Wednesday, September 19, 2012

A Challenge for Project-Based Learning

I originally got into Project-Based Learning (PBL) as a way to change up my classroom, make learning more engaging, and ensure that more or my students were more actively involved in their learning for as much time as possible. By taking three weeks of frontal-learning classes and turning them into three weeks of a learning lab experience, I feel that I definitely achieved my goals, or at least made great strides towards achieving them. The PBL lessons that I designed for my class provided a solid structure for my students, and I was able to move around and work with small groups of students, targeting my instruction to their specific learning needs. Beyond that, students were able to move at their own pace, and thus on any given day I could have ten groups of students at ten different points in the curriculum.

I am now embarking on what I consider to be an even bigger challenge for PBL. I have just produced my first PBL unit for Behrman House Publishers, which specializes in creating materials for Jewish supplementary schools. For those unfamiliar, these are schools that serve students who attend public school during the day who then spend a few hours on Sunday mornings or on weekday afternoons learning some of the basics of Judaism. In general, the curriculum in such schools tends to focus on holidays, well-known Bible stories, prayer, and Jewish character traits (midot). Schools that offer more intensive courses sometimes include Jewish history, Jewish philosophy, and more text-based classes.

One obvious challenge of teaching in such schools is that the motivation level of the students is significantly below that of normal school classes. Students tend to be tired, either because it is Sunday morning or after a full day of school, and the fact that such schools often do not have grades removes even that external motivator. Many students are simply counting the days until their bar or bat mitzvah, after which time they no longer have to go to Hebrew school (although exceptions exist - I taught in a wonderful Hebrew High School where over 300 students above bar and bat mitzvah enthusiastically come every Sunday morning to learn). Beyond that, since school often meets only once per week, it is difficult for a teacher to build momentum from one week to the next, and if a holiday knocks out school then weeks can go between class sessions.

This is where PBL is a calculated gamble for such schools. On the one hand, it may be exceedingly difficult to expect students in such an environment to run on their own with materials that they may or may not understand. What works in a regular classroom ("OK everyone get into pairs and work on this project!") can potentially fall flat in a classroom of students with low motivation. Furthermore, the time lag between class meetings can result in needing extra time each lesson to remind the students what they are doing - in contrast to my PBL students who would arrive in class before me and be deep into their work by the time that I arrived.

On the other hand, PBL may be exactly what Hebrew School needs. Much has been written in recent years about how the supplementary school model has proven to be inadequate, and how it often leaves its students with a bitter taste about Judaism. That makes sense - if your main exposure to some club involved being dragged out of bed on Sunday morning to learn about some language that you don't speak or some prayers that you don't say or some strange Biblical characters you would also be unlikely to feel an affinity towards that club. One of the key goals of Hebrew School, in my opinion, is to inspire the students to have positive feelings about their Jewish heritage in a meaningful and lasting way. That last clause is crucial - if Hebrew School becomes nothing more than playing games with Jewish words thrown in (think gefilte fish and herring on a Candyland board) then the kids eventually realize that they are wasting their time, even though they may be enjoying the moment. On the other hand, if the learning is both genuine and fun, if it appeals to the students' mind while also allowing them to get up, work and schmooze with their friends, and engage with materials that are not simply boring texts (and Behrman House's materials are certainly not boring texts), then perhaps PBL can help to enliven the classroom experience for these students and help them not only learn something, but be inspired to continue learning.

As I said, this is a challenge, both for me as the author of these units and for the individual teachers who will be using them and putting them into action. As I (hopefully) get feedback from the classrooms, I will post more about how this approach is working in real life.