Sukkah Structure Sundae: A Model of 21st Century Family Engagement

By Dr. Sarah Levy and Elana Shapiro

While Jewish day school education has been proven to have significant impact on its students, study after study also shows the impact of students’ home life. What we teach at school is only as meaningful as what is reinforced at the home. As such, Denver Jewish Day School has made parent education and involvement a priority. We invite families to complete projects at home together. We provide a parent education series each year. And this year, we tried something new: Sukkah Structure Sundae.

As a school that is focused on integrating project based learning and other innovative educational methodologies to infuse real-world learning and 21st century skills, we have found that parents are a little perplexed sometimes when the learning their kids do is not exactly the same (with the same textbooks) as they did 30 years ago. Yes, we all agree that it’s really fun to watch the fifth grade structure build trials when students create cardboard structures to withstand a hurricane, and nothing is more adorable than watching the kindergarteners teach us about the need to preserve the rainforest by dressing up like rainforest animals to plead their case, but where is the actual learning?

Sukkah Structure Sundae was a design-build challenge coming from an interest in family engagement and a need for greater parent understanding. In line with our approach to innovative education, the program provided an opportunity to learn as a family, to come together as a community, and to create something new as a team that had not previously existed.

This year’s theme was ushpizin (guests), and about a week before the event, we sent home preparation packets with the students containing information about each of the traditional ushpizin (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, and David), their female counterparts (Sarah, Rachel, Rebecca, Leah, Miriam, Abigail, and Esther), and the themes they embody. We also provided an overview of the halacha (Jewish laws) concerning building a sukkah and some discussion questions so that families could relate all of the materials back to their own lives together.

At Sukkah Structure Sundae, families formed teams of friends (old and new) and got to work on the task of creating a sukkah specifically for one of the ushpizin out of cardboard and a few other supplies. We engaged them in planning, designing, giving feedback, iterating, and (finally) building (followed by reflecting). They were given resources to use and a rubric by which to self-assess, including the categories of architectural design and aesthetic, incorporation of ushpizin/ushpizot, and collaboration.

Additionally, we integrated Jewish law in a way that made sense for our community. The laws of building sukkot are used this time of year for building graham cracker and icing structures, analyzing creations from Sukkah City, and even as the inspiration for Seuss-like poems. Yet, as a pluralistic school that does not enforce any particular variety of practice or belief, we could not judge families on their adherence to the Jewish law. Reflecting this tension, we added “halachic consideration” with the goal being, according to the rubric, that the “final product shows that the team members know their stuff when it comes to sukkot and made specific choices about when and why (or why not) to incorporate the halachic guidelines.”

We did not lecture. There were no worksheets to complete and no tests for which to study. There wasn’t a textbook to be found anywhere, and no teacher took center stage to pass on any information. And, yet, in our exit poll, families had no problem sharing with us what they learned from specifics of the halacha to details about the ushpizin to how challenging it is to work in teams (and the strategies they used to overcome those challenges). We intentionally modeled some of the process in which we engage our students, and while not all of the parents enjoyed being forced to actually plan or give feedback or iterate or reflect, we walked them through a little bit of the process in which we engage our students. We showed them how learning at Denver JDS happens.

We showed them that what they might consider to be “just a project” is, in fact, a nuanced methodology for learning that teaches skills in a way that other methodologies just cannot teach. We taught them that lasting learning is possible (and even preferable) without a textbook and without flashcards. We guided them towards grasping the value of a 21st century skill like collaboration, recognizing that you cannot learn to collaborate without actually collaborating on a meaningful task. And they realized that learning can be fun, hands-on, and student driven – while also meaningful and impactful. As parent Josh Rifkin shared, “I learned that a single event can introduce 21st century skills and Judaic ideas while simultaneously building community!”

And then we ate ice cream sundaes.

Dr. Sarah Levy is the K-12 director of Jewish life and learning at Denver Jewish Day School, and Elana Shapiro is the principal of the Lower Division at Denver Jewish Day School.