Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Creating Projects for Project Based Learning

I was speaking with a friend the other day about project-based learning (PBL).  This friend, who teaches science in Middle School, is still relatively new to PBL and was discussing his difficulty in coming up with projects that successfully and sufficiently drove the learning of his students so that they could have a meaningful learning experience along the way.

It was at this point that I stopped him.  "You do realize," I said, "that teachers in most subjects would kill to be in your position."  I went on to explain to him that in my view, science is the subject most naturally given to PBL.  After all, science has always been about empirical learning and experimentation, and the conversion to PBL should therefore be not much more than a simple (yet painstaking) re-ordering of the learning process.

(Qualifying note: of course it is harder than that, and science teachers who engage in PBL put in tremendous amounts of work in order to make it happen.  My point, as will be seen shortly, is the contrast to other disciplines.)

If you have tried PBL, you know that the hardest part of the process in terms of creative juices is devising an appropriate project that will serve as a good structure within which the students can do all of the learning that you want them to do.  This was driven home to me by two PBL experiences that I had last week, one involving me and one involving my wonderful colleague, Rabbi Simcha Schaum (@simchaschaum).

The common thread between both of these recent experiences was what I will call "minimum level projects." What do I mean by that?  Allow me to illustrate.  In the case of my class, the students began a unit on kashrut (Jewish dietary laws), and the project that they will have to complete will be to create a series of short presentations about different segments of those laws to be presented to students who know next to nothing about this topic.  With help from a couple of my Tweeps, Tyler Amidon (@mramidon) and Chris Fancher (@cfanch), I have been working to find classes of students across the country who can serve as a skype audience for my own students to present their projects to.

Rabbi Schaum took a similar approach, but kept it within the walls of our school.  He had his 6th grade Mishna class learn a few mishnayot on their own, with the goal of presenting what they had learned to several of our 4th grade students.  I was privileged to be in the classroom last week when the presentations took place, and it was truly a sight to see.  What had been a class of students of mixed abilities and motivation became a highly motivated group of teachers, who came up with a wide range of approaches to presenting what they had learned to their younger counterparts.

Notice the similarity - neither my project nor Rabbi Schaum's project required the students to create something or to really apply what they had learned to a specific real-world situation.  In both cases, we merely asked the students to present their findings.  I would say that that is the minimum level project that can be devised.

On the other hand, it is rare when something accomplishes everything that we want it to accomplish.  In both cases, our students seized control of their own learning, were highly motivated, and did have to achieve a true mastery of the material in order to present it to other people who had no knowledge of the subject matter.  While that is not quite the same as learning aerodynamics in order to build a working airplane, it is definitely a step above simply regurgitating facts into a powerpoint.  In both cases, we are working with active and inquisitive audiences who force the "teachers" to be exceedingly well prepared, and thus even this "minimalist" approach yields some impressive results.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Socrative Method

For my Project-Based Learning (PBL) units this year, I have been privileged to have access to an iPad cart which affords every one of my students the opportunity to have a device in class.  Students are able to keep their notes on their Google Drive or Evernote accounts, can access the web to do research or visit the class wiki, and can access a wide variety of Hebrew texts using ובלכתך בדרך, a wonderful free app that contains the full text of many basic texts.

However, the current class favorite among all of the apps that our wonderful tech team has placed onto the iPads has got to be Socrative.  Socrative is a free student-response app that is actually two apps - one for the teacher and one for the students.  Using it is simplicity itself.  The teacher enters the app and can add any number of questions, either multiple choice or short answer.  If the questions are multiple choice (which includes yes/no), the teacher can program in the correct answer for Socrative to use in marking the questions later on.  Once the teacher is ready to administer the quiz or questions, he or she shares the "room number" with the students, they enter that number into their version of the app, and begin answering the questions.  Once the quiz is open, the teacher can view in live time which students have begun the quiz, how many questions they have answered, and - if there are multiple choice questions - how many questions have been answered correctly.  Once the quiz is over, the teacher can receive an instant email with a spreadsheet summary of all of the answers that the students have entered.

In my class, this app has taken the concept of exit cards to a new level.  I typically write the questions while I am circulating around the room helping my students.  Since they are all working on different parts of the material, I try to ask general questions which will allow them to recap their work for the day in a few words (e.g. "Name one new thing you learned today", "What question do you still want to find an answer for tomorrow", etc.).  I open up the quiz with fewer than five minutes to go in class, and this thus allows them to refocus themselves on where they are headed in their work.  Even better, I am able to walk out of class while reading the spreadsheet summary of their answers, thus providing me with an instant sense of what the students have accomplished that day and therefore who might need some more attention in tomorrow's class session.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Jewish Standard Gets it Right (Just About)

I have written before how the purpose of integrating technology into education should be about improving the quality of the education that we offer, not as a means towards drastically reducing costs by allowing for more students per teacher (see here).  However, it has generally seemed that within the Jewish press (lowercase "p"), there has been a tremendous push to present technology as the savior, as the way out of the tuition crisis.  Many articles have appeared over the past few years hailing a variety of new schools and new approaches that purport to use technology as a major lever to increase class size, thus requiring fewer teachers and thus leading to lower tuition.  Never mind that very little solid evidence exists thus far to guarantee such results - the drumbeat has continued to roll on.

And so it was a pleasant surprise to open up the Jewish Standard (Bergen County, NJ) this past week to find a lovely article about a lovely individual.  Dan Fried, a chemist by trade, has been looking to donate ipads to schools to hand out to students (what is known as a 1:1 program - one device per child).  He has already given them to two schools, and has spoken with several others in the county about doing the same.  Each school is proceeding at its own pace, but the overall point is that Mr. Fried, in his beneficence and vision, is enabling schools to attempt changes in the classroom that were mere pipe dreams a few months ago.

What was so pleasant about this article was the lack of focus on technology as a potential money-saver.  Other than one line early in the article about the possible impact on schools' bottom lines, and Mr Fried's hope that this would occur, the rest of the fairly extensive piece focused on how schools were integrating the ipads or other technology into their programs, and their hopes and plans for the future.  This was a responsible article about innovation in education, not about messianic hopes about how ipads would reduce the need for teachers.  Kudos to the Jewish Standard for providing some balance in the public discussion on this issue.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Teaching Primary Sources

One of the many wonderful educators that I follow on Twitter is Mike Kaechele (@mikekaechele), who blogs at the Concrete Classroom.  In a recent blog, he asked three questions about teaching students to use primary source material as opposed to simply exposing them to secondary sources, since that is where they will get most of their information in life from anyway.  Mike asked: 

 Is it our job to teach the skills one needs to be a professional historian or is it our job to expose students to the patterns of history and to teach them to think critically?
Is it being a “literacy snob” to value primary sources over other forms of literacy?
Are we forcing a “skill” on students that is not relevant to them and actually makes the subject boring to students?

Obviously, Mike was not approaching this from a Judaic studies perspective, but as someone who spends most of his teaching time specifically teaching texts, I could not allow the questions to go unanswered.  I replied:

It is not being a snob at all. Someone who learns only secondary material will wind up being generally informed about the topic, based on the interpretations of others. Someone who learns primary sources will gain the ability to form their own opinions on the topic, and will gain the skills to do the same for other issues. That is not training to be a professional historian – that is training to be a thoughtful and responsible citizen.

Pushing the envelope on the issue, Mike wrote back:

Not saying I disagree with you but just pushing back to stretch my thinking. Isn’t most of the information that we come across in life from secondary sources already? For example, most of the news reports are secondary.
I guess the other part of my argument/question is the need for “text based” primary sources as opposed to video/image primary sources. Most primary source stuff today comes in multi-media form from cell phones and interviews.
Few students will actually read a paper, but consume news through online sources which are usually embedded with pics and video. So part of my questions are we overemphasizing text literacy vs. other forms of literacy?
Well argued, but I was not about to allow us to discard primary source reading for the masses all that quickly.  I responded in kind:
Clearly, most of what we read is from secondary sources. However, my contention is that the more one has been trained to also read primary sources, the more one will be able to critically evaluate what he or she reads in the secondary reporting. Reading original sources requires the ability to pay close attention to every detail that is valuable when reading others’ accounts of the original.
I think that the current state of adult Torah learning bears out my point.  Let us accept as a given that most adults are busy and do not have too much time for their own intensive learning, and let us accept that many people try to at least learn something about the parsha (weekly Torah portion).  Within that framework, how many people actually read the parsha and/or some of its commentaries in the original each week, and how many people make use of the ever-burgeoning number of English-language books and internet sites that offer essay-length thoughts on the parsha that do not require one to ever look at the original text?  What are the gains and what are the costs of this trend?  On the one hand, there is no doubt that anything that increases the amount of learning that is taking place is a good thing.  But on the other hand, reading an essay that requires very little active thought on the part of the reader can perhaps provide some enlightenment or inspiration, but rarely encourages a person to think critically, to evaluate the essay-writer's use of the various sources, or to offer their own thoughts on the matter.  All learning, and Torah learning in particular, is animated and expanded by thoughtful and rigorous debate and discussion, and a facility with the original sources is a sine qua non for being able to play an active role in those conversations.
What are your thoughts on this?

Monday, February 4, 2013

Parents and Teachers - Defining our Roles

The other day, a student in my school was talking rather incessantly throughout tefilla (prayers). When one of the teachers approached him afterwards about it, the student, dismayingly but matter-of-factly, responded that he did not see the problem. After all, his father routinely talks throughout tefilla, so he could not see what was wrong with it.

A second vignette, seemingly unrelated. Actually, this is more of a conglomeration of many vignettes. As a Talmud teacher, I routinely speak to parents who inform me that they are unable to help their children study Talmud at home, as they themselves did not study it in school. A more extreme version are the parents who complain that it is unfair that some parents are able to study Talmud with their children while others are not, thus putting their kids at a disadvantage (parenthetically, no one ever complains that the doctor's kids are at an advantage when it comes to studying science, but that is for another post I suppose).

What do these two stories have to do with one another? They have helped me clarify the respective roles of parents and teachers on the education of a child. More and more we speak about wanting a partnership between the school and the home, but so often we bring that point up when we have a child who is struggling or in trouble and the school wants to make sure that the parents support their approach to discipline or the parents want to ensure that the school is aware of some extenuating circumstances that lie behind the child's difficulties.

However, the school/home partnership is present at every moment in the education of a child, which each one playing a crucial role. If I were to boil it down to its barest essentials, I would say that the role of the school is to teach material and skills, while the role of the parents is to convey the message that those lessons are worth learning.

Think about that for a moment. Teachers are skilled and trained professionals, experts in their subject matter and in methods of effectively conveying that material to children. However, they are at a disadvantage when it comes to convincing kids to want to buy their product. After all, the teachers are heavily biased, both because they obviously like the material that they are teaching and because their livelihoods depend on their being able to teach it. As consumers, they are not the objective critics that kids might turn to to decide whether or not Chumash or history or math or Gemara is important.

On the other hand, parents may not necessarily be so good at a particular subject or at teaching material to their kids. But their kids do trust them for a wide range of decisions, from clothing choices to breakfast cereals to which sports team to root for to the best place to go for vacation. It makes sense that kids would also look to their parents for clues and cues as to how important all of this stuff eyeing done in cool actually is. If the message coming from parents is that davening is important, the kids will assume that it is and will allow their teachers to guide them as to how best to do it. However, if parents, overtly or subtlely, convey the message that tefilla is synonymous with free time and science will never be necessary in life, then their kids are likely to internalize that message and effectively block out teacher attempts to educate them.

So parents, don't worry if you are not an expert in every subject that your children bring home. We don't expect you to be and your child's work is not for you to do. Of they are having a hard time with it, that is what they have teachers for. Instead, focus your efforts on instilling in your children a sense that their education matters, that davening matters, that learning matters. That is the best partnership that you can offer your children's teachers, and ultimately your children as well.

Jedcamp is coming to New Jersey!

For many of us, the word "camp" brings back memories of bygone summers endlessly playing sports, participating in color war (before color war came to schools as well), and experiencing our first extended time away from home.  However, as we have moved through life, many of us have also come to realize that the greatest thing that we took away from camp was the friendships that we made.  So often we move to a new educational level or stage of life, only to discover that a friend we had made in camp is waiting there for us, ready to reminisce about the summers of yore and to build on that initial connection to forge a more lasting bond.  In other words, camp was our first real brush with networking.

That is the one of the guiding forces of the Edcamp movement.  If you have ever attended a professional conference, you know that while the sessions and speakers are certainly part of the attraction, the real action happens in the hallways, over meals, and anywhere that people have the opportunity to speak with their colleagues, both old and newfound.  In the age of Twitter, LinkedIn, and PLN's, conferences become the places where virtual connections become live encounters and the networks thus grow even stronger.

Edcamp capitalizes on this aspect of conferences by not being a conference.  More accurately, Edcamp is an "unconference".  What is an unconference?  Imagine attending a conference where everyone is there for a common reason, but there are no keynote speakers, no planned sessions, and no set schedule.  Rather, every attendee has the opportunity to offer a presentation or lead a discussion.  No one is a guru or an expert; rather, every session is populated by a group of individuals who share a common interest and come together for an hour or so to have the kind of unplanned, honest, and undirected conversations that we usually only have with our immediate co-workers but rarely with people who work in different buildings or in different environments.  In other words, it is the best type of networking - bringing people together around common interests and providing for constant sharing of ideas.

(see more about Edcamp in this video)

Unfortunately for Jewish educators, Edcamp tends to take place on Saturdays.  Enter Seth Dimbert (@MisterD) and Rabbi Meir Wexler (@RabbiWex), who held the first ever Jedcamp - Jewish Edcamp - in late December down in Florida.  Roughly 40 Jewish educators from all types of Jewish schools came together on a Sunday to discuss a wide range of topics in education, from hi-tech to low-tech to no-tech.  Conversations and discussions were natural, free-flowing, and the positive feedback that was bursting out of the event created a ripple effect that has spread straight up the East Coast.

And so, it is a pleasure to announce the opening of registration for the first ever New York area Jedcamp!  Officially titled JedcampNJNY (#jedcampnjny on Twitter), it will be held at Yavneh Academy in Paramus, NJ on Sunday, April 21st.  Online registration is required and can be done at our Eventbrite page, and make sure to see Rabbi Tzvi Pittinsky's blog for more thoughts about Jedcamp.

A few details that you should know about Jedcamp:

  • It is absolutely, positively, 100% free of charge.
  • Attendees will have the opportunity to post session topics throughout the day.
  • Jedcamp runs by a "vote with your feet" approach - if you are in a session and decide you would rather be in another one, you can walk out and move to another room - and no one is allowed to be insulted!
  • There is no cost for attending Jedcamp.
  • Jedcamp is a grassroots event - there is no sponsoring organization.
  • This event is open to all who are interested - day school teachers, high school teachers, Hebrew school teachers, all denominations, all subject areas, administrators, everyone.  As long as you have a desire to share your thoughts and ideas about Jewish education or be shared with, this is the conference for you.
  • Did I mention that it is free?
So what next?  If you are reading this blog, and you are a Jewish educator in the New Jersey/New York area, first register for Jedcamp and then spread the word to your colleagues.  Their reactions may range from "Yes! I have been waiting for something like this my entire professional life!" to something along the lines of "Look, I tried '7-Up the Uncola' and that was a big letdown - how do I know that an 'unconference' won't be more of the same?"  Either way, encourage them to find out more about how Edcamp/Jedcamp works and encourage them to try it.  Space is limited - register today!