Whether it is marrying off two characters from "Once Upon a Time" in an Orthodox Jewish ceremony, designing ad campaigns around Nezirut or creating Ten Plagues theme parks using Minecraft, my students have done it all. My mandate as a teacher is to enable students to access content in a rich, creative way that showcases their unique, creative thinking and knowledge on the topics.
When I read Tanakh, I am immersed in a world of rich, vibrant color. I want my students to experience this as well, which is why I work so hard to introduce them to ways to access the material and make it meaningful. My goal is to foster creativity and critical thinking through assigning my students work which forces them to assemble evidence in order to support their reasoning. In my classroom, students:
- Design shampoo bottles to appeal to a Nazir (the Jewish individual who vows to abstain from grapes, wine and cannot cut their hair)
- Redub films to make them work with our texts (“The Lion King” is transformed into the story of Saul while “Mean Girls” becomes an example of the trial of Jeremiah)
- Create playlists and track lists of pop hits and contemporary love songs, painstakingly connecting them to verses in Jeremiah
- Use TheKnot.com to create an explanatory Orthodox Jewish wedding website marrying off characters from a contemporary TV show (“Once Upon a Time”)
- Film PSAs about healthy relationships & domestic violence (this student posted hers to Facebook and it has since been viewed over 700 times)
I deliberately build in technological components and 21st learning into nearly all of my projects. I am a techie and I want to share my love of possibility with my students. Moreover, I want them to be prepared for the world they face, where flexible, adaptable evidence-based thinking and reasoning is a necessity.
I often post (with permission) my students’ work to JEDLAB where it has been met with oohs, ahhs and a lot of excitement. (I have included a link to one example of this type of reaction.) I then share the positive feedback with my students, who are excited by it!
In my six years of teaching, I have learned a lot about how to ensure that students benefit from my style of assessment and teaching. My way of teaching Tanakh is a significant shift from a more traditional read the text- comprehend important information- memorize and spit back on a text. On Back to School Night, I now lead by explaining how my classroom is organized around higher principles of Bloom’s Taxonomy and that the students may have a bit of difficulty in the beginning but that I will scaffold accordingly for them and help them every step of the way.
Originally, I used to expect students to be able to handle the new technological component plus prepare work and find information on their own. I then discovered that I needed to insert a “Play Day” into our process. At this point, students have a “play day” where they experiment with the technology (for example, Weebly, if we are website building) and I assist them in getting comfortable with it. On that day, we don’t worry about amassing evidence or inserting text AT ALL. I then recognized that when first getting into this new habit, some students needed to learn the material together as a class – then process it (which is different from project based learning). My goal is to begin the year with that method but build the students’ confidence enough that later on in the year, we can move to a PBL focus where students themselves can locate the information and learn it for themselves, truly taking ownership. Either way, after the play day, I put students into groups where they first work in Google Docs in order to assemble all of their information. That way, their work cannot be lost if something malfunctions. Finally, they get to work inserting their text or evidence into the project (whatever medium they may be using). Rubrics and scoring can also sometimes not work well and students sometimes encounter difficulty understanding exactly what I want of them – but at this point I have amassed enough examples that students come to recognize the quality of work I expect. It has been a growing process and there have been growth pains along the way, but at this point many students are invested and excited about the creative possibilities I allow and encourage them to experience.
Students have told me that my choices have allowed them to access the texts in ways they never would have before. They have been proud enough of their work to link it to their personal Facebook pages or share it with students beyond the classroom. When students create authentic work products, especially after first not believing in themselves, it is truly a profound journey of discovery both for them and for me as the proud teacher.
There is no question that my work is replicable across the field of Jewish Education. It is simply a question of meeting with teachers, understanding their unique needs, and then doing professional development and training to allow them to access the wonderful world of evidence-based, creative assignments and assessments. Students have such diverse interests- why not allow them to use them in order to create a personalized love of Tanakh and Jewish life?