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By in Blog Comments Off on A PBL on Prayer from the Collaboratory

A PBL on Prayer from the Collaboratory

problem based learning vs traditional learning

Problem-Based Learning, as its name suggests, asks students to solve a real-world problem. One thorny problem Jewish educators face is how to approach prayer — tefillah — in school. At the PBL Collaboratory in Judaic Studies that took place last month in late March, a group of us were inspired by RealSchooler Ronit Langer, who dropped by and spoke about the fact that tefillah in school seems more punitive than aspirational. We decided to tackle the topic during our project design session.

Mrs. Shira Ackerman of Ben Porat Yosef at the PBL Collaboratory

As we pondered the dilemma, Yeshivat Noam’s Ms. Aliza Chanales helped us gather our thoughts, in her typically humorous and cut-to-the-chase manner: “We would never intentionally design an educational experience this way: When else would you put kids in a room together for forty minutes and tell them to sit straight, not talk to each other, and not let half of the room participate in a significant manner [referring to Orthodox prayer services]?”

We all sighed. Ben Porat Yosef’s Educational Technology Director, Mrs. Shira Ackerman, and I decided to brainstorm some solutions. Using the Buck Institute of Education’s Project Design template, we asked ourselves how we might create a more engaging tefillah experience.

We noted that many schools have already initiated tefillah programs that incorporate yoga, meditation, or other activities that appeal to students and might put them in a prayerful mode. Some schools even replace prayer with communal work. We decided that for our project we would maintain the structure and content of the traditional tefillah service.

Here’s the emerging PBL unit, which Shira and I offer for critique and feedback:

Name of Project: TEFILLAH REDESIGN

Subject/Course: JEWISH PHILOSOPHY/LAWS OF PRAYER

Other subject areas to be included, if any: Tanakh, History/Jewish History, Math, English, Science, Educational Technology, the Arts, Design Thinking

Significant Content: The disciplines we chose to subsume this project under — Jewish philosophy and Laws of Prayer — imply students will be studying why they pray or the laws of prayer, respectively. However, the truth is that teachers can access the project any way they want. Based on who is teaching the course and in what discipline it grows out of, teachers can choose to focus on a particular subject.

Project Summary: Using the model of an inquiry-based classroom and student voice and choice, students explore tefillah through a lens that is meaningful to them. For example, a student interested in history might explore the history of prayer, when the different prayers made their way into the service, and how they might differ in myriad communities.

A student interested in Tanakh could explore the sources of our prayers, while someone interested in science could create significance around the tefillot that praise God for making our bodies work properly and creating order and wonder in the natural world. Still others could use interest in music to study the history of melodies in prayer, and a student of the visual arts could visually interpret prayer.

If the problem or challenge students tackle in the project is how to make prayer relevant and engaging to themselves, then this research-based first part of the assignment is designed to tap into a personal passion or interest. However, we decided we also wanted students to think about how to interest their co-religionists in prayer. The second part of the project, then, requires students to interview each other and those outside their school about the meaning of prayer in their lives.

We also thought it would be important for students to pray with people other than peers. They should have rotations where they pray with the community and with kindergartners, who have a natural enthusiasm for prayer.

The design thinking challenge we then set for our students would be to collect data about who prays best and when and why enthusiasm for prayer wanes. The students would then have to create their own solutions for engaging students in tefillah. They also would incorporate into their solutions the research they conducted in a particular discipline.

One final product of the project would be individual prayerbooks, based on what was compelling to each student and with room for the student to add to his/her reflections. The second final product would be a plan born out of the design thinking process for how to increase student engagement in tefillah. The students who prepared the plans for the school would present them to the student body, who would then vote on the best plan. The school would implement that plan.

Driving Question: How might I find meaning in tefillah? How might I make tefillah meaningful for my community?

jewish prayer child

We realize we haven’t filled in all the parts of the BIE template, but you can get a feel for how we would do so from what we’ve included so far. We chose these approaches, because they include individualized ways students can connect to prayer — through personal interests and passions — and theyalso require students to connect to those beyond their classroom, to people in their community of all ages, from the very young to the very old. The project could include going to a home for the elderly, praying with residents and asking them why they pray. In PBL, connecting to the outside world is a vital part of the learning experience. Here it could take on deep affective significance.

At the North American Jewish Day School Conference in early March, I worked with educational consultant Jonathan Cannon and educators Drs. Eliezer Jones and Yechiel Hoffman on a session that audaciously told participants that all their assumptions about day schools are wrong. In Jonathan’s (rather entertaining) introduction to the session, he mentioned that our schools seem resigned to the fact that certain parts of the Jewish day school experience might not be working. Prayer, Jonathan implied, is something JDS needs to fix.

Chip-and-Dan-Heath

I recently read Switch, the wonderful book about change by Dan and Chip Heath. The authors talk about how to create change, even for situations that seem intractable. One way to do so is to focus on bright spots — things that are working. We tried to do that in our tefillah project, by enabling students to experience prayer with those who are enthusiastic about it — the very young —; those who are consistent about it — the adults in the community — ; and those who are wise about it — the very old.

As Aliza, Shira, and I worked, we even bandied about the idea of having students pray every day with the adults in the community. If PBL really is about connecting to the real world, then nothing could be more real than having students pray with their community. It’s an idea I’ve heard other educators speak about as well, and one which would allow school to begin later for students. A later start time in schools would allow us to take advantage of developments in neuroscience that tell us adolescents benefit from not waking up at the crack of dawn.

sleeping-classroom

What I especially liked about tackling this project with my colleagues was a sense of empowerment, of considering the notion that we aren’t necessarily stuck with the system we’ve inherited and that new solutions are possible. Considering the new and engaging in big dreaming is one of the main attractions, for me, of problem-based learning, as is collaborating with peers. I know these are attractions for students as well, so it was a logical progression for Shira and me to have the students come up with their own solutions for the problem of prayer in school. A fresh look at the dilemma, from those most deeply affected by it, seems like a good idea.

history-collaboration-software

However, we welcome everyone’s feedback on the project and look forward to hearing if anyone has tried any of the ideas we’ve mentioned and if so, how those ideas have fared. We also welcome suggestions that would project tune the PBL unit. 

In the meantime, enjoy this found poem RealSchoolers created from linking together different students’ responses to what worked for them in tefillah. All this talk about the problems with tefillah made us realize we might want to end with a bright spot:

I like davening [praying]
In silence
And at my own
Pace.

Davening is peaceful
Meditation

And gives me time
To reflect on my
Day and what
I’ve done.

Tefillah is important
To me
because
When I’m down
Or without hope,
It gives me
Faith
And a purpose
In life.

I like having a set
Time
To communicate with
Hashem [God].

It forces me
To continually refresh
The relationship.

I like the personal
Aspect of tefillah,
Not only reading
The words
But making them
My own.

Tefillah gives
Me the feeling
That I always
Have someone
To lean on.

It gives me
A chance to pour
Out my feelings to Someone
And to thank Him
For everything
I have.

It makes me
Feel like God is listening.

By in Blog Comments Off on Update on PBL in Jewish Education

Update on PBL in Jewish Education

Ari and Oren Mendelow, members of RealSchool, the inquiry-based learning program I began in 2010, now comprise the I.D.E.A. School Network's Creativity and Design team. Oren created the origami at the Collaboratory, which Ari then made into a graphic

Ari and Oren Mendelow, members of RealSchool, the inquiry-based learning program I began in 2010, now head the I.D.E.A. School Network’s Creativity and Design team. Oren created the origami at the Collaboratory, which Ari then made into a graphic

Collaboratory for PBL in Judaic Studies

Last week was an important one for PBL in Jewish education. On Sunday, March 22, the I.D.E.A. Schools Network held its first Collaboratory for PBL in Jewish education. A group of K-12 educators from schools that included Ben Porat Yosef, Ma’ayanot High School, Magen David Yeshivah High School, Ramaz Middle School, Solomon Schechter Day School of Queens, Westchester Day School, and Yeshivat Noam gathered at one of the Network’s Founding Schools, Magen David Yeshivah High School in Brooklyn, to hash out the challenges of implementing PBL in the Judaic Studies classroom and to begin planning PBL units in Judaic Studies subjects.

Collaboratory: Part I

The first part of the day saw Collaboratory participants explore some of the challenges associated with PBL, which included the following:

I can’t build skills with PBL/Kids don’t have the basic skills in Judaic Studies to do PBL

Students won’t know the “right” story or answer if we open Judaic Studies up to PBL (Corollary: You can be “wrong” in General Studies. You can’t be wrong in Judaic Studies.)

What about learning lishma (for learning’s sake and not for any ulterior motive, such as solving a PBL problem)?

I don’t know what an authentic product is in Judaic Studies.

What about the mesorah, the transmission of ideas and learning that is so important to Jewish continuity? (Corollary: If we change x about the way we learn, the entire edifice of our heritage and mesorah will come tumbling down.)

There’s not enough time. If I do PBL, I won’t finish the sefer, book of Tanakh, or other curricular material I was planning to teach for the year.

Parents/students/other teachers/administrators won’t understand/like this method of teaching. I’m afraid of getting in trouble.

I lack resources. Judaic Studies teachers don’t have the same resources to do PBL that General Studies teachers do.

Each group brainstormed solutions to the challenges presented, but the last one is very true and the reason we were gathered in the light-filled atrium of Magen David: to get started creating PBL resources we can share with the field.

Wiht his partner Rabbi Mendel Lewitin of Ramaz MS, Rabbi Saul Zucker, Principal of Magen David tackled the challenge of how to implement PBL in an environment where one is afraid to do so. Rabbi Zucker shared out a detailed plan of how to unroll PBL to many different stakeholders who may not understand it, such as students, parents, and board members.

With his “chavruta,” learning partner, Rabbi Mendel Lewitin of Ramaz, Rabbi Saul Zucker, Principal of Magen David, tackled the challenge of how to implement PBL in an environment where one is afraid to do so. Rabbi Zucker shared out a detailed plan of how to unroll PBL to many different stakeholders who may not understand it, such as students, parents, and board members.

Mrs. Shira Ackerman  of Ben Porat Yosef and Rabbi Michael Bitton of Magen David HS, both Directors of EdTech, talked about the fact that Judaism is a religion of questions -- an appropriate point to make right before Pesach. They were answering the challenge of doing PBL in an environment that honors the mesorah and tradition.

Mrs. Shira Ackerman of Ben Porat Yosef and Rabbi Michael Bitton of Magen David, both Directors of EdTech, talked about the fact that Judaism is a religion of questions — an appropriate point to make right before Pesach. They were answering the challenge of doing PBL in an environment that honors the mesorah and tradition.

Collaboratory: Part II

After facing the challenges of PBL, participants were ready to do some blue sky dreaming about what Judaic Studies could be, using the following prompts as a springboard for discussion:

What are your goals as a Judaic Studies teacher? Is your curriculum aligned with your goals?

How do you learn best?

When do the texts you study affect you most deeply?

Where do you love to study your texts?

Where do you think your students love to study/learn/experience texts?

What do kids really need to know about Judaism?

What do you think kids want to know about Judaism?

One of the most thought-provoking comments about this session came from Mrs. Shira Greenspan of Yeshivat Noam, who attended the Collaboratory with her new baby (mazal tov!) and who had also attended the Summer Sandbox in July. She said when a student asks a question that is off-topic, often a teacher’s response is “Great question. Close your books, and let’s discuss.” Shira said, “Why can’t the response be ‘Open your books. Let’s explore what the texts say.'”

Shira’s comment sparked discussion about making sure Judaism was something kids were connecting to and connecting to the world with. The idea of the student’s having a truly lived experience in Judaism had come up earlier in the day, when Mrs. Shira Ackerman and Rabbi Michael Bitton had discussed what an authentic product in Judaic Studies might be.

Shira Greenspan' s comment about making sure texts connect students to the world resonated with all of us. Rabbi Bitton was inspired to create this doodle.

Shira Greenspan’ s comment about making sure texts connect students to the world resonated with all of us. Rabbi Bitton was inspired to create this doodle.

Collaboratory: Part III

After lunch, participants broke into groups to create PBL units.

PBL expert of Yeshivat Noam and I.D.E.A. Schools Facilitator Ms. Aliza Chanales walked participants through the components of PBL and pointed out the sample driving questions we had created for the day. (You can find the sample questions below.)

PBL expert of Yeshivat Noam and I.D.E.A. Schools Facilitator Ms. Aliza Chanales walked participants through the components of PBL and pointed out the sample driving questions we had created for the day. (You can find the sample questions below.)

The Collaboratory produced PBL units for Navi, Megillat Esther, Torah, Talmud — thank you to Rabbi Aaron Ross of Yavneh Academy for Skyping in with Rabbis Michael Bitton and Joseph Esses of Magen David and Rabbi Mendel Lewitin, in order to brainstorm ways to implement PBL for Gemara. A Tefillah PBL unit also emerged from the day, arising out of a discussion with Ronit Langer, a RealSchool student who attended the Collaboratory. We had a chance to get student voice on this very important topic, and she told us prayer is punitive in high school and not aspirational. We wondered how we could change that feeling for students.

Rabbi Jesse Abelman of Ma'ayanot High School worked on a PBL unit for his class on Yeshayahu (Isaiah). He is going to ask students to work on what Yeshayahu's message would be today and introduced multiple modalities into his PBL unit.  He already has an Exhibition Night planned, and we can't wait to hear how it goes!

Rabbi Jesse Abelman of Ma’ayanot High School worked on a PBL unit for his class on Yeshayahu (Isaiah). He’s going to ask students to work on what Yeshayahu’s message would be today and introduced multiple modalities into his PBL unit. He already has an Exhibition Night planned, and we can’t wait to hear how it goes!

Here are links to some of the resources we created for the Collaboratory:

Driving Questions for Judaic Studies courses

Prompts by Mrs. Leah Herzog, educator at Ma’ayanot High School and I.D.E.A. Schools Facilitator, to engage learners in Torah class through multiple modalities

Included in all participants’ folders was this project design template from the Buck Institute of Education (BIE)

Stay tuned! Ari and Oren Mendelow will be producing videos on PBL for the I.D.E.A. Schools Network

Stay tuned! Ari and Oren Mendelow will be producing videos on how the PBL units in Judaic Studies are unfolding. We’ll be sure to include both the challenges and successes of PBL in Jewish education

Professional Development Day at Magen David

On March 23, Magen David held a professional development day, which, like the PBL Collaboratory, was a time for teachers to consider how to engage all learners through multiple entry points into and through learning. As my I.D.E.A. Schools partner, Dr. Eliezer Jones, and I have mentioned before, our goal this year is to share out the process of transforming into a school employing PBL, using the experiences of our two schools — Valley Torah High School and Magen David High School (MDY).

This year has seen a lot of MDY teachers working to understand PBL and grasp how to fully adopt it in the classroom. It takes a lot of work to implement PBL and to make sure it’s done well. In fact, the BIE, an educational consulting organization that helps schools implement PBL, is working on creating a gold standard for the pedagogy, since it acknowledges that there are many wrong or incomplete ways to do project-based learning. Magen David has employed a myriad of strategies to enable teachers to become familiar with all aspects of PBL. Much of professional development and ongoing teacher support and training has been devoted to PBL, and a number of administration and faculty members have gone on site visits to various PBL schools across the country and participated in conferences where the pedagogy and other educational innovations have been taught.

MDY PD day March 23

PD days in the school have therefore been devoted to sharing the many ideas we’ve gathered. On March 23, Mrs. Roxanne Maleh, an MDY English teacher who visited the High Tech Schools in San Diego, CA, shared best practices she gleaned there. She had learned a tremendous amount from and been deeply inspired by High Tech educator Jeff Robin, whose website she has introduced to the school’s faculty.

In February, the I.D.E.A. Schools Network hosted a Jewish educators trip to the High Tech Schools in San Diego, CA. Educators from Magen David High School, Shalhevet High School, Valley Torah High School, Yavneh Academy, the Yeshivah Lab School, and YULA Boys High School all had a chance to learn about best practices from a school that's been doing PBL for 14 years. We highly recommend site visits for schools wanting to learn how to implement PBL and other innovative pedagogies.

In February, the I.D.E.A. Schools Network hosted a Jewish educators trip to the High Tech Schools in San Diego, CA. Educators from Magen David High School, Shalhevet High School, Valley Torah High School, Yavneh Academy, the Yeshivah Lab School, and YULA Boys High School all had a chance to learn about best practices from a school that’s been doing PBL for 14 years. We highly recommend site visits for schools wanting to learn about PBL and other innovative pedagogies.

Master educator Jeff Robin with Mrs. Roxanne Maleh and me, in his wonderfully creative art studio

Master educator Jeff Robin with Mrs. Roxanne Maleh and me, in his wonderfully creative art studio

We also focused on enabling teachers to learn about digital and visual art tools they could use in the classroom, as a way to engage learners in multiple ways. So for example, Rabbi Michael Bitton and his tech team led an hour-long workshop on creating claymation videos. Here are two:

The school’s art teachers Mrs. Natalie Greenberg and Mrs. Barbara Dweck moved the faculty beyond the tri-board by leading a workshop on creating dioramas using foam core. Educators in the PBL classroom — or, as Jeff Robin calls us, “meddlers in the middle — need to know how to form effective groups and foster collaboration. Ms. Naomi Weiss, who mentors the MDY teachers in various pedagogies, led a session on that topic.

At the end of the day, the MDY faculty divided by department and shared with each other and then with the entire group key takeaways from the day.

Presentations of Learning

The MDY PD day ended deliberately with a sharing out of work and ideas, since public presentation is so key in PBL. A public audience makes learning authentic and creates a drive to produce high-quality work. On Wednesday, March 25, students at Magen David had the opportunity to share their learning in a pre-Pesach exhibit, on Slavery and Freedom, which combined the work of six classes that ranged from the ninth to the twelfth grades.

My sophomore English class researched the history of slavery, as well as current fair and unfair trade practices, enabling students to learn that slavery and exploitation of workers is still very much a problem today.

The exhibit started with the ten plagues, and ten examples of slavery from history

The exhibit started with the ten plagues, and ten examples of slavery from history

Sophomore Mark Btesh created a template and then 3-D printed frogs for the second plague!

Sophomore Mark Btesh created an online template and then 3-D printed frogs for the second plague!

Students explored fair and unfair trade practices today; the "stained and bloodied" clothes represent companies whose manufacturing practices are abusive and exploitative

To represent fair and unfair trade practices today, students “stained and bloodied” clothes to show that companies have manufacturing practices that are abusive and exploitative

Mr. Joe Naftaly’s sophomore history class learned that workers during the Industrial Revolution were also exploited. He had his class create campaigns for political parties that addressed the many problems caused by factory habits in the nineteenth century.

Sophomores in history class created political parties based on horrific working conditions in the 19th century. This "tower of justice" is "based" on problems such as unfair wage conditions and unsafe working conditions.

Sophomores in history class created political parties based on horrific working conditions in the 19th century. This “tower of justice” is “based” on problems such as unfair wage conditions and unsafe working conditions.

Mrs. Rachelle Tawil’s freshman Torah class began the part of the exhibit focused on freedom, by asking students how technology enslaves us today and by pointing out that Hashem gave Bnei Yisrael the luchot, the Ten Commandments, as free people, so we would not be enslaved to our desires.

MDY POL Freedom

Following Mrs. Tawil’s class’ work was a beautiful visual display of the mitzvoth, the commandments, created by Mrs. Aura Sutton’s and Mrs. Ariella Falack’s junior classes. After each young lady studied the text of a mitzvah she chose to research, as well as commentaries on it, she then created a visual representation of the commandment, using no words. This design challenge produced highly imaginative products! Some young ladies built games, others hacked toys and re-purposed them into mitzvah “machines,” while others produced visually appealing, multi-media artworks.

This "apple juice stand" comes complete with a math equation to help you figure out ma'aser (tithing) for the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the stranger

This “apple juice stand” comes complete with a math equation to help you figure out ma’aser (tithing) for the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the stranger

This game helps you return lost items to their owners

This game helps you return lost items to their owners

MDY POL isha senuah

This artwork — on the laws of the beloved vs. the non-beloved wife — stood out for its impact and clever use of small, three-dimensional details that gave it an almost collage look

The final piece of the exhibit was a culmination of the “We are Here” campaign by Mrs. Falack’s senior class. The campaign started because of Alicia Key’s song “We are Here,” which asks listeners to consider how they can contribute to the world, what they are “here” to do.

The senior girls proclaim why they are "here"

The senior girls proclaim why they are “here”

The visual display at the exhibit was an international flag and costume show that showed students when we are free, we can be “here” in the world to better it. This part of the exhibit also included an array of chrome books, where students could watch and listen to the videos the senior girls made about why they are here.

A teacher listens to a student-made video about why she is here to change the world!

A teacher listens to a student-made video about why she is here to change the world!

Reflection: An Important Part of PBL

In honor of Purim, for the month of March, the YUEducate blog asked us to write about joyful learning. What the summary and pictures of Magen David’s Slavery and Freedom exhibit didn’t capture was the excitement in the air as the students prepared. Though the exhibit topic was a serious one, the students were enthused about their work; as they painted, splattered clothes, 3-D printed frogs, and created a Minute to Win It competition for exhibit-goers — to represent the fact that slaves are rushed to do their work — they were engaged and happy. One sophomore proclaimed, “I love this PBL!” and the night after the exhibit, she texted me an image of a Green Mountain Keurig coffee cup with a fair trade stamp, as well as the headline below, to which she added, “Everywhere I look, something connects to your class and our PBLs.”

POL MDY saris text

 

Additional reflections included:

“When I learn for a test, I forget the material, but I know I’ll know this next year, because I had to really research the topic and connect it with other classes in order to discuss it.”

“We learn visually and in all different ways, so the information goes in more.”

“When I was painting the clothes, I was thinking about the research I did [on child and slave labor] and it was really going in. When I presented, I found myself talking about the ‘bloodied and stained’ clothes more. . . .”

At the end of the exhibit, participants could create their own haggadah page based on the exhibit, using student-made templates that were inspired by Hebrew illuminated manuscripts. One young man said PBL should stand for "protest-based learning," because the exhibition made him want to protest against slavery and unfair labor practices in the world today!

At the end of the exhibit, participants could create their own haggadah page, using student-made templates inspired by Hebrew illuminated manuscripts. One young man said PBL should stand for “protest-based learning,” because the exhibit made him want to protest against slavery and unfair labor practices in the world today!

All is not perfect in PBL land. One young woman added, “I still have issues with time management.”

Sigh. Don’t we all?

Joyful, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Learning

The point is, the creation of this exhibit was a joyful one, despite the heavy topic, but it was also a meaningful one, which engaged learners using multiple modalities and in ways that were cognitive and affective. How fitting then that we’re discussing it between Purim and Pesach, when we move from the joy of the former to the experiential and questioning mode of the latter. Joy, experience, and inquiry are all deeply embedded in PBL, as they are in the Jewish tradition. What a great week to have discovered that anew.

Cross-posted on yueducate.com

By in Blog Comments Off on Truly Inclusive Learning Experiences

Truly Inclusive Learning Experiences

Differentiation. Diverse learners. Individualized education plan. Resource room. Special education.

What do we think about when we think of these terms? How are we — as teachers crafting lessons, resource room specialists supporting students, and administrators looking at curriculum design and course schedules — taking into account the varying needs of our students?

A Visit to Luria Academy and Room on the Bench

I recently had the privilege of visiting The Luria Academy, a Jewish Montessori school in Brooklyn, NY. Luria has a unique approach to meeting the needs of diverse learners, and that’s thanks in large part to Dana Keil, the school’s Director of Special Education and one of the fellows in my Joshua Venture Group cohort. Dana’s venture is called Room on the Bench, and it helps Jewish schools implement fully inclusive special education programs.

This is the type of program I saw at Luria when I visited with Naomi Weiss, who works with me at Magen David Yeshivah High School, supporting teachers in implementing the latest pedagogies, including those that include differentiation. Naomi and I were joined by Shelley Cohen, a relative of mine who founded and runs the Jewish Inclusion Project, which trains rabbis and educators in creating fully inclusive programming.

From left, Dana Keil, Shelley Cohen, and me

From left, Dana Keil, Shelley Cohen, and me

What Naomi, Shelley, and I saw at Luria was truly inspiring. The school has all the mainstays of the Montessori educational approach: students, grouped by age in multi-age settings, are taught to take ownership of their learning and become reflective about it. The students progress in their learning at their own rate, working alone or in small groups to master material and move through the daily and weekly assignments they have. Peer learning is common, and a peace and calm pervades the classrooms and school.

Luria postage stamp

I loved this inspirational message tacked on to a classroom wall at Luria, where all students learn executive functioning skills. The school is filled with posters about crucial life skills such as follow through, staying on task, and conquering procrastination.

Luria ownership tasks chart

Every student at Luria receives a sheet with his/her weekly tasks, and they move through the work in the same way an employee might, taking ownership of and responsibility for their learning. The fact that all learners need that kind of life skill, not just diverse ones, was a topic of conversation over a Shabbat meal I recently had with parents.

Perhaps this is why a fully inclusive program works so well in the school: the model means everyone gets “special” attention and an individuated learning plan. When an occupational, physical, or speech therapist or reading or other learning specialist enters the Montessori classroom, it isn’t an intrusion; it’s just a seamless part of a bustling and active room in which a myriad of learning experiences are occurring. One more doesn’t attract attention or seem out of place.

luria grammar blocks

Classic Montessori “grammar blocks”: each block represents a different part of speech

luria interdisciplinary grammar

The grammar blocks are used to reinforce skills in English and Hebrew language. This interdisciplinary type of thinking reinforces learning for ALL students.

All Learners are Diverse

Education is now embracing models which emphasize personalized, self-directed learning and collaboration among peers, and as a result teachers’ roles are changing: educators are being asked to facilitate the learning that goes on in the classroom, not simply by standing in the front of the room, but by circulating among students who are involved in multiple tasks. In short, education is becoming a bit more Montessori-like, and that means we have an opportunity to rethink what we mean when we use terms such as differentiation, diverse learners, individualized educational plan, and special education. We have a chance to create a classroom that is a lot more democratic, one that is genuinely diverse, and not one that simply uses the term as a gentle euphemism.

Differentiation at the High Tech Schools

On February 25, I’m going to be meeting up with a group of Jewish educators who are visiting the High Tech public charter schools in San Diego, CA. These unique schools, founded and run by Larry Rosenstock, have a similar approach to differentiation as Luria does. That is because, as Larry has said, the foundation of his school is not a particular pedagogy or even the beautiful work that is the hallmark of the High Tech brand.

high tech high lobby

As Larry explains, the foundation of his school is equity: the idea that each student should have the same access to education and opportunities within it as any other. This is manifested in the school’s complicated algorithms that ensure a student in an underrepresented zip code gets chosen in the lottery system the public schools have established for its charter schools.

Over winter vacation, Magen David’s Associate Principal Mrs. Sabrina Maleh and Yeshivat Noam’s PBL expert and Middle School Science Teacher and Curriculum Designer Ms. Aliza Chanales did a winter residency at the High Tech schools. They had a chance to ask the special education teachers what it was like to teach at the schools, and the teachers were honest: they said it was sometimes difficult to get all the students to perform at the same level and complete the kind of high-quality work the school is famous for. So the fully inclusive model is not without its challenges.

Its benefits, though, are pretty impressive. On my first visit to the High Tech schools, this past June with Dr. Eliezer Jones, Eliezer and I spoke with middle school math and science teacher Marc Shulman. He told us about the way he differentiates math lessons in his fully inclusive class, noting some of the challenges he encountered in the process. But he also told us that because all the students are in the same classroom, once the math lesson is over and the class has moved on to another task, such as woodworking — a particular favorite of his — some students who were less proficient at math suddenly found themselves shining in the new activity. And some students who shone when they could do math on paper suddenly struggled when they had to apply it to the physical world. He watched as the roles of those who were expert and those who needed support were reversed.

When we silo kids from each other, putting them in fixed tracks and not letting them see each other in multiple settings doing tasks that trigger various modalities of thinking and doing, we may end up labelling students — and, worse, letting them label each other. These labels can be harmful in so many ways. One of the ways is that they make students believe they are not “smart.” We’ve been hearing a lot lately about Carol Dweck’s fixed vs. growth mindsets, and in the February 21-22 issue of the Wall Street Journal, Alison Gopnik writes about IQ and the fact that “[s]cientists have largely given up on the idea of ‘innate talent,’ a “change that might seem implausible and startling.” However, Gopnik explains:

Biologists talk about the relationship between a “genotype,” the information in your DNA, and a “phenotype,” the characteristics of an adult organism. These relationships turn out to be so complicated that parceling them out into percentages of nature and nurture is impossible. And most significantly, these complicated relationships can change as environments change.

Gopnik adds:

James Flynn, at New Zealand’s University of Otago, and others have shown that absolute IQ scores have been steadily and dramatically increasing, by as much as three points a decade. . . . The best explanation [for the phenomenon] is that we have consciously transformed our society into a world where schools are ubiquitous. So even though genes contribute to whatever IQ scores measure, IQ can change radically as a result of changes in environment. Abstract thinking and a thirst for knowledge might once have been a genetic quirk. In a world of schools, they become the human inheritance.

Gopnik says, “Thinking in terms of “innate talent” often leads to a kind of fatalism,” but she states that the actual science of genes and environment means that if “we want more talented children, we can change the world to create them (my italics).”

Makers in Israel have started gathering for Tikkun Olam [Fixing the World] Make-a-Thons to help those with disabilities become as the video below says “closer to life.” I love that phrase. We all want to live “closer to life.” If we’re using language such as resource room and special education to distance students from the center of the learning experience and therefore from life, then we aren’t doing them justice. We need to rethink the way we enact diverse learning in Jewish day schools, and we should be assured that doing so is really quite a Jewish notion, given the deep sense of justice that permeates our religious life.

By in Blog Comments Off on Vulnerability Makes Failure OK

Vulnerability Makes Failure OK

Failure and learning image

This post was cross-posted on YUEducate.com, where the theme for this month’s blog was vulnerability, which I connected to the idea of failure. I see failure as strongly related to vulnerability, as only when we feel comfortable being vulnerable do we feel comfortable failing.

Failure is a topic I love to think and write about. In fact, I’ve blogged about failure before, the IDEASchools Network Facebook page dedicates each Friday to Failing Fast, and I love all the threads on JEDLAB devoted to the topic, one of which took place quite a while ago. More recently, Jane Cohen’s post on JEDLAB, on Brene Brown’s book Daring Greatly has generated close to 300 comments. Though the book isn’t about failure per se, it elicits contemplation of making mistakes, centered as it is on vulnerability and shame and what it means to have the courage to expose oneself.

The older JEDLAB thread on failure included a discussion of whether to use the word failure at all anymore. If failure is indeed a good thing, maybe we need a more positive term for it. In fact, in Crazy is a Compliment by social entrepreneur Linda Rottenberg, the author describes the culture at the WD-40 Company, a company whose founder created the famously effective anti-rust solution through a series of fail forward experiments:

In deference to its origins, the CEO, Garry Ridge, has made failure central to the company’s daily operations. All of the firm’s three hundred employees are encouraged to share both the positive and negative outcomes of every situation. “There is no penalizing for lack of success,” he said, no whack-a-mole culture where the minute someone tries something new and comes up short, he or she is beaten down by others. “At WD-40 Company, we don’t make mistakes,” Ridge said. “We have learning moments. We give people permission to have a conversation about things that go wrong” (140).

We have learning moments. What a great way to describe the iterative process by which anything — acquiring knowledge, trying out new ideas, and experimenting — is accomplished. It would be great for schools to debate whether they want to keep calling failure failure or employ the term learning moments. As the JEDLAB thread showed, sticking to the term failure is useful, as it leads to the realization that the road to success is non-linear and includes mishaps and defeats.

In fact, Linda Rottenberg also mentions India’s famous business leader Ratan Tata, who embraced failure as a valuable organizational tool late in his career. In his last year as chairman of a conglomerate of over a hundred companies, Tata launched an unconventional competition: a prize for the best failed idea. “‘Failure is a gold mine,’ he is quoted as saying. It’s the only way to foster innovation, keep the company fresh, and reward employees for trying new things. Rottenberg concludes the section on failure by suggesting: ‘[E]very now and then go out of your way to give someone an A for getting an F.’”(141)

On the other hand, other benefits may accrue from using the term learning moments. Doing so makes me wonder what schools would be like if students thought of time there, not as an anxiety-ridden drive to final and sometimes disappointing grades, but as an opportunity to partake in learning moments that move them to greater and deeper comprehension and mastery of skills and information. As a practitioner and proponent of project-based learning, of course, I’d add that evidence of learning should be products and events that students create and that are connected to the real world.

Fail-First-Attempt-In-Learning

Simply employing the more positive language of learning moments allows us to shift our and our students’ mindsets into ones of growth and possibility. The term failure may be miring us all in a fixed mindset, one which prevents us — no matter how many times we may say F.A.I.L. = First Attempt In Learning — from feeling properly empowered to learn from our mistakes.

So, it might be worth it to take the time to convert failure into a positive term, but it might be more effective to adopt new language about failure altogether.

Though the start-up culture around us — dissected in Crazy is a Compliment and the famous start-up manifesto The Lean Start-up by Eric Reis — and Carol Dweck’s fascinating and important research on growth and fixed mindsets are making us believe we’re revolutionizing the concepts of success and failure, the truth is, of course, ein chadash tachat ha-shemesh, there is nothing new under the sun.

I recently returned from an amazing trip to Israel, where I visited my son who is studying at Yeshivat Ma’aleh Gilboa. We had the opportunity to learn together, and one of the things I took another look at was Dr. Avivah Zornberg’s book, Genesis: The Beginning of Desire. Dr. Zornberg reminds us that of all the works of creation, which come about when God speaks, only man is fashioned by God’s hands. Dr. Zornberg writes:

What does it mean, to be created by the hands of God, rather than by His word? Man comes to be differently, it seems. Even before God breathes the breath of life into him, the circumstances of his physical making are radically different. It is no longer a matter of the water’s swarming spontaneously with new life (Genesis 1:20), or of the earth’s “bringing forth” animal life (1:24), in response to God’s word . . . . There, God’s word is all-powerful: it constrains chaotic possibilities into the desired shape and posture. In such a hegemony of the word, it would be absurd to conceive of rebellion, or even dialogue. . . .

Quite different is the imagery of the potter and his clay [as it seems God is when He makes man]. Here is surprise, rather than the inevitability of God’s power. In all creative work (the word la’asot, “to make” [used when God makes man], is central in this passage), there is play between the artist and the material. The characters of the novel begin to talk back, to declare their own reality and destiny. . . .

In the Creation narrative, God “changes his mind” about the work of His hands — and destroys the world. Just before the Flood, the Lord regretted [va-yenahem] that He had made man on earth, and His heart was saddened” (6:6). The anthropomorphism here is most poignant: but it is an organic outgrowth of the imagery of the artist, who projects but cannot control this one part of his work that is made ba-yadayim — “with his hands. . . .” There is a relation of the hands to the work, which is the contrary of everything abstract and detached. It is the relation of loving involvement, the mutual vulnerability to surprise and failure, the power and risk of making [my italics]. (18-19)

How fascinating to view God as a bit of an entrepreneur, taking a risk and diminishing His own power by making a creature who can talk back and not act according to His will. When the men He makes turn out to be devastatingly cruel, He does not view His creation as failure, but rather keeps iterating, based on His original prototype. I don’t mean to dehumanize man in this interpretation. Indeed, Dr. Zornberg adds that man is more than a prototype; he is an artistic work lovingly fashioned by a God much interested and invested in his moral progress.

The point of this entrepreneurial interpretation of Genesis is to show that the Jewish tradition, too, celebrates failure. Even God “fails” — and thank you to Rabbi Steven Penn of Yavneh Academy who reminded me recently that, according to midrash, God made and created many universes before completing the one we are in — , and even God is saddened when He does not succeed.

It is hard to fail. It is even sometimes hard to have learning moments, particularly when they involve personal pain, regret or disillusionment and particularly when one fails at something they feel personally invested in, that is the “work of their hands.”

But the language of the start-up culture — a language we can find in our own tradition — is wonderful in leading us out of the wilderness of despair that negative views of failure can make us inhabit. Instead, we discover more positive, growth-oriented ways of looking at making mistakes. And I think it’s not only imperative our students feel comfortable with erring and being flawed. Gone are the days when educators need to know it all. We are just as much on a learning journey as our students are, and we need to feel okay with being, as Linda Rottenberg says, “flawsome”: flawed and awesome.

Be-flawsome

By in Blog Comments Off on The Driving Question in PBL

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!