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Two Cultures, Two Homes, One Project

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This post is by Sharon Tamir, a student at High Tech High in San Diego.

When I was six, I moved to San Diego from Israel.

When I was twelve, I transferred to High Tech Middle from the neighborhood public middle school mid-way through the year. When I returned home from my first day at my new school, shock stole away my ability to speak. My mother, worried about her child who always had something to say, coaxed a description of my day out of me. "The teacher came in, told everyone that they know what to do and to get to work. Then everyone just got up and left. I sat there, not knowing what to do."

When I was fifteen, I wanted to do a project that connected my two homes, fed my thirst for knowledge, felt real, was challenging, and gave me an excuse to return to Israel. Thus a study was born to learn about the perceptions of the project based learning in two project-based schools: High Tech High and Mevo'ot HaNegev in the south of Israel.

I soon found myself in a small Kibbutz surrounded by farmland and livestock, and by the time I had spent four full days there, I was accepted as one of them. I rode the bus with classmates to school, hung out with them before, during, and after class, and went to their sports games. In this full immersion I experienced shock that was the inverse of what I experienced upon transferring to High Tech Middle, for three reasons:

1. Status. The students at Mevo'ot HaNegev greatly value their status as intellectuals, which makes sense in an academic institution. This I learned purely from informal conversations. Upon noticing the frequency with which students brought up the level of class that they--or their peers--were in, I asked them if it was a sign of status. The girls I asked not only answered with a straightforward "yes," but went on to inquire as to how we measure "how smart" students are at my school.

There is something fascinating about telling students whether they are smart or not, then defining it further by which class they are in. It is as if students try to fit the definition everyone else writes for them, and have to constantly reaffirm it through discussion and social interaction.

2. Breadth versus Depth. The goal of the classroom was clearly shaped around the Bagrut test--a nationwide standardized test, different depending on the level of your class, issued at the end of every year. This test is crucial to any position you want to get while serving in the army--a requirement in Israel--and for job applications later in life.

In every class I observed, there was a strong emphasis on listening and accepting facts for the sole reason of being facts. Understanding came second to absorption, and there was a tension in the air with the state-issued standardized tests just around the corner. One teacher told her class, "Even if you don't understand this now, accept it."

3. Culture. The Israeli culture is significantly different from what we Americans are used to. What I experienced was a culture that is much louder, rougher, and straightforward. It seemed common to speak your mind with the belief that it is the most important idea in the moment. This differed greatly from High Tech High in that the noise wasn't coming from a select group of kids who dominate the conversation. A larger percentage of students were speaking up and sharing their thoughts. This creates an environment where the students are very tight, almost more unified in their ability to communicate their ideas to their teachers and one another.

An observer looking in from the outside could see some of this. What happens when you factor in what the students see, or how the students feel? It is clear that status serves as an insecurity for some and an expectation for others. The struggle to learn in class is partly due to unloved and unrespected teachers and partly the disconnect between the teaching method and the teachers. Comments such as "She doesn't teach anything" or "No one learns in her class" or "We don't get along with her" are heard along with "She helped me out of my shell" or "She helps me with homework and studying for tests" or "She teaches us so much" or "I text her all the time; she's so cool." There appeared to be a direct relationship between how project-based the teacher was and how popular they were among the students.

Israeli teachers struggle to teach for the Matriculation (Bagrut) test, rendering their projects much more content based. High Tech High, on the other hand, seems more focused on soft skills, where projects have a significantly larger portion dedicated to public speaking, communication, organization, and other skills needed to create and display a product to an audience. These foci are set by social norms as defined by a combination of the country's culture and the culture established by the founders, staff, and students.

The Mevo'ot HaNegev culture shows us a community that treats one another as equals to the extent that makes discipline difficult, but has a strong core of students who know one another intently. The students don't feel like they are simply there, but as if they belong. When I asked a student who had just transferred in what their favorite thing about the school was, he answered "the atmosphere." "We're all very close" one girl told me. "Last weekend 12 of the 16 girls in my class went out for dinner, just because."

The clash of these two cultures revealed more than differences in pedagogical approach. I was able to go to a place I always thought of as a home, even if it was more of a thought than a reality, and become fully immersed in it, so it felt like home. I had the privilege and the pleasure of not only experiencing my school from the inside, but of doing the same in another country of great significance to me.

What I learned that was of the greatest significance to me in this entire experience is that projects are way more fun and exciting outside of school. As the semesters went on, I found myself sitting in my seat, working or discussing a project, but wishing I was working on my research instead. I was experiencing the allure of a project at its finest: the more "real" it feels, the more personal interest at stake, the better.

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