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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. 

  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. 

  3. Ibid, p. 56.