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Checking in with the Idea School

Caption TK
Caption TK

A school can tell an observer a lot about the culture that surrounds it — what that culture values, what it rewards, what it thinks of its children, what it thinks of hierarchy, how it defines the relationship between students and teachers, how important it considers obedience to be, how important it considers tradition to be, how important it considers science to be, how important it considers logic to be, how important it considers the arts to be, how important it considers questioning to be, how threatening it considers wide-ranging questioning to be.

Schools often lag a bit behind the culture; they’re institutions, need buy-in from a range of stakeholders, and cannot change quickly. They do respond to changing society assumptions, but it’s not so easy to retool syllabi, retrain teachers, and restock with the latest technology.

Sometimes, in fact, it might be easier just to start a new school. A school that is entirely rooted not in the 20th century but in the 21st.

Sometimes, if you are a driven educator, dedicated to the idea that a school can foster creativity and collaboration and passion, and do it in a deeply Jewish way, to educate young Jews who will be ready for this new millennium — if you are, say, Tikvah Weiner of Teaneck (although there is only one Tikvah Weiner, and she’s it already, so by definition you’re not) — you will have created the Idea School, the new Jewish high school, housed at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly.

The school, which now has 14 students enrolled in ninth grade and plans to add a grade a year until it graduates its first seniors, opened last month and will hold a chanukat habayit on October 14. (see box.)

Rabbi Tavi Koslowe and the students from the Idea School’s first class marvel at the open Torah; it’s from Rabbi Koslowe’s family and has a rich history. (Idea School)

The Idea School is based on the idea that education should not be a process of pumping information into students. It should not be about having them divide the world into little segments of information, which the most successful among them can regurgitate the most successfully. It should instead be about integrating all kinds of learning, and all parts of life, into an integrated whole; understanding the role creativity and collaboration play in that and in fact being able to be both creative and collaborative, not just in the abstract but in real life; about understanding how generations link and nature is part of the world and science is real and art matters.

The Idea School’s eight boys and six girls come from across the region. Most are from Bergen County — Fort Lee, Tenafly, Englewood, Teaneck, Bergenfield, Fair Lawn — but some also come from New York; from Monsey, Riverdale, and Brooklyn. (Yes, Brooklyn; a family whose daughter was at the innovative Luria Academy, which goes through eighth grade, decided that the Idea School is so compelling that they decided that she should make the trek there.)

The school’s able to take advantage of its location in many ways. For one thing, the JCC is home to programs for young children, the elderly, and everyone in between. “A big component in the model for the Idea School is about breaking down the wall between school and the real world,” Ms. Wiener said. “We can engage in real-world learning and engage with adults and other members of the community in a natural way; with seniors and special services and the preschool. And there is the gym, that our children can use. And there is the wonderful opportunity for our students to take the arts classes and the classes in the music school. Not only can the kids stay for afterschool programs, they also can work with the artists directly.”

Emma Hasson, who is surrounded by Yosef Gillers of Grow Torah, Rabbi Zachary Rothblatt, and students Jonah Lumerman and Ezra Glasman, holds produce from the garden, where lessons combine biology, ecology, and Jewish thought.

The JCC has many rooms; most have large windows that let in great washes of bright sunlight, so even when they’re inside the students and their teachers don’t lose sight of the outside world. But they also can just go outside; there are woods right next to the JCC, and the Hudson River is a short walk away.

“During the Aseret Yemei Teshuva” — the so-called 10 days of repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur — “we went on a hike through the Tenafly forest, with Rabbi Koslowe” — that’s Rabbi Tavi Koslowe, the school’s Judaic studies principal — “and Yosef Gillers of Grow Torah” — a Jewish educational gardening program. “We ended up on the Hudson, where we said tashlich.”

Everyone — all the students, all the faculty, and everyone else connected with the school — went on the hike. “We do things as a school,” Ms. Wiener said.

The Ideas School uses project-based learning, a model that teaches traditional subjects untraditionally. “Our educational model is based on a lot of work that has come before us,” Ms. Wiener said; she can trace it back to John Dewey, the early 20th-century American educational and society reformer. Dewey famously said “Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself,” she said. And the model perhaps in some ways goes back even further, to the atelier system of the Renaissance, where “you would learn by doing. But there you would apprentice only to one person; here, you learn from a whole group of people.

“By silo-ing the disciplines from each other” — that is, from building rigid if metaphorical walls around each subject, instead of seeing how they play together, how they take from each other, how they contribute to each other — “we are losing something.

Davening with an easy-to-move mechitzah.

“We say that you can de-silo. We have students who love the arts. How can we build that into the curriculum so that it allows them access to the disciplines they otherwise might have trouble with? How much richer it will be for them if they can access the thing they don’t know through the thing they love.”

The Ideas School’s goal is eventually to graduate students who are not only creative and resourceful, but also moral and deeply Jewish. One of its tools is the “inquiry beit midrash,” a “model that is about letting kids explore topics that they want to explore and see how they are connected to Judaism. It lets them see what their religion has to say on just about any topic you can think of.” And Judaism does have something to say on just about any topic anyone could think of, she said.

Like a traditional beit midrash, it does occupy a physical space — one of the rooms set aside for the school, but it’s really more about time than space. “It takes kids through four parts of the process — finding the right question, investigating the Jewish sources and texts that speak to that question, creating some product, and then reflecting on the process,” Ms. Wiener said.

Prayer also is part of the school day. Every morning, the school meets for tefillah. It comes in three parts: “conversation, contemplation, and community,” she said.

Elie Rawson uses math and art to imagine the sounds of a shofar.

First, conversation. “Tavi” — that’s Rabbi Koslowe — “talks about something, like, say, what is the difference between a luxury and a need? How do we know what the difference is? Then we will go into private tefillah, and then we do communal prayer.” She does not label the school as Orthodox, but there is a mechitzah, a lightweight, portable screen to separate the genders, that comes out for tefillah. “We are building the prayer muscle,” she said. “We do not assume that every kid can pray for half an hour or 45 minutes every day.

“And a lot of schools struggle with prayer,” she said. “We had a Socratic seminar about prayer, and that was amazing. In our Socratic seminars, kids lead the discussion. The adults participate, but our goal eventually is have the kids do it all themselves, and the adults to say nothing at all.

“The conversation at the seminar ranged into a lot of different places, including who wrote the siddur, and why. That’s a question that the kids also can ask in the inquiry beit midrash, and they can make their own innovative siddur. That’s how we envision the school working.”

She quoted Neil Postman, the media critic, who often wrote about education. “He talks about school as a place to get answers to questions you don’t have,” she said. “We are trying to upend that.

“We also have a traditional curriculum — our science is physics, our English course is world literature — but our students are surrounded by questions.

“Our first unit is asking how do we develop good habits, so we are looking at all of our classes through that lens. What are the habits of scientists? Of mathematicians? We read biographies. We look at the habits the bnai Yisrael” — the children of Israel — “developed in the wilderness, as they moved from being slaves to landowning people.

A group gathers to cut the school-opening ribbon on the first day; from left, Nancy Edelman, head of humanities and teacher mentoring; the JCC’s COO, Sue Gelsey; Judaic studies principal Rabbi Tavi Koslowe; the CEO of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, Jason Shames; Head of School Tikvah Wiener; school board member Lisa Farkovits; and the JCC’s CEO, Jordan Shenker.

“If you are uncomfortable with questions, this is not the place for you,” Ms. Wiener said. Is there anything that a student can’t ask? Are there any questions that the school’s teachers couldn’t bear to hear, much less to answer? “It is becoming very clear that there is nothing that the students could say that would scare the teachers, and there is nothing that they could ask that would be taboo,” she said.

Another part of the Idea School’s DNA is “the work of the High Tech High in San Diego,” Ms. Wiener said. That’s a charter school based on a philosophy that “goes by many names; people also call it deep learning,” she continued. “That’s influenced by the idea that learning targets should be the same for all students. You can help them differentiate — everyone in our school can do honors work if they want to — but focusing on students’ agency and empowerment and access to the tools they need and the activities they like.”

To bring all that full circle, Gary Jacobs, the chair of the High Tech High, who is going to be at the Idea School’s chanukat habayit, also is the incoming head of the JCCS of North America.

No matter how wonderful a new school sounds, it can be difficult for parents to entrust their children to a place that does not yet have any kind of track record. What about college acceptance?

Ms. Wiener and her board have taken care of that. For one thing, she said, “the High Tech School’s acceptance rate into college is basically 100 percent, which is amazing, given its range of population.” As a charter school, it’s public, and many of its students come from low-income families. But “they are getting into the top colleges of their choice, and they are thriving there, because they have the tools and the motivation for success.”

As for her own school, “we are going to hire someone as a college guidance counselor next year, when the first class is in tenth grade,” she said. That way, the counselor will have the time to get to know each student, and also will have the time to tell the school’s story in college admissions offices. By the time the students are ready to apply, colleges will know to expect them.

The garden is home to many activities; here, Emma Hasson is recording observations.

Raz Haramati of Englewood is on the Idea School’s board. Why? “Let’s put it this way,” he said. “I have no children of that age, or near that age” — he has four children, but they’re all adults. “But I believe that we need a new approach to education in general, and to Jewish education in particular.

“I believe that the 21st century presents us with a different educational challenge than the 19th and 20th centuries did, but we’re still using the old model to educate our children for the future. But the skills they will need in order not only to be contributing members of society but leaders of society is different from what it used to be.

“We have to take advantage of what we have learned about how children learn, about how people learn. We also have to focus more not only on a limited, prescriptive content but the goal of developing lifelong learning, and to develop a broader and deeper understanding of education.”

And that’s education in general. “It’s even more so when we are discussing Jewish education,” Mr. Haramati said. “The Idea School is presenting a unique model of presenting Jewish studies fully integrated within the broader curriculum. So we are not looking at Judaism independent of general studies, but as a fundamental part of the broader studies.

“We are looking at how they all integrate with each other. Life is integrated. Our subjects are integrated. The world is complex, and rather than trying to break it into different components, we would rather embrace their relationships. And what that means is that subjects enhance each other and each one gives greater meaning to the other.”

When it comes to the Idea School, “I believe that it uses an approach that can work for any student,” he said. “The goal of project-based learning is for the school to work with the students so students can achieve their goals. It’s not so the students can regurgitate what they’ve been taught on their tests.”

Is this model suitable for every student? “You do not have to be super-brilliant to be a student at the Idea School, but you do have to be open to a different model,” he said. “And another key to this model is that education is the responsibility of the student, and it is owned by the student.”

The entire school, students and faculty, hiked to the Hudson for taschlich.

By the time they’re in ninth grade, most students already will have internalized the other model, so some of it will have to be unlearned. “Most students who come to this school will never have approached education in this way,” he said. “We have to understand that there has to be a process of acculturation.

“But once the student realizes that the goals are not the school’s goals but the students’ own goals, that changes.

“The pithy way to describe it is that the teacher is not supposed to be the sage on the stage but the guide on the side.”

Because the world has changed so rapidly and so profoundly, the skills students need now are radically different than the ones their parents learned. “Things like time management, like collaboration, like oral presentations, like written presentations, like working with people around the world, in many languages — those things really are key in a 21st-century distributed collaborative internet-of-everything world,” he said. “Technology has been very disruptive, but the changes will go even farther than that. There are projections that between 50 and 80 percent of the jobs that students who are starting school now will get when they graduate from college do not even exist yet.

“Just look at the jobs that college graduates are going into now that didn’t exist 10 years ago. The world is changing rapidly,” he said.

And also, he added, “we have to teach in the 21st century like Google exists.” Instead of pretending that the internet doesn’t offer answers, we must teach students how to use it. Because it does exist.

Mr. Haramati is a longtime Wall Street IT specialist, but his parents were Jewish educators — his mother worked at the Yeshiva of Flatbush for 35 years, and his father worked there for 45 years — so he is fluent in their language, and he cares about it deeply. “Education is not a vocation for me, but it is my avocation,” he said.

“Sometimes I think that PBL doesn’t stand as much for project-based learning as passion-based learning.” And he has passion to spare.

He feels deeply that educators can influence students profoundly, and they have a major responsibility to get it right.

“When our children first learn to walk, we don’t give them a lecture about walking. We get out of their way and let them work at figuring out how to walk. When they try it, we are there, as the guide on the side, to help and to encourage them. And of course they fail, and fall. Because you learn more from failure, we want to encourage failure, because you learn a much more meaningful success from it.”

When children first go to school, “they have discovered that the world is wonderful. They learn new things every day, and they feel euphoric. And they get to school, and we take that creativity and energy and try to chain them to a desk and regiment what they are going to learn and what they are going to think. We take all that enthusiasm and beat it out of them.

“This school is an effort to turn back the clock. To give them back that wonder. To get over the fear of failure, and to let them work on the very important skill of critical thinking. To analyze why it didn’t work. Those are the skills that you need to succeed in this world.”

And those are the skills that the Idea School has been created to help its students learn for themselves.


What: The Idea School’s chanukat habeyit — its inaugural celebration

When: On Sunday, October 14; the VIP reception is at 6 p.m.; the exhibit of students’ work open at 6:45, and the program, including a talk by Gary Jacobs of High Tech High and the JCC Association, is at 7.

Where: At the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades, 411 East Clinton Avenue in Tenafly

How much: Donations of $1,800 include the VIP reception; donations of all amounts are welcome.

For more information: Email Tamara Levin at office@theideaschool.org or call her at (201) 569-7900.

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