Shifting Paradigms for Student Collaboration
At Fuchs Mizrachi’s Stark High School, deep, extended collaboration, through which students bring their individual talents together to produce and create meaningful work, has replaced older ways of learning. Some examples:
Students working together to write, illustrate and publish children’s storybooks on the Cold War era in their tenth grade humanities class.
Groups preparing for their schoolwide Hebrew exhibition assembling artifacts, research and group learning journals that track the development of various parts of Israeli culture like cuisine, fashion or healthcare.
Chavrutot in the Beit Midrash working to apply their understanding of complex texts in Gemara or Tanakh to producing videos, skits or posters that express their understanding of underlying essential questions.
Jewish history students participating in a Chasidim vs. Mitnagdim mini-color war where they worked in teams to campaign and represent their ideologies in creative ways.
The shift to more student centered learning was not a function of one or two individual workshops or a few teachers inspired by a conference. It has been, instead, the product of a process we have engaged in to shift the paradigms of teaching and learning in high school. To do this, we needed to re-examine some of the basic assumptions about how a dual curriculum Jewish day school operates. So far, our efforts have focused on three major areas that we consider critical to creating a lasting paradigm shift.
Meaningful collaboration where students develop ideas, refine them and create something together requires significant time. We felt that continuing to run students through a day of eight or nine different classes that met for forty minutes each prevented teachers from designing and students from engaging in the type of learning we envisioned. Therefore, we moved to a blocked schedule for most classes and integrated some subjects together (i.e., English and history became co-taught humanities courses, Chumash and Navi became one Tanakh course). This helped us moved the number of courses students were taking in a given semester from nine to six and build days for students where they could spend more time focused on fewer subjects.
Significant educational research (especially from the Making Caring Common project at Harvard) has highlighted the critical role a caring community and relationships play in developing an environment of trust and collaboration. We spent a year working with teachers on how they can communicate and provide feedback in ways that better convey a sense of care and concern for students. This year, we also began an advisory program where students meet for two periods a week with a teacher who can check in with their progress and facilitate conversations about social-emotional and academic issues.
For teachers to design learning in ways that encourage collaboration, they needed opportunities to collaborate in their own learning. Teacher PD, therefore, shifted to more collaborative planning time. Tanakh teachers, for example, worked in pairs to design units together. Multidisciplinary teams of teachers participated in regular meetings where they followed a protocol to collaboratively refine their plans for upcoming projects. During designated PD days, teachers shared successes with each other and collaborated to design and refine new strategies.
Collaboration, therefore, serves as both the trigger and result of our continued efforts to enhance the meaning, depth and engagement of students in learning at Fuchs Mizrachi. Of course, the vision for our efforts itself emerged and continues to develop from a collaborative effort between lay leadership, faculty, the head of school and high school leadership team. Combining our collective understanding of student needs, development, curriculum and pedagogy with our passion for continued growth and improvement has helped this new initiative quickly move from “some new ideas and initiatives” to, more simply, “the way we do things.”