Righteousness Flourishes: A Cross-Curricular J-STEAM Adventure
Tu B’Shvat is the birthday of the trees, of course, but at Alice and Nahum Lainer School during the 2014/15 school year it also birthed the most substantive example to date of the J-STEAM program. A nearly month-long unit took place across the lower school—spanning everything from science to Judaic Studies to language arts and social studies—and the effect for students was totally immersive and integrated.
“Our Tu B’Shvat project was a dream realized,” says Head of School Dr. Sarah Shulkind. “It allowed our students to delve deeply into an issue and see it from multiple perspectives across multiple disciplines. For instance, our fifth graders—who looked at fruits as the products of trees—examined nutritional benefits, measured vitamins, expanded their Hebrew vocabulary, and used technology to convince others of their new learning.”
First, let’s break free of pedagogical terminology and delve deeper into what educators actually mean when they say “integrated curriculum.” You’ve probably heard of “dual curriculum,” or the idea that in day schools, students are really learning two separate curricula: Judaic Studies/Hebrew and General Studies. Integrated curriculum is the practice of seamlessly combining themes, approaches, projects and even specific topics in all areas of study at once, giving students a richer, more dynamic experience. Instead of being compartmentalized, the learning is expansive.
For instance, during the course of this project, classes were able to study trees by making their own paper (art/science), test the vitamin C content in various tree fruits (science), visit with a Jewish bee keeper (Judaic Studies/science/social studies), read stories about trees and nature (language arts), practice reading and talking about trees and tree parts in Hebrew (language studies) and break down Torah texts that talk about our relationship with trees (Judaic Studies).
“The Tu B'Shvat joint curriculum focused on learning about the environment, trees and nature and it really brought all faculty members together to work closely with each other,” says Judaic Studies Director Irit Eliyahu. “The teachers were able to collaborate and generate activities that actually teach the students that Tu B’Shvat is cross-curricular and connected to the Jewish wisdom that we are assigned to work and preserve the world.”
Integrated curriculum is not something Sinai Akiba has achieved across the board—it’s a notorious challenge for schools—but this project was an incredible example of the kind of learning the administration is looking to bring to the students day in and day out. Lower School Director Shelley Lawrence—on a prestigious Avi Chai Fellowship—attended The Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Leadership: An Evolving Vision program in late 2014. There she was challenged to create ways to further the Jewish mission of the school and she began to envision an integrated, science-centered project on a Jewish theme that would push out into other subjects, as well.
Science Integrator Elizabeth Zapler was instrumental in helping Lawrence realize the vision. “I loved teaching ecology lessons through the lens of Tu B’Shvat,” Zapler says. “Comprehending and valuing the interconnectedness of life on our planet is lifelong and essential work. As the children experienced first-hand the way sunlight, water, bees, flowers, fruits, worms, trees, and humans rely upon each other, their understanding of our planet improved. Our school is raising children to revere and honor earth.”
Zapler’s enthusiasm transfers directly to the children. Third graders planted tomato and parsley seeds and watched them grow into plants that were used in their annual Model Seder. After meeting with a bee keeper, other classes used actual bees (dead, and mounted on sticks) to pollinate the Wisconsin Fast Plants they’d been growing in the science lab. The children themselves buzzed like bees, asking each other thoughtful questions as they moved busily around the room, learning about biology and agriculture as they sought out each precious, yellow blossom. (Click here
to watch a video of that lesson.)
“Anyone who joined any of these classrooms during the integrated Tu B’Shvat unit could feel the excitement and teacher/student motivation,” says Eliyahu. “We enabled our students to experience Tu B’Shvat through all subject areas and it ignited their curiosity not just about the holiday, but about all aspects of the world around them."
Certainly as the children were singing Tzadik Katamar—righteousness shall flourish—in t’filot for Tu B’Shvat, the spirit in the room was palpable: children and teachers singing together, ready to continue exploring the world and making sure it flourishes.
Faculty used the experience of the Tu B’Shvat project to help shape plans for design days and other integrated projects now taking place in the Lower and Middle Schools.