Source: Jewish Standard
Starting a school — going from the daydream to the absolute reality of actual ninth-graders looking at you expectantly one September day — is an extraordinary achievement. You get to shape students’ lives. That’s what Tikvah Wiener of Teaneck did with the Idea School, a new Jewish high school whose freshman class started in September. The school’s set at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly; the intergenerational programming inside the building and the wooded acres outside seem a necessary part of it.
There are 13 students now, all ninth-graders. Next year, the school will add a new ninth grade; it plans to graduate its first class in four years. It has seven teachers, three of them full-time, including Rabbi Tavi Koslove, the school’s Judaic studies principal, and it works with other teachers.
The Idea School’s educational model is project-based learning. “A big part of it is authenticity,” Ms. Wiener said. “It’s about authentic connections to the real world. Your work should be part of the real world in some way.”
It’s about the importance of facts and of truth. It’s less about hierarchy than about the way learning and learners and the world in which and from which they learn all interconnects. It’s about melding science and art and emotion and Judaism in ways that are both challenging and real.
This could mean that as you learn about environmental science or biology, “You could, say, test water in the Hackensack River or investigate whether people who live close to Route 4 have higher levels of illness. Your research might yield something authentic, and you could make connections with experts in the field, with a water filtration specialist, say, or a chemist.”
The Idea School works on trimesters. There’s one big unit per trimester, a concept that each discipline uses in its own way. And then, “presenting and reflecting on work is very important,” Ms. Wiener said. “We want the students presenting their work to each other, and to as wide an audience as possible; if you were investigating river levels, if you found something you’d want to present it to the town water board.” But the students start with each other, their teachers and administrators, and parents.
The school uses the same core curriculum as other schools, she added. “In ninth grade, social studies is ancient civilizations, math is geometry, science is physics. These are not outliers. It’s not that the information the students learn is different, it’s that it’s organized differently. It’s how we’re choosing to connect the courses.
The Idea School is the first and so far the only Jewish institution “to be fully interdisciplinary and project-based,” Ms. Wiener said.
Although the school may seem unstructured, that’s far from the truth, she said. It’s just that the structure isn’t necessarily visible. It uses the chavruta model — students learning together in pairs — but “it’s not the typical ‘let’s go learn together,’” she said. “It’s a protocol, with set criteria and guidelines. When you give kids protocols, they don’t have to wonder what they are supposed to be doing. Those rules take the pressure off.”
“We are not interested only in their scientific and academic exploration and their cultural literacy,” Ms. Wiener said. “We are very interested in those things, but we also are very interested in their moral character development within their exploration of science and the humanities and their Jewish heritage.”
Teaching Talmud is a necessary and valuable way to teach students not only Jewish practice but also Jewish values, she said. “If you grow up to cheat on your taxes but keep Shabbat perfectly, then we have failed.”
The Idea School has only one grade now. It’s small. The JCC has many rooms to offer them, and the school not only is flexible but takes great advantage of the range of spaces open to it. “One of the nuances of the space for the school is that they don’t want dedicated classrooms. Their educational model is enhanced by the opportunity to use multiple spaces during the day. “Not only are they flexible, they desire flexibility.”
And what about Tikvah Wiener, whose vision and drive created the Idea School?
“Tikvah is a rock star,” Mr. Shenker said. “She just thinks differently as a person. I assume she thinks differently as an educator as well, but I am not qualified to comment on that. But when you pitch an idea to Tikvah, she always listens to it. She is always open to it, on its face, without pre-judging it.
“It seems to me that the first question she asks herself is ‘How could this work?’ That’s as opposed to many people who approach any idea with the question ‘How will this be a problem?
’ “Tikvah approaches the world from yes instead of no. That is so invigorating to be around!
That’s one of the things I find most enticing about working with Tikvah and with the Idea School. It’s because the school has a leader who wants to figure out how to say yes.”
Read the entire article in the Jewish Standard.