Among the pleasures of planning the Idea School, the Jewish project-based learning high school opening in Bergen County this September, is forming a passionate team of educators who are committed to lifelong learning for themselves as well as for the school’s students.
So it happened that our team — Nancy Edelman, Rabbi Tavi Koslowe, and Rochie Sommer — headed out to Boston for two days during what’s known as yeshiva break. (That’s the last week of January, when many Jewish day schools have vacation.)
Our mission was to explore what the JCDS (Jewish Community Day School) Boston and Gann Academy, two innovative Jewish community schools, were up to, to meet with Tufts University computer science professor Dr. Marina Bers, to gain insights into the Hebrew at the Center program that Arnee Winshall has created, and to see what project-based learning looks like for adults at Continuum, the design thinking firm where my friend and colleague Ken Gordon works.
We were not disappointed.
Okay, so the trip got off to a rocky start when rain poured from the skies, causing our car ride to Boston to take six hours. But we were able to test our resilience and grit by persisting through the challenging weather.
Our first stop in Boston was JCDS, a K-8 day school. There, we met with the head of school, Susie Tanchel, who told us about JCDS’ core principles. One of them is a commitment to students’ ability to engage with others with whom they disagree, and to be in what she calls “productive disequilibrium.” This is the ability to understand that “you don’t have to be wrong for me to be right,” Dr. Tanchel said.
Ms. Sommer, the Idea School’s head of STEM, was struck by the multiplicity of perspectives the school encourages kids to seek: “In math, there are many ways to get to a solution, and this allows many possibilities to be in a room,” she said. “In math class, I have students share their different approaches and reinforce that the process is more important than the product.
“This impacts all disciplines in that students learn to appreciate another student’s perspective, and each can learn from the other. This is a critical life skill. Dr. Tanchel emphasized that this prepares students to find ‘their way through the world ready to engage in difference.’ They will not be fearful of differences but will learn to ‘live in the gray,’ empowered to use their capacity [for understanding and empathy] as stepping stones to learning and personal growth.”
After Ms. Winshall gave us a tour of JCDS, with its impressive exhibits of student work on the walls, she sat down with us and had Tal Gale, who works with her, call in, so we could discuss the approach to language acquisition that their organization takes. Ms. Gale told us that when you teach Hebrew, you really have to decide how to create a culture of Hebrew speaking, so that the language becomes part of students’ identities.
The approach of Ms. Winshall’s program, Hebrew at the Center, allows every school to reach its potential in challenging kids to become more proficient in Hebrew language. It does so by using what education knows about how language is acquired, and marking how each student is progressing in four areas — reading, writing, speaking, and listening.
Our group was wowed by a wall in the Hebrew department chair’s office that tracked each student’s level in the language. Ms. Winshall noted that all students have the ability to change levels throughout the year. The school doesn’t wait for an end-of-year exam. The program is dynamic, students are matched to texts at their level, and they move to the next level when they show mastery.
Our next stop after JCDS was Continuum, where we met Ken Gordon, the company’s content, conversation, and community strategist. The first noteworthy thing Ken told us was that he had done a very 21st-century thing. He had invented his job: when he discovered Continuum was hiring, he found out what it was looking for, and then convinced its leaders that he could do even more than what they were asking, crafting a job description that showed them how his talents as a writer and lover of the humanities could enhance a design thinking firm.
For those new to DT, design thinking is a human-centered design process where experts from different fields form interdisciplinary dream teams. They engage in what’s called empathy interviewing to find out how consumers use a particular product before going through several iterations of redesign, so it’s even more consumer-friendly. Some of Continuum’s most famous products: the Reebok pump sneaker, Pampers’ Stages diapers, and Target’s iconic shopping cart.
Human-centered design is about getting at what creates an emotionally satisfying user experience: design thinking has been used, for example, to reimagine the MRI experience so it’s less scary for children, or to retool an insulin pump, so even children can use it easily.
Mr. Gordon emphasized to us the role that storytelling plays in design thinking. It’s not just that design-thinking engineers want to sell a great product — of course they do — it’s also that they want the user to have an emotional experience, to feel that the product is part of a positive flow in the their day and creates a pleasuring narrative arc.
Continuum, with its open, innovative, and flexible work spaces; its Maker Space, where engineers create prototypes for everything they design; and its creative, collaborative workforce, made up of people with diverse talents, reminded us of the kind of school we’re working on building.
Ms. Edelman, the Idea School’s head of humanities, noted that everyone at Continuum is “always in the process of iterating,” and added, “Teachers and students need to do that all the time!” Ms. Sommer added, “Human-centered design takes into account the unspoken but obvious challenges of a situation. The implications in my practice as an educator include taking deeper looks at students’ challenges to diagnose pathways to success.” And Rabbi Koslowe said that after hearing about how Continuum employees did “ride-alongs” with first responders as they were working on creating gear and equipment better designed for them, he began “to think of how we can create opportunities for our students to more intimately appreciate the perspective of others and experience a pluralism of ideas.”
Day two of our educators’ road trip began with an early-morning meeting with the highly accomplished Dr. Bers, a professor in Tuft University’s computer science department, as well as in the department of child study and human development. Dr. Bers specializes in STEM and early childhood.
Dr. Bers, who often helps schools create Maker Spaces, shared her thoughts on education and the direction she’d like to see STEM take in schools. Dr. Bers thinks play is a crucial part of learning and wants to see schools incorporate more play into their curricula, including their STEM programs. Having the toy-maker Lego get involved with STEM — with the ready-made kits the company created — was good, but now it’s time to go further, just as Hour of Code was a great way to get the conversation started about programming. Now, however, it’s time for students to have courses in computer programming, so they have deep knowledge of the subject.
As far as Maker Spaces: her advice was to let kids co-design them. “How do you get the Maker Space at the center” of school and learning? she asked. It shouldn’t be an ancillary part of the school day or curriculum. It should be the main part.
The rest of the day we spent at Gann Academy, which has one of the best reputations in the Jewish day school world. We understood why immediately. From the moment we entered the school building and read the quotations on the entryway wall from Proverbs, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Hannah Senesh, Bob Dylan, and Rita Levi-Montalcini (a neurobiologist and like Bob Dylan a Nobel laureate), we knew we were in a special place.
One of Gann’s most impressive features is its culture of teacher growth and professional development. Jacob Pinnolis, Gann’s director of teaching and learning and a co-author of the book “The Power of Teacher Rounds,” told us about the enormous amount of time and effort the administration and teachers put into developing themselves and creating a culture at the school where “kids do the thinking.” He told us that by the time teachers finish the school’s rigorous hiring process, they know well that they shouldn’t bother joining the Gann team if they aren’t focused on creating courses and learning units that empower students do the work.
Rabbi Koslowe said, “I loved that Jacob identified the two qualities that they are looking for in an educator: collaboration and reflection. It made me think how students need to be exposed to and experienced with those skills in order to grow up and get jobs that demand it.”
The Gann ethos was everywhere, from the environmental studies course we sat in on and the biological behaviors class we bumped into in the library, to the Exploration Week exhibit we saw in a hallway. The exhibit is a map of places where students have traveled, trips they’ve taken that not only reflect learning that they’ve engaged in, but the ethical, moral, and religious behavior that has been deepened by their learning. So we read a reflection about a civil rights trip to the South where students said kaddish at the unmarked grave of two black men who had been lynched, and another about what it felt like for students to stand in the empty chains that once held slaves who had been brought to America, and who had called out for help.
Perhaps the most moving part of the Gann visit was hearing from a group of juniors in the class of my friend and colleague, U.S. history teacher Dr. Jonathan Golden. The students came from public, Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, and ultra-Orthodox elementary schools, and all had had their belief systems challenged at Gann. They had been forced into what Susie Tanchel had called “productive disequilibrium” and emerged with their worldviews deepened. When asked how Gann was able to accomplish this, the students told us they had spent a lot of time in ninth grade focusing on active listening and perspective-taking through open-ended questions.
Ms. Edelman said, “I was moved to tears by our discussion with the Gann students about how no matter what their diverse backgrounds, they grew by going to school with others who came from different backgrounds and felt stronger, not weaker, in their Jewish identities. The school has created a truly sacred space for learning, one of respect and safety, yet one that allows students to challenge themselves and grow exponentially.”
Ms. Sommer added that the words of the head of school, Rabbi Marc Baker, resonated with her. When we met with him, he told us: “A school has to be willing to take risks and to fail. . . . When you fight for hearts and minds you have got to be bold.”
One of the things I love about vacation and travel is that it opens your mind, heart, and soul in ways that you never imagined. Going on an education vacation added another dimension to traveling. It showed us that getting ourselves out of our routine — not only the routine of our lives, but the routine of our educational thinking — made us think more expansively about the possibilities for the future, and about bringing those possibilities not only to our students, but to our communities. Let’s all keep traveling on this journey of learning together.