Zman Cheker – Using PBL to Unite the School Community Around Learning

By Dr. Sarah Levy, Mark Parmet, and Elana Shapiro

While the holiday may be over for 5778, when you think of Chanukah, what comes to mind? Lighting the chanukiah and playing dreidel? Eating jelly doughnuts and latkes? Retelling the stories of the miracle of the oil and the bravery of the Maccabees?

In the Denver Jewish Day School Lower Division this year, we took our study of Chanukah to a whole new level through Zman Cheker (In-Depth Inquiry Time), during which each grade level participated in a fully immersive and interdisciplinary project based learning unit.

Project based learning (or PBL) is a teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to an authentic, engaging and complex question, problem, or challenge through a project that integrates elements such as reflection, critique and revision, student voice and choice, and sustained inquiry.

For Zman Cheker, building off of the theme of bravery as exhibited by Judah and his brothers, students in each grade explored bravery through different driving questions.

Kindergarten explored the question, “What is bravery?” while first grade looked at how one person can make a difference by being brave. Second grade investigated how an act of bravery affects others, and third grade examined how bravery is used to make us a better version of ourselves. Meanwhile, fourth grade analyzed how risk-taking and bravery are related, and fifth grade considered what bravery means and looks like in different contexts.

At the center of each PBL unit is key knowledge, understandings, and success skills (which includes standards). As our teams designed their units, they kept grade-level standards in mind, ensuring that students were actively engaging in learning content and skills, but PBL took those content and skills a step further, allowing students to take more ownership of their learning and internalize that learning in new and different ways.

In fact, PBL is an effective method of learning for all students as it allows them to do more challenging and meaningful work, explore their own interests and share their talents, see how learning connects to real life, build skills needed to be future-ready, and learn to manage individual time and collaborate as a group. Furthermore, research has shown that students who learn through PBL retain information longer, have better problem-solving and critical thinking skills, and exhibit a better attitude toward learning than students who learn in other classrooms.

While students at Denver JDS regularly engage in PBL, Zman Cheker provided a unique experience in its immersive nature. For a week or longer, all regular scheduling was suspended, and students fully engaged in the grade’s PBL unit. They did not move from one hour of literacy to an hour of Hebrew to an hour of math; rather the subjects (and even specials, in many cases) were all integrated into different aspects of the exploration of their driving question, and each subject was needed to successfully produce a product for the all-division exhibition.

For Zman Cheker, students from different grades created a book to serve as a resource for students, wrote and performed their own musical performance, researched people who inspire them, reimagined themselves as superheroes, designed a school-wide ceremony, or even learned the language of comics in order to create a how-to manual – all while connecting to the content in new and different ways and honing valuable success skills.

Zman Cheker was a powerful initiative for our school community, not only in the amazingly engaging learning that occured, but also in the impact it had on our community as a whole. It provided a space for parent education regarding the value of PBL in the classroom and brought all of our families together for a celebration of learning, not just of individual students or a grade-level, but of our entire kindergarten through fifth grade population. It allowed everyone to witness first-hand the learning that took place during Zman Cheker and gain a deeper understanding as to the powerful learning that takes place as part of PBL.

Dr. Sarah Levy is the Director of Jewish Life and Learning at Denver Jewish Day School in Denver, CO. Mark Parmet is the Lower Division Dean, and Elana Shapiro is the Lower Division Principal at Denver JDS.