The “From the Desk Of” series is my regular email to the Valley Torah High School community.
This school year has been quite unique as students have been given the opportunity to explore their interests, investigate societal issues and encouraged to think locally and globally to discover new passions in finding creative solutions to help others. Staff has kept busy also, with trips to innovative schools like High Tech High in San Diego and professional development where we explored, learned and experimented with a model of teaching that applies learning to the world. This model, called 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 a complex question, problem, or challenge. (bie.org)” It is a model that research has shown increases content acquisition, retention and, above all, connection and applicability to the real world. As a founding school of the i.d.e.a. schools network, an organization focused on developing and supporting innovative school, Valley Torah is committed to sourcing more ways for our students to excel academically while also applying their learning directly to their lives and the world around them. This has been a very strategic and daring process, but on June 7th our efforts truly paid off.
Last Sunday, Valley Torah held its first Project-Based Learning Exhibition and Siyum. The day was devoted to celebrating the students work on the Principal Project, Gemach Project and in their Gemmara study. To say the event met my expectations would be an understatement. Honestly, the whole thing was a risk; we had never had such an event. However, the students really stepped up and with great enthusiasm represented themselves and the school well.
For the Principal Project 9th grade students presented the professions they chose and researched all year. 10th graders presented their research on Universities they aspire to attend. 11th and 12th graders prepared online presentations of solutions to problems facing the world today. For the Gemmach (a free loan program for items needed in the community) project, students in Rabbi Gramas and Rabbi Samuels shiur, who were learning the eighth perek in Bava Metzia, developed a prototype gemach for the school. It was based on a school community need that the students researched and discovered with the rules of accessing it being based on the Halachos of borrowing discussed in the gemara. Each student in both the Principal Project and Gemach Project displayed a visual presentation of their work and gave an oral presentation of their idea, research and final project. All of this was also enhanced by a Siyum on Meseches Megillah which is a beautiful culminated celebration for finishing a tractate of Gemara.
Guests were simply amazed by the Freshman who presented about Architecture, Game Design, Photography, Oncology, Real Estate and more. Parents and teachers were made proud by the Sophomores’ knowledge of UCLA, USC, Harvard, University of Chicago, Yeshiva University and other top schools. Juniors and Seniors inspired hope for the future with solutions to third world
poverty, pollution, racism in the Jewish community and other impactful issues we face. The Gemachs were another source of pride as students presented programs to help the school community with attaining a Kippah, phone charger, pens and pencils, bicycles and more. However, the final projects, while impressive, were a representation of a much deeper and meaningful process the students went through this year.
For example, when I asked Freshman Moshe Levine if he chose architecture because it was something that interested him, he replied “No, I just chose something at random, but now I am interested in it!” That sums up the purpose of the Principal Project, and Project-Based Learning in general, as it is meant to support students in finding their interests, pursuing them and gaining a deeper understanding of them. They learn by doing and that learning sticks with them throughout high school and beyond.
We must be pushed out of comfort zones in order to grow and discover ourselves. This is exactly what the Principal Project, the Gemach Project and the Exhibition achieved for everyone involved; students, teachers and administration alike. Students were pushed to go beyond the familiar and look deeply into new possibilities. Teachers transformed the way they think about and practice their craft and the administration chartered a new course for meaningful education. As a school activity, this was an entirely new event that taught me that the right attitude and a little proactivity, any obstacle can be overcome. We dared greatly this year, learned from what failed and what succeeded and with confidence I can say we were victorious as a school.
I leave you with a quote from President Theodore Roosevelt that I opened my speech with at the Exhibition.
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”