Tikvah Wiener of Teaneck describes herself as “passionate about project-based learning.”
As head of the English department at the Frisch School in Paramus, where she taught for 13 years, Ms. Wiener brought that innovative educational approach into the high school’s curriculum and extracurricular activities. “It’s a pedagogy where students engage in solving a complex real world problem and they create different products as a result of their learning,” she said.
The products could be a multimedia presentation, or a blog displaying students’ interpretations of Shakespeare. But it also could be a class-wide effort to study the problem of snow removal and offer suggestions for improvement – a project that would include math and science as well as civics and English.
This school year, Ms. Wiener has a new job: She is chief academic officer at the Magen David High School in Brooklyn. And she has just received a prestigious – and lucrative – award to help her promote project-based learning in Jewish day schools across the country.
The Joshua Venture Group named her as one of six people who will receive two-year grants of more than $80,000 as well as training to develop their ideas for the Jewish community.
Lisa Lepson, the Joshua Venture Group’s executive director, said that the organization’s goal is to “reinvigorate and expand the Jewish community by supporting Jewish social entrepreneurs.”
Among previous recipients of the Joshua Venture fellowship is Rochelle Shoretz, founder of Sharsheret, the Teaneck-based organization devoted to fighting breast cancer in the Jewish community.
Ms. Wiener “has a great reputation within the education community,” Ms. Lepson said. “We’re really excited about her project. We’re also really excited about her as an educator and potential leader.”
Ms. Wiener said she first discovered project-based learning when she was coordinating interdisciplinary studies at Frisch. “It’s an interdisciplinary way of thinking,” she said of the educational approach, which challenges students to learn through a process of doing rather than just listening.
“The course material is arranged around a question that students have to answer about a real-world problem of scenario, and the unit’s final product is something that has value in the real world,” she said.
Students are asked to be active creators rather than passive consumers of content, she added; if they are studying physics, for example, “they might be asked to explain how understanding speed and velocity, force and motion could help them design wearable technologies that improve athletes’ performances.
At Frisch, she was able to take project-based learning to the next level: inquiry based learning, which is “Where you say to the student, ‘what do you want to learn and how do you want to learn it?'” she said.
In afterschool clubs and electives dubbed Real School, students created events and projects “based on what the kids wanted to do.” That included a student-run fashion show, a student-organized day of Jewish study, and a student-directed project learning how to program iPhone apps.
“Project-based learning requires a lot of scaffolding,” she said. “Teachers find it intriguing. They love to see kids engaged. They want to know how they can do it.”
To help spread the word, she is launching a network for project-based learning in Jewish day schools. Magen David and Valley Torah High School in Los Angeles are the first schools in the network. The I.D.E.A. Schools Network stands for Innovation, Design, Entrepreneurship, Arts. The Network is transdenominational and open to both supplementary and day schools.
“In year one our goal will be to transform our schools and share it out with the field,” she said.
In July, she ran a conference about project-based learning at Yeshivat Noam for local day school educators. “It’s an opportunity to effect change for the Jewish education field at large,” she said.
Project based learning has a strong base in public and private schools in California, she said. There are many websites with lesson plans and advice. But day schools have special needs that she hopes they can solve together. “There are certain conversations that only happen within Jewish education. How do I balance a dual curriculum, or Hebrew textual skills, or how do I include Judaic studies with general studies?
“We want to embrace these pedagogies because we want joyful learning, but we want our students to learn texts and love texts and love their religion,” she said.
“The other conversation that’s important in Jewish education is the balance between tradition and innovation. I want to honor my tradition as a Jew. How do I honor the past while still moving confidently into the future?”
Not that the move to the future is necessarily smooth sailing.
“Education is being disrupted now,” she said. “There’s a general sense in education that we need to change.”
This change reflects changes throughout society. “Our schools are modeled on a factory system from the last century,” she said. “The future is volatile and uncertain, complex and ambiguous. I don’t know what kind of job I’m training my student for. I need a flexible student who is good at problem solving, who is innovative.
“Change is hard and it is scary. We need to educate parents and take parents along on our journey. Many parents don’t know that schools should look different,” she said.
And she doesn’t mean just the parents at Magen David. She’s also preaching this message as the new chairman of the board of education at the Yavneh Academy in Paramus, the elementary school her children attended.
And she hopes her neighbors and former colleagues in Bergen County heed the charge of project-based learning.
“I’m obviously focused on Magen David, but I see Bergen County as a real leader in Jewish education,” she said. “We should all support each other.”