To have attended high school is probably to have wondered, in one class or another, “Why does this matter?” For some of us, the question descended as we struggled with futile-seeming exercises (say, balancing equations); for others, it haunted even moments of triumph (such as when a final presentation earned thunderous applause). Of course we encountered teachers who cleared the way for our understanding, who helped us to see how our learning was relevant to the rest of our lives. But in traditional classroom settings, “why” often hovered unasked or unevenly answered.
For students at The Idea School, “why” comes first.
“Start with, ‘Why this matters,’” Head of School Tikvah Wiener advises teachers. “And make sure that the learning always connects to the learner and to the real world.” This means giving students a roadmap upfront and sign posts along the way, revealing the significance of what they’re learning, and helping them to connect on both academic and personal levels.
“Why read Sefer Bereishit [The Book of Genesis]?” Wiener offers as an example. “Some of the stories are shocking; what happens between Joseph and his brothers is so incredibly troubling. So you ask the students to look at—where does their communication break down? It happens all the time in the real world.”
When Idea School students study chemical reactions, their inquiry is not confined to the chemistry classroom. They look at toxic chemical reactions, the industry or business practices that may produce them, and what is required to institute greener practices. “Most of the students aren’t going to be chemists,” Wiener says, “but they’re all going to need science in their lives.”
When it comes to “how” students should learn, The Idea School champions project-based learning. It is the first Jewish interdisciplinary, project-based learning high school in America. Located in New Jersey, at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades, The Idea School is currently comprised of ninth and tenth grade (41 students), and it continues to grow.
Project-based learning puts tremendous value on process, iteration, creativity, and collaboration. Students are asked to know something at the level required to teach it, to share what they know with others, and to work together to make something of value. Rather than passively receiving information—and being primarily evaluated on their test-taking—Idea School students become producers of content, products, and projects. These are not “dessert projects” after a unit of learning, Tikvah Wiener explains; these projects “are the main course.” To envision and complete them students are asked to be “savvy digital creators, which is also important to the world,” Wiener says.
Embracing digital tools has unfortunately taken on a particularly urgent importance in the time of COVID-19. As in-person instruction remains impossible for the time being, The Idea School—like many others—has gone online. The school community’s mentality (which emphasizes process-oriented thinking, adaptability, and flexibility) and its products of learning (which include more digital projects than traditional tests) have made the transition smoother. However, there is still no substitute for being together in-person. “School is a community,” Tikvah Wiener says. “Right now we’re atomized.”
Years before the COVID-19 crisis, the technological revolution and its impact on daily life were part of what originally inspired Wiener to reconsider her own approach to teaching and to pursue the development of The Idea School. As a young person, Wiener attended Orthodox Jewish schools and through her own first decade or so of teaching, she was “a pretty traditional teacher.” When more and more students started bringing digital devices to class, she began to seriously consider the ways the world had changed—and the ways that education had to change along with it.
As students sat behind their screens, they could be physically present in the classroom, but mentally someplace else entirely. “But when you looked at their screens, some of them were actually doing interesting things,” Wiener said. So why not harness the creative potential of the digital world, and students’ interest in it, for classroom learning?
After extensive research, Wiener chose to complete her training at the Educational Leadership Academy at the High Tech High Graduate School of Education in San Diego.
Many of the values that Wiener learned there struck her as compatible with Jewish educational values—particularly with respect to “connecting the learning to the learner,” or helping students to develop personal connections and reflect on what they learn. This comes naturally to Jewish educators who are already “thinking about the whole person,” helping students to grow emotionally and socially, giving them strategies to become well-rounded individuals, and connecting their Jewish learning to their life experience.
The Idea School’s Inquiry Beit Midrash is just one example of the innovative models for Jewish education it has developed. The class is composed of four parts: speaking inquiry (during which students may ask questions about anything); engaging with texts; product creation; and reflection. As is explained on The Idea School’s website, the ultimate aim of the Inquiry Beit Midrash is to help students “make meaning of their world,” which requires “meeting students where they are . . . and help[ing] them express who they are.”
In keeping with its commitment to fostering innovation and project-based learning in the Jewish educational field at large, The Idea School recently launched The Idea Institute. Made possible by support from The Covenant Foundation, The Idea Institute is a professional development and communal learning resource for educators interested in progressive education philosophy and strategies. The Institute looks at ways to innovate while “meeting all mandated state and university standards along the way.” The ultimate goal is to empower educators to “provide generations of [their] own deserving students with an education of impact, a world of understanding, and the motivation to live a life of purpose.” In addition to its teacher training programs and workshops, the Institute has already started providing resources online, with more to come.
As The Idea School and Institute continue to adjust their plans in response to COVID-19, the students themselves have also acted to preserve what they feel is important. This year, in observance of Yom HaShoah 5780, Idea School students were to have produced an exhibit on Holocaust history on view at the Teaneck Public Library and the Kaplen JCC. When closures due to COVID-19 effectively cancelled the prospect of in-person exhibits, the students pivoted and re-created the exhibit as an online experience: “Resistance and Justice: An Idea School Digital Exhibit for Yom HaShoah 5780.” Research was completed by the freshmen and sophomore students; the exhibit was edited by sophomore students Sarah Gorbatov, Ezra Glasman, and Irit Wiseman.
In a moment of uncertainty, The Idea School students—with the help of their teachers—launched their own contribution to Holocaust memory and education. The students already know this lesson well enough to demonstrate it for us: To meet the needs of our time, we need to work together, think creatively as well as critically, learn new things, and create meaningful ways to fulfill our commitments to one another.
By Miriam R. Haier, for The Covenant Foundation
Miriam is the Director of Content and Strategy at Pure+Applied, a multidisciplinary design studio in New York City.
“There are children, grownups, everywhere
That would love to hear your voices
Singing for our health to be bright
So that we can join together...and paint our world with healing and hope”
-From the original song, Painting Our World with Healing Hope, by Karina and Debora Zilberman
“Families that share stories about parents and grandparents, about triumphs and failures, provide powerful models for children. Children understand who they are in the world not only through their individual experience, but through the filters of family stories that provide a sense of identity through historical time...Through sharing the past, families recreate themselves in the present, and project themselves into the future.”
—“Do You Know…” The power of family history in adolescent identity and well-being
Read more about Dr. Marshall Duke and his work, here.
“There are people out there who are educating their hearts as we speak. They’re getting on with the work, they’re loving their kids, they’re loving their students, they’re loving their communities. We must retrain our vision toward those people—we must develop eyes to see and ears to hear where that love is already happening—that is worth our energy and our care and our time, to tend that love, to show that love ourselves.”
—Krista Tippett, Founder and CEO, The On Being Project
“There are just two outcomes that really matter: First, that students feel Judaism is the fertile ground in which they get nurtured to grow, and second, that they find Judaism joyful.” Rabbi Joy Levitt, Executive Director, JCC Manhattan
"Civil discourse requires us to listen generously and to act as though—and to really believe—we could be open to persuasion. We each may think: 'I did not cause this situation, I am not to blame.' Yet we each have the capacity to help society turn the corner, if we honestly ask what went wrong and what we can do about it."
- Martha Minow, the 300th Anniversary University Professor at Harvard University and Joseph William Singer, Bussey Professor of Law, Harvard University
The Wow Metric of Success: Jewish Life in Bloom on the Farm: Spring has arrived, and the Jewish community is busy planting with purpose. In Vaughan, Ontario, the yellow coltsfoot and purple-blue scilla are just starting to flower at the Kavanah Garden, a half acre community garden that’s part of Shoresh, the Canadian-based Jewish environmental organization that includes the Kavanah Garden and Bela Farm. Last Sunday, on “Yom Manual Labor” volunteers gathered to turn the soil, plant seeds, paint outdoor tables and participate in construction projects with the Shoresh team, preparing the garden for growing season.
“Our Jewish community is only as strong as its ability to include all members in the fabric of Jewish life. Doing so helps each of us recognize the unique strengths we all bring to the Jewish community, and that community cannot possibly be complete until we actively and intentionally welcome each other.”
-Meredith Englander Polsky, 2017 Covenant Award Recipient, Director of Institutes and Training, Matan, and Developmental Support Coordinator, Temple Beth Ami Nursery School
“From all of my teachers, I have grown wise.” Psalms 119:99. Framing Jewish Education, a project of The Jewish Lens and supported by The Covenant Foundation, was created to engage teachers, students, and families in conversation about the value of Jewish education and to illustrate the power of great teaching and learning via a curriculum based on visual literacy and text.
“For me, study is a divine and daily imperative; I study a page of Talmud daily so that I am not only teaching. My teaching is constantly being fed by my learning.” —Erica Brown Associate Professor, George Washington School of Education and Human Development. Director, Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership, 2009 Covenant Award Recipient
The Covenant Classroom means something different to every educator but common goals are to motivate, engage and be inclusive of all learners. In this volume, we’ve collected an array of Teachings on Inspiration and Motivation in all areas of Education.
#ThankATeacher It has been twenty-five years since The Covenant Foundation first opened its doors, and we continue to be humbled by extraordinary Jewish educators from across North America and across the spectrum of Jewish life who have devoted their careers and considerable talents to the field of Jewish education. Now, in celebration of a quarter-century-old tradition of honoring Jewish education and educators, and to kick off a year of public engagement around great teaching, we’re proud to share The Covenant Foundation voices app with you: a new digital way to give and share your gratitude.
“What would it look like if we bet on Jewish early childhood education for the long-term, as our tradition instructs? The task might seem large, but the reward, we know, is great (Pirkei Avot 2:15).”
“Countless leaders have been inspired by the story of the Jewish people leaving bondage in Egypt – those whose names we know, like Martin Luther King, Jr. and those whose names we never will know, whose every-day acts of kindness and resistance fuel social change. This story, our story, has become a cornerstone of modern social justice work.”
—Abby Levine, Director of The Jewish Social Justice Roundtable
This is how I see a “Covenant Classroom”: a place where challenging topics are passionately discussed; a place where complex ancient texts are grappled with; a place in which self- esteem grows, and motivation to learn increases exponentially because of it. An environment in which each Jewish soul is given the confidence to continue the eternal search for meaning.”
—Dr. Sandra Ostrowicz Lilienthal, Curriculum Developer and Instructor at The Rose and Jack Orloff Central Agency for Jewish Education of Broward County and 2015 Covenant Award Recipient
“When powerful, new approaches to learning are introduced through digital tools, meaningful disruptions occur along the way… When this happens, new approaches which previously seemed inaccessible, are suddenly within reach.”
—Barry Joseph, Associate Director for Digital Learning, Youth Initiatives, American Museum of Natural History
“The future of Jewish teen engagement can in fact be found in 3D printers, and in text-people, and in service, and outdoor education, and in anything that brings teens into contact with authentic learning experiences and passionate, caring, knowledgeable educators.”
—Charlie Schwartz, Senior Jewish Educator, Director, BIMA & Genesis, Brandeis High School Programs
Portal seems like a particularly apt metaphor for entry points into Jewish life and learning because ultimately we want those experiences to be deeply experiential and transformative. We also want them to be accessible. A portal has no toll; passage is free. At the same time, a portal is particularistic, not a generic entrance. It conveys a sense of magic, ritual, and power. Similarly, we want to convey that Jewish life is rich, layered, and meaningful beyond what is immediately apparent. We want the encounter with Jewish life to take you on a journey that is profound and surprising. And, given that each of us may enter through the same portal but have a completely different experience of what is on the other "side," the possibilities are endless.
— Judith Rosenbaum, Executive Director, The Jewish Women’s Archive
"We need a new kind of creativity in the classroom that’s going to reach Jewish kids… If a teacher is imaginative, he or she is going to connect to students’ hearts and souls.”
—Dr. Arnold Eisen, Chancellor, Jewish Theological Seminary, Board Member, The Covenant Foundation.
"There are four types of students... The sponge absorbs everything. The funnel brings in on one side lets it out the other. The strainer lets out the wine and retains the lees. The sieve lets out the flour dust and retains the fine flour." —Pirkei Avot 5:15
"There’s a misconception that a venture must depend on large grants from big donors. It makes more sense and it’s more sustainable to test out an idea, and see whether it has the opportunity to make an impact on people’s lives."
— Ariel Beery, founder, PresenTense
I think [creating new Jewish texts] is a really good description of what we’re trying to do. These days we’re increasingly creating products that are intended to be shared on the web. We’ve felt and continue to feel that this medium, and virtual communication as a whole, is being under-tapped for its possibilities for making art.
— Reflections from Sam Ball on the New Jewish Filmmaker Project