By Rabbi Rebecca Rosenthal and Mirit Sands

This is the fourth in a weekly series of posts from a coalition of institutions across the continent devoted to nurturing the emerging transformation of congregational and part-time Jewish education. The series is curated by the Leadership Commons at the William Davidson Graduate School of Education of The Jewish Theological Seminary.

If asked to paint a picture of their synagogue educational experiences over the past few years, learners, families, and educators at Central Synagogue in Manhattan would describe a combination of the following: traditional teaching, frontal learning, tefillah, Hebrew, Torah, holiday celebrations, and Israel. They would also consistently talk about absent learners and the difficulty of trying to meaningfully engage students with the content. We know that this level of disengagement and illiteracy is not what we want for our students and will not fulfill our goal of helping them act as engaged Jews in the world.

As a result, after countless conversations with parents, students, staff, and other stakeholders, as well as research into the best practices happening in other communities, we crafted a new vision for the Lese Center for Living Judaism (LCLJ): to become a transformative hub for community, differentiated learning, reflective practice, and authentic Jewish experience. We selected Project Based Learning (PBL) as the best frame with which to achieve our learning and engagement goals. Even with only one year of experience under our belts, we can see how for us, PBL has transformed our learning community in important ways.

Investment of staff as reflective practitioners: To prepare for implementation with students, our staff participated in a three-day training program facilitated by the Buck Institute for Education to learn the ins and outs of PBL and prepare our new curriculum for this change. One of the hallmarks of PBL is the need for students and teachers to continuously engage in reflective practice. Educators do not just teach and move onto the next lesson. Rather, we engage in daily and weekly reflection to ensure that our goals are being met and project targets are being hit. Educators understand the purpose of what they are teaching and are invested in helping their students reach their goals.

Depth of content: One of the first pieces of feedback we heard from parents was that they wanted their children to have more than a superficial understanding of Jewish values and tradition. To that end, we implemented a trimester schedule for third to seventh graders, giving them the opportunity to explore three different units every year on topics from Bible to Jewish law, rituals to life-cycle events, the Holocaust to Israel. In a fifth-grade life-cycle class, for example, students learn every detail of what happens when someone dies, from preparing the body for burial to what to do at a shivah. These students now will be prepared for the time when they face a death in their family or in the family of one of their friends. They will both know what to do and how to be a supportive presence in a difficult time.

Studentdriven learning: The vast majority of feedback we received informed us that students want to be engaged and take their learning in their own direction. PBL provides our learners the autonomy to decide what they want to explore within the unit. For example, within the life-cycle unit, each group can choose a different moment in the life cycle. Although we set the broad strokes of the curriculum, the details are no longer about filling our students’ heads with information. PBL empowers our learners to transform into the educators as they formulate questions about their topic and research their answers. We then switch gears from teacher to facilitator, providing them with the tools and resources needed to advance their learning. As students expand their Jewish content knowledge, they are also acquiring the essential skills Dr. Tony Wagner, in his book Most Likely to Succeed, asserts are essential for both career and citizenship: “formulation of independent opinions, collaboration, critical thinking, problem-solving, creativity, and communication skills.”

Classroom community: PBL is rooted in authenticity, collaboration, and reflection, which enables us to naturally instill a sense of belonging and community in each learner. As groups are based on common interests, our learners work with both their friends, and classmates they may not know as well. They step out of their comfort zone, expanding their circle as they collaborate with each other and work toward the same goal: crafting a project that responds to the question or challenge at hand. In every step of the project, the groups formulate questions, reflect on their experiences, listen to their peers’ experiences and projects, and provide constructive feedback. They learn how to support, challenge, and encourage each other’s learning. PBL transforms our learners and educators into a community of reflective practitioners.

Community participation: Moreover, PBL encourages participation from the wider congregational community. To help personalize the content, guests are invited to share their expertise with our learners. Central Synagogue clergy, staff members, community members, and parents volunteer their time to share their own experiences engaging in Jewish holidays and life-cycle events, and their concept of and relationship to God. As a result, the wider Central community is more deeply connected to and invested in what our students are learning and helping them to grow by creating new connections that were not made in a more traditional learning environment.

The benefits we are experiencing from implementing a PBL model are extraordinary and reinvigorating. Our learners come to school ready and eager to work on their projects. They tell their families how much they’ll miss if they are absent one day. Our learners delve into the Jewish content with a sense of purpose and determination while also developing essential lifelong skills. According to Wagner, “Education needs to help our youth discover their passions and purpose in life, develop the critical skills needed to be successful in pursuing their goals, be inspired on a daily basis to do their very best, and be active and informed citizens.” Through its emphasis on student-driven learning and creation of a supportive, nurturing learning environment, PBL has changed the way our learners, their families, and our educators engage with Central Synagogue, with Judaism, and with one another.

A gallery of student work from the Lese Center for Living Judaism can be found here.

Rabbi Rebecca Rosenthal is the director of youth and family education at Central Synagogue. She holds rabbinic ordination from The Rabbinical School of The Jewish Theological Seminary and a master’s degree in Jewish Education from the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education at JTS.

Mirit Sands is a full-time educator at Central Synagogue. She holds a master’s degree in Jewish Education from the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education at JTS.

This article is cross posted at eJewishPhilanthropy