Thursday, January 2, 2014

Guest Post: PBL in a 6th Grade Mishna Class

Rabbi Simcha Schaum (@simchaschaum) teaches 4th and 6th grade Judaic Studies at Yavneh Academy in Paramus, NJ.  He is an enthusiastic PBL'er and has used it to much success in his classes.  He has generously agreed to share with us his review and description of his most recent PBL unit in 6th grade.

One of my goals in teaching 6th Torah Shebe’al Peh (with Mishnah as its starting point) as a subject that is dynamic, exciting, and relevant. In my first year-or-so of using PBL to teach Mishnah, PBL seems to best accomplish this goal.

My 6th grade Mishnah classes were nearing the end of the 4th of Berachot – containing Mishnayot that are mainly about different aspects of prayer – and I was searching for PBL ideas that were could be somewhat ‘authentic.’ Since the two mishnayot we were up to (4:5-6) discuss some laws of how to pray on a trip – when many of the ideal conditions for prayer are unavailable – I decided that my students would use their knowledge of these mishnayot (and some related halachot) to create educational materials for a population that could actually use this knowledge in practical way: Jewish kids at sleep-away camp. After all, camps take trips all the time, be they sleepovers in the woods or days at an amusement park. The campers have to pray on the trips, and perhaps the camps may use their time on trips as a “teachable moment” to teach
some of these halachot – and our materials would come in handy to help them teach these halachot.

After clearing it with my supervisor (thanks, Aaron!), I pitched this idea to several camps, asking if they would take and use our educational materials and if they wouldn’t mind sending someone to whom we
could present our designs in person. Camps responded with enthusiasm and, while not everyone was able to come, three popular camps sent representatives – including Morasha and Moshava, whose directors came.

The PBL came in two parts: designing educational materials and presenting these materials in a way that shows mastery of the laws and their derivation from the Mishnah. To make their materials, I encouraged the students to make brochures or double-sided pages – small enough to laminate and send to camp. On these materials, they were to present the halachot about what to do in two typical camp situations. For example, what to do if one must pray on a moving bus (where one cannot stand up or may not know which direction to face). For their presentations, I required the students to write up their presentation  grade Mishnah is for my students to view scripts on Google docs (which is easy in our 1:1 environment), which they shared with me as well, so I could check their progress in real time.

In the presentations, they were required to cite parts of the Mishnayot in Hebrew and explicitly connect those citations to at least one of the practical laws displayed on their educational materials. This was
especially important, as these particular mishnayot give examples that are no longer common, such as one who finds himself riding a donkey or wagon. Properly applying these rules to modern situations was a
must, since it would mean that the students truly understood the legal principles behind the mishnayot and, would hopefully experience the relevance of the Halachic process as well.

The students really worked hard on their materials. Motivated, at least partially, by the opportunity to present to prestigious visitors (quite a few students attended or plan to attend these camps), my students got right
to work. They learned and worked with intensity (and would even start working before I arrived in the classroom) and ended up doing some really nice work. My students gave strong presentations showed materials that were nicely done.

For the first time, I created a project calendar that had important project benchmarks, such as when the materials were due, when they should start and finish making their presentation scripts, and, of course,
the tentative presentation date. At the beginning of each day, I would review the calendar with my students and point out what was expected by the end of that day. The calendar helped keep the students on pace
and focused on the task(s) at hand.

Aside from the project’s completion, I also included smaller “check-in” assignments along the way, to check how the kids were learning and who needed extra help. I gave a couple of quizzes on the wonderfully
simple iPad app, Socrative, and also asked my students to create notes, using Evernote, on the mishnayot they were learning. On these notes, they recorded themselves reading and translating the mishnayot out loud
and typed summaries as well. These notes also accomplished the goal of making sure the students pay attention to the Hebrew Mishnah text, which students can have a tendency to ignore in favor of the more flashy aspects of creating their projects.

In the end, I believe this project was successful. In terms of the content covered, the students were able to read, translate, and summarize the Mishnah, as well as apply it to real life situations. They seemed excited
by the “real life” application of the Mishnah and their being able to connect with an “authentic audience,” as well as by the opportunity to be creative and work independently.

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