Monday, November 28, 2011

Project Based Learning and the Big Flip

Making the transition from teaching a standard, teacher-focused class to running a student-directed inquiry center is not easy. Despite all of the talk about blended learning, flipped classrooms, 21st-century skills, and so on, the fact is that most teachers remain most comfortable doing what they have been doing with, at most, minor alterations and accommodations to new technologies and methodologies.

I definitely fit into that description - until this morning. This morning, my 7th grade Chumash class began their first Project-Based Learning (PBL) unit. I have taught a wonderful unit on Korbanot for the past 10 years, and over time the unit has been adjusted slightly to allow for different projects, to make use of a wiki, and to incorporate more and varied material. However, the class was still essentially a "sage on the stage" performance starring yours truly. This morning, all of that was blown to bits.

I walked into the classroom and presented the students with a "memo" from Eliyahu HaNavi explaining that the Beit HaMikdash is about to be rebuilt and their were charged with the task of devising a plan to effectively integrate modern technology into the regular system of korbanot. In order to do so, they have to research the korbanot (instead of my teaching it to them) as well as several other details related to the Beit HaMikdash. I have been busy preparing online materials (such as this) as well as hard-copy resources to be used in the classroom. We will be meeting in the computer lab twice per week during this unit, and students are free to go at their own pace as well as to take advantage of built-in enrichment by pushing themselves to research deeper into certain topics or to take on additional topics (such as korbanot ha-of or menachot, which I have never included in this unit in the past).

I will be posting every few days as this project continues - it is as much an experiment for me as it is a new experience for my students. One reflection for now: As I sat in my study over the weekend preparing various outlines and materials (and many thanks to the Buck Institute for Education, the gurus of PBL), I was struck by the momentary discomfort when I realized that I was preparing to give up my role as the sole voice of authority in the classroom in favor of being a research advisor. I forced myself through that discomfort, and hopefully my students will reward me with several weeks of exciting learning and creativity.

More to follow - stay tuned.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

I Get By with a Little Help from my (Critical) Friends

One of the first oxymorons in the entire Torah comes when Adam is given his wife and she is described as being an ezer k'negdo, literally a helper who is opposite him. While the various commentaries wrestle over how to reconcile the notion someone who is both an ally and an opponent, I think that I have now found the perfect definition - Critical Friend.

I came to this revelation over the past three days as I was privileged to attend a Critical Friends Retreat sponsored by the Institute for University-School Partnership of Yeshiva University. Fourteen Yeshiva day school and high school administrators from around the country were brought together to spend several days thinking together, strategizing together, and challenging each other to broaden their perspectives in terms of how they handle the many difficult and sometimes gut-wrenching situations that school administrators inevitably have to deal with.

While I am still mentally decompressing from the retreat, a number of takeaways that I believe are important for both administrators as well as their constituents to be aware of:

1) Leadership is a lonely job. YU President Richard Joel addresses the group on the final morning and stressed exactly this point. The higher up one is in an organization, the fewer people there are in the organization who truly understand the pressures and conflicts that he or she is facing. Usually, a leader makes a decision and is immediately and simultaneously lauded and condemned for his brilliance/stupidity. While one can gradually steel themselves to handle the blowback, it is crucial to try to cultivate professional relationships with others who can stand in your shoes.

2) One notable aspect of the retreat was that we did not try to solve each others' problems. In each of the seven main sessions, one person presented a case study of a situation that they were facing, and we followed a strict protocol (taken from the website of the National School Reform Faculty) which aimed at clarifying and probing into the issue, without offering any concrete advice. The goal of all of this was to encourage the presenter in each session to consider his issue in a broader context and perhaps from new angles. Just as we are often more concerned with how our students arrived at the answer than we are with whether or not they got it right, so too here was our focus on the process. To a man (and woman), each of us felt that this process was highly beneficial in forcing us to pause, reflect, and provide thoughtful input.

3) As IUSP Director Scott Goldberg noted, one goal of this and similar retreats is to try to create a field of Jewish educational leadership. As Jewish schools are outside the reach of government oversight and compulsory national standards, there is not always a need for administrators to collaborate with their peers in other schools, even if those schools are in the same community. However, there is obviously much to be gained from creating such networks, and while social networking is wonderful, personal contact forms a much stronger basis for meaningful professional relationships.

4) I hope that some day school parents are reading this post, if only to appreciate what is going on in the world of Jewish education. With so much focus on tuition and technology, parents often do not hear about the many ways in which the educators who service their children are committing themselves to grow personally and professionally. While I obviously had to be "out of the building" for a day and a half of school in order to be a part of this retreat, the benefits that accrue as a result of my participation should be far more valuable.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Moving away from Prepackaged experiences

More and more, it seems that our students live lives that are, for lack of a better term, pre-packaged. They attend either the day school in town or one of the few schools, move from there to the one or several available Yeshiva high school options, do the year in Israel thing followed by either the YU/Stern track, the Ivy league track, or the good-state-school (Rutgers, Maryland, Michigan, etc.) track, and ultimately do the doctor/lawyer/accountant/permanent grad school thing.

Beyond the general itinerary through life, more and more of their other activities seem to fall into predictable patterns and categories. They play sports (in organized leagues), they take music lessons (generally piano, drums, or violin), and perhaps the girls are involved in dance or gymnastics. Vacations tend to be taken to one of a limited number of popular locales (how many of your students spend winter break in either Florida, Israel, the Caribbean, or, if you are in the NY metro area, Great Wolf Lodge?), and summers find them in one of a handful of camps.

But it goes even further than this. With apologies for sounding old and crotchety, when I spent a year in Israel less than 20 years ago, time spent out of Yeshiva was time to improvise. Perhaps you went to a family friend that had made aliyah, or an Israeli friend that you just met, or perhaps you hopped on a bus with a couple of friends and hiked around Israel for a day or two. In the time since, it seems that more and more there are "official" experiences that everyone "must" have. Pre-Pesach in Poland. Shabbat at "the Moshav". And on and on.

I have a chicken-and-egg discussion in my head about this. I think that it is obvious that increased connectivity plays a role in this homogenization of experience. People quickly find out what others are doing and want to be a part of it, or at least do not want to be the only ones left out. I'm not sure if the technology creates the need to be an individual by doing what everyone else is doing or if it merely facilitates it.

I bring this up because I just concluded three days with my 7th grade students at Camp Frost Valley, a beautiful, expansive YMCA campsite in Claryville, NY. Our students spend three days with no cellphones (they don't work up there), no internet, no technology of any kind. Instead, they engage in a variety of outdoor activities meant to begin to build a sense of community and to challenge them to challenge themselves to do things that are perhaps outside of their zone of comfort.

As much as our Frost Valley trip is a program, and we do indeed scrutinize and strategize every moment of the trip in our planning process, the fact is that, for the students, this does not fit the normal pre-packaged model that so many other aspects of their lives fit into. You cannot fabricate the thrill of trying to work up the nerve to fly on the Giant Swing (some 40 feet in the air), and you cannot predict what will happen when 12 teenagers are charged with a task that requires them to work in concert in order to solve. If only we provided our students/children with more moments where we bring them to some place - either in space or time - and let them be the arbiters of what type of experience they will have.