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Inquire & Inspire with Nanci Caplan: self-directed learning through the innovative, interdisciplinary Big Idea program

Before beginning her nine year stint at Schechter—first as Director of Student Services and now as 7th-8th Grade Sager School Principal—Nanci Caplan worked as a school counselor and case manager at Chicago Public Schools and New York City Public Schools. She is currently pursuing her doctorate in Jewish Education at Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS).

Q: You were a featured presenter at the recent ISACS Conference in Columbus, Ohio on the Sager School’s innovative “Big Idea” program. How is this interdisciplinary project reshaping the standards for exemplary middle school curricula?

A: Now in its third year, the Big Idea provides our 7th and 8th graders with an opportunity to work with peers, teachers, and consultants to design month-long courses based on their personal interests, culminating in interactive capstone projects. The Big Idea is BIG because it is not being done anywhere else in the country, and meets the standards for exemplary education by the Association for Middle Level Education.

This program recognizes the power that student voice brings to the education conversation, puts students in the driver’s seat of their own learning, and allows students and teachers to collaborate in unique ways that prioritize idea-sharing, creative vision, and co-learning. Our goal is to help our children wake up each day EXCITED to come to school—that is a BIG ask from an adolescent. It’s our responsibility to help these young adults find passion in their education, in their Judaism, and in their community.

Q In what ways does the program challenge students?

A: The Big Idea challenges students both academically and socially. Students are not only learning new content, they are creating relationships with new peers through this multigrade program. We begin by asking the students, “If you could study anything in the world that we don’t teach you, what would it be?” and their answers are truly astounding. They range from the practical to the unbelievable, from wanting to understand the science behind flavor profiles to the psychology behind famous works of art. This program helps students investigate their topic from a variety of angles because each content area then studies the same topic through distinct vantage points.

Q What life skills do students gain through the Big Idea?

A: This program gives our curious students the chance to do a meaningful deep dive into an area that they may not otherwise explore, and does so while still prioritizing academically rigorous work. It also gives students an opportunity to work on their presentation skills and create a meaningful public exhibition of their learning. Students participate in field trips that help draw parallels between academic learning and real-world application, and they gain additional insight from renowned guest speakers.

Q Why do you think this program has been such a success?

A: The reason this program has been so successful is because the students are eager, creative, and incredibly competent, and because our teaching staff places enormous value on student voice and is open to exploring new curricula to support student academic desires. We look forward to the continued development of the Big Idea—a distillation of Schechter’s commitment to nurturing the qualities of innovation and creativity that are essential for our students’ personal growth, confidence, and development as future leaders.

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