Where the learning begins

Where the learning begins

Local educator plans to open new Jewish high school in Bergen County

Students used Jewish texts to imagine a logo for the Idea School.
Students used Jewish texts to imagine a logo for the Idea School.

What exactly should a high school be?

Should it be a place to train students to think conventionally? To think experimentally? To think logically? To think experientially?

Should it be a place to train students at all? Or should that verb, with its industrial era echoes, be retired?

Should it be a place where dedicated educators refine the methods that have been handed down to them, constantly updating them while retaining their core? Or should it be a place where old ideas are thrown out wholesale and replaced by new, 21st-century-understandings?

Should it be a place where those approaches somehow, despite the apparent impossibility, are combined?

And what exactly should a Jewish high school education be? How do you add the Jewish component? Do you have to subtract something, or divide something, or does the Jewish content simply add? Does it multiply the effect?

Because there are so many students in Bergen County’s Jewish education system, because it seems that there may be as even more students than seats for them, particularly on the high school level, experienced, impassioned educators with vision and courage can create the schools that they think will most nourish and invigorate students’ brains, analytic skills, creativity, menschlichkeit, and connection to the Jewish world.

That’s a tall order, but there are local educators working on it.

Take, for example, Tikvah Wiener of Teaneck. A longtime educator — she chaired the English department at the Frisch School before she became chief academic officer at Magen David Yeshivah High School in Brooklyn — she is spending this academic year working on the Idea School, which is set to open in the fall of 2018.

(The school is holding an open house on Sunday — see the box for more information.)

“We are really trying to take the innovations that schools have been doing now for the last 20 years, and take them to the next level,” Ms. Wiener said.

The next level is interdisciplinary, but in a far more complex way than the term might suggest to seasoned educators (or parents). It’s project-based learning, on steroids.

Starting with the new and popular concept of maker spaces, where people come together to share ideas and techniques and tools to make actual physical things, “what would it be like if instead of only that, kids could enter the learning in many different ways — through text, through song, through the arts, through STEM subjects — and then they have to make stuff at the end.” (STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.)

Ending up with stuff — ending up with something real — is a very significant part of this education. “This has a lot of different moving pieces,” Ms. Wiener said; she was being both metaphoric and literal at the same time. “We are asking students to connect to the real world, using the way that each one loves to learn, entering learning individually, with the outcome being things that matter in the world.”

This sounds very abstract. How would it work?

Tikvah Weiner

Take, for example, a unit on law and order, Ms. Wiener said. “We might ask them to learn a traditional curriculum about ancient Roman law and look at law during the Middle Ages, and to connect it to how those law codes gave birth to American law. Then we might ask them to look at their own county, and see how laws were made, which ones interest us, and which may need to be updated.

“In Bergen County, people are always talking about the blue laws, so we could have students investigate where the blue laws came from, whether they want to overturn them, and how they would do that, who they would have to speak to, to have that happen.

“At the same time, they might be learning in their Talmud class about the system of laws that Judaism might come up with from the tractate Sanhedrin. We could look at the history of halacha. We might ask them to look at the Middle Ages and how the law affected the Jewish community, and at halacha there when the community was self-governing. We can ask them to study their own customs, both Sephardi and Ashkenazi, that have emerged from the different communities that everyone is from.”

To accomplish this, time will be divided differently than it generally is in high schools. Instead of lasting for 40 or 50 minutes, most periods will be two hours, “to really give kids a chance to immerse themselves in learning.

“You give them a two-hour block of time for a beit midrash; they will study masechet Sanhedrin” — that’s Talmud — “for an hour, and maybe study parshat Mishpatim in the Chumash” — that’s the part of the Bible where the largest number of laws are gathered — “and then they have two hours twice a week to study Roman law and Jewish history in the Middle Ages.

“And then in science they might be looking at the laws of the ecosystem. How does that work? Because if the driving question here is why do we need law and order, and an answer is that we need it to create a balanced society — an ecosystem works in the same way.

“We are asking the students to consider what kind of checks and balances exist in society. If you make one law, what else does that change?”

There will be some assessment of students’ work, but the school will not be test-driven. Learning facts is necessary but not sufficient. “There will be tests along the way, but the assessments are more about critical questions. We are asking students to contemplate questions with deep, ambiguous, complex answers. It’s not when the Magna Carta was issued. They need to know that, but that’s not where the learning ends. It’s where the learning begins.”

This model is based on the High Tech High, a San Diego charter school, but because it is also a Jewish school it demands another layer of complexity, and of interconnectivity.

“We are using a co-teaching model, so that the Judaic studies teacher and the humanities and science/STEM teacher both would be there all day,” Ms. Wiener said. The focus would shift from one to the other, but the other not only would be available for students all day long, but also would know the curriculum and the ideas and the connections between them in depth.

The teachers’ collaborative work will model collaboration for their students, who will work both individually and together. “One of our core values is readiness for the world,” Ms. Wiener said.

(Pure as opposed to applied math will be taught separately, at least for now, Ms. Wiener said. “We will incorporate math into the projects, but it’s something we don’t want to touch.” And on that same practical level, she added, the school “consciously is building in ACT and SAT prep, so parents don’t have to spend extra money paying for it and students don’t have to spend extra time studying for it.)

Yet another aspect of the school will be social-emotional learning, which becomes SEL in educators’ jargon. You can’t learn properly if you are not emotionally centered. “Human beings are deeply emotional, and we have to want to learn what we are learning,” Ms. Wiener said.

“When we come into the world as babies, we are wired to learn,” she continued. “We don’t have to tell a baby to try to walk, or to talk. But at some point in our educational system, that love of learning dissipates. This is one way to put the passion back, and to address our kids’ social and emotional needs.”

The school is Orthodox, Ms. Wiener said. “It is halachic. And one of the things that we really want to focus on is having students really develop a relationship to HaShem. To God. God is a word that doesn’t come up often in Jewish education.

“What does it mean to have a relationship with HaShem?” That is one of the most basic of connections, and a Jewish school that bases itself in the value of connections should value that one.

The school also will integrate philosophy — both Jewish and general — and the arts into each unit.

“Each project has a component for each student,” Ms. Wiener said. “If you are a STEM-based kid, or a performer, you will have the opportunity to present something. There can be an emphasis on one particular part of STEM, or a particular art form, like an improv workshop or spoken-word poetry.”

This is a hugely ambitious and exciting idea, and Ms. Wiener is working closely with others to make it work. She has both a board to help with “the organization and infrastructure and all the logistics,” and an advisory board to provide “advice in strategic areas.” That board includes Karen Wolf, a college advisor.

She does not yet know where the school will be housed, but assumes that it will be in eastern Bergen County, and she still is working with private donors to fund her dream.

Tikvah Wiener’s first name means hope, and she is filled with it. With hope that the Idea School will take off, that students and their parents will be drawn to it, that her vision and passion will take life. Her school will begin with a ninth grade class, and from then, if her vision takes off, it will continue to grow.

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