Project Based Learning in Jewish History
Jewish History is often situated at an intersection between general studies and Judaic studies. Given that Project Based Learning (PBL) provides opportunities to combine the rigors of a general studies curriculum with a values-based approach typical of Judaic learning, Jewish History provides fertile ground for PBL to create meaningful and authentic learning experiences for students.
On the discipline of Jewish History, Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi’s Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory, identifies a fundamental distinction between the goals of historians in constructing history, versus memory. Jewish History, Yerushalmi argues, should be engaged in the construction of Jewish memory, meaning-making, and ultimately Jewish identity. While there is no equivalent word for “history” in Tanakh, Yerushalmi writes, the Tanakh is replete with the injunction to “remember,” zakhor. As Adam Kirsch writes, “it is possible to see Judaism itself as a technology of memory, a set of practices designed to make the past present.”
By making the learning active and concrete, PBL provides an opportunity for an immersive learning experience, which allows the individual student to become part of the memory-making process. In the Jewish History classroom, PBL—with its focus on research, real-world problem solving, critical thinking, collaboration, and authentic assessment and reflection—has the potential to create opportunities for fostering student engagement, personal connection, the construction of Jewish identity and historical memory, all helping to make the past present. Further, the PBL model also provides opportunities to layer in social-emotional learning (SEL) goals and social-emotional spiritual learning (SESL), including character-based education, as well as opportunities for differentiation among students with varying learning needs.
What follows below are several Jewish History PBL case studies of projects that engage Jewish History students in multimodal learning with varying degrees of comprehensiveness. Some have higher fidelity to the educational checkpoints of PBL, and some are “PBL light,” meeting some of the checkpoints for PBL.
One example of PBL in the Jewish History classroom introduced this year was a Geonic era inspired responsa project. After an introductory unit where we learn about the history of the Geonic period, individual Geonim, and their contributions, the project begins with the driving question: What is the process by which we get halakhic answers that are relevant to our lives as Modern Orthodox Jews today? The goal of the question, and ultimately the project, is to get the students to connect what they learned about medieval responsa to the real-world relevance of asking halakhic questions in their own lives.
Students work in groups to brainstorm and construct their own present-day questions to ask a halakhic authority in their lives. They then choose a medium through which they ask their query: email, text, in-person, or video conference. Each group researches what makes their particular question a complex halakhic issue in contemporary society. The students compile the halakhic responses, which include halakhic sources and explanations. Finally, each group presents their findings to their classmates and facilitates discussions on their topics, while answering questions from their peers.
The student-generated questions for the project include: Can you be a delivery driver for Uber Eats if you will be delivering non-kosher food? From a halakhic perspective, is digital theft considered stealing? Can teens get paid for running youth groups or working for a caterer on Shabbat? Is it permissible to be an organ donor? Students compare the process of responsa writing during the Geonic period with their own experiences, and finally they reflect on the value of having a halakhic authority in their own lives.
The students design the questions themselves, which they feel have personal relevance to their lives as Jewish teens living in the modern world. As a result, they are more invested in learning the answers to their questions and in hearing the questions and answers other groups in the class come up with as well. Many of the students reflect that the experience of asking their own questions makes them feel like they are part of a living historical system of responsa, and that they would be more likely in the future to ask questions of a halakhic authority rather than just “asking Google.”
Another example is from an introductory unit to my Jewish History course. Students work in groups to analyze and compare ancient artifact inscriptions with corresponding verses in Tanakh. Their finished product is a curated exhibit and the creation of a 3D replica of their group’s assigned artifact. Yet another is a Jewish identity podcast. After learning about the challenges to Jewish identity and faith during the Hellenistic period, students explore contemporary challenges to Jewish identity and faith by interviewing an expert in their community and creating a podcast episode to share with the class and broader school community in time for Hanuka. Finally, a personal favorite, is a “March Madness” project in which students research and ”seed” sixteen sages of the Middle Ages into an NCAA style bracket, and then evaluate in groups, based on their research into the impact and legacies of the sages’ works, which sage had the greatest impact in Jewish History.
Especially when introduced early in the curriculum, PBL can transform the Jewish History classroom environment into a learning community, foster critical and creative thinking, inspire real-world problem solving and production, and create lasting memory.
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