2016 Grantees

Stars of Israel Academy - 
App Smashing Jewish Texts


Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County - Raising a Global Citizen

2015 Grantees

Manhattan Day School - 
Tefilla Re-Imagined


Bi-Cultural Day School -
Masora Program

2014 Grantees

Oakland Hebrew Day School - Workshop Based Beit Midrash

The Workshop Based Beit Midrash (WBBM), bring students in grades 6, 7 and 8 together, dissolve the classroom walls that separated students from teachers, and give the students different options of classes they could sign up. This provides students with a more flexible schedule where they could work independently, with a chevrutah, or within a small group. Further, students could work on independent projects, be able to choose from a menu of different performance assessments, have time to work with their different teachers outside of their official class time. 

In envisioning the Workshop Based Beit Midrash, OHDS looked to create a new approach to Judaic Studies, a system that would successfully convey to the student the message that Judaic studies is part of their lives and that it goes beyond the classroom walls. This was meant to include WBBM with integrated Judaics, not separate Toshba, Chumash, or Nach classes, rather Judaic study as a combination of ideas taught as a singular unit. Also, this vision relies on the student and teacher roles shifting considerably from the traditional mode.

The WBBM alters the typical paradigm by changing student roles and teacher roles along with the learning space. The intent grounds itself in the gradually growing internal motivation of students and the teachers acting more as guides and coaches. The plan involved making the Beit Midrash a hub of learning and investigation, but including extending trust to the rest of the school building for project success. The challenge to the staff and students was to alter years of conditioning and retrofit a new design for interaction and a new definition for successful learning. Learning was intended through multiple lenses and alternative evaluations. 

The first two years set the ground work for its success after our granting time ended. The culture change had to have time to go from a top down experience to a bottom up dynamic. The initial shift was met with resistance from teachers who did not like or understand the change. Students learned that instead of more free time as they predicted, the WBBM actually meant more work that was more challenging with fewer excuses.

Still, there were great successes. In Hebrew language acquisition since the students chose their level in a 5-8 class structure. Students were placed where they had adequate challenge and not overwhelming challenge. In Judaics, students accomplished independent projects and locus of responsibility for success moved towards the student's realm. The younger the middle school student the greater their enjoyment of the structure. 

Over the years, the students gradually came in with an expectation of more independent designs and looked forward to the transition from 4th to 5th grade as different span of education. This year for the first time, the rising 8th grade has been in the WBBM their whole middle school career. Just like at Shalhevet where they needed four years of students to graduate to move to the next level, so too at OHDS. With this next year being the first to have a full middle school of students with WBBM experience, OHDS hopes to continue their plans of integrating the Judaic and general studies into a more problem based learning curriculum.

The work with faculty, students, and board members to synchronize all of their priorities takes time and cannot be a top-down venture. The students feel more ownership and motivation when they make choices, not have the illusion of choice like in the traditional classroom. The Beit midrash concept works best when it is open with no ownership by one teacher. In order to increase capacity, the WBBM set up can allow more talent to work with the students than on staff in the middle school including local scholars not familiar with middle school teaching and online. Classic classroom structure is a learned experience that students and teachers need to unlearn to make this design successful. Beit Midrash makes all types of learners successful with changed student and teacher roles. The classic classroom's more homogeneous approach works, but does not optimize the students motivations or abilities. 

In noting that people are afraid of certain types of change, when nervous, students and teachers revert to default behaviors. A change in the underlying assumptions takes time, repeated effort, and positive reinforcement from the outside. In order to properly implement it, those in charge of the system need sensitivity towards students' self awareness and the shift in ownership of work. 

We gleaned several important ideas through our data retrieval. Culture is a powerful driving force that does not recede easily. This needs to be considered before trying an innovative curriculum. The Ecosystem of a school (Consumers, Educators, Majority Local Funders, and other Influencers) needs to coordinate its energies and motivations to change expectations. Innovations that make students and teachers work together for the students' success are better models. Initial challenges should be met with incremental resilient and adapting changes always heading towards the goal.

2013 Grantees

Katz Hillel Day School of Boca Raton - The torah iTextbook Project

The Hillel Day School of Boca Raton developed the Torah iTextbook. The Torah iTextbook project transformed learning Talmud. The Gemarah curriculum, once an attempt to imitate or apprentice the teacher's learning linearly through a text, was changed into a series of hand selected “sugyot” or topical lesson plans. These lesson plans were designed to teach reading skills, common and key word recognition, and factual information and at the same time impart the relevance of the particular sugyah to the students' everyday lives. The iBook software was the base for multiple functions including reading the text properly, videos, deep questions, and teacher engagement and support.

The design of this work was to think through carefully what the reason was that students in this context would like to learn Torah Sheh B'al Peh and how it could shape their Jewish decision modeling. Therefore, the point of the sugya was defined by a singular concept or driving question that not only focused student learning during the text's initial phase, but gave an anchor to recall the journey to understanding and its conclusions were not lost. 

Rabbi Smolarcik (Grinspoon awardee) designed, created, and Beta tested 20 Sugyot. We saw the project go international and used in a school in London. The project challenges the regular reason that Talmud is learned which is that it is the base of Oral Law. Instead, when properly utilized, it generates students who enjoy learning, feel that they control their learning, and have the skills to continue learning. It also changes their take on thinking skills and ethics. The students understand that problems are both complex and have Rabbinic methodologies to the answers.

We learned a lot about how to renovate the idea space of Jewish education. We garnered three important points. The traditional role of teacher and student can be changed and it enhances the classroom effectiveness. Instead of a teacher being the repository of knowledge pouring it into students minds, the teacher is more of a coach who sees each students as an individual and helps them move forward by using their strengths to make up for their weaknesses. 

The student succeeds by being the subject not the object. Instead of a typical classroom, the student is exercising autonomy, working towards individualized mastery, and driven by relevance. This makes the student success meaningful outside of grades and making parents happy. The student has choice and works on material the way the student feels comfortable. As it turns out, this causes success and students enjoying the material.

A classroom design and culture that is emotionally supportive, makes students responsible for their choices, work in a clear way towards expertise, and have transparent purpose is highly correlated with students feeling the locus of control within themselves. In plainer language, students who were in this program, no matter how strong their grades were, felt that the grades were earned, the effort mattered, the teacher was caring, and they more they wanted, the more they gained.

We extrapolated our work to a few larger themes from our data. Programs need to alter the role of teacher and student away from traditional functions towards a more decentralized format. The key component is a teacher who both fosters accountability and the individual level of challenge. The best way to do that properly is for the teacher to be emotionally supportive and to know the individual students. Technology is a good hook and facilitates better communication for students. Its use should not eclipse the design and goal of the program. That is true especially if it frees up the teacher for more direct interaction.

Shalhevet High School - Lehava Project

The Lehava Project was created to reimagine the idea of Judaic curriculum. At its origin is the goal of making a structured, repeatable approach to producing relevance to the student's life, inculcation of the core principles of the rabbinic decision model, and building the students' tools to approach the text individually. What was initially a thick source book for each high school year was transformed into a digitized curriculum that increased the capacity, adaptability, and effectiveness of the Shalhevet curriculum.

In order to actualize such a tall order in four years with students from varied Jewish educational backgrounds, the digitized curriculum made three functions easier. One, the ability to review and change the curriculum to be more effective and make teacher training easier. The material base became more complex and yet easier to manage. Two, facilitation of student autonomy, mastery, and purpose are not only structured into the program, but each student creates a tailor made space for him or her to best utilize their strengths to cope for individual weaknesses. Three, by using source based case studies and analysis, the student can see in reiterated circumstances in thousands of years of rabbinic process and appreciate how the solutions have developed by Mesorah.

The Shalhevet school community was able to transform the culture of the school using the Lehava Project as a backbone. They persevered through four years of transitioning out staff and students who liked the old, ineffective model. It enabled them to develop the culture of struggle. The students from the outset are told that they have permission to struggle. That means that if you are not struggling, you are not maximizing your growth. That struggle can be academic, spiritual, or social. In any of those cases, the teachers are you guides and supports. The students make Judaic choices (like picking a daf a day Gemara class as an elective that was so popular that they had to schedule another). They were able to leverage the change in teacher and student roles to make the students challenge their previous assumptions about Judaism, Torah, and Hashem. Because of the developmental moment in their education that this occurs, students could feel secure in pushing boundaries and investigating why living Jewish was a rich and fulfilling decision. The student senior year final project demonstrated a four year growth pattern where each was able to make positive choices about Jewish identity through knowledge of rabbinic understanding and a personal intimacy with Traditional sources. Also this year, more than 120 students applied for 60 freshman spots. This is an unprecedented popular level in the general community.

We discovered four very important concepts that we think support better education. First, by developing the culture of struggle the students reported that personal doubts of faith and ability were faced and dealt with instead of hidden and turned into debilitating issues. Second, the culture of struggle utilizes Dweck's research of Growth Mindset by removing the judgmental angle that stymies students in traditional models. There is no stigma when everyone is struggling towards a positive goal. Third, we discovered that the intentional use of culture to give an outlet for each student to demonstrate mastery in some area, even traditional non-academic talents, gave Shalhevet students a deep sense of coming of age and developing as a community that included teachers as confidential members. Effort and trustworthiness are more valued as currency in this system. Fourth, leadership of the headmaster working in consonance with the board gave the headmaster permission to experiment with a variety of approaches that did not succeed. However, to quote Headmaster Ari Segal, “when you fail, fail fabulously and learn from it.” 

This project underlines the research on culture as a critical component of a learning environment. It stresses the idea that just changing a curriculum or adding technology is not the answer. The role of the board in supporting school culture needs more investigation. It seems that boards that make the headmaster more trustworthy through avoidance of micromanaging staff and transparency in procedures help create better cultures at schools for the students. The teacher training is more of an inculcation into a culture. You have to change the teacher's underlying assumptions not just what they claim to believe or how they grade students.

On a personal note, I cannot overemphasize the message that we got from interviewing the students. The permission to struggle idea gives students a mental map that leads away from stagnation and hierarchy. Also, congratulations to the Grantee representatives. Noam Weissman graduates with a Doctorate in Educational Psycholgy from USC this spring and David Stein joins the Wexner Graduate Fellow Class #30. May they continue M'Chayil L'Chayil.