Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Real Purpose of PBL

Like many of you, I took biology in 9th grade.  Never having taken another biology or anatomy course in my educational career, I am ashamed to say that there is much that I have forgotten.  One detail that pops into my mind every once in a while is that a mitochondria is the powerhouse of a cell.  I am not sure exactly what that means, or how the mitochondria works, or how something as small as a cell has so many smaller parts to it, but I am pretty sure that I am correct about that fact.

Why do I remember that fact?  Is it because my biology teacher was amazing? Perhaps.  Is it because I remembered some mnemonic such as "mighty mitochondria"?  Could be.  Is it because Julie Mitochondria was the name of the girl that I secretly had a crush on throughout high school?  Unlikely.

No, the real reason that I remember this random fact is that at some point I stayed up late studying for a biology test, memorizing all of the parts of the cell and their functions just well enough so that I would be able to regurgitate that information the next day on the test, and probably again six months later on the final.

Fast forward to today.  Like most other teachers, I still give tests from time to time.  Being a reasonably good teacher, I try to pack my tests with questions that will test not only my students' ability to memorize, but also their ability to think, to process the material and use it to answer a question that is somewhat different than the exact way that we learned the material in class.  However, I inevitably find students who are capable of providing answers that touch on the correct information, that come oh-so-close to actually demonstrating real understanding, but who nevertheless produce a response that shows that they are still collecting information points without truly comprehending what connects them into one larger system.  In my earlier example, I can explain the function of the mitochondria and the nucleus and the ribosomes, but I cannot quite explain (in my own words, of course), how a cell functions.

To my mind, this is ultimately the most important contribution of Project Based Learning (PBL) to the business of teaching.  My biology teacher (note - she was a wonderful teacher; I'm just picking on the subject since it is an area that I completely avoided, regrettably so, for the rest of my academic career) wanted me to understand cells, so she tried to build my understanding from the bottom up, hoping that by understanding each part, I would understand the whole.  Project Based Learning, by contrast, starts from the end and works backwards.  A driving question for that cell unit would be something along the lines of "What are cells and how do their discrete parts work together to sustain life?"  A culminating project that asked me to consider various diseases that afflict cells and how they do so would drive me to understand each part and what a deficiency in that part would mean for my overall health.  There is no way that writing down a few key words in the right place would get me "partial credit" for an assignment such as that.

When reconfiguring existing units to be PBL units, my longest stretches of creative thinking focus on exactly this point - what am I really trying to teach in this unit?  As a teacher of religious and legal texts, the answer is not always so obvious since the texts (Torah, Talmud) are not always divided up topically as easily as a Biology or a History textbook might be.  At times I need to combine parts of what were previously distinct units or break apart one unit into smaller pieces so that I can focus my students on one or two essential areas for understanding.  difficult as this sometimes is, it is also highly rewarding.  I emerge from the process with a much richer understanding of what I am trying to teach, and ultimately my students are engaged in a richer and more meaningful educational experience.  They are no longer working their way from one Biblical verse to the next, from one Talmudic page to the following one, but rather they are tackling defined units of knowledge and seeking to master and understand them.

Much has been made about the motivational advantages of PBL.  I have always contended that people can only be motivated, at least long-term, to do something that they feel that they can understand and can be successful doing.  A student with a great memory can perhaps be motivated to memorize lists of facts and dates and names.  But any student can potentially be motivated by the opportunity to not only seize control of their learning, but to do so in a way where the path to mastery lies clearly before them.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

A Jedcamp of Our Own

I have spent considerable time on this blog over the course of the past year writing about Jedcamp.  I have been amazed at the power of the Edcamp model to bring people together, to stimulate fresh ideas, and to encourage open discussion in a fully non-threatening environment.

However, I have always wondered about the limitations of the model.  By definition, a Jedcamp is populated by a coalition of the willing.  People who come to Jedcamp are people who want to come to Jedcamp, and thus they are probably aware of how the day should run and are possibly even prepared to present or lead a session of their own.

But what about a Jedcamp where not everyone has chosen to be there?  In other words, what if a Jedcamp was like most professional development days, where people are there because their school has mandated that they be there?  Would such a Jedcamp have the same energy and excitement?  Would teachers be as willing to be involved?  To put it another way, does the Edcamp/Jedcamp model have the potential to supplant traditional professional development, or is it doomed to remain a niche phenomenon, enticing a certain type of teacher while failing to reach the majority?

We put this question to the test this past week at Yavneh Academy, where I serve as a teacher and administrator.  For our Election Day in-service, we divided the day into four parts, some for development and some for housekeeping.  For an hour and a half after lunch, we devoted the time to an in-house Jedcamp for our entire faculty.

Knowing that not everyone was familiar with the model, I had sent out several emails in the weeks leading up to the event explaining some of the rules, and I used some time during lunch on Election Day to review the major points.  A sign-up board was placed in the lunch room, allowed for two 35-minute sessions and up to five rooms at a time (we had roughly 80-90 faculty members present).  After a slow start, the board quickly began filling up, with topics as diverse as teaching through movement, balancing life as a teacher and a parent, and how to handle the convergence of Thanksgiving and Chanukah (which happens this year and not again for almost 80,000 years).  Once the board was filled and teachers had a chance to choose their first session, I stood back, held my breath and...


Within minutes, each room was bursting with colleagues who do not always have the opportunity to interact, getting to know each other and enthusiastically tackling the topics at hand.  As at the actual Jedcamps that I have been privileged to run, it was difficult to end the sessions, as teachers wanted to continue discussing and analyzing the issues that were raised in each room.  When the second session came to an end and everyone proceeded to their other meetings for the day, there was a noticeable buzz in the hallways, and several teachers came over to me to express their satisfaction with and enjoyment of this out-of-the-box approach to professional development.

So, what were my takeaways from this experiment?

  1. The Edcamp model can work even when the participants "have to" be there.
  2. Schools should consider a change of pace for some future PD day and allow the faculty the opportunity to make use of this model to discuss the issues that they want to talk about.
  3. Hopefully, the next time I post that a Jedcamp is taking place, more teachers will be aware of what that is and may even try it out.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Jedcamp Brooklyn - Building a Community

Six months since the first New York-area Jedcamp, the second one was held this past Sunday in Brooklyn, New York.  For those of you not from the New York Metropolitan area, Brooklyn may seem relatively close to Paramus, New Jersey, home to the last Jedcamp.  However, locals know that the distance from one locale to the other may as well be a thousand miles, so daunting is the traffic in between and so seemingly far away are our two states (even though they are roughly contiguous).

And that is exactly one of the goals of JedcampNJNY - to start creating a community among the thousands of educators who work in Jewish education from Long Island to Brooklyn to Queens to Manhattan to the Bronx to New Jersey to Rockland County.  While this is not something that is easily accomplished in one day or one conference, it is something that I believe can happen one step at a time.

The demographics of this week's Jedcamp were noteworthy, particularly in contrast to April's camp.  While the springtime event drew heavily from the local population in Bergen County, New Jersey, Sunday's camp predictably had a strong Brooklyn showing.  However, both camps attracted people from across the region, and it is that group of individuals who will likely develop into the core of the Jedcamp community.  How so?  As we continue to plan Jedcamps and related events, the educators who become regulars will be the individuals who carry the banner for Jedcamp in their schools, encouraging their colleagues to try it out, sharing their growing wealth of experiences from having attended several Jedcamp events.

The goal of creating a Jedcamp community is to craft something that exists at all times, at not only at the several events during the year.  As such, I see spaces such as #jedchat on Twitter, Jedlab on Facebook, the YU2.0 and YUHSchinuch communities, and the Lookjed mailing list as a series of overlapping communities that everyone is able to plug into between discrete events.  The core group of people who put together JedcampNJNY first came together via Twitter, but at this point we have all met face to face many times, and we have worked to collaborate on a variety of other projects, as have many other people who first connected at a Jedcamp.  The various online communities provide opportunities for people to continue conversations that they began at live events, or to start conversations that will then become live discussions at live events.  While no one can have 1,000 "best friends", it is good to know that there are thousands of educators out there who are ready to reply, respond, and reflect in a thoughtful and constructive manner.

There are more Jedcamps (and related events) coming, and the potential to create one exists everyone.  If you live near one, sign up to attend.  If there is none being planned in your community yet, step up and plan one.  Come and join the growing community.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

JedcampNJNY Returns - With a Full Year of Events!

After last April's highly successful JedcampNJNY in Paramus, New Jersey (see here for more), one of the most common reactions was either "When is the next one?" or "Why didn't I know about that - I would have loved to attend!"  Clearly, the model of an open-ended, participant-driven, free day of professional development (with good food) had struck a chord with many people, much as the Edcamp movement continues to grow and expand to an ever-growing list of cities.

To try to address that desire for more opportunities for professional development, JedcampNJNY will be offering a full complement of activities this coming year.  Our overall goal is to continue to expand the community that has been formed through the #Jedchat hashtag on Twitter, through various online groups such as YU2.0 and YUHSChinuch, and through Jedcamp itself, and to be able to maintain momentum throughout the year while providing several opportunities for people to participate, connect, and share with colleagues from around the region.

First and foremost, JedcampNJNY - Brooklyn is just 10 days away!  Under the leadership of Rabbi Michael Bitton (@RabbiMBitton) and David Galpert (@dgalpert), our opening Jedcamp of the year promises to be at least as exciting and dynamic as the last one.  The event will take place at Magen David Yeshiva High School in Brooklyn on Sunday October 20th, and you can fill out your free registration at this link.

Following Jedcamp, we are introducing a series of "Night Activities".  These events will be shorter and more focused in nature, and will not always follow a strict Jedcamp format.  On November 20th, Yehuda Chanales (@chanales) of Torah Academy of Bergen County will be hosting an evening dedicated to discussing Learning, Spirituality, and Inspiration in the 21st Century.  On December 18th, Shira Leibowitz (@shiraleibowitz) of Solomon Schechter in Queens will be organizing an evening dedicated to discussing educational technology and social media.  We are working as well to confirm a third Night Activity in February.  Further information about all of these evenings, including how to register, will be disseminated through the various networks in the weeks preceding the events.

Finally, our year will be capped off in May by a second Jedcamp, hosted at the Frisch School in Paramus, NJ by Tzvi Pittinsky (@techrav) and Tikvah Wiener (@tikvahwiener).  Our hope is that the plethora of events will allow as many educators as possible to take part at least once and to thereby add themselves to a growing network of Jewish educators who are perpetually linked and always have someone to turn to to discuss whatever is on their mind about Jewish education.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

PBL and the Search for an Authentic Audience - A Success Story

I have written before that one of the most difficult parts of constructing a true Project Based Learning project is finding an authentic audience for the project.  I spoke at length with the wonderful Suzie Boss (@suzieboss) about this topic over the summer, and we agreed that sometimes you have to "invent" an audience.  By that I mean that, as I wrote in the linked blogpost, sometimes you set up someone or a group of people to be an audience, and for the purposes of the project they play the role of someone who has a genuine interest in the project.  Think about a school science fair - most parents who come to view the projects have no prior interest in any of those topics (even the topic chosen by their own child), but they take a momentary interest during the fair - then go home and more or less forget about all of it.

However, I am happy to share a true success at finding an authentic audience.  My colleague Simcha Schaum (@simchaschaum) conducted a project last spring with his 6th grade class where he asked them to learn material relating to some of the seasonal changes made in the prayers.  He charged the students with creating bookmarks that theoretically could be handed out in shuls (synagogues) so that people would know what changes to make when, and what to do if they made a mistake.  Rabbi Schaum had a couple of local Rabbis come to class so the students could present their bookmarks, and the project concluded with some very wonderful presentations and some very gracious Rabbis.

However, the project did not conclude there.  This past week on the Jewish calendar was one of the times when changes are made to the prayers.  And a day or two later, Rabbi Schaum received the following email from one of the Rabbis who visited his class back in May:

Hi Rabbi Schaum,

As [you may have heard], the bookmarks were a huge hit in shul on Shmini Atzeres.  I distributed them (and explained where they came from) and went over the related halachos [laws] before Musaf, and that was the heads-up to begin saying Mashiv Haruach.  Everyone has been using the bookmarks to remind themselves to say Mashiv Haruach and enjoying them.

Yasher Koach [kudos] to you and the students, and thank you!

Wishing you much hatzlacha [success] this year,

The "pretend" authentic audience, which at the time was sufficient to motivate the students to complete their projects, has successfully become a real authentic audience!  While not every project meets with such success, it is inspiring to know that our audience is out there - we just have to set the wheels in motion so that we can find them.

Monday, September 30, 2013

The Return of Jedchat

To many people, Twitter is the very definition of a waste of time.  It is where movie stars and athletes share their deep thoughts and remind the rest of us that they are not poets or philosophers.  However, for many people, and for many educators in particular, Twitter is a magnificent way to connect, to share, and to broaden one's horizons.

One of the most exciting things about Twitter is a twitterchat.  While probably not what the creators of the social networking site had in mind, twitterchats are high-paced and concise (only 140 characters at a time) conversations among an unlimited amount of participants.  Chats operate by employing a hashtag (or #hashtag), and each post includes that hashtag.  Participants set their Twitter page (or hootsuite, tweetdeck, or other such program) to follow that tag, and - presto - every post that includes that tag, even if made by someone that they are not following, appears in their stream.

Following in the footsteps of the wonderful #edchat, a twice-weekly chat about all things education, #jedchat was begun two years ago by Akevy Greenblatt (@Akevy613), Dov Emerson (@dovemerson), and Meir Wexler (@RabbiWex) as a parallel version focusing on Jewish education.  The weekly chats became a meeting place for many Jewish educators who wanted to expand their networks and discuss some of the pressing issues in Jewish education, and the hashtag itself became an ongoing way for those educators to reach out to one another to seek advice, share successes, and disseminate news.

With the founders having all moved on to new endeavors and having less time to devote to Jedchat, a new team of moderators will be kicking off Jedchat's third year this Wednesday night, October 2nd, from 9pm to 10pm Eastern Time.  Some things to know about the new season of Jedchat:

  • Moderators - Jedchat will be moderated this year by Rabbi Avi Bernstein (@RabbiBernstein), Aliza Chanales (@alizachanales), and yours truly (@rabbiross).
  • Unlike in the past, when Jedchat presented a topic and let the conversation range freely for an hour, the chats will hopefully take the more structured form favored by chats such as #educoach, which present a series of guiding questions throughout the course of the chat to help keep the conversation moving and to prevent one aspect of the topic from dominating or becoming stale.
  • Polls will be put out via Twitter every Tuesday offering a selection of potential topics for the next night's chat.
Of course, one of the best aspects of #Jedchat is that it is an opportunity for professional growth and development that is absolutely free.  No airfare, no conference fees, no tolls.  As long as you have an internet connection nearby, you can be a part of this wonderful conversation.  So share this post with other Jewish educators, and clear your schedule for Wednesday nights.  We look forward to welcoming you to the conversation. 

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Teachers are Experts Too

A woman took her 9-year old son to the doctor for his annual physical.  After the usual battery of measurements, pokes, prods, and shots, and after the doctor had completed asking the child about his eating habits, daily activities, and favorite sports teams, the doctor turned to the mother to offer his assessment of the child's health.

"It seems that your son is a wonderful and healthy boy," the doctor began.  "Of course, he should eat some more fruits and vegetables, and we do recommend trying to limit screen time if possible, but he is generally growing exactly the way we would expect him to."

"Thank you," replied his mother.  "What about his height and weight."

"Looking good there as well.  He is 45th percentile in both height and weight, which is more or less consistent with his development until now."

An awkward silence.

"Forty-fifth percentile??" responded the mother.  "I don't understand that.  My husband is over six feet tall and I was always on the tall side myself!  How can our child possibly be below average??"

Taken slightly aback, the doctor tried to allay the mother's concerns: "I wouldn't be concerned at all.  There is nothing in any of his records or tests that would indicate any form of abnormality.  Furthermore, we see many children who have dramatic growth spurts in the early teenage years."

"Are you sure you measured properly?  I mean, you are only seeing him here in the office.  I see him every day, with his siblings and friends, and he certainly doesn't look like below average to me!"

"There really is nothing to be alarmed about," said the doctor, trying again, " He is a healthy boy with good habits who is developing just the way we want him to."

"You know, I have never seen that nurse who took the measurements before," continued the mother, barely heeding the words of the doctor. "Is she new here?  How long ago did she receive her degree?  How do I know that she knows what she is doing?"

End of story

I think that, for most of us, the above story sounds ridiculous.  Yes, people do sometimes seek out second opinions, but probably not about the height and weight of their nine-year old child.  Certainly, we would not expect someone to challenge the medical credentials and abilities of the doctors and nurses who have taken such measurements.

And yet - what if this story was taking place not in a doctor's office but in the principal's office?  What if the issue was not the height of the child but an assessment of the child's academic abilities?  Would we find the story ridiculous - or familiar (not necessarily from personal experience, but perhaps from hearing about someone else who had just such a conversation)?  I think that the answer to this question is fairly obvious.

But why?  Why would people who would never question their doctor's assessment of their child so readily question the assessment of another type of professional?  At some level, I believe that people understand that educators know their business, and that business is mainly understanding children, understanding how children learn and interact, and using that understanding to find ways to best teach that child and foster his growth as a student and as a citizen - and doing the same thing for scores of different children at the same time.  It is a business that requires its practitioners to be part teacher, part psychologist, part peace-maker, part politician, and part-so-many-other-things-that-I-can't-list them-all.  True, teaching relies far more on on-the-job training (experience) than on formal classroom training (you don't need a Ph.D. to teach), but most people don't question their mechanic either and he received very little classroom training for his job.

An interesting thought occurred to me in this vein while reading this article by the wonderful Joe Posnanski, perhaps one of the best sportswriters, and therefore best writers, around today.  In the article, Posnanski asks why everyone cares about baseball players who use steroids, yet everyone more or less knows that steroids are rampant in football and no one bats an eyelash.  His answer, in a nutshell, is that baseball seems to each of us like something that we could probably do, and therefore we are offended on a more visceral level when we find out that someone has cheated.  Football is basically "American Gladiator" - pure entertainment that most of us could not and would not take part in.  But plenty of middle-age men out there are still playing softball every Sunday, convinced that they are one swing away from making SportsCenter.

Teaching seems to me to have some of the same sense of "I could do that" hanging over it.  How many parents were at one time a youth group leader, camp counselor, little league coach, scoutmaster, etc?  They have had experience leading and instructing children!  How different is teaching?  Sure, teachers do it every day and not once a week; and, sure, teachers have to get kids to do sometimes unpleasant tasks like finding root words and multiplication tables; and, of course, teachers have to worry about things like state standards and lesson plans and parent-teacher conferences and report cards; but, at the end of the day, isn't teaching English to 7th grade boys five days a week for a year basically the same thing as coaching them for 10 Sundays in the spring?

Of course it's not.  However, the possibility exists to have such thoughts.  I don't think that taking biology in 9th grade gives me license to question my doctor, and I don't think that one undergrad course in the Constitution makes me Alan Dershowitz.  By the same token, and in the same way that baseball looks doable but is played at a level beyond what most of us could ever hope to do, teaching is a specialized profession performed by real professionals.  Thankfully, most parents do realize that.  Spread the word.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Teaching Text Skills in PBL

Over the past several years, I have had the opportunity to speak to many wonderful educators with an interest in introducing Project Based Learning into their classrooms.  Their sincerity and commitment has been inspiring, and their many and varied questions have consistently pushed me to better define my perspective on PBL and to continue to hone my own skills in that regard.

One question that inevitably arises when discussing PBL in a Judaic Studies classroom in how to teach text skills via this approach.  While we are known as "the People of the Book", we are actually the People of several books, with Mishna and Gemara (Talmud) joining Chumash and Navi (Bible) in our basic corpus and our basic curriculum.  While it is true that instruction in these subjects becomes more theoretical and less textual as the students grow and mature, there is no question that at all levels an inability to decode the basic texts is a sine qua non being able to move forward in one's learning.

But how does one accomplish the goal of teaching text skills in a PBL environment?  Project-Based Learning's entire framework is focused on seeing the learning unit as a whole, determining the Driving Questions which underlie and will thus drive the entire unit, and more or less assumes that students will be able to take the necessary steps to find the materials that they need to satisfactorily answer the Driving Question.  Where in all of that is there room for searching out word roots, acquiring the key vocabulary necessary to follow the give-and-take of the Talmud, or deciphering the strange script in which Rashi and other commentaries are printed?

It's a difficult question.  Without face-to-face instruction and without the endless worksheets that most of us remember from the days when we were acquiring reading skills, how is a teacher to ensure that his or her students are gaining the basic skills that will serve as the foundation for all of their future learning?  To that query, I have at least two suggestions:

1) Separate reading skills from PBL units.  There is no command from on high that every lesson that a person ever teaches has to be part of a PBL unit.  Given the amount of work that goes into creating and managing such a unit, any normal person will likely need a bit of a break between PBL units, and there is a good chance that the students will appreciate a few solid days of gold old, traditional, whole-class learning.  Use those times for skill-building.

2) On the other hand, PBL units could be a wonderful time to reinforce skills (I am not so sure that I would teach basic reading skills from scratch within PBL, but strengthening those skills for students in grades 5 and above could work).  Inevitably, there are students who pick up the skills very quickly and those who need more practice.  In a traditional setting, those students who have quickly mastered the material are often forced to wait until every student has learned the material to a level deemed acceptable by the teacher.  Boredom ensues.

Within a PBL unit, every student, or at least every group, is free to move at their own pace.  I encourage teachers who want to introduce skill-building into the curriculum to place several required exercises into the material.  Have students read required texts on voicethread, ask them to punctuate a sample piece of Gemara, or provide them with a shoresh (root word) hunt/game that will yield some result that is key to their being able to complete a larger piece of the unit.  In all of these ways, and countless others that people will undoubtedly devise, quick moments of skill-building can be introduced as part of the work needed for the PBL unit, and teachers can therefore identify which students might need a little extra face time with the teacher or some eventual additional instruction or activities to continue working on these all-important skills.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Washington Post vs. Mr. Miyagi

I recently came across this post on the Washington Post website, by Valerie Strauss but actually by Roger Schank, which explains, subject by subject, why kids hate school.  The overall gist of the column is that students are not taught any knowledge that is of immediate relevance to their lives, and therefore they are bored and disillusioned with their education, simply counting off days and filling in scantron bubbles until graduation.

Anticipating the inevitable blowback, the author mentions criticism that he has received for writing similar articles in the past, most of that criticism coming from teachers, and condescendingly forgives the teachers for their ire, noting that it is not their fault, they are only teaching what they are ordered to teach by a larger and faceless system.


It seems to me that Mr. Schank has regrettably never seen the Karate Kid.  If he had, perhaps he would recall how Mr. Miyagi, one of the greatest of all movie teachers, taught karate to young Daniel-San.  No calisthenics, no kicks, no chops, no nothing that looks at all like karate.  Rather, he had Daniel program what seemed like slave labor - paint the fence, wax the car, sand the deck - every time with a specific motion, and every time until Daniel reached theist of exhaustion.  The true climax of the movie is not the final scene when Daniel defeats his nemesis (I would give a spoiler alert, but if you have not seen it yet, I take no responsibility), but rather when Mr. Miyagi demonstrates to Daniel that all of that hard labor was in fact teaching him the proper techniques that he would need in order to master karate.

(For those who prefer literature to cinema, the same thing takes place in T. H. White's The Once and Future King, as Merlin gives Wart a curious education, all of which comes into play during the climactic scene of the novel.)

Back to Mr. Schank.  On one level, he is on to something.  It is much easier to learn something when you can see its immediate relevance.  In fact, that is a large part of my motivation behind project-based learning.  However, not every thing that we learn has an immediate connection to the world around us. Many parts of our education have a slow and steady impact on us, shaping our character, molding the way that we think, broadening our horizons and the way that we view the world and the people in it.  The purpose of a broad and deep liberal arts education, something that is under severe assault in our society on several fronts, is not to create future professors of liberal arts, but to create thoughtful, discerning, and sensitive citizens.  

I would be interested to hear the type of curriculum that Mr. Schank would propose.  But more than that, I would be interested to see the type of students and citizens that he would intend to produce.  I am keeping my money on the Miyagi approach.  After all, it worked the first time.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Do We Still Need Gemaras?

When I was first learning Gemara, before the advent of Artscroll, if you wanted a text that could help you out, you basically had two choices.  The old-school choice was the Soncino translation, an English version of the Gemara that was written in a vocabulary almost as difficult as the Hebrew/Aramaic original.  Alternatively, there was the Steinsaltz Gemara, a new and new-fangled version that was quite intriguing.  Rather than maintain the classic "Vilna" layout of the page, Steinsaltz broke the text into topical paragraphs, added punctuation, and included his own running commentary/explanation alongside those of Rashi and Tosafot, the two "big guns" on the standard page.  For making all of these seemingly helpful changes to the page (not to the text, which remained the same), Steinsaltz was widely excoriated and shunned, and by the time he finally got around to completing his massive work, the Artscroll revolution was upon us.

You can read more about the controversy over Steinsaltz's Gemara at this post by my friend David Zinberg. The main issue that he raises is one that is bubbling up right now for Jewish educators - do we even need to hand our students actual Gemaras (or Chumashing or Mishnayot or Neviim) anymore?  I am speaking specifically about schools that are trying out iPads for all students - there are several apps, some of them free, that contain the complete text of many classic Jewish texts.  Why not just have the students reference that version of the text on the same device that they are using to take notes?  It would avoid having students forget their books, and would provide opportunities for all sorts of innovative ways to learn and study.

One issue that Zinberg points out is the veneration of the classic Vilna layout of the page, completed between 1880 and 1886 by the Romm publishing house. In truth, the basic layout goes even further back and the Romm edition is merely the latest one to gain near-total acceptance.  Steinsaltz took heat for breaking that down.  Meanwhile, versions of the Gemara that add vowels to the Vilna page are seen perhaps as a crutch, but not as a threat, and the Artscroll Gemara, which severely reduces the need for the learner to put in all that much effort, has been heralded as the greatest thing to happen to Torah learning since Sinai.  The Artscroll iPad app, for all of its innovation, kept the standard page layout, and thus has received many of the same accolades as the print edition.

But should any of that matter?  Ask any Gemara teacher in Middle School or High School to list the skills that he or she is teaching, and "knowing how to navigate the standard page of Gemara" will certainly be on the list, but will likely be something to which only a small amount of time is devoted.  Vocabulary, key words, identifying whether a Tanna or an Amora is speaking, learning the different parts of the Gemara's argument - these are the key skills which occupy our time in the classroom, and they can all be learned regardless of the page layout.  By contrast, no such insistence on a page layout is required or even desired in any of the other text-based Judaic subjects - we tend to look for the edition that will work best for the students.

I am not saying that using a running text of the Gemara using the U'v'lechtecha BaDerech app is necessarily the best way to go.  Perhaps the sugya-based iBooks currently being crowdsourced through an effort of Rabbi Mordechai Smolarcik will be the wave of the future.  On the other hand, I can think of a variety of reasons why I might prefer an old-school paper edition of the Gemara in my classroom.  However, it is an issue whose time has come and that we should be prepared to explain to ourselves and our students why we are using whichever version of the text that we have decided to use.

What are your thoughts on the matter?  Please share in the comments section.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Reflections on ISTE 2013 (Which I didn't Attend)

ISTE 2013 - The International Society for Technology in Education's annual four-day confab, held this year in beautiful and broiler-hot San Antonio, Texas - ended last Wednesday afternoon with a rousing closing keynote address by Adam Bellow, encouraging all of us innovative and forward-thinking educators to do what we can to change the world.  Coming at the conclusion of four days of networking, learning, and peering into the future of technology, education, and the confluence of the two, Bellow's at times emotional, at time humorous speech was the pitch-perfect conclusion, sending the almost 20,000 attendees home energized and ready to make a real difference in their schools and to their students.

As I wrote about last year, the ISTE conference is an amazing and overwhelming experience.  Session range from discussing specific apps for the iPad to brainstorming new ways to demonstrate leadership within one's school.  The conference presents one with the chance to have those long conversations with colleagues that the school year leaves no time for, to connect with one's personal learning network in person, and to meet people from literally all over the world who bring a ridiculously wide range of experiences, ideas, and dreams and to work to help each other make those dreams a reality.  As ISTE came to a close, I was full of ideas and suggestions that I am eager to try out in the upcoming school year.  Just like last year

With one difference.  I was not at ISTE this year.

Nope.  For a variety of reasons, I was not able to make it down to Texas (will have to get to the Alamo another time).  However, that did not mean that I was left out of ISTE.  True, I did not get the face-to-face interaction that I would have had had I been there in person.  And I was not able to follow up every session that I attended with a schmooze with the presenter or with the person sitting next to me.  However, one of the true strengths of ISTE is that it exists within the various networks that all of its attendees have worked so hard to create over the past few year.  And, like and strong and solid network, not everyone has to participate in an activity in order for everyone to benefit.

Readers of this blog will not be shocked to hear that Twitter played a major role in my ISTE experience this year.  My good friend and frequent collaborator Rabbi Tzvi Pittinsky took copious notes at his sessions on Evernote, tweeted them out, and made sure to mention me in the tweet if the topic was one that he felt was of particular interest to me.  The incomparable Suzie Boss kept up a constant twitter stream on PBL issues, and responded to many of many queries and comments throughout the week.  An untold number of people alerted me to which sessions were going on, allowing me to put out feelers for quotes, comments, and notes. Several of these sets of notes have been added to my Evernote notebook for future reference as I plan for next year.

There is no question that attending ISTE in person is infinitely more enjoyable and beneficial than living it vicariously through one's friends and network-mates.  By the same token, it is important to realize that while four intense days provides a nice charge, it is the other 361 days of the year that we have to take that charge and run with it.  My thanks to my network for sharing their excitement and learning with me - I hope to reciprocate from Atlanta next year.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

"What are you doing for the summer?"

"What are you doing for the summer?"

I get that question almost daily this time of year.  Well-meaning and well-intentioned friends and neighbors, presumably expecting that I will be taking a well-deserved couple of months in some tropical paradise, inevitably inquire about which utopian getaway I will be frequenting from the moment that my students leave the school building until the moment they return at the end of vacation.

Of course, my answer is always something along the lines of:

"Same thing I do the rest of the year - going to work."

A response which is often greeted with:

"Over the summer?!  You work?!"

Now, I don't think that anyone means to be rude or demeaning.  But, in all honesty, it is somewhat baffling to me that people believe that teachers or administrators simply disappear for the summer, giving nary a thought to their career for two months, then somehow return days before school begins, put posters up in their classrooms, check their rosters, and are magically all ready to go. Such a mindset seems of a piece of the thinking that "Those who can't - teach", that teaching is somehow the domain of those who lack "real-world" skills and is populated mainly by people looking for good vacations and tuition breaks (yes, we have those as well, but they are not the reason that most people enter the field).

For the benefit of those who are surprised at my annual response, a quick sampling of the many and varied professional activities that take up an educator's summer in this day and age:

  • Preparing classes.  This is number one on the list for virtually everyone.  Well-constructed lessons, the type that you want your child to receive, are exactly that - constructed.  And construction takes time, time that does not really exist during the school year.  Summer allows a teacher the time to reflect on what he or she has done, what needs tweaking, what needs reinventing, and what needs to be scrapped.  Thinking about ways to differentiate, enrich, and remediate classes so as to reach all learning, and creating ample materials for all situations, all takes time.
  • Innovating. As education moves more and more into a digital existence, teachers have to take what they have been doing and re-imagine them through the prism of technology.  Taking time to learn several new iPad apps or online sites and then figuring how to integrate them into the classroom is a task that requires the time to experiment, evaluate, revise, and experiment again.
  • Professional Development.  Don't you hate it when your kids have the day off because the teachers have "Professional Development days"?  In other jobs, that is called going to conferences, and it is common and expected in most fields.  Thankfully, many such conferences in education, from one-day seminars to week-long confabs (such as the just concluded PBL World and ISTE 2013) take place over the summer, allowing for maximum participation with minimum classroom disruption.
  • Nuts and bolts.  When your child returns to school in late summer, chances are he will have a schedule fully laid out for him.  You will probably also receive all sorts of communication from the school over the summer about a wide range of small and not-so-small details that need attention.  A full slate of activities, events, and programs will likely unfold as the year goes on.  One guess when all of that gets planned.
There is no question that the summer is more relaxing for teachers.  There are no classes, we set our own schedules (more or less), and the stress level is way down.  To gain some perspective, think about students as clients and compare teachers to lawyers.  A lawyer prepares and researches countless hours when working on a case, but only spends part of that time working directly with the clients.  A teacher needs to do the same thing, but also needs to spend most hours during the day working directly with her clients.  So when does the research time come?  Right now, in one long stretch.  We do not have the luxury of meeting with our clients only once a week and spending the rest of the week preparing for those meetings.  

Every industry has its own calendrical cadences, and ours calls for ten frenetic months, followed by a two month period where we can collect ourselves, reflect, and plan for the future.  Is summer relatively restful for educators?  No question about it.  Are we on vacation for all of that time?  Not at all.  It's time for people to stop being surprised about that.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Is Yeshiva Education Failing - from the pages of Lookjed

The other day, the Lookjed (Lookstein Center for Jewish Education in the Diaspora) educators list had the following anonymous post:

I went to a class reunion a few years ago. My 8th grade class reunion. Of the 30 or so in the grade from my Orthodox day school, about 20 showed up. I was one of 2 males wearing a kippahOne of 3 who had any concern over kashrus at the event.Some, it seemed, were sending their kids to some flavor of day school. A bunch weren't. We had graduated 25 years earlier supposedly as full-fledged and committed members of klal yisroel and I felt out of place saying that I was still actively involved in the Orthodox Jewish community.

I also am friends with a number of friends (elementary and yeshiva high school) via facebook. To complain about posts onshabbos, posts about treif restaurants they go to or about their travel to exotic (and decidedly lacking in Judaism) places for work or play would only scratch the surface. What I have surmised (based on the number of intermarriages and lack of any affiliation with Judaism) is that of the 30 or so from 8th grade and the 100 or so from yeshiva HS, I am in the minority. Yes, some have maintained and strengthened their connection to their religion, but a huge number have moved away. Some went to Israel for a year to various programs, some didn't. Even some who live there now do so on secular terms.

I go into school every day and daven with a large number of yeshiva high school students. I can already see a lack of affiliation. They simply don't care. Davening is an inconvenience, tefillin are optional, tzniyut rules are ignored, learning is devalued. This is all despite incredible faculty, a clear mission and a variety of attempts to help students explore their bond with their religion. I look around in the school minyan and see barely a minyan of students davening. I can see that so many of these ostensibly Orthodox Jewish High School students will take the kippah off when the bell rings (both literally at the end of the day, and metaphorically, upon graduation). At their 5, 10 and 25 year reunions I predict that most, if they show up, will be leading wonderfully productive lives with little or no connection to Judaism unless they find it later in life on their own.

But every time I think about how much we are failing our students, how many we are losing, I stop and think about my own graduating classes. Maybe yeshiva education has been failing for 25 years. Maybe it can't succeed. Is it possible that we are fighting a losing fight just to reach the 10% of students who have any interest in being reached and the 5% who can be brought in to the fold against their will? Are there any long term and consistently updated studies on religiosity and yeshiva education which can reassure me that our failure today isn't unique nor does it spell the demise of Orthodoxy any more than a similar failure did 25 years ago. Are there studies that show that we are doing a worse job than in years past?

Optimist that I am about Jewish education, despite all of the challenges that we face on a daily basis, I felt that a response was needed, on two levels.  First, this post is purely anecdotal and such "evidence", while a nice way to start a discussion, is no way to make policy or decisions.  Second, I felt that the author was drawing one set of conclusions when there were others to be drawn.  Hence, my response:

I am not sure what type of feathers "Throw Away" was hoping to ruffle with his post, but mine have been ruffled insofar as I see the post as the typical anecdotal and emotional lament that usually leads into the "Yeshiva Day School education is broken" trope, which often moves into the call for some sort of nebulous radical reform of the schools.

Leaving aside the anecdotal and emotional nature of the post, by remaining anonymous and, more importantly, by not naming the school, the writer makes it impossible to know the nature and makeup of his class.  Twenty five years ago, many Modern Orthodox schools had several if not many students who came from nonreligious homes, who continued on to public high schools, and probably on to lives where religion played a minor role, if that much.  Why the parents of such students chose an Orthodox school for ten years is difficult to say, but I suppose that that choice certainly increased the chances that their child would have some Jewish connection in life.  Sometimes that worked, and I suppose sometimes it did not.  Is it fair or logical to condemn a school because it failed to make a nonreligious student religious despite his or her growing up in a nonreligious home?  Hardly.

The anonymous writer also laments that he sees the beginnings of lack of religion among his high school students.  Of course, the problems of lack of religious inspiration, failure to observe standards of tzniut, and other such challenges are present in probably all Modern Orthodox Middle and High Schools, and have been for years.  Are they warning signs of abandoning religion?  In some cases, perhaps, but in many other cases they are symptomatic of students who are struggling to find their place as Modern Orthodox Jews in a secular and confusing world, not to mention a little bit of teenage rebellion.  I also have many students who present these challenges - and most that I know of go on to remain Orthodox Jews.  The fact that they forget to put their kippa back on after walking ten feet after going on a roller coaster is disturbing to me, and I am not thrilled about physical contact between the sexes, and I wish that they cared more about davening.  However, our job as educators is to understand each student and see what are red flags and what are genuine struggles and to address each student appropriately.

Furthermore, I fail to see how one can conclude that Jewish Day Schools have been reaching only a small percent of their constituencies.  How then do we explain the growth of Modern Orthodox communities over the past 20 years?  I have lived most of my life in Teaneck, NJ and have watched it double and then double again in that time, and surrounding communities and communities around the country have grown as well.  Where are all of those people coming from if not from Jewish Day Schools?  Yes, some of the people are ba'alei teshuva, but solid majorities have come up "through the system".  While I agree that we have lost people and continue to do so, I would question whether the losses are as dramatic as Anonymous would imply or if those losses can be laid entirely or even primarily at the feet of the schools and the educators who toil in them.

Being an educator is a tricky business.  What inspires one student can turn off another student, or perhaps can turn off the same student on a different day.  We are called upon to constantly be sensitive to the characters and needs of our students and to do all that we can to ensure that they both learn something concrete and have positive Jewish experiences along the way.  To my mind, one of the most positive changes in the field in the past few decades has been the push the professionalize it.  More teachers in more schools are more connected with the world of general education and with their colleagues in other schools than ever before.  That has led to a growing culture of sharing, trying new ideas and approaches, and learning from experts about how complex our students are.  We may never succeed in reaching every child, but I am optimistic that we are taking steps in the right direction.

What do you think?  Are we failing?  Are we succeeding?  How would we measure one or the other?

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Is the Salute to Israel Parade merely a school activity?

This coming Sunday is the annual Celebrate Israel Parade (formerly known as the Salute to Israel Parade), one of several ethnic-type parades that take place in New York City each year.  In general, the parade is a wonderful celebratory event, which thousands or marchers, floats, minor celebrities, politicians, and all the other hallmarks of large events in large cities.  The occasional politically-charged controversies, such as the annual appearance of about 15 virulently anti-Zionist Jews (who somehow always get picked up by the New York Times), are actually forgettable sideshows to what is overall a wonderful event.

I have been participating in the parade for most of the past 30 years, and I have recently noticed something that disturbs me far more than any controversy.  What has caught my attention of late is that the parade has largely turned into the world's largest Jewish day school event.  Just about any school that wants to maintain its bond fides as being Zionist sends a delegation to march, perhaps requiring all of its students to do so.  And, of course, most of those students have family members who come out to cheer from the sidelines, anxiously awaiting that one moment when their child walks by, resplendent in his or her special t-shirt and perhaps carrying a cardboard cutout of fruit or a harp or something else depicting his or her school's theme.  However, it often seems that there are very few people watching who do not have a carpool interest in the parade.

To the extent that we believe our own hype, this should trouble us as a community.  If we believe that the parade is our community's chance to demonstrate our pride in and connection to the State of Israel, then the fact that there are several city blocks along the parade route with almost no spectators should be seen as a disappointment at least and a communal failure at worst.  Especially given the fact that every other parade of this type brings out huge crowds, it is particularly glaring that our parade cannot do the same.

Perhaps this turnout issue is a case of one success feeding another failure.  On the one hand, be have been very successful in getting most schools in the area to be very active participants in the parade, and there is no doubt that the thousands upon thousands of students who march make the parade the wonderful event that it is.  However, as families "age out" of schools, they often feel that it is time to turn their focus and attention to other activities and other ways to spend their time.  If the Celebrate Israel parade is seen primarily as a school event, then it is one more thing to leave behind when your last child graduates high school.  I would suggest that it is important for those involved in planning the parade and our community leaders in general to foster the notion that this is an event that grows in impact as its numbers increase and that even if someone has no kids left in the school system, or if their kids have not gotten there yet, their support is vital to the overall success of the parade.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

"Does Any of this Still Count?"

We have reached that point in the school year where my 8th graders have one overriding question on their minds.  As their thoughts turn to the senior trip, graduation, and the various ways in which they can show that they are all grown up, they often wonder, "Hey, Rabbi - Does any of this still count?"  On a basic level, they are asking why they should still have to sit in classes where there might not even be a final exam, and even for those classes (such as mine) where there is such an exam, they are wondering why they should bother studying.  After all, they have all gotten into high school, and their June grades will have no impact on their immediate future plans.

On one level, this is understandable.  While we stress to our students that things such as manner and respect and davening (prayer) do not recognize senioritis and should always be in play, it is harder to make that case for specific subject material.  No one is going to miss out on medical school because they daydreamed through the last month of 8th grade science and no one is going to fail to become a Rosh Yeshiva because they were doodling during a month of Gemara back when they were 14 years old.*

*Although one can argue that the people who become Roshei Yeshiva are probably the ones who were already serious at age 14.

But on another level, it reflects a natural outgrowth of our educational system.  So much of what we do in school is incentive based, and those incentives are generally grades.  Students are well trained from an early age to know that what really matters is the number or letter that appears at the top of that quiz or test or project.  They learn to ask things such as "will this be on the test?" and - even worse to my ears - "do we need to know this?"*  At the end of the day, our assessment-focused system, no matter what type of assessments we use, conditions our students to judge something's value by its connection to a grade.

*My answer to that question is well-known to my students.  "You need to know everything."  Kind of removes the uncertainty while stressing that everything that we do is for a reason.

As adults, we know of course that not all of life is like this.  While much of what we do is incentive-driven (in this case, the incentive is a paycheck), we also learn that there are many things in life that we do because we enjoy them or find value in them.  One can construct an argument that says that that is also incentive-driven, but if it is, it is in a way that is so different from the grade-based or salary-based incentive system as to be unrecognizable as being the same thing.  Our goal as educators is to find a way to convey to our students a love of learning - learning in general and our disciplines in particular - to the extent that they are driven to learn even when the tangible incentives fall away.

This was not intended as a Project-Based Learning post, but I believe that PBL can help in solving this conundrum.  When students' experience in class is about listening to a lecture, filling out homework sheets, and cramming for a test, it is often the grade and the grade along which propels them forward on a daily basis.  However, when given more control over their own learning, students gradually develop their own internal motivation towards their learning.  This is not to say that they will necessarily love a discipline just because that class was a PBL environment; but they are more likely to at least have a positive attitude towards the learning experience in general when they felt a sense of ownership over it, and not a sense that they were charged with merely regurgitating information back to the person who dispensed that information in the first place.  The more that we can make the learning experience belong to the students, the more that they will be willing to do it even after it "no longer counts".

Friday, May 3, 2013

My PBL Class gives me a glimpse of the Future of the Classroom

I admit it.  Right now, I am being somewhat unfair to my 7th grade Torah class.  They are in the middle of a rather large Project-Based Learning (PBL) unit for me, while at the same time they have to work on a project related to the Torah curriculum.  Each year, we ask each 7th grader to pick one mitzva (commandment) from somewhere within the curriculum and to research it further, ultimately devising a presentation that is displayed, science-fair style, at our annual 7th grade chicken dinner (which is a topic for a different post).  In other words, my class currently has two units of learning that they are working on for me, often with different work partners.

Fortunately, we have found a way to take advantage of this situation.  Within the context of my PBL class, the students have our allotted class time to work on their research.  While, in theory, they could be doing homework for another class, they realize that it is best to work on the material that I have assigned them, as this is the time that they have me available to answer their questions and guide them through the sources.  Having two projects due for me has led some students to switch off - working on one project in class one day and another one on a different day, depending on which one they require my assistance for.

The result is an interesting window into what could be accomplished with greater adoption of student-centered classrooms.  A number of years ago, a group of educators in Israel published a paper imagining what a high school would look like if modeled like a Beit Midrash (download the paper here).  Their basic premise was that the focal point of both the physical structure of the school and the schedule of the day would be time spent in a Beit Midrash, with students required to attend both mandatory and elective classes throughout their years in the school.  However, the main learning would be accomplished by students working independently or in groups, and making their own decisions on how to allocate that time.

What if, instead of five periods per week of Chumash and five of Gemara, my students had three or four of each, with the rest being used for independent work time which could be used for either subject, or some other subject?  Obviously, with me or another Judaic teacher present during that time, they might be more likely to work on a subject in which I could be helpful.  However, this would provide the students with the chance to hone their time-management and prioritizing skills.  They would know what needs to be accomplished, but once in control of making that learning happen, they would have the freedom to also decide when it would happen.

I will grant that this goes back to what I feel is the main question about flipped learning, blended learning, and all of their cousins.  None of them are anything new.  It is the way that adults learn, and it is certainly the way that both college and grad school work - do the readings, then come to class to discuss them.  The novelty is that we are trying to accomplish it with students at ever-younger ages.  And so, the issue that we would have to grapple with is are we ready to allow students in high school or middle school or even younger to not only find the material on their own, but manage and discipline themselves and their time?  At what point do we loosen our grip on our students' hands, and by how much?  Truly a question that serious-minded educators must always ask.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Teaching Students to Summarize via Twitter

One of the problems that I have encountered when asking students to work independently is that I need to
create some system of accountability.  In my Project-Based Learning (PBL) units, I often provide my students with many sources and options to learn, and I ask each working group to create a Google site as a hub for their running notes.  This allows me to constantly check in on their work and to therefore monitor how they are progressing, issues that they may be having, and so on.

However, I have often been bothered by the fact that many students, and we are talking about honors students here, are often not good at summarizing material.  Very often, I open a Google site to find verse-by-verse translation/explanation of material where a couple of well-thought-out sentences would have sufficed.  It reached a point where some students were so focused on the verse that they were reading that they lost sight of the greater context, often asking me questions whose answers were contained in the previous paragraph.

Today I finally decided to do something about this.  Rather than have my students walk into class, form into their regular work groups, and fan out across the building working on their assignments, I had everyone come into class together and sit down with an ipad (we use an ipad cart in my class) and a text.  Each student was assigned one section (one parashat ha-shavua) and told that they were to read five verses and then boil all of that down to one tweet.  Not one sentence - one, little, 140-character tweet.  They were to do the same for the next five verses, and the five after that, and the five after that (and five more tweets for further practice tonight).

Aware of the fact that my students tend not to use Twitter, and that there are likely parents that do not want their children to do so, I created a Twitter account for our class (@7AChumash) and had everyone log in and post through that account.  Blessedly, a Twitter account can be signed in on multiple devices at once and thus the entire class could engage in this activity at the same time.  You can see some of their results by clicking on the link above.

All in all, the students enjoyed this activity and benefited greatly from it.  For some, the challenge was how to shrink their tweets down by a few characters, and I explained that text language, abbreviations, and misspellings were par for the course.  For almost all of them, the process of determining which information was essential and which was less-important detail was a valuable exercise in the fine art of summarizing.  Hopefully, this will carry over into their daily research and their notes will become more focused while simultaneously becoming shorter.

Friday, April 26, 2013

The Jedcamp Model - A Disruptive Innovation?

One of the interesting aftershocks of this past Sunday's JedcampNJNY has been how much people have been talking the event, specifically people who did NOT attend.  I  have heard that many teachers who were unable to attend have been speaking with those who did make it, and they wish that they could have cleared their schedules.  Those who attended left the conference so energized from their experience that they have shared accounts of their day with colleagues and hopefully future local Jedcamps will benefit from an expand pool of participants.

Beyond that, there has been much talk in other communities about planning future Jedcamps.  One outgrowth of keeping an active Twitter feed (#jedcampnjny) running throughout the conference was that educators from California to Israel were able to follow what was happening in Paramus, NJ, and we were able to follow their plans to create Jedcamps in their local areas.  I had a late night (for me) web conference the other night with several fantastic educators from up and down the west coast, sharing my experiences as a conference organizer and helping them to crystallize in their minds what it would take to have a Jedcamp out there.  A similar chat is being planned over the next few days with educators in the Baltimore area.  Clearly, the idea of an unconference - the ease of planning, the minimal expenses, the absence of paid "experts", and the freedom for any stakeholder of education to play a leading role or at least a significant role in an important discussion - is a powerful idea and one that people want to replicate.

Perhaps most eye-opening to me has been the reaction from people and organizations who are often the ones planning more traditional conferences.  Ken Gordon, the social media point man for PEJE (Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education) posted on his Facebook feed this morning a link to a recent article about JedcampNJNY, accompanied by the question "Could the unconference be the future of the conference?"  I have received emails in the past few days from other individuals from several organizations who want to know more about our experiences in planning and pulling off Jedcamp, perhaps with an eye towards replicating the model to supplement or to begin to replace the traditional, more expensive, more labor-intensive approach to professional conferences.

This has caused me to reflect a bit about two aspects of Jedcamp that differ from traditional conferences.  The first is the local versus national aspect.  In this regard, I think that there is still a place for larger conferences.  Whether it is ISTE or ASCD or NAJDS, there is no question that national or international conferences provide the opportunity for people from vastly separated regions to come together for several days to meet, brainstorm, and engage one another in a manner that even the best webconferencing tools cannot match.  I have written before about how I effectively see my online networks as a basis for forming real, face-to-face networks with people, and live conferences provide the opportunities to do just that.  While many people in my networks are local and will turn up at a local event, I am blessed to have formed strong connections with people across the country and I rely on the national conferences to provide me with the chance to see and speak with them in more than 140 characters at a time.

The second aspect is the lack of experts.  True, some traditional conferences are stacked with genuine experts, by which I mean the people who have written the books and done the research and tested and refined the various methods for teaching or supervising or leading.  The ASCD conference is fairly good at this, as their program consistently reads like their book catalogue.  However, many other conferences offer a combination of famous keynote speakers combined with a lot of "local talent".  By local talent I am referring to wonderful educators who have been asked to present a session about something that they are doing in their classroom or their school.  Obviously, these individuals (and I have been one of them) are happy to present for free (exposure!), but they are also clearly the undercard to the few big names who attend the conference.

The Edcamp/Jedcamp model flips this approach.  While I have heard many wonderful keynote speakers, I note two things about them: (1) While their words are inspiring, their speeches do not offer that many concrete suggestions (see this post from Richard Byrne on this point) and (2) they have generally written their main ideas in a book or have shared them in a TED talk or have somehow made their inspiration available in a way that I do not have to spend an hour of a professional development day listening to them.  Not that I do not enjoy being entertained, but how much does that entertainment cost?

Instead, the Jedcamp model elevates the "local talent", but it makes everyone the local talent.  No longer is there a collection of teachers and administrators who have been selected to make a presentation, thus resulting in them having to spend untold hours perfecting their slideshows and delivery.  Instead, every camp attendee can appoint him or herself to get the conversation started, with the understanding that everyone who attends a session can have something to contribute to the discussion, and that that might produce a much richer experience than a slick (or not-so-slick) powerpoint presentation.

Harvard Professor Clayton Christensen has written extensively about what he calls "disruptive innovations", those innovations to a field that shake the very model of how business is done, ultimately changing the field and leaving behind those who still try to work the old approach (think about the decline of the video rental store in the face of Netflix).  While a Jedcamp still maintains many of the trappings of the traditional conference model, it possesses enough inherent innovations to possibly provide a new and more effective and  - dare I suggest? - more enjoyable way to provide professional development.

Monday, April 22, 2013

At Long Last - JedcampNJNY!

(My initial thoughts after JedcampNJNY)

The daily grind in the world of education is not an easy one.  Too much time spent on technical details, not always enough time spent giving each student the attention that he deserves.  Too much effort spent with parents upset that their child got a B+ and not an A-, and not enough effort spent collaborating with those parents on how to bring out the best in that child.  Too many professional development hours spent listening to "gurus" who dazzle on stage but do not stick around to follow up, too few professional development hours spent having heartfelt and meaningful discussions among practitioners about the struggles that they face every day and ideas for growing as professionals.

JedcampNJNY, held today at Yavneh Academy in Paramus, NJ,  provided an escape from that daily grind, and provided not only an amazing experience for those who were involved, but also an amazing snapshot of the fantastic educators that are currently working within the field of Jewish education.

I already described the basics of Jedcamp in this post back in February when we first announced that this "unconference" would take place.  But that basic outline could not possibly capture the energy that kept JedcampNJNY humming for six hours today.  That's right - over 70 educators gave up a significant part of a beautiful Sunday in April to attend a conference about, um, wait - what was this conference about?

Anything.  That's right, anything at all.  When the day began at 9am, the session board was blank.  By about 9:15, almost all of the twenty session slots had been claimed by people ready to lead discussions or make presentations, and some of the early feedback has been that we should have opened up ANOTHER room so that more people could present.  What dedication!  Here is a conference where people are upset that they could not present (and no one was getting paid to present!)!

Of course, people were upset for good reason.  Who would not want to present to a room of similarly devoted and motivated educators, all of whom were ready to contribute their thoughts, ideas, and experiences, and all of whom were ready and willing to challenge their own thinking to help themselves grow as educators?  We had teachers in their first five years of teaching sitting with thirty year veterans, teachers with administrators, formal educators with people from NCSY and the camp world - and all that mattered was that you brought your open mind and your willingness to contribute.

Going into the conference, one of our many concerns was that this would turn into an edtech conference - a concern since we knew that there were many attendees who were not looking for that type of confab.  Not to worry.  While there was an ample supply of tech-related sessions, other sessions ran the gamut from psychology to teacher/administration relationships to using motion in the classroom to the benefits of  humor (a session led by New York's funniest Rabbi).  Throughout the day, people were emerging from sessions wishing that the sessions could have continued, and people were generally surprised and disappointed that the 45 minutes allotted to each session had run out so quickly.  How often does that happen in a professional conference?

And the excitement and energy continued beyond the walls of Yavneh.  While we have not yet worked out a way to bring people in via skype to a Jedcamp, while we were meeting, Twitter was abuzz with planning for upcoming Jedcamps in Maryland and Los Angeles in the coming months.  People at Jedcamp were asking how they can be involved in the next one, and we may very well have to separate the NJ and the NY next time to accommodate the anticipated larger crowds once word of the success of today really begins to spread.  Blogposts of today's action have already gone up (here, here, here, and here) and more are sure to follow.

Hopefully, the excitement generated by today's unconference will have two major effects:

  1. The attendees will bring some of what they learned back to their classrooms and their colleagues.
  2. Future Jedcamps, both locally and across the globe, will take form, allowing other educators to engage in these productive conversations while widening their circles of who they consider to be their colleagues.
For those of you who were there today, a heartfelt thank you for making it amazing.  For those of you who have yet to attend a Jedcamp - what are you waiting for?  Organize one in your community today.  You'll be glad that you did.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Am I a PBL Cheat?

My students (yes, the same ones who did this project) began a new PBL unit today, but with a twist.  The unit focuses on Devarim Perek 15 (Deuteronomy Chapter 15) and related sections, which basically outline the Torah's economic system - gifts to Priests, Levites, and the poor; the seven-year cycle whereby the land rests (shemitta) and loans are forgiven; the 50 year cycle (yovel) whereby slaves go free and land is returned to its original owner; and the laws of Jewish and non-Jewish slavery.  The overall goals of the unit are for my students to connect these laws together and envision how a Jew living under those laws would balance their checkbook, as it were.

However, in lieu of them creating a final project, I am creating the project.  Obviously feeling that I have way too much free time on my hands, I am working to create more or less The Game of Life based on all of these laws.  When the unit is complete, the students will have to play the game and their success will be based on how well they learned the material.

I will admit up front that there is still a lot of work to do.  I am not completely sure how the game will work, and I am not completely sure how I will give them a grade.  But all of those are secondary considerations as far as this post is concerned.  My question right now is whether or not I am cheating on the principles of Project Based learning?  Generally, the point of PBL is for students to use their final project as a driving force to guide their learning.  As they come closer and closer to creating the project, their visions of the project interact with their learning process to make their path of inquiry fuller and more genuine.

However, I have now removed that final goal from their sights.  They no longer can envision the final product, since the product will not be something they create but rather how well they are prepared to face the world - or at least the imagined world that I create.  In a sense, they themselves become their final project.  Sounds cool - but is it PBL?  Thoughts and comments welcome.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

PBL and grading

For all of the hoopla over Project Based Learning (not the least of which is done on this blog), there are a number of technical and logistical questions that are raised by this approach to instruction.  One such issue is that of grading.

In a "traditional" classroom set-up, teachers assess students on a regular basis by some combination of homework, quizzes, tests, and perhaps projects.  Students receive feedback in the form of grades, which generally are presented on a numerical (1-10 or 1-100) or alphabetical (A, B, C, D, F) scale.  Every few months, those grades are averaged together to produce a cumulative grade to be placed onto a report card.  Of course, it is those report card grades which ultimately attain great importance as they are looked to to determine placement, awards, high school and college admissions, and who knows how many other important or seemingly important ways of sorting students.

Of course, the notion that a single letter or number can encapsulate months worth of student work and effort is a sad joke.  Yet, we have come to accept it quite broadly in our society, based presumably on the notion that all of the elements that went into that grade were valid and reflective of the many efforts that students put into their work and that the grade is indicating roughly where on a scale from putrid to awesome those efforts fell.

Whether or not you accept standard grades as a good idea, PBL makes a mockery out of them.  In my early forays into PBL, I admit that I was concerned about having "gradable assignments" for my students and thus I devised a number of questions sheets or other "mid-project" assessments to both keep tabs on their work and to make sure that I would be able to give them a valid grade when the project was all over.  Truth be told, many of the assignments were nothing more than old-school homework assignments, which really have no place in a PBL unit.  Furthermore, if one aspect of a PBL unit is that students have choice as to which sources and material they are going to use, then it does not make sense to insist that everyone hand in the same assignments, since they will not all be doing the same work.

And so I have moved to having each student group maintain a website where they store their notes and any other materials that are a part of their learning.  I am thus able to check in on their progress and make effective and meaningful comments - the true "assessment" - without looking to squeeze a meaningless number out of a banal assignment.  This approach proved to be very effective in my last unit and for the time being I am planning on keeping it as a feature of my PBL units.

However, I still have to give a grade and so what am I to do?  The most obvious answer is to create rubrics for either the final project alone or the project plus the process.  While rubrics can take some serious effort to create, once created they do not need to be re-created and, more importantly, they provide real feedback as to how well the student accomplished the task at hand.

That being said, I come to the question that emerges from all of this: If a class is being taught primarily via PBL, and students are assessed via rubrics and other more informative approaches to feedback, are standard report cards still the way to go?  Does a teacher who grades via rubric come up with some way to convert the rubric scores into a single letter or number for the purpose of report cards, thus sacrificing all of the rich detail that the rubric contained?  Obviously, it is much more difficult for a high school or college to consider such detailed reports about each student in lieu of a few simple grades, and obviously the concept of the "highest average" does not mean as much when we are not really dealing with averages.  Nevertheless, if what is most important is developing our students as learners and providing them with meaningful feedback that helps to guide them in their future learning, then isn't that more important than honors society?


Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Student-Centered Learning and the Well-Rounded Student

My good friends and colleagues Tzvi Pittinsky (@TechRav) and Tikvah Wiener (@TikvahWiener and @RealSchool1) had a blogversation the other day about project-based learning and student-centered learning in general.  Tzvi's post, while generally in favor of such approaches, highlighted as well the role of the teacher in preparing such learning experiences for students and favored the need for teachers to continue to shine guiding lights for their students.

Tikvah, who directs the Real School club in the Frisch School (where Tzvi teaches as well), wrote about some of the various projects that her students are undertaking, ranging from art projects to surveys to cooking meals for the class.  While acknowledging the role that teachers are playing, Tikvah stressed the freedom given to the students to design their own projects, both in form as well as in content.  Towards the end of her post, Tikvah cites several articles and sources that imagine a world, or at least a school, where the students would be able to decide on pretty much their entire course of study.

My first reaction to that imagined world is that it already exists - it is called college.  Other than some basic core requirements, students are able to pretty much choose every class that they take in college, or at least can choose the area that they want to study, within which they may have some required courses.  The innovative idea expressed in Tikvah's post is that one would attempt to do this writ large in a high school setting for most of the curriculum (and not just electives or clubs).  While this could be seen as simply moving up the goalposts, I believe that there is a qualitative, and not just a quantitative, issue at play here.

Let's begin at the poles.  I think that most people would agree that, however one thinks it should be done, students at the youngest ages need to learn how to read and how to do basic mathematics.  At the other end of one's educational spectrum, i.e. college and beyond, most people would probably agree that an individual should be allowed to choose what he or she is going to study, both for their own intellectual inquiry as well as for future professional purposes.  The question, therefore, is what needs to be studied in between.  For argument's sake, let's propose that we are arguing about 4th through 12th grades - what should a student learn in that time?  Is there a reason for students to go through two rounds of hard sciences?  Is civics necessary?  How much "classic" literature should students be forced to read?

I have no doubt that devotees of each subject can come up with wonderful reasons for why their discipline is necessary to be studied at least through the end of high school before freeing students to choose their own paths.  To my mind, there are two broad rationales which seem to be under fire in the "let's make everything optional" mindset.  First is the notion that students need exposure to a wide range of material in order to really get a sense of what they might gravitate towards and/or be good at.  If a student were to have a good math experience in 5th grade and only want to do math from that point on, he might develop as a math genius, but perhaps his abilities in that area are actually limited and meanwhile a natural constitutional scholar would never have the chance to emerge.  More important to my mind is the idea of creating a well-rounded student.  Unpopular as it may be in our multicultural age, I believe that certain strands of the curriculum that have been with us for generations (and, yes, I know it is far more complex than that) have stood the test of time because they have what to teach us about the world around us, be it about the historical origins and philosophical foundations of our society, the subtleties of the human character as portrayed through literature, or a deeper understanding of the physical realia of the universe.  I am open to the notion that there is plenty of new material that can be added to the old "Western Canon", but the criteria would be similar - a well-rounded curriculum should exist to create not only well-rounded students but well-rounded citizens and humans.

And so back to Tzvi's position - are our students ready in high school to start learning only those things that they want to learn, or is the purpose of the Middle and High School years to expose them to a wide range of ideas and works so that they can start making intelligent and informed choices about the directions that they want to proceed in during the course of their future learning?  Given that High School is a time of intellectual ferment and maturing, I believe that it behooves us to provide our students with this core learning at a time when they can think critically about it before we hand over to them full discretion to choose their courses.

Of course, this question gets raised to another level when we are discussing Judaic Studies, but perhaps that should be left for a separate post.