenting the end of shiriyah!), I envision the possibility of success and am not convinced that all American Dream stories need to end in failure or disillusionment, though it makes for good reading and discussion.  Over Thanksgiving weekend, my grandmother shared some fascinating family history with me.   As it turns out, my great-grandfather, Grandpa Sam z”l, was a hobo during the Great Depression. As an 18 year-old, he was without employment for over a year.  He rode the rails from coast to coast looking for day work, earning a pittance in order to keep from starving.  He received occasional handouts from the Salvation Army and benefited from meals in their soup kitchens.  But, years later, he managed to become an insurance salesman, marry my great-grandmother, buy a house, raise a family and send his two daughters off to college. This is the quintessential story of the American Dream!  Given the opportunity, a man pulls himself up by his bootstraps, forges ahead with will and passion, and achieves success–familial, professional and financial.

Last year, The New York Times published a series of articles called The Invisible Child, detailing the life of Dasani, a homeless girl living in New York City.  At the conclusion of the series, Dasani and her family are transferred out of the decaying, moldy, unsafe shelter they had been living in, into their own three-bedroom apartment with a kitchen. They settle in and they are ecstatic to finally have their own place; in their minds, they are living the American Dream. Their transition to a new home is due entirely to the work of the department of social services.  I wonder if this one small act will change the course of Dasani’s life for the better (and I look forward to reading any follow-up articles!)

Concluding the semester with “Twenty-Six Acts of Kindness Day” was incredibly meaningful for me. On that first Wednesday in December, as I sat down to listen to Ms. Schroff [Laura Schroff, author of An Invisible Thread, came to speak to the students and returned to share our Acts of Kindness day with Frisch], I knew that this would be a very different kind of program than I had experienced in the past. The manner in which Ms. Schroff spoke was so genuine that I became convinced that the notion that “one small act of kindness can change a life” had some legitimacy to it.  In the week after, as we prepared for “Twenty-Six Acts of Kindness Day,” I became more and more enamored by the idea and enjoyed thinking up acts that seemed like doable and realistic goals for students.  I felt a surge of pride as I stood at the sign-up table and saw the numbers for myself: 193 people in the Frisch community participated, and we accomplished a total of 233 acts of kindness! Sure, we had sponsored chessed [acts of kindness[ days before, but juxtaposed to Ms. Schroff’s and Maurice’s talks, and with the backdrop of honoring the 26 victims of the Newton Massacre, it felt more meaningful.

Grandpa Sam, Maurice, and Dasani serve as proof that the American Dream can be realized, though so many great writers choose to acknowledge its failure.  But perhaps we would not recognize the American Dream successes without being able to contrast them to the failures.  As I wrote in my Thanksgiving piece earlier this semester, one can only understand light when it is held up against the dark.  With drive and perhaps a little bit of goodwill from others, we can all take advantage of the opportunities living in America affords.  Light can emerge from the darkness.
By in Blog Comments Off on PBL Resources

PBL Resources

If you want to start incorporating elements of PBL into your classroom but don’t know where to begin, how about trying to break down the components and introducing them slowly? You can start with the component that seems easiest, most interesting, or most inspiring to you.

First, let’s start by reviewing the different components of PBL:

We’re going to focus in this blog post on a few different elements:


The arts can be used in the PBL classroom in many ways: as a final product, as a type of assessment, as a reflective tool and more. Check out why arts integration is an important educational tool:
The arts can also help build deep and beautiful work, as shown here by Ron Berger:


One effect of PBL is deeper learning. But don’t take our word for it. Hear it from a student:


Obviously, there’s no end to the types of digital media one can incorporate into a PBL project. Ask yourself:
Will I curate content digitally to share with my students as we gather information for a PBL unit? Are students curating the content? If so, are they sharing it on a digital platform? 
Does the class need a cloud-based, knowledge-sharing platform such as Google Drive in order to gather and process information?
Are students creating digital content? Will the content be online and/or for a public audience? 


PBL is for any learner in any setting. Check out what Ron Berger has to say on the subject:

Highlighting Student Work


Our go-to place for rubrics is bie.org. Here’s a link to the organization’s amazingly useful rubrics:
RubiStar is a rubric-making website you can use to create a rubric. 
Here’s a rubric for learning goals that we developed for students to use when they first began a project:


Focus: content

What knowledge do I need to have to complete this project? What knowledge do I want to gain?


Focus: reading or math literacy skills; critical and analytical thinking skills; oral presentation skills (including interviews); etc.
What skills do I need to hone in order to complete this project? What adjunct skills am I going to need to develop?

Focus: artistic and digital media skills

How will I demonstrate my creativity in the assignment in digital and/or artistic ways? Are there additional ways I will demonstrate my creativity?

Focus: being a team player

What will I contribute to the project? How will I use my talents and skills to enhance my group’s work?

Focus: resilience and flexibility and adaptability skills

How did I fail over the course of the project? What did I learn from the failure, and how did I reframe based on my failures?

We’ve left room for students to fill out the form with four goals per category, but obviously the form should be individualized for each student and course. Students and teachers can also add and subtract categories as needed.



Following are resources from The Frisch School developed by students and teachers, pertaining to all the elements of PBL described in this post. Enjoy!

By in Blog Comments Off on Students: Take out your toys and play!

Students: Take out your toys and play!

When I was young, like most kids, I liked to tinker. From trying to fix a broken lamp by taking all of its parts out and putting it back together again to making a cabbage patch doll light up like a glow worm, it was generally encouraged or at least tolerated at home. It was also generally encouraged in school as well. However, as I got older the encouragement for tinkering in school seemed to quickly fade away. Play, experimentation, curiosity and learning by doing was replaced by memorization, standardization and boringazation (yep, I just coined a new term. Take that Mrs. White – my 6th grade English teacher!).

Why did growing up mean the end of learning by trying new things and getting my hands dirty? There are a host of reasons unimportant to this post (but important to know) and of which none validate the unnecessary stubbornness of remaining in the one-size-fits all classrooms that many of us grew up in and find our children sitting in today. Yet, there is hope.

Despite the notion of “learning by doing” being a siren blown for centuries on seemingly deaf ears, through the lower costs and rapid advances in technology, hands-on learning is becoming more mainstream than ever before. With more talk about Project-Based Learning, Gamification and, reason for my post, the Makers Movement, John Dewey, one of the original “learn by doing” educational gangsters would be proud.

The Makers Movement if you are not familiar with it follows along the lines of John Deweys idea of “learning by doing” or Piagetian idea that “to understand is to invent.” Dale Dougherty (click here for his Ted Talk on Makers), the founder of Make magazine writes in his essay titled The Maker Mindset (2013):

Yet the origin of the Maker Movement is found in something quite personal; what I might call “experimental play.” When I started Make magazine, I recognized that makers were enthusiasts who played with technology to learn about it. A new technology presented an invitation to play, and makers regard this kind of play as highly satisfying. Makers give it a try; they take things apart; and they try to do things that even the manufacturer did not think about.

I, like Dougherty as he mentions in his TED talk, think we are all born makers and we are often at risk for having that part of us extinguished in school. The truth is I never really stopped playing in school and often brought toys with me to class. However, my teachers did not seem to appreciate my wonder of how the sparks came out of my toy tank or what made my gameboy tick. I was often asked to put my toys away and listen. I did not want to listen, at least not for the lengthy period of time they were requiring of me. I wanted to learn and for me that meant investigating, exploring and creating. It did not mean sit and stare at a chalkboard for an hour and try to keep up with whatever the Charlie Brown “blah, blah, blah” teacher was saying. I am not suggesting there was and is no value in direct instruction. It is critical, but it must be strategic and personalized. Students today have more access to information than ever before giving the teacher more room to teach for the true goal of knowledge which is personally meaningful application. This is where a master educator can shine and give over the gift of education to their students. Thankfully we are seeing more and more of this happening in the field.

Just check out Innovation Academy, High Tech High, New Tech Network and Science Leadership Academy to name a few schools who used Project-Based Learning at this core with plenty of tinkering happening and check out this teachers “dive into the makers movement.

Recently, I had the privilege of sitting in a session at the RAVSAK/PARDES Jewish Day School conference led by Sylvia Martinez, President of Constructing Modern Knowledge and co-author of Invent To Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom. I just began reading it and for the first chapter alone it is worth the price of admission, but I am sure as I read more I would recommend it in its entirety. The session reinforced and opened up my mind to more of what is happening with the Makers Movement in the K-12 space. It also inspired me to sign up for the “Meet The Makers: Making A Case for Making in the Classroom” event I will be attending next week and hope to share more wonderful learning in this exciting area of education.

So, whether you call it a Makers lab, Fab Lab or just plain Project-Based Learning, learning by doing is alive and well in our schools and growing. There are many ways to think about how to increase real world application of knowledge taught in your schools. Integrating a Makers lab or Making in your classrooms is certainly a very exciting option. Below are many resources I collected about Making from the session I attended. Enjoy and go to school and play!

Looking for computers to tinker with?




Looking for something 3D to tinker with?




http://www.thingiverse.com/ (The above image is a design you can download here at Thingiverse)

Looking to tinker with cardboard?


Are you a girl who wants to tinker?


Looking just to tinker?




Looking to read more about tinkering?

Invent To Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom

Makers: The New Industrial Revolution

The Maker Movement Manifesto: Rules for Innovation in the New World of Crafters, Hackers, and Tinkerers

The Sorcerers and Their Apprentices: How the Digital Magicians of the MIT Media Lab Are Creating the Innovative Technologies That Will Transform Our Lives

Originally posted at www.EJsCafe.com