Why Projects Matter To You and Your Students

Today I had the privilege to visit Behrman House, the premiere publisher of Jewish textbooks. Besides a tour of their first class facilities, they gave me a demonstration of their forward thinking vision of the future of Jewish education including their online learning center, profiled in this news article, their path breaking Jewish tech incubator, JLearningLabs, which has also received a great deal of attention in the Jewish media, for example see Start-Up Nation Takes on Hebrew School, and various other projects which are still in the beta stage. It was all quite impressive. I hope to elaborate on them in a future post. However, as exciting as this was, it was not the most rewarding part of my visit. This came from an old face that I met working at Behrman House. I was able to reconnect with a former student from a dozen years ago who described with pride his Nach project he had done for my class on Eglon, the King of Moab.

He couldn't stop talking about the movie project that he and his classmate, who now runs his own multi-media production company, had accomplished. I remember it well. They spliced together their own video footage with battle scenes from various feature films, including a scene from Braveheart, to tell a compelling story. This was back in 2001 when most video cameras were analog, digital story telling as a genre in education did not exist yet, iMovie was still in its infancy, and YouTube was over four years away. I remember that as a class, we were all amazed at the magical feat these two tenth grade students pulled off with film making. And they obviously remembered as well.

This got me thinking about one important aspect of projects and project based learning which is rarely mentioned, the memorable experiences it fosters. As the famous saying goes, attributed to a Chinese proverb, “Tell me and I'll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I'll understand.” When students do meaningful projects, they remember them forever. This cannot be discounted. If we want our students to fondly remember the Torah they studied with us, some ten or more years later, we should give them more projects. Perhaps, there might be a point of diminishing returns. It might be the novelty of the projects that makes them so memorable. If one would do all projects, all the time, this novelty would wear off. But I don't think so.

I think the main reason that students remember projects is that they do them themselves. They are involved in the learning process. I know in my projects, I am usually quite specific on the inquiry, research, and colloboration piece. Students know exactly what problem they have to solve, usually have a list of sources to research (although I let them add their own), and they choose a partner to work with subject to my approval. However, the actual product or presentation is up to them. I am usually very flexible in how they wish to present. They can make a physical artifact like a painting, diarama, or mobile, or they can make a digital product like a presentation, movie, or fake Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram and the list goes on. Since kids can express themselves in a way that connects to them, they often work very hard doing this and then they remember it. It also creates a special bond between me as the teacher and the student which lasts for years to come.

For example, I have a very close relationship with an alumnus who still loves to visit my office where a painting of his interpretation of Amos chapter 5, the chapter Martin Luther King Jr. references in his "I Have a Dream" Speech, hangs prominently. He can describe in detail every element of the painting and how it symbolizes the words of the prophet Amos some five years after learning in my class. You can read a description of this "Be The Prophet" webquest and other similar ones here.

Then there is the culminating How to Learn Gemara website that my ninth grade class created a dozen years ago in which they transmitted to their peers in cyberspace the skills based methodology that they had mastered for tackling a new Talmudic topic. I learned with students from this class for many years to come, even after I switched to teaching in a different school. They would call me every night before a test with their current Rebbe. "Rabbi", they would exclaim, "We have a test coming up and we need your help." And we would learn together like old times. Our six weeks immersed in this project day and night created a special bond, a badge of honor, illustrating what we could accomplish working together. This project not only benefited from our hard work but also had and continues to have the public audience which makes it so much more relevant. I still have interactions with many of my students on social media where we lovingly reminisce about our good times learning and working together.

So when deciding whether you should add a project based learning unit or two or three to your teaching repertoire for the coming year, please don't discount it because you will "cover less ground" or the kids will better grasp what you directly teach to them. I hear these arguments, believe me I do. And I am still not sure whether project based learning should be the primary mode of instruction most of the time. But I do know that meaningful project based learning assignments will be remembered by you and your students forever. I have been around long enough to already see this come to fruition. Maybe I'm getting old. I prefer to say that I am more seasoned. And if you ever have the privilege to visit Behrman House in Springfield NJ, which I hope you do, ask the fellow behind the front desk about Eglon, King of Moab. He might just get a twinkle in his eyes and then describe to you in detail all that he learned telling his first digital story some dozen years ago.