JCDS Learning Adventures are deeply immersive week-long interdisciplinary units developed around real-world challenges. While students in each grade have amazingly diverse experiences, all Learning Adventures are connected by a common pedagogical vision: students collaborating to develop and share solutions to tangible real-world problems.
What if school was a place for students to collaborate to solve real-world challenges? Student work would consist of meeting with stakeholders, learning from experts, and creating projects not simply to please a teacher but rather to address the needs of clients who need an actual solution?
This is the vision of JCDS Learning Adventures, a school-wide initiative that has impacted all students and faculty at the school. Over the course of the year, every grade participated in a one week interdisciplinary unit developed around real-world challenges. During their assigned week, each grade paused all normal programming for students to deeply immerse themselves in an applied learning experience. These weeks were built around a framework of Design Thinking, Project-Based Learning, Computer Science or ‘Jewish Engineering.’ The wide range of challenges covered across the grades included: reducing the environmental impact of the school; building musical instruments to enrich tefillah; programming computer-aided models to measure playground temperature; and redesigning indoor recess. While the students had amazingly diverse experiences, each Learning Adventure is connected by a pedagogical vision of allowing students to grapple with tangible and relevant hands on problems.
Kindergarten Learning Adventure: Safsal Chaverut – The Buddy Bench
Kindergarteners were charged with the task of helping students who have a difficult time finding friends to play with at recess. Under the guidance of an artist-in-residence, the students decided to create a ‘buddy bench,’ a safe place for isolated students to rest and let others know they are looking for a play partner. The buddy bench gives others students the chance to practice menshleichkeit by inviting the lone student to play.
Before starting work on their buddy bench, the kindergarteners researched how this problem has been solved at other schools. They met with a fourth grade student from a local public school who shared her experience using a buddy bench when she was a new student. Then the students developed their artistic vision for the bench, exploring metaphors to capture the abstract concept of friendship into a concrete representation. Building on their own experience, the students decided on the familiar building toy ‘Zoobs’ as a symbol for the social connections that they hope the buddy bench will encourage. The students painted images of Zoobs and their handprints on the bench, using ‘real grown up heavy-duty all weather paint’ so that their decorations on the bench will last for years to come.
The students understood that they were making a contribution to the school community and took seriously their obligation and opportunity to be as professional as possible, which included teaching the rest of the school community about the purpose and procedures for using the Buddy Bench. The students explored various scenarios about how it might work and generated Buddy Bench Rules to help all students in the school use it effectively. To successfully share their message, the students created a video, available here, that introduces the bench to the rest of the school and demonstrates it in action.
One unanticipated impact of the Buddy Bench is that these students feel ownership over it, not just at recess, but at all times. Shortly after it was installed on the playground, a few students noticed an adult sitting on the bench after dismissal. The students approached her and asked her if she needed some company. Additionally, while the physical bench sits as a symbol for the obligation to include everyone at recess, the process of creating the bench allowed the student to internalize this value and apply it throughout the day.
First Grade Learning Adventure: Welcoming a class pet
The first grade Learning Adventure began with much excitement, when the students were told they had the chance to earn a class pet, specifically a bearded dragon, provided they could prove that they would be responsible care takers for a living creature. The students quickly realized they had many questions that needed to be answered about what bearded dragons require to stay happy and healthy, as well as how they as a class could take care of it. The students became researchers learning about bearded dragons from nonfiction texts, videos and a few guest experts. They welcomed a fourth grade student who told about his experience with a bearded dragon as a class pet when he was in second grade at another school. The middle school science teacher gave a science lesson about what animals need to stay happy and healthy. Students made a handbook about bearded dragon care with information about food, handling, the dragon’s home, and other important bearded dragon facts. Students also learned about tzahar balei chayim, the mitzvah of taking care of animals, and made a class brit (covenant), indicating their commitment to respect and care for the pet.
At the week’s conclusion, the students presented to the school principal, describing the work they did all week and explaining how they were now qualified to take care of a bearded dragon. The student presentation is available here. The first graders concluded their Learning Adventure by welcoming Mr. Matzaman Keshet Oren, an eight-month-old bearded dragon.
Second Grade Learning Adventure: Music and Tefillah (Prayer)
The driving question for the second grade Learning Adventure was: “How can we use music to create a more meaningful tefillah experience?” Second graders began the week by looking at examples of how musical instruments are used in a variety of religious services, both Jewish and other. The students met with Rav Claudia Kreiman, a JCDS parent and rabbi of a local synagogue, who shared some thoughts about the role of instruments in prayer. She emphasized the difference between a musical performance, where the goal is for a musician to show what they know, and instruments in tefillah, which are tools to help the musician connect with the prayers.
While teachers acted as connectors and facilitators, students drove the inquiry process. They collaborated with experts from Parts and Crafts, a local makerspace; engaged in serious conversation with clergy and musicians; and then built their own musical instruments. Students cut copper pipes, sawed cardboard and of course used lots of duct tape to make their musical instruments. They also thought carefully about which prayers would be most enhanced by the particular instruments that they created and then decorated their instruments with words from those prayers. At the end of each day, students reflected on their learning process. Some samples of student reflections are available here. Students reflected on the connection between the tefillot and their instruments in videos they posted on their digital portfolios. One example of this student reflection is available here. Their week culminated in a musical Kabbalat Shabbat celebration with their K-3 friends, which included a public display of their learning process. The instruments were then used all year by students during daily classroom tefillot.
Third grade Learning Adventure: Re-Designing Indoor Recess
The third graders used a Design Thinking framework to develop solutions to the very relevant challenge of how to ensure a safe and fun indoor recess at JCDS. The introductory lessons are available here. Students used empathy to identify the indoor recess needs of various ‘stakeholders’ (students and teachers). Students developed and used a survey and analyzed the data they collected in order to identify the stakeholders’ needs related to indoor recess. This was an opportunity for students to apply the mathematical skills of organizing data and making conclusions from evidence. Based on their research, the students developed recess problem statements that defined the specific problems about indoor recess that they then sought to solve:
- Some students need a way to play physical games with their friends during recess because it helps them reboot their minds and bodies.
- Some students need help figuring out what to do during recess because it can be overwhelming and unstructured.
- Some students need a way to do quiet activities but indoor recess is very loud.
- Teachers on duty need a way to make sure all the students are safe and having fun.
Charged to come up with as many possible solutions as they could, the students then filled many, many Post-It notes with a wide range of ideas, some very practical and some very far-fetched. Details of that process are included in these slides. After spending some time sorting and expanding on ideas for each of the problems, students formed working groups, each focused around solving a particular problem. The working groups moved from the long list of possible ideas to developing one or two particular solutions. They used this worksheet to help develop their ideas.
By the end of the week, the third graders developed a new approach to indoor recess at JCDS, which they shared in a presentation to the other students in the school. Subsequently their solutions were implemented, creating opportunities for students to have a fulfilling recess experience while also maintaining teachers’ safety concerns. At the conclusion of the Learning Adventure, we collected feedback and reflections from students and parents. The third graders were very proud to have made a tangible difference in their school.
Fourth grade Learning Adventure: Keep Cool in the Playground
Fourth graders were challenged to develop designs for addition the school playground to make it more ‘pleasant’ – not too hot in the summer and not too cold in the winter. Students interviewed a school playground architect to learn how to design models to provide shade in the summer and let in sunshine in the winter, taking into consideration the seasonal location of the sun. Students spent many hours developing their playground models and remixing a Scratch computer program to measure the temperature. They tested their models under heat lamps to keep track of how the temperature at various spots on the playground changed with their interventions and collected data to make improvement to their designs. By designing, creating building and testing playground models, the students became computer programmers (Scratch Project Design Worksheet), engineers, graphic designers, artists and problem solvers. At the conclusion of the Learning Adventure, students shared their designs with a panel of experts, including the relevant school decision makers who will are developing plans to develop the school playground.
Here is the 4th grade Learning Adventure planning form.
Fifth grade Learning Adventure: Re-Designing Kaballat Shabbat at Hebrew Senior Life
Fifth graders used the Design Thinking framework to develop a solution to the challenge posed to them by the Hebrew Senior Life Retirement Home: “How might we help the residents participate in a meaningful Kaballat Shabbat experience on Friday evenings?” Building on their experience getting to know the residents over the course of monthly visits all year, the students designed a variety of artifacts for staff members to use to help the residents celebrate Shabbat every Friday evening. Our students put great effort into matching their solutions with the needs they identified, recognizing challenges such as most of the staff are not Jewish, and many of the residents have limited physical abilities. The student projects include a video cartoon book called ‘Super Grandma’ that encourages reflection on Shabbat traditions from years past, a Shabbat guide website that serves as an introduction to the Kaballat Shabbat brachot, a device that attaches to wheelchairs to hold a prayer book, a ‘How To Do Shabbat’ video and a trilingual Kaballat Shabbat slide presentation.
Here is the 5th grade Learning Adventure planning form.
Sixth grade Learning Adventure: JCDS Goes Green
During their Learning Adventure, the sixth graders set out to find implementable, practical ways of minimizing waste at JCDS. They began their week with a visit from Project Green Schools Director Robin Organ. Robin led our students through activities that explored how our school impacts the environment and shared examples of students at other schools that have implemented campaigns to help their schools ‘go green.’ Students engaged in a text study to reflect on some Jewish ideas about environmentalism. They then conducted an environmental audit of the school by assessing the environmental impact of rooms across the building. Here are slides from the introductory lessons. Students collected and sorted trash after all-school lunch to determine what kind of waste we produce. A quick math lesson revealed that 25% of the trash was food waste and 30% came from paper, both items that could be reduced.
During their weeklong study, students met with a representative from Republic Services, the company that collects trash and recycling in Watertown. She showed the students pictures of the process of recycling materials, and explained how the paper, metals and plastics that get recycled become commodities that are then resold on the open market. Then students got to work developing potential project ideas. This process included interviewing various adults, including JCDS staff and outside experts such as representatives from composting collecting companies. The students engaged in thoughtful discussions about how to enlist students, teachers and parents in the JCDS community in their efforts to reduce the waste that JCDS creates.
These students created a tangible change by learning and then publicizing the fact that the school’s recycling company collects plastic, glass and metal in addition to just paper. Other student initiatives included drawing attention to food waste at lunch time and encouraging electricity conservation by turning off lights in empty rooms. The students shared all the projects with presentations to the school, including videos such as this Recycling PSA and this one introducing a zero waste contest.
Seventh grade Learning Adventure: Jewish Engineering – The Mikveh
During the seventh grade Learning Adventure, students became ‘Jewish Engineers’ by designing a mikveh that responded to specific stakeholder needs. The students met with a variety of mikveh users, learned Jewish traditions about the mikveh, and partnered with the Boston-area mikveh Mayyim Hayyim. These experiences prepared the students to develop their own vision for a Jewish ritual bath which they dubbed ‘Mayyim Regalim’ (calming waters). In the course of their research, they determined that the city of Somerville is a growing Jewish community without easy access to an already existing mikveh, so they proposed to develop Mayim Regalim there. Finally, they shared their plans for Mayyim Regalim, an innovative and inclusive mikveh, in an engaging presentation to a panel of experts including representatives from Mayyim Hayyim and members of the Somerville Jewish community. The students were notable both for the poise with which they shared their ideas, as well as the depth of the thinking that was evident in their presentations. As a class, they walked the audience through all aspects of their mikveh plan, including Jewish rituals, architectural blueprints including a 3D tour in Minecraft, a business plan, a promotional video and a thoughtful reflection on their work process.
This Learning Adventure was celebrated by Mayyim Hayyim on their blog.
Eighth grade Learning Adventure: Connecting and re-creating Jewish Life in Pre-War Poland
In their Learning Adventure, eighth grade students sought to answer the question: “What is the difference between remembering and resurrecting pre-War Jewish life?” Students explored many facets and figures of pre-War Jewish life, including Yiddish, Regina Jonas, Sholem Aleichem, the Tarnow Synagogue, clothing, newspapers, recipes, and the photography of Roman Vishniac. Inspired by Joey Weisenberg’s work reviving niggunim and Jewish melodies, students developed interactive projects which consisted of a number of powerful interactive exhibits, including podcasts, virtual reality programs, hand sewn clothes, and handmade children’s books. Students shared their learning with the larger community twice: first in a gallery walk for middle school students, and then in a community Shir HaMa’alot (“Rising of Song”) led by Joey Weisenberg open to the public at Temple Beth Zion in Brookline, MA.
- Kindergarten Buddy Bench PSA
- 1st grade handbook about bearded dragon care
- 2nd grade student reflection
- 5th grade ‘Super Grandma’ & ‘‘How To Do Shabbat’ video
- 6th grade student-made Recycling PSA & Waste Contest video
- 7th grade: Minecraft Mikveh tour & Mayim Margayim video
- 8th grade: virtual tour of the Tourno synagogue
Dr. Jared Matas is the Director of STEM Innovation JCDS, Boston’s Jewish Community Day School. In over a decade and a half of teaching, Jared has taught a wide range of students and content, from kindergarten engineering to middle school social science. He currently leads school-wide initiatives in the areas of Design Thinking, project based learning, engineering and coding.
Jared has a Masters of Arts in Teaching from the DeLeT program at Brandeis University and received his doctorate in education from Northeastern University with a certificate in Jewish Educational Leadership from Hebrew College. In support of his studies, Jared was selected as a Wexner Graduate Fellowship/Davidson Scholar. Jared wrote a dissertation titled 'The Impact of Digital Technology on Teaching and Learning,' based on teacher action research he conducted in his own classroom. Since receiving his doctorate, Jared has served as an adjunct professor at a number of universities, teaching courses such as “Teaching Tefillah” at Hebrew College, “Early Childhood Education” at Tufts University and “Teaching Hebrew with Technology” at Middlebury College. Additionally, Jared has worked as a consultant for a number of Boston-area synagogues, leading efforts to innovate supplementary schools, with initiatives focused on topics such as project-based learning and STEM integration.
The entire JCDS faculty, teachers in every grade from kindergarten to eighth, collaborated on JCDS Learning Adventures, guided by Jared's leadership.