This week the World ORT Education Blog moves to the Czech Republic, and specifically to the Lauder Schools of Prague, with which World ORT is a partner. I first caught up with Lucie Hall, World ORT representative and teacher at the school, who describes the demographic challenge which the school has faced and how it has boosted its reputation in a drive to attract more students.
“Like many schools all over the Czech Republic, Lauder Schools of Prague has been struggling to fill its student capacity since the mid-1990s. As a consequence of the 1989 Velvet Revolution and the subsequent fall from power of the Communist Party, social and cultural expectations of family life changed dramatically. More women decided to pursue careers, before having children at a later stage. This resulted in a significant drop in the birth rate post-1989 and therefore a reduced demand for school places later down the line. For Lauder Schools of Prague, which draws its Jewish students from an already small pool, this sometimes meant having as few as eight to ten students in a school grade. Despite the fact that these small groups of students could benefit from highly individualized tuition, this was neither an economically viable situation for the school nor a socially satisfying situation for the students.
Things have changed in the last five years, thanks in part to a national baby boom. Our school opened a kindergarten in 2009, which is 100% full with Jewish children. Our primary school is now 90% full, and this surge is working its way up towards the high school: this year we had 58 students apply for the 18 places available in the first grade.
We believe that these increased numbers are not only due to demographic trends, but also due to the reputation of our school improving significantly. Our school has many features which make it attractive to prospective students:
- We are the only Jewish school in the Czech Republic, giving us an immediate competitive advantage.
- Classes have a maximum of 20 students, as opposed to the national average of 35. This helps to provide students with individual attention and a highly personalized learning environment.
- Language classes are streamed according to ability across year groups, rather than across single year groups. This allows for a greater number of ability streams, and encourages students of different ages to get to know each other.
- The school has a cosmopolitan atmosphere, relative to other schools in the Czech Republic, welcoming students from a variety of countries such as Israel, Russia and Canada.
- We have a number of good international links. For example, the school is partnered with the Ulus Ozel Mosevi Lisesi School in Istanbul and the Angelo Sacerdoti School in Rome, with the goal of introducing the students to different Jewish communities around the world.
- 90% of our students successfully apply to university – both at home and abroad.
- Our facilities – sponsored by ORT – are excellent, for example the Tye and Lauder-ORT Technology Center & PC lab, interactive whiteboards, and interdisciplinary technology labs – including a geographical information systems center.
- Students are able to attend the World ORT English & Science Summer School in London.
- Teachers participate in World ORT teaching training specialist seminars.”
My second interviewee in the Czech Republic was Lenka Tejkalova – English and Maths teacher for 5 years at the Lauder Schools of Prague – who outlined to me the school’s pedagogical approach to interdisciplinary teaching. Lenka is working on the final stages of her PhD in Mathematical Education, with a focus on Content and Language Integrated Learning.
Can you summarize the theory of interdisciplinary teaching, as implemented at the school?
Interdisciplinary teaching is an important concept in the Czech educational system. A national curricular reform in 2005 prescribed that school curricula should no longer be structured around specific subjects, but rather around larger fields of study which drew attention to the links between subjects. So long as they adhered to this directive, schools were empowered to devise their own interdisciplinary curricula and learning structures.
In response, the Lauder Schools of Prague dedicated several weeks of their teachers’ time to careful design of a new curriculum under the supervision of a specialized coordinator. This gave teachers the opportunity to examine their individual subject syllabi and reorganize them in a way that produced common topics or historical eras that could be approached from the perspective of different subjects at the same time in the school year. For example, a topic like “Romanticism” could be tackled in the same month in language classes, history, art, and quite possibly in science too.
Can you provide specific examples of interdisciplinary teaching at the school?
Aside from the general interconnectedness of the whole curriculum, we have established a specialized subject called “The World in Context” – which is taught for two years at middle school (students aged 14-15) and then for one year at high school (students aged 17). The development of this subject was informed by the theory of CLIL – “Content and Language Integrated Learning” – which specifies the need for content aims, linguistic aims and cognitive aims.
At middle school level, the subject merges English as a foreign language with History and Social Science. Most of the materials the students work with are in English. The topics cover a range of historical events and their influence on the modern world, for example:
- the early history of America, to illustrate its position in modern world;
- colonization and decolonization, to explain a number of modern political conflicts;
- slavery, as a starting point for a debate on racism;
- influential women in different areas of human interest, to focus on the changing role of women in society.
We ask students from the high school to give sample presentations in English, and we often get students working in groups. The content aim of the subject is to make students aware of the historical background of some modern issues. The linguistic aims are for students to be able to find relevant texts in English, to distil the main point from an un-adapted English text, to follow an adapted lecture in English, and to be able to prepare and give a short presentation on a topic of their own choice. The cognitive and metacognitive aims are to trigger critical thinking in students, to teach them to identify cause/effect relationships from a text, to work with timelines, mindmaps and conceptual maps, to work effectively in a group, and to be able to prepare a poster presentation of a topic of their choice.
At high school level, it is primarily the students who decide the direction of this subject, given that their level of English is good enough to follow un-adapted texts and programs in English. In each fortnightly lesson, the students suggest topics from current affairs that they would like to deal with, discuss their suggestions amongst themselves, and then choose the topic of the next lesson. Each of them prepares an introductory presentation on one of the aspects of the issue at hand. For example, when the topic was the London Riots, the individual presentations focused on: timeline, outcomes, reasons, coverage in official media, coverage on social media, parallels with Brighton Riots from 1960′s, parallels with and differences from current student riots in the Czech Republic. A debate then takes place to identify connections between the individual presentations, and more information is supplied by the teacher to complete the picture – typically statistics, infographics and video input. Native speakers and international studies specialists are often invited to take part in the debate. At the end of the lesson, the students are assigned homework which is invariably a piece of academic writing on the current topic. The content aim is to make students aware of current events and their coverage in the media. The linguistic aim focuses on academic English – to present, to take part in academic debate, and to write academic texts (summaries, different types of essays, critical reviews). The cognitive and metacognitive aims are to teach students how to read statistics critically (both in textual and graphical representations), to work with both formal and informal resources, and to quote correctly.
There is yet a further area in which interdisciplinary teaching and learning features in our school. Each autumn, a school-wide, term-long project is carried out. The topics vary; in past years they have included “Israel”, ”The Maharal – 400 years of Rabbi Low and the Golem” and “Romanticism – the era of Karel Hynek Mácha”. The teachers design a series of workshops, often unrelated to any particular school subject, that approach the central topic from different perspectives. To take Romanticism as an example, one workshop retraced the travels of one of the biggest Romantic Czech author, another one focused on Science in Romanticism, another prepared a show based on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. During the Israel project, one workshop prepared a book of endangered Israeli species, another one carried out research amongst Israelis from different waves of aliyah, another prepared an original board game with trivia about Israel. The students can choose any workshop they like, and groups are composed of middle and high school students together. At the end of the project, each of the workshops has a major presentation at a whole-school event; reports from each workshop are also published on a DVD and in a booklet.
What do you see as the benefits of interdisciplinary teaching?
The main benefit of the CLIL-based World in Context is that students see English language as a tool to gather relevant and meaningful information. They acquire the language naturally, especially in middle school level where attention is paid to careful linguistic scaffolding. This allows the students to focus on the content and skills. Even low-achievers in English show greater motivation in this subject than in standard English lessons. It gives the students the chance to show their knowledge outside the “box” of individual school subjects. By individualizing their tasks, we give them the chance to contribute from their own experience, which is again a highly motivating factor.
The school-wide, term-long project, with its variety of workshops, provides the students with the chance to see one topic from a number of different perspectives. This is a more realistic view than the standard single-subject approach. Students also get to work with schoolmates who they do not normally meet or interact with. In addition, students see their teachers leading workshops outside their area of professional expertise, for example their Hebrew teacher is a professional cook or their Physics teacher is a History enthusiast. This helps to create a more intimate school environment and raises students’ interest in a variety of fields.
As far as the curriculum-scale interdisciplinary approach is concerned, the research mapping the effects of this relatively new reform has not yet been finished. However, I am deeply convinced about the positive contribution of this approach to effective learning. For example, as a Mathematics teacher, it provides me with a valuable chance to synchronize my teaching with a Physics teacher, so that I can pre-teach equations to students before they need them, or so that they can practise dealing with expressions outside of my class.
What do you see as the challenges of interdisciplinary teaching?
The major challenge for both the curriculum scale approach and the school-wide, term-long projects is in the level of detailed planning needed amongst all teachers. If this goes well, implementation is smooth.
The challenges connected to the World in Context subject are more significant. Since we have only started teaching the subject recently, and given that it feeds off current events, there are practically no pre-existing teaching materials. Teachers need to look up all resources and adapt them carefully. This is extremely demanding, but if not done properly and if the scaffolding is insufficient, it may lead to a complete failure of the lesson. The teacher needs to be aware of the level of different students in both language and content subjects, and to be able to individualize the activities so that weaker English-speakers are not disadvantaged. Yet another challenge is fair evaluation. So far, we have decided to grade the students based predominantly on their portfolios – folders in which the students collect their classwork and homework, together with any other materials they find relevant to the topic discussed. The students can choose to express themselves in Czech when tested; all tests are open-book (especially since they focus on cause/effect rather than data) and employ a variety of non-text-bound exercises (for example, graphic organizers of different types). However, the debate on how much linguistic skills influence students’ performance in such a subject is always an issue, especially if you have an almost native speaker and an elementary student in the same class.
World ORT’s next Hatter educational seminar – in October 2012 in London – is on the subject of interdisciplinary learning. Watch this space for materials and feedback from the seminar.