Friday, July 4, 2014

Visiting the Mecca of PBL: The High Tech Schools

The Road Trip

Last week, Eliezer Jones and I [Tikvah Wiener] had the great privilege of visiting the High Tech charter schools in San Diego, CA. Founded by Larry Rosenstock in 2000, these K-12 schools fully employ project-based learning and emphasize beautiful work and deep learning. Larry Rosenstock, who has a background in carpentry, is an advocate of connecting hand and head and has built into his culture a deep respect for building and creating. I've been a fan of High Tech High ever since I began my journey into project-based learning (PBL) and have learned a lot about the methodology from watching videos about the school.

Here's a short video that captures what's going on at High Tech High:

And here's a longer video about the school:

It was with great anticipation that, finding myself in LA this summer, I embarked on a road trip to the mecca of PBL with my wonderful colleague Eliezer Jones, a long-time employee of Yeshiva University and now Valley Torah High School's General Studies principal.

Getting caffeinated at 5:45 AM for the 2 1/2-hour drive from LA to San Diego!
The High Tech schools did not disappoint. From the moment we walked onto the campus and entered one of the buildings on the High Tech complex, we saw in person the beautiful student work that the videos showed.

You could argue that it hardly seems to matter what kind of learning
takes place on a campus this gorgeous in a place that has great weather
all year round; so the fact that the High Tech schools are so good is all the more impressive
Sometimes visiting a hyped-up place in person is disappointing;
not so with High Tech High. Here's an artwork -- not pictured in any
of the videos we had previously seen -- that greets you as you enter the high school.

The Tour

Our contact, Laura McBain, who runs High Tech's professional development programs, took us on a tour of the campus. She explained that Larry had had the ceilings of all the buildings removed, so the students could see the bones of the schools and thereby be encouraged to think and ask, How is this building made? How are things put together?

Here you can see some of the artwork that hangs from one of the school's ceilings
as well as the exposed beams of the building,
which not only make for an inquiry-driven environment
but also open up the space.
Thoughtful building and classroom design is a key element of the High Tech experience.
Artwork isn't only beautiful; it also teaches.
Here's a periodic table.
This culture of inquiry is so important in project-based learning, as can be seen in this video of David Thornburg, another proponent of PBL who runs an inquiry-driven, PBL school in Brazil:

The Bicycle Project

The school is filled with exceptional artwork that also is often
science- or math-based. This work is about force and friction --
and also just looks really cool!

One of Eliezer's goals for the day was to view the bicycle project that's shown in one of the High Tech High videos. When we saw it, I immediately tried rotating the wheels, but ended up working the machinery incorrectly. A student in one of the school's many glass-walled classrooms -- classrooms have glass walls so students can see each other working and again be encouraged to think and ask questions based on their peers' activities -- rushed up to me, Laura, and Eliezer, and politely correcting me, showed me what to do.

Meeting a HTH Student

Eliezer and I took the opportunity to chat with the High Tech High student. Davianas, a rising senior, was articulate and comfortable around us and showed she was a clear product of the special culture of her school. She told us she was planning to apply to a small college in Los Angeles, one where she knew she could not only study biology, a love of hers, but also continue pursuing the arts. She also mentioned that a small school would provide her with the chance to really get to know her professors, form relationships with them, and be part of a school community. All the parts of what makes the High Tech schools so unique, in my mind, were clearly important to Davianas. With the school's emphasis on relevant, engaging learning and arts integration, students have learned to recognize their own interests and have the drive to pursue them, all while being part of a tight-knit and close community. 

In this assignment, students researched the ideologies of
the "red" and "blue" states and then were asked to reflect on their learning.
Their photos were a gallery of suggestions about how to overcome partisanship.

HTH and College Admissions

Many people wonder if PBL can be as rigorous as traditional learning, and in my last blog post, I began to address that issue. One of the things about High Tech High that had piqued my interest -- and spoke to my sense of whimsy --was the fact that it had an Emperor of Rigor (check out the longer video, where the school's Emperor of Rigor makes an appearance) and that all of its students go on to college. For a public school to have 100% college acceptance is remarkable; furthermore, in the week before my visit, I'd had the chance to spend three days of professional development at Frisch and at Magen David High School, with two instructors from one of High Tech's middle schools. Azul Terronez, a Litertaure and Humanities teacher, and Marc Shulman, a STEM teacher, team teach a sixth-grade class together. They mentioned that not only do High Tech's students get into college, but a higher percentage of them as compared with their public school peers have the grit necessary to stay. 

No doubt it's constant positive messages like these that play a part
in High Tech's students' developing the confidence to pursue a college degree
A student drew the logos of the colleges HTH's students will be attending.
Chalkboard paint is a clever way the school converts walls into
spaces that allow for constant exhibition rotation.
Students get accepted into all types of colleges, including Ivy League ones.
HTH educator Marc Shulman pointed out that even MIT and Harvard are now
asking students not about what they know, but about what they've done.
In a PBL school -- where learning is constantly connected to a real world problem --
students do A LOT.

Marc and Azul's Classroom

Laura was running a professional development seminar, so she left us after awhile; we then looked around on our own and eventually located Marc Shulman, who was in a middle school building teaching summer school. After having been in Marc's workshops the week before, I was glad to be able to see him in his own space and introduce him to Eliezer. He showed me and Eliezer the sliding door -- that's covered in whiteboard -- that connects his and Azul's rooms. He told us the door is open most of the time, so that the almost 60 students they share can work together. He loves team teaching, not only because he gets, as he says, "to hang out all the time with my best friend," but also because when he and Azul interact, it's a way to model correct adult behavior for the kids. Because PBL also emphasizes collaboration so much, the fact that Azul and Marc collaborate on their projects shows they authentically believe in the process and isn't just something they're forcing their students to do.

Azul used Design Thinking to have his students redesign their classroom
in a way that optimized their learning. The result: a project bar.
Marc's classroom is filled with woodworking tools, since Marc
is passionate about woodworking. The High Tech culture
is big on allowing teachers to bring their passions
into the classroom.
Laura had told me and Eliezer that all the teachers have to do their projects themselves first, in order to really feel what the students will be going through, to face the kinds of problems and obstacles their students will be facing, so they can better address those problems as they arise and be more empathetic as the project unfolds. Modeling the kind of behavior and learning that the adults expect the kids to engage in is another important part of the High Tech culture. 

HTH, PBL, and Jewish Education

Being in the High Tech schools, surrounded by incredible artwork that clearly demonstrates not only students' cognitive connection to learning, but also their social and emotional ties to it, confirmed that PBL has an educational power and punch that are hard to match. What are the implications for Jewish education? I think they are deep. 

First, at its core, Jewish education is about having students make social and emotional connections to their learning. Ask a Judaic studies teacher what their most important goals are, and no doubt the answer will be for students to connect with their Judaism, be inspired by it and want to be part of the Jewish people. With PBL, which aims for students to develop rich and meaningful personal connections to learning, those core Jewish educational goals can be realized. 

The High Tech schools have also forced me to re-examine the very notion of what class looks like. Azul and Marc told us that for most of their day, about five hours, they spend their time together, having their classes do integrated projects. Sometimes the teachers separate, and Azul teaches LitHum and Marc, math or science, but most of the time the classes aren't learning English, history, science or math; they're simply . . . learning. The kids are making Hovercrafts that commemorate an important person in American history; or writing textbooks about the flora and fauna of the Bay Area (with a foreword by Jane Goodall); or discovering ways to organize a local Salvation Army's goods; or . . . making vending machines that dispense art:

Azul told me at one point during his visit to the East Coast two weeks ago that if he told his students they had to build a plane that carried one person across a specific body of water, they wouldn't say to him, "No, we can't do that. That's too hard." They'd say: "OK, what materials do you think we'd need to start with?"

So I think the charge for Jewish education interested in PBL is this: how might we de-silo our subjects, so our students aren't learning English, history, math, science, Tanakh, Talmud, etc., but like in High Tech High, are simply . . . learning. Integrating subjects not only can give rise to the type of deep and fearless learning Azul and Marc describe, but also to the whole-person learning we as Jewish educators aim for. 

When Azul and Marc were at The Frisch School two weeks ago, I worked with my colleagues on the following task:

Azul and Marc had all the teachers write down their passions and then circle the one we couldn't live without. Then we had to connect with other teachers and create a lesson based on our passions. I'm from LA, so mine was going to the beach. I worked with three other teachers, whose passions were hiking in the forest, playing music, and playing football, and we came up with this assignment:

We were going to have our students study the brain at rest and reading, on the beach and then in the forest. [Marc told us we had an unlimited budget, so it'd be no problem to get MRI's onto the sand and up a mountain.] Then we were going to study the brain in both of those locations as our subjects played music and then football. The students would record their findings and move on to study the sociological and cultural habits of societies that form in those geographic locations. They'd then read literature aas well as texts from Tanakh that contain characters from those habitats. After their learning, they'd design a product that benefited people in those locales, using design concepts from the works they had read. They could then market and sell the product.

One of my Frisch colleagues. Rabbi Joshua Wald, turned to Marc at one point while we were working and said, "I usually take what I want to teach and then think about how to make that interesting, but you're saying I should take what's interesting and then find a way to plug in what I want to teach." What a great way to express that!

Furthermore, David Thornburg in the Big Thinkers video above says that now that technology offers us unlimited information, we can have our students ponder engaging questions that have much more resonance than "In what year did Columbus sail to America?" If we employ that methodology across the board -- through Judaic and General Studies -- we get learners who are caught up in answering tough and thought-provoking questions about the world today, about how it came to be and where we want it to go -- and who are accustomed to looking at those problems not only through the lens of secular studies but as whole people, as Jewish people.

Visiting the High Tech schools confirmed for me how much Jewish education has to learn from this model of learning and how much more rich and resonant our schools might be if we employed it. And Eliezer, I know you were scared I was going to get us into an accident, so maybe next time when we visit, you'll drive!

One last thing . . . 

High Tech's professional development has taken the school's instructors to many places around the world, including Israel. Check this out:

Cross-posted on

Monday, May 26, 2014

Rigor and Creative Learning in an English Class

Rigor in PBL

One thing I [Tikvah Wiener] keep getting asked as I employ project-based learning (PBL) in my classes is this:

But do the students write enough? Are they doing enough essays? Is PBL in general rigorous enough?

I understand where the concern comes from, and believe me, I'm on it. The students in my tenth and eleventh grade English classes have just finished a flurry of writing activity, a lot of it very traditional and as academically rigorous as any you'd expect in any English course.

A Doll's House

Example: in my tenth grade English class, students just finished revising a short piece analyzing A Doll's House by Henrik Ibsen and then comparing it with The Merchant of Venice, which we read earlier this year. Here's a sample, a particularly good essay that Julia wrote:

A Doll’s House, by Henrik Ibsen, is a play about a woman, Nora, who slowly realizes that her husband, Helmer, doesn’t treat her with respect. In A Doll’s House, several quotes show how a woman is considered lower than a man. In the play, Ibsen is socially critical of this view.
            In Act One, Nora is worried about the dress she is going to buy for a dance. When she tentatively asks Helmer if he would help her pick one out, he says to Nora, “Aha! So my obstinate little woman is obliged to get someone to come to her rescue?” (26). There are a few things about this quote that show how Helmer has no respect for Nora. First, there is the way he addresses her as “my obstinate little woman.” To him, Nora is a little, stubborn pet that belongs to him. There is also the way that he says “Aha,” as if he was expecting that Nora would need something from him eventually. Lastly, there is the overall sentence and the stereotype in which Helmer casts Nora, which is as a damsel in distress. He right away recognizes that Nora needs his help and escalates it to “rescue.” To Helmer, Nora’s requests are childish and small, so his responses back to her are mocking.
            In Act Two, Nora makes a work-related suggestion to Helmer. This time, Helmer is more aggressive in his belittling of Nora. He exclaims, “Is it to get about now that the new manager has changed his mind at his wife’s bidding?” (35). He implies how ridiculous it would be for a simple housewife to give input on a work matter. Helmer is also concerned with what people would think of Nora helping him. This proves that society as a whole viewed the idea of a woman doing more than household jobs as embarrassing and foolish.
            In Act Three, Nora finally rises above what society thinks of her and doesn’t let it define her. She answers Helmer, who told her she didn’t understand the world’s conditions, by saying, “I am going to see if I can make out who is right, the world or I” (69). She understands the way that society perceives women, but she no longer wants to abide by it. Rather than being the perfect wife and mother who would never abandon her family, she walks out the door to become independent. It is possible it will be difficult for her to adjust to her new freedom and that society will look down upon her, but Nora takes a big step by realizing she wanted the freedom in the first place. Though one could view her statement as her being unsure who is right, it could really be viewed as Nora knowing that she is right but wondering if the world can accept it also, or if she must rise above society totally on her own.

            In The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare is also socially critical. Portia, the play’s heroine, must disguise herself as a man in order to become a lawyer, since women couldn’t have such jobs in Elizabethan times. In A Doll’s House, Nora disguises herself the opposite way Portia does. Rather than being her true self, Nora takes on the identity of the perfect woman society wants her to be. On the other hand, Portia pretends to be everything society doesn’t want her to be. At the end of The Merchant of Venice, Portia doesn’t need to disguise herself. She is sly and holds all the power over the men of the play. At the end of A Doll’s House, Nora takes off her mask and joins Portia in going against society’s stereotypes and becoming the independent woman she wants to be.

Sonnet Explication

Also in my sophomore English class, students are in the process of writing a 2-3 page essay on one of Shakespeare's sonnets. The students must include in their analysis at least two sources of literary criticism, one by Helen Vendler, who is, some would say, the foremost poetry critic in the US today. She teaches at Harvard and has written a comprehensive, Formalist analysis of the Bard's sonnets. Here is a student work-in-progress. In this version of the paper, Zach has written a short analysis of the sonnet he is studying and has included Vendler's take on the poem, though he hasn't cited her work yet. Recently, in edmodo, I posted a link to the OWL Purdue Writing Lab, which explains exactly how to cite according to MLA Standards.

Here is Zach's work:

The main theme in Sonnet 30 is recollection of the past. Throughout the sonnet, Shakespeare expresses the grief he feels as he “summon[s] up remembrance of things past” (2). One very prominent literary device the sonneteer employs in this sonnet is imagery. Shakespeare uses words such as “sessions” (1), “summon up” (2), “cancelled” (7), “expense” (8), and many others in order to make it seem as if his recollection experience is like a court case, and that he is ‘judging’ his past. Shakespeare divides the time frame of the sonnet into two groups. The first is the present, and the second is the past, which is subdivided into four more parts. While in the present Shakespeare stresses the fact that the grief he feels is new, regardless of the fact that he had already once grieved over the same grievances. He demonstrates this by contrasting old and new, (“with old woes new wail” [4]), as well as switching from locutions in which the second use of a verb or noun positively intensifies the first one (i.e. “grieve at grievances” [9]), to negatively (i.e. “new pay as if not paid” [12]). The four time frames of the past are the original neutral time pre-happiness, the happy time, the times of loss, and the time of stoicism where Shakespeare’s soul hardened, and he did not cry.

The concept that Shakespeare’s thoughts are successive and overlap is also demonstrated through the sonnet itself. The repetition in quatrain 3 of “grieve at grievances foregone” (9), “fore-bemoaned moan” (11), and “new pay as if not paid before” (12), coupled with the multiple phonetic concentrations of “thought-strings” (such as sessions, sweet, silent, summon, sigh, sought, sight, since, and sad) that are dispersed through all the ‘time periods’ of his life, both demonstrate Shakespeare’s constant overlapping thought process. Shakespeare even takes it a step further and portrays an increasing psychological involvement as the quatrains progress. The grievances go from general (“many a thing” [3]), to specific (“precious friends” [6]), to intensified (“grieve-grievances” [9]). These successive phases of feeling overlap because of the similarity in their lexical and syntactic concatenations as if they were all one long process each causing the next. This fluidity among time periods, thought processes, and feelings all relate back to the mentality of man, where Shakespeare is trying to show how man’s thoughts are constantly overlapping and build off of each other.

To illustrate how deep the learning goes -- and the material the kids are studying here is pretty traditional fare -- I'll share a conversation another student -- Jonah -- and I had as we worked on his sonnet together. Jonah is dissecting Sonnet 143, a mock epic which has Shakespeare comparing himself to a baby chasing after his mother who is chasing after a chicken. The farcical situation reflects a love triangle in which the poet finds himself in the "infantile" (get it?) position of not giving up on his crush, even though she clearly doesn't want him:

Lo, as a careful housewife runs to catch
One of her feather’d creatures broke away,
Sets down her babe, and makes all swift dispatch
In pursuit of the thing she would have stay;
Whilst her neglected child holds her in chase,
Cries to catch her whose busy care is bent
To follow that which flies before her face,
Not prizing her poor infant’s discontent;
So runn’st thou after that which flies from thee,
Whilst I thy babe chase thee afar behind;
But if thou catch thy hope, turn back to me,
And play the mother’s part, kiss me, be kind;
So will I pray that thou mayst have thy ‘Will’,

If thou turn back and my loud crying still.

After Jonah and I had noted Shakespeare's allusions to epic poetry and Chaucer as well as Vendler's comments on the repetition of words such as runs, catch, cries, and flies, Jonah remarked, as we dissected the simile, that just as Shakespeare feels excluded by his beloved, so he excludes himself from the sonnet, instead making most of the sonnet about the simile and not about himself. That's an AWESOME close reading, Jonah! Well done!

But Wait, There's More . . .

In a PBL class, however, there is more to learning than simply writing essays. Understanding the literature and showing mastery of the material in an essay is simply the first step towards a larger goal: creation of new content. For example, once students are finished writing their essays on A Doll's House, they have to post it on the Shakespeare website we created earlier in the year. Here is Zach's page which features his essay comparing how Ibsen and Shakespeare depict wealth and honor in their plays. And here is Sam's page which discusses law and mercy in A Doll's House and then compares how the ideas are developed in Ibsen's play and The Merchant of Venice.

Not only are students in my class motivated to revise their work for a better grade -- an opportunity I often offer them -- but I correct the essays with a different eye, knowing they can be seen in a visible place. Feel free to explore the bardofparamus website, where my fellow English teacher Rabbi Dan Rosen is also currently having his students post their work on The Merchant of Venice and where another Frisch colleague, Mrs. Meryl Feldblum, also had her students work.

Because the students organize their work around topics -- in the case of the Shakespeare website, for example, the topics connected with major themes of the plays and sonnets -- they become familiar with those ideas and spiral around them for the rest of the year, drilling deep into them as they see how they apply to all the works they read. Therefore, rigor ensues not only from essay writing but from using digital media to juxtapose works in surprising ways that attract the students' attention.


Last year, after a year of "un-schooling" my course, I wrote about the Twitter final that was a result of the class' desire to undertake a non-traditional assessment. This year, a year that was even more PBL-ed than last, my class felt strongly that they wanted to be creators of a final, not simply consumers of one. We've been working for the last two weeks on a collaborative project: a script for a video that will be a satirical look at our year in English, satire being a genre we studied repeatedly. We also focused on narrative frames consistently, so the students agreed to create one together and then break off into smaller groups to tackle various concepts we'd studied throughout the year (Take a look here at the syllabus, which did see some changes as the course unfolded organically). Since my daughter is in the class, the narrative frame became this:

My daughter Lila -- who is now married to a classmate -- and I are heading to a family reunion. We keep having flashbacks to her tenth grade year, with my remembering the serious study we did of texts and genres and her remembering what really went on in class!

The process of deciding what our final would be!
We chose topics and then applied the texts we studied to those concepts
I can't tell you how excited the students are to work on this project. They feel empowered about being creators and enthusiastic about their learning.

This group is focusing on stock characters and plot devices in works
throughout the year, even including Shakespearean sonnets in their script.
You can see the rubric for the final on the desk. As David said when he
saw the rubric, "The script really has to show learning, then." Yes, it does!
This group is satirizing the idea of how literature gives voice to the voiceless,
a topic we discussed at length over the course of The Frisch Africa Encounter.
Some ideas bandied about for their satire: Obama and the Nigerian president
call Frisch to thank us for our incredible and revolutionary work!
Also in the works: a song to "Under the Sea" discussing women's
traditionally having no voice in his-story.
In order to make sure real learning would occur, I created a rubric for the project, which you can view below. I love hearing the different groups discuss how to get their sequence into the 9-10 brackets. #gamifyingclass

I get asked a lot about rigor in PBL: as I said in my Google Hangout with Ken Gordon and Lisa Colton, when we spoke about passion-based learning in education, whoever thinks PBL can't be rigorous hasn't found the right resources. My go-to places are edutopia and Buck Institute of Education, and of course I've been deeply inspired by High Tech High in San Diego, CA. It's not a simple or easy thing to transform a course into one that uses PBL, but I guarantee, when you see students discover how deeply they can think about an idea or the power in being creators, that it's completely worth it.

Rubric for Final