ARTICLE“Why This Matters”: Making Connections at The Idea School

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.

After learning the laws of kashrut and of ethical business practices, sophomore students created their own food truck business. The students had to present their progress on the project to the Board of The Idea School.

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.

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