by Rabbi Yehoshua Dovid Schwartz
As a middle school Gemara teacher, Project-Based Learning was always a paper-theory for me, something that sounded great, but in practice was nearly impossible to apply with authenticity to Gemara. Tanach, Halacha and Gemara are the three pillars of Jewish day school learning, but Gemara is unique. It isn’t simply a conversation centered on various topics, but rather, as the Rambam implies (Hilchot Talmud Torah 1:11-12) a methodology of thought, which, in a way, distinguishes it as a cornerstone for the other two. My students have to become fluent in reading and translating the text, and to be experts in asking the questions that drive the give-and-take of the Gemara. As they progress, they are trained how to approach a machloket rishonim, understand how to reintegrate the opinions back into the Gemara, and weigh the merits and shortcomings of each opinion. How could this meticulous process be transformed into a student-driven creative project?
The benefits of project-based learning continued to entice me: I like the idea of students taking independent ownership of their learning, positively changing their attitude about learning, and making the classroom more fun. Project learning can challenge students in a different way than they are used to, as well as providing students who don’t tend to perform as well in traditional learning models with benchmarks for success. I began working with my mentor (Mrs. Rivka Gross) on creating a project-based learning unit that would maintain the rigor of Gemara. This article represents the path I took in creating a specific project, but also outlines a method for creating future projects.
Challenge #1: The primary goal for Gemara learning is not mere information acquisition, but skill development. This is true on the most basic level and is exponentially truer as the learning becomes more complex and challenging. I hold my students to a high level of learning integrity and any project would have to maintain this integrity. In addition to expecting them to fully comprehend even very complex information, they are also accountable for the skills they have developed. My challenge was to take Gemara learning in all its splendor – advanced textual analysis and development of logic, in an ancient language, on a variety of topics, across an immeasurable platform of oral tradition spanning millennia, accessible only through the cryptic analog viewpoints of medieval commentaries – and present a model that students could use to creatively convert it into another form. This would be a daunting task for an expert in Gemara, let alone a middle-schooler, so my first challenge was to find a way to imbue the integrity of learning, mastery of skills, and acquisition of knowledge into the uncharted territory of a project.
Challenge #2: If you are anything like I used to be (and to a degree still am), when you look at project-based learning, you see a problem: when given the option, students will take the path of least resistance. This is true for any subject but is particularly in subjects where the students lack confidence or expertise or where greater effort may be required. As a result, the ‘project’ element of PBL may very well come at the expense of ‘learning’, leading to unfortunate shortcomings in the quality of the education process. I was concerned that a project could devolve into superficial learning and end up as little more than a simple art project with a smattering of content. I didn’t want to give up the rigor and authenticity of Gemara in doing this project. So, my second challenge was how to ensure that the learning was taking center-stage: that the project component was representative of the Gemara, adding a dimension to student understanding, not detracting from it.
Challenge #3: It takes years to develop the skills to become self-sufficient in learning Gemara, and more for proficiency in approaching rishonim or acharonim. We struggle to appreciate the dynamic and diverse nature of the oral tradition and incredible depth and wisdom it provides. Some sections are halachic, some allegorical, some applicable and some more esoteric, and many deal with topics distant from our modern world – each type of Gemara requiring its own nuanced approach. But middle school students don’t yet have the skills to approach a new section of Gemara with rishonim by themselves, and while Gemara can be found in English, most commentaries can’t. In other words, students’ access to learning is dependent on me as a teacher, making a fully independent project nearly impossible. So, the last challenge was how to give them independence and ownership in an area where they aren’t yet able to function independently.
For context, I decided to try PBL with my 8th grade class on the Gemara in Sukkah (daf 6b) dealing with a dispute in a Braita between the Rabbis and Rebbi Yehuda as to the
minimum number of walls needed for a Sukkah. The Gemara presents four different calculations involving four factors, all of which could explain the dispute based on two verses in the Torah. Then, the Gemara gives a cryptic fifth answer from a verse in Yeshaya, the meaning of which is disputed by Rashi and Tosafot. These students had developed questioning skills, and I chose this sugiyah because the Gemara provides a new depth to the mechanics of a good answer, as well as providing a machloket rishonim that is accessible to them at their level. Based on these considerations, I felt that this was a good sugiyah to experiment with.
The first step to solving these problems required a paradigm shift in the way I looked at PBL. To harness this tool, I had to let the educational goals drive the structure of the project to avoid the pitfall of superficiality. By verbalizing the goals that I implicitly knew, it allowed them to drive this project. A side bonus was that this helped strengthen my own clarity on the educational goals that drive my classroom every day.
But even after clarifying my goals, I still had the challenge of independence, and while some challenges can be overcome, others need a workaround. Instead of utilizing the PBL method for the entire Gemara, it would be the culmination as an alternative assessment. However, even as we began learning, I told the students the plan so that it would frame the way they learned the sugiyah. I think it’s important to understand PBL is a tool, which should be applied differently to different audiences. So, my 8th graders learned the Gemara and Rishonim in our traditional manner, while structuring the learning process in ways that would later be expressed through a project-based assessment.
The next step for me was to determine my desired educational outcomes for this specific section of learning, which would in turn frame the type of project and ideal rubric which will be discussed later. I have certain baseline expectations for every sugiyah: reading progress, understanding the shakla v’tarya, vocabulary at a basic and advanced contextual level, and knowledge of any background information covered. Then there are the unique expectations for this section: calculating variables of a sugiyah, specific sections from Rashi and Tosafot and their dispute, and understanding the progression of questions leading to solution. Whenever I write a standard assessment, I begin by listing the category headings that I would like to cover. Then I make sure that there are questions covering all of these categories. I also like to make my students think critically as a part of the assessment itself, thereby demonstrating their skills development, in addition to demonstrating mastery of content. So, I took the areas that I wanted to assess and then began thinking about the form that the projects would take.
There are many types of alternative assessments, and my challenge as a teacher is to use my knowledge of the subject and more importantly, my knowledge of my students, to determine the optimal form. Essay responses, PowerPoint slideshows, oral presentations, artwork, game creation, journal entries, poetry, and plays are among the limitless options. I thought about each student, ensuring that everyone had a project they would relate to and succeed with. This led me to four options for the students to demonstrate their learning through artistic expression: by writing a children’s storybook, designing a comic strip, creating representative art, or building a 3d mobile. Giving students options creates buy-in, but in order to maintain rigor, those options must be quantified. Writing clear instructions for each option helped define parameters for this project and trained me to think in this way for future projects. Decisions such as how many words could be used, having the student create a title, and how much of the sugiyah had to be included in each project helped me build scaffolds for the students to create projects that would be fun, interesting, and suitably challenging.
Perhaps the most important foundation of a project, the part that sets the tone and metrics for success, is the grading rubric. As I worked on the rubric, I had two realizations. First, a visual project can’t assess everything. Second, the real value of the project is in being able to share the beauty and depth with others. Therefore, I added two other components to the assessment. One was an oral assessment to test reading and advanced comprehension skills. The second was a written explanation, including a personalized glossary to bridge between the artistic expression of the Gemara and the observer. I made sure that the artistic component was weighted only twenty percent of the grade, half of which was for their diligence in class, to ensure that they took the whole project seriously.
The last and most essential step was to cross check the project options and the rubric against my original goals and educational outcomes. As a whole, the project needs to embody the educational outcome, but every detail must be aligned with the goals. As I adjusted the language and criteria for success, I determined that I needed additional grading criteria. What I chose to refer to as ‘troubleshooting’ was more about understanding how the students would read the project guidelines, to ensure that my language and expectations were clear enough that they would understand all project requirements. I also decided to add a clause saying that ‘all projects must be approved by Rabbi Schwartz’ so that I would be able to intervene in case a student’s work was not meeting the standards of the rubric, while there was still enough time for course corrections. Constructing this assessment took around eight to ten hours as opposed to the one to two hours I would usually spend on a written test.
In terms of the assessment itself, the week we spent on it was amazing. For a standard assessment, I allot three days for review, and 1-2 days for the assessment itself, depending on the complexity. Though it originally seemed like a lot, spending a week for a project like this took about the same amount of time as a standard test, but was far more worth it. The students diligently reviewed in class to ensure that they had completed all of the components for success, and they were excited to bring their work home. There was an even spread among the various options, and they produced works that truly were the Gemara transformed, that demonstrated mastery of the knowledge and skills and were infused with their own creativity. It was a striking example of what we pray for daily “and give us our [unique] portion in Torah.” The students challenged me to do a mobile and integrate the Rishonim as well (something I hadn’t asked of them), so I also joined in the project. They were engaged by the learning and felt accomplished in Gemara by having the opportunity to create their own content while using the Gemara as the backbone. To quote one of my students, “This is fun. Hard, but fun.”
In my research, I found many supporters of PBL engaged in “traditional-learning-shaming”, something I do not support. I think that both of these methods have merits and are useful in different scenarios. I will continue to use traditional learning formats and give more traditional assessments, but now I am empowered as a teacher to utilize PBL and PBA with the integrity that Gemara demands. There are times when the Gemara is particularly difficult and exhausting for students, and this would give them a little more motivation to master and review it. Alternatively, when a particular type of project would fit perfectly with the Gemara topic at hand, I can now implement this method with confidence. I have not become a “chasid” of PBL, but I like to keep my options open and have a newfound appreciation for this educational tool, which can help develop my students in a new and exciting way.
Rabbi Yehoshua Dovid Schwartz has been a Rabbi and educator for the last 12 years in Israel and America. After graduating from UCLA, he moved to Israel and studied in yeshivot for ten years where he received semicha from Rabbi Zalman Nechemiyah Goldberg zt”l. Returning to America, he worked for Olami as an outreach Rabbi in central Illinois and then for the OU-JLIC as a campus educator working with day school graduates at Boston University. He found his passion in formal education and worked at the Denver Academy of Torah in the High School and Middle School, developing a Gemara curriculum and extracurricular Jewish educational opportunities. This year he moved to Cleveland to teach 5th Grade at Fuchs-Mizrachi School and learn from the amazing educators there. He is passionate about making Torah enjoyable, accessible, and memorable without compromising on content. email@example.com