In ‘RealSchool’ And ‘Sandbox,’ Digging Up Ed Strategies
Wed, 08/14/2013
Special To The Jewish Week
Tikvah Wiener
Tikvah Wiener

About two years ago, convinced that my students at The Frisch School, a Modern Orthodox co-ed high school in Paramus, N.J., would be more engaged if given choices about what and how to learn, I started Real School.

Originally an extra-curricular activity that has involved about 75 students, RealSchool will be offered as an elective during second semester of the coming school year, though we will continue the club as well. Through RealSchool, students collaboratively work on projects they find meaningful and that, ultimately, benefit others.

Participants select teams, such as App Making, The Arts, Fashion, Graphic Design, Health and Environment, and Religious Identity, that work together on projects such as Days of Learning, where they present on topics of interest to them, and art exhibits. One particularly multidisciplinary event was a fashion show in which several teams worked together to advocate for fair trade buying practices and raise money for Somaly Mam, an organization that works to free women in Southeast Asia from slavery.

A lot of the tasks students undertake in the course of their projects are ones they haven’t done before, and an important part of RealSchool is that students get out of their comfort zones and “fail fast to fail forward,” as those who celebrate failure say. As recent Frisch graduate Ari Mendelow said in the video he created about RealSchool, “Some of the most challenging things I’ve done with my high school career were for RealSchool, but they were also among the easiest, because I actually wanted to do them.”

RealSchool prepares students for today’s world, in which they need creativity, collaboration and problem-solving skills as well as multidisciplinary thinking. The program is also focused on making learning fun, so that students will want to be lifelong learners. Akiva Mattenson and Penina Warburg, two RealSchool participants who graduated Frisch this past June, helped me plan the Summer Sandbox, a three-day event in July.

The aim of Sandbox was to have participants — people with an interest in Jewish education  — experience the passion-based, self-directed learning of RealSchool and create projects they could implement in their own educational settings. We invited teachers, students, administrators, parents and board members, in order to encourage a democratic dialogue about Jewish education and to give all stakeholders a chance to dream big about the field. By naming the event “Sandbox,” we hoped to evoke RealSchool’s playful and experimental learning environment.

We spread the word about the Sandbox, which took place at Ma’ayanot High School in Teaneck, N.J., by contacting principals and educators, primarily in the Bergen County area, and by posting on Jewish education social media sites.

About 30 people attended, most of them professional educators. Since many had, before Sandbox, expressed interest in “project-based learning” (PBL) — in which students work together on solving real-world problems and producing end products that are often multi-disciplinary and multimedia — we set up the Sandbox so that participants would spend half their time creating PBL lessons and the other half learning about it through sessions with various experts.

Peter Eckstein, director of congregational learning at Temple Beth David in West Palm Beach, Fla., worked with Tzvi Daum of TorahSkills.org on a tzedakah curriculum they hope to pilot this fall. Students and their parents will decide on how to allocate funds raised in a tzedakah drive, applying what they learn through research about various causes, as well as relevant Jewish texts. The project requires parents and children to reflect on the learning process and culminates in presentations on which charity each family chose to fund and why.

One important aspect of the Sandbox was its focus on “serendipity by design,” meaning that creativity and inspiration hit when the right people have chances to interact with one another. At the Sandbox, serendipity by design was seen in action when Leah Herzog, a Tanach teacher at Ma’ayanot, and Lauren Burstein and Nancy Edelman, English teachers at TABC High School (in Teaneck), both interviewed RealSchool’s Akiva and Penina, so the educators could refine their projects with direct student input.

While Herzog worked on a project involving the definition of law in Deuteronomy, and Burstein and Edelman worked on a unit about George Orwell’s “1984,” they all tapped into the resources of Pam Ennis, a lawyer who is now Ma’ayanot’s director of development and was eager to contemplate digital citizenship issues relevant to those two projects.

Just as RealSchool creates a classroom environment where learning is democratic, the Sandbox did as well, allowing anyone interested in and enthusiastic about Jewish education to dream big about what it can be like in the coming years. Participants came from organizations such as Areyvut, Behrman House, The Covenant Foundation and Raising Digital Natives, as well as elementary and high school settings. Participants wore multiple hats, voicing opinions as parents, educators, administrators, former students, board members and lay leaders.

Imaginative and inventive PBL units emerged from the Sandbox, but by its end, participants weren’t just excited by what they could bring back to their schools: they were also energized by the new community they had formed, one that was eager to continue discussing the pedagogies Sandbox had focused on and ready to share that dialogue with others.

For more information about RealSchool, check out our website, http://frischrealschool.org and follow us on Twitter @RealSchool1. Or contact me at Tikvah.Wiener@gmail.com.

Tikvah Wiener is coordinator of interdisciplinary studies, chairman of the English department, and an educator at The Frisch School.