HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal


Multiple Subject Areas, Multiple Life Skills: Integrated Project Based Learning (IPBL)

by Leah Spector, Orry Jacobs Issue: Educational Innovation Mandel Jewish Day School, Beachwood, OH

One of the primary functions of a Jewish day school is to help create healthy, functioning members of both society-at-large and the Jewish community. With this goal in mind, we at the Mandel Jewish Day School in Beachwood, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland, have adopted an approach to education called Integrated Project-Based learning (IPBL). We have been amazed at how this approach to education has impacted our students at all grade levels, involving them more directly in the educational process, thereby creating excitement, nurturing a thirst for learning and aiding in leadership development.

IPBL is a dynamic academic approach in which students gain domain knowledge and skills by working collaboratively for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to a complex essential question. Essential questions are rich and open-ended ones that can be viewed in-depth and at many different levels, and they can be revisited over time. Examples are: What is freedom? What responsibility do humans have toward the environment?

Why Add Integration to PBL?

Traditionally, a teacher will decide to use PBL in his or her classroom to deepen the students’ understanding of a topic, with an eye toward authentic learning. While this approach is still effective for particular classrooms, often it hinders students’ ability to make critical connections that can enable them to deepen their understanding. Integration allows students to understand the world around them as a place of connectivity. Students learn that the world is not compartmentalized, and neither is their learning. Whatever their future profession, it is likely to require proficiency in multiple areas that are interconnected. Students are asked to respond to complex problems using research and critical thinking, and to do so through the lens of different subject areas and skill sets.

Adding Integration to PBL allows concepts and events to be observed and examined through multiple lenses and subjects. Integration elevates the students’ connection with the subject matter. IPBL has students identify, investigate and respond to an essential question using knowledge gained through different subject areas and by making cross-curricular connections.

This approach to PBL includes learning fundamental life skills related to communication, creativity, public speaking, teamwork and leadership. Integration involves learning not just multiple subject areas but also multiple life skills. An additional life skill is emphasized in each grade level.

IPBL helps students become more resilient in the face of adversity. As Thomas Edison said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Making mistakes, trying a new path, and reflecting on where one is in the creative process are all critical parts of the IPBL process.

Design Process

Our approach to IPBL, which continues to evolve, has been based upon design thinking, which is a creative process founded on the “building up” of ideas. It uses techniques like observing, interviewing, empathy mapping, storyboarding, relative thinking and creating low-tech prototypes. We have added a focus on community, so that each project connects students to the broader community and incorporates tikkun olam, one of our core values.

Our IPBL process involves substantial teacher planning, including:

Brainstorming project ideas with students to find a project that interests them. In our lower school, the focus is on projects for which students have passion. In the middle school, the focus is on projects reflecting empathy.

Meeting with faculty colleagues to determine commonalities across subject areas. Faculty review common core standards and preexisting subject units. We usually begin with science, math and social studies, and then weave in language arts, Hebrew, art, music and technology.

Developing the essential question that the project must answer. Buy-in is cultivated through a kickoff event or an interesting activity.

Identifying potential community partners and community experts who can be invited to participate.

Making effective student teams based on student interests, academic abilities and social-emotional characteristics.

Developing ideas for exhibiting the final project. Issues considered in collaboration with the students are: what space will be used, how the space will be transformed and project budget.

Creating a timeline complete with meetings, project milestones and the schedule for what is being taught and by whom.

The IPBL design process used is as follows:

Project Kickoff. The kickoff is all about creating excitement and intrigue from the students’ perspectives. The kickoff might include field trips, simulations, video trailers and possibly guest appearances. Brainstorming takes place with the students to discover what they know about the topic and to determine the ways in which the project may contribute to the school, Jewish community and/or local community.

Learn. Assignments are tailored to elicit responses to the essential question. Assignments are differentiated to meet the needs of all learners, and students are provided research tools. Mini-workshops are held to enable students to successfully develop prototypes.

Project Development. As the project unfolds, it is essential that students have a voice and that they have choices to make. Opportunities are provided for students to problem solve and for them to decide how best to improve prototypes and written documents.

Feedback. Constructive feedback is provided both by teachers and peers, and time is allowed for students to make revisions and to assemble different project components.

Public Presentation. Students and teachers brainstorm the logistics of the presentation (time, place, schedule and layout). We believe that the presentation is as important as the project, as it provides important experience in public speaking and presenting. We require it to be professional, so it requires multiple rehearsals. All stakeholders are invited to attend, including other students, parents, community members and field experts.

Community Connection. Whenever possible, we try to connect the project to the larger community. Sometimes project products or money are donated to community organizations. This helps the students to develop empathy for others.

Reflection and Assessment. At the end of the project, students are debriefed and led in reflecting on everything they have learned. Both students and faculty complete an individual evaluation, which is shared with the class. Faculty also administer an academic assessment to measure the development of skills.

Sample Project: Model City

The third grade undertook a project with the essential question, “How can we change Cleveland to reflect the use of its natural resources?”

For the kickoff, the students watched a drone video of downtown Cleveland, and listened to the song “Cleveland Rocks.” Later, students heard from an engineer and a Cleveland artist, and they participated in a field trip to Cleveland. Guided investigation included reading articles about Cleveland and related topics, and reviewing building blueprints.

Multiple subjects were incorporated:

Writing—essays on creating your own city, and summarizing and sequencing an assigned novel.

Math—learning metric measurements, measuring circumference, learning about 2D and 3D shapes, and creating prisms, cubes, pyramids and cylinders.

Social Studies—integrating map skills, comparing and contrasting Cleveland to other cities with bodies of water, and learning about how other cities use their waterfronts.

Hebrew—introducing Hebrew vocabulary for shapes and writing Hebrew narratives about what students like about Cleveland.

Art—creating prototypes of proposed changes to Cleveland.

Technology—creating a storyboard, designing a brochure about proposed changes to the Cleveland waterfront and using Google Draw to devise prototypes.

Students created a 3D scale model of Cleveland, including mini-models of buildings and elevation sketches. After building the model, the third graders noticed that Cleveland does not utilize its waterfront very much. They compared Cleveland to other waterfront cities, and developed plans to make better use of the waterfront. Street signs were made, as well as plaques for major landmarks. The final public presentation showed the different landmarks, provided an explanation of the model buildings and highlighted the differences between Cleveland and other cities.

Community involvement was secured through:

Displaying the proposed city model at the local library.

Donating funds to a local organization that is helping to develop the Cleveland waterfront.

Adding more layers to the project; this year, for example, they plan to meet with the Cleveland mayor to pitch their ideas for a new waterfront.

After six months of work on the project, students were assessed on their final product and presentation skills. At the end, teachers and students reflected on the process and the final product through written reflection and discussion.

Considerations in Implementing IPBL

Successfully implementing IPBL is a journey that takes years and is ever evolving. We’ve made a number of mistakes over the years, and we continue to make changes every year. Some of the keys to success are:

Having strong backing from the board, head of school, and the senior leadership team.

Recognizing that a change in culture is required, involving much more collaboration among the faculty and with the students.

Taking the time to develop buy-in from the faculty.

Actively involving students throughout the process at every grade level. Seek the input even of preschool students.

Educating parents about IPBL, so that they can be supportive and helpful to their children.

IPBL can be an effective program that helps prepare students for success in life and the 21st century work environment. Students become very engaged in their education, and they develop skills that will serve to provide a solid foundation for further growth and development.

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Educational Innovation

The articles in this issue represent the balance between the old and the new, sacred and profane embodied in Jewish history. The issue tells the story of the drive for innovation in modern education that has gained strength in recent decades. It features efforts to learn from, adopt and adapt innovative programs and pedagogies from the larger educational universe, even as authors advise caution, patience and planning around such changes.

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