A special series produced by Avi Chai And Moment
There’s a slow-moving revolution happening in Jewish day schools. Over the past eight years, Jewish day schools have embraced a new philosophy called personalized learning where students work simultaneously on different assignments tailored to their individual needs. Blended learning, the method used to achieve personalized learning, structures the classroom so it’s less “teacher at the front of the room” and more a mix of teacher-led and independent and group student learning. According to a recent paper published by Digital Promise, an organization that advances public education and improved learning, “If there is one takeaway from the burgeoning learning sciences research, it is that no two of us learn in exactly the same way.”
In a blended learning classroom, there are times when the class will come together for a shared lesson. But more often, you’ll see a group of kids on the floor collaborating on a project (with or without shoes on), while others read an assignment in a comfy chair, work at computers or meet with the teacher. To personalize learning even further, teachers use technology to better understand their students’ strengths and weaknesses. For example, there’s a software program that measures how much time a student spends on each question on a quiz or test. This lets teachers know whether a student needs more one-on-one time or is ready for more challenging work. “The data allows teachers to further differentiate the instruction,” says Rachel Mohl Abrahams, senior program officer at The AVI CHAI Foundation, which funds personalized learning initiatives in day schools.
The Moriah School in Englewood, New Jersey, which educates students from nursery to eighth grade, has used personalized learning since first participating in the Blended Online Learning in Day Schools (BOLD) initiative in 2013. During most class periods, students move through a variety of stations working in groups, independently or with the teacher. “One of the big differences we see between now and six years ago is the level of student engagement,” says Rabbi Daniel Alter, head of school. “We have found that kids are more motivated.” One young student says, “I learn better. I feel smarter,” while an older student explains, “It allows us to be more independent.”
Blended learning is also being used in Judaic and Hebrew language courses. “All our Judaic teachers use blended learning strategies by using data, resources and programs that allow for much greater leveled support,” says Rabbi Yossi Bassman, director of Bader Hillel High School, a college prep program in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Since there are fewer resources available in this area, The AVI CHAI Foundation has invested in the blended Hebrew programs iTaLAM and Bishvil Ha-Ivrit, along with online Jewish study courses through the Lookstein Virtual Jewish Academy and the Online Judaic Studies Consortium.
Blended learning can save schools money and help keep tuition costs down. Bader Hillel High School opened its doors in 2013 by partnering with a free online public school for general studies instruction. “It would not have been financially possible to open the new school without a blended learning approach,” Rabbi Bassman says. Despite the online component, teachers remain a critical part of the equation, building relationships with students, facilitating small group learning and providing in-person tutoring and mentoring. “We believe we’re offering an incredible value, an incredible education,” adds Rabbi Bassman.
Another key element of a blended learning classroom is the use of flexible seating. Some kids are fidgety, some prefer the structure of a proper desk and chair, others the safety of a cushion on the floor. From low tables and cushions to high tables and rockers, “students sit where they are comfortable and in what works best for them in that moment. They have their optimum learning right there because they’re in their most comfortable position,” says Nancy Penchev, the media and instructional technology coordinator at Scheck Hillel Community School in North Miami Beach, Florida. After careful research about the benefits of flexible seating—deciding which seats to select and how to set them up—teachers at Scheck Hillel Community School have found great success with their new learning environment.
Of course, there have also been some challenges along the way. In the early days, not all teachers were on board with a personalized learning model because they were accustomed to a teacher-centered classroom or uncomfortable using new technologies. Schools found it was important to move slowly and make sure teachers felt supported. “It took a lot of explaining and a lot of professional development and coaching,” says Penchev. As for parents, communicating the value of using technology in addition to teacher-led instruction has made the transition to a blended learning environment possible.
To help administrators and teachers incorporate personalized learning into their classrooms, Miami’s Center for the Advancement of Jewish Education (CAJE) in partnership with The AVI CHAI Foundation, launched JBlend in 2015 with four local Jewish day schools. Participants receive regular professional development and coaching from BetterLesson, a leader in the field of K-12 personalized professional development. BetterLesson has supported close to 400 educators from 77 day schools throughout North America “to build their capacity to bring blended and personalized learning strategies to their students.” In addition JBlend teachers work together, and brainstorm about what’s working and what’s not working in ways not traditionally practiced between competing schools. Teachers even traveled to The Moriah School in New Jersey to learn how teachers there incorporated personalized learning into their classrooms. “JBlend’s focus is on school culture and the teachers,” says Valerie Mitrani, director of Day School Strategy and Initiatives. “It takes work to get started and it takes work to learn how to do this. It’s that shift in mindset, going from the teacher as the ‘sage on the stage’ to a ‘guide on the side.’”
The AVI CHAI Foundation encourages schools to experiment and discover what works best for them. Personalized learning looks different at every school and in every classroom. “We’re content agnostic. It’s really more about opening up the model and getting schools to try this,” says Abrahams. And it seems to be working. Although personalized learning may create more work for teachers, the excitement and learning that take place make it well worth it. To quote one day school teacher: “If you told me that I had to go back to standing in front of a room telling them all to do the same page at the same time, I would turn around, walk out and never come back.” —Suzanne Borden