About the Prize Winners: Shira Greenspan

Meet Shira Greenspan

Shira Greenspan, won the Kohelet Prize for Risk Taking and Failure, for work she did as a teacher at Yeshivat Noam. Check out her winning entry, B’chol Dor Vador, here:

In your experience, what is the greatest challenge facing students/teachers today?

How can we justify our investment in Jewish education? Could you imagine having the chutzpah to ask someone to invest $100,000 in something with little guarantee of a significant payoff? The statistics are against us. Jewish education, religious growth and commitment are not sure things. Despite our collective best efforts, our students’ commitment to Judaism is not a sure thing. The biggest challenge facing the educational community today is how can we ensure that our investments in our children truly lead to the fulfillment of our goals?

In implementing your winning project in the classroom, was there a moment when you knew that you had hit upon something really powerful?  If so, describe that moment.

I knew that I wanted to create a project that allowed for deep inter-textual learning of Tanach. Of all the ideas that stormed through my mind during the development of this project, the idea of a textual exploration of Pessach wouldn’t stop growing. There came a point when I was thinking about it constantly. The author Kobi Yamada describes this feeling as, “[My idea] went from being here to being everywhere. It wasn’t just a part of me anymore… it was now a part of everything.”

When did I know that I had hit upon something powerful? When the experience of this project became “everywhere” for my students. A few weeks in, once all of the sourcework had been completed and meaningful connections were being drawn and criticized, my girls just wouldn’t stop talking about their projects. I was getting e-mails at all hours of the night and weekend. I was running late to classes because someone “just had to share an awesome new connection!” I once wrote a note for three students asking their post-lunch teacher to let them eat during class because they were so engrossed in a heated debate over an interpretation of a specific verse in Sefer Yehoshua that they forgot to eat. I knew that I had hit upon something powerful when my students’ ideas for this project had gone from quiet and structured ideas to being part of their everywhere.

And, despite the challenges of my initial run with this project (which are described in full in my project reflection), one of the most powerful moments for me was hearing the feedback from my students once the project was over. They were so committed to helping me unpack all of its failures and successes; they promoted such a culture of critical reflection. Why? Because despite all of its initial shortcomings, my students believed in this project. They were invested to the point where they wanted to see it implemented again, more successfully.

What advice would you give teachers who want to attempt something new and different in their own classrooms?

Be open with your students. One of the greatest educational benefits of Project Based Learning is how reflective it is of the life skills and experiences beyond being a student (a.k.a “real world learning”).

So when we teachers set a goal for a lesson or unit and then devise and execute a plan to achieve it, we’re modeling PBL. The research we put in, the brainstorming and iteration, the trial and error, the reflection and feedback… these are the very skills we are trying to instill in our students. By being transparent and direct about the way we model these processes, we are drawing our students’ attention to learn from them. More importantly, by being open with our students about the process of trying something new, we invite them into the process of seeing it through. “I want to try something new today… I can’t know whether or not it’s successful without your input…”

Being open with our students about the processes involved in PBL (researching, creating, implementing, reflecting, refining, etc.) helps showcase how their experience in our classroom is real and models for them the skills to develop as they work on their own projects towards further engagement with the world beyond the classroom.

 What’s your favorite part of your teaching day and why?

When I taught my first class six years ago, my style was pure old-school; I was the “sage on the stage” rather than the “guide on the side.” My six years ago self would have answered this question by sharing that my favorite parts of the day were the informal moments when I had glimpses into who my students really were: watching them resolve a conflict on the basketball court, surprising a new student for her birthday with a locker decked out in decorations, pursuing an answer to a question that was really eating at them. But my focus on Project Based Learning now allows for these moments to occur within classroom experiences rather than merely between them. My favorite part of my day is when I get to understand who my students are and how they think. I think this is when the most meaningful learning and growth take place.

How do you ensure that you’re always growing professionally?

I want to be the best so I surround myself with the best. I stay in touch with teachers and mentors who have had a significant impact on me, and now even my kids’ teachers. I try to observe as many talented teachers as I can and visit schools where things are done differently than what I am used to. I participate in events that help teachers challenge their own ways of thinking, like the IDEA School Network Summer Sandbox. Yeshivat Noam taught me to strive to keep myself vulnerable, sharing my challenges with others so that I have the opportunity to learn from their wisdom. I strive to keep myself humble and open to the best practices of other teachers.

If you had one piece of advice to share with a new teacher walking into his/her classroom for the first time…

Define for yourself in as clear terms as possible what true learning looks like in your classroom. There will come a time when a student will ask you a question, a beautiful, exciting question, and you may feel the urge or even be advised to put aside the regularly scheduled lesson and have a class discussion or soapbox for the rest of the period. Such a question often presents as though the opportunity for truly meaningful learning has finally arrived. But if that’s really the case, then what have you been wasting the rest of your time on?

This can be even worse in a Torah setting, where the response of “Okay, class, close your books. Let’s discuss this…” can be interpreted as “Put away Torah so that we can tackle something meaningful, something truly important for life…” And how sad it would be to share such a message when all along our goal for such a class is davka the opposite; the Torah is the most meaningful guide we have to navigating life.

If you have defined what authentic learning is for your class, you will be able to ensure that every moment in your classroom is one of growth, and these moments will feel like a natural step in your regularly scheduled learning, rather than step outside of it.

 What are some ways in which you motivate your students to become lifelong learners?

I do everything that I can to make the learning in our classroom the kind of learning that’s relevant to my students. That doesn’t just mean using technology, or rapping, or hashtags; it means speaking to who the kids are – giving them a voice in setting the course for their work and making sure every kind of learner has what to bring to the table. Relevance also means developing experiences for my students that are meaningful not only to them on a personal level, but meaningful to the world around them. Capitalizing on relevance also helps ensure our experience in the classroom is engaging – and this doesn’t just mean being busy or making eye contact; it means engaging multiple skills and interests at all times. It means lighting up as many areas of their brains so that their full beings are invested in whatever is at hand. This helps ensure that our learning is deep and authentic, that students really understand and have mastered their work. As proud as I am of my students’ growth and accomplishments, my goal is, first and foremost, that they are proud of themselves. Through authentic learning experiences, students develop and achieve a tremendous sense of purpose. They feel a responsibility to share their mastery later on. Additionally, I demand reflection and time for metacognition so that students learn about themselves as learners and can fine-tune the skills that it takes for them as individuals, as well as members of a group, to achieve success. I celebrate their actual learning, not merely the product of their work. And as positive as this approach to the classroom experience usually is, I put a tremendous amount of emotional effort into embracing my students’ challenges as the endearing quirks that make them who they are. There is no formula for a good or bad student; to be a good student for me starts with bringing your whole self to the table – that means your strengths, challenges, and everything in between – so that everything we experience together is meaningful for who you are within the greater experience of your life, and within your greater contribution to the world.