Idea, realized
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Idea, realized

The project-based modern Orthodox Idea School is about to graduate its first class

It’s all very meta.

The Idea School in Tenafly is an example of project-based learning, the educational method for which its creator and its head, Tikvah Wiener of Teaneck, evangelizes.

According to the internet, 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.”

There are successful project-based learning schools, and Ms. Wiener is a serious student of one of them, the High Tech High in San Diego. But Ms. Wiener added another element that makes the Idea School unique; it’s a modern Orthodox institution, albeit a distinctly un-small-o-orthodox one.

Ms. Wiener, a master educator, began working on the Idea School about five years ago; she’d been a teacher as well as a student of educational theories and methods, and she decided that she was ready to put her ideas into action. So she spent about a year planning and fundraising (because no matter how abstract your ideas are, no matter how child-centric, without money you can’t build anything), and then, in 2018, after finding the perfect home in the light-flooded, space-rich Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly, and enrolling 14 ninth-graders, she opened the Idea School.

That was a little more than four years ago. Now the school has 75 students, and it’s about to graduate its first class; there are about 20 per grade. Tenth grade is smaller, because the admissions season for kids who would be in that grade was during covid.

The students come from all over. Most are from Bergen County, but some are from Essex and others from Passaic, some trek in from the Bronx; a few venture to the Idea School from Brooklyn. There are two students — one from Philadelphia, the other from Maryland — who board with relatives to be able to be Idea School students.

Idea School students are outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art. ALL (Photos courtesy The Idea School)

Now, college acceptances are out — the ever-practical Idea School hired a college counselor, Dana Ponsky, who “is amazing,” Ms. Wiener said — and the results are good.

She cannot take all the credit for the school’s success, Ms. Wiener said. “This is a team effort, from the board to the parents to the staff and of course the students. The students who built the school during the first years are leaving, and we’re all feeling that they really helped build this place with us.

“Imagine. They walked into a place with no culture” — a place with bare walls, no institutional memory because there was nothing to remember, no traditions because they hadn’t been formed yet — “and they helped us build a culture.” School culture grows out of an educational theory put into practice, but it’s much more than that.

“It’s unexpected, but it’s also really what I dreamed of,” Ms. Wiener said. “We definitely want to keep pushing and growing and innovating, but it’s definitely what I saw in High Tech High.” There’s something inherently Jewish in the model, she said; it has to do with the mix of dreams and practicalities, of the relationship between the school and the community.

She pointed to a project about Israel, a complicated historical map, a physical object the students made, where “they are looking at the different borders of Israel throughout history, and thinking about the ways the borders influenced the laws” — that has to do with geography, demographics, and history — “and continue to influence us today. They’re interviewing people in Israel about it. That’s the organic, whole-person approach.”

The school stresses interdisciplinary work but does not mash everything together in one featureless whole. “We have different disciplines,” Ms. Wiener said. The day starts with a beit midrash. “We have physics and engineering and math; we teach them together in the morning. In the afternoon, it’s humanities and literature.” Unlike most high schools, which have many fairly short periods, the Idea School has fewer, longer ones. “We want them to go deep,” Ms. Wiener said.

“The student is always at the center of the learning. The student is not the object of the learning. In kabbalistic terms, the student goes from chesed to gevurah,” straight across the middle of the chart of emanations, from kindness to strength, and back again. It encompasses everything that makes up a person. “So students see that learning matters to them as human beings in the world.” They see that abstract principles lead to concrete realities. Students are using physics, engineering, and biology to construct a safer helmet for bicyclists; they are producing a real physical object, in which adult engineers are interested, based on an abstract understanding of the science and a human understanding of the need for it.

Students maintain social distance as they work.

“Students never have to wonder ‘Why am I learning this?’” Ms. Wiener said. “Students should not have to wonder why they are learning what they are learning.”

It’s not as if the school has reached perfection. “We are not going to pretend that we have solved every issue that students have with learning,” she said. After all, they are teenagers. With hormones. And struggles. And families. And idiosyncrasies.

Some of the classes in the Idea School are fairly traditional; math is math, and it’s based on a student’s level. “We are a small school, but we can differentiate; we have everything from basic skills to AP calculus, and also AP physics,” Ms. Wiener said.

If the morning is for left-brain activities, the afternoon is for the right brain; literature, humanities, and related fields. And then there are electives, new this year; art, graphic design, finance, advanced computer science. “We did a racial justice course, and we had a student-led Tanach class that focuses on textual reading.”

As Ms. Wiener sits in the JCC, talking — there’s a sitting area, the result of a student project last year, outside the Eric Brown Theater — a long line of small children giggled by. That’s one of the school’s advantages. Life goes on around it. During the day, the JCC is full of — or at least used to be full of, and is starting to be again — seniors taking classes, using the gym, meeting friends, and nursery school kids going from one activity to the other.

The Idea School also offers afterschool activities — there’s a STEAM club, a school play, a multimedia publication, a model Congress. (STEAM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts, and Mathematics.)

Who are the Idea School students? “Project-based learning works for everyone,” Ms. Wiener said. But the kids who seeks it out “often are looking for ways to be creative. They want the whole package. It’s an organic learning process, it’s whole-person learning, it gives authentic workplace skills — collaboration, communication, the ability to give a public presentation — that many people want.

Students lay tefillin at an outside morning minyan.

“If I can teach you this thing, you will know this thing. If I teach you to learn this thing, you can be creative. You can do your own learning.

“It does rely on a level of comfort with yourself. You don’t come here and know how to do something on your own, but ultimately you will. There is direct instruction, and then students take that knowledge and have to do a project with it.

“We will teach you how to do it, but ultimately you are going to have to develop the independence and initiative that allows you to own the learning.”

In the fall, ninth and tenth graders worked on the Happiness Project, Ms. Wiener said. It’s an interdisciplinary exploration of “what does it mean to live a happy life? And how can we create happy societies?

“We introduced it with a whole bunch of words that we felt were about happiness — beauty, stability, value, contentment, joy, virtue.

“We got the students started by contemplating what makes them happy. They all picked different words, and throughout the unit we looked at them in many ways. In biology, the students studied typical stuff – cells, the body’s systems — and they also looked at serotonin. They looked at the effects of social media on neuroticism and happiness, and they conducted a survey that they sent to the JCC and the school. They got data; in a way, the project was data-driven.

“And then, in the beit midrash, they talked about olam hazeh and olam habah” — this world and the world to come — “and they talked about Hillel and Shammai’s different approaches. Shammai said that the whole week should focus on Shabbat, and Hillel said that each moment can be holy.

Left, a student presents his work; presentations are a major component of project-based learning.

“They looked at happiness in Pirkei Avot, and then in the humanities, they looked at how Holden Caulfield’s search for happiness got it very wrong. They looked at Harry Potter, and about what made him and his friends happy; they focused on friendship and love. We studied the Greeks, the Athenian lawmakers, Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, the Stoics, the Epicureans, and the doctrine of the golden mean. We talked about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in American society.

“In the beit midrash, they learned about Rambam and the golden mean, and about the Kotzker rebbe and the golden mean. They journaled the entire project. And then, they created the Happiness Lounge, because by transforming spaces we can bring joy and pleasure or peace and calm. We can recharge in those spaces, either physically, by adding a charger” — which they did — “or metaphorically.”

All of this sounds unconventional, but there are some conventional outcomes. The college acceptances. “I wouldn’t have messed with the kids’ futures,” Ms. Wiener said. “I wouldn’t have done any of this if I thought they wouldn’t get into good schools. But I saw that graduates of High Tech High are getting in and going everywhere.

“What colleges want are students who are stable, who can go out into the world, who know themselves, and who are stable in that knowledge,” she said. “You can conquer the world that way.”

Sarah Gorbatov of Tenafly — who started at the Idea School in ninth grade, is about to graduate, and will be going to Duke University in the fall — is proud of her school. It taught her what she wanted to learn, she said. It’s prepared her “to go out into the world, and contribute to the community as a Jew,” she said. “I think that is really powerful and important.”

When she thinks about the school, she thinks about the projects.

“Sophomore year was very eye-opening for me,” she said. “That was the year we went into lockdown, so the schools had to adapt. I have friends in public schools and in more traditional Jewish day schools. Their experiences were awful that year, because it’s hard to adapt to virtual learning.

“But by virtue of our fluid and flexible model, we were able to adapt. A lot of our projects could go online.

Below, Rabbi Tavi Koslowe, the Idea School’s Judaic studies principal, uses Sefaria as he teaches.

“I made a simulation a chemistry principle. It took me a long time, and it was very stressful. I did it at home, with support from friends and from teachers, who were learning how to do it online alongside me. But after many sleepless nights, I did it, using a program called Blender 3D to model a situation in which a product and a reactant reach equilibrium.

“That’s what established my interest in science. And then I used a coding language to make games that also are art. I was a novice in terms of design, but I had a lot of support for it.”

As a result of these experiences, Sarah learned about herself. When she gets to college, she plans to be pre-med; she’ll major in science and minor in philosophy, she said.

She’s also been active in student government; she’s now its president. “I came into the school very timid,” she said. “I was not someone who would want to speak at an event or lead a program or club.” But that has changed. “After petitioning to create a student voice in the administration, I am very happy.

“I learned leadership.”

“Sarah founded a club called Mighty Chondria,” Ms. Wiener said. “We met last night for 45 minutes for a lecture on the theremin,” the electronic instrument invented in the 1920s, when electronic music was in its infancy,” Sarah said. “We had a bunch of different students discuss the theremin’s components. It involved engineering, math, and history. And at the very end, we composed a song for the theremin.”

Rabbi Tavi Koslowe of Teaneck is the school’s Judaic studies principal; he’s been with the school since it opened. He’s a Yeshiva University-trained Orthodox rabbi, whose smicha comes from YU. But he’s not particularly traditional at school.

This student-created, complex, layered map of Israel is part of a semester-long project.

“I think that because in so many ways the lines between different traditional positions and subjects areas are blurred, because both of my professional interests and because of the nature of our school, I have found myself partnering with the humanities teacher, with the engineering teacher, with the Hebrew teacher. I often will spend part of my day in a physics classroom, just as an engineering teacher will spend part of his day in the beit midrash.”

Because of the way the day is divided, “there is a sense that there is an overarching theme,” Rabbi Koslowe said. “They may be thinking about difficult conversations, so that took the form of studying ‘12 Angry Men’ in humanities classes and it took the form of studying Abraham and Sarah and the banishment of Hagar in Jewish studies.”

Why did he pick Hagar to study? “It’s been a lot of fun for me to reimagine what a Judaic studies curriculum could look like. I’ve often been asked, ‘Which sedra of the Talmud are you studying this semester?’ And I say, ‘That’s not really how we are studying.’

“For me, so much of the planning starts with what I think might be a really engaging design challenge.”

The year that covid disrupted, the challenge was to create a kosher food truck.

“The idea was that our students would be engaged in the process, learning about everything that goes into the creation of a kosher food truck. It brings together entrepreneurship and what that demands. Some of our students went to Tenafly’s health and fire departments to get our permits. We reached out to the Kof K,” the Teaneck-based kashrut certifying agency — “for them to talk about what’s involved in getting a hechsher.

“We spent a semester doing this. We had a physical food truck that we’d rented. The students were taking measurements for the kind of generator that would be needed in order to power it up. We were studying the laws of kashrut in depth, and we were studying the laws of tzedakah. We were going to make a profit — how much of that profit should we be giving away to charity?”

This table displayed student-made science journals at an evening exhibition.

Covid stopped the project, but it was a potent experience for the students and a vivid example of project-based learning.

“I had spent the summer before thinking about how when we think about projects, we ask ourselves what experts in this field do with their knowledge. How can we put our students in the driver’s seat? You can sit in a driver’s ed classroom only so long before you are itching to get out behind the wheel.

“We want students to experience what someone who is engaged in the world of physics actually does with their knowledge. That’s how we got the idea of having a project designing a sports helmet. We thought, ‘Let’s do that. Let’s bring students into the experience of designing a sports helmet, because that’s what people who are engaged in physics do.”

Similarly, “a person engaged in studying about kashrut could experience what a mashgiach would have to do to get a restaurant certified. So let’s get our students that kind of experience doing the things they have to do to feel confident and competent in running a kosher establishment.

“It provides an exciting fuel for the learning, as well as a genuine sense of accountability for the learning. The learning matters, because when we present our food truck to the local kashrut organization, we want to be able to speak with knowledge and clarity. We want to be able to say yes, we have performed the appropriate kinds of procedures in order to kasher this truck.”

Every morning at school starts with the beit midrash. “We tried to create a vision of a non-coercive Orthodox environment, and for us what that looks like is both from the top down and the bottom up, a fierce acceptance of each student. It’s been really encouraging to see how this has taken root with our school’s culture.

“I think that for some students, this might not have been necessarily what they were seeking. It might have been the project-based learning model. But this really important value of acceptance makes sense in many ways. The project-based learning model, which is so much about trying to engage with students on the questions that matter to them, on the problems that bother them, on the learning that will be meaningful to them, makes sense when it’s paired with the very palpable sense of acceptance of who you are.

Students make challah as the school marked cancer-awareness Pink Day.

“I think that the students here really feel that, that students from all kinds of backgrounds feel that they have a place and a voice here.”

Students must go to the beit midrash every morning. When the school first started, students began with what the school calls “zman kodesh” — holy time — “and then we’d all transition from that into formal tefillah,” the prayer service. “But I think that it was really important for us create different spaces for our students, depending on what kind of setting would fuel them spiritually.”

Now, there are two options for students — the zman kodesh or the minyan.

The minyan is traditional Orthodox davening, Rabbi Koslowe said. “Because students have opted into that setting, I think that they take a really beautiful and mature sense of ownership of that time and space. It is not coercive.

“Our faculty advisor, Ben Zion Ferziger,” who’s the Idea School’s Hebrew teacher, “prays with them, and he facilitates it. The gabbai committee has a lunch-time meeting — the committee’s open to everyone — and they sit around the room and talk about what kind of environment they want to create. Even among this self-selected group, some people want more singing, others want a more fast-paced minyan. How do they discourage some students from either talking or taking out their phones, while not estranging them so they don’t want to be there.

“It was the most incredible student-run conversation, and I felt so fortunate just to be in the room with them. These are exactly the kinds of conversations they will be having in their Hillels on college campuses. They will be part of the conversations that are or should be happening in every shul. How do we engage the congregation? How do we balance the different values and create a space that is inspiring and beautiful and respectful?

“I love that this process is happening for them.”

But Rabbi Koslowe does not facilitate the Orthodox minyan. He’s at the zman kodesh.

“I realize that davening leaves many of these students cold,” he said. “They easily could have found themselves forgotten in the back row of the beit knesset of a more traditional setting. Instead, here, they’re engaging differently, in meaningful conversations about a single tefillah, or a spiritual challenge, or something happening in current events.

A student makes a project-culminating presentation.

“Either I or one of the students puts out some kind of discussion prompt. On Pink Day, we spoke about the different kinds of needs that a person who is enduring cancer might be struggling with. We allowed that to expand outward, to think about the kinds of prayers that we might be able to craft to go with those needs.

“We have a great rotation of students who lead them,” Rabbi Koslowe continued. “One student wrote a short paragraph on the idea of beauty, and what beauty means to her. It was going in the same direction as Pirke Avot when it asks who is truly wealthy or truly wise.

“She led a discussion of who is truly beautiful, and it was a perfect entry point.

“Everyone, especially in high school, thinks about how they look and how they look to each other.”

This kind of discussion gives students the latitude to be honest. “Zman kodesh lets us start our day with meaningful conversation, instead of being shushed,” Rabbi Koslowe said. “Students who could easily have found themselves being shushed, in a setting they didn’t want to be in, instead are engaged in meaningful conversations.

“They are building their spiritual muscles, even though it’s not a traditional prayer format,” Rabbi Koslowe concluded.

So now that the Idea School is about to graduate its first class, it has proven itself as a project. It’s a mixture of the abstract and the practical, an example of disciplines pursued separately until they all come together.

The project-based learning model is like rivers, tributaries running down from different headwaters, flowing into each other until they’re a glorious rush of water. That final cascade in this metaphor are the students, the first class to graduate from the Idea School, going out into the world strengthened by all the streams of knowledge, collaboration, instinct, and love that has nurtured them until now.

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