Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Guest blog post: Inquiry-based and Self-Directed Learning in the Judaic Studies Classroom

Thank you to Rabbi Avi Bernstein of The Moriah School in Englewood, NJ for guest blogging about inquiry-based and self-directed learning in his seventh grade Talmud and Dinim [Jewish law] classroom:

As our ever-changing world continues to amaze us all while enhancing our lives, it challenges us to constantly advance our every skill in order to enable us to interact successfully with the rest of humanity. Being the precursor to and prerequisite of life, education forms the foundation and serves as the active laboratory that prepares us for this brave, new world. It is, therefore, the sacred mission and moral obligation of our schools to empower students with the necessary tools to function within the society around them. 

Classically, one of the more difficult challenges in schools is to inspire students to become full participants in every class and maintain that level of interest. Children, as adults, have predipositions towards certain areas of study, areas that do not require much encouragement on the part of the teacher. In such areas, students are internally driven and thirsty for knowledge and understanding. How may we address the other classes? Which strategies may be conjured up to elicit greater involvement and present better opportunities for deeper learning, even among classes of interest! 

Towards the end of this past year, I presented a rather radical idea to my 7th grade Gemara [Talmud] and Dinim [Jewish law] students. Essentially, I offered them a new way of learning, one that was inquiry-based and self-directed. I posed a simple, yet powerful question to them, "What is one area or mitzvah [commandment] in Jewish life that you never seemed to understand and wish to know more about?" After spending a few minutes elaborating on my question, the students sat in thought before writing down several options on index cards. After several more minutes, they were able to fine tune their choices and nail down a single topic.

In the ensuing week, the students diligently research their respective topics, unearthing facts that they were unaware of before. Among the fascinating topics were animal cruelty in Jewish law, the process of a Jewish wedding, mezuzah, factors of kosher food and the laws of lashon hara [gossip]. As the week passed, the students remained fully engaged and excited each time they learned something new. Once the material was collected, the students chose their own means of presenting and teaching their information to their classmates. Several students created Powerpoint presentations, while others decided to put together Prezis. Ultimately, the students were quite proud of their achievement and enjoyed a sense of mastery and ownership over their particular topics. 

Reflecting upon the project, I believe that there were several facets that enabled the project to be as successful as it was. Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, the students truly appreciated the ability to choose, both their topic and style of presentation. This fact alone was at the very core of the success. Also, they each felt a certain uniqueness since no two topics were alike. They had a sense of purpose, motivation and ownership that fueled them forward. 

Looking towards next year, I will undoubtedly incorporate and perhaps expand this system into the classroom as often as possible. I have witnessed the success it brings, both in terms of content and student engagement, all of which offer a heightened academic experience - the very goal of our profession. 

The Summer Sandbox Schedule!

What’s your Dream for Jewish Education?

The Summer Sandbox is a time for you, someone who is passionate about Jewish education, to get together with those who are like-minded in order to make a project you can implement in your educational setting. Using, as RealSchool does, lots of progressive learning models, you’ll get to experience the kind of lab environment that emphasizes hard fun, iterative prototyping, serendipity by design, failing forward, big dreaming, and democratic creation. In this way, the Sandbox is a space that echoes the ethos of JEDLAB.


9:00-10:00 am             Welcome and Orientation
                                                 You Mean I’m Allowed to Dream Big in Jewish Education?
 Moderated by Ken Gordon

10:15-11:15 am           What the Heck Is PBL and Other Critical Sandbox Questions
                                    and Answers                                    

11:20 am-12:15 pm     The Essential Question: What is It and What is Yours?
12:15-1:00 pm             Serendipity by Design and The Coffeehouse: Big Ideas Brew

1:00-3:15 pm               Hard Fun: Iterate Your Prototype
                                    Include: content standards, integration of different subjects,
                                    student choice and more

3:15-4:00 pm               What is RealSchool?


9:00-10:00 am             Good morning!
            Democratic creation: Choose your own Q and A session:
                                    RealSchool from a Student Viewpoint
            PBL in the Judaic Studies Classroom
                                    PBL in the General Studies Classroom
                                    Digital Citizenship                   

10-11:45 am                What do Learners Have to Know and When do They Have to
Know It?: Calendars and Rubrics in your Prototype
11:45-12:30 pm           Beyond the Boy Scouts:
Badge Learning with Sarah Blattner of Tamritz Learning      

12:30-1:00 pm             The Coffeehouse

1:00-1:30 pm               Steal Ideas from our Project Exhibit and Book Fair

1:30-3:00 pm               Iterate Your Prototype

3:00-3:30 pm               Poke Some Holes: Get and Give Feedback

3:30-4:00 pm               Failing Is Good?
                                    Show and Tell on JEDLAB


9:00-9:30 am               Good Morning!
                                    Uh-oh: Someone Is Going to See This? Decide on a
                                    Presentation Mode

9:30-11:00 am             Finish Iterating Your Prototype

11:00-12:30 pm           Prepare Your Presentation

12:30-1:00 pm             The Coffeehouse

1:00-2:00 pm               Project Fair

2:00-3:00 pm               Step Back and Assess
Share Your Final Day’s Work on JEDLAB
How Will We Continue What We’ve Started at the Sandbox?

The Summer Sandbox will take place at Ma'ayanot High School
1650 Palisade Avenue, Teaneck, NJ 

To find out more about the schedule, please email Tikvah.Wiener@gmail.com.