Tikvah is the head of school of The Idea School, an Orthodox, project-based learning (PBL) high school in Tenafly, NY. She also heads The Idea Institute, which since 2014, has trained over 1500 educators in project-based learning and educational innovation. 

Keeping it Fresh

This summer will mark nine years since The Idea Institute (formerly the I.D.E.A. Schools Network) first started running the Summer Sandbox, a professional development conference for teachers interested in learning how to implement project-based learning (PBL) and other educational innovations. One question I often get from potential registrants is whether returning to a Sandbox is a worthwhile experience; that is, are the Sandboxes all the same?

One answer is that though a participant can always take what we call PBL 101 and 201 workshops, we deliberately add additional components to the Sandbox to keep it fresh and innovative. For example, at two Sandboxes we had Design Thinking sprints, where attendees had to redesign some aspect of Jewish learning in a day- or supplementary-school setting. (Looking at you, tefillah!) At one Sandbox we did a deep dive into Game-Based Learning; at another, we worked with JETS Israel, exploring how to weave digital and other innovative learning strategies with PBL. In short, we want educators to discover myriad ways to expand classroom learning in original and enriching directions.

PBL for All Teachers 

Because PBL has so many different facets and exciting components to explore, another innovation we make each year is with the PBL 101 and 201 workshops themselves. We’re mindful that not all educators can or want to do full-scale PBL in their classrooms, so we’re always thinking about the elements of the pedagogy that everyone might want to use. Three that have been popular with schools recently are creative assessments, authentic learning and student voice and choice. 

During Covid in particular, educators discovered a need for creative assessments; test taking was hard on Zoom, where it was easy to cheat. Having developed a cadre of digital projects we used during the pandemic, we’re now sharing those as well as ones we did in real life, in order to show teachers that even post-Zoom, we can enrich our classrooms with more creative work. Similarly, we’re seeing that teachers are interested in authentic learning, connecting with the world in tangible, authentic ways. It could be that now that we’re out of lockdown, we’re looking for opportunities to forge ties with others, particularly in our Jewish studies classrooms where we want our students connected to their learning not just intellectually but emotionally as well.

Student voice and choice is always an appealing entry point into PBL. I can’t remember when we haven’t offered a workshop on that aspect of it. Thinking about ways to appeal to the different interests, passions and learning modalities of the many students in one’s classes is the starting point of fostering a more student-centered classroom. 

I don’t know yet know what we’ll drill into in this year’s Summer Sandbox - planned for late June - but I know it will grow from the conversations and concerns we’ve been hearing educators have and express over the past year. Just as student voice and choice is key to developing a classroom with student agency, listening to what teachers want is key to building the professional development (PD) they want to engage in.

Making Change That Lasts

One of the areas that remains a challenge for educators is sustaining a commitment to change. We know that immersing in PBL, or even parts of it, is hard and requires significant resources of time and effort by an administration and teaching staff. On top of everything else, Covid has placed untold demands on everyone in education, and just surviving these times has required every bit of energy we have. Contemplating embarking on culturewide school or even classroom change seems quixotic.

Even before Covid, we know that many of us attend PD, grow exuberant about a new theory or practice, vow to completely transform our classes, and then find ourselves in the daily grind of school where the most stirred we become is from having a working whiteboard marker or classroom printer. How do we build cultures of learning in our school so that we can see real change over the course of one, two, three or even ten years? As administrators and educators, how do we raise our heads high enough above a SmartBoard to see trends we want to be part of and reforms we want to accelerate? 

That too is what we try to address at the Sandbox. We’ve encountered the teachers and schools that are resistant to change and acknowledge the undertow of the refrain, “This is the way we’ve always done it, so why do we need to do x differently?” We also see the very real struggle of those who want to change but don’t know how or get bogged down in the countless details of running a school or classroom. We don’t have a magic bullet, but in the ice breakers and creativity workshops we build into the Sandbox, we try to foster a growth mindset, give permission for educators to make mistakes and fail forward, and help them build the courage they need to push through discomfort with themselves, colleagues, students and parents as they try something new.

PD as Renewal 

After nine years of planning the Sandbox, I still get excited about doing so. It reminds me of my days in the classroom. I started as an English teacher, but didn’t get bored of teaching the same books each year. I would always look for something new to make a work of literature more relevant, fresh and appealing. Last year, and again for the upcoming Sandbox, I’m working with Rachel Dratch at Prizmah and Judith Talesnick and Jonathan Fass at The Jewish Education Project. They’ve put their stamp on the conference and helped me think about it in new ways. 

I suppose that’s what we want out of any worthwhile PD experience: a chance to see ourselves as educators and our classrooms and schools in a new way, to take a step out of the mundane and to renew ourselves, so that our learning spaces are ones where our students can do the same.

The Idea School Interactive map

A student puts the finishing touches on an interactive map of Israel, done for a Judaic studies project at The Idea School. How do we sustain the desire to change so our classrooms are exciting and energizing for us and out students?