Wednesday, December 28, 2011

PBL - What I would do differently

My class's Project-Based Learning (PBL) unit is just about finished. Projects have been handed in and students will be presenting over the next few days. Before I sum up with my successes, a few lessons learned for future endeavors such as this:

1) Defining work expectations from the outset - We ran this unit over the course of three weeks, sometimes in the computer lab and sometimes in the classroom. Most students got into the mindset that all work was to be done in class. What resulted was a bit of a rush towards the end when they realized that there was too much material left to be done in the remaining class time. Takeaway for me is to help them realize that doing a little bit outside of class each night would help move the process along.

2) Grading system - For this unit, the students had about 20 small assignments along the way, which were a combination of google form questions, written reviews, and voicethreads. Of course, the end goal of the unit was a major project that called on all that they had learned. While I am not clear exactly what form it should take, it seems that presenting graded material as being part of a portfolio would be beneficial to all involved. For the students, it would help them to organize their work as they build towards the final product. For me, it would allow me to produce a final grade that takes all steps of the project into account, as opposed to having 21 distinct grades.

3) Review and reflection - After the learning was complete, we spent one day in a circle reflecting as a class on the process (more on the student reaction in a different post). Ideally, we should have be doing some form of reflection daily or at least every few days. I had intended for the last 2 minutes of each class to be a time for this, but 40 minutes passes by very quickly and I was never able to really establish the pattern.

4) Move beyond PowerPoint - Let's face it, when students use PowerPoint they aim for flashy backgrounds and all sorts of crazy entries for their text and images. Maybe I'm getting old, or maybe I am just no longer impressed by it. Or maybe I am aware of the many, many more ways that they can creatively present their material. One of my groups did make use of Prezi, which is PowerPoint on psychedelic drugs, but is definitely a change. No one went for the various animation or storytelling sites that are out there - the question is whether they knew about them, and, if not, how do I introduce them to such sites without taking too much class time (if any)?

This is not to say, by the way, that their presentations are not well-done. Many of them are visually appealing and display some real tech-savviness. But there is so much more out there for them to discover.

5) Plan better and more publicly - The Buck Institute of Education, the gurus of PBL, have many useful forms online that are helpful in designing these units (and a strongly encourage anyone contemplating PBL to visit the site). One form is a 4-week blank calendar to be used to plan out learning experiences. While I did make use of it, some of it was built as I went along. To a degree this was necessary, as I was still feeling things out and getting used to how long everything really takes. In the future, as I get better at this, I would definitely suggest having the entire thing built before the unit begins and posting it for the students. My students were generally great about walking into class and getting started before I got there - imagine if they knew exactly what was on the agenda for the day.

All in all, I think that this was an amazing experience and one that I will be repeating for future units. As I noted above, the positives will be forthcoming.

(By the way, tonight's twitter Jedchat was about PBL in the Judaic Studies classroom. Archives can be found here)

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Can there be a Universal Judaic Studies Curriculum

I begin with a digression, but a relevant one. Tonight was the 8th installment of "jedchat", a twitter-based discussion focusing on issues in Jewish Education. For those of you who think twitter is solely about movie stars posting about what they are eating for breakfast, there is a lot of great stuff out there waiting for you to discover it. For those of you who have never participated in a twitter chat, let's just say it is the Martial Arts of conversation, as you try to follow several strands of discussion all at once.

Anyway, tonight's topic (full disclosure: I missed the actual chat and just picked up the archives) was about the possibility of creating a universal curriculum in Judaic Studies. General Studies subjects do not really have this issue - the question there is more which universal curriculum should be the official one. Should it be the newly-adopted core standards? Should each state get to decide what is important? Should textbook publishers have a say (they do anyway)?

But Limudei Kodesh is different. There are no textbooks or teacher editions or awesome materials that everyone loves readily available. Only now are some materials beginning to appear online, and many of them are being slowly created by classroom teachers, as the limited size of the market makes it difficult, in the sense of not-so-profitable, for companies to invest significant sums of money for products that will only reach a few thousand students at best.

More than that, Judaic Studies curricula, to the extent that they actually exist (saying that you are learning Devarim or Bava Metzia is NOT a curriculum), tend to be products of certain hashkafic decisions. Which parts of Chumash do we believe are more important? Which Rashis* should the students know? Should we learn Moed or Nezikin? Do we want kids to memorize texts or think deeply about them? Is anything off limits? And so on and so on.

As an aside, I hate calling multiple comments made by Rashi "Rashis" - there was only one Rashi, and he made lots of comments. OK, I feel better now.

Furthermore, Judaic Studies has only recently begun to be treated by large numbers of its practitioners as education as opposed to "learning". The former implies standards, pedagogy, lesson plans with clearly delineated goals. The latter implies opening up a sefer and trying to make sure that the "boys" are learning with a geschmak (whatever that means). If you are concerned with "learning", then what matters is that the students give off the appearance of making progress along some invisible and undefined metric that exists solely in the mind of the classroom teacher. If you are involved in education, then you view your students in the context of similar students in similar classrooms elsewhere in the building and in similar schools across the world and you are concerned with what you can do to ensure that your students are accomplishing what those other students are accomplishing (and you hope for some objective method by which to make that assessment).

Taking all of that into account, I have found that Judaic Studies teachers often develop a sense of independence, almost a resistance to having curricula imposed on them. While teachers of General Studies topics are trained to look for the next edition of a beloved textbook, Judaic Studies teachers often spend their summers producing and editing workbooks, slideshows, and other materials that they produced, often shunning materials created by other teachers for similar topics. Since they have had to fashion their own curricula, there is no set of materials created elsewhere that will perfectly fit what they need. As such, attempts to create a universal curriculum will need to consider that it will be asking teachers and schools to change curricula that they may have worked for years to fashion and hone, and often that they regard as hallmarks of their educational programs. Gathering a group of Judaic Studies curriculum experts together is a tantalizing idea, but there is no guarantee that their ideas will stick in the marketplace.*

*Just by way of example, in the past ten years several companies have attempted to create curricular pieces for Judaic Studies and then sell them to schools. Off the top of my head, I would include Tal-Am, NETA, Bonayich, Gemara Berura, and the Taryag Project. While all of these programs have had some successes, I would say that Tal-Am is the only one that I have heard consistently positive reports about in terms of schools using them and keeping them. Most of the others have had mixed success, some of which has stemmed from the difficulty of taking the ideal version of the program and integrating it into a pre-existing system. Those programs that are more flexible are able to work with schools to allow them to get the benefits of the program while sticking with their old curriculum to an extent; those that are less flexible simply have to look elsewhere.

One idea that popped up in the chat might be a valuable place to start. One person mentioned a Beur Tefilla curriculum, a subject dear to my heart (we have created just such a curriculum - from scratch, of course - in Middle School in my school). The reason why this idea catches my eye in this discussion is because it is a topic that most schools do not teach. As Clayton Christensen has noted in his writing on disruptive innovation, such innovations tend to begin around the periphery, in areas that are not really receiving any attention. As such, the innovation can make initial inroads without bothering the system, perfecting itself until the point when it has received enough attention and enough testing that it is ready to enter the mainstream. Perhaps this is the place to begin in terms of standards - choose an unchartered curricular wilderness and develop it well, and try to build from there.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

PBL Ponderings - The Unsure Stage

I am now two and a half weeks into my PBL experiment. On one level, it is working wonderfully. I have watched my students become very self-reliant in their learning - sometimes I feel that I am bothering them when I ask for 15 minutes every other day in order to teach them some small piece of material that I think is best done as a class. Several of them have searched for and discovered new resources online and added them to the wiki for their classmates to benefit from. They are learning how to divide and conquer with their working partners so that they can efficiently finish the material on deadline. And, of course, I have not once had to tell them to get to work.
And yet - I am left to wonder to what degree they are actually learning the material. When I frontally taught this material over the past 10 years, I could be content in the knowledge that the information had been accurately conveyed and that the big picture view had been applied. I was able to make little side comments that would provide "bonus" knowledge, and class discussion was generally very fruitful in terms of broadening the scope of what the basic material conveyed.
Now, I am left to wonder about all of that. While I spend virtually every moment in the classroom answering questions, working with small groups to discuss finer points that they might pick up on, and helping to guide student learning in a much more precise and individualized fashion than I ever before did, I am holding my breath until the final projects to see what they have really learned.
Of course, all of this may just be my basic teacher ego speaking. In the past, I knew that the material had been properly taught, but I had no guarantees that it had been correctly learned. In fact, it was a near-sure thing that student unit assessments would be handed in with weak attempts to parrot back the phrases that I had uttered, but without a deeper understanding of what they meant. In theory, a PBL classroom environment should solve much of that - while I do not yet know if everything is being learned properly, I do know that everyone is learning - and that might be a far more valuable lesson and experience than whether or not they can explain the intricacies of the אשם שפחה חרופה to me in a project.
All will be answered soon - the learning ends this Friday, and projects are due next week. Included in next week's lesson plans is time for reflection as a class (a crucial component of PBL). As always, stay tuned.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

PBL Update - How's it going so far?

Thank you to those who have commented, retweeted, and otherwise provided some feedback and encouragement about my initial post about my Project Based Learning experiment. Having now completed four days of the unit, a few reflections on what I have learned.

1) This is hard work, even though I am not really "teaching." Given the fact that I am doing this with an honors-level class, I have a roomful of very motivated students. What that means is that when I include material on their project sourcesheets that are for enrichment if they choose to do it, most of them are going to go for it. That keeps the pressure on me to keep materials ready and available, and to be around to explain things when they challenge themselves to study materials that might be slightly above them.

2) Structure is key, despite the lack of structure. On Tuesday, we spent class in the computer lab, mainly since the first round of materials were a series of online videos that I had created. Over the past two days, we have been back in our classroom (mainly due to lack of computer lab availability) with the students equipped with their Chumashim, notebooks and in some cases laptops. A number of students entered class yesterday unsure what they were supposed to do - wait, rabbi, you mean you're not teaching us? By the time I walked in today, everyone was already hard at work.

2a) My students are awesome. Did you catch that last sentence? 7th graders were working before the teacher entered the room! Amazing.

3) Flexibility is key. One of the early sources that they had to cover was a bit beyond their ability to comprehend. I let them all discover this on their own, then put on the board today that at 9:45 we would be learning that source together. This allowed them about 20 minutes to continue to proceed at their own pace, after which we had a 15-minute lesson that they had already learned some of the background material for and that they understood where it fit into the overall picture. The key for me has been to see when it is appropriate to help out each group of students and when I need to call everyone together for a mini-lesson. I think that they appreciate coming together once in a while, as it represents their notion of what "class" is "really" like.

4) Feedback and reflection. I am reserving the last two minutes of each class period for the students to reflect on what they have done, both for themselves and for me. I have made available feedback forms which provide space for both, and thus far they have been very helpful to me to know what they would want more of, and I believe it is helpful to the students to catch their breath and take stock of how far they have progressed and what their next steps are.

5) Is this for everyone? As I noted, I am doing this with an honors-level class, which means that motivation is relatively high, as are ability and skills. Could this work with a more heterogeneous class? I don't yet know. Part of my goal is to first try it out with this group so as to get an understanding of potential difficulties and pitfalls in a class where their strengths will help to make it work. Once that has been done, I can move towards encouraging it in other classes as well.

More to follow as we get further into this process. So far, it has been exhilarating.