School wasn’t exactly back in session, but at least some classrooms at Yeshivat Noam were full earlier this week as the Paramus school hosted 60 teachers for a three-day seminar on project-based learning.
Tikvah Wiener, the seminar’s organizer, calls it the “Sandbox” for its emphasis on exploring and doing rather than just listening. Not coincidentally, that is the core idea of project-based learning. This is the program’s third year; last week, for the first time, a Sandbox program was held in Los Angeles.
Ms. Wiener discovered project-based learning when she was an English teacher at the Frisch School in Paramus, where she taught for 13 years. Last year was her first as principal at the Magen David High School in Brooklyn. She became an evangelist for the educational idea, which argues that the traditional paradigm of a teacher lecturing to note-taking students (“the sage on the stage”) is obsolete. She started the Idea Network, which now consists of four day schools working on project-based learning, and received a prestigious Joshua Venture Group fellowship to support her work with the network.
The Sandbox at Noam drew teachers from as far as Cleveland and Miami. But a solid contingent came from the Jewish schools of Bergen County. Six fourth-grade teachers from Yavneh Academy in Paramus. Four from Noam. Three from Yeshivat He’Atid in Bergenfield.
There are many resources for educators who want to bring a project-based approach to their science and language and math classrooms. When it comes to bringing project-based learning to Jewish studies, however, day school educators are pioneers.
One such pioneer is Leah Herzog, who teaches Bible at Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls in Teaneck. At the seminar, she shared some of her experiences.
Watching her, you wouldn’t believe that two years ago Ms. Wiener had to drag her to the first Sandbox, “kicking and screaming.”
“We had a two-hour conversation before I agreed to come. At first, project-based learning seemed like just doing projects and having fun — too much California granola.”
But Ms. Herzog was persuaded that the idea had merit, even if she still differs with Ms. Wiener on just how far it can be taken in a Jewish setting. “I’d rather focus on what it can do and leave aside what it can’t do,” she said.
In some ways, she said, project-based learning meshes very well with a central component of Jewish studies classes at Ma’ayanot— the traditional chevruta method, where a pair of students work together to understand a text.
“One of the pieces of project-based learning is developing real world skills, like collaboration, working together as a team, learning how to give and take, to overcoming obstacles and challenges, learning when two heads are better than one,” Ms. Herzog said. Those all are necessary components of learning how to study in chevruta.
“Project-based learning is what learning used to be. When the Mishna was written, it was project-based learning. You built a sukkah. What’s a sukkah? You looked at different sukkot. Do they meet the requirements? You’re basically taking what the jargon calls ‘driving questions’ and then talking it through, arguing it through.
“There’s a mishna in Pirkei Avot: I learned a lot from my teachers, more from my peers, most from my students. That’s project-based learning,” she said..
Of course, not all students enter the classroom expecting to participate actively in their learning. That’s particularly true of ninth graders, who are new to high school, Ms. Herzog said.
“A lot of times the students are looking for the right answer,” she said. “In high school, there often is no one right answer. There’s more than one way to solve a problem, more than one way to understand something. If you try something and it’s not working, that’s okay. It leads to something else. It can be as simple as when a student reads a verse and tries to translate it and it doesn’t make sense — so try again.”
Last year, she introduced a project-based learning unit in her ninth grade Bible class. Different groups were assigned different chapters to study and then teach to the other groups.
Did they learn the material better than they would have with more traditional instruction?
“It depends how you define better. Do they know the information as well? Does each student know everything in chapter five as well? Maybe not. What they’re gaining is the sense that what they get out of something is what they put in. They learn they’re responsible for one another.
“They’re developing psychosocial skills — which is a huge emphasis at Ma’ayanot,” she said.
One thing project-based learning offers Jewish studies teachers is a formal way to evaluate the often amorphous chevruta process. “If I’m working in a group, I’m being assessed in how much time I’m spending working versus schmoozing,” Ms. Herzog said. “Are they sharing roles, or is one person doing all the work? I hate group projects, as a student and a teacher, because the work isn’t fairly distributed. In project-based learning, part of the assignment is that different people need different roles and those roles need to switch every day.”
For her 12th-grade class, Ms. Herzog assigned a year-long independent learning project. One period a week of the class was devoted to students working on something they were passionate about: “Esta blish the driving question, choose what you want to do, create an authentic product to present not only to your peers but to faculty and administration.”
Some of what resulted was “amazing,” she said.
One student identified all the literary techniques used in the first 20 chapters of Isaiah and color-coded the text to highlight them.
“Two girls who adored Gemara more than they liked Tanach lined up all the different midrashim and commentaries about Megillat Esther in the Talmudic tractate Megillah, according to the actual text. It’s really extraordinary. I want to work on getting that published.
“Another girl wrote her own piece of music and learned the technology of recording and mixing music,” she said.
The teacher also received feedback of her own.
“They realized they need more deadlines and more guidelines,” Ms. Herzog said.
Luckily for her, project-based learning stresses the importance of learning from mistakes, rather than focusing on avoiding them.
Ms. Herzog has no plans to replace all her teaching with project-based learning.
“I do plenty of front teaching,” she said. “It’s an area where Tikvah and I somewhat disagree. I think a student’s sense of security is important. I need to give them some of the comfort of having a teacher at the front of the room. They’re still high school students.”
How does this compare to her own yeshiva high school education decades ago?
“I basically do everything the opposite from my own high school experience. When I was in high school, it was the teacher on high, and you were stupid by dint of the fact you were young,” she said.
“You didn’t know anything, you didn’t inherently bring anything to the table. Your passions didn’t matter. What mattered was what you wrote down, whether you behaved, and whether you produced.
“Project-based learning forces me to come to know what my students are passionate about. It validates for students that their passions are useful tools, that getting excited about something is important,” Ms. Herzog said.