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