Tech Rav
Discussions of Jewish EdTech

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.



Sunday, March 23, 2014

How do we define being present in a digital age?

Recently, I came across this incredible article, Congregation B’nai Yeshurun Hosts First-Ever ‘Internet Minyan’, describing a Modern Orthodox synagogue in Teaneck, NJ establishing a live-stream to broadcast thrice daily prayer services so those who are homebound due to illness or injury can participate. While technically these people cannot halachically be "counted" for the minyan, according to Rabbi Herschel Schachter, a leading posek, they can answer to various key parts of the service like kedusha, kaddish, or amen via the Internet stream and can listen to the Torah reading.

While this sounds futuristic and far fetched it really should not come as a surprise. Almost a century ago, Rabbi Yisrael Avrohom Abba Krieger, my wife's great-grandfather and the rabbi in Boston prior to Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik issued some very similar halachic decisions in reference to the new technologies of his time, the telephone and phonograph. Rabbi Krieger stated that while one could never fulfill one's obligation of reading the Megillah on Purim or making Havdalah by listening to a recording, one could fulfill one's obligation by listening over the telephone and answering amen.

You can read these teshuvot below from volume one of his work תענוגי ישראל published by his son-in-law, my wife's Zaidy, Rabbi Yosef Goldberg. His teshuva about reading the Megillah over the phone appears in volume two of תענוגי ישראל. While these seforim are not available online, one can find many other of Rabbi Krieger's seforim by searching for his Hebrew name קריגער on hebrewbooks.org.


In his teshuva, Rabbi Krieger distinguishs between the virtual sound broadcast over the telephone or in a different teshuva over the radio which he considers to be akin halachically to an "echo" which is not considered to be the real sound of the person's voice and the intent of the person reading the Megillah or making Havdalah to cause those listening to fulfill their halachic obligation using the vehicle of Shomea Keoneh, listening intently is like reciting oneself. The principle of Shomea Keoneh states that the one who performs a mitzvah can transfer not only the verbal aspects of the mitzvah but his actions in their entirety from the performer to the one he is assisting in the mitzvah. (For a more extensive explanation of this mechanism see Women, Keri'at Hatorah, and Aliyyot by Aryeh Frimer and Dov Frimer in the Winter 2013 volume of Tradition.)

What is amazing is that according to Rabbi Krieger this intimate connection between the performer and the one being assisted in the mitzvah can be accomplished even if the two parties are at very different physical locations via the telephone or even a radio broadcast. Obviously, this would only be true of a live broadcast where one is actually reading the Megillah or reciting Havdalah but a recording of the mitzvah act via the phonograph or more modern recording devices would have no halachic significance. To put this in a modern context, Rabbi Krieger is stating that a virtual connection between two parties using technology creates an actual halachic connection. One priviso is that this only works for mitzvot which are fundamentally performance based like reading the text of the Megillah or reciting Havdalah. Mitzvot that are listening mitzvot like listening to Tekiat Shofar cannot be accomplished through a technological medium since such a sound would be likely considered to be merely an echo and not the real sound of the Shofar.

The ruling in this Teaneck synagogue updates this idea for the 21st century. Live streaming events which includes both video and audio compenents can create an even more intimate connection between the viewer and the performer than audio only technologies like the telephone. One can actually feel like one is there and in certain halachic cases this virtual presence is significant. Obviously the details of which acts would be sufficient through this virtual connection and which require one to be physically present in the synagogue would require a careful analysis of the halachic decision which cannot be done by reading a newspaper article but the principle is clear. Being virtually present at an event can create in many ways the same connection as going to the event in person.

This concept in the halachic realm has tremendous ramifications in everyday teaching as well. Where does one need to be in physical space in order to be present? This is a question that I have thinking a lot about lately. I am not just talking about the occasional snow day which I blogged about last month.

Recently in my school there have been two instances where we have been establishing genuine student teacher relationships virtually. 

We had one student who was out for an extended time due to surgery and we scheduled her to Skype into most of her classes. All we needed technically was to give another student who shared all of her classes an iPad dedicated to Skyping the student in. This student was able to genuinely be a part of class and even participate in the classroom discussions all from the comfort of her home. This technology is already pervasive and becoming progessively more advanced. In The White House Student Film Festival, there was one selection by the David Posnack Jewish Day School about a student with a long term illness who "attends" all of his classes using a video conferencing unit connected to a robot which "walks" from class to class and even attends lunch. You can watch this amazing video below.




In another situation, we had a teacher who won a research fellowship to spend the rest of the school year in Israel. Rather than only giving the students a sub, this teacher has continued to teach her classes using Skype. The setup once again could not have been simpler. Since the classroom computer already includes a webcam, it has only involved installing Skype and turning the computer to face either the class or the front of the room depending on the classroom activity. The students still have a substitute teacher who is very capable technologically who co-teaches the class with the virtual instructor. In many ways, the kids have the best possible educational situation since they continue to connect with their master teacher who they know and love while getting increased support in the classroom from the teacher in the room whose job is not to give over the material but to make sure that the students understand it.

These examples of virtual teaching and learning beg the question, what are the limits of this virtual presence and how does one define being present in a digital age?

I believe that the halachic decision regarding the virtual minyan can provide a template for an answer. One who is watching the prayer service virtually can be involved in many halachically significant ways. He might even fulfill his obligation for hearing the reading of the Torah or the Megillah and reciting many blessings. But he is not counted for the minyan by virtue of his virtual presence. He has to be in the synagogue to be counted for the prayer quorum.

Likewise, these virtual learning spaces can create lasting and meaningful connections between teachers and students. But this does not lessen the need for a brick and mortar school where most of the learning takes place. The virtual experience is meaningful and wonderful when it facilitates learning interactions that would not be possible due to geographic distance or other extenuating circumstances. But it is still virtual. It cannot replace the face to face interaction between students and between the student and her teacher. A physical presence is still required to foster many lasting learning experiences.

I can give an example to illustrate this from this past week. On Thursday, the school Internet almost came to a screeching halt. Why? Everyone was streaming March Madness. As technology changes, one can now watch the NCAA Basketball tournament from anywhere on any device. But there is something special about watching it together with your friends (while sneaking out of class) in school. It is the shared experience of watching an event in physical proximity to others. Students will look fondly back on this first day of this yearly ritual as Yaron Weitzman writes about touchingly in this posting. This I think is the primary mission of education in general and brick and mortar Jewish day schools in particular, to foster shared learning experiences; to bring together teachers and students in an atmosphere of shared comraderie and intellectual exploration. This can be augmented by virtual experiences but the virtual presence can never replace being physically present in the classroom.

We have experienced this as teachers as well. (Enter my shameless plug for Jedcamp.) Many of us have created rich online communities through our PLNs on Twitter or Facebook, through Jedchat, Jedlab, and the granddaddy of online Jewish educator communities, Lookjed and the list goes on and on. The virtual interactions are very valuable to me as I know they are for many of my friends and colleagues. But there is something uniquely human and special about physical meetups. One low cost model that has become especially rewarding for me is Jedcamp. (It's free!) So please join us for our next JedcampNJNY which will take place in Yeshivat Noam on May 4th. You can register here. I know there will also be ways to virtually connect with this event. Your virtual presence would be rewarding and most appreciated but at the same time there is nothing like sharing with your fellow teachers in this physical space. I hope to see you all at Jedcamp. May The 4th Be With You ;)

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Some responses to the Flipped Beit Midrash


Recently on the Lookjed Listserv for Judaic Educators there has been a fascinating discussion about the educational value of Flipped Classroom videos in Talmud and Judaic Studies. My response, which I posted on Lookjed and should be in the next Lookjed email, appears below. I am sharing it on this blog since serves as a follow-up to the discussion about the Flipped Beit Midrash which I posted about on this blog here and here and then cross-posted in a more expanded more on Rabbi Gil Student's Torah Musings. Please feel free to continue this valuable discussion on Lookjed or in the comments to this posting.

With regards to the discussion on Instructional videos for Talmud, firstly I must thank Kenny Schiowitz and Benjy Kramer for sharing their extensive list of Flipped Videos that they created. This inspired us to generate a similar document at The Frisch School and we were very excited with how many teachers have started creating these videos.

To elaborate on some of the comments of others, we have found the biggest advantage of the Flipped Classroom is how versatile a tool it is. While some teachers create the Flipped Videos to preview the material prior to the formal instruction, others create it as a review, still others create it to teach material not covered in the traditional curriculum like Bekiut. Some teachers use it for snow days, others give it as homework on regular days, and still others use it in class to create a Flipped Beit Midrash, something that I have blogged about on Gil Student's Torah Musings here: [www.torahmusings.com]. Others use Flipped Classroom videos to support Project Based Learning by creating materials for students to watch on their own as they learn at their own pace in researching and producing some type of product. For example, this playlist contains all the Flipped Videos for my Nach Jeremiah on Trial project: [www.youtube.com] You can see that flipping the lesson is a very versatile teaching tool that adapts well to the needs of the teacher and student.

When I blogged about The Flipped Beit Midrash on Torah Musings, I got some very similar responses to those of Dr. Tzvika Kanarek and believe me, I could not agree more that learning by doing is the best way for students to learn. But this really depends on the age and intellectual level of the student. Ideally we would want all of our students to be engrossed in the world of the Beit Midrash where they are given maarei mekomot, a list of texts to learn on their own. If they are not yet on this level yet, they can be given cognitive maps as Dr. Kanarek describes and has been championed by programs like Gemara Berura, which has a new web app that works on all types of devices. Other students are more visual and auditory learners. They would learn best with a Flipped Beit Midrash approach where they watch videos prior to the instruction and then have to illustrate their knowledge by reading the Gemara back to the teacher either in person or by creating their own videos. For others, even videos might not be sufficient and they might need phrase by phrase translations like the wonderful work of The Mercava which has been the subject of prior Lookjed discussions and which Shalom Berger wrote convincingly about here: [www.torahmusings.com].

Each of these methods are not crutches but basic building blocks as we scaffold the student to the greater goal of their achieving more independence in their learning.

One responder on Torah Musings, Moshe Isaacson, summed this up well with the following blog post: [mosheisaacson.tumblr.com] Ultimately, as is often the case in these discussions, Eilu Ve'Eilu Divrei Elokim Chaim. Both sides are right. I say this not as a cop out but as a reflection of reality based on my experience and the experience of others. We teach many kinds of learners and therefore the effective teacher needs to have many tools at his or her disposal to effectively differentiate the instruction and help every student use their unique abilities to realize their full potential in Limud Torah.

Monday, March 03, 2014

Three Lessons I Learned from the Oscars

Last night, I watched the Oscars for the first time in a long time. I had seen probably less than 10% of the movies up for an award but my two teenage daughters really wanted to see Idina Menzel perform Let It Go from Frozen live so we all stayed up late (Idina did not come on till after 11PM Eastern Time) and enjoyed a great family bonding experience. Usually, my experience watching a television program would not be the subject of a blog posting but in the spirit of the Mishna in Avot, איזהו חכם הלומד מכל אדם, Who is wise? One who learns from all people, I feel there were many valuable lessons that could be culled from this particular Oscar night.

Here are three of my favorites.

1. Use Social Media to Activate a Passive Audience
Ellen Degeneres did a tremendous job as the host of the Oscars transforming what is sometimes a pretty drab event through her funny and endearing antics. My favorite was when she decided, seemingly on a whim, to take a selfie with some of her favorite movie stars. She stated that she was posting this picture on Twitter and challenged the audience to make this the most retweeted picture ever. This was of course accomplished in minutes as Ellen's tweet surpassed a picture of President Obama celebrating his reelection which had some 781,000 retweets. Ellen's picture now has over 3 million retweets and counting. You can see her tweet below.(My daughter and I were amongst the first 100,000 people to retweet this post.)

Ellen with her tweet was able to transform an innately passive experience, watching a television show, to an event where the audience could become a part of the show. Viewers were required to go onto Twitter just to see this selfie from the camera's perspective. Then they were asked to take action and help make history by retweeting this pic to their Twitter followers. The audience was activated by this combination of television and social media, passivity and engagement.

I wonder how this same power of social media can transform our own classrooms. I have one idea which I have been blogging about for years (for example see posts here, here, and here).Teachers often can only activate a portion of their students through traditional classroom discussion. Some students are just quiet by nature or suffer from extreme anxiety when called on in class. These students can be activated and technology can often be a wonderful facilitator for this. Using a real time response system like Infuse Learning, Socrative, or Nearpod is one method to get every student to respond. You can also conduct an asynchronous discussion forum on a blog or wiki. Or you can even use Twitter or a Facebook group. There are so many possibilities based on the age of your students and the willingness of you and your school to engage them "on their turf" using Web 2.0 tools and social media. If Ellen could activate 3 million TV viewers using social media, can't we activate our 20-30 students using similar tools?

2. Sometimes You Have to Just Let It Go

This lesson is less about the Oscars per se than about one of the Oscar award winners, the movie Frozen which is our family favorite. As a teacher, I often struggle with how much control I need to take in the classroom and how much I can relinquish my control and give it over to my students. On the one hand, I am a big believer that as the teacher, I need to take a pivotal role in crafting the year long curriculum, working in tandem with my administration and others in my department, setting the learning objectives for my class, and fashioning the learning activities that we will use a daily basis to reach these objectives. On the other hand, I want to give my students as much control of their learning as possible. I seek to balance these two competing values by creating a varied curriculum with some units taught more directly, never frontal but filled with class discussion and traditional textual analysis, and others learned in a more project based learning mode.

However, even in my PBL units, my teaching instincts lead me to try to be in control at all times. I give students choice of group partners or topics but want to to still have some level of control over the student learning. This is not always the ideal approach and in my current project my biggest challenge is to learn to let it go and allow the students to take the leadership role in almost every aspect of the process and product.

Let me explain...

My Nach class is in the midst of a project where they have researched chapters 7 and 26 of Yirmiyahu with the help of various resources that I gave them and Flipped Classroom videos that I created for them. They then each wrote screenplays on this story working in groups of 2. I allowed students to write screenplays either as a traditional retelling of the story or as reimagining of the events set in a different time period like the modern day.

At this point, traditionally I would grade the various screenplays and decide which one was best to perform as a class. Instead, I let the class have greater choice and vote on the 2 best screenplays to film. The class then divided themselves into 2 teams to produce the Jeremiah on Trial movies, one a traditional retelling of the story, the other set in the modern day. You can view an excerpt from one of the screenplays which was posted on our class Edmodo group below. Ultimately, the videos will be performed for the entire grade in a Jeremiah "Film Festival" which will be followed by a facilitated discussion on the overarching issues and essential questions in these two chapters.


Many times during this process, I have had to let it go. I have two groups filming in various locations during the classroom period while I go back and forth to watch what they are doing. This is not what I am used as the teacher who runs all of the learning activities. And yet, all of the students are engaged and utilizing their creative talents. It is almost like a mini-Shiriyah on a class-wide scale.

This does not mean that I have completely let my students have free reign. When one screenplay, a tremendously creative one set in the modern day at the inauguration of a modern US president, won the vote, I was nervous that the group although having a great concept did not include enough material from the actual book of Yirmiyahu. So I provided guidance to my students by meeting with them privately and learning the chapters together. The students realized that in order for this video to be screened for the entire grade they needed to make it more substantial and were very amenable to editing and adding to what they had originally created.

I am also a bit nervous that students might have missed one of the big ideas of the trial. So later in the week, I plan to conduct one traditional class where we go over the commentary of the Malbim on the story. This is the challenge of educating effectively in a more student driven assignment, knowing when to take control and more importantly knowing when to let it go. This leads to the third and final lesson that I learned from watching the Oscars.

3. Celebrate the Uniqueness of Every Student

While my previous lesson focused on letting go on the macro level to help grow the class as a whole, this lesson, which I always believed was the true message of Frozen, is a similar one but on the micro level. As teachers, we need to learn to celebrate the unique abilities of each of our students. This point was driven home for me by the talented and adorable husband/wife team of Oscar winners Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez in the shout-out they gave to their two young daughters while accepting the award for their song Let It Go.

Frozen is not a movie about a young lady who turns things into ice. It is the story of a girl who has been taught to hide her talents since they make her "different" and "strange" and do everything possible to conform even at the cost of taking away what makes her special. This character has to go through a quest in the film to learn how to let it go while utilizing her talents constructively for the betterment of society.

How many of us as teachers, especially in the Orthodox Jewish community, have tried to enforce conformity on our students who learn differently? Rabbi Dovid Abenson in a poignant blog post in Baltimore Jewish Life describes this as the "Box Child". We strive too often to teach classes of children who all follow directions and conform to the traditional classroom setting. Rabbi Abenson wonders if this is stifling our out-of-the-box thinkers and thus preventing the raising up of a new generation of gedolim, Torah giants venerated for their original ideas.

When I first started teaching, this is what I strived for. Perfectly set rows of quiet students. But then I realized that real learning is messy and quiet students are not necessarily engaged students. They might be just zoned out, disinterested, and apathetic. Now I strive for talented, unique students who learn that every ability that G-d has blessed them with can be utilized in the service of Torah, even if sometimes they are a bit loud in the classroom.

These are the lessons that I learned from the Oscars. To actively engage audiences even during more traditional lessons through the great tool of social media. To let it go whenever possible by allowing my students to take a more active role in their educational process. And finally, to celebrate the unique talents of each and every one of my students, not just the traditional achievers but those who might not excel in academic subjects but possess a tremendous creativity in other areas that can be harnessed to serve their creator and help their fellow human being.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

The End of the Snow Day is Nigh

It seems strange to be writing a post about the end of the snow day while digging out from 2 more inches of snow after missing school this past Thursday and Friday to an epic snow storm on the eastern seaboard of the United States, with 2 snow days the week before, and 2-4 more inches of snow expected in my neck of the woods for this Monday night into Tuesday. Ughhhhh! No, climate change will not mean the end of snow in my part of the world. If anything, climatologists are predicting storms to become more extreme in the future. The snow day is alive and well.

However, through the widespread adoption of interactive technology, the snow day no longer has to be a missed school day. For example, the Pascack Valley School District was in the news this week after it petitioned the State of NJ to treat its snow days as virtual school days. You can read more about it here and here.

Many Yeshiva Day Schools have begun offering a lineup of Shiurim to transform the snow day into a Torah day. Some of these can be conducted as live classrooms using apps like Google Hangouts which is great because of its Google integration but only allows up to 10 users at a time. Here is a link to directions to get started with Hangouts on any computer or using the iPad app. There are many other video conferencing apps. One that I have started using with a great deal of succces is zoom.us, an app which allows up to 25 consecutive users in its free version.

Live shiurim lend a level of excitement and interaction and are indispensible when conducting classes requiring real-time student feedback like virtual reviews for upcoming exams. However, they do require students to all get on at the same time which during a snow day when kids are out shoveling, some to raise money for Tzedaka (see this posting from Frisch Real School), is not always possible. For this reason, prerecorded Flipped Classroom Dvray Torah and Shiurim can be a better option. You can watch snow day videos recorded using Showme, Educreations, and Explain Everything by clicking here, here, and here.

The learning should not stop with the teacher. You can elicit student feedback by having them share their learning with you from the warmth of their home. One math teacher did such an excercise this past week when she was away chaperoning students on YUMUN. You can read about it on the Frisch Math blog here. This can be the perfect snow day assignment. Have your students create their own Showmes or Educreations as they sip their warm hot chocolate and watch the snow fall.

Finally, one can conduct virtual classrooms using learning managment systems like Edmodo or Schoology. Edmodo allows students to share and interact in small groups while Schoology even allows you to take attendance for this virtual class. Google Drive can also be an excellent method to get every student "on the same page" to colloborate in real-time.

One caveat is in order. When I posted about some snow day learning opportunities on Facebook, it led to an interesting discussion which you can view below.

Is something lost by transforming snow days into learning days?

I find 3 compelling reasons to get rid of the snow day.

1) Snow Torah shiurim send the message that there is no break from learning Torah. I remember when I was in the elementary grades and they used to have contests over Bein Hazmanim for Torah learning. Obviously, this cannot be implemented on the high school level and I am not even sure if it should. Our kids need a break sometimes from formal learning and to be given outlets to learn valuable lessons through nature or the interaction with peers. At the same time, the message that some time should always be scheduled every day for learning, even listening to a five minute Dvar Torah, is a powerful one.

2) Virtual school days are good preparation for higher education and the workforce. Most of my friends who are not in chinuch also did not go to work this past Thursday and Friday. They worked from home. Obviously, this was a different type of work, more self-paced with breaks for shoveling, taking care of kids etc. But in many industries working from home is commonplace. This can have negative effects. It blurs the line between home and work and often requires people to do work related tasks even while on vacation. At the same time, it allows people to no longer be tied to their office. Creating time for virtual school days can help train our students to become more self-directed learners who can be productive even when there is no teacher looking over their shoulders.

3) Sheer desperation. We really cannot afford to miss all of these learning days so anything that can help to solve this problem, which might only grow larger as we experience more drastic climate change, can be a positive development for our schools.

What do you think? Do you bemoan the end of carefree snow days or welcome the new horizons that technology offers to create virtual learning opportunities? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments to this posting.

 

Sunday, January 12, 2014

My Life as a Frisch Parent (and Faculty Member) during Shiriyah

This past week has been that most magical time at The Frisch School, Shiriyah. Shiriyah is more than just a singing contest or a color war. It is a week-long festival for our students to showcase all of their creative talents. For more on how Shiriyah fosters passion-based, whole-student learning, read this wonderful post from Tikvah Wiener's RealSchool Blog. You can also read my posts about Shiriyah from previous years here, here, and here. This post will focus on a different aspect of Shiriyah, what it is like to be a father of two current Frisch students, a son who is a junior, and a daughter who is a sophomore, during Shiriyah.

When I asked my wife about her experience as a Frisch parent during Shiriyah, her first response was that Shiriyah meant that she did not see our children much the entire week, until of course she came to the Shiriyah finale and was able to shep nachas about their accomplishments. Our kids, together with most of their classmates, voluntarily spent much of Sunday at school and then stayed at school on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday nights until 8PM, 10PM, and 12AM respectively. All this leading up to the finale on Thursday night. Obviously, my wife and younger children saw little of our older children this past week.

I am lucky to be in a different position. As both a Frisch parent and faculty member, I could not only be amazed at my children's unwavering devotion and wonderful accomplishments during Shiriyah but I could watch their progress throughout this magical week.

What is it that makes Shiriyah so special for so many students including my own children? As I taught my sophomores this week whose team was Kedushat Hamikdash, the Holiness of the Temple, the work of Shiriyah is very similar to the work of the Mishkan. The Torah devotes four plus parshiot to the work of the Mishkan both to its conception and construction. This is more space than almost any other mitzvah in the Torah. The reason I believe is because the Mishkan is the one holy endeavor that involves all of the creative activities known to humanity. It includes artists and artisans, goldsmiths and seamstresses, musicians and construction workers, and the list goes on and on. Similarly, Shiriyah with its songs and hallways, Cake Boss, Project Runway and video teams, banners and murals just to name a few involves students using every one of their creative talents.

Watching my own children this week, I realized that Shiriyah is even more than that. It is about our children and students discovering the creative talents within them that they did not even know they possessed.

Let me list four examples.

Leadership and Teamwork

My son is highly intelligent, an out-of-the-box thinker, and is well liked by his peers. (I know, I am a doting father.) He is also often quiet and much prefers working by himself to group work. However, during Shiriyah, he transformed himself. He spent 5 days straight holed up in one room with six of his friends and the few other juniors who walked in and out creating a stop-motion video. This involved many strengths he already possessed like creating a script and mapping it out on a storyboard. It is also involved his taking a leadership position in working together as a team. He might have come up with many of the ideas for the video but he needed his team of masterful artists and collaborative partners to bring these ideas, and those of the other members of his team, to life. When the stop motion video was about to be played on Shiriyah night, the entire junior class started chanting his name. They recognized my son's leadership role in the stop motion video team.

Persuasive Writing and Digital Citizenship

My daughter could not be more different than my son. She is a natural leader who always is at the center of her peer group. She excels at oral communication. However, communicating in writing comes hard for her due to her unique learning style. Over Shabbat after Shiriyah began, she had a very creative idea for her hallway. She wanted to communicate it to her peers as quickly as possible so they could start discussing it. So after Shabbat, since it was still Saturday night and her team would not be meeting until the next day, she chose to write up her idea on her team's Facebook group despite her difficulty in written communication. She then respectfully but forcefully argued in writing for her position quoting a myriad of Torah sources and commentaries to boot through dozens of responses from her teammates. She wrote coherently and persuasively, spelling mistakes and all, and won many of her peers over to her creative ideas which were later incorporated into her hallway. This skill set, writing persuasively to her peers using social media, is probably something even my daughter did not know she was capable of.

Digital Storytelling

My son is not much a photographer. However, over the past few months, he researched digital cameras since he felt that one issue with his stop motion video last year, was the fact that the pictures taken mostly using an iPhone were not ideal. A month ago he purchased a Nikon Coolpix L820, a camera that is a step up from a point and shoot but more affordable than a true DSLR. He purchased this camera primarily so he could use it for creating his Shiriyah stop motion video.

My son describes the process of creating these videos as something akin to making a silent film. The pictures and the music need to tell the story since there is no spoken dialogue. He also realizes that since these videos are so short because of the technical difficulty in making them, every moment has to be tightly scripted. As an illustration of how tedious stop motion videography is, during their first day, my son's team created less than 15 seconds of video working for some 12 hours straight and even once they got a bit faster filming, it remained an exacting process with the entire 2 minute film requiring some 833 pictures.

You can watch his team's completed video below. Note how the pictures, text, and music perfectly tell a story in 3 scenes. Even subtle details like the use of color or lack thereof, the rolling of the eyes, and the materials chosen for each scene all advance the plot line which matches the juniors' grade wide theme- the holiness of time. You can also watch equally amazing stop motion films by the sophomores and seniors here and here.




Resourcefulness

When I was driving my children home at 8PM this past Monday night, my earliest pickup all week, they noticed on every street corner discarded Christmas trees. What does this mean? More decorations for the Shiriyah hallways, of course! So when they got home, they each posted about the trees on their team Facebook groups. The juniors answered first. "Yes, please bring as many as you can!" So there I was, outside with my son in the plummeting temperatures, figuring out how to drag two evergreens into our SUV, which still smells from a lovely pine scent, so my son could help his team's hallway come to life with some real live trees. There is no better father-son bonding experience than dragging "holiday" trees into our car at 10 o'clock at night in the freezing cold.

My daughter too learned the value of being resourceful this week, whether it was through "borrowing" some of my wife's nursery school posters, a full length mirror we had in our garage, and a box of leftover floor tiles which we will probably never get back, all for hallway displays, or through figuring out how to color fondant brown using coffee grounds and how to mix a myriad of other color combinations for the cake boss competition. A common mantra in our time is "reuse, recycle". During Shiriyah, our children practiced this first-hand, transforming one person's throwaway or overstocked items into creative treasures.

These are just a few of the lessons that I watched my children learn this most special week. I am sure that this post could have been written by any number of the other 500+ Frisch parents with their long list of all their children learned from this most special example of project based, student directed learning.

In my children's 4 year high school career, G-d willing, they will be blessed with 4 weeks of Shiriyah. That is one month out of the 40 months they will spend in Frisch. I have witnessed first-hand how they probably will learn as much in this month as in the other 39 months combined. They will learn to utilize every one of their talents and discover hidden talents within themselves they did not even think possible. This could explain the tremendous anticipation, utter excitement, and single-minded devotion that my children and every other student at Frisch has to the magic that is Shiriyah.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Will the Mercava take us into the future of Jewish education?

As we count down the minutes to the secular new year, no one knows what this next year has in store.

However, I can predict the future of Jewish learning some 15 or 20 years from now. In every Beit Midrash, whether in Israel or throughout the diaspora, students will be spending the bulk of their learning time poring over digital texts. These texts might have the look and feel of paper books today, combining the crisp typeface and easy-on-the-eyes screen of the best e-book readers like the Kindle or Nook with a "paper" display which closely mimics the real thing and is pliable to the touch, think of the newspapers in the prescient science fiction film Minority Report. This Beit Midrash will still have regular paper seforim as well for Shabbat, for the less common Jewish works, and for those who prefer the tactile feel of the paper book as Nicholas Carr recently mused about. However, the predominant sefer in the Beit Midrash will be the e-sefer.

These Jewish books will have the Tzuras Hadaf, the classic typesetting of the Vilna Edition Talmud Bavli or Mikraot Gedolot, and each daf will truly be like a website homepage, an analogy already made a decade ago in the classic essay The Talmud and the Internet which I blogged about here, with hypertext links to "open up" every book that the Vilna Shas references, from the Tanach to the Halakhic codes. This one digital sefer will truly be a port of entry into the Sea of Halacha allowing anyone to navigate its vast waters without ever getting up from their table in the Beit Midrash. This will be true in yeshivot of every hashkafa. Even the Haredi world, which today looks askance at many new technologies like the iPhone and Internet, will make another Asifa to find a way to put their hechsher, their stamp of approval, on this important advance in Jewish learning.

The question is how will we get there.

This is what I have been struggling with this past year or so as one-to-one technology has rapidly become mainstream in Jewish day schools with the iPad, Chromebooks, and other inexpensive but powerful technologies. In my school, we have experimented with Gemara iBooks both created in house and in collaboration with the Torah iTextbook Project and many teachers have started Flipping the Beit Midrash as I blogged about recently. We have looked into the Artscroll app and other new apps like Thumbprint.

However, with the advantages of each, none of these have excited me as THE answer to bringing this vision of the future of Jewish education into the present. None until I saw the Mercava. You can watch a promotional video that the Mercava recently produced below. The video shows off the features of the Mercava but begins with a great many interviews so if want to skip right to the actual platform, I recommend using the following link: The Mercava video.



The Mercava intrigues me. It might just be the future of Jewish education. I was first visited by Rav Yehuda Moshe of the Mercava in June of this past school year. He spoke to me and my teachers at length about the Mercava's vision to become the platform for digital seforim with many features that make them ideal for the Beit Midrash and/or Yeshiva classroom.

Let me name a few.

The Mercava's Daf Yomi web-app already features a beautiful typeface of each Gemara page that is fully tablet compliant allowing you to pinch the screen to zoom in on the text. When you click on any word or phrase, it provides a phrase by phrase translation/ explanation. It also allows you to toggle off Rashi font for the commentaries which can greatly assist different kinds of learners. I find that the current app is already a much better teaching tool than Artscroll because it is much more focused and less wordy but still written in an easy to understand language and best of all- it's free. Artscroll's philosophy seems to be to learn the Gemara for you which might be good in a Daf Yomi class but does not help students learn how to learn. The Mercava seems better at giving the support emerging learners need while still giving students the opportunity to think and analyze themselves. I have some teachers in my school who are already using the Mercava with more novice students and they have are having a great deal of success. However, this is only the beginning of what makes the Mercava so intriguing.

Rav Yehuda Moshe also took us "under the hood" to show us what features are still in development that transform the Mercava into a differentiated learning tool that can be adapted by every teacher for every level student. The Mercava is creating a lesson builder that allows teachers to create lessons with guided readings of the Gemara in which the text highlights as the teacher reads. Think of the Flipped Beit Midrash but with the ability for the student to interact with the text while the teacher is reading. This lesson builder will also allow the teacher to embed notes, conduct a class in which students add their own notes and comments to the page, and navigate to other texts directly from the Gemara. This allows the teacher to create source books that navigate directly from the daf of Gemara to the various other resources that will be covered. The teacher can customize these pages adding more translations or less, they can add the color coded structure of the Gemara and highlight the key words. All launching directly from the Tzuras Hadaf and working equally well on an iPad or computer. This is extraordinary.

The only features which I am not so excited about, which ironically are a major selling point in their promotional video, are the many embedded pictures and animations. This is one area where I differ from the vision of the Mercava. While I think pictures and videos about what is going on in the Gemara can be helpful at times, it will never make the Gemara a better learning tool. I think that good learning is messy. Kids learn best when they use their imagination and the teacher invites the student to interact directly with the text not a slick Disney-like video cartoon. They need to find inconsistencies and seek out ways to resolve them; to see a halachic statement and attempt to discover the universal principle on which it is based. As has been proven by the exhaustive research of Larry Cuban, making learning more like TV and movies with videos and cartoons does not make for better learning. It might be a temporary motivational boost but that will quickly wear off. Only real thought provoking activities will keep our students engaged and help them to fall in love with the learning as we have.

But that is a minor quibble. Altogether with what the Mercava already offers and its lesson builder and other classroom tools it truly can be a game changer. Will this be the future of Jewish education and will this future come to fruition in 2014 or will it still have to wait a few more years? Only time will tell.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Flipping the Flipped Beit Midrash



Earlier this week, I wrote about the Flipped Beit Midrash in which the teacher creates a screencast using an app like Showme or Educreations for the students to watch in the Beit Midrash during chavruta so they can master the basic "pshat" of the Gemara or Tanach text prior to shiur. This is a method that many of my teachers including myself have found to be a powerful way to differentiate and personalize instruction for our students. However, this is still very teacher centered (which I don't think is necessarily a bad thing but something to recognize nevertheless). The teacher is creating the videos for the students to consume.

With the ease of making flipped videos on the iPad, it is very simple to "flip" this flipped Beit Midrash assignment by having all of the students create their own screencasts. This obviously can be a powerful formative assessment tool for students to practice their reading skills, something I have posted about in the past. When leveraged with an upcoming exam, this can be a great study tool as well. Let me explain.

One of the advantages of making Flipped Videos is that the students can not only watch them prior to the learning but they also have a playlist to view as a part of their studying for an upcoming test, something they LOVE. What I found in my preparation for a Nach test that I am giving next week is that I had created two flipped videos on the major texts of Jeremiah that we studied, you can view them here and here. But I had not created videos for other background material about King Josiah that we had learned from Kings II.

I decided to have the students create these flipped videos themselves. This was both a good review assignment for them AND I could then post the best student created flipped videos in my study guide playlist for the entire class to benefit. I did a little of the leg work for the students. I posted images of the slides from the Smart Boards on King Josiah on our class Edmodo page. The student assignment was to review one of these slides and then to use it in a Flipped Video for the other students in the class using Showme or Educreations. They had one classroom period to review, plan, and create.

This was a great success. The students appreciated the extra period of review, they loved creating the videos, and I than posted 4 of them to help their classmates study. You can view all of our them on our Flipped Videos page on our class blog here. For me as the teacher, not only was this more student centered with students creating their own study guide videos, but I was able to listen to my students and gain first hand knowledge of their reading skills in Nach.

So when you have a chance, after you have Flipped your Beit Midrash, flip it again. Let your students start creating their own videos following your example. You and your students might be very happy with the results.


Sunday, December 22, 2013

The Flipped Beit Midrash

For centuries, the primary method of learning in the Beit Midrash has been chavruta, cooperative learning, followed by shiur, whole classroom discussion and discourse. I fondly remember my years learning in Israel and then in rabbinical school where my rebbe would start by giving us a list of maarei mekomot, sources to go through with our chavruta for 2-3 hours PRIOR to our hour or two of shiur. Often, I found this independent learning to be equally valuable is not moreso than the time spent in a more formal classroom.

However, when teaching on the Yeshiva middle school or high school level, utilizing this tried and true method can be daunting. I can sum up in a sentence that I remember the Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Shmuel Kaminetsky, telling me at a Torah Umesorah convention where I showed him Gemara Berura, "but our students can't read". How does one give our students opportunities for independent learning prior to shiur when they don't yet have the skills to learn on their own? One solution to this problem is the flipped classroom.

I have blogged about the Flipped Classroom many times in the past. Look here, here, and here for example. The dream of Sal Khan when presenting the Flipped Classroom in his famous TED talk was to assign students to watch the videos for homework so students can do more exploration type activities during class. However, many of Rebbeim in my school, myself included, have found it more effective to assign these videos for chavruta work in the Beit Midrash prior to giving shiur. With iPads for every student and the teacher using free apps like Showme, Educreations, or, the relatively inexpensive but more powerful app, Explain Everything, creating these videos and using them in the Beit Midrash cannot be easier.

One rebbe for example has started making Showme videos translating, explaining, and underlining in colored pens the Gemara his students are learning modeled after the video in our iBooks Gemara on Makom Kavuah. His goal is to have students watch these videos in the Beit Midrash prior to learning the sugya so they can get the basic reading “pshat” done on their own and learn to read the Gemara themselves before they discuss the ideas together as a class. So far he has found this method to be VERY successful for the following reasons.

1) Students report that they prefer watching the videos instead of first hearing the Gemara being read in class since they can learn at their own pace. They can start and stop the video, pause and rewind or rematch the entire thing as many times as needed. They also find it very easy to take notes since they can watch the video at their own pace. The rebbe requires that very student take notes on the video either using their iPad, a computer, or pen and paper, whatever they prefer, and then only can leave once they have shown him their notes.

2) The teacher also finds that for the first time he can really monitor how the students are learning while they are all watching the video. In a regular class, he has to focus more on his presentation as the teacher than the student learning, and even in a usual chavruta assignment, students are constantly asking him questions about what they are learning so it is harder for him to take a step back and monitor how they learn. With the flipped video, they already have their rebbe in video form so he can just watch them, walk around to the various students and focus solely on observing their learning process.

3) The teacher reports that these videos are VERY easy to make since all he is doing is reading and translating and marking up the text. He says it takes maybe 5 minutes to make a 5 minute video. (He can do it successfully on the first try.) This is much easier than more involved iBooks and might even be more educationally beneficial if done in a consistent fashion since it just focuses on the basic textual skills and leaves the rest for learning through sources and ideas during classroom discussion where the teacher can explain, clarify, and bring concepts further.

Basically, these flipped videos allows the teacher to focus in class on the areas he is needed most and where his unique skills as an educator are most apparent while “outsourcing” the VERY important but often tedious reading portions to the videos simultaneously helping the students to become more independent learners through their watching, note taking, reading.

One other plus that I have experienced with flipped videos in my Nach classroom is that before an exam one can share a playlist of all the videos for students to use as a study aid. The students LOVE this and might very well watch every video multiple times prior to the exam.

So if your students have iPads or other web-based devices, even smartphones will do, give the Flipped Beit Midrash a try. You might find that students will enjoy the learning, gain more skills to learn more independently, and your shiur that follows will be that much deeper with more student input and higher order thinking because they have already mastered the basic "pshat" and are ready to bring their learning to a higher level.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Tales from the Trenches: Lessons Learned from a 1 to 1 iPad Rollout

This past Wednesday night, I had the privilege of participating in and presenting at another #JedCampNJNY event. The event was exhilarating. I was expecting maybe 30-40 people to shlep out on a cold, icy, wintry, weekday night but instead was greeted by close to 100 attendees eager to learn and share. Many of the sessions were packed and the only criticism that I heard was that there was not nearly enough time at an evening event to cover all that could be learned. You can read more about this event by one of the organizers who worked tirelessly to make it such a success Shira Leibowitz in her blog post here.

In my session, while I learned much from the sharing and camaraderie, we could only go through less than half of the slides that I prepared. I am embedding them on the bottom of this posting so that those at the session can read the complete presentation and those of you who could not attend can get a taste for what was covered.

Here are some highlights.

I began my session with the following very funny YouTube video.



I showed this video not just because as the Talmud states, one should always start one's discourse with a joke, but because the video brings out a vitally important point to contemplate before beginning a one to one iPad initiative. The iPad is only a tool. Like all tools there is a right way to use this tool and a wrong way to use it. A hammer and a screwdriver are both wonderful tools but if one needs to bang in a nail, one would only use a hammer. One needs to find the right tool to use for the right situation. Similarly, if you give a teacher or student an iPad but do not tell them how to use this wonderful tool than like the video above, they might find the hard, shiny surface of the iPad to be more useful as a kitchen cutting board then as a place to read, write, and share kitchen recipes. A strong vision, goals, and teacher and student training are an integral component of any successful one to one iPad launch.

I then talked about my experience with one very professional and creative teacher in my school who in past years was adamantly opposed to students using laptops in her class since she felt they were usually a distraction for her students. In fact, she was probably right as I blogged  about a number of years ago. Letting kids use a web-enabled device in class without giving them opportunities to share what they are doing in constructive ways with their classmates is often a recipe for distraction. However, this teacher was a happy volunteer to be one of our first educators to work carefully to seriously integrate the iPad into her classroom teaching last year. Only later after volunteering did she realize that the iPad was in fact a web-based device similar to the laptops that she loathed. To her great credit, she persisted in our many workshops together and ultimately created many very engaging lessons in her history classroom where iPads were an integral part of the learning process using apps like Nearpod and Skitch. She is now sold on the iPad, despite her misgivings, and sees the benefits of the student centered learning the iPad fosters to far outweigh the possibility of distraction which is less so on a school supervised iPad than on a personal laptop anyways.

I also shared some reasons why this year's one to one iPad deployment to our 9th graders has been such a success. One thing that I learned from past experience was the importance of teaching our kids about ways to consistently back up everything on their iPad. On the very first day we gave our freshmen iPads shortly after the Chagim in early October, we taught them about cloud based storage solutions like Dropbox, Google Drive, Evernote, and iCloud. While this might not sound as exciting as many of the magical apps on the iPad like Nearpod and Skitch which I mentioned above, it is probably the most important life long lesson to give our students so that they are both successful juggling multiple devices throughout high school including desktop computers, laptops, iPads, and smartphones, and that they continue to excel in college and later in the "real world" as well, since cloud based computing if anything is going to grow exponentially in the future.

Using their cloud based storage systems, students from the first day were given important, useful items on their iPad like their entire math textbook in their Dropbox so from the beginning they saw that the iPad was not a toy but rather an integral part of their learning process. Our teachers were also very prepared for the iPads this year, many had training sessions during our summer boot camp and multiple faculty inservice events. Our students no longer view the iPad as some magical device but as I have blogged in the past about other technologies, the iPad just is. It is a necessary component of their high school learning experience.

I also spoke about how many teachers have used the iPad to strive to make a more paperless classroom through learning management systems like Edmodo as I blogged about this past week. Expect a follow-up blog post about Edmodo in the near future reflecting on the soon to be finished project about the next president on Mount Rushmore. An English teacher in my session from the Yeshiva of Flatbush, which has its own one to one iPad program, shared how she used Schoology another learning management system to host online discussion forums for her classes. This is very similar to how I have used wikis in the past in my school. Asynchronous text based online discussions are often an ideal platform to reach every student in class and give students who are too shy to speak up in a traditional classroom discussion "a voice" in the class.

One final item that I was able to focus on during my session is the real-time assessments that the iPad makes possible. These assessments can come in many forms. In Judaic Studies, many teachers use multi-media apps like Showme and Educreations to give the students reading assignments. This allows the teacher in a short amount of time to have every student practice reading, a skill that everyone in Jewish education agrees is vitally important but most devote too little time to because it is very boring and time consuming to do this in a traditional classroom setting. These apps are also very powerful for "flipping the classroom" so that students can watch the videos prior to the lesson and/or view the videos as a review after the lesson which many of my teachers are already doing. This might be the subject of a future blog post.

A second type of real-time assessment tool is a quiz app like Socrative, Nearpod, or the web-based Infuse Learning which allow teachers to create quick assessments in many formats for students to immediately answer on the iPad. These quizzes are a great way to check for understanding or use an exit ticket at the end of class. Other real-time assessments like classroom polls can serve as an excellent anticipatory set to get students interested in a topic at the beginning of class and jump start further traditional classroom discussions.

These are just a few of the many lessons that I learned in my one to one iPad deployment at my school. You can read the entire presentation below. Please share your lessons integrating iPads into your classroom in the comments to this posting.



Created with Haiku Deck, the free presentation app for iPad

Monday, December 16, 2013

Harnessing the Power of Edmodo, a Learning Management System



Edmodo can be a valuable learn tool especially in a one-to-one classroom using student iPads or laptops.

This year we have started to formally use a learning management system (LMS) like Edmodo in my school, The Frisch School. Our English and History teachers have been the first to adapt their curriculum to this powerful LMS. They report that Edmodo streamlines classroom workflow, support scooperative and project based learning, and enhances learning with interactive real-time assessments.

Edmodo as an Organizational Tool

One English teacher at my school, Mrs. Meryl Feldblum, has found Edmodo to be invaluable as an organizational tool both for her and her students. She recently wrote to me, " Edmodo is a great organizational tool. I post all of my assignments and handouts on Edmodo. My students always have these items at their fingertips. In addition, I have all of my students hand in their work via Edmodo. As an English teacher I assign a lot of papers. Using Edmodo as a “collection tool” means I do not have to carry papers with me, and it means that the e-papers are organized by assignment and class. I can glance at the class list, see who handed an assignment in, who did not, and whether or not they handed the assignment in on time.” Note that Edmodo can easily be synced with our a school Google Drive which makes sharing assignments using Edmodo even more powerful.

Similarly, a history teacher has used Edmodo to deliver all classroom handouts to her 9th grade students who all have iPads as a part of our one-to-one iPad program. She finds that students feel very comfortable working with these digital documents which they can then turn back to her also using Edmodo. This is especially valuable during activities where using pen and paper is not an easy option. For example, when giving out trigger questions for students to focus on while watching a video clip, in the past students could not easily follow these questions in the darkened classroom while the movie was playing. Now they can all watch the video and focus on their questions on illuminated iPad screens.

Supporting Cooperative and Project Based Learning

Mrs. Feldblum continues, "Edmodo is also a great way to share information. For some assignments, I have the students hand in their work to me, and no one else can see it. Other assignments I have the students post to the Edmodo wall, allowing the entire class to see their work. For instance, my Juniors are working on an intensive writing unit. I first posted a number of articles and essays to Edmodo. The students read the articles and we then discussed what techniques made a strong introductory paragraph. The students broke up into groups. They researched, based on their interests, articles and essays that also utilized these techniques. The students then posted the examples they found to the Edmodo wall. The class then had a large bank of examples to refer to for the next step: writing their own introductory paragraphs.” Another history teacher has utilized Edmodo in similar ways to support jigsaw activities where each group researches different part of a greater topic based on sources on their Edmodo timeline and then shares with the class.

Another American history teacher is currently in the midst of a very ambitious project with all 3 of her 10th grade history classes using Edmodo. She is having the students decide the 5th and 6th presidents to put on Mount Rushmore. To facilitate research and sharing both within one class and between classes, this teacher created one Edmodo group for all 3 of her classes. She posted the assignment together with 10 supporting documents and links in this class. She then created smaller groups for each president that students are researching. Only students researching a specific president are in a small group. For example, there can be 8 students in her three classes in the Ronald Reagan group or the John F. Kennedy group etc. Students are required throughout their research to post links, files, and ideas about their president in this smaller Edmodo group. This encourages sharing and collaboration between students in different classes who are all on the same online space. This is very similar to how we have used the Frisch wiki in the past although Edmodo is more use friendly as a learning management system than the wiki since it has a timeline view and the abilities to comment and/or rate anything posted. It is almost like Facebook, only an academic version, which supports submitting assignments as well as sharing files and links. As I am writing this post, I am getting literally dozens of updates from students working on Betty’s history project over the weekend as they share information about their various presidents. Its really very cool!

Enhancing learning with real-time interactive assessments

This is perhaps the highest order use for Edmodo as it cannot be easily done on any other integrated platform so we are just beginning to utilize this. For example, a 9th grade English teacher has used Edmodo for interactive polling while learning Oedipus Rex. She asked students to respond to the following poll question "What sin, if any, is Oedipus guilty of? After responding to the poll question, students are also able to reply with a comment to make an online discussion board about why they chose the answer they chose. This tool is much better than similar polling using Google Forms or Poll Everywhere for example since each student is only allowed to vote once while their answers still remain anonymous.

Edmodo also has a very powerful quiz creator which lets you create quizzes in various formats including multiple choice, matching, fill in the blank, true or false, and short answer. Edmodo lets you randomize quiz questions, show students answers after they have finished (if you prefer, otherwise you don’t have to), and send grades back to the students. You can even attached links or videos to the entire quiz or to each question. I have used this to great effect in my Navi class. I have posted Flipped Classroom videos that I created using Explain Everything a wonderful iPad app that I LOVE. Students then watch the video and submit the quiz all on Edmodo. You can even set a time limit for how long students have to take the quiz.

One note that I learned the HARD way. The Edmodo quizzing tool ONLY works on the web app. It does not work on the iPad or iPhone apps. So if you assign a quiz make sure to remind students to access it by logging into Edmodo.com, either on their laptop or a mobile device like their iPad.

Want to get started with Edmodo? Here is a link to handy guide created by a school district: Edmodo Teacher Guide.

Many features that I have described above concerning Edmodo are also true for many other Learning Management Systems. While there are other features that a different LMS might offer that Edmodo does not. So for those of you who use another LMS like Schoology or Haiku Learning, please share your favorite features in the comments to this posting.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

iAssist: Using the iPad to Reach Different Kinds of Learners

Different types of assistive technologies have been around for years. However, these technologies involved students with learning differences using specialized devices. These devices were often quite expensive and even more troubling for many students, they often had a stigma attached to them. Students who used them were the "different" students who could not handle the same notebook, pen, or computer as everyone else. The iPad has changed all of that. It is so versatile that it is not only the "cool" device for average students but can easily be adapted to handle the task of many assistive devices needed by students with learning differences.

This was first pointed out to me in an excellent workshop that I attended a little over a year ago at ISTE 2012 on iPads for Struggling and Special Needs Students in Inclusive Environments by Dan Herlihy and Pati King-Debaun. You can read my notes here. Two apps that they discussed that I have blogged about in the past are Dragon Dictation and Evernote.


Dragon Dictation is a highly accurate dictating tool. Students dictate into their iPad sentence by sentence, even using an iPad 2 which does not have a dictation button on their keyboard, and Dragon Dictation converts their words to text and does a fairly good job doing it. This can be an excellent tool for a student with strong auditory skills who for whatever reason has trouble getting words down on paper. Just let them speak and the app will write the words for them. 


Evernote is an app that I have spoken about extensively in the past as THE go-to note-taking app. But for the student with learning differences, there are a number of features on the iPad Evernote edition that are tremendously helpful. Firstly, one can record audio or insert photos directly into the app. For the student with difficulty taking notes, this can be transformative as the student can just jot down a few main ideas and then supplement this either with the teacher's voice or with pictures of the board. I know a number of teachers in my school who have also used this audio tool to create augmented review sheets before tests. The teacher can attach a regular review sheet to a note and then read the text to the student, supplementing it with additional information. When this note is emailed to the student, she sees the text and gets a separate audio file of the teacher's reading.

This can be even more powerful if the teacher or student creates a shared notebook with these augmented notes. As I have blogged in the past, Evernote allows you to share a link to a note or even to an entire notebook so the that whenever the note is updated, the link will also update dynamically with the new information. This can be used to automate any note-taking system where students who need notes can receive them automatically updated by the student or teacher taking them. This can also be used to create online journals where students create entries on a daily basis in their Evernote, share this Journal notebook with their teacher once, and then the notebook link automatically updates for the teacher to read new entries in real-time.

Below are step by step instructions for creating a shared Notebook on Evernote. The direction screenshots are from the earlier version of Evernote that many are familiar with. The new version for Evernote designed for iOs 7 would use the same directions but the screenshots would look different.

1. Log into Evernote or Create an account for Evernote

2. Click on Notebooks

3. Click on plus and click on Journal. Then click Done.

4. Click on Plus to create a Note.

5. Type note and click close when done.

6. Click on Action Button on top right. Then click "Create a Public Link" to share a link to this notebook or "Invite Individuals" to invite individual students to view this notebook by email. 


The iPad also has a number of very inexpensive apps that read to the student any text based document or PDF. For example, the book the Catcher in the Rye is available in PDF online here. Using the very inexpensive app Voice Reader Text to Speech ($1.99 on the app plus $.99 for an additional offline voice), a student can set up the entire book to be read back to her. The app will even highlight the words as they are read, allow one to adjust the speed, and the voice, although a computer, pauses and uses inflection at the right places to almost mimic an actual voice. This app and others like it can be a key scaffold for older students who still are emerging readers. Obviously, this is still not the same as listening to a real human voice. For human voices, one is reliant on purchasing audio books when they are available, although some works are available for free online. For example, one can find a fine reading of the Catcher in the Rye and some other works as MP3 files here.

Finally, even without purchasing an app like Voice Reader Text to Speech or listening to an audio file, one can easily make the iPad read back any selected text. This feature works for English and for many common foreign languages like Spanish and French. (It does not currently work for Hebrew.) This can be invaluable for students with learning differences who have difficulty with silent reading. There are also teachers in my school who have started using this tool for students who are learning a foreign language who could benefit from hearing that language spoken to them by a foreign speaker.

Below are step-by-step instructions to enable the iPad to read any selected text.

1) To enable this feature, go to Settings>General>Accessibility.




2) Select Speak Selection



3) Turn Speak Selection On (green). Turn Highlight Words On (green). You can even make the speaking rate faster of slower.



4) Highlight a text in any app on your iPad like Notes, Evernote, iBooks and select Speak and the iPad will speak the text to you.




It is my hope that through the many powerful tools available on the iPad and similar new technologies, we can begin to realize that in reality all of our students have learning differences. All students can benefit from different assistive technologies whether it be through a pen and paper, a computer keyboard, or a system that reads back the text to you. When all of these various technologies can all be available using the same device that is both cool and highly functional, the iPad, we can begin to break down the barriers and remove the stigmas which unfortunately still exist when striving to reach all of our learners.