HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

How a University and Jewish Day School Can Collaborate on Curricular Innovation

by Mitchel Malkus, Tiffany-Rose Sikorski Issue: Educational Innovation

Can a Jewish day school partner with a world-class research university to accelerate student learning and drive innovation? What does it look like when university faculty teach elementary school faculty on a day school campus? How might a Jewish day school develop a unique and cutting-edge approach to teaching Judaic studies?

The Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School (CESJDS) and the George Washington (GW) University Graduate School of Education and Human Development explored these questions when we created and implemented an integrated STEM and Judaic studies Lower School (JK-5) curriculum, using the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) Crosscutting Concepts as an organizing principle. The crosscutting concepts are a way that NGSS link different domains of science; they describe patterns such as cause and effect, scale, proportion and quantity, systems and system models, energy and matter, structure and function, and stability and change. In our project, teachers and students used the crosscutting concepts to organize learning across general studies (math, science, English language arts, social studies), specials (art, music), and Judaic studies (Hebrew, Israel, and Jewish texts and customs).

Our project started four years ago with CESJDS’s strategic plan goals to develop partnerships with local and national organizations, and to enhance STEM, science, and math instruction. The school had been progressing in STEM education and wanted to make a qualitative leap to be a best-in-class STEM learning institution. With a philosophical emphasis on integrated curriculum at the school, we saw an opportunity to advance not only STEM but to innovate in Judaic studies.

After an RFP process, CESJDS entered into a partnership agreement with GW. GW brought expertise in STEM and teacher training to the collaboration, and CESJDS brought knowledge of Judaic studies, an innovative mindset and experience in integrating Jewish and general studies. The product of our collaboration was a three-year professional development program and a fully articulated integrated curriculum. Each unit in the curriculum used a crosscutting concept as the central theme, which served as the basis for integration of different subjects.


The project was led by the STEM coordinator at the CESJDS Lower School and a GW faculty member. To start, CESJDS administrators invited teachers from different grade levels and content areas to take a leadership role in the curriculum development project. These teachers met weekly for one to two hours with the GW team. Teachers were relieved from some responsibilities in order to participate in these weekly meetings. The GW team included math and science education faculty and a doctoral student with prior elementary teaching experience. After three years of coursework and participation in the project cohort, CESJDS teachers received Graduate STEM Educator Certificates, allowing the school to build teacher expertise and capacity. The project counted toward GW faculty’s research and teaching responsibilities, and provided the doctoral student valuable first-hand experience in teacher education and education research. Together, the CESJDS and GW team organized our efforts on three types of activities: curriculum development, teacher professional development, and research and evaluation.


One of the primary objectives of the partnership was to develop a set of integrated curriculum units (called “Kaleidoscope Projects” or KPs) for grades 1-5. The integration effort was informed by prior research into what supports and what hinders teacher collaboration in pluralistic Jewish day schools. Early on in the project, CESJDS teachers and the GW team studied Robin Fogarty’s article “Ten Ways to Integrate Curriculum” together.

The Kaleidoscope Projects were designed by the classroom teachers and documented by the university research team. KPs were created, piloted and then refined, with the integrated nature of the units deepening each year. Each grade level set a target of developing two to three KPs per year. We created a standard KP format for consistency across grades. All KPs included a STEM subject, and most contained a Judaic studies and/or a Hebrew component and a languages arts subject. Through this type of integration, the school was able to teach Judaic content in a relevant way for students and to make real-world connections between Judaic studies and other subjects.


The curriculum writing was based on a core belief that to truly innovate in STEM and Judaic studies, we needed to invest in building teacher capacity. The curriculum-making project required a core team of teachers who would take leadership for their grade-level teams and/or content areas. Teachers in the core team—approximately one per grade level, together with subject specialists—completed a 12-credit graduate certificate through GW.

In meetings, teachers learned about the crosscutting concepts and brainstormed KP ideas. For example, at one meeting, we looked at the existing second grade curriculum to find natural connections to the concept structure and function that could be the beginnings of a KP. The general studies teachers pointed out that all second graders learn to write various types of poetry and study the relationship between a poem’s structure and its function. Judaics teachers made a connection to character education (middot tovot of the CESJDS curriculum) and how the structure of a space can facilitate citizenship and participation. Teacher meetings were an opportunity for sharing lesson plans and materials and studying student work created in the KPs. While the teachers had assigned reading on STEM, integration and the crosscutting concepts, most of the “homework” for the program was the writing and piloting of the integrated units.


The original project plan called for both evaluation of the units and research activities. Our evaluation focused on assessing the effectiveness of the curriculum and the project in meeting its goals and providing data that would guide the work beyond the initial three-year period. The research was aimed at extending the knowledge base on how to support elementary students’ science, math, Judaic studies and language arts learning in an integrated curriculum.

The core teacher group was called the Curriculum Integration Leadership Team (CILT). They made significant advances in understanding crosscutting concepts, curricular integration and assessment, as documented in the professional development meeting minutes and teachers’ planning materials. In terms of documenting student learning, the research and evaluation components of the project underwent significant redesign each year due to low parent permission rates. We encountered challenges obtaining consent; recent national and international events that have heightened societal awareness of security and privacy were contributing factors.


The first year of the project focused primarily on professional development and curriculum development. We established the CILT, ran the first teacher courses taught by GW graduate school faculty, and created the first two Kaleidoscope Projects: Robot Shabbat and Rube Goldberg™ Machines.

During year two, the CILT studied the crosscutting concepts and different models of curriculum integration. We also examined opportunities for stronger arts integration in the KPs. GW and the third grade teachers worked together on projects called Ecological Communities and Where Does All the Water Go? Other grade levels created multiple crosscutting lesson plans for expansion into full projects. The CILT presented some of their lesson planning work at regional practitioner conferences.

Finally, in the third year, curriculum development ramped up to meet the goal of developing 10 to15 total KPs. The professional development concluded with teachers completing the final STEM Master Teacher certificate course focused on engineering integration. The project team gave multiple presentations of their work at local conferences. The GW team submitted a manuscript to a leading peer-reviewed science education journal. Last, the CILT met multiple times in the spring and summer to determine what elements of the project should continue moving forward, and what supports would be needed to sustain those elements within the school.

Professional development was a central component of the project. Rather than design curriculum and train teachers how to use it, this project focused on teachers as curriculum makers. The professional development was designed to help teachers take their ideas for units and turn those into high-quality curriculum. The professional development served another important function: It established the teachers as leaders who could support the rest of the faculty in future curriculum development efforts. Overall, GW provided 120 hours of professional development time. Though the credit-bearing option was limited to a small group of teachers (10 initially), the weekly meetings were open to all teachers throughout the school. The CILT’s potential as a source of expertise and support for schoolwide curriculum integration is a lasting impact of this project.

During the third year, we conducted a survey of all grade-level teams to gauge teachers’ knowledge of, comfort with and commitment to using crosscutting concepts as the central organizing principle for integration. The entire faculty was aware of the project and involved in different ways throughout the three years. The survey indicated that teachers were very comfortable with the crosscutting concept assigned to their own grade team, but needed more support to understand the crosscutting concepts in other grades. Teachers felt that students developed a better understanding of crosscutting concepts but wanted more evidence that the integrated nature of the project supported student learning in the various content areas. Since the GW-CESJDS STEM Integration Project is one of the first documented efforts to utilize crosscutting concepts in a systematic way across elementary grades in the United States, it has served as a pilot school for this national initiative.

We also surveyed the CILT teachers about their experience in the project. We learned that CILT teachers’ understanding of integration, crosscutting concepts, and assessment deepened dramatically over the three years of the project. For example, in the early years of the project, teachers’ assessments of student learning focused on vocabulary use and/or tagging phenomena with a crosscutting concept (“What’s an example of structure and function?” “Where do you see cause and effect?”). By the third year, teachers were trying to assess what students can actually do with crosscutting concepts, and how their knowledge of the concepts impacted their learning of new content in the various subject areas (“How can the crosscutting concept stability and change help third graders understand choices that characters must make in Parashat Lekh-Lekha?” “How does the patterns crosscutting concept help first graders remember and understand the different aspects of Shabbat?”). We suggest that many of the positive outcomes can be traced to the integrated nature of the curriculum and the teachers-as-curriculum-makers design of the project.

Overall, the opportunity for a research university and a JK-12 pluralistic Jewish day school to partner together on curriculum development and professional development had a major impact on both institutions and on the day school students. We have developed a cadre of highly skilled master STEM educators in a Jewish environment, developed a unique, integrated curriculum based around crosscutting concepts, transformed how teachers think about integrated instruction, and modeled how graduate faculty can teach and learn at the elementary level. We are working to disseminate the curriculum and research findings to the larger field so other schools can consider adapting this model.

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Educational Innovation

The articles in this issue represent the balance between the old and the new, sacred and profane embodied in Jewish history. The issue tells the story of the drive for innovation in modern education that has gained strength in recent decades. It features efforts to learn from, adopt and adapt innovative programs and pedagogies from the larger educational universe, even as authors advise caution, patience and planning around such changes.

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