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RealSchool: Giving students the reins
Tikvah Wiener      Email This Article

Tikvah Wiener is Coordinator of Interdisciplinary Studies, Chairman of the English Department, and an English and Art History teacher at The Frisch School in Paramus, NJ.

...education needs serious reformation for this new world we are all busy creating.

Tikvah Wiener launched a club in her high school in which students form teams to direct their learning in areas of their interest. The results are dramatic.




Last summer, a friend who is not a teacher sent me an RSA Animate (2010) video featuring Sir Ken Robinson. I think the video has gone viral among educators, but if you haven’t seen it, you should. In it, Robinson speaks about the fact that schools were conceived based on the subjects the Enlightenment valued and on the factory model created by the Industrial Revolution. Robinson quips that students are still educated in “batches,” taught according to age, as if “their date of manufacture was the most important thing about them.”


Robinson calls on educators to break out of the bonds this two-hundred-year-plus system has forced us into and consider that often people learn best when they collaborate, are given opportunities to engage in divergent thinking and study non-traditional subjects, in non-traditional ways. Lawrence Summers (2010) echoes many of Robinson’s sentiments in a recent article he wrote for the New York Times, saying even universities today “rely almost entirely on passive learning. Students listen to lectures or they read and then are evaluated on the basis of their ability to demonstrate content mastery. They aren’t asked to actively use the knowledge they are acquiring.”


I showed the Robinson video to some of my classes when the school year began, and their positive reactions to it as well as the additional videos they shared with me made me join the ranks of those who think that education needs serious reformation for this new world we are all busy creating. One TED Talk video a student forwarded featured Sugata Mitra (2010), an education scientist who set a computer in a wall in a town in India and then monitored from afar how children who had never seen the Internet taught themselves how to use it. Another Ted Talk video showed a sixth grader discussing the apps he had learned to make (TedXManhattan Beach, 2011).


The videos I saw, the articles on education I’ve been reading, and my experience in the classroom have reinforced my sense that if the future of education means longer and longer lists of students who need extended time on exams and endless types of modifications, then we’ve got to reconsider how we’re going about teaching the next generation.


Launching RealSchool


I thought the easiest and most risk-free way to begin changing curriculum in school would be to do something after school, in a club. And so this year I launched RealSchool, a club that my tenth grade son Solomon, who is in RealSchool, calls “the club of clubs.” I think he means a multitude of things by that, all of which were articulated by the students when we worked on RealSchool’s mission statement:


“If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I?”

Hillel, Ethics of the Fathers, 1:13


RealSchool is a group of clubs that are linked together by a matrix of shared beliefs about how one learns and the way learning benefits the self and others. One of the key values of RealSchool is that learning should be self-directed, that is, what one learns should be chosen by the individual. However, once a student has selected a RealSchool team in the area of interest s/he has, all learning takes place collaboratively. Learning at RealSchool is also primarily experiential rather than based on the knowledge of an expert, commonly referred to in the past as a teacher. In addition, RealSchool encourages – no, demands – divergent, creative thinking that enables students to apply their knowledge and skills to real life and the challenges of the real world.

The relationship that all RealSchool members are taught to create within the RealSchool community and with the broader world is a caring, symbiotic one. Students may join a particular RealSchool team because of a talent or interest they have, but they must learn about the talents that others possess and how to help others pursue their interests. Therefore, though the process of joining RealSchool begins with the self and an individual’s interests, it ends in a stronger community, as students are not only consumers, that is, recipients of help from RealSchool teams, but are also producers, ones who give help to fellow teams and ultimately to the larger community.

Built into RealSchool’s DNA, then, is a focus on student empowerment: students choose what and how to learn. However, students also come to realize that by doing the very things they love, they will benefit not only their peers but the community and world at large.


I’ll admit that I introduced some of the values expressed in the mission statement at initial RealSchool meetings, but I haven’t needed to beat the students over the head with these new pedagogical ideas. The students have taken the principles and run with them, finding their own videos and articles and sharing them with me and each other. On our Facebook page (www.facebook.com/pages/RealSchool/234355426650263), you can see the videos and articles the club has been sharing.


Student response


Unsurprisingly, the students have responded positively to the notion that they should be in control of how and what they learn. In a recent article entitled “Preparing Students to Learn without Us,” Will Richardson (2012) writes that he wanted to know if his twelve-year-old son, an avid basketball player and fan, could learn the math he needed to succeed in life by studying the sport he loved. Richardson posed the question on his blog and received sixty responses explaining all the different types of math his son could master by studying the sport he loved. The exercise left Richardson wondering why all students shouldn’t be able to “choose their own paths through the curriculum” (p. 22). Richardson’s article argues in favor of what we’re now calling 21st-century learning, that is, highly personalized learning where students are not only taught using the modalities they’re comfortable and most successful with, but through the interests and talents they have. This is a post-Howard Gardner world. 


My biggest fear when thinking about all this highly personalized learning is that society is going to continue down its narcissistic path, creating Barney-esque monsters who think they’re so special that their teachers redesigned a curriculum entirely for them. That’s why it was important to me to build into RealSchool the notion that students are consumers, but also producers of goods and that they must contribute to the RealSchool community and to the larger world as well. RealSchool is my contribution to Occupy Wall Street.


For the 2011-2012 school year, the students have created the following RealSchool teams: Social Entrepreneurship; Marketing/Advertising Journalism; Web Design; App Making; The Arts; Nutrition; Finance; Religious Identity.


The teams run pretty non-hierarchically, though I do have team “managers” who I communicate with more frequently than I do with some of the club members and that I rely on to execute different tasks. However, I also correspond through e-mails with the entire club and ascertain that everyone in the club knows what the teams are doing and what the club is up to. To that end, the Facebook page and our blog – http://frischrealschool.blogspot.com/ – allow the RealSchool community to keep itself and others informed of our activities. As in any club, all members from all different grades mix and interact freely. However, because RealSchool is so focused on pedagogy and the learning process, I like to think that students are also growing accustomed to learning without being divided “according to their date of manufacture.”


Empowerment can be messy


When I launched the club, I deliberately refrained from making certain decisions about how it would run; student empowerment was obviously one of my main goals. Therefore, each team had to decide what and how they wanted to learn. I was most concerned with how to get Web Design and App Making started, since I know nothing about coding. I gathered the students interested in those tasks and posed some questions: How do you want to go about this learning process? Do you want a teacher? Do you want to learn how to write code by yourselves? The teams were unanimous in wanting to figure things out on their own. The students or I bought books on how to write code; the students quickly found how-to videos on YouTube and different websites; and more recently I bought the app making team Apple’s mobile stencils. Head of App Making, senior David Aghassi, also recently informed me that the group is now making use of iTunes U’s Stanford courses on app development.


The learning process has been, and still is, messy. Both the Web Design and App Making teams hit glitches and needed help understanding various aspects of writing code. My job was then to find experts who could help them. It’s easy to find computer programmers who know web design coding, but finding someone who has made an app is not as easy as it’s going to be in, say, probably six months from now. It turns out, though, Josh Meier, a sophomore in my community who doesn’t go to Frisch, has already designed two apps, so I called him and he was happy to answer questions David had about the app development. (For anyone who is interested, Josh has made a Mishneh Torah app for the iPhone.)


The Web Design team had its own problems, some of which are not yet resolved. Web Design members went from wanting to write code to creating a website using Adobe Muse, but the students owned that decision, even if I was sitting on the sidelines calling out encouragement and reminding them that they needed to show progress in their task. And I point out the messiness of beginning the Web Design and App Making teams, not to show a drawback of the birthing process but to demonstrate a benefit of it. I like that the process has been messy, and I encourage the students to think of the club as the high school version of kindergarten, a place where they can get their hands dirty, make mistakes and figure out ways to solve their problems. I also think it’s telling – and a confirmation of Will Richardson’s argument in his article – that none of the teams want a sage on the stage; RealSchool students haven’t wanted speakers or experts showing them what to do. They all just want to get busy doing. 


Empowerment is … empowering!


Students are also part of the decision-making process of the club because they decide on the creation of teams. Though I formed some of the original teams in order to get RealSchool started, now that the students have internalized the club’s goals, they’ve been busy coming up with new groups. Lately, a Nutrition team has formed and its members are planning a day at Frisch when students will be encouraged not to drink sugared or diet drinks. The students are working to get a local business to donate stainless steel bottles for the day or to convince a soft drink or other company to donate water bottles. Even more recently, a student approached me about beginning a Finance team. Frisch already has a Finance club, but its members begin the year “playing” the stock market. My RealSchool student wanted a place where a neophyte to the world of money could learn about personal finance: learn how to write a check, how to open a bank account, how to understand the way current economic events affect one’s life. Immediately, students in other teams signed up for the newly formed Finance one.  


Some teams that began working at the beginning of the school year have already completed projects. The Arts team was responsible for one particularly exciting one. During Hanukkah I organize an interdisciplinary program for the freshmen called Greek Week. The freshmen learn about the many contributions the Greeks have made to Western civilization and then discover what aspects of the Greek lifestyle are antithetical to a Torah one. To launch the unit, Frisch’s art teacher, Ahuva Mantell, created a presentation that showed the students how focused the Greeks were on physical beauty; how we as a society today are, like the Greeks, overly preoccupied with physical perfection, and that Judasim’s emphasis on the development of spiritual perfection is a much more psychologically healthy way to live. Mrs. Mantell then had the freshmen work in groups, with each group creating a piece of modest clothing on which the group members wrote a poem they had composed.


I suggested to The Arts team that we take the freshman project and turn it into an “art exhibit.” The goal of The Arts team is not only to make students more aware of the role that art plays in our lives, but also to create through art, in the words of the team’s own mission statement, “fascinating, thoughtful and profound experiences.” I showed the team an article about Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan’s unusual retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum, in which all the artist’s works were hung from the ceiling of the museum’s lobby. We all agreed that students would probably notice if objects were suddenly hanging from the school’s lobby, and we also all agreed that clothes seemed more natural to suspend than, for example, the safe that was one of Cattelan’s artworks.


The team decided that in addition to exhibiting the clothes, they would recopy the poetry written on the clothing and exhibit the poems as well. Once the team discovered there were too many clothes to hang in the main lobby, we asked the head of our maintenance staff to build us a ten-foot clothing rack and Mrs. Mantell loaned us her mannequins, which the team dressed and then spread throughout the school building. Finally, to convey the sense of what the project was about to the rest of the grades, The Arts team placed near the clothing rack a mirror and a giant chalkboard with the words “How Do You Feel About Yourself?” Students would be encouraged to think about who they really are, by reading the unusual poetry on the clothing, by looking at themselves and by seeing what other students wrote about their self-perceptions. The “exhibit” was a great success; The Arts team accomplished its goal of making students stop and notice art and think about themselves and the world a little bit differently. The team is busy now preparing its next exhibit, on the wonders of the Fibonacci sequence.


The Marketing team is another one that has been working steadily since the inception of RealSchool and has become indispensable to all the other teams. To help the App Making team, Marketing first polled students and teachers about what they would want on a school app. Its members more recently polled students about Digital Learning Day, which took place on February 1, and the team is now busy compiling the data from their poll as well as from a school-wide wiki question that students answered about whether technology aids or hinders learning. Religious Identity is in the middle of a project that the Marketing team will then help promote, and the team also created the club’s Facebook page and makes status updates to it daily. 


At present, RealSchool has about sixty students enrolled and some students participate in more than one team. To be honest, I don’t know who is more excited about the club, the students or I. All I know is that on Tuesday nights, when the club meets, I can’t wait to see what activities the students will want to plan and what they’ll challenge me to help them with as they discover new interests and passions. Since the club – and the journal topic – is all about student empowerment, I thought I’d end with thoughts from RealSchool members:


“RealSchool allows students to break free from the mold of the school, allowing them to mold themselves the way they wish.” – David Aghassi, senior, Head of App Making


“Participating in RealSchool allows me to see ideas from conception to completion, giving me a sense of ownership of my work.” – Penina Warburg, junior, Head of Marketing; Member of Religious Identity


“I previously found it hard to explore my interest in the field of education. However, RealSchool is enabling me to gain experience as an educator.”Akiva Mattenson, “RealSchool Rebbe” and Head of Religious Identity


“RealSchool gives students the opportunity to collaborate on a different level because they are working on projects designed by students, organized by students and for the overall benefit of students.” – Amanda Rubin, junior, RealSchool Manager




Richardson, W. (2012). Preparing students to learn without us. Educational Leadership. 69:5, 22-26.

RSA Animate ­– Changing Education Paradigms. (2012). Online posting. YouTube, 14 Oct. 2010. www.youtube.com/watch?v=zDZFcDGpL4U.

Sugata Mitra’s New Experiments in Self-Teaching. (2010). Online posting. YouTube, 7. Sept. 2010. www.youtube.com/watch?v=dk60sYrU2RU.

Summers, L. (2012, Jan. 20). What you (really) need to know. New York Times.

TEDXManhattan Beach – Thomas Suarez – iPhone Appication Developer . . . and Sixth Grader. (2011). Online Posting. www.youtube.com/watch?v=ehDAP1OQ9Zw.


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