Beth Tfiloh Lower School students participated in a multi-week and school-wide interdisciplinary learning experience about various landmarks in Israel. Students (K-4th grade) conceived of, developed, and created fifteen hands-on exhibits to share their learning with the broader student and family community.
Beth Tfiloh’s Lower School Israel Fair: A Student-led Interdisciplinary Experience
With Americans Jews feeling more distant, detached, or apathetic towards Israel than any generation prior, Jewish educators face a tall order: to cultivate a strong sense of pride, commitment and deep knowledge of the country, its history, and its global importance. With research pointing to the importance of elementary education in establishing foundational knowledge and long-lasting attitudes towards learning, Jewish elementary schools need to build a sound foundation of the their students’ knowledge of and engagement with the state of Israel as Jewish homeland, democratic and diverse country, and a center of technological and scientific innovation.
Beth Tfiloh Lower School students participated in a multi-week and school-wide interdisciplinary learning experience about various landmarks in Israel. In our capacities, (Elana Weissman as Teacher Mentor and School Counselor, and Elissa Hozore as Technology Integration Specialist), we are lucky to work with all teachers and students within the lower school at Beth Tfiloh, and oversaw the implementation of this student-centered, project-based process.
Each lower school class took on the study of a different landmark in Israel. Teachers used a variety of modalities to introduce their landmark to their students, and to spark students’ questions about the significance of the landmark. After a week of research and inquiry, students chose what aspect of their landmark they wanted to learn more about, developed questions to explore, and consulted with experts and specialists to delve into their inquiries. Students in kindergarten through 4th grade conceived of and developed hands-on interdisciplinary exhibits to share their learning with the broader student and family community. This project culminated with a week-long Israel Fair, where students acted as docents for their exhibits, teaching other students, families, and community members about the importance of their landmark.
Our overarching goals for this interdisciplinary unit of Israel education were for:
- Students to develop both a deep and broad understanding of their landmark in terms of its history and relevance to the state of Israel, the Jewish people, and the world at large;
- Students to engage meaningfully with the content they were studying and to have voice and choice in directing their learning experience;
- Students to create an interactive exhibit for an authentic audience to share their learning.
The Israel Fair at Beth Tfiloh Lower School always begins on Yom Ha’atzmaut and remains on display for a week thereafter. It serves as the most in-depth opportunity for students to learn about Israel each year. In previous years, the process of the fair was a fully teacher-driven, siloed experience, where each class learned about a topic of the teacher’s choosing, and created trifold-board presentations to share their learning with other classes. General Studies and Judaic Studies teachers planned different projects for their students to complete during their respective teaching times. Specialists in the school had no involvement in the fair whatsoever.
Beginning last January, led by Elana Weissman (Teacher Mentor and School Counselor), Beth Tfiloh Lower School faculty re-envisioned the learning process of the Israel Fair as a student-centered and project-based interdisciplinary experience.
- Five months prior to the beginning of our Israel Fair experience, teachers brainstormed a long list of Israeli landmarks that would offer students a meaningful, developmentally appropriate learning experience. General Studies and Judaic Studies classroom teaching teams decided together on the landmark that their students would research and learn about. We (the teacher mentor/school counselor and technology teacher) provided teachers with easy access to resources about their chosen site. The teachers then curated and customized the materials for students to use independently.
- In January of 2017, teachers participated in a 3 hour professional development, and reimagined the Israel Fair process as a student-centered learning experience, whereby students would have the agency and autonomy to choose how they wanted to learn about their landmark, what they wanted to focus on, and how they would create an exhibit for the fair.
- We provided a framework and guidelines for teachers to utilize as they collaborated on the interdisciplinary approach to introducing their landmark. Our Specialist Teachers in technology, science, art, music, and library worked together with the classroom teachers to integrate these modalities and to offer insight into different avenues for learning about each landmark.
- In preparation for the multi-week unit, the lower school collected recyclable materials from the Beth Tfiloh community to put together a temporary Makerspace, which students would then use to represent their hands-on learning.
- To allow for longer chunks of classroom time and accessibility to Specialist Teachers, we reorganized our daily schedule for the two-weeks of the project. This gave students more unrestricted time to explore and delve into their learning and exhibit creations, with the support of General Studies, Judaic Studies, and Specialist faculty.
Phase 1: Planning and Research
For four days, both Judaic and General Studies classrooms transformed into hubs of student-driven, autonomous learning, where, individually and in small groups, students learned about, researched, and asked questions about their landmark. With some direct instruction, small group learning, exploration of artifacts and interviews with “Israeli experts”, students learned all about their landmark. Teachers kept track of student interests and questions and offered small group experiences for students to explore questions in depth. Students took ownership of their learning, planned the steps to their projects, determined necessary materials and identified who they needed to consult with. Specialists served as consultants, scheduling meetings with students and using their classrooms as multi-age labs where students worked on projects.
Watch some of the planning here.
Phase 2: Creation and Working
After nearly a week of research, students began their projects with the understanding that these exhibits would be presented to the broader school community at the Israel Fair. Using technological tools alongside materials from the Makerspace, students demonstrated their learning in vastly different ways, all of which reflected their creativity, interests, and individual talents. Many different disciplines — math, Hebrew language, history, Tanach (Bible), language arts, science, and technology — coalesced together in individual creations. Students had the choice of working by themselves or in small groups. While teachers served as guides and facilitators, students developed and created projects independently. Walking in the school hallways during the Creation and Working phase, one could feel a palpable energy that was different than a typical week. Students were immersed in hands-on learning, seeking support from different teachers and from each other. One could see collaboration and engagement in each and every classroom, with teachers supporting students towards the goals the students themselves had set out to achieve. Watch the students creating here.
Phase 3: Final Exhibition
On Yom Ha’atzmaut, students finalized the displays of their completed projects. The hallways of the school were lined with interactive exhibits, powerpoints, and artistic representations. Alcoves, classrooms, and outdoor gardens became Machane Yehuda, Bedouin tents, a Coral Reef, and an active drip irrigation system. Each exhibit communicated what students had learned and integrated from an interdisciplinary exploration of their landmark. Each exhibit had required critical thinking, was the result of collaboration, demonstrated creativity, and was the end product of repeated iterations and persistence. See some of the exhibits here.
Here are some of the presentations the students created:
To celebrate the interdisciplinary and creative learning of our Lower School students, community members were invited to a Museum Night where students from each class served as docents for their exhibits. Join the tours:
The Overall Journey: Four Stories
While we have told the story of our Israel Fair experience through snapshots from various classes’, we want to offer a more overarching “aerial view” of the Israel Fair process through the stories of four classes’ projects, from inception to completion.
Mrs. Waxman and Ms. Rubenstein’s kindergarten class
Mrs. Wolf and Mrs. Ziffer’s 1st grade class
Mrs. Kaplowitz’s 1st grade class
Mrs. Erlanger and Mrs. Platt’s 4th grade class
Redesigning the Israel Fair process on a school-wide level was an overwhelming, instructive, and rewarding experience for the Lower School faculty. While stepping outside of our comfort zone was a stressful experience for all of us as teachers, the energetic, holistic, and deep learning that took place over the course of the unit far surpassed our expectations. The hands-on, integrated approach and process were exceptionally meaningful, and sparked children’s curiosity and excitement for learning. Teachers were amazed by student expertise and engagement, and realized that the more autonomy they gave the students, the more the students owned and regulated their own learning process. Watching students used what they had learned and apply it to develop something they were invested in was gratifying. Observing as they pushed themselves to learn more was exciting. As one teacher said in a group reflection on the experience, “The process was simply priceless”.
As we are always looking to learn and improve upon our work, we recognize there were some logistical challenges that need tweaking for the process this upcoming year. The nature of our schedule (GS in the morning and JS in the afternoon), made it difficult for teachers to coordinate with each other in “real time”. While some specialists were swamped with student requests for consultations, other specialists were more uncertain of the role that they played. In addition, Hebrew teachers, who teach multiple classes within multiple grades, were unsure how to best contribute to students’ learning experiences. Teachers also noted that some children were overwhelmed by the autonomy and choice, and may benefit from more scaffolded autonomy.
Based on our own reflections and our reflections with the teaching faculty, we will address these challenges through reexamining the schedule for the Israel Fair process, and brainstorming with Specialists and Hebrew teachers as to how they can most effectively contribute to the learning.
Our final takeaway is amazement with our students. Given the chance to jump into learning in a way that naturally blended the many disciplines that we teach, our students accomplished more than any of us thought was possible. They– and we– were driven, passionate, and engaged in what we know was an unforgettable experience of Israel education.
Below is a sample of feedback from teachers, administrators, and parents:
Letter from Dr. Zipora Schorr, Head of School:
Your projects were exceptional–each and every one of them– and they spoke to the enormous effort that went into them. Even more important was the relevance, the depth, and the meaning in the displays and in the involvement of students as they created the displays.
Kol Ha-kavod to each of you–and to your students, who learned from everything you demonstrated and taught.
Letter to Lower School Faculty from Nina Wand and Susan Yurow, Lower School Principals:
We’re sure you are all exhausted! Today was the culmination of much planning, hard work, determination, creativity, and joy. This year’s Israel Fair is beyond compare! Even more compelling, is the level of student engagement and excitement for learning in our school over the past two weeks.
In the coming days, we are looking forward to visiting the displays with your students so they can teach us all that they’ve learned and we can share your nachat (pride). It was a very meaningful and special day and we are thankful to each of you for your part in making it that way.
With much gratitude,
Nina and Susan
Letter from 2nd grade parent:
Just wanted to let you know I had a chance to look at the Israel Fair exhibit and it’s beautiful! Thank you for allowing the kids to participate – the Eilat exhibit is really wonderful and I know Romia had such a blast helping with it. She was so proud of the final product as she should be! Good job to you and all the children!
Letter from a student after they visited their studied landmark, the Biblical Zoo:
Dear Mrs. Harrison and Morah Laifer,
Yesterday I went to the Biblical Zoo and I thought I would share some pictures with you. My favorite thing was the bears, the Sumatran tiger, the lions and the elephants.I didn’t realize how close you could get to animals. I also didn’t remember how big the zoo is.
These are the pictures from the zoo.
Mrs. Kotlicky, 3rd grade General Studies teacher:
The process we used for our Israel Fair was a bit unsettling at first. As a teacher, I felt a lack of control as to how the project would proceed. The students, however, took to it immediately with their creative ideas and thoughts! They came up with how they wanted to present their information, each small group doing their own thing, until they had a finished product they were proud of. It was an amazing experience to watch it come together!
Mrs. Laifer, 3rd Grade Judaics teacher:
It was amazing to see how much the students were able to do on their own. From their technology, creativity, and general knowledge, it was incredible to see how they were able to construct these outstanding exhibits.
Morah Dina, Kindergarten Hebrew teacher:
I thought this experience was amazing. It was a hands-on experience that they had never had before and they demonstrated such independence. I also loved teaching like that.
Elana Weissman is the School Counselor and Teacher Mentor at the Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community Lower School. In her work at Beth Tfiloh, Elana oversees the social and emotional learning in the lower school, and teaches mindfulness practice to all students in kindergarten through 4th grade. Elana also mentors classroom teachers in student-centered instructional practice and in incorporating social-emotional learning into the classroom environment. Prior to her work at Beth Tfiloh, Elana taught 2nd and 4th grade at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School. Elana has a BA from Barnard College, an MSW from University of Maryland, and is currently pursuing her doctorate in education from the Johns Hopkins University.
Elissa Hozore is the Director of Lower School Technology at the Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community Lower School. In her capacity, Elissa teaches computer technologies, coding, and robotics to all lower school students (K- 4th grade). She works with lower school faculty to ensure that technology is reinforcing the content taught within curricular areas. Elissa won Teacher of the Year last year for the Beth Tfiloh Lower School. Elissa holds a BS from Yale University, an MS from Cornell University, and a Certificate in Early Childhood Technology from Tufts University.