Starting a school — going from the daydream to the absolute reality of actual ninth-graders looking at you expectantly one September day — is an extraordinary achievement.
The challenges are immense.
You have to find financial backers, because it’s expensive. You have to find space, because teaching takes up room. You have to find teachers willing to give up security, perhaps even tenure, to work in what might not be a secure job. You have to find parents willing to send their children to a place with absolutely no track record. You have to find students willing to be pioneers in what might be a grand experiment or a messy failure.
You have to have a firm vision, a clear head, faith in yourself and the people with whom you work.
You need courage.
But if you can do it, the reward will be great.
If you have the courage and the heart and the tenacity to go through with it, then you get to start from the beginning, to institute the educational philosophy that you think will be best for the students from the beginning, instead of having to fit it into existing corners of the curriculum.
You get to shape students’ lives.
That’s what Tikvah Wiener of Teaneck did with the Idea School, a new Jewish high school whose freshman class started in September. The school’s set at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly; the intergenerational programming inside the building and the wooded acres outside seem a necessary part of it.
There are 13 students now, all ninth-graders. Next year, the school will add a new ninth grade; it plans to graduate its first class in four years. It has seven teachers, three of them full-time, including Rabbi Tavi Koslove, the school’s Judaic studies principal, and it works with other teachers. (Do you want to teach your students to plan a garden? Work with Yoseph Gillers of Grow Torah!)
The Idea School’s educational model is project-based learning. “A big part of it is authenticity,” Ms. Wiener said. “It’s about authentic connections to the real world. Your work should be part of the real world in some way.”
It’s about the importance of facts and of truth. It’s less about hierarchy than about the way learning and learners and the world in which and from which they learn all interconnects. It’s about melding science and art and emotion and Judaism in ways that are both challenging and real.
Sounds great but what does that mean in the real world?
It could mean that as you learn about environmental science or biology, “You could, say, test water in the Hackensack River or investigate whether people who live close to Route 4 have higher levels of illness. Your research might yield something authentic, and you could make connections with experts in the field, with a water filtration specialist, say, or a chemist.”
That sounds complex. Is project-based learning only for high school students, and advanced ones at that? No, Ms. Wiener said; an elementary school that did project-based learning took a class pet’s death and made a funeral, with invitations, written in the children’s own invented spelling, and went on from there, including as many elements from as many disciplines as possible.
The Idea School works on trimesters. There’s one big unit per trimester, a concept that each discipline uses in its own way. And then, “presenting and reflecting on work is very important,” Ms. Wiener said. “We want the students presenting their work to each other, and to as wide an audience as possible; if you were investigating river levels, if you found something you’d want to present it to the town water board.” But the students start with each other, their teachers and administrators, and parents.
“It naturally builds leadership skills,” Ms. Wiener said.
The school’s first unit was about cultivating good habits; the current one, its second, is consideration of what makes a good citizen. “There is a lot of emotional learning that goes on,” Ms. Wiener said. “We rooted our first unit of the year — the first unit of the school — in looking at not only at how we develop good habits as a person but how we do it as a school. And for life.”
The school uses the same core curriculum as other schools, she added. “In ninth grade, social studies is ancient civilizations, math is geometry, science is physics. These are not outliers. It’s not that the information the students learn is different, it’s that it’s organized differently. It’s how we’re choosing to connect the courses.
“So take the unit they’re working on now, about what makes a good citizen. How do we pursue justice in society? So in Talmud, the students are investigating the Jewish version of that question. How does my knowledge of Talmud and my Jewish identity inform my sense of citizenship? In humanities, they’re learning about ancient Greece and Rome, and how to trace our American democracy to ancient concepts.”
In their literature class, students are studying Antigone. “The question is what happens when my personal sense of right and wrong conflict with the societal sense of right and wrong? Then we get into civil rights and civil disobedience and the Freedom Riders,” and all that happens right around Martin Luther King Day.
The students also had to create their own superheroes, complete with backstories; they talked about Bernie Madoff on this, the tenth anniversary of his arrest and unmasking, and they used biblical and talmudic sources as they did so. They studied the ethics of organ donation. “It loops back to the question of what is my personal moral responsibility to society?” Ms. Wiener said. “How much do I have to give? It’s all interconnected.”
The Idea School is the first and so far the only Jewish institution “to be fully interdisciplinary and project-based,” Ms. Wiener said.
Although the school may seem unstructured, that’s far from the truth, she said. It’s just that the structure isn’t necessarily visible. It uses the chavruta model — students learning together in pairs — but “it’s not the typical ‘let’s go learn together,’” she said. “It’s a protocol, with set criteria and guidelines. When you give kids protocols, they don’t have to wonder what they are supposed to be doing. Those rules take the pressure off.” The school also uses Socratic seminars; those, too, have rules.
“We are not interested only in their scientific and academic exploration and their cultural literacy,” Ms. Wiener said. “We are very interested in those things, but we also are very interested in their moral character development within their exploration of science and the humanities and their Jewish heritage.”
Teaching Talmud is a necessary and valuable way to teach students not only Jewish practice but also Jewish values, she said. “If you grow up to cheat on your taxes but keep Shabbat perfectly, then we have failed.”
She talked about some of her intellectual heroes — the Rav, Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik; Rabbi Moshe Lichtenstein, and Rabbi Norman Lamm. Each had combined Torah, humanism, and morality. “Rabbi Lichtenstein said the blessing that you say before you learn Torah also before studying secular subjects,” she said. “He was a massive Torah scholar, and a massive humanist. He said that anything you do with a moral view is Torah. Of course there is actual Torah, but if you look at the world through that lens then you are never not a Jew. If you practice Torah, then there is never a world in which our laws don’t work.”
The goal is to make the integration of the morality and truth and knowledge of the different worlds in which the students live visible.
One important way to do that is through reflection and presentation. “After students present their work — talk about the superhero, and putting Antigone on trial — then they reflect and say what they got out of it. Whether they grew ethically.” They also consider practical implications, because there’s no point in thinking great thoughts that you cannot express, much less implement. So, “did they meet their deadlines? Did they collaborate well?
“Reflecting makes them aware of their areas of growth, and what they were good at already.”
Exhibitions are like a science fair, Ms. Wiener said; and then the presentations were made in front of three to five teachers. “They were awesome,” she said.
Nancy Edelman of Teaneck teaches humanities — English and social studies. She’s taught elsewhere, mainly at the Torah Academy of Bergen County, for 19 years; her training is in art history, so she brings a lot of that way of looking at everything she sees into her classroom as well.
She isn’t really teaching in a different way, she said; instead, the change is more “in the way we are assessing and connecting with the students. I have been teaching literature for 26 years; this is the first time that nothing has been a finished product. It’s really liberating, and it’s really good for the kids.” She corrects assignments and gives them back for revision rather than filing (or disposal); their work matters, and if it is to make a difference it should be done right. But it should not be — and is not — done harshly. “Talking about literature can be a public thing, and then it becomes a piece of writing that has a public purpose,” she said.
Ms. Edelman thinks it’s valuable to be able to give them what she calls rubrics —detailed assessments of their work — rather than just unexplained letter grades. She also values working with Rabbi Koslove; “in the beit midrash, when we were studying the ten habits of ancient civilization, he had the kids find the same habits in the Talmud.” They could compare the way the rabbis and the ancient Greeks confronted the same ethical dilemmas. “We’re trying to educate the whole Jewish young person,” she said. “Our integrated curriculum allows us to break down barriers.”
She’s thrilled at being able to work in a brand-new school. “It’s really exciting,” she said. “It’s the first time in my career I’ve had the chance to help build something from the ground up.
Tamara Levin of Teaneck is both the parent of a ninth grade Idea School student and its business manager. “It is life-changing,” she said of the school. “I have a child who now is happy going to school. Who wants to be there. Who is doing a lot more self-discovery than I ever could have hoped for.”
She worked in corporate human relations for 20 years, and she saw how often it was hard for people to speak in public, to express themselves, to be themselves. She’s impressed with the way that Idea School students seem to have far less trouble with those often difficult feats than those adults did. “It’s both highly structured and emotionally liberating here,” she said. And it makes her child “so much more confident, and so happy to be here.”
What’s it like to send a child to a brand new school? “It is a leap of faith,” she said. “It’s a little scary.” She and her family made that leap because it felt right — her child’s previous situation just hadn’t been working, so why not try a new one? — and it has paid off spectacularly. “After the first exhibition, he pulled me aside and gave me a hug and said ‘I want to thank you for letting me go here,’” Ms. Levin said. “And he doesn’t talk like that.”
Speaking not as a parent but as “someone who works here, I can say that I watch these kids, and I’ve seen them come together,” she said. “There is a group. Everyone contributes. Everyone feels included and useful, and they are able to talk to people.” She’s also pleased with the way the school teaches Jewish subjects. It allows students to think for themselves and reach their own relationships with the texts and with their own practice, always with an understanding of the depth and beauty and authenticity and relevance of the tradition. “It is a beautiful thing,” she said. “When you forge a deeper connection on your own, it means so much more.”
The faculty works wonders, she added. “Each of them individually brings so much to the school, and they all bring a belief in the educational model. We love each of those kids for who they are and what they bring. We celebrate the individual and still have structure. The teachers set boundaries and the students are making their own. They want to learn, and it is self-motivating.”
The school gives her child “a feeling of freedom. There is an openness to have the freedom of the building,” the entire JCC, with its huge windows looking out on space and light and trees. “They know where everything is here.” They’ve gardened; in the fall, around the High Holy Days, “they were talking about tefilla and teshuva, and applying it to the garden, and in the spring they will harvest vegetables they’re growing.” The lessons about growth and renewal come naturally there.
Felicia Stendig of Riverdale and Emma Hasson of Manhattan Beach — two almost preternaturally articulate and enthusiastic ninth-graders, both are blissfully and realistically happy at the Idea School.
(They also both commute; Felicia’s ride to school is against traffic and not so bad, but Emma’s is epic. Manhattan Beach is in Brooklyn. But she says it’s nothing, certainly minor compared with her desire to be at the Idea School. Most of the students, however, are local. Emma’s trek is unusual.)
“I love being at a new school,” Felicia said. “It’s amazing how much input we get at what goes on at the school, and in the clubs and the teams.” She’s on the track team, Emma’s on the model U.N. and the drawing club, and Felicia also is one of the two students who make up the rock club.
“We admire rocks,” she said. Can she explain? Yes, she can. “I love nature, and I find it amazing,” she said. “Rocks aren’t just rocks. If you take just three minutes out of your day and just look at a rock, you can find beauty in it. You can say ‘Oh it’s just a rock,’ and step on it, but you shouldn’t. You should respect it.” And the adult listening to her knows exactly what she means.
“This is a diverse group of students, who all learn to respect each other,” she said. “We are getting to know each other, and understand each other’s passions and creativity.”
Felicia talked about the presentation of learning. “I was very stressed before it happened, because I don’t like public speaking,” she said. “I was stressed and overwhelmed and I thought that everyone would judge me based on what I said. But then when I started to write the notes and reflect on my learning, I saw how much I had learned, and how much I had grown.
“On the day of the presentation, I was shaking, because it’s scary getting up in front of people you don’t really know, and I didn’t really know everyone yet then. But then when I started I realized how much I had learned, and how useful those skills are, and when I was in the middle of it I realized that it was a really loving atmosphere. No one was making weird faces at me. They all were supporting me. And I could not have been happier.
“Afterward, I was a little shocked at myself, and still a little scared, and then, five minutes after the presentation, I felt really accomplished, and I couldn’t stop smiling.” In fact, she was smiling broadly as she talked. “And now I am looking forward to the next one, even though I still feel that really hard to believe.”
“I also really like the presentation of learning,” Emma said. “It is one of the things that really sets the Idea School apart. Instead of just teaching us a subject that we may or may not really need to know, we really end up learning about learning. During our presentation of learning, we present the actual information that we learned, but the presentation is like the behind-the-scenes part, and we can use that for the rest of our lives.
“What we learn about ethics and morality and responsibility, really interesting things, don’t have easy answers, and thinking about them makes us grow and learn.
“Antigone had to decide whether to bury her brother — which is against the law — or not, and it is not okay to just leave his body. In Greek tradition, if he is not buried, if she leaves him, he will suffer forever. She has to make a choice.
“Antigone had to make a big moral decision, and the consequences of it mattered. That’s the theme we are exploring — what is your civic or moral responsibility, what happens when the law conflicts with your personal value system, to what extent is it okay to break the law, and is it ever okay to break the law at all.”
When their assignment was to make superheroes, “mine was Flat Stanley, who came from a 2D universe,” Felicia said. She worked with another student on this project. “The backstory was that he was on a school trip to a museum where there were only 3D objects, and the guide said that it would be dangerous for them to touch any of the objects.
“Unfortunately Flat Stanley touched a Chinese food box.” Long story short, he turned into the box, “he’s folded up like noodles.” He travels the world in the box, exploring its wonders; “the moral of the story is that it’s okay to be different,” Felicia said. “You have your own story, and you should embrace it instead of letting others define who you are.”
Emma’s superheroine is “Hamama Salaam, which means ‘Peace Dove’ in Arabic,” she said. She’s from the Middle East and has “a dark backstory”; her family was murdered because of their ethnicity, and Hamama has become a peace activist in response. But she has a twin sister who has gone in the other direction and advocates for war. Her name, in Arabic, means “War Raven.” The story of the sisters is complicated, and its moral implications are tangled and provide Emma with many avenues for both thought and plotting.
“The school really pushes your boundaries,” Felicia said. “You don’t know how good you can be until you try, and here they encourage you to do your best, not the bare minimum. And it shows how much they care.”
“We’re working with the teachers, not against them,” Emma said. “We’re working together to find solutions.”
Jordan Shenker, the JCC’s executive director, “is excited to have the school here,” he said. “We have mission alignment. The reason that they exist and the reason we exist is to build meaningful Jewish experiences and to build and strengthen the Jewish community. That’s the reason Jewish community centers exists, and at base level it’s what the Idea School says as well.
“When you start with mission alignment, everything becomes easier,” he continued. “And what excites me most is to see this play out not in theory but in practice.
“One of the reasons the school was excited about being at the JCC is because we serve as a laboratory for the educational environment they wanted to create. They couldn’t have created the depth of the facility and the population and the demographics and the opportunity that exist here at the JCC if they weren’t here.”
For example? “A couple of students worked with senior adults to create a hypophonic planter in the senior adult studio, and now they are growing plants together. They worked with the maintenance department to revise and build the sukkah at Sukkot. They are doing work with the adult special needs population, and in the preschool.
“When they started, we both had the aspirational awareness that there would be opportunities to collaborate, without specific intentionality about what those things could be. But now that we see what some of them are, we realize that the opportunities are endless.”
The Idea School has only one grade now. It’s small. The JCC has many rooms to offer them, and the school not only is flexible but takes great advantage of the range of spaces open to it.
“One of the nuances of the space for the school is that they don’t want dedicated classrooms. Their educational model is enhanced by the opportunity to use multiple spaces during the day.
“Not only are they flexible, they desire flexibility.”
But what happens when there are more grades? More students? More need for space? “We can have up to 50, 60, even 70 kids without having to significantly change the facilities,” Mr. Shenker said. “But scale the school forward. Say there are 10 or 15 or 20 kids per class. And some of the seniors would have been in the school for four years, and they would have developed an intensive educational experience in ways that can provide real significant value to the community.
“You could have 17- or maybe 18-year-old kids who could be interns in early childhood, or working with adults with special needs, or even working in finance or marketing. It doesn’t even necessarily have to be in programming. A significant part of their day could be real-world applications of what they have learned in school for three or four years.
“I have no idea what that would look like,” he added. “But the thought of it is alluring to me. And it would provide a richness of educational experiences that the school couldn’t get anywhere else.
“It would be a quadruple win. It benefits the Idea School because it provides a richer educational experience. It benefits the JCC, because the students are adding value to the programs and services we offer. It benefits the students, because they have access to experiences that they otherwise wouldn’t have. And it benefits the constituencies the students would be working with.
“It would be hard to invent an experience that could have more benefits.”
So what to do? “We think that 75 students would be the tipping point,” Mr. Shenker said; the point beyond which the JCC would be stretched too thinly in its existing space. And he’s confident that the school will grow to that size.
“The JCC is now in the midst of doing some capital campaign planning,” Mr. Shenker said. “We’re also looking at our physical plant needs. And in the context of that planning, if the schools scales up next year and continues to scale up, I think that there would be an intention for us to go together to look for potential funders to support our capital needs.”
That of course has implications for both the Idea School and the JCC. It means that although the school might have moved into the JCC thinking of it as a sort of starter home, a transitional space, now the Idea School would have its permanent home at the JCC.
“It is good business for both of us,” Mr. Shenker said. “They help us cover some of our infrastructure costs, and we save them a ton of costs on the back end. It is a mutually beneficial business relationship.”
He stresses the underlying symbolic importance of the school at the JCC. “It is a really important example of how community organizations work together to benefit not only the community but each other, he said. “If only we as a Jewish community thought this way more often, we would help Jewish organizations and serve our community better.”
And what about Tikvah Wiener, whose vision and drive created the Idea School?
“Tikvah is a rock star,” Mr. Shenker said. “She just thinks differently as a person. I assume she thinks differently as an educator as well, but I am not qualified to comment on that. But when you pitch an idea to Tikvah, she always listens to it. She is always open to it, on its face, without pre-judging it.
“It seems to me that the first question she asks herself is ‘How could this work?’ That’s as opposed to many people who approach any idea with the question ‘How will this be a problem?’
“Tikvah approaches the world from yes instead of no. That is so invigorating to be around!
That’s one of the things I find most enticing about working with Tikvah and with the Idea School. It’s because the school has a leader who wants to figure out how to say yes.”