Networks: Spreading Ideas Peer to Peer
Being a classroom teacher can be an isolating experience. You may not know where to turn for new ideas and wish there was a way you could benefit from the experimentation and expertise of others in classrooms like yours across the country. Fortunately, in the past few years, Jewish day school educators have been able to find networks designed to incubate and spread ideas and practices. As a network-weaver working at the AVI CHAI Foundation, I have an interest in understanding and documenting these networks, which could range from organized programs, such as the JDS Collaborative, for which I serve as program officer at AVI CHAI, to a much less formal Twitter chat. Let’s look at what these networks are, which ones are more likely to scale through successfully spreading ideas, and why.
Ariella Falack, a teacher of Torah and halakhah at Magen David Yeshivah Celia Esses High School, was an early adopter of game- and project-based learning at her school. She was able to explore this interest through the JDS Collaborative, a program of Prizmah: the Center for Jewish Day Schools led by Educannon Consulting. JDS Collaborative puts together educators from multiple schools to implement a project in their own school’s context, with continual opportunities to collaborate, learn from implementation at other schools, engage in workshopping challenges, and share and document ideas and solutions in a continuous feedback loop. Each project is designed to further some aspect of schools’ Jewish missions. In this case, the focus was on applying game-based learning to the Judaics classroom. As her personal way of implementing the project in her school, Falack experimented with creating an escape room–style experience. She designed this game and executed it in her school, and then posted her game on the Basecamp site used by the collaborative and on JEDLab on Facebook, looking for feedback and suggestions from fellow educators. Falack also presented what she was doing and learning to participants at the 2017 Prizmah Conference, along with Alanna Kotler, project manager for the collaborative.
“In that room, the excitement for this was unbelievable. When it was actually done using Judaic material, the teachers saw the possibilities for their own classrooms,” said Kotler.
As a result of this presentation, five of the teachers got their schools on board to participate in a new collaborative project specifically built around the escape room methodology (“breakout”). The project included a five-part webinar series led by Falack that broke the methodology down into pieces. Then each participant designed his/her own escape room game for use in his or her own classroom.
“It wasn’t easy. It took some educators 20 hours to develop a breakout, but the cohort kept them accountable. They had Ariella to support them, and sharing the challenge of it was a motivator. The network and their fellow teachers kept them going. Now they have a relationship with Ariella and can continue the enthusiasm,” Kotler said.
Ideas spread when networks of peer educators come together to share ideas. This methodology is powerful and most effective when three components are present: trust, a coordinating network-weaver, and documenting and sharing.
First and most importantly, successful networks are built on trust. Teachers trust other teachers in what Kotler calls an “unspoken understanding: they’re more likely to take a risk themselves based on what other teachers doing.” This comes in part from the common language between them, including the challenges and expectations in place. A network can provide the safe space to which teachers can return to address challenges or to celebrate successes.
Andrea Hernandez, associate director of Teaching and Learning at Prizmah, agreed that ideas spread more effectively among educators as opposed to in a top-down way. “There’s a huge difference between things that are marketed to me and things I hear from my fellow practitioners. I tend to be more interested in things that come my way from a fellow practitioner. There’s a difference in the intentions behind sharing: selling a product or sharing honest reflections. Educators are more likely to give a more tempered description with pros and cons.”
While Twitter chats and other informal networks built on trust can spread ideas, they are more impactful when managed by a network-weaver. For instance, Kotler is able to devote her time to project management of the collaborative, increasing accountability through setting deadlines and next steps to make sure the projects remain on track. Another example is the Prizmah affinity groups known as Reshetot, which are run by Prizmah network-weaver Debra Shaffer Seeman. She keeps in close touch with many people and gets to know their passions, strengths, and challenges. She is thus able to develop a birds-eye perspective on the field. Her understanding of the common patterns, hot topics, and emerging ideas allows her to connect the appropriate people to have the conversations that will move their work and, through many such conversations, the entire field forward.
A final aspect of effective networks is sharing and documenting. “Our responsibility is to share. When you’re doing something new and different, take the time to document and share with your network,” said Hernandez. While this sounds easy, it can be hard to find the time and discipline for it—but doing it can be so impactful for others in the field. For instance, Hernandez is working with Jewish day schools that are piloting the Altschool and Summit Learning personalized learning platforms to contribute to the Personalized Learning Platforms blog, with funding from AVI CHAI. These platforms are online tools that help students set and track goals, learn content at their own pace, and complete deeper learning projects.
“They’re learning a tremendous amount from what they’re doing. By documenting and sharing it with other educators who are toying with or curious about the idea, they can learn in a way that would make them feel more primed to pay attention and make decisions based on fellow educators’ work. I tried for a long time to learn more about Summit Learning that wasn’t airbrushed by the company. I never understood what it was or if it was as good as they say. Now that I’m hearing from educators, I’m much more inclined to do it.” Hernandez said.
Personalized learning, Maker Spaces, STEAM, and STEM—these are all ideas that are gaining traction and interest in Jewish day school networks, as is using those pedagogies and spaces as a way to shift school culture from learning being linear (you seek to learn something, you learn it, and then it’s completed) to valuing experimentation.
Kotler said, “An idea might be shared into a network of teachers, but what’s interesting is to watch it change as people grow the idea together. That’s a powerful thing. With social media, ideas spread quickly whether they’re good or bad. Within the collaborative, there’s a shared understanding and a trust that will allow good ideas to spread effectively.”
Networks like the collaborative are spreading ideas, even as they improve and build on those ideas through an iterative process. At the end of the day, these networks are about the relationships and trust between educators—with the end result being that they will feel less alone, great ideas can be shared, and success can be adapted and occur on a greater and greater scale.
Deborah Fishman is director of communications at the AVI CHAI Foundation.