project-based learning in action: part 1

As part of my job at Temple Isaiah, I devel­oped Emtza, a project-based pro­gram for our middle school stu­dents. When I say “I devel­oped,” what I mean is that I had a basic con­cept, an idea sapling. I handed that idea to an edu­cator hired to run the pro­gram, Jessie Downey, who devel­oped the idea fur­ther, bringing it into the realm of reality and giving it some real “umph.” Then she handed it to her amazing staff of teachers.

This video — one of two — is a piece of evi­dence that we were on to some­thing. It’s a product of our stu­dents, who cre­ated it from scratch. They had a lot of sup­port from their teachers, but it really is theirs. I hope you get a kick out of it… I sure did. (Click “More” for an expla­na­tion of how the Emtza pro­gram works.)

Here’s the basic out­line of how Emtza works:

  • Instead of being assigned to a teacher and class­room, Emtza par­tic­i­pants are to small “pods” of 6–10 stu­dents. (They get to request their pre­ferred “pods.” Research sug­gests young ado­les­cents “prefer inter­ac­tion with peers during learning activ­i­ties.”1 Furthermore, Young ado­les­cents who felt valued and respected by their peers reported higher levels of achieve­ment moti­va­tion.2)
  • Emtza is about hands-on expe­ri­en­tial edu­ca­tion. In their pods, stu­dents  work on small group projects over the course of two semes­ters. (They’ll also switch projects and pods at least once during the year. Middle school stu­dents often have a “wide range of intel­lec­tual pur­suits.”3)
  • The projects are authentic oppor­tu­ni­ties for stu­dents to explore their Jewish selves through dif­ferent lenses: art, pho­tog­raphy, drama, video, per­sonal inter­views, dance, research, field trips, cooking, and more. And these projects aren’t typ­ical in that we’ve been careful to make sure that none of them are “just for school.” In other words, stu­dents will be doing real work that has value beyond the learning expe­ri­ence itself. (That’s why we call them “authentic oppor­tu­ni­ties.”)
  • The projects are big. Pods will work on them for sev­eral ses­sions, and stu­dents will be involved in every step: visioning, researching, plan­ning, and imple­men­ta­tion. Also, per Ron Berger, when we have oppor­tu­ni­ties for stu­dents to com­plete drafts based on cri­tique, we take advan­tage of them.
  • Our Jewishness isn’t the only thing that defines who we are. In light of this reality, and the impor­tance of “iden­tity devel­op­ment” in seventh- and eighth-grades, every project will com­bine Jewish con­tent with oppor­tu­ni­ties for stu­dents to develop tan­gible skills and learn from spe­cial­ists or “experts” in applic­able fields: pho­tog­raphy, videog­raphy, busi­ness nego­ti­a­tion, genealogy, etc.

  1. National Middle School Association. “Characteristics of Young Adolescents.” This We Believe: Keys to Educating Young Adolescents, NMSA (Westerville, Ohio, 2010), p. 57. (back to foot­note in text)

  2. Nelson, R. M., & DeBacker, T. K. “Achievement Motivation in Adolescents: The Role of Peer Climate and Best Friends.” Journal of Experimental Education, vol. 76–2 (2008), pp. 170–189. (back to foot­note in text)

  3. Ibid, p. 56. (back to foot­note in text)