FOX POINT – The second-graders at Congregation Shalom were given a project and told to work together to find a solution. Kids were unsure at first.
Then, recalled teacher Marilyn Franklin, “All of a sudden, one kid sparked another kid, and that kid sparked another kid, and it was gratifying to see.”
Welcome to project-based learning, which in some form has been around since the late 1800s, but recently has been gaining popularity in Milwaukee-area religious schools.
Tziporah Altman-Shafer, the Milwaukee Jewish Federation’s Jewish education community planner and the director for its Coalition for Jewish Learning, began holding classes on PBL for teachers in August with the idea that “education is changing; students are taking more responsibility for their learning.”
PBL and PBL-like programs have been used in area preschools and in the Milwaukee Jewish Day School for several years. When a seminar was held in August to introduce PBL to supplementary school educators, Altman-Shafer said teachers left “pumped up.” Classes are ongoing.
“The theory behind project-based learning is that if students acquire information themselves, and if they are interested in what they are learning about, the learning will be much deeper,” Altman-Shafer said.
Mequon Jewish Preschool K-4 students helped build a loft to provide more space in their classroom. “They began with envisioning what it would look like, looking on the Internet, thinking about how to use the space,” said Robin Eiseman, the assistant director at the school. “The children each worked on their own architectural blueprint, then shared their blueprints and collaborated to create the blueprint for the loft.”
Fathers and experts helped, but the kids were involved determining a budget and what materials were needed, working on measurements and purchasing the material and tools needed. Children and families constructed the loft together.
Rivkie Spalter, the director of MJP since its inception 18 years ago, calls it “conceptual based learning, working on a project related to our daily life. We see this as part of learning, integrated into Judaic learning. It’s not an extracurricular activity.”
Altman-Shafer said PBL has many advantages. “Learning is much more real – moreso than coloring in a worksheet,” she said. “Another huge advantage is working in small groups on projects. Studies show that one of the biggest motivating factors for kids – especially teens – is the social element of it. If you put kids in a classroom for three hours just talking at them, how do they make friends? But working in groups helps develop relationships that are so important.”
Barb Shimansky, in her fifth year as director of education at Congregation Sinai in Fox Point, watched PBL at work during a classroom visit.
“There were two boys off in a corner talking to each other while other kids were working on a project,” Shimansky said. “Then the other kids pulled these two kids in and said, ‘We really need you to participate.’ It’s so student-driven and they have an investment in getting other students involved.”
Shimansky said PBL “allows kids to interact with each other. The notion of having very structured learning is not the world our kids live in. Most kids had never done anything like this.Typically, they are told what to do and how to do it. With PBL, teachers take more the role of facilitators.”
Altman-Shafer said PBL can work best if the project involves a problem that exists in real life for kids or their congregation. “For instance, instead of the teacher saying how she thinks services can be made more interesting, we put it in the kids’ hands to do some research and deep thinking,” she said.
Sinai students are creating their own prayer book to use for school programs. Another school put on a mock wedding, while Milwaukee Jewish Day School students built a sukkah. Altman-Shafer said school attendance has improved in many cases “because the kids are so excited about these projects.”
PBL emphasizes that there are many ways of learning, and that students have different ways to excel, be it art, organizational skills, computer skills, etc. “When you break into groups, there might be a shy kid who could be drawn in because the kid likes to draw things and it might be a talent the project needs,” Altman-Shafer said. “Everybody has something to add,” Franklin said.
Franklin, who has been teaching at Shalom for 40 years, likes having students draw their own conclusions “without me telling them what they need to learn.”
The process, not the end result, is considered the most important part of learning at Milwaukee Jewish Preschool, Spalter said.
“There is more high quality learning when instead of giving students a 1 and a 2, you get them working together to understand what 1 and 2 mean,” Milwaukee Jewish Preschool teacher Leah Munitz said.
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What is project-based learning?
Project-based learning is a teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to an authentic, engaging and complex question, problem, or challenge.
Source: Buck Institute for Education