Tikvah Wiener
Head of School of The Idea School, the first project-based learning Jewish high school in America

Equity, Project-Based Learning, and Change

Illustrative. Kindergarten children in their classroom. (Edi Israel/Flash90)
Illustrative. Kindergarten children in their classroom. (Edi Israel/Flash90)

Why should I care about equity?

In project-based learning (PBL), which is the pedagogy I currently practice and help other educators implement, this kind of question is called a driving question or challenge, and it may drive a curricular unit, asking students to study, for example, topics such as inequity in history, in their own lives, or in the lives of the Jewish people, and to come up with ways to make the world more just and fair.

This school year, as part of my ongoing training in PBL, I’m enrolled in an educational leadership program at the High Tech public charter schools in San Diego, CA, a mecca of PBL. While the High Tech schools use PBL to focus intensely on deep learning and beautiful work, their foundation, as it turns out, is equity.

The schools have algorithms to make sure an equal number of students from all surrounding zip codes win the lotteries to enter the schools; educators there think constantly about how to craft assignments with equity in mind; and protocols abound that ensure all stakeholders – principals, educators, students, and parents – have a voice in what’s happening in the learning and in the culture the schools create.

In fact, through the I.D.E.A. Schools Network, which helps educators implement project-based learning, I recently facilitated a Q and A session with High Tech High ninth-grade STEM teacher, Scott Swaaley. Scott told educators that he’s seen PBL schools, but that the High Tech ones are different because they’ve intertwined the pedagogy seamlessly with a focus on social and emotional growth and equity. The results are impressive.

My cohort group, three administrators from the school where I work, Magen David Yeshivah High School, and I toured the High Tech High Schools with a student who has an I.E.P. (individualized learning plan). Waving a dismissive hand when my colleague asked her tentatively if she would speak about her I.E.P. – we thought she might feel uncomfortable doing so – she said it’s perfectly fine. She told us all about her educational testing history as well as about the Honors work she had chosen to do in her classes, one of which was Biology, for which she was attending college lectures in order to complete her high school work.

When people aren’t made to feel embarrassed about their differences but are free to embrace who they are and find ways to work in the world with all their challenges and abilities, amazing things happen. Larry Rosenstock, Founder and CEO of the High Tech Schools, has been an important mentor. When we were at the schools in October, one of the many things he said that left a deep impression was: “We don’t want to be making mis-predictions about what children can or cannot do.” That was clear when we spoke to our student guide. If she had been placed in a “non-Honors” course, she may not have discovered the knowledge in herself that she could do “Honors” work.

So on the one hand, Larry is careful to create fully inclusive classrooms – where students are all doing the same activities and all have the option of doing Honors work. In fact, Larry told us that 70% of his students opt to do Honors work, since they experience a positive kind of peer pressure, looking at their friends’ more difficult work and saying, “Hey, I can do that.”

On the other hand, not everyone is the same. And Larry acknowledges that: “Sometimes you need to treat people differently in order to treat them equally.” Hence the schools’ ascertaining that their underserved students have the support they need to succeed.

My Magen David Yeshivah colleagues and I with the High Tech Schools' Founder and CEO, Larry Rosenstock. From left, Rabbi Michael Bitton, Larry Rosenstock, me, Mrs. Esther Tokayer, and Mrs. Sabrina Maleh
My Magen David Yeshivah colleagues and I with the High Tech Schools’ Founder and CEO, Larry Rosenstock.
From left, Rabbi Michael Bitton, Larry Rosenstock, me, Mrs. Esther Tokayer, and Mrs. Sabrina Maleh

The High Tech approach speaks to me profoundly as a Jewish educator for many reasons. One is that, as Jewish educators, by definition we’re focused on whole-child learning and development, so that in math, English, social studies, science, we’re just as concerned with a student’s spiritual, emotional, and psychological well being as we would be in a Judaic Studies class.

Another reason the schools’ focus on equity speaks to me is because it seems like a naturally Jewish one. In fact, the founders of the school are the Jacobs family, the owners of Qualcomm, which is based in San Diego, and the family’s insistence on equity comes from their experiencing discrimination when they first tried to buy a house in La Jolla, CA. Jews weren’t wanted in the neighborhood, and so the realtors, had discriminatory policies against selling to Jews. This injustice left a deep mark on the Jacobs family, giving them the impetus they needed to fight it.

All over the High Tech Schools are signs -- literal and figurative -- that equity matters. Here's one from the art room of master High Tech art teacher Jeff Robin
All over the High Tech Schools are signs — literal and figurative — that equity matters. Here’s one from the art room of master High Tech art teacher Jeff Robin

Fighting injustice is something that’s embedded in the Jewish religion, and unfortunately there are so many to fight, so when I was asked at the High Tech Schools to think of an inequity that touched home, to really consider why should I should care about inequality, it took me awhile to come up with an answer.

When I returned home and started listening with a new ear to the debate about women Orthodox clergy, I started to feel like this was really my inequity.

I’ve attended or worked in Jewish schools my entire life. In high school, a rabbi, explaining why young women didn’t learn Talmud, told my all-girls’ class that women’s brains are different from men’s, so we can’t handle the text. Crippling statements such as these, and ones more implicit but no less damaging, have been a constant part of my work life and have affected me on a personal level, negatively impacting how I view myself and my capabilities, and while we have made much progress in the Jewish community, we have a long way to go.

As the debate over female Orthodox clergy continues, I’m reminded that it’s easy to get caught up in the sides: who thinks there should be women rabbis or women with clergy-like titles and who thinks there shouldn’t be. But if we create a binary system, with one group on one side, and another on the other, we fail to find ways we might fight gender inequity together. Each school, synagogue, or other institution must decide, in its own thoughtful manner, how it wants to proceed with regard to gender and halakha [Jewish law], but there are still many ways we can make progress in fixing gender inequality in the Jewish community.

To that end, I’ve thought of some questions and asked friends and colleagues to weigh in on what we might ask of our schools, synagogues, and community as a whole:

  • How do your hiring and career advancement policies reflect a concern for gender equality?
  • Do you have equal pay scales for men and women?
  • What is your selection process when hiring new administration/selecting and voting on new Board members, and how are all stakeholders included in that process? How does your selection process reflect equity?
  • How do you encourage women to become leaders in the Jewish and larger community? How do you help women develop leadership skills?
  • What programs and/or discussions do you organize to address women’s issues in the Jewish community and in society at large? Do outside facilitators come to address tolerance, diversity, and equality?
  • Do you mark Jewish and other rites of passage, such as bar and bat mitzvah celebrations, in equal ways?

I know this list isn’t complete, but the process of asking ourselves what we can do to alter inequity, instead of what we can’t do, is, I think, crucial in moving forward in healthy ways.

We’re not all going to agree on what gender equality looks like in our different Jewish settings, but we can unite around the question of how we might make our spaces more equitable for all of the people in them. If we address each other with the respect that question deserves and think of possibilities for chiddush, innovation, in areas where we need it, I think our community will be the stronger and healthier for it.

Why should I care about inequity? Why should we all? Like any good driving question in PBL, it has lots of answers, and we have to listen to each other to find them. Let us go and learn.

About the Author
Tikvah Wiener is Head of School of The Idea School, a project-based learning Orthodox high school located at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly, NJ. www.theideaschool.org. She lives in Teaneck, NJ, with her husband and children.
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