Pouring Over Their Jewish Lessons
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Pouring Over Their Jewish Lessons

Students in day school Jewish studies classes usually devote their time to the likes of Abraham, Moses and Joshua.

At Yeshivat Sha’arei DAT High School in Denver, some ninth- and 10th-graders spent several weeks studying joe. That’s brewed coffee, not the biblical Joseph.

As part of a unit on applied kashrut, how kosher products are made, the students visited several local Starbucks sites, watched the production process and interviewed employees, in addition to classroom lectures about the principles and Jewish law of the kosher field. Many Starbucks locations are certified kosher; the chain is popular in kashrut-observant circles.

The Starbucks project was developed a couple of years ago at the Denver school as part of a leading-edge educational approach known as Problem-Based Learning (PBL). PBL had already been used successfully in Sha’arei DAT’s secular classes, part of a growing number of Jewish schools that are now incorporating the approach into their Jewish studies curricula.

Moshe Krakowski, an assistant professor in Yeshiva University’s Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration, the leading authority of PBL in Jewish settings, advised Sha’arei DAT’s teachers on using PBL in their Jewish classes.

The pedagogical approach emphasizes students’ hands-on participation in projects that answer a specific question — for example, is everything at Starbucks kosher? — and require them to engage in interdisciplinary background research beyond standard classroom teaching, Krakowski said. Studies show that participants in PBL classes are usually more motivated, and learn a subject better, than students in traditional classes.

Krakowski, whose doctoral thesis was about learning patterns in charedi schools, frequently works with day schools, particularly Modern Orthodox ones, showing them the advantage of the PBL approach.

“It’s a very effective way to have kids see the value of what they’re learning,” he said.

“The topic of investigation is often identified and selected by the students,” he wrote in an article, “Empowering Students through Problem and Project Based Learning,” in the Jewish Education Leadership journal. “PBL harnesses students’ social interactions, as members of a classroom community, but also as members of broader communities, by giving them access to outside experts.”

Krakowski’s co-authors of the journal article were Juli Kramer and Naomi Lev, curriculum coordinator, and director of post-secondary guidance, respectively, at Sha’arei DAT.

Results of the students’ Starbucks study?

After observing the production process close-up, they concluded that some products may have a questionable kashrut status, Krakowski said.

Going forward, the school is trying to bring PBL into more Jewish classes. “I hold it up as a prime example,” Krakowski said, “of [a PBL unit] that worked really well.”

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