Yosef Through the Lens: A Co-Teaching PBL Experiment in combining Jewish text, Psychology and Photography in a heterogeneous classroom

By: Rabbi Jonny Gordon, Rabbi Adam Mayer
from Kohelet Yeshiva High School

Risk Taking and Failure

Subject(s) of entry:
Art, Tanach

PBL - project based learning, 21st Century Skills

Grade(s) to which this was taught:
9, 10, High school

Grade(s) for which this will be useful:
9, 10, 11, 12, High school

This entry is our reflection on the successes and failures during our attempt to co-teach the Yosef narratives through a multi-faceted PBL in a heterogeneous classroom consisting of 9th and 10th grade boys.

Entry Narrative

The Project

Co-teaching isn’t something you see in most high school classrooms. But in the spring of 2017, we combined Adam’s lowest-level 9th and 10th grade boys class with Jonny’s middle-level track to co-teach a PBL unit on Yosef and his brothers for close to 2 months. We had just attended a PBL focused professional development conference for three days where we learned a new approach to PBL.  Evan Wolkenstein suggested that a great PBL for Judaic Studies combines three different aspects: Jewish sources/content, a real life skill, and a subject of interest outside of Judaism. We hadn’t thought of a PBL unit being structured almost as a triangle, where each element enriches the other, and we were excited to come back to Kohelet and create a unit in Bereishit based on this model.

For the Jewish sources/content, we chose the narrative of Joseph and his brothers. The narrative of Joseph is a beautiful story of manipulation, lies and deceit from the opening scenes of Joseph’s dreams through the closing scene of Joseph and his brothers talking after their father’s funeral. We wanted our students to be able to fully understand and appreciate the complexities of these stories, and to make the characters come alive as real humans who display emotion. This led us to choose an psychology as our subject of interest outside of Judaism, focusing on the question of what leads people to lie, and what it looks like physiologically. We believed it would be a natural next step to help our students enhance their understanding of the characters by trying to understand them as real human beings after they read about them in the text.

Choosing a life skill was little harder to do, but we chose photography because it provided an artistic medium of expression that we thought our students would be excited about. It would be the third step for our students to take – to create an image that captures these ancient emotive scenes and displays them in a modern context. We didn’t have such a strong background in photography, but after a little research we created some basic lessons in photography to introduce them to this new and applicable skill.

We wondered about how our students’ learning in the classroom might be able to expand outside of the class. We decided to design the project so that the students would not just produce photographs by which we could assess their knowledge of the Yosef narrative and the psychology component, but produce photographs that would be part of an art installment at Kohelet Yeshiva that illuminates the life and stories of Yosef in Sefer Breishit.  We planned to invite some members of the administration, the art teacher, and a resident expert from the community to see their work and vote on best pictures for each chapter of Yosef’s life.  The winning photographs would be printed and displayed in a central viewing area in our school. We named the project “Yosef Through the Lens”.


The risks:

We knowingly took many risks in embarking on this project.

Joining two separate classes of 9th and 10th grade boys for 2 months in the middle of the year is not an easy task, especially when it wasn’t something they were expecting to happen.  More importantly, each class had already grown accustomed to their respective teacher, and introducing new and unfamiliar teaching styles and approaches in the middle of the year can throw students for a loop.  These classes were also split according to level, and we knew that by combining them we would have to differentiate our lessons as the skills and motivation of some students were substantially lower than others.

It is not just the students who have to get used to a new teacher and a new routine, but we had to adjust to co-teaching at the same time as we were teaching new students and a new kind of project.  It is not alway easy for a teacher to give up complete control of the class, and different teachers have different ways of teaching and managing a classroom of students.  We were nervous that this might create awkwardness or tension in the classroom.


How it played out

Our co-planning and co-teaching went well.  We quickly found a good balance of classroom presence and attention to student work and student behavior. We felt like we were complementing each other’s presence in the classroom, rather than stepping on each other’s toes. Having two teachers in the classroom gave us more opportunities to be available to help students as they worked. Students were also totally comfortable with two teachers in the classroom and appreciated the extra attention. Many of the students were able to work independently by following the rubric and using their peers for help, before turning to one of us.

What we weren’t expecting was that the non-Torah elements of the PBL unit, specifically the photography element, ended up being more of a distraction and hindrance to our students’ learning than a vehicle to drive and deepen their learning. Many students enjoyed completing different worksheets and activities in our photography and psychology lessons, but they were not able to understand why we were doing this as part of a Chumash class. This led many students to feel frustrated with the unit as time passed.

At first our students really loved the photography lessons, some challenging them to go around the school and take pictures of all kinds of random things.  We had them create a slide-show of their experiments with their cameras.  But once we got we got to the 3rd or 4th photography lesson, things changed. In a survey we sent to the class after we recognized that their frustration was widespread, we began to see from students’ comments where their frustration was coming from.

One student wrote: “I liked analyzing the characters, and trying to understand their emotion, but the actual photography tended to distract from my understanding.” Another student commented: “I feel that the extra subjects take away from my learning. [They] were distracting.” Students struggled to see how all the pieces of the PBL fit together seamlessly. They were constantly wondering, why is this in a Chumash class? Looking back, we identified a few reasons why our students might have felt this way.

  1. It seems our multi-stepped interconnected PBL unit was over the head of some of our 9th and 10th grade boys. As much as we tried to explain how the three elements of our unit can enhance our learning of the story, including posting a graphic on the classroom wall that reflected that idea, many of our students never fully grasped what we were trying to do.
  2. The final product was also too far removed from their daily assignments.  At the onset of the project we told the students that they would be creating an art installment of photographs for public display, but in the first 2 weeks of the project they did nothing that directly connected them to their end goal.  We believe that this was confusing and gave the impression that this project was scattered or unorganized. There were too many parts that did not immediately connect for them.  Some students shared with us that they didn’t know what to expect, between learning text, psychology or photography.  Although we had a system in our minds (and in our lesson plans), they students did not experience it in that way, and this may be an important point should we try this project again.  We need to do a better job at keeping the tasks clearly and explicitly aligned with the main goal or central project.
  3. Our PBL model was a model that was new and strange to them, and looking back we didn’t give our students enough time to process the goals and the bigger picture of the project. As one student added: “It was confusing to know what you were looking for”. It took a couple of weeks until the students understood our new system and got into the routine of finding their work on the rubric and keeping track of what they were doing
  4. We didn’t get the rubric out to them on the first day of the unit.  We launched the project and the introductory lessons for all three areas of study before giving them the rubric, which was a little too comprehensive.  Then when we did introduce it, it took them a number of days to understand how we were using it, and how they were supposed to use it. This gave many of them the conception that every day we were giving them something new and that this entire project was different daily assignments. And once they decided that, they stuck to it and couldn’t see the big picture.  
  5. The unit dragged along and took a lot more time than we initially expected.

Additionally, we feel that we misjudged the ability of our students to comprehend more mature concepts such as psychology behind Yaakov or Yosef’s actions.  The result of this was subpar photographs that did not reflect any real learning or new understanding of the story of Yosef. For example, we introduced concepts such as lighting, mood, depth, contrast, composition, color, etc. and asked them to explore how each of these concepts affected the emotion of any given picture.  The purpose of this was to prepare them to take their own pictures that would capture the jealousy of Yosef’s brothers, not only in the composition of the scene but also in the lighting, color and contrast of the picture. While students seemed to understand the different concepts, they struggled to apply those concepts to their photos, and produced photos that were just reenactments of the Biblical scenes of the Yosef narrative. We were asking 9th and 10th graders to do tasks that were more appropriate for 11th and 12th graders.

We also had decided not to bring in an expert to teach our students about photography.  We think that there may have been more willingness to learn had we brought in a professional photographer to show some of her own examples in her own work.  None of our students had any prior experience with photography, and I think that we assumed a much faster acquisition and application of this knowledge than was realistic.

By the time we were up to chapter 39, more than half of the class was not interested in completing the project. We had them fill out a survey (mentioned above) of how they would like to proceed. We asked them if they would prefer to just focus on the text study, and the majority said yes. Here are their responses in full. In the end our students completed assessments on the Jewish content of the unit but did not submit a final project nor any pictures as we had planned.


Take aways:

  1. When teaching a unit that tries to connect three different areas of study, we now know that different students will like different parts and most will not buy into the whole package. Introducing too many elements, as exciting as we thought it would be for them, can be worse than limiting it to one.
  2. We were not clear in our directions and our rubric was overwhelming and not handed out on the first day. Going back and forth on any different day between a psychology assignment or a photography assignment also confused students. Students liked individual days, but never saw how everything was supposed to connect. Make sure that this is a top priority whenever assigning a PBL with more than one element.
  3. We didn’t spend enough time studying text and other elements of the project in small groups. Jonny reflected that at times he felt we became taskmasters, making sure students do their work, but we should have sat down with small groups of students in order to direct them and help them find more meaning in the text while planting the seeds to help them see how psychology and photography would aid them in understanding the text more. Co-teaching would have made this job much easier but we didn’t take advantage of it.
  4.  Adam added that there were a lot of complexities within the Torah text of the unit that we were trying to open for them but they were not ready for, such as trying to understand the psychology behind Yosef’s behavior or his brother’s behavior. When preparing for a unit, make sure to focus on ideas and concepts that are within their zone of proximal development, and don’t settle for more mature concepts just because they fit better into your PBL structure.


What we learned about….

  • What we learned about co-teaching
    • Different styles of teaching and preparing lessons made the lessons better.  
    • We really enjoyed working with each other.  It gave us more motivation to plan and prepare both on a daily and on an overall level
    • We had a collaborative planning document, in addition to our lesson plans, where we kept all the different ideas and sources that we would want to use.  
  • What we learned about differentiation
    • We saw how difficult it was for some students to take initiative and responsibility to work by themselves.  They have been given assignments their entire academic career, and very much need scaffolded instruction for how to take on long term and multi-stage instruction.
    • We didn’t really have too much differentiation.  Instead we tried to have our students progress at their own pace. This might not work for every PBL unit.


How we grew as teachers

We really like the idea of creating a unit comprised of three different angles to connect to the learning.  We think that it has the potential to connect the Jewish content to the world in ways that more traditional learning does not.  Because of this experience, we each tried to do something similar in our own classes where we had some success with this three pronged approach.  For example, when Adam taught about the prophets, his students also studied the art of oration.  As a class, they connected the wisdom of the prophets with their study of oration and practiced their public speaking skills.

The first time going through a project is a challenge, and subsequent times might be what is needed to make this project into a successful endeavor that will truly enable the students to learn and internalize this.  Although this project incorporates a lot of fun learning and activities that are not directly related to Torah, it is still serious and hard work, though some of the work may have been a little too advanced for our CP students.

When we completed this unit, it felt like a complete failure.  Reading the results from our survey was hard, but it made us think honestly about what we had just done.  Now, revisiting this project and writing this entry has given us a little more hope that it was not a waste of time, just a failed first attempt. We believe that the approach we took to teaching traditional text in tandem with other areas of study and skill is a good approach that has the potential to deepen one’s understanding of Torah.

We would like to create and participate in more opportunities for co-teaching. We felt a greater sense of camaraderie in our jobs.  Each of us felt that we were working together with someone else, instead of simply along side of them. We think that having two teachers in the room has a lot more potential that we did not get to explore, but we would like to.

The other piece of this is our new understanding of how much preparation from an institutional level, in terms of cross-curricular training, must go into students being able to appreciate this kind of project enough to engage in it on a deep level. We think that we jumped in too deep too fast and left the students at the surface where they have always been.  Perhaps if we had all year to lead up to this kind up project it could be more successful.  A class could spend all year focusing on the psychology of the characters of Bereishit, and on how different emotional and psychological states are expressed.  

Entrant Bio(s)

Rabbi Adam Mayer teaches Tanach and Gemara at Kohelet Yeshiva High School. He joined Kohelet in 2014 from Jerusalem, where he received a Certificate of Advanced Jewish Studies from Pardes Institute and an M.A. in Jewish Education and Certificate in Jewish Day School Education from Hebrew College’s Shoolman Graduate School of Education. He received semicha from Rabbi Zalman Nechamia Goldberg and his B.A. from Brandeis University, graduating with honors in his double major of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies and Hebrew Language and Literature. Rabbi Mayer served in the IDF and has been teaching Judaic Studies since 2003.

Rabbi Jonny Gordon is the Director of Experiential Education at Kohelet Yeshiva High School, where he also teaches Tanach and Gemara. Rabbi Gordon received a B.A. in Jewish History from Yeshiva University, an M.A. in Talmud from Bar Ilan University, and semicha from Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary. Before joining Kohelet in 2013, Rabbi Gordon lived in Israel, teaching Tanach, Gemara and Halacha at Yeshivat HaKotel and Midreshet Devora, while studying toward a B.Ed and Israeli Teaching Certificate from Herzog College. He has served in a variety of leadership positions for youth programming in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. Rabbi Gordon lives with his wife Ilana and four children in Lower Merion.