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.

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