Dive in, kids projects spur creative thinking, teamwork

Thanks to 14-year-old Seth Pope, incoming students at Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School may be receiving a nice welcome-back-to-school gift in the fall: a later start time.

In a project last year, he and a friend studied the effects of starting school about an hour later and altering the structure of the school day to benefit learning. Pope presented his findings to school administrators, who are considering implementing some of his ideas into the upcoming school year’s schedule.

“I am just not a great early riser,” said Pope, who attended the Jewish day school since kindergarten and graduated from eighth grade in the spring.

Kindergarteners at Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School drive through the peaceful city they created, Ir Shalom.

Pope may not be an early riser, but he is a model student, according to Cindy Schlesinger, learning specialist and experiential learning coordinator at the Palo Alto school.

And all of his hard work is an example of how Hausner is implementing project-based learning into its curriculum.

Hausner — as well as other Jewish day schools throughout the Bay Area — use project-based learning to both inspire and deeply educate their students.

“Our job is to prepare students for jobs that are probably not around yet,” said Schlesinger. “It’s not a matter of the simple rote memorization anymore.

“It’s about how you think critically, how you communicate with others, how you cooperate with a group and how you have creative thoughts, and how you use that creativity to problem-solve and do work. All these things can be hit by project-based learning.”

Learning through projects is not a new concept. Students have been writing research papers, creating PowerPoint presentations or posters, and even collaborating in small group projects for some time. What is new is the application of educational theory and improved teaching structure within the classroom.

Educators are receiving formal training on how to best teach project-based learning (known in education circles as PBL) from places like the not-for-profit Buck Institute for Education in Novato, and longtime Jewish educators such as Tikva Weiner are working on ways to spread PBL concepts and provide support to independent schools across the country.

Weiner, who teaches at Magen David Yeshivah High School in Brooklyn, New York, launched a workshop series called “Summer Sandbox” to bring tools and resources on project-based learning to schools across the country. She said project-based learning’s rise in popularity among educators stems from the changing nature of the economy and the jobs it supports.

“I don’t think it’s a fad,” Weiner said. “I think we have to acknowledge that we’re living in a 21st-century world.”

Traditional education, she continued, promotes conformity through standardized testing and a singular, academic mode of learning. With project-based learning, however, educators and students can approach an idea or question from multiple angles, providing a richer, more enduring learning experience.

Eighth-graders at Oakland Hebrew Day School hold a miniature roller coaster competition during their unit on physics.

Students become more adept at critical thinking, peer collaboration, public speaking and practical applications of an idea — all useful skills in the real world, noted Weiner.

“They are learning on their own and they are self-directed,” she said, “and they are able to access information they are interested in.”

At Ronald C. Wornick Jewish Day School in Foster City, projects include a kindergarten exploration of what constitutes a city, and a fourth-grade creation of an app to solve a social problem linked to a Jewish value.

“In all cases,” said head of school Barbara Gereboff, “we use a protocol called ‘I wonder, I notice, I appreciate,’ where students receive feedback from peers and from teachers and then are expected to refine their work based on the feedback.”

All of the grades — from transitional kindergarten to eight — participate in project-based learning, and their final projects are presented to parents, teachers and peers. Wornick students participate in project-based learning that centers around the work of Ron Berger’s educational treatise “An Ethic of Excellence” (2003). The Massachusetts-based educator now serves as chief program officer for the nonprofit school improvement network Expeditionary Learning, a national network of over 160 project-based schools in 30 states.

At Contra Costa Jewish Day School in Lafayette, each grade — kindergarten through eight — adopts a Jewish value for the year, then creates projects around that theme. One class, for example, studies sustainability and learns to compost and care for a garden, and how to recycle properly. Then they take it a step further.

“The students have educated the rest of the school, and now everybody is doing a great job of recycling their trash,” said Lisa Friedman, CCJDS’s dean of faculty.

“The learning is much more authentic” through PBL, she explained. “If there’s a real purpose behind it, which there is, the students feel as if they are doing something and it means something to somebody. That is a huge motivator.”

Project-based learning can also be a motivator for parents looking to provide a meaningful education for their children, said Phillipa Lichterman, admissions director at Oakland Hebrew Day School.

“Many parents who consider Oakland Hebrew Day School want their child to gain a critical understanding of what they are learning in both general and Judaic studies … and also graduate with a strong understanding of character [middot],” she said in an email.

Tania Schweig, OHDS director of general studies, said in her 16 years at the school, project-based learning has become more sophisticated and well-executed by the faculty. In fact, she said, many faculty members are drawn to the school because of its use of PBL.

Students also appreciate the teaching method, she explained, often designing their own projects and meeting with teachers to discuss their ideas.

It requires a fine balance, Schweig said, to allow students to achieve quality independent work while guiding them toward their goals.

“I never stop being in awe,” Schweig said. “By the time they get into eighth grade, what they are capable of doing is an incredible thing. I feel so confident putting them out in the world.”

For Seth Pope, who will enter ninth grade at Menlo School next month, the project-based experience at Hausner provided him with a deep sense of confidence in his ability to be a creative, productive, problem-solving member of society.

“It showed me all the possibilities I have and all the things I can do in general,” he said. “Everything isn’t going to go as planned — you’ll have to problem solve and fix it. Even a small individual can make a difference in the world.”

Shoshana Hebshi
Shoshana Hebshi

Shoshana Hebshi is a freelance writer and former J. copy editor living in the North Bay.