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Bilingual English-Hebrew PBL Bring Joy To Learning at Denver Jewish Day School

Denver Jewish Day School has a long and proud history as a member of Hebrew at the Center. Over the years, the status of both Hebrew language and the Hebrew teaching faculty have risen in stature in this K-12 community day school in the Mile-High City. Today, secular and Hebrew language studies flourish together, on equal footing, side-by-side but also intertwined, most notably through PBL units, meaning Project Based Learning or Project Based Learning. Either way, PBL is a student-centered pedagogy that involves a dynamic classroom approach in which it is believed that students acquire deeper knowledge through active exploration of areas of personal interest or real-world challenges and problems. PBL units involve the whole self and culminate in written and oral presentations and/or exhibitions, in which students can share their expertise and answer clarifying and probing questions, in real time, from members of their audience. Denver JDS is renowned among Jewish schools for their commitment to bilingual PBL units. 

Member School Highlights sat down with the lower school principal, Elana Shapiro, the lower school Hebrew Coordinator, Ravit Eldar, and the 2nd and 3rd grade Hebrew teacher, Elena Shtutman, to learn how Hebrew language instruction at Denver Jewish Day School continues to evolve and why PBL is such a source of true joy for students and faculty alike. 

Years back Denver Jewish Day School made the pioneering decision to invest serious thought, time, and funding for a customized, multi-year PD program for their Hebrew language staff through Hebrew at the Center. They went “all in” with the equivalent to what is now referred to as “Package 3: Best Recommended Value Package.” Around this time, Elana Shapiro became the elementary school principal and the lower division Hebrew Coordinator, Ravit Eldar, set out to earn a master’s degree in Hebrew language instruction at Middlebury College. Such intensive professional development led to significantly increased expertise in Hebrew language teaching and learning for the entire lower school Hebrew faculty. Maintaining basic membership, year after year, which includes some one-on-one coaching hours with their long-time and beloved HATC coach, Hamutal Keinan allows the Hebrew faculty to continue to refresh, renew, and sharpen their knowledge at a reasonable cost. 

Once the intensive work of professionalizing Hebrew teaching and learning at Denver JDS was well underway, interest and enthusiasm grew among secular studies teachers and subject specialists to collaborate with their Hebrew language partners in planning PBL units. As principal, Elana Shapiro was deeply committed to PBL, but she also gave the Hebrew and secular studies teachers agency in figuring out what concepts and topics would work well as bilingual units. Elana gave the teachers the gift of time, as she reorganized the daily schedule so that English and Hebrew teachers would have simultaneous prep periods. Teachers’ good intentions are worthless if there is no time to collaborate to create PBL units, and Elana made it happen. Currently, there are between two and three PBL units per grade, some that emanate from secular studies, and others from Judaic and Israel Studies. Examples of Judaic and Israel studies based PBL units are the Siddur Celebration in second grade, the Jerusalem Project in 3rd grade, Israeli Communities in 4th grade, and Israeli Inventions in 5th grade. 

As an example of a PBL that originated in the English language arts curriculum, Elena describes the second grade’s “Monsters Project,” a fruitful collaboration between the English and Hebrew teachers, and an imaginative and enjoyable leap forward in the writing and oral presentation skills of seven-year-olds. In their minds, and while workshopping ideas with their peers, each student created their imaginary monster and then developed their monster into a well-rounded, believable being: physically, emotionally, and cognitively. Each monster would have a personality, demeanor, look, likes, dislikes, moods, favorite foods, and hobbies. The vocabulary needed to develop their monsters was based on the daily conversations conducted in Hebrew class beginning in kindergarten, in which students described themselves in Hebrew and listened to their classmates’ self-descriptions. Through the Monster Project, students moved from first-person to third-person, and in dozens of creative ways from describing people to narrating the life of monsters. By unleashing their imaginations, learning more and more Hebrew vocabulary became an absolute necessity. How else could the students’ monsters become fantastical? 

Students conducted consultations with their peers and their teacher. Rough drafts were improved upon until the final version of their monsters’ descriptions were ready to be presented at exhibition, requiring artistic, written, and oral skills, as well as strong reading and aural skills to learn about their friends’ monsters. In other words, through imagining and expressing crazy, angry, and silly monsters, all four Hebrew language skill sets – listening, speaking, writing, and reading – grew stronger and stronger, side by side, in collaboration, but not in competition with English language skills. In fact, Elena Shtutman made very clear that students were NOT to translate their English writing, rather she encouraged her students to include different details in their Hebrew presentation. 

Topic-wise, next up for the second graders at the Denver Jewish Day School is a PBL unit on animals, which will rely more on reading-based research and less on imagination. It will require re-using the Hebrew and English vocabulary that children developed through the Monster Project, while also requiring the acquisition of new terminology. After all, just like monsters, animals have personalities, demeanors, likes, dislikes, and looks, but they also have habitats, ecosystems, and the need for healthy diets. Inevitably, fewer animals than monsters will be purple, pink, and green, but the students’ thinking, reasoning, vocabularies, writing, and speaking will continue to grow…bilingually. 

As part of Denver JDS’s ongoing PD through Hebrew at the Center, this year’s coaching hours with Hamutal Keinan are focused on building a scope and sequence for Hebrew grammar. Inevitably, future PBL units will include an increased focus on building written and spoken grammar skills. The students will not even notice. They will just think they are creating fantastical monsters! 

To learn more about effective interdisciplinary PBL’s, contact Elana Shapiro, Lower School Principal, or Ravit Eldar, Lower School Hebrew Coordinator at Denver Jewish Day School. To learn more about one-on-one coaching, professional development, and the benefits of membership at Hebrew at the Center, contact Dr. Cindy Dolgin. 

2024 State of the Field of Hebrew Language Education Report

We are excited to share the new 2024 State of the Field Report: Hebrew Education in North American Jewish Day Schools.

This report brings together significant work of partners and stakeholders to better understand, recognize and leverage advancements in Hebrew education throughout our field. The 80-page report features aggregated and curated knowledge acquired from our field over the past 12 months.

Join Hebrew teachers, Hebrew leaders, and other school leaders for an intensive, virtual conference on Sunday, April 3, 11:30 – 3:30 EDT. 

Click here for more information and to register