The Model, Not the Method, Comes First

| By Faigy Gilder


As you may have heard, Luria Academy of Brooklyn was recently named one of the 50 most innovative Jewish organizations by the Slingshot Fund. What you may not have heard is that Luria Academy is a member of the DigitalJLearning Network (DJLN).

Luria Academy is a unique school in a number of ways; it encourages a pluralistic school population and teaches Jewish values in line with an Open Orthodox philosophy; it uses progressive Montessori and Dewey educational methods to nurture each child’s intellectual and spiritual growth; and in older grades they incorporate a blended learning model into their classrooms.

At DJLN, we’re intrigued with the way Luria Academy integrates blended learning with the school’s overarching Montessori model. We spoke with Bryna Leider, Education Director at Luria, to learn more about their unique fusion of models.

Among her many accomplishments in her 15 years of working in education, last year Bryna was a recipient of the Young Pioneers Award for innovation in Jewish education from The Jewish Education Project. Her years of experience and the quality of her work shine through in our conversation:

DJLN: For those of us who aren’t as familiar with Luria Academy, let’s start with a basic overview of your philosophy and approach.

Bryna: We are a Montessori school. Montessori believed that young children learn best through their hands. She created materials to teach specific skills. These materials can be manipulated over and over again until they are mastered. As children get older, their minds move into further abstraction so their work becomes more abstract as well. Montessori schools have less frontal teaching. The lessons are shorter, and they are meant to pique a student’s interest so that he or she can work with the material independently. It’s less that you listen to a teacher, the teacher is the font of all knowledge, you listen silently, you hand in your homework, and you take your tests. You are responsible for your education; the teacher is just one source of knowledge. It’s a more holistic approach, and learning can come from many sources, including one’s peers or books or the internet. The school is a learning community, and everyone in that space is responsible for his or her own learning. Montessori believes in following the child so the learning is highly differentiated.

DJLN: What do you think made Luria standout to the selection committee at Slingshot?

Bryna: The fact is that this is an innovative space. An alternative educational environment in the Jewish world is different. The fact that we are a pluralistic school is also unique. The fact that we are in that situation and we are growing rapidly… I think that says a lot.

That being said, I never set out to be innovative. To me, it’s about being responsive more that about being innovative. We see a problem, we come up with possible solutions, we choose what seems like the most effective, and we test it.. We learn from what doesn’t work, but we don’t take too long to move on. At the same time, we are not just following trends. There is always going to be another trend in education. I think it’s important to figure out what is real—what the true root or reason or purpose is—and make decisions based on that foundation. It helps to have a strong guiding philosophy, like we do here at Luria, to weed through things.

DJLN: At what grade levels does Luria implement different kinds of technology?

Bryna: Starting at the onset of elementary school, technology is integrated into every class. Students 6 to 9-years-old, who are taught in mixed age groups, have computers in their classrooms. They might type up essays or do research. Beginning in fourth grade, they have a technology class where they learn things like graphic design. And then in middle school, technology becomes completely integrated into all of their subjects.

DJLN: How does blended learning play into the overall innovative approach?

Bryna: In the Montessori model, in the earlier years there is an emphasis on slowing down and touching things and that’s really different than being exposed to technology. In our school, there is not a lot of technology in the younger grades. Once students get to elementary school, then many Montessori schools do include technology.

Montessori and technology in the classroom are not diametrically opposed. To me, it’s more about being true to the philosophy. Why are you incorporating technology? If technology is one of the tools that we use to reach our goals within this model, then that falls completely within the way we approach education. Technology in the classroom seems completely necessary to me; it’s just about how to do it and how much to weave in.

DJLN: Tell me about how you got started with blended learning

Bryna: I applied for DJLN because blended learning was something I was already thinking about. However, joining the program definitely pushed me to clarify what I wanted to do. DJLN was very helpful in framing what other schools have been doing, what they’ve been successful with, and also giving the reality check of what to do when things don’t work. That was very helpful. DJLN’s Director, Gary Hartstein, came in closer to the end of the year last year and asked students how it was going. I think his take on how it’s a process and that there are different ways to go about is really helpful as well. 

DJLN: Tell me about your first year experimenting with blended learning. What did you learn so far? How have you evolved your practice over time?

Bryna: The original plan was to use Khan Academy, since we felt this would fit well with how we teach at our school. In Montessori environments, students have long periods of time—called Work Time—during which they work independently or with peers and also receive small group or one-on-one lessons from teachers. As teachers can only reach a certain amount of students during that time, watching something would be a way to get students to get additional differentiated instruction.

However, this really wasn’t successful. The format worked, but the problem that we encountered is that the kids preferred to get the lesson from a teacher. The teachers here are amazing and the kids were used to getting interesting and tailored lessons. The students would watch the videos, but then they would go back to the teachers with their questions. Essentially what the teacher was doing was re-teaching what the students were watching. This wasn’t the best use of their time.

At the end of last year and for this year, we decided to simply weave technology into the day. I realized I had been overthinking it; that this should be really simple. One of the best elements of Montessori is that is very similar to how one might operate at work. As adults, we don’t say “Now its technology time.” Technology is a tool for the things we need to accomplish. We decided to do the same in our classrooms. Our 7th graders each have a Chromebook, and what they’re doing are essentially projects. Teachers give the kids a list of things they need to accomplish over a certain amount of time, and then they work on it. We also have a class with a technology teacher to help our students learn specific skills, and we’re planning to move into basic coding.

DJLN: How do you think Luria students are going to benefit from blended learning?

Bryna: I think including the technology enables them to have a greater sophistication in the work that they’re doing.

DJLN: Any particular students or stories come to mind?

Bryna: A child said to her teacher “This work was the hardest, but it was the best.” There’s this joy and energy that comes from really working on something, and that’s exactly what we’re trying to push our students to do.

That last student quote really says a lot. Well planned and implemented blended learning can provide opportunities for more student-directed learning. When students have that ownership and some control of their learning, their own intrinsic motivation can kick in and make the learning experience that much more meaningful.  At Luria Academy, they clearly understand that any blended learning solutions they implement must be driven by student needs. And THAT, is a recipe for success!

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