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By in Blog Comments Off on Fostering Creativity

Fostering Creativity

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

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

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

Creating as Learning

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

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

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

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

The Power of Creative Learning

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

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

Transforming School

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


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



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


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


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

The Result

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

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

Moving Forward

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

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

math and art meeting

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


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

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.