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Getting Started with PBL and Creativity

Creativity and Professional Development

One of the hardest things to do for a school is keep the momentum of professional development (PD) going. At Magen David Yeshivah High School (MDY), the administrators worked throughout August to prepare three opening days of PD that connected to the ways in which the school wants to grow.

On the first day of PD, faculty got to unleash their creativity with an opening icebreaker. Faculty were divided into ten groups and went to sit at tables with different fruits, art supplies, props, costumes, and sport-related objects (a kite, paddle ball, plastic ball):

creativity tables

For five minutes, each table brainstormed an answer to the question, “What if Jewish education were more like . . . ?” JEDLAB and participants of the Summer Sandbox had tackled that question over the summer, giving rise to answers such as a gym, a candy shop, and an outdoor adventure. Magen David faculty came up with the following answers, which they posted to the poster below: 1) a survival hike, 2) an orchard, 3) a fitness center, 4) a desert oasis, 5) a do-it-yourself theme park, 6) Disney World!, 7) K _ _ _ _ _ _ _, 8) an English fantasy football league, 9) a tour, and 10) freshly baked chocolate chip cookies.

RealSchool-er Ari Mendelow created the poster on which we posted the faculty's answers!

RealSchool-er Ari Mendelow created the poster on which we posted the faculty’s answers!

Faculty then had to create visual representations of their ideas. Here’s one table of teachers and administrators bringing to life their vision for Jewish education — in 15 minutes!

photo 4

This group saw Magen David as a Do-It-Yourself Theme Park, where students could go on a “BOLD-er Coaster,” that is, take blended learning classes, and climb the to college rock wall (the notched nerf ball)

In the High Tech schools in San Diego, CA, all the teachers have to complete the projects they assign, so they feel what it’s like to undertake their own assignments. Not only do the teachers gain empathy, experiencing school from a student’s point of view, but they can also troubleshoot before the project is even assigned. Magen David felt it was important for teachers to experience the power of making and being creative, if the school was going to stress its importance throughout the coming year.

PBL in Professional Development

Later on the first day of PD, we had a workshop focused solely on PBL, with the goal being that each department would formulate a driving question based on the content of a course in their subject area. Here are the teachers’ driving questions, some of which tackle a real-world problem and some of which focus on the social, emotional, and religious development of the students, something that as a yeshivah, we are particularly concerned with.

MDY Driving Questions:


How did Post-Impressionists change the course of modern art?


How does human population growth affect Earth’s ecosystem?


How does multi-cultural literature help us learn about ourselves?

Halakha [Jewish Law]: 

How can condo vacationers make their kitchens kosher?

Hebrew Language:

How is Israel related to my identity?


Can an international community exist, and can that community solve international crises?


How do we use linear and quadratic equations to help describe the real world?

Navi (Prophets):

How are events and ideas in Navi related to us today?

Physical Education:

How does physical education affect various aspects of your life?


What makes a lulav kosher?

Unlocking the Block

One of the ways Magen David has shown a serious commitment to employing PBL is by using block scheduling for its core secular studies classes. A double period allows learners to engage fully and deeply in a project that involves longer periods of planning and execution time. On the third day of PD, secular studies teachers were given time to model block scheduling lessons. Roxanne Maleh, an English teacher at MDY, prepared this dynamic and fun lesson that not only taught how to employ PBL but how to infuse the classroom with play and games:

Block Schedule Lesson for PD Day

Another way MDY has shown its commitment to PBL is by creating a project-based learning schedule for the school year. Each month, a Judaic Studies subject and a secular studies one have committed to using PBL, so on the PD days, you could hear departments hashing out what content in which courses they wanted to use for a project-based learning unit. Here’s Magen David’s PBL schedule for the year, and note that not every grade in a particular subject is employing PBL. We want to make starting with the pedagogy as manageable and feasible as possible:

Magen David HS PBL Schedule for 2014 to 15 School Year (1)

 Keeping the Momentum Going

As we said, starting a PD initiative may be hard, but keeping it going is even harder. MDY has committed time and resources to making sure teachers have what they need to implement PBL and generate creativity in their classrooms. Faculty are part of the I.D.E.A. Schools Network; have a coaching and mentoring system with experts in PBL and student-centered learning; and an office where they can easily access art supplies and other tools they can use for creative learning.

How’s it going so far? Here’s a gallery of some of the things the MDY faculty is doing already:


Next Steps

We’ll keep you posted about how PBL progresses at Magen David. Adopting the pedagogy requires commitment and planning, but the rewards are well worth it: students become engaged, active learners who are proud of their work and are able to think deeply about what they study. As Naomi Weiss, MDY’s instructional coach, says, “Learning becomes about uncovering content, not about covering it.”

Cross-posted on welovemagendavidhs.blogspot.com.

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