Tech Rav
Discussions of Jewish EdTech

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Find Out Why You Need to Know About Gemara Berura


I first fell in love with Gemara Berura a dozen years ago. I had just finished my most ambitious project-based learning assignment I had ever attempted with my 9th grade class. We designed a “How To Learn Gemara” website. In this project, my students culminated a year of a careful skills-based approach to learning Gemara by summarizing the various Sugiyot they had learned complete with keywords and color coding. They divided these Gemaras into sections and labeled these sections based on their function within the Sugiya as attack questions, regular questions, statements, answer, proof, etc.

I shared this project with the Lookjed Listerv, my first Personal Learning Network before there was a Twitter or Facebook group to share and discuss. I got quite a few responses to this project but the one that was most interesting was from a team in Israel that said they were using a very similar skills-based methodology but had created a computer program to facilitate the process. I was intrigued.

That summer, I received a follow-up email from Rabbi Meir Fachler, the head of the Gemara Berura team, whom I had never met but who later became a mentor of mine in the world of Jewish educational technology. He wanted to know if I wanted to see the program. Sight unseen, I invited him to present Gemara Berura to a team of young educational administrators I was with as a part of Yeshiva University’s Intensive Training Program for Day School Leadership. The real reason that I offered him to present was not to give the program exposure to the next generation of day school leaders. Rather it was a selfish one. I wanted to see the program myself and I thought the only way I could was by letting Meir present.

Once I saw the program, I was hooked.

What I found most attractive was that, although the computer-based approach was new, the methodology was an old one and in my humble opinion, the ONLY way to teach one how to learn Gemara.



It involves using keywords and other textual clues to divide the Gemara up into units of the Shakla Vetarya, the halachic give-and-take. To assist in this process, the program features a database of over 700 keywords with their simple definitions, broader explanations, and suggested classifications. It also contains biographies of all of the Talmudic Sages with information vital to understand the Gemara like whether a given speaker was a Tanna or Amora, what generation he was in, who were his teachers, students, and friends and important principles concerning him like the fact that Rabbi Meir is presumed to be the author of every anonymous Mishna, or that Rav can be considered to have the status of a Tanna in a dispute.

Next, one seeks to classify each of these units according to their function. The classifications include the most important functions in a Sugiya like three types of questions: Inquiry, Objection, and Contradiction and two types of answers: Clarification and Reassignment. Gemara Berura uses special colors and shapes for each classification so that as one is dividing the text into its component parts and then classifying the Gemara according to each part’s function, one develops a color-coded text map and detailed flow chart of the Sugiya.

Finally, one connects the units to each other both in the text map using an indenting system and in the flowchart which is simultaneously ordered both chronologically based on the order of the text and logically based on who is commenting on whom. This is a key feature since the Gemara’s text is in a non-linear fashion and often a later unit will connect to something much earlier in the discussion. I was dividing and classifying with my class using word processing programs prior to using Gemara Berura, albeit not as easily and smoothly, since I did not have this clear systematic approach with the built in databases of Keywords and Sages. However, I could never easily do the connecting stage before Gemara Berura.

This approach, to Divide, Classify and Connect, or DCC as Gemara Berura calls it, is really the ONLY way to teach one to make a laining on a Gemara, to achieve independence in reading. This approach has been utilized by Rishonim and Acharonim for centuries. For example, see the following from Rav Yitzchak Kanpanton’s classic Darchei HaGemorah:

In order to know a Sugiya in its entirety, one has to know the rules of the Gemara…

1. You have to know the sequence of the tradition – who received the teaching from whom – and to remember the sages quoted and their titles. You must also know who is a Tanna and who an Amora, who is a teacher and who a student, in order to know to raise objections from the statements of one to those of another.

2. You have to know all the unusual words and terms that are used to raise and resolve objections.

3. You have to know the Gemara’s method and the sequence of the Sugiya thoroughly: the questions and the answers, the objections and the resolutions, the exact proofs and conclusions, the sources and tangents of the various topics that are raised in the Sugiya

Basically, the idea is that one can tell what the Gemara is doing based on the keywords and other clues; is it making a statement, posing an objection, a contradiction, or answering an inquiry? This is true even if one is not familiar with the ideas in the Gemara so one does not yet know what the Gemara is saying. This approach to reading Gemara can be taught in a yeshiva day school setting, even to average students, if taught systematically and consistently reinforced. This is how I already taught. But Gemara Berura made it so much easier and more active for the students, giving them the ability to color code and manipulate the units of Gemara, an almost kinesthetic method of learning.

This is what drew me to Gemara Berura. Over the years, I have had the opportunity to teach my own classes using Gemara Berura and to train dozens of teachers in this approach in places from New York and New Jersey, to Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Miami, Palo Alto, and Los Angeles.

Just a couple of years ago, I was privileged to join a team of experts in Gemara pedagogy led by Rabbi Meir Fachler and Rabbi Yossi Rosenblum, Principal of Yeshiva Schools of Pittsburgh, as we met in Jerusalem to create The Core Standards for Teaching Torah SheBeal Peh Initiative which has since been adopted by the Misrad Hachinuch, the Israeli education ministry, as the Core Standards for learning Mishnah and Gemara in all Mamlachti Dati schools.

Gemara Berura has made a number of improvements in this time including adding a Mishna tool to complement its Gemara text mapping tools which recognizes the unique halachic style of the Mishna. Another notable addition has been the ability to export the text map and flow charts into Word documents for creating worksheets and summative assessments. However, since Gemara Berura was always a Windows application, as technology has moved to a multi-platform environment with Macs, PCs, iPads, and Chromebooks all utilized in Jewish day schools, it has become more and more essential that Gemara Berura move to the cloud and become a web-based program which could be used across all platforms.

This year, Gemara Berura has done exactly that with their web-app. This app has kept all of the features that have made Gemara Berura such a strong computer assisted methodology for learning and teaching Gemara, but can now work on any device. For individual learners, it features a free personal version which allows one to use many major features. This tool is the perfect companion to learning the Daf Yomi.

For schools, it offers a much more powerful school-wide license. Beyond the Gemara Berura toolset, it also features its own cloud-based file storage system, its own web-based text editor, and most importantly, it includes a full-fledged learning management system so that one can create activities, assignments, and assessments directly from the web-app. With this newest version, Gemara Berura has finally fulfilled the promise of bringing its strong methodology to any teacher and student no matter what the device.

If you are eager to achieve independence in learning Gemara for yourself or your students, I highly recommend that you give Gemara Berura a try. For more information about educational licensing, please contact Rabbi Meir Fachler at meir@jet-start.com.

(Cross-posted on the NLE Resources Blog)

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Research Skills in a Digital Age

Image by Ted Eytan via Flickr.

A friend of mine who teaches elementary school shared with me a funny story. She took her fourth class to the school library. Like all modern libraries, the library has its share of books and computers including a computerized catalog system for finding books. At same time, it still has one old fashioned card catalog, since the catalog is attached to the wall of the library, a relic of an earlier age. One student noticed this catalog and started rifling through the cards with an elated look on her face. "Look everyone, I found some really cool bookmarks!" she exclaimed as she started giving out cards to her fellow classmates.

Those of us who are old enough to remember using a card catalog, probably anyone over the age of 25, might bemoan this anecdote as one more example of what our current students are lacking with modern technology. However, I wonder if this is really a sign of the coming of the apocalypse. Do our students really need to know how to use a card catalog anymore? Like cursive writing, another skill which parents and teachers might look back at nostalgically but really is not that necessary in an age of keyboarding, finding a book using a card catalog is really not that important anymore. I know, what will we do if the computers are down? How will students find books? My answer. They will probably search for the book using their smartphones. (And please don't ask me what they will do if their smartphones are down as well. Even during Hurricane Sandy when we lost power for a week in my part of NJ, we never lost cell phone service. If both the computers and smart phones are down, we will have much greater concerns than trying to search for books in our local library.)

However, while students might no longer need to know how to use a card catalog, they still need to know effective researching skills. I believe that another staple of the library class, the Dewey Decimal system, is still an important skill for our students to learn considering that once they search for a book using a computerized catalog, they still need to know how to find it on the shelf.

Another newer research skill that is essential today is how to Google effectively. Our students think they know how to use Google but in reality, often don't. Yes, they can put in some search terms and maybe even look past the first page when searching for a resource, but rarely know how to go beyond the superficial facts to perform a thorough search in an intelligent fashion. This point was made poignantly by Alan November in his presentation about the First Five Days of School at the recent ISTE Conference.

Alan presented as his example a search for information on the Iranian Hostage Crisis from the perspective of the Iranians. If you just Google the Iran Hostage Crisis, you get no Iranian sources. You first need to teach students how to flick the switch to including only Iranian websites by adding the Google search operator "site:" to include only certain sites and then using Iran's web country code "ir" so your search would be "Iran Hostage Crisis site:ir" to get Iranian sites.

The challenge is that when you flip the search to a different country, you don't really get very good results because you can't just type in Iranian Hostage Crisis. The Iranians didn't call this event the Iranian Hostage Crisis. That was the American term. This is where Wikipedia can come in handy. When you look up the Iranian Hostage Crisis on Wikipedia you discover that in Persian this event was called the Conquest of the American Spy Den. Then if you search for "The Conquest of the American Spy Den site:ir" or maybe add site:ac.ir to limit your search only to academic sites in Iran you finally get the Iranian perspective on this event. It is this type of advanced research skills that our students need in our digital age. You can learn more about advanced Google tools by going to powersearchingwithgoogle.com.

This focus on teaching our students research skills in an age of Google leads to an even more essential question. What should be the focus in school in an age where students can just Google the answer? Teaching our students how to search effectively whether using the computerized card catalog or Google is one such skill. But even more important is teaching our students how to analyze and evaluate the sources they find in their search.

The most obvious example of this is the need to give assignments that require our students to think critically. If you ask students, they will tell you that in the overwhelming majority of their assignments, they can just Google the answer. Anything that students can just Google is not a very effective assignment. Obviously, this is a hard question and differs based on age and subject matter; how do we teach our students critical thinking skills? But it is the question that we must continuously ask ourselves as educators. This is what should keep us up at night.

As a Judaic Studies teacher, I struggle with this question. At the ISTE conference, this is a question we struggled with as a group when we gathered Jewish educators together in a Birds of a Feather session. For example, if our students can find word by word translation for the Gemara and other essential Torah texts using online tools like The Mercava or Sefaria how much should we focus on reading and translating in class? I believe that these skills are crucial for helping our students become independent learners but is this a realistic goal for all or even the majority of our students in a Yeshiva Day School? Would not research skills like how to find sources in the original Hebrew/Aramaic or in translation and how to thoughtfully interpret them be more important? I really don't know the answer to this question. It also might differ from student to student.

One could ask a similar question in mathematics. In an age where one can put any math problem into the WolframAlpha computational knowledge engine and get a detailed answer with results in many different formats, is it not more important that our students understand the mathematics behind the problem and the various ways to show the solution than to work out the solution themselves? As I said. I do not have the answer to this thorny question. But there is one thing I am sure of. You cannot just Google this one.

I welcome your thoughtful responses in the comments to this post.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Crowdsourcing #ISTE14 with help from @SueWaters and #NotAtISTE14

A few weeks ago, I was approached by Terry Kaye of Behrman House, a friend and valuable member of my PLN. She told me that she would not be able to attend ISTE this year and was wondering if I could share with her anything that I learned at this most important educational technology conference. Of course, I agreed. Then I started thinking... Why don't I add links to my notes to a spreadsheet so they could be easily organized, searched, and sorted? I started thinking some more. Maybe, I could invite others to post their notes as well on this sheet. My reason was primarily selfish. I knew that I could not possibly attend all of the sessions that I found interesting since many ran simultaneously. With the help of crowdsourcing, I could get notes to many of these sessions. So I created a Google spreadsheet, tweeted about it, and posted it on my blog.

For this project, I wanted the entry to be as simple as possible so I chose to use a publicly shared Google spreadsheet which anyone could edit with no log-in requirement. I liked the fact that anyone would be able to access and edit the notes. I hoped that this would allow more people to see the notes and encourage them to post their own. I preferred this over a Google form which might be a bit easier to use and safer since no one would actually edit the spreadsheet but would not allow everyone to easily see what was already posted when submitting the form. I also wanted the note-taking process to be as natural as possible so I wanted people to use any note-taking method they preferred as long as they created a link to share. With the Google spreadsheet, people could take their notes using Evernote, OneNote, Google Docs, Padlet etc. They could even post a YouTube video of their musings from ISTE. So I created the Google spreadsheet and waited to see what would happen.

What I did not realize was that I was tapping into an entire movement of people who were not at ISTE but were virtually attending the conference, sharing resources and notes using the hashtags #notatiste and #notatiste14. Soon Sue Waters of Edubloggers who was "attending" ISTE from her home in Australia and organizing the not at ISTE crowd picked up my notes. She tweeted it on her large network, posted it on her shared Google Doc, and in her ISTE Flipboard, and most importantly, began to add all of the links to notes that she was collecting to the shared notes spreadsheet.

Soon the shared Google spreadsheet was populated with notes from dozens of people, mostly people that I did not even know face to face but had heard about the project over Twitter or were added by others following ISTE both from the convention center and from afar. This continued throughout the conference and for the days that have followed. People seemed to genuinely appreciate this. Craig Yen who was not at ISTE but virtually attending the event from San Francisco blogged a thank you note about his virtual experience here. Jamie Fithian posted her list of #NotatISTE highlights as she virtually attended from Oklahoma. You can view one of the many thank you tweets I received below.


As I reflect on this project, there are many take-homes for me from this experience.

  • People on Twitter are very generous. The online social media world especially amongst educators has fostered a culture of sharing and helping others. My friend Rabbi Michoel Green noted that Twitter executives even say that educators are now dominating the Twitter sphere sending some 4.2 million tweets a day. I have benefited from and tried to contribute to this online culture of sharing. It is what establishing a PLN or Personal Learning Network is all about. I love this ethos and love to find ways to foster this in my students as well. This leads to my next point.
  • Our students are also very generous about sharing but too often we label this "cheating" instead of recognizing this generosity in our students and encouraging it. As I have blogged recently, many students have created Facebook groups for all of their classes to collect notes and utilize the collective wisdom of their peers to answer questions that they feel uncomfortable asking their teacher. I LOVE this and think we should actively encourage this while still allowing our students this private space and not trying to take it over as our own.
  • This leads to my final point which I hope does not contradict my previous one. How can we actively utilize this crowdsourced note-taking model with our students? One member of my PLN asked this very question in a blog post reflecting on this model. I have utilized this approach for crowdsourcing review sheets for major exams. These review sheets ultimately became questions on my test so the students were in reality creating their own summative assessment. I wonder if I should do this more consistently. Maybe, I should design a crowdsourced spreadsheet for my students to post all of their notes to every unit we are learning in class. The advantage is that every student is then required to take their own notes but also is given the opportunity to view others notes as well. Of course, some students still prefer taking notes with pen and paper which a recent study suggests might be a more effective approach for retaining information than typed notes- personally I much prefer to type notes but I want my students to use whatever approach they feel works best for them. I think a solution for this is to allow these students to take a picture of their notes and add a link to this picture to the shared spreadsheet. I plan on attempting to crowdsource our class notes this coming school year. I plan to post my reflections on this blog.
Thank you to all who made this crowdsourced notes project such a smashing success both for those of us physical attendees at ISTE and those who were #notastiste but following virtually through the wonderful world of social media. I plan to close my notes to public editing tomorrow, Monday July 7, so please add any notes you have to this document today. You can access it here. I am also embedding it once again below. Enjoy! Now I just have to find the time to read them all...

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Never let schooling interfere with your education.

Today, I was driving my teenage son home from his summer internship and he made a startling observation. He said that he believes that school comes in the way of his education. This reminds me of the quote attributed to Mark Twain but actually coined by 19th century essayist Grant Allen, "Never let schooling interfere with your education." What makes this so fascinating coming from my son is that he gets school, receiving straight As in virtually all of his subjects and achieving high standardized test scores. --A father can shep a little nachas, can't he?-- And yet, my son does not believe schooling helps his learning. He thinks, most of the time, it hinders it.

I asked my son to elaborate and he said that he feels like he has learned more so far in two weeks working with a mentor in computer coding than he has in many high school courses he took for an entire year. This despite the fact that his internship this year is pretty "laid back" with his mentor giving him projects to work on at home and my son checking in periodically and meeting up once a week. My son actually spends much of his day playing video games- he has now hooked up our bedroom flat screen TV to his Wii- and only works when he wants to. He explained that despite this he accomplishes so much because he has a single-minded focus on the coding. He could be intensely coding for 5 hours straight and only then take his gaming break. But this laid back atmosphere is not the main reason for his deep learning. He explained that last summer when he took a very different type of internship in genetic coding which required him to commute daily to a local university and attend lecture and do lab work from 9-4 daily with few breaks, he had a similar feeling of accomplishment. What really helped his learning process was the time and intensity of these two experiences.

He contrasted this with school where one attends classes at forty minute intervals and has to study 6-11 subjects a day, remember he attends a Yeshiva high school with a dual curriculum. By the time he gets to class, sits down, and starts to focus, often twenty minutes of the period has gone by. Then he finally starts to get it and become engaged with the material and.... the bell rings... time for the next subject.

He said that the most important thing he has learned in high school is time management because he has to pick and choose which subjects to devote all of his energy to and which subjects to do a bit less intensely. How could he do otherwise when he has to divide his attention into so many different areas? I asked him how school could be different and my son suggested that perhaps school should focus solely on one subject for an entire month at a time. One could learn an entire year's worth of material in this time with the proper focus and intensity and then move on to the next subject.

Before I started to question the audacity of this proposal, I began to think back to my own learning experiences. I remember in my Yeshiva days we would have a set time or seder in learning Talmud with a chavruta, a learning partner, for 2-3 hours at a time followed by a long shiur, a break, and then afternoon seder for another long 2-3 hour stretch. Often it could take me the entire first hour to get focused and then I would be "in the zone" learning intently for the rest of the stretch. My chavruta used to describe my learning process. He said that it took me a little time to get warmed up but once I was in the proper focus, I could really fight in learning. ( A reference to the Talmudic concept of Milchamta Shel Torah, that Torah study should not be a passive, silent exercise but an active dispute, a war of Torah, with one's learning partner.)

I could give examples from my secular subjects as well. One of my most memorable learning experiences in college was actually a biology course that I chose to take in summer school. I chose summer school primarily because I dreaded the late night labs during the regular semester course. What I did not realize was how intensive and immersive this summer school experience would be. For six weeks I studied biology from 9-4 every single day, 5 days a week. The morning was spent entirely on the lectures while the afternoons were devoted to the labs. I remember so much from that course and really believe, as my son described, that it was the single-minded focus on biology that was the catalyst to this learning. I would not have learned and certainly not have retained nearly as much had I taken biology as a regular college course together with some 3-4 other courses and a late night lab during the semester.

My recent ISTE experience was one more example of the value of such experiences. For three days straight my sole focus was on growing, sharing, and networking in educational technology. I attended lectures, panel discussions, playgrounds, and poster sessions. I spent time schmoozing with vendors in the exhibition hall, getting to meet the people behind the apps that are so important to my teaching and learning. I tweeted, blogged, and created a shared Google spreadsheet where many participants have posted their notes. At night, I networked and reflected on the events of the day with other like-minded Jewish educators in dinners coordinated by The DigitalJLearning Network. I doubt that I could have any similar experience by attending workshops periodically. It needed to involve going away for three days straight with a single-minded focus in order to achieve such a learning experience.

This blog itself is another example of the need for focus and attention in order to produce. Blog posts do not come easily for me. I can often be thinking about an idea to blog about for hours, days, weeks, or sometimes even months before I begin the writing process. The writing itself usually takes me a number of hours. I need to focus my mind and think deeply in order to reflect in this online space. Deep thinking takes time.

But yet our schools rarely give our students the time to achieve such a sense of learning and accomplishment. This point was most poignantly made at ISTE by Gary Stager when describing the need for giving kids the time to make meaningful things in his presentation at ISTE on Making, tinkering, & engineering in classroom. He quipped, when do kids get to do something longer than a course of an antibiotic so they can become good in something? He then quoted the book A Schoolmaster of the Great City by Angelo Patri, an educational reformer from the early twentieth century:
I do not remember the school ever staying with a beautiful idea long enough to have it become part of the children's lives.
I don't have any real solution in the traditional high school setting, with so many required subjects and constraints of time and staffing, to this problem. One solution is to carve out small pockets of this longer learning embedded in the high school schedule. For example, my school has been successful in this area with our week-long school-wide Shiriyah festival and our engineering classes. It is my hope that we can work further in schools throughout the world to achieve this vision of longer, deeper learning for all of our students so that schooling will become a key component of their education.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

If everything you do in your class can be replaced by a YouTube video, you should be replaced.


I have been thinking a lot about the Flipped Classroom model lately. Two weeks ago, I attended a one day unconference on The Flipped Jewish Studies Classroom, sponsored by The Lookstein Center with a grant from the UJA Federation of NY. I had the privilege to be joined by 5 of my fellow teachers and administrators from The Frisch School including 3 Judaic Studies educators and 2 math teachers. You can read one of my math teacher's reflections on this experience here. Today, as a part of my first day at the ISTE Conference, I attended a session in the Flipped Classroom by two of the trailblazers who first developed this model, Jon Bergmann and Aaron Sams. You can read my notes on this presentation here.

One point that was emphasized repeatedly at both the Lookstein unconference and today's session was the importance that flipping lessons not be about the video you create but what you do after the video. For example, my friend Avi Bloom when presenting at Lookstein began with Ken Robinson's famous Ted talk about how schools kill creativity. The message was clear. If you just flip your lessons, but then do not change anything you do in the classroom after the videos, then you have accomplished nothing. The key is to utilize the videos to foster more creative activities in the classroom. The challenge is how to do this.

Julie Schell, who was the keynote at the Lookstein event, presented a very practical approach to both the videos and the classroom follow-up which she called Just In Time Teaching. In this model, students are assigned to watch a flipped lesson or do an outside reading prior to the lesson which she calls a coverage assignment. This is followed by a short assessment which asks them two feedback questions to assure that they did the assignment. She grades this assessment not on whether they got the "right" answer, since often there is no right answer for this type of question, but on a 2 point scale for responding to the question and giving a rationale for their response.

Class is where the fun begins. Now that they know a bit about the concept, the teacher engages the students by posing a real-world problem based on the reading and having students vote on different possible solutions and then fight it out.

What makes this flipped classroom model so attractive to Jewish educators is that, although it is based on modern research, at the same time it closely matches the Talmudic method of learning that has been the hallmark of Beit Midrash study for millennia. First one learns a mishna or simple halachic statement. The Gemara then poses a problem, a contradiction, or a new scenario to compare it to. This is usually followed by a dispute. An effective teacher would have students take sides in this dispute to actively engage them in the halachic process. Then this is, sometimes, followed by a resolution. Often in the Gemara it is not and students can then seek out a resolution and gain a knowledge of the halachic process by looking through the codes like the Rambam, Shulchan Aruch, Mishna Berura etc. The "Flipping" in this case is the outsourcing of the easy content knowledge, perhaps the reading of the Mishna or Halacha, to the video and checking for understanding so once students enter the classroom they can immediately delve into the deeper dispute.

I had an interesting discussion today on this point with Asher Yoblak, a rebbe who I just met for the first time face to face at the conference but who I feel I know quite well through our many interactions on social media. We were discussing the Flipped Classroom model in Judaic Studies. I pointed out that I and many others in Frisch had a great deal of success using videos to present a basic reading of the Mishna, Gemara, or Tanach text being studied. He said that he knew many rebbeim who were afraid of this because they said if they just put their simple reading and translation onto a YouTube video then what would they do with the students in the classroom. I responded that if all they did with their students was read and translate then there was obviously something deeply flawed with their teaching methods. Jon Bergmann and Aaron Sams made a very similar statement at today's presentation when they said, "If everything you do in your class can be replaced by a YouTube video, you should be replaced."

Looking back at my own odyssey into the Flipped Classroom model, I see how I have undergone a similar learning curve. When I first started creating flipped videos some three years ago, I focused solely on the video. I was trying to gain an approach to make videos, to outsourcing the simpler part of my teaching, and I experimented with different methods. I created videos connected to Google Forms so, like Julie Schell described, I could easily assess what they gained from the video. However, I still had no idea how to transform how I taught my regular class based on the simple content knowledge that I outsourced to the video.

As my methodology matured, I began to use the videos to support more creative classroom activities. I already conducted a great deal of classroom discussion and debate about key concepts in the text. I thank Nechama Leibowitz, the master teacher who I had the unique privilege to learn from in the last year of her life, for impressing this model upon me in my teaching of Tanach. But the videos allowed me to quickly get to these deeper understandings since students already knew the basic text. The videos also supported Project Based Learning. One example of this was my Jeremiah on Trial project in which students were able to learn two difficult chapters of Jeremiah mostly on their own with the help of various library resources and a playlist of 6 videos. I outsourced the simple reading of these chapters to the videos so students could focus in their projects on the bigger ideas.

I also began to "Flip" the Flipped Classroom with students creating videos to illustrate their understanding of difficult concepts and teach each other the material. This can very easily be done from a technical standpoint using free iPad apps like Showme and Educreations. Students used these videos to create a review that illustrated their understanding of the Navi (for example look here and here). Others created videos as a summary of what they learned in Jeremiah for a culminating project.

They key to this odyssey in my own teaching practice was the safety net that the flipped videos provided. I knew that I could stretch my students to deeper levels of analysis since they always had the videos to fall back on to gain the more basic knowledge and skills. It is my hope that teachers continue to adopt this model, not just in creating videos, but in leveraging them to foster creativity in our schools.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Crowdsourcing #ISTE14

The long awaited ISTE conference has arrived. For those not yet in the know, ISTE stands for the International Society for Technology in Education and once a year they run the largest educational technology conference in the world with more than 15,000 participants, presenters, and exhibitors. This year's conference is in Atlanta and began today. As someone who is Shomer Shabbat and greatly values the peace and serenity that Shabbat gives me to be immersed in family, prayer, and Torah and unplug for 25 hours, I was not able to be in attendance today. I will be leaving early Sunday morning to arrive, hopefully, by lunch time.

One of the greatest challenges of a conference of this scope is there are so many must-see people, sessions, and exhibitors that one cannot possibly accomplish it all. Looking at my tentative schedule of favorite events, I am already double and triple booked for many time slots. Furthermore, there are those who cannot attend the conference this year for various reasons but wish to follow it virtually. What is the best way to be in more than one place at once or a virtual participant in the proceedings? Of course there is always Twitter where you can follow the #ISTE14 hashtag or #ISTE2014. I will be tweeting myself throughout the conference using the #ISTE14 hashtag. I like the fact that it has 2 less precious characters than #ISTE2014. However, Twitter with its 140 character limit can only give you so much information about the different sessions.

For this reason, I am trying an experiment. I have created a Google spreadsheet that is available for anyone in the world to edit without a sign in. The purpose of this spreadsheet is for people to post their notes from the various sessions they attend. What I like about this spreadsheet model is that it allows one to take notes using any online tool, Google Docs, Evernote, Windows 365 etc. Any tool that lets one share a public link will work with this system. Also, the spreadsheet is sortable by notetaker, session etc. It is my hope that through this blog post and my tweeting that this crowdsourced note-taking model takes off and this becomes a useful method to follow the proceedings.

So if you are at ISTE, please help out. Click on the following link: ISTE 2014 Session Notes and start sharing your notes to help yourself and anyone else who may benefit from learning about the various sessions. I have also embedded the spreadsheet below so hopefully we can all watch it grow in the next three days as we add to the knowledge base of the latest innovations in educational technology to the benefit of all.


Wednesday, June 25, 2014

3 Key Lessons From The Jewish Day School Social Media Academy

This year, I had the privilege to attend Darim Online’s JDS Social Media Academy together with a team from Frisch. Our team consisted of myself who handles the academic side of our social media, Mrs. Cheryl Leiser, our Alumni Coordinator, Mrs. Rachel Roth, our Director of Development, and Mrs. Elaine Weitzman, our Executive Director. Entering the program, we already had an active presence in social media through our Facebook, Twitter, YouTube channel, Flickr, and Instagram and have used our social media effectively for high profile events like Shiriyah. We were very excited about this opportunity that would enable us to further hone our practices and expand our social media capacity.

Over the course of the year, we were given a personal coach, Ms. Farra Trompeter from Big Duck Communications and access to regular webinars, both those presented by the ever knowledgeable Ms. Lisa Colton of Darim and those coordinated from our fellow Jewish Day Schools in the Social Media Academy. Farra gave us much to read about, think about, and discuss and the webinars also greatly expanded our knowledge base about what was “out there” in the non-profit social media world. Most importantly, our participation in this program forced us to reflect on our own practices, both what was working well, and what could be improved upon. This type of reflection is highly important, to “sharpen the saw” as Stephen Covey says, but often hard to schedule time for in the busy world of a Jewish Day School.

The numbers speak for themselves. Our Frisch Facebook page has doubled its fan base. At the start of the year, our Likes were in the 500 range, and currently we have crossed the 1000 Like threshold. More importantly, we have increased our level of Engagement with our stakeholders and this in turn has greatly expanded our Reach. These terms might seem foreign to you. I did not know much more than the idea of collecting Likes prior to attending this Academy. But through the patient prodding and explanations of our coach and the research she shared with us, I have learned how important these items are. Let me explain.

1. Learn the Facebook algorithm to increase your Reach and Engagement.

Facebook like Google uses its own algorithm. This is obvious to most users of Google. You search with Google because it does not just list every single website with a given term but has a mathematical formula to rate what it gives back to you based on level of importance. The more useful the information is to you, the more you will continue to use Google for search. What I discovered in this academy was that Facebook does the same thing, not with Search but with the ever important Timeline. Facebook is not Twitter. It does not just give you a constant stream of everything that your Friends and the organizations you follow post. Rather it collates these posts and decides to show you only the posts that it deems are most important to you.

Why should Jewish Day Schools care about this minutiae? Because we have to if we want those who Like us to see our stuff. Facebook gauges who to show our posts to based on something called Engagement. It recognizes that there every Page has a small group of highly engaged fans. It first sends each page’s posts to these fans, usually about 15% of the total number of people who Like your page. Then if these fans engage with the post by clicking on it, liking it, commenting, or sharing, then it sends it to more fans and if they engage with the post more. This is what then helps increase the total Reach of your post. So you do need to care about this if you want parents, students, board members and other stakeholders to see your posts. Our Facebook can only be a “Window into what’s happening at Frisch”, if people can look through the window. These are all items that we learned through the JDS Social Media Academy.

2. Plan your posts.

We also learned to plan our Facebook postings. We learned the need to try to post every day, preferably two or three times daily. Less than that and people will not be engaged. More than that and Facebook will stop putting your posts on users’ timelines. We learned to look for the best time to post. We found that posts in the afternoon got higher levels of engagement than posts in the morning. And the time that the largest number of our fans were online was actually later at night between 9-10PM. We learned the best types of postings to maximize engagement, lots of pictures, links, and videos, not just Status Updates.

3. Putting it all together.

Although we have punctuated many past fundraising campaigns with posts on our social media, we were able to put together all of these valuable lessons from this past year to run our first ever fundraising campaign primarily driven through social media, our Support the Cougar Campaign for our Sports Breakfast. In this campaign, we not only reached our fundraising goals but were able to help develop our branding and school spirit by bringing our Cougar back as a symbol of our various sports teams. This campaign involved every member of our school community including our parents, students, teachers, alumni, parent alumni, and the list goes on and on. One suggestion that Farra gave us was to photograph students, teachers, and faculty with the Cougar at various events or just around the school holding up signs saying things like “We Support the Cougar” or “The Hockey Team Supports the Cougar”. This became so popular amongst our students that out student produced newsletter decided to create graphics and write articles about Supporting the Cougar and our Frisch Student Video Production Club created a video with a Rocky theme, since our special guest at our Sports Breakfast was the Modern Orthodox boxer Dmitriy Salita. You can watch a recording of our presentation to our fellow JDS Academy members using this link. (We are around the 45 minute mark.) You can view our presentation about our Support the Cougar Campaign below.



Altogether, we found this experience to be a very positive one. We learned how to utilize social media to further engage with our students, parents, alumni, and other stakeholders so we can continue to spread the word about all of the great goings on as we provide a view inside the Frisch experience. Thank you Lisa, Farra, and all of the other people at Darim Online, See3 Communications, and the Avi Chai Foundation for making this possible.

(Cross-posted on the Darim Online Blog)

Sunday, June 22, 2014

My Summer Plans... ISTE, Boot Camp, Reflecting, and Recharging

I am entering my most favorite time of the year, the summer. You might have expected me to say that since I am a teacher but it is not for the reasons that you think. You see most teachers, even those who don't spend their summers working in camps or at other jobs, do not spend their summers on a leisurely holiday. We work. Only of a different kind. The summer is spent thinking, learning, preparing. Our summers are spent reflecting on our past year and using our successes and failures to better plan for the coming school year. As teachers we are very lucky since every year we have time to rethink and recharge, to grow, so that we can hopefully discover new ways to reach our students in the coming year. (For more on this, see this excellent posting written by my good friend Aaron Ross at the beginning of last summer.)

For me personally, this involves attending the ISTE conference, the largest educational technology conference in the world, for my fourth time in a row next week in Atlanta. This conference gives me so many ideas that it takes me the entire month of July just to begin to process what I have learned. As important as the 15,000+ person conference is the opportunity to go over each day with an intimate group of like-minded educators in Jewish day schools. In the past, I have done this through dinners arranged for cohorts sponsored by the Avi Chai foundation. This year I will be joining a cohort from the DigitalJLearning Network including a master educator from my school. In addition to attending ISTE, I also plan on taking a few online courses this summer including one from the Buck Institute for Education on How to Create a Driving Question and perhaps a few MOOCS on coding with Udacity. I hope to also become a Google Certified educator.


However, the highlight of my summer will be in August when I have the opportunity to return to school and lead many of my teachers in our 7th annual Frisch School Summer Technology Boot Camp. This boot camp is a chance for teachers to hone their skills in a laid back peaceful environment, remember there are no students in the building, in various technologies they can adapt for their classroom. I find this to be tremendously gratifying as you can see in this posting from last summer. Not only is the Boot Camp itself very worthwhile for those who attend, but sharing with them the schedule of sessions and course descriptions itself can be an educational experience. Through the boot camp schedule, teachers learn what technologies are available for them and start to distinguish between various tools in order to discover which is the best one to use in a given situation.


I will end with one example of this from a recent email exchange that I had with one of my teachers about the difference between a Learning Management System (LMS) like Haiku Learning or Schoology and Google Drive.


My teacher asked:

Can you list for me (just the bullet points) what google apps can do that the new LMS system cannot do? 
I'm trying to comprehend (while knowing nothing what-so-ever about them) why I need both. 
As you well know, I do best with one system as opposed to two systems that can do mostly the same things. On the other hand, if they each have very different uses, that I can keep track of and possibly make use of.
I responded with the following:
Think of the following analogy. 
You own a business and you have a warehouse where you story everything, a factory where you create your products, and a delivery network (road, delivery trucks etc) to get the products that you create from your warehouse to the stores/consumer etc. 
  • Google Drive is your warehouse. It is an online location where you can store everything you create, documents, presentations, photos, videos etc. This storage facility can be for you alone, can be shared with other teachers, or shared with other students so everyone has access to the same storage. You can share items for others to view or invite others to create items along with you which leads to Google Docs.
  • Googles Docs, Spreadsheet, Presentation, Forms is your factory where you can create your materials. You can upload a document to convert to Google Docs or create anything you want directly in Google Docs. Not only this, but other individuals or groups can collaborate with you or each other to create these materials which will then be stored in their and your Google Drive storage facility.
  • Our Learning Management System is the delivery network. It answers the following conundrum. Now that I and/or my students have created everything, how do I easily get it to them, and how do they easily get it to me? They can share it with me in Google Drive but I might not know they shared it. They can email it to me but this will quickly get unwieldy since it is not organized by any classroom structure. So the Learning Management System or LMS for short is the easiest way to deliver learning content from me to the student or from the student to me. In this system, students are organized by class using the same class lists as our school management system. You can post learning resources and assignments to the class. They can submit the assignments for grading through the LMS (which by the way can be set up to AUTOMATICALLY run every assignment through TurnItIn). You can then grade the assignments by hand or using the LMS to comment, annotate etc.  
    • These assignments are usually not created in the LMS. Rather, you can upload documents or much more easily create the assignments using Google Docs stored in your Google Drive and the LMS will communicate with your Google Drive account.   
    • This will certainly be the easiest way for students to create assignments to you. They can create them using their Google Drive and then turn it in directly to the LMS. 
In summary, the LMS then becomes the delivery and communications system while Google Docs is the content creation tool, and Google Drive is where you store Google Docs and other items you created. Very different functions. In my opinion, each indispensable for any class, especially a class with a focus on writing and revising like an English or History class.
So this is what I plan on doing this summer. Stay tuned as I hope to be sharing much of what I gain these summer months through my favorite reflective activity, blogging.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

From the TechRav Archives: Wikipedia's Live Map as a Metaphor for G-d's "View" of Torah Learning

I posted the following before Shavuot, 1 year ago. I am reposting it now on the first of the Sheloshet Yemei Hagbalah as we prepare for celebrating the giving of the Torah this Tuesday night. I will be giving shiur on this topic on Shavuot night at 2AM at Congregation Ohr Torah in West Orange, NJ. I am hoping to see you there and awake.


This morning I tweeted a visual map of Wikipedia changes in real time that was shared by a friend of mine, Dov Emerson. I pondered how it was it was really cool to see the evergrowing knowledge base of Wikipedia in action. Through the viral nature of Twitter, another friend Dani Cooper piggybacked on my tweet and transformed it into a metaphor for how G-d must view Torah learning throughout the world. You can see the Twitter conversation below.

This got me thinking, as I often do when counting down to Shavuot and Matan Torah, about the primacy of Torah learning. The Talmud in Shabbat 88a describes how the Torah is so central to the divine weltanschauung that when the Children of Israel were offered to receive the Torah, they were given an offer that they could not refuse. G-d so to speak, held the mountain over their heads like a barrel and proclaimed that the Children of Israel could either accept the Torah or be buried under the mountain. This is obviously difficult to reconcile with the idea of נעשה ונשמע, that the Children of Israel enthusiastically and willfully accepted the Torah and the Talmud attempts to reconcile this by saying that later at the time of the Purim story the Jewish people willfully accepted the Torah. You can view the Gemara together with some major commentators on it in the source sheet below.

However, the Talmud later explains that in reality the reason for "forcing" the Children of Israel to receive the Torah was because it was a law of nature. G-d made the entire creation of the world conditional on the Children of Israel's accepting the Torah. If they did not accept the Torah, then the creation of the world would be reversed and the universe would return to emptiness. So it was not that G-d was threatening the people, rather it was natural law. The world could only exist if the Children of Israel accepted the Torah.

Rav Chaim Volozhin in his classic Nefesh HaChaim expands on this idea based on various midrashim. He says that not only was the creation of the world conditional on the Torah but the very continued existence of the world is conditional on continued Torah learning. If for one moment, there would not be at least one Jew in the world learning Torah, then the world would cease to exist. It is not that the world would be destroyed, rather the world would disintegrate to a state as if it was never even created in the first place. The creation of the world remains conditional on Torah study.

It was for this reason that in Rav Chaim's yeshiva Volozhin, the first modern yeshiva, they set up shifts so that every moment of every day and night, there was at least one student learning Torah. The students of Volozhin felt that since they were the top yeshiva in the world, it was incumbent on them to personally uphold the world through their Torah study. It is even recorded that the famed Netziv, Rav Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, the last Rosh Yeshiva of Volozhin would not leave the Beit Midrash to break his fast after Yom Kippur until the first students returned from their break fast meal. He would rather sit and study so that not a moment would pass without someone in the Beit Midrash learning Torah. You can view these sources as well in the second page of the source sheet below.


This is why the visual map of Wikipedia and Dani Cooper's tweet so excited me. Obviously, Wikipedia does not hold up the world, although it can be a pretty useful tool. But Torah study does. If only we could have a visual map of every moment of Torah study somewhere in the world. Then we would truly be able to see G-d's "view" of Limud Torah. Until then the Wikipedia  visual map is our best approximation for what this might look like.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Underwater Photography and the Value of Online Learning Communities

This past Monday was Memorial Day in the US. Unlike in Israel where Yom Hazikaron is a solemn affair, us Americans celebrate Memorial Day mostly as the start of the summer season with barbecues, trips to the beach, and swimming in the pool. So this Monday was the perfect time for me to test out the underwater camera mode on my Samsung Galaxy S4 Active. You see the Active advertises itself as being water resistant when dunked in up to 1 meter of water for up to 30 minutes. It even has an underwater camera mode which converts the volume button into the camera key for picture taking when the wet touch screen does not work. It is not necessarily scuba diving worthy but certainly good enough for some fun family pictures in the small backyard pool. Sort of...

Many reviewers have pointed out that the underwater mode on the S4 Active is not really that effective, there is a reason why the phone's warranty does NOT cover water damage. (I think the new S5 is truly waterproof at least according to this reviewer.) But I am fearless when it comes to technology. I like to tinker and try things out. It's how I learn. And if something goes wrong, I just try to see if I can fix it. If that doesn't work, I can take it back to the store and play dumb and see if they replace it. Not sure if that would be the moral thing to do, but the phone has an underwater camera mode for a reason, right?

So I sealed the phone as best I could and starting taking pictures in the pool. The pictures came out AWESOME. See below.


The problems began after I took the phone out of water. It worked just fine. But then the battery ran out so I plugged it in to the charger and it started acting strangely. It would vibrate, turn on for a moment, show the battery charging icon, then turn off again and repeat this process all over again. After charging in this strange way for about an hour, I turned the phone on to discover that when the phone was on, it did not recognize the USB port and would not charge while turned on. After repeated tries, I opened the phone to discover a bit of water had seeped in. I started to get that sinking feeling that maybe I would have to take a trip to the phone store after all. Not something I was looking forward to.

So I did what I usually do when I have a question or problem. I Googled it and discovered an entire online community devoted to helping one another solve this and similar technology problems. For example, I found extensive forums on this issue with dozens and dozens of postings here, here, and here. I even found a YouTube video where someone recorded their phone with this problem and asked people to help fix it by posting comments. These posts featured suggestions that were sometimes obvious- swap out the battery, often creative- use a small flathead or tweezers to adjust the microUSB port connector, occasionally tinkering- swap out the USB port with a new one, (Its only 8 small screws!), and some veering to the inane, blow dry the port. I tried the blow drying one by the way. It did not work.

Finally, after an hour of searching, I found the following post by someone who calls himself BrianmCRI.
I have the same problem - "Vibration Loop" and phone not recognizing a wall adapter, however it charges fine when plugged into a PC or Laptop USB port.
I called Samsun tech support. A tier 2 level engineer showed me a way to fix this. Steps as follows:

1) Go to SETTINGS / MORE and select "About Phone"
2) Scroll down to find the "Build Number", and even though it appears it is an "information only" field, tap on it seven (7) times. you will see the phone mode indicate "Development Mode".
3) Press the back arrow to return to Setting Main Menu
4) Select "Developer Options" from the menu.
5) Find "USB Debugger" and select it (click the check box)
6) Now try your phone on the wall charger., it should work

You can then return to "Developer Options" and turn "Development Mode" OFF, it will continue to work OK, but it the problem returns keep these instructions to correct it.

Good luck, hope this helps all of you experiencing this problem. Maybe the manufacturer will have a patch for it sometime.
I tried this secret development mode and USB debugging and amazingly, it worked!!! Thank you BrianmCRI! My phone quickly started recognizing the charger again even when turned on and I have not had a problem with it for two days since.

Lessons learned. Do not take underwater pictures with a Galaxy S4 Active, even though they will come out awesome. But if you do, make sure first to blow dry the port and then to go into development mode on your phone and do some USB debugging, whatever that means.

So why am I sharing this with you on this blog which is devoted to the intersection of technology and Jewish education?

Because through this exercise I experienced first hand the value of online communities of learners. None of the people in these forums were hired by Samsung or ATT or T-Mobile. They were just regular users trying to help each other out. This was classic inquiry based learning. Someone posted a real world problem and then different people proposed solutions, some of a theoretical nature others rooted in experimentation; they had worked for them and they were now proposing these solutions to others. Still other solutions were research based. They looked up information about Samsung mobile devices or spoke to engineers from Samsung. Each of these people freely shared their knowledge with no expectation of reward besides online approbation.

This is just one example of an entire movement of online self help forums on every subject imaginable. My daughter is learning guitar by watching YouTube videos created by amateur guitar aficionados. Another daughter uses Youtube to learn more about fashion and style. Another watches cooking videos. My son watches videos containing hints and "easter eggs" for his favorite video games. I know that whenever I want to do an art project with my 4 and 6 year olds, I just look for stuff around the house like newspapers or brown paper bags and then search YouTube for projects related to these items.

I believe there are some common denominators to these videos and forums. These people are writing or video recording about things they are passionate about and wish to share with others. They have a sense of community and camaraderie, of common purpose, interacting with one another, building off each others' ideas, and freely giving credit to others. They truly represent an online community of learners.

So my question is, how can we foster this type of online learning environment for Jewish education? I believe that if we just create forums of our own and require students to participate, this might be valuable but it is not quite what I am describing. In this case, our students are participating because they have to, not because they want to.

One idea which I love is when students create their own Facebook groups connected to their different classes. These are usually student run and involve a free sharing of ideas especially when all students share a common problem, like an upcoming exam or project. This is not quite the voluntary online learning community that I described above but it is a step in the right direction.

I have advised teachers who were asked to join that they NOT participate in these online Facebook groups. Not because of issues with social media interaction between students and teachers. That is for a different discussion. But because when the teacher starts responding it creates an asymmetrical interaction. The teacher will be perceived as the "expert" and students will often stop freely sharing their own ideas and instead yield to the teacher's greater authority. Teachers can certainly respond to student emails or text messages which can then be quoted by students in the online discussion. But their active participation can be detrimental to the health of this online learning community.

So the next time you have a problem or want to learn something new, Google the answer, or YouTube it, or post it on Twitter. Then start to think about how you can apply this to your classroom. How can you foster online learning communities amongst your students where they freely and passionately discuss ideas related to your discipline. If you stumble upon some creative examples of this, please share them in the comments to this post so that we can create an online learning community of our own.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Designing the Traditional Pen and Paper Final, with a Collaborative Twist

It's finals season and I am torn.

On the one hand, I really believe in Finals. While I am all for alternative assessments, project based learning, performance based assessments etc, I think there still is a place for the traditional summative assessment. In my assessment design, I am heavily influenced by the book Classroom Assessment: Principles and Practice for Effective Instruction (which I was introduced to in Azrieli Graduate School by Dr. Scott Goldberg) which describes many areas of assessment including knowledge, simple understanding, deep understanding, and skills. I find that my traditional exams are an excellent method to test for the first three of these, knowledge, simple understanding, and deep understanding, while skills can sometimes be tested in a pen and paper exam but often is better evaluated through performance based assessments. I also find pen and paper exams to be a valid and reliable measure of student achievement as long as they follow a consistent and predictable design.

So why am I torn? Because while I value tests, I also value student input and would love to find a way to give students greater input in creating their own exams. In a recent exam, I experimented with harnessing two simple educational technology tools, the Learning Management System and Google Docs to do exactly that by giving a pre-assessment assignment in which the class collaboratively created their review sheet for the test.

Here is the assignment that I posted online on our homework pages.

In creating their review assignments, the students did an excellent job discovering the important ideas and details from the units studied. Many of their review items ultimately made it onto the test. There are a number of reasons that I believe this was a beneficial assignment.

  1. Students were given a choice. They could choose to write essay questions, create flash cards and explanations of key phrases, or create a video review. This allowed students to choose a review method that best fit their learning style.
  2. All students saw ALL the review items since they were all posted for the entire class on our Edmodo LMS. Students could post links, type their answers on Edmodo, or even write by hand and post a picture of their work. Through our LMS, students collaboratively created their own personalized review sheet.
  3. Students were required to do this assignment which counted for 10 points on the exam. This guaranteed that every student put in their best effort.
  4. Finally, while I created a much more limited review sheet than usual only listing the units studied and some people and places, through the class review assignment, this review sheet was converted into a shared Google doc where various review items from the Edmodo LMS were posted onto this one document. The review sheet truly became a class created item. Students also posted their own explanations of each of the people and places that I had included on the sheet and even took pictures of the board where students took notes during our review sessions.
You can view the Google Doc review sheet below. Note, as I stated above, that besides the major units listed in Hebrew and the people and places in Hebrew EVERY other item on the review sheet was student created. This then became the basis for the entire test that was given. I feel that this was an ideal way for me to combine the traditional aspects of pen and paper assessments with a more collaborative and student-centered test design process. 

One other big advantage of this process was that the night before the exam, everyone was literally on the same page. Students were all reviewing from the same Google doc and many of them messaged me questions when they saw that I was on the doc as well. 

One recommendation though when using this method. DO NOT copy items directly from this Google doc. Students will be able to follow your highlighted cursor and see which items you are copying for the test, even if you are creating the test on a separate private document. I learned that the hard way ;)



 

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

How does one design Project Based Learning encouraging student initiative and deep learning while covering the curriculum?

I posed the question in the title to this post at JedcampNJNY this past Sunday. Facilitating a session like this was not easy for me. I am used to making presentations where I have most of the answers. I love to present new ideas for effectively integrating technologies with  e the Smart Board, iPads, or Google apps into the curriculum to help increase student learning. While I welcome discussion and sharing by others in these sessions, these are also areas where I feel like I have a bit of expertise. I have at least some of the answers and believe that I have something worthwhile to share with others.

This session at Jedcamp was of a completely different kind. I presented a PROBLEM that I am having in my own class. One for which I do not believe that I have an easy solution. I have given many projects and at times have facilitated full fledged Project Based Learning where most, if not all, of the learning process is performed by the students working in small groups with me there not to frontally teach but to guide the students in their learning activities. I know that well designed project based learning activities when interspersed into a curriculum with many other teaching modalities (I am a big believer in variety in education, not all frontal, not all projects) can greatly increase student engagement and retention.

Many kids LOVE to do projects. (Not ALL, as my colleague at The Frisch School, Dan Rosen, so correctly points out in his recent post on Passover Based Learned.) Kids also remember projects for a VERY long time as I often experience when meeting former students. How many of our students will remember something you taught them 10 years from now? As Nechama Leibowitz Z"L often said, kids remember nothing. BUT they remember the experience. They will remember areas in which they invested significant time and energy to accomplish something special and unique. This is why project based learning can be so powerful.

However, I find two major impediments to projects, the first is one of time, the second of substance.

Project Based Learning takes a lot of time. For example, teaching a Project Based Learning unit about the trial of Jeremiah in chapters 7 and 26, which I described in my posting on the Oscars, took over a month. In this time, students researched the chapters, wrote screenplays, and then filmed two videos based on the winning screenplays that the students in class had chosen to be the best. If I would have taught this using a more traditional approach, it likely would have taken half the time. Now that we are in crunch time as the year quickly races to a close, I realize that I will be teaching one less unit. However, the fact that students will remember this project much longer than a regular learning unit might offset the extra time it involves.

I also have a second worry. How will the learning in a Project Based Learning assignment go beyond the superficial to something more substantive? My students can recollect the details of the trial of Jeremiah but do they understand the "big ideas" that Jeremiah was trying to convey? It could be that these same students would not get these "big ideas" in a regular classroom setting as well but when conducting a classroom discussion, I feel that I have many "tricks" I can use. I can call on students, question them using socratic dialogue, introduce new ideas for them to explore... When students are asked to learn more on their own through interaction with print or online sources and flipped videos that I have collected for them, I cannot question them as thoroughly. I go from group to group but I am limited in how much time I can spend when dividing myself amongst a dozen different groups rather than teaching one whole class.

I further wonder once the project went from the research and writing stage to the filming how much deep knowledge was gained. The filming reinforced the story line but unless the screenplays contained big ideas and ruminated on them, the filming was not necessarily an adequate means for enriching or stretching the learning.

I posed these questions at the Jedcamp session and got many interesting suggestions. Some emphasized sharing with the students rubrics prior to the project in which one of the items that will be assessed is deep understanding. I have experience with grading rubrics and often include something along those lines in them but mentioning deep learning in a rubric cannot magically make the deep learning appear.

Other teachers emphasized the importance of regrouping throughout the project. This I think is a more substantive suggestion that I could try in the future. I did some regrouping in the middle stage of the project, asking them to reflect on their research and writing before we began filming but perhaps I should do more of that. Just because students are involved in a PBL assignment does not mean that I cannot include within it from time to time whole class discussion about a big idea in the unit.

I then asked the Jedcamp group about the importance of a public audience in a project. This is something I believe is easier for a more halachic type of assignment one would do in Gemara than for a Navi assignment. How does one get a public audience for a Navi project focused on the prophet Jeremiah? I would want the audience to be genuine not an artificial creation. Why is such a thing considered to be so important in a PBL assignment?

When I posed these questions, Yehuda Chanales, suggested that it was not the public audience per se that was important but the fact that this gave the project authenticity. It was then not just a classroom exercise to make a video for example but an authentic learning experience for which students would be embarrassed if their learning was not perceived to be on a sufficient level.

Aaron Ross then suggested that perhaps you don't need a large public audience but even one outside expert or a small panel of experts would be sufficient. In the case of a project on Jeremiah, if I bring one expert known from the academy or the Yeshiva for her biblical studies into the classroom for students to present their work to, this would make the project more authentic.

I remember fondly experiencing this in my Gemara class as a student in MTA where Rabbi Paretzky Z"L served as the bochen or independent tester. He would take groups of us out of class to test us on the Gemara we were learning. This was not a scary experience, actually it was quite exciting for us as he was very gentle often peppering his questions with a twinkle of the eye accompanied by a joke or anecdote. His regular presence in our shiur lent our learning authenticity. Our Gemara skills and knowledge were important enough as young 16 year olds that a world renowned Torah scholar thought it worth his time to question us on what we were learning. This in turn made us want to excel in our limud Torah so we could impress him when tested. When teaching Gemara, at times I have brought in the principal to serve as the bochen who gives the class a farher, an oral examination, to try to mimic this experience. Maybe I should try something like this for Navi class as well....

Someone else, I do not remember who, gave a suggestion for a Navi PBL assignment for Jeremiah that would have an authentic public audience. He suggested that I solicit camps and have my class create Tisha Ba'av programming for them. Tisha Ba'av is one of those hard days in camp where you cannot really have sports, cannot really do regular programming, and there are not even too many films you can screen for elementary school age kids. (I mean how many times can we show the movie Operation Thunderbolt? I even wonder if it is appropriate for Tisha Ba'av considering it has a bittersweet but ultimately triumphant ending.) Camps might really appreciate programming created by high school students for their campers and Jeremiah as the main text for Tisha Ba'av might be the ideal text to create such programming. Maybe I will even suggest this to my students as a culminating project for the year. Hopefully, the urgency involved in creating something for younger campers will help them spend more time on creating something authentic that will involve deep learning. Of course if I gave this project, that would be one less unit I would be able teach these last few weeks of school... Is it worth it? I continue to wonder...

Please continue the conversation by commenting to this posting and if you know any camps interesting in collaborating on this project, contact me by email or Twitter.

Monday, April 14, 2014

A Flipped Video Presentation on: Why were Pharaoh and the Egyptians punished for what they did to the Israelites?

The following is cross-posted from my Tanach Rav blog. 

I recorded this Flipped Video using Camtasia for Mac by Techsmith (which I won at a raffle at a JedcampNJNY). The easiest way to create Flipped Videos is to use platforms that one is already familiar with so I used Smart Notebook to produce the slides and then recorded myself with my talking head using Camtasia. I tried to find a relatively quiet place for the recording. (Something very hard to do at home on Erev Erev Pesach. You might notice one of my younger daughters peaking into one scene.) Enjoy the Haggadah Dvar Torah and have a happy and healthy Passover holiday, Chag Kasher Vesameach.




One of the major themes of the Haggadah is that of divine justice; the Egyptians oppressed us in numerous ways and they received payback through the ten plagues and the miracles by the Yam Suf for their wicked deeds. This theme is not just limited to the Egyptian oppression but to every nation throughout history who has attempted to destroy the Jewish people; reaching its climax when after the meal we open the door for Eliyahu the prophet to herald the final redemption and beseech Hashem to pour out his wrath against the nations that know him not, שפוך חמתך.

There is one obvious question when studying this theme especially in reference to the Egyptians and other nations in Tanach whose oppression of the Israelites was divinely foretold and in some cases even applauded by the prophets. Why should the Egyptians (or Babylonians or Assyrians) be punished for what they did against the Jewish people if they were merely carrying out God's will? If Hashem told Avram at the Covenant Between the Parts that his descendants will be oppressed and enslaved in a strange land than shouldn't the Egyptian oppressors be rewarded for carrying this out? This question becomes even more pronounced in later prophecies. Jeremiah singles out Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonian empire by name as the people who will lay waste to Judea and Jerusalem, destroy the temple, and exile the Jewish people. Why then is Nebuchadnezzar and his people worthy of punishment for fulfilling this prophecy?

This question is not my own. It was famously asked by both the Rambam and Ramban. In the shiur below, I present this question and go through some of the answers given by these classical commentaries and their significance for us. I am not sure if every one of their answers is satisfactory to me but I believe this is a very cogent question, unfortunately as relevant today as in more ancient times. Please watch the shiur and go through the sources below and feel free to continue this discussion at your seder and summarize any interesting insights you gain in the comments to this posting.

I am indebted to Mrs. Racheli Weiss who shared with me the Ramban that became the basis for this shiur and to my students in 10T1 Nach in The Frisch School who persisted in their questions as we studied Jeremiah Chapter 25 which introduced Nebuchadnezzar as the tool of divine wrath. It was their vigorous questioning which compelled me to research this issue further.

 היינו דאמר ר' חנינא הרבה למדתי מרבותי ומחבירי יותר מרבותי ומתלמידי יותר מכולן 
תלמוד בבלי תענית דף ז עמוד א-

That is what Rabbi Hanina says: I have learned much from my teachers, and even more from my friends, but I have learned the most from my students.