Before the Idea School was a school — as it is now, with 41 9th and 10th graders and plans to add two more grades and grow into a full-fledged high school — it was an idea. And that idea was project-based learning. (Of course, like all other schools, the Idea School is virtual now.)
In 2014, Tikvah Wiener of Teaneck started the Idea School Network, which propagated the idea among Jewish day schools. With the launch of the school last year, the network was merged into the school, whose full name is the Idea School and Institute.
“We provide project-based learning to high school students, and we also train the field and share our research,” Ms. Wiener said. “We’ve become focused on teacher training, as opposed to creating a network of schools.”
Now, that work of sharing research and training teachers has been recognized by the Covenant Foundation, which awarded the school a $50,000 grant for its institute. The institute offers one-day workshops, on-site professional development days at different schools, and an annual maker and creator conference for educators from across the country. Even before it had to close for social distancing, the school started to put the curriculum resources it is developing for its students online. “We want to do a Jewish version of the amazing website Edutopia,” Ms. Wiener said. (Edutopia, which is funded by the George Lucas Educational Foundation, offers guides to project-based learning and other educational techniques.)
The Covenant Foundation grant reflects the fact that “foundations are interested in innovation in Jewish education,” Ms. Wiener said. The school also has received a grant from the Jewish Education Innovation Challenge. “They want us to be outward facing and want to support the work.
“Over the last six or seven years since we started doing this, we’ve connected with more than 50 schools across different denominations, day schools and supplementary schools. We’re dealing with the nitty gritty. What is it like to run a project-based learning classroom day to day? What are the structures you need?
“This method can be used in any number of settings. You can take our model and create an afterschool Jewish maker space. Take one of our model for your school and run it for six weeks. Schools say they want to move away from the frontal classroom. We’ll help them find projects and protocols and structures that are more student centered, whether it’s including student passions in a project or providing an assessment that isn’t a test or creating an entrepreneurship unit related to one of our core subjects. However you want to experiment with our core ideas, we’ll help you out.”
Shifting from long-established ways of running schools isn’t easy.
“There’s a lot that goes into school change,” Ms. Wiener said. “People understandably feel apprehensive. They feel better when you show them there’s a method and they don’t have to change everything they’re doing. They can just experiment with small things.”
As it turns out, project-based learning comes in handy when a school suddenly has to close its doors and begin teaching entirely online.
“Our teachers are used to creating projects, and our students are used to doing them,” Ms. Wiener said. “Our teachers can offer ways for students to show their learning that aren’t through tests and quizzes. Students can research a topic and debate it, as they’re doing now in chemistry, about whether to use nuclear energy or not. They can journal and draw their way through Megillat Ruth, as our sophomores are doing now, showing the text and commentaries they’ve learned along the way. Freshmen are creating slide shows about ecosystems and biomes, and all students are working on engineering projects. So much of what we do is hands-on and interactive that shifting to online learning was not arduous. I think the biggest thing the students miss is the real-life interactions. Everyone is missing the social aspect of learning.”
Ms. Wiener said that her own journey from teaching English to becoming the creator and now the head of a high school “was my own project-based learning unit.
“I knew I wanted to start a high school a long time ago. But they didn’t teach me how to run a non-profit in my Shakespeare classes. How to persist through failure, how to learn through mistakes, how to manage yourself and your deadlines, how to collaborate well — all those things which are part of project based learning, I had to really embody and live. When we as a team push the kids to do something, it’s always something we ourselves have experienced.”
The Idea School recently held an exhibition of student learning to mark the end of the year’s second trimester.
“In ninth grade, they did major work on the question of how to cultivate good habits,” Ms. Weiner said. “We looked at the habits of ancient civilization and the way good habits are cultivated in the Book of Numbers in the Torah. Each group had to research the habits of a different ancient civilization.
“Because ancient civilizations and the Jews in the Book of Numbers rely so heavily on water, that was the focus in our science studies. Students researched before and after the Clean Water Act, the impact of environmental legislation, particularly in New Jersey. They researched Hackensack River and Overpeck Park. One student called the head of the Bergen County Utilities Authority to find out about storm surges. There’s a lot of trying to get our students out into the real world to try to understand the implications of the things we’re studying. They’re taking the study of ancient civilizations and ancient texts and learning how resources are still important; we have finite resources and we have to treat them well.”
One immediate outcome of the grant: A three-day conference of this year’s grant recipients. Ms. Wiener went, and she came back impressed.
“You get to see all these amazingly creative and inspiring educators and people in the field of Jewish engagement,” she said. “It was just really inspiring to see how thoughtful those people are.”