The R&D Behind a S.T.E.A.M.-Focused Makerspace at Akiba-Schechter

The R&D Behind a S.T.E.A.M.-Focused Makerspace at Akiba-Schechter

This past summer, driven by a desire to create a sustainable system of innovation in our school and supported by a grant from the Jewish Education Innovation Challenge, Akiba-Schechter began the process of creating the first Research & Development Department in a Jewish Day School.

The Akiba R&D Department studies, develops prototypes, researches, and scales new teaching and learning approaches, practices, and systems that advance relevant learning for our students and the field of education. Our R&D system ensures new programs, models and ideas are thoughtfully studied, implemented, and sustained. In many companies, R&D departments play an integral role in the life cycle of a product. For us, at a Jewish Day School, we believe the R&D Department plays an integral role in the lifecycle of teaching methodologies and student learning.

The R&D Department researches and develops approaches, practices, and systems that:

  • are driven by global trends
  • have a strong relevance to our school’s mission and core values
  • have potential to significantly transform teaching and learning
  • have sudden urgency or meet unexpected needs

The R&D Department focuses on five areas:

  • Research for new programs or models
  • Development of new programs or models
  • Updates in existing programs or models
  • Quality checks on existing programs or models
  • General research on educational trends and innovations
...we believe the R&D Department plays an integral role in the lifecycle of teaching methodologies and student learning
— Dr. Eliezer Jones

The Akiba R&D Department utilizes a design thinking approach to innovation based on the work of Dr. Shabbi Luthra, who trained our R&D team, and Scott Hoffman who developed and supervised a research and development department at the American School of Bombay. At the core of the process is a prototyping approach versus a piloting approach. A prototype is an early approximation of a final system or product -- not a completed one. Teachers will test a prototype within the school, develop it, and test it further in the school. Ultimately, if successful, the prototype is implemented in the school ensuring it works for the specific needs of the population. Prototyping has been a more efficient driver of learning for our staff, as they are not just given instructions on how to implement a pre-existing program. They study the new idea, try it out, learn what worked and what did not, and retest it until it is either worth using or rejecting. They are involved and invested from the outset.

The R&D Department receives support from the R&D Leadership Team made up of the academic administration and an R&D Task Force comprised of a group of self-selected teachers who volunteered to be trained in and facilitate research and development at the school.

The R&D Task Force has been exploring numerous areas to see if deeper research is appropriate including: review of our Judaic program, tefilla/prayer, homework, advisory programs, community engagement, models of intrinsic motivation in education, cross-disciplinary teaching (General Studies and Judaic Studies) and makerspaces. Regarding makerspaces, an incredible development came out of the research process.   

A group within the R&D Task Force focused on makerspaces in schools. Based on their initial exploration they believed deeper study was warranted. After engaging in this research, they proposed a few in-class maker prototypes, which teachers tested and deemed successful. These prototypes led to a proposal to rethink and redesign our current library space into a large makerspace.

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The space proposed would be one where children are following personalized learning pathways in the areas of Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts, and Math (S.T.E.A.M.) in an integrated approach that would include Judaic and General Studies learning across the curriculum. Their research of current global trends made clear that social and technological forces have intersected to transform how we design, manufacture and distribute. An open source, Do-It-Yourself mindset, and social networks are enabling communities to make their own economic futures. The language of design schools is part of the vocabulary of K-12 schools and the team and I believe education needs to integrate more of this framework of learning to address a changing future. Schools need to become hubs of design knowledge, rapid prototyping, and self-directed learning to ensure our students are better prepared for a more flexible, globally minded life where, for example, science and math skills are not isolated knowledge sets, but a set of thinking skills that can be applied to the real world.

Over this school year, the makerspace R&D team has continued to research and plan what kind of space we could create. The goal is to keep the function of the library with all our fantastic books, while integrating all the technology, tools and resources to have a vibrant makerspace. The plan is to begin the redesign this coming summer and have students using it next fall. This project is possible by the generosity of The Crown Family, and we are grateful for their support.

Creating this structure for innovation has given us a supportive process to foster and implement new ideas, while at the same time building a culture focused on innovation in education, which we feel is critical to any school. The R&D Team looks forward to designing new ways of learning in our school, sharing what we learn with others, and supporting the implementation of educational R&D departments in Jewish Day Schools around the globe.

 Building Cycles of Improvement and Innovation for Judaic Studies

Building Cycles of Improvement and Innovation for Judaic Studies

Part I: The Intensive Summer Beit Midrash

At Fuchs Mizrachi School, we are privileged to have a Judaic faculty who love to think, collaborate, reflect and innovate. We have worked individually and in groups, through meetings and professional development days, to develop meaningful projects, powerful co-curricular programming and a shared set of skills/standards we hope our students will develop. At the same time, it has been challenging to bring individual teachers’ work together to develop a more systematic approach that insures both consistency and continuity for our students.

We needed to find a way to ensure that a cycle of action, reflection, and improvement became part of our teachers’ and school’s culture.
— Rabbi Yehuda Chanales

As open and reflective as our teachers may be, they still often find themselves in the daily grind of preparing lessons and marking assessment as they also try to build relationships with students outside the classroom and manage their own families’ needs.  We, therefore, wanted to find a way to build more systematic, year after year cycles of improvement into our school culture. We didn’t want to build one specific curriculum or implement one particular pedagogic tool; we needed to find a way to ensure that a cycle of action, reflection, and improvement became part of our teachers’ and school’s culture.

With this in mind we proposed-- and were excited to receive a grant from JEIC to support-- a different approach to teacher collaborative time. The Teacher Torah Collaboratory program will fully begin this summer with an intensive Summer Beit Midrash for Fuchs Mizrachi faculty. We believe that dedicated intensive time outside of the regular school year for faculty to learn and think deeply together can alter the lonely cycle of Judaic teachers individually preparing curriculum and planning meaningful activities from day to day. Through reconnecting with their passion for Torah learning, teachers will also be given the time and space to approach familiar texts through new lenses -- considering what both they and their students need in today’s world. Through intense learning, curriculum development and broad conversations about needs, priorities and next steps, teachers will be better positioned to build off of their comradery and shared work for next school year.

Last summer, we piloted a smaller, more condensed version of the Summer Beit Midrash to learn from the experience and be better poised for success this upcoming summer. Eight Gemara teachers spent four days together. In the morning, we learned in chavrutot the Masechet we knew we would be teaching this year. In the afternoons, we spent time working collaboratively on broader issues. We developed consensus around a set of core standards and skills we wanted our students to develop. We also used a design thinking protocol to discuss what prevented our students from engaging and succeeding in gemara learning. The protocol helped us prioritize by uncovering what we believed to be the lever that could impact our students’ challenges.  We hypothesized that by helping students see their skill development, they would be more likely to view themselves as “gemara learners” thus strengthening their sense of connection with and meaning from their learning. We finished our mini-Summer Beit Midrash experience with excitement about continuing to explore our theories together.

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While the collegial energy during our time together was powerful, we were not able to build successfully on our learning and conversations during the school year. When our High School Principal moved into the Head of School position in November, the Assistant Principal for Student Services and I essentially became acting principals. This constrained my time to lead Gemara Department meetings personally and develop proper accountability systems ensuring our discussions impacted teachers’ classroom practices.  Additionally, I learned that our four day Beit Midrash was not enough time for the team to reach a critical point in our planning process. We had time to think big picture about priorities and goals but did not have the time to work on what this meant for daily teaching and learning in the classroom. What types of activities would help students develop the skills we outlined? How would we assess student progress and provide feedback that would allow them to grow? How would we measure the impact of student growth on their attitudes toward gemara learning?

Ultimately, we recognized the value of intensive time together, and we learned that we needed more time and structure to reach a place upon which we could continue building all year. This summer we will utilize our JEIC grant to spend even more intensive time together--  two weeks focused on Tanach and two weeks focused on Gemara. Some teachers will participate in both groups. During those weeks, we will dedicate mornings to text study of material we will be teaching next year in ways that deepen our understanding of that material and push us to approach familiar texts in different ways.

During our Gemara Beit Midrash we will host a Scholar-in-Residence, Rav Ori Lifschutz of the Lev Lad’at Project associated with the Ministry for Religious and Education and Herzog College. This project seeks to equip teachers in Israel with the skills to facilitate students’ engagement with the ideas and values that emerge from the study of Tanach and Gemara. In our first week together, Rav Ori will lead shiurim/study sessions and model alternative approaches to teaching Gemara focusing on expanding our toolbox as teachers and learners. Later each day, teachers will individually prepare a suyga/unit on their own, utilizing a common template with coaching from Rav Ori and me. During the second week, teachers will take turns presenting the unit they prepared with their fellow teachers acting as students. Time later in the day will be dedicated to providing feedback, fine tuning and providing additional ideas. Together, the group will walk away from the two weeks having discussed the same units, approaches to teaching and a shared sense of how we expect students to develop skills and find meaning in the texts.

In a future blog post, I look forward to sharing details about the differing needs of our Tanach Summer Beit Midrash and the follow up strategies from our summer work using collaborative team meetings and select protocols. Please share your comments and questions!

 

The Secret Ingredient is Social Connectedness

The Secret Ingredient is Social Connectedness

Social connectedness is the degree to which a person has and perceives a sufficient number of positive, reciprocal relationships including emotional support, a sense of belonging, and fostering growth. Some people may think that schools’ primary goal is solely to teach content and skills, however, I believe school communities should consider social connectedness a top priority.  Not only that, educators should focus on exploring multiple ways to leverage social connectedness as an element of the learning process.

In most private schools this happens intentionally and is as much a part of the environment as the air students and educators breathe.  The power of social connectedness in people is statistically associated with individuals overcoming trauma and PTSD, treating depression, increasing cancer and heart attack survival rates, and lowering homicide and suicide rates.  Public schools offer students many groups and opportunities to create social connectedness; when they do not, students can feel overlooked, forgotten, irrelevant, or marginalized.  Social media is often a space where the disconnected try to reach out, and it is also where the feedback loops should be tighter to detect those spiraling out of control. Ultimately, the emotional health and well-being of our students starts with social connectedness. Attention to this can potentially mitigate or eliminate some of the tragic outcomes we are sadly seeing in the United States with greater frequency.

Since 2000 the United States has witnessed the terror caused by more than 40 active shooter episodes in schools. In response to these horrific events, citizens, school officials and legislators are focusing on gun control, mental health, 2nd Amendment rights, and the FBI’s follow-through. While these are important discussion topics related to eliminating gun violence in schools, many people are missing an essential element behind these tragedies… the absence of social connectedness.  

In Jewish day schools, I submit that intentional social connectedness creates an opportunity to leverage the wisdom of our tradition in support of foundational human needs. Judaism, by design, seamlessly pays mind to the critical nature of human interaction and belonging. From a minyan in tefillah settings to hevruta/partner study as a teaching approach to welcoming the stranger to seder tables to inviting guests into our sukkah, we are a people who recognize the value of human relationships.  I encourage stakeholders to appreciate why administrators and teachers make decisions that encourage and facilitate students’ social connectedness. Jewish Day Schools should prioritize activities that build social capital, cohesion, and support for students and safeguard against programmatic decisions that can erode the fabric of personal interactions and community.

 

It’s not an “either-or” proposition: Student Choice in Text Study

It’s not an “either-or” proposition: Student Choice in Text Study

Giving students the right to make choices in their education is not a new idea. In fact, it is one of the foundational ideas of Maria Montessori’s and John Dewey’s systems of education. Over the years research has also confirmed (Goodwin, 2010) that giving students a greater role in directing their own education increases motivation and student learning outcomes.

While in secular education progressive educators have long been moving in the direction of increasing student choice, Jewish education has been slow to adapt.

Two main barriers have been limitations in curriculum and methodology. In secular studies, there are easy-to-identify areas of flexibility in subject matter. Students can choose to do a project on one of many topics in almost any subject and still fit within the curriculum’s standard. However, in Jewish studies, we often focus on a particular set of texts. This does not seem to allow for as much student choice.

The second challenge has been the limited tools that students can access to express their learning.  In secular studies, students can demonstrate learning in so many ways -- from taking on a research project to building a model to conducting an experiment, and more. On the Judaics side, educators often wonder how to offer students various means of expression about the same text.

One solution many Jewish schools have tried is to move away from a focus on text study. This allows instructors to model their classes’ activities on a secular studies model with an emphasis on creative projects. This approach, however, leaves educators with a dilemma. Do we limit the amount of choice offered to students, or do create more opportunities for choice and creativity by limiting our emphasis on textual studies?

The Judaic Studies team at Stars of Israel Academy does not see this as an “either-or” proposition. We have experimented with a different approach to learning that incorporates a balance of both text study and student choice.

We see the learning process, itself, as a chance to offer choice when engaging in texts. As an example, students can differ in their preferred ways of rehearsal strategies. Some may choose to learn with a chavruta, others may prefer to use flash cards individually, and still others may feel most comfortable by annotating their texts. The use of technology gives even more possibilities.

Educators can also offer students choice in final learning presentations that demonstrate an understanding of the text. Technology can be a valuable tool in this area, as well. For instance, some students may choose to present a video of themselves reading and translating a text. Others may opt to create an interactive text with their translations and explanations becoming audible when the words are touched on the screen. Animated slideshows are another technology-integrated student product where learners can include knowledge about texts into their creative work.

It takes a different approach to teaching and learning for an instructor to design a classroom where students are given a range of options during a study period. It also takes time for students to become comfortable using different learning tools and technologies to their advantage. However, the increase in student motivation and intrinsic desire to learn are well worth the tradeoff in our experience.

Striking a Balance Between a School’s Structure and Culture

Striking a Balance Between a School’s Structure and Culture

Schools have both structural and cultural elements. Structural elements deal with top down school laws or expectations by which a person can be held accountable as a driver of behavior.  Cultural elements deal with bottom-up or socially-driven behaviors.  Both have strong influences in a school.  The knowledgeable head of school knows that the right combination will help a school succeed.  

The key is knowing when to build capacity by creating a more resilient and adaptable school and when to use that capacity to solve challenges.  The structural side helps keep the school on one consistent plan.  The best a school can achieve with only that lens is compliance.  The cultural side invites a rejuvenating energy and a feeling of solidarity.  The best a school can achieve with only that lens is mission-driven collaboration with the danger of going in a wrong direction.  When the two sides work in sync, you get the best of both.

Sometimes a school's structural and cultural elements are at odds. These two powerful forces can damage a school when cultural and structural designs do not mesh.  This can happen when a culture resists structural change.  In that case, a school sees cliques of teachers forcing the head of school to manage instead of lead.  This may occur when the culture shifts because of a change in population or turnover of staff, and the structure no longer serves the school’s goals.  In that case, the head of school needs to change the structural side to harness the energy of the culture instead of fighting to keep the structural side sacred and immutable.  It is the difference between surfing a wave and trying to stop the tide from coming in.   

In order to make this work, the head of school needs to develop feedback loops supplying data necessary to make good choices.  While the data may be different from school to school, the head of school can see how the staff make choices when they are not held directly accountable.  These situations point to how much structural responsibility, social esteem and mission has “sunk in” and how much the staff thinks that the culture of responsibility to each other, self-esteem and personal success has superior value.  This insight is essential for a head of school in determining how best to move forward to re-establish an equilibrium.

Recognizing the potential for this tension and balancing structure and culture are some of the most important leadership skills a head of school can exercise.

 

JEIC Announces 2017 Grantees

JEIC Announces 2017 Grantees

 

Every year we award grants to programs that can fundamentally change Jewish education, inspiring students to learn, grow and connect as part of our Day School Educators' Challenge. We received 48 proposals and after careful review, we are excited to announce our 2017 grantees. 

    PRESS RELEASE: Design Thinking Takes Center Stage

    PRESS RELEASE: Design Thinking Takes Center Stage

    Jewish Education Innovation Challenge (JEIC) convened nearly 100 Jewish educators and community leaders from across North America to participate in its 5th annual Innovators Retreat – Oases of Change – at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. 

    Innovator Grantee Updates

    Innovator Grantee Updates

    Video updates from our 2015 and 2016 Day School Educators Challenge grant recipients. 

    Tefilah Reimagined - Rabbi Michael Ribalt Guest Post

    Tefilah Reimagined - Rabbi Michael Ribalt Guest Post

    Guest blogger Rabbi Michael Ribalt discusses the three relationships to tefilah, including one’s relationship with Klal Yisrael through Halakha, one’s personal relationship with Hashem, and one’s relationship with “self.”

    The Holistic Student

    The Holistic Student

    Ultimately, caring about the holistic student necessitates prioritizing identity development over textual engagement.  While the two do not mutually exclude each other, the notion that Judaism bases its construct exclusively on text loses the core of community and the soul of the individual.

    A Conversation with Ruchel Green, HaKaveret Designer

    A Conversation with Ruchel Green, HaKaveret Designer

    HaKaveret Designer, Ruchel Green, is a teacher and technology specialist at the Silver Spring Learning Center in Silver Spring, Maryland. She brings an interesting perspective to the work group as the only designer working in early education.

    Jewish Literacy - Unfortunately, it's Not Enough

    Jewish Literacy - Unfortunately, it's Not Enough

    Recently, eJewishPhilanthropy published an article about Jewish literacy. We wanted to share this article because it underlines two JEIC focus points.

    1. Heads of School (or Principals) lead and shape culture at their school either by engagement or disengagement. In order to create a more engaging environment, the leaders need more God centered decision making, motivation, and tool sets.
    2. School leaders who value the primacy of a relationship with God will generate a culture with a vast vocabulary, deep self worth, and sensitivity to the Divine in this world.

    We encourage you to read the full article and share your thoughts

    A Conversation with Jeff Kiderman, HaKaveret Designer

    A Conversation with Jeff Kiderman, HaKaveret Designer

    What do you find most enjoyable about working in Jewish education?

    I think that Jewish day school education is one of the bed rocks of the Jewish community, and to be able to spend each day trying to make it better and more accessible is something I'm really lucky to be able to do.

    Response: Teaching Rabbinics Early

    Response: Teaching Rabbinics Early

    In Rabbi Goldberg’s recent blog post, he argues that, contrary to popular belief, Rabbinics as a study does not require text; it actually begins with the youngest, pre-literate learners in the form of Jewish values, holidays and traditions. He posits that neglecting to acknowledge that these rituals and ideals come from rabbinic understandings and teaching them in a more deliberate manner is doing a disservice to these young students. I agree, and would expand upon that even further.

    PRESS RELEASE: JEIC Announces Day School Educators' Challenge

    PRESS RELEASE: JEIC Announces Day School Educators' Challenge

    Chevy Chase, MD (November 30, 2017) - The Jewish Education Innovation Challenge (JEIC), sponsored in part by the Mayberg Foundation, is soliciting proposals to pilot innovative educational models in Jewish day schools. The objective is to identify and fund experimentation with new methodologies that foster and reward student effort and enthusiasm, teacher proficiency, and school effectiveness in creating the next generation of Jews.

    HaKaveret Design Team Retreat Launch

    HaKaveret Design Team Retreat Launch

    Last month, we shared the exciting news about launching HaKaveret: JEIC Team Challenge. HaKaveret will convene a group of ten talented, creative and motivated individuals from around the country to form an innovation design team with a focus on creating a new vision in Jewish education. 

    JEIC Grantee Shalhevet in the News

    JEIC Grantee Shalhevet in the News

    In 2013, JEIC awarded Shalhevet High School $50,000 for their "LaHaV" project. Their goal was to revolutionize how Jewish high school students relate to their heritage by reimagining how to communicate the richness and relevance of Judaic studies. We are proud to report that Shalhevet has been doing just that. As of this academic year, their innovative curriculum is rolling out in three other schools in the United States, as well as one in Melbourne. Recently featured in Jewish Journal, Shalhevet's curriculum is truly inventive. We look forward to their continued success. Click here to read the full Jewish Journal article.