Tech Rav
Discussions of Jewish EdTech

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Flipped Learning and Real-Time Assessment in the Judaic Studies Classroom, A @DigitalJLearn Google Hangout

Today, I had the privilege to present a Google Hangout on Flipped Learning and Real-Time Assessment in a Judaic Studies Classroom for the DigitalJLearning Network. DigitalJLearning is one of the leaders in helping Jewish Day Schools adapt blended learning models in a thoughtful and incremental way to create lasting educational change so it was my pleasure and honor to present to this network.

I find giving webinars to be strangely exhilarating. On the one hand, you really are presenting to a blank space. At times, I could see Gary Hartstein from DigitalJLearning who was facilitating today's presentation, for most of the time when I was sharing my screen I could not even see him. But I could never see or actively connect to anyone else who might have been tuning in. It is probably akin to the experience of being a radio talk show host with a few staff "behind the glass", the occasional caller, and the unseen world of listeners who might be tuning in. However, I am trained as a teacher not as a radio person. I take my cues from the constant feedback that I get from my students throughout the lesson who I can watch and call on to check for understanding.

Still I find this experience to be exciting. First of all, I have to prepare A LOT because I will be speaking the entire time. I usually over-prepare, a process which helps me solidify my own thoughts on the topic of my presentation. I also imagine that through my Hangout which is streamed live and then recorded for future viewing on YouTube, I am creating something that hopefully will have a lasting value for people who tune in at some future date.

The topic of my talk, Flipped Learning and Real-Time Assessment, is one that I have blogged about a great deal in the past and I have tried to fully integrate as a regular part of my teaching. For example, you can read some of my posts on Flipped Learning here, here, here, and here. And a guest post on flipping by a colleague of mine in Frisch here. You can read my experiences with some real-time assessment tools in this posting on Nearpod and this one on Edmodo. So I am not sure if my presentation today said anything new but I enjoyed the process of putting together the various strands and presenting them in a (hopefully) cohesive and coherent unit.

You can watch my presentation below. Here is a link to the Prezi upon which the presentation was based and a sheet with most of the links that I referenced in the presentation. I welcome your feedback and experiences using flipped learning and/or real-time assessment in your classroom. Please add them to the comments section of this posting.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Show your support for innovative ideas in Jewish education. Please vote for the Atid Day School Innovation Challenge. #atidchallenge

Now I know why I never became a politician. I HATE asking for your vote. BUT, please click on this link to watch the presentation of our 10th grade Nach Pottery project designed by myself and my other very talented and devoted colleagues at The Frisch School. This was an interdisciplinary project which every 10th grade Nach class participated in before Yom Kippur in which our students experienced Jeremiah's vision from chapter 18 at the Potter's House first hand by creating their own pottery. They then compared this vision with the classic piyut from the Yom Kippur liturgy, כחומר ביד היוצר. I could explain in detail what made this process such a substantial and deep learning experience but I have already blogged about this on my TanachRav blog here, here, and here.

One thing that I am particularly proud of is that this was not an individual project for just my Nach class but a group project for the entire 10th grade. In my role in educational technology, I always like to work behind the scenes. I tell my fellow colleagues that my job is to make them look good. I am almost embarrassed to promote something that was just done in my classroom. However, in this case, thanks to strong leadership from our Nach Department Chair, Mrs. Rachel Besser, and the head of our Art department, Ms. Ahuva Mantell, every 10th grade Nach student was able to participate in this unique experience. That is why we chose to enter it in the Atid Day School Innovation Challenge, we could publicize this model for others to use with their classes as well.

Now a little word about the Atid Innovation Challenge in general. One of the areas of Jewish education which we can always do more of is in sharing good ideas, creating a community of practice of professional Judaic educators. Obviously, there are many venues for this especially with the cognitive surplus that the online world brings to our fingertips through Lookjed, JEDCamp, JEDLab, and blogs like this space and others like Aaron Ross' Thinking About Chinuch. However, there is always the need for more innovative ideas in Jewish education so I applaud The Jewish Education Project, UJA Federation of NY, and PresentTense for setting up this exciting new space for showcasing Jewish innovation.

Once you are at the Atid Innovation Challenge take a look around at some of the other presentations. You can vote for more than one if you like. Two that I LOVE are the project by my good friend Moshe Rosenberg on bringing augmented reality into the Judaic Studies classroom and the project from Yeshivat Noam, where one of my daughters attends, about utilizing iPads to bring music education into the lower school classroom.

So PLEASE vote both for our project at Frisch, if you so desire, and for others that interest you as well. Then please share this posting with your friends and family so that others can recognize some of the innovative and creative lessons going on in Jewish education today.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Does ALL Learning Need to be Relevant?

A few days ago my friend and valuable member of my PLN, Rabbi Michael Bitton wrote on Facebook about a conversation he had with one his students about a chemistry question. The student asked if he could help him with a chemistry question. When Rabbi Bitton responded that he never really liked chemistry and could not help, the student responded that no one really knows this stuff since it doesn't matter in our life. The gist of the posting was that we should make all learning relevant.

This got me thinking about what it means to make learning relevant for our students. Does ALL learning in a school setting need to be relevant? And if the answer is yes, how does one define relevance?

On one level, of course ALL learning taught in school should be relevant. If it is not relevant, then why are we teaching it?

However, relevance can mean many different things. Something that could be relevant for our students because it is a building block for future intellectual pursuits might not seem relevant at the time.

Let me use high school chemistry as an example. (Although this discussion is about chemistry, it can equally apply to a Torah subject like Talmud or Tanach. For further reading on this, see Torah Lishmah by Rabbi Norman Lamm,  Torah Study by Rabbi Yehudah Levi, and my article from Ten Daat on the Role of Teacher and Student according to Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitechik.)

On the most basic level, high school chemistry can be relevant for our students because it is a required course needed for our students to graduate. This might sound like a cop-out but, lets face it, the most important job of any high school is to prepare its students for the future. In a high school with a college preparatory curriculum, the school is designed to prepare its students for college. If an outside arbiter like the state board of regents or the college admissions department requires a course then it must be taught in high school because it is relevant by definition.

Obviously, this is a very low level relevance. A student might not care about the model of an atom whether its be the Neils Bohr atomic model or the more accurate model from quantum mechanics. A kid might never need to balance a chemical equation after high school. But since this is a requirement for graduation and/or college acceptance it is relevant.

There are of course other types of relevance. A teacher might make chemistry more relevant to students by sharing her excitement for the subject. Passion is contagious. A teacher who genuinely LOVES chemistry can effectively get all or at least most of her students to love it too. This would make the course more relevant by making it more exciting.

On another level, a teacher could make the chemistry course relevant through the subject matter. A master teacher and mentor of mine, Dr. Chaim Feuerman, often speaks of innately pleasurable learning activities. These are activities like solving problems while working in cooperative groups that give one the joy of discovery, of using one's brain and stretching one's thinking. An effective teacher can make a complex subject like chemistry more relevant through these types of activities.

Chemistry can also be relevant by utilizing it to solve problems in everyday life. One can conduct experiments on common household items about how they work or try to use chemistry to solve seemingly intractable problems facing our environment like climate change. This would also give chemistry relevance.

Of course, the last item listed appears to be the most relevant, bringing chemistry into everyday life. However, I hesitate to define this as the ideal relevance for many reasons. Firstly, a course of study focusing on this everyday relevance might seriously hamper the learning process. What if there are areas of chemistry or any other subject for that matter in which it is difficult to find everyday relevance? Should one skip or downplay those units of study? This is the argument that some have made against requiring subjects like algebra. I am seriously worried that this attitude could dumb down our education.

Let me explain. Not all subjects need to always have relevance to our daily lives. Some subjects might be relevant just because they are worthwhile intellectual pursuits. My son dreams about math problems. He finds calculus to be tremendously relevant not necessarily because he sees its applications in the physical world but because he sees the innate beauty of the subject itself. This I believe is the HIGHEST form of relevance and what we should aspire to impart to our students.

But this relevance is perhaps the most difficult to communicate and might require years of hard work before it is achieved. Does this mean we should take the easier path and skip the building blocks which are not necessarily relevant? Heaven forbid! And does this mean that we should only teach these building blocks to certain students who will be pursuing the higher level subject matter later in life? How could we possibly know which students this will be? So we get to our current model. To teach EVERY student the basic building blocks in a number of subjects, whether they appear to be relevant or not, so they can find their passions and develop the skills to pursue them on a higher level later in life.

I am not arguing that we should not make these building blocks relevant. I remember as a young teacher attending Azrieli Graduate School how Rabbi David Eliach used to speak of the importance of opening every lesson with a motivation or מוטיבציה as he called it. We certainly can make our learning relevant through an effective motivation, by communicating our passion for the subject, by creating discovery based activities to make even these basic skills pleasurable, or by finding everyday examples when applicable.

But sometimes we won't succeed with all of our students. Sometimes students will not find a certain subject to be relevant to them. In this case, I do not believe the school has failed. I think rather that our students have gained an equally important learning experience. They have learned what they do NOT wish to pursue later in life.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Do you have a Sephardi minyan? Do you have Wifi? A study in the Yeshiva experience.

We just returned from Israel night. It is that magical time when my son is looking at Yeshivot to study at in Israel for his upcoming gap year before going off to University. It is especially nostalgic for me as I see that the schools he is seriously considering are the same as those that I looked at when researching my post-high school year in Israel.

My son has a very unique plan when attending an Israel school presentation and asking follow-up questions. (I am revealing this WITH my son's permission.) He asks every school the same two questions: "Do you have a Sephardi minyan?" and "Do you have Wifi?"

On the surface, these seem to be two very strange and almost diametrically opposite questions. I must admit I squirmed a bit tonight when he asked one school these two questions and some in the room chuckled. But my son has a very specific reason for asking these questions. On one level, he wants to ask the unexpected and see how the representatives of various Yeshivot respond when faced with something a bit off the script. However, I also think there is something much deeper at work here which I later discussed with my son and he confirmed.

Do you have a Sephardi minyan? Note, my son has blond hair and blue eyes. He is a mix of Polish, German, and Ukrainian, Yeki, Litvak, and Chasidish, with nary a Sephardi ancestor for as far on our family tree as we can go. But he decided this year to start davening every morning in the Sephardi minyan at school and is now a proud member of the "Sephardi party". He began this practice to emulate an older Ashkenazi classmate, who is now a recent graduate of our Yeshiva, who followed this same practice in previous years. He has continued because he genuinely appreciates the atmosphere, the camaraderie, the difference of the Sephardi prayers.

The first question, do you have a Sephardi minyan, is asking what is your attitude towards difference? Do you celebrate diversity, Shivim Panim LeTorah, 70 Faces to the Torah? Do you want all of their students to become the best religiously committed Jewish individuals they can be with an emphasis on keeping their individuality, what makes each of them special? Do you celebrate the Dignity of Difference as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks calls it? Or do you aspire to create an ideal model for a religious Jew? Do you want every student to ultimately follow that same mold?

The second question, do you have Wifi, asks what is your attitude towards the outside world? And what do you view is the role of the Yeshiva in preparing students for this world? Do you view your Yeshiva as a citadel, a fortress to defend against the insidious forces which are unfortunately all too prevalent in our outside world, especially in the dark corners of the world wide web? Is the Internet something to be tolerated at best, perhaps even feared? Something you want to protect your students from? Or, do you view your Yeshiva not as a citadel or fortress but as a lighthouse, a city on a hill, bringing light to the world outside the confines of the academy? Do you view the role of the Yeshiva as one to prepare your students to become thoughtful adults who engage with the world with the Internet as a powerful tool for this engagement?

This is a topic that I have thought a great deal about in my role as a parent and as teacher and that I have blogged about in the past. Thanks to my son and his quirky questioning strategy, I am contemplating it once again.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Is it time for Jewish MOOCs?

I have been thinking a lot about MOOCs. For those who have been living in a hole these past 2+ years and don't know what MOOCs are, here is a definition. A MOOC is short for massive open online course and is defined as:
a course of study made available over the Internet without charge to a very large number of people.
MOOCs began in the fall of 2011 when Sebastian Thrun launched a fully online free version of his course Introduction to Artificial Intelligence which quickly gained an enrollment of over 160,000 students. Soon Dr. Thrun left Stanford to found an online MOOC platform, Udacity, and another more open platform for MOOCs Coursera began as well. Then schools like MIT, Harvard, Berkley, and the University of Texas combined to create their own MOOC platform, edX.

What made these courses fundamentally different from previous online courses was that they were free and, unlike platforms like MIT's Open Courseware which merely shared materials from courses given in University for one to "audit" online, these MOOCs were transformed for the online space for students to actively engage with the material and ultimately complete the course with a grade and certificate.

Some of the distinctive features of the courses were that they divided up the learning into bite-size chunks of 7-12 minute videos immediately followed by short quizzes with immediate feedback, featured discussion forums to foster interaction between students, and often contained more sophisticated assessments which depended on crowd-sourced grading where fellow students graded the exercises, since a professor or even a series of teaching assistants could not possibly grade tens of thousands of responses. The courses encouraged the peer grading model by using a system where one could only receive a grade on her own assignment after grading 5 assignments.

The hype was tremendous. The New York Times declared 2012 to be the Year of the MOOC and some state run schools including the California University system decided to cut costs by transferring introductory courses to MOOCs which their students would take for credit. This led to a debate on the value of outsourcing some of the direct instruction to these less expensive but less personal online platforms; a debate very similar to the debate about blended learning and affordability in Jewish education, something that I tweeted about at the time.

Ultimately, the MOOC experiment in for-credit college courses was an unmitigated disaster with online pass rates much lower than their on-campus equivalents and schools like San Jose State scaling back or pulling out of their MOOC contracts.

The reason for this is that the MOOC was never designed to be a replacement for face-to-face courses in colleges and other places of higher learning. MOOCs have a very low cost of entry which leads to a high dropout rate. They also do not provide the direct interaction with professors (and nagging reminders about upcoming assignments and assessments) that the average student needs to keep up with her school work and succeed academically. However, even though the MOOC model might have been determined to be only ideal for the top 5% of the student body who are self starters, that is still a lot of students and MOOCs remain a fascinating model nevertheless. It provides genuine, advanced education for those who might no longer be in the world of the university and could not otherwise devote the time and expense to advance their knowledge further.

This past summer, I dabbled in MOOCs myself both to further my knowledge about MOOCs and for my own personal professional development. Two years ago, I signed up for the first Udacity course on Computer Science 101: Building a Search Engine and quickly dropped out when the course-work got too difficult for me to keep up with during the school year. I felt that July and August when my schedule was much lighter would be an ideal time for me to devote some serious time to this online platform. My blogging definitely suffered while I was enrolled in my MOOCs but I gained new horizons in my online courses.

I signed up for 3 courses, a one week course from the Buck Institute for Education on How to Design a Driving Question, and two six week courses from Stanford on Nano-manufacturing and Computer Science 101. The Driving Question course used Edmodo, a platform which I am very familiar with but which I find to be limiting at times. The two Stanford courses used the edX platform.

I found all three courses to be exhilarating. The Driving Question course was highly social. This was partially because of the Edmodo platform with its Facebook-like interface which lends itself to much interaction but also due to the fact that everyone enrolled in the course were like-minded teachers sharing very similar experiences in the classroom. The instructor designed the course to maximize interaction with a great deal of online discussion and a requirement for all final assignments to be peer reviewed by another student in the class. The fast pace of the course, with daily assignments and discussions all in a one-week span, also lent a more immediate flavor to the conversation. Even though the instructor divided the hundreds of participants into smaller manageable groups, I still met a number of people who I knew from the world of Jewish education in the course.

The two Stanford courses were of a decidedly different flavor. The Computer Science course was informative but relatively easy. I knew some of the material already and other units were presented so simply and clearly that it was easy to master what was taught. The one thing missing from this course was interaction with peers. The course was a series of video tutorials followed by quizzes with no final project or alternative method of assessment. Forums were included but I had no need to participate in them so it felt very much like a correspondence course.

Ironically, nano-manufacturing which was the most esoteric and highly specialized course that I enrolled in with its focus on LCD and LED displays, Moore's Law and old and new technologies used to produce various types micro-processors including those for the computer's central processing unit or cpu and for flash memory storage, was the course in which my interaction with peers was the most valuable. I have no engineering background and did not really even understand what a transistor was before I took this course. (If you want to quickly get up to speed, here is an excellent video on how a transistor works.)

I was way out of my league in this course. But I was determined to succeed both because I wanted to finish the course and because I felt it would give me a firmer grasp of the hardware in devices that I use on a daily basis like iPads and smartphones- it did. So I watched and rewatched the course videos, I participated in the forums where I discovered that most of my "classmates" from all over the world were engineering students who freely shared their knowledge and expertise, and I reached out to the teaching assistant who amazingly provided personalized feedback despite the fact that there were probably 10,000+ people taking the course. By the end of the course, I passed (HOORAY), learned a great deal, and am especially proud of the video that I produced for my final project in which I performed a tear-down of a first generation iPod Touch.

You can watch the video below. (Caution: A real iPod Touch was harmed in the making of this film.)

Since the summer, I have enrolled in another edX MOOC, this one from MIT on The Design and Development of Educational Technology. I have less time to devote to this course as it is during the school year so I am taking more of an auditing approach to the course, watching the videos on my own pace, and doing only some of the assignments.

Why are my experiences with MOOCs relevant for a blog on the intersection of technology and Jewish education?

I believe that the MOOC model could be a powerful one for Jewish education.

Currently, there are many opportunities for high level Jewish learning online for free. There is the Gush Virtual Beit Midrash with its text-based shiurim and Yeshiva University's YUTorah online with its mostly audio shiurum, which is a major part of my morning commute as I listen in the car. There are even real-time video shiurim like WebYeshiva's subscription based courses.

However, I cannot think of anything like the MOOC model in online Jewish education. These would be asynchronous courses where people can watch, listen, or read the Torah content on their own schedule, embedded into a synchronous course with real-time quizzes as a check for understanding, a weekly curriculum for information covered, interaction with classmates in online forums, and substantive peer-reviewed projects.

The closest I can think of to the MOOC model in Jewish education is actually from decades ago; the classic Gilyonot that Nechama Leibowitz sent out by snail mail and graded on a weekly basis. These combined a weekly curriculum, Nechama's source-sheet on the Parshat Hashavua, with almost real-time hand written feedback which Nechama gave to anyone who mailed them back to her with their answers.

Although, as I mentioned above, the MOOC is not the panacea for the world of education and certainly would only work with a subset of students, I believe it is time for someone to adapt this model to Jewish education. We already have a world-wide Jewish curriculum with Parshat Hashavua, Daf Yomi, Nach Yomi and the like. Isn't it time to combine all of the elements of the MOOC, the small bite-sized lectures, the real-time self check quizzes, the online community of learners, and the peer reviewed higher level assignments to Jewish education?

I think there are a number of platforms currently in development to support this model for Jewish education. The Mercava is well into the development of its next generation app which will support audio and video shiurim, real-time assessment, and interaction with peers throughout the world while staying on "the daf", the traditional page of Jewish text. Gemara Berura has also created a compelling skills based web app together with a learning management system. Perhaps the institutions of higher Jewish learning could get together to design MOOC-like courses modeled after the consortium of MIT, Harvard, and others that created the edX platform.

It is time for the Jewish MOOC. It might not transform the world of Jewish education for everyone, but it would provide more options for anyone, anywhere with a passion to learn more about their Judaism and a computer or mobile device to dive into the sea of high-level, interactive Jewish learning.

Sunday, November 09, 2014

Maker Spaces, 3D Printing, and the Role of the Teacher

I must apologize. It has been over three months since my last posting on this blog. I have been involved in other online spaces during this time, with three postings on my TanachRav blog, three new flipped classroom YouTube videos, and a number of Facebook and Twitter postings. However, this blog has always been my primary personal space for reflecting on my teaching and learning and I have not really been a part of it lately for a variety of reasons, the beginning of a new school year, various online MOOCs that I have been taking, other responsibilities blah, blah, blah... So here it goes. Hopefully, this will be the first of a number of postings in the coming weeks where I can do a brain dump into this blog mostly for my benefit and if some of you find it to be worthwhile as well, that's great too.

I have been thinking a lot about the Maker movement. It has been the talk of the educational technology world with many schools beginning to create Maker Spaces. For those of you not in the know, the Maker Movement is defined as:
A trend in which individuals or groups of individuals create and market products that are recreated and assembled using unused, discarded or broken electronic, plastic, silicon or virtually any raw material and/or product from a computer-related device.
At ISTE, I had the privilege to attend a session by one of the leading champions of the Maker Movement in schools, Dr. Gary Stager. Gary spoke of the confluence of three technologies that has made the idea of students learning by doing, something that has been championed by educational reformers for decades if not longer, so much more exciting today. These three technologies are personal fabrication, the ability to create things oneself using 3D printing, physical computing, the ability to connect microprocessors like Arduino boards or the Raspberry Pi to anything, and programming, the ability to easily program these computers to do many tasks.

So I was very excited to sign up for the Maker Faire in Queens, NY, in September. I took my two teenage daughters with me as well since they are both very creative and I thought they would love the experience.

Was I wrong. My daughters HATED it.

Mind you, as I said above, both my daughters love making things. My older daughter, who just turned sixteen, loves art, music, and drama. She will be starring in the school play this year for the third year in the row, where she is privileged to be guided by the incredible professional, Rabbi Dr. John Krug. She has a strong sense of fashion and style. She created an Instagram account (StyleByChevi) to express her creative ideas online and she recently learned how to sew under the guidance of the incredibly talented and creative Frisch art teacher, Mrs. Ahuva Mantell. My younger daughter who is thirteen also loves art, drama, and is very musical. She has a beautiful voice and her friends get a kick out of the fact that she can sing all of the lyrics to any song she hears on the radio even just once. She loves science as well. These kids should be the primary audience for the Maker Faire. They should LOVE it. But they didn't.

This despite the fact that the Maker Faire featured so much creative music, art, and crafts. Below are just a few examples.

A photo posted by Tzvi Pittinsky (@techrav) on

A photo posted by Tzvi Pittinsky (@techrav) on

There were numerous musical instruments made out of discarded household items. Laser engraved leather bracelets. (My daughters actually liked them.) A bizarre musical car. A session on how to pick a lock. A competition between helicopter drones. SO many examples of items created using 3D printing. Kids who created switches to turn on electrical appliances all over the house. But my daughters were not impressed.

The Maker Faire had all the trappings of a religious movement. People were making for makings' sake. People were playing and having a great deal of fun. But, I think what turned off my daughters was that there seemed to be a lot of playing but very little purpose. It is nice to play around with Arduino boards and figure out how to make a series of switches to turn on every appliance in the house but how is that better than just walking up to the appliance and turning it on oneself? My daughters like to play. But they are very practical as well. (I thank my wife for that.) They want to play with a purpose.

My younger daughter said it best. She said the Maker Faire was like a science fair but without the science.

Science involves making stuff and exploring new ways of thinking. But it also involves generating a hypothesis and conducting experiments in order to collect a data set to prove or disprove one's thinking. It involves directed play.

This week, I was privileged to visit a different type of MakerSpace. The engineering lab in my school which thanks to Mrs. Rifkie Silverman's passionate guidance has become one of the most exciting and passionate places for directed play at Frisch. I watched a presentation by Mr. Ben Gross, Educational Technology Director at HAFTR, who was introducing a collaboration between HAFTR and Frisch using our new 3D printer.

Ben introduced the printer by pointing out the following problem. One designs a prototype robot using Lego Mindstorms, Arduino boards, and various other components and one finds the pieces just don't fit together. What does one do? In past years, the only option was duct tape. Make it fit. It's only a prototype anyways so what is the big deal if some of the pieces are taped together. Now with the 3D printer one can create the missing pieces using a 3D design program and print them oneself. Mind you, this is not nearly as exciting as some of the 3D examples introduced in the MakerFaire and I am sure there will be MANY more uses for our 3D printer in our engineering MakerSpace. But by starting with a much more practical example, Ben was promoting making with a purpose.

I think it is important that we give our students time to play. But as our students move to elementary school, middle school, high school, and beyond, we need to remember our role as teachers; to help our students to play with a purpose. We need to be their guide so that things they create are so much richer, deeper, and well thought out because we provided them with a sense of direction, purpose, and constructive feedback. I think back to that classic scene from one of my favorite teacher movies of all time, Mr. Holland's Opus, where the principal, Ms. Jacobs, reminds Mr. Holland, a newly minted music teacher that:
Our job is more than just filling young minds with knowledge. It is giving those minds a compass.
Kids will always love making. But be careful before installing a MakerSpace in your school. Kids have plenty of time to play at home. What they need in school is to play with a purpose. Make sure that your MakerSpace involves making as an integral part of a curriculum which can guide our students in engineering, the arts, or some other subject area. This is what our students really crave. They want the ability to create but they also desire the compass, the expert guidance that only a teacher can provide.

Monday, August 04, 2014

I Flipped My Lesson. Now What?

The following blog post is written by Mrs. Rhona Flaumenhaft, Math Teacher at The Frisch School. I have invited Rhona to cross-post on this space so we can benefit from a master teacher's years of experience in teaching math while at the same time integrating new technologies and research.

For the past six years, in an effort to keep my students more engaged, I have been writing worksheets for the kids to read at home the night before a difficult lesson. I had no idea that what I was attempting was a “flipped classroom”.

I always felt that it was important for my students take more responsibility and be active partners in what they needed to learn. It was a feature of the learning process that seemed to be disappearing from my classroom in recent years. My sheets were carefully designed to start with very simple facts, linking them together in a way that built a solid foundation to support the difficult concept or skill that I hoped to cover the next day, making the lesson more productive. However, many kids still needed me to read the sheets with them in class. The sheets were visual tools and many of my students needed an auditory experience.

Technology, in the form of the iPad and the Explain Everything app, allowed me to turn my worksheets into videos. For the past year, that has been my focus. 

I have been teaching middle school and high school math for almost 40 years and have very definite ideas about how to teach a math lesson. Of course, the graphing calculator and the Smart Board have made significant contributions to certain aspects of my lessons. But the fundamental structure of my lessons hadn’t changed, nor did it ever occur to me that it should.

I came to the recent unConference on the Flipped Classroom looking for new tools to make a better video, but what I came away with a much larger issue to tackle. As those of you who read my previous blog know, what shook up my world was the presentation by the keynote speaker, Julie Schell from Harvard University, who invited us to compare a picture of an operating room in the 1800’s with the operating room of today. They were shockingly different; technology had transformed the OR. Then we were asked to view then and now photos of the classroom; the differences seemed shockingly non-existent. The message was subtle yet clear: medicine had advanced, education had not.

The next idea that captured my imagination was the call for creativity posed by Sir Ken Robinson in a video clip shown during one presentation. Robinson spoke about the need to embrace creativity and prepare the classrooms of the future to equip students to meet the challenges in the new world that technology and globalization will establish. I was energized when I left that conference; convinced that I needed to change the way I taught.

But the more I thought about the comparison of an operating room to a classroom, the less compelling it became. Medicine relies on the discovery of new protocols and new drugs to treat or prevent disease. Technological advances in robotic surgery, for example, have transformed the OR. Teaching, however, is about enabling children and young adults to gain the information and skills they will need to support their future goals. I knew that student expectations had changed; that is what started my journey to “flip” my classroom. But had the fundamental ways in which students acquired knowledge changed?

I began by searching “how the brain learns” and got 81,600,000 results. Yikes; the task seemed impossible but I don’t give up easily; spending six years re-writing worksheets had made me tough! I jumped right in and almost immediately felt like I was drowning. One article claimed that new research into how the brain learns will change the way we teach. Another article claimed that not all scientists agree on how brain research should be applied to education, but many articles made suggestions about how to use brain research to improve education. Some spoke very clearly to the elementary school years and dealt with the issues articulated by Ken Robinson, although I felt that some of the suggestions would benefit the high school classroom as well.

Shifting my focus to math education in the high school years made my job harder (it is fascinating how much educational energy is devoted to math). I found so many articles with so many opinions, some diametrically opposite to each other, that it became impossible to juggle them all. Some articles were backed by research; some were not. Although all the authors felt that math education was important, they were split on what the content of the math curriculum should be. Many articles were devoted to discussions about algebra, but the algebra they were discussing was high school Algebra I in some articles, and College Algebra in others.

In desperation, and to maintain my sanity, I finally had to accept that in whatever way the math curriculum might change in the future, that was not my focus. I still wanted to know if there was a “best way” to teach math in the high school classroom of today. The only mandate I considered non-negotiable was, every student should be offered the opportunity to gain the skills needed to attend college. For now, that makes mastering algebra important.

First, I needed to review a “real world relevant/exploration” approach to structuring a math lesson. It was simple to consult the TED talk that had been part of the Frisch Math Department’s Staff Development program this past year presented by Dan Meyer. He feels strongly that teachers need to make math more palatable by making it more relevant, which is accomplished by finding problems that reflect the real world. He believes it is important to create an environment in the classroom where students are able to feel comfortable having math conversations. Meyer feels that technology is a compelling tool for powering our lessons. He also injects humor to make his lessons more engaging. All of these principles, relevance, visual stimulation, and humor, are mentioned in the brain research I read. At that point I realized that I had used all three to make my worksheets more effective. There is something very appealing in this approach, using relevance to generate excitement. However, I am concerned that there are certain limitations to making this approach a steady diet.

It is not always possible to see the relevance of something you learn at the exact point in time when you learn it. In order to make sense of all the articles I researched, I needed to be able to read and understand what I was reading. That process began with Dick and Jane, and “run Spot run”; yes, I am that old! Luckily for me, it never occurred to me to wonder why it was important whether Spot ran or not.

We cannot limit ourselves to concepts and skills based only on their real world relevance. Some important skills are embedded within a larger question, and the reason for learning them may not be apparent.

Second, as the adult in the room, I feel it is my responsibility to make decisions in my student’s own best interests, whether they understand my reasons or not. It is much more fun to ride a bike without a helmet, and to travel without a seat belt. We don’t allow our kids to do either, whether or not they understand its importance. By attaching too many bells and whistles to a math lesson, we may be sending the message that pure math is boring, or that the legitimacy of what we teach must pass muster with our students.

I feel that one of the biggest shortcomings in today's students is their failure to accept that some of the things they learn can be necessary without being fun in the way they define it, nor instantly rewarding. This is a fact of real life.

Any parent who wants to raise a child (which I think is rewarding) has to change dirty diapers (which may not). While I certainly don’t equate factoring, for example, with dirty diapers, the fact is that many of my students do. At this point, I realized that my concerns had meshed with another key component of the brain research, meaningful practice.

I turned to an article that spoke to this issue, written by John Mighton in Scientific American. Mighton believes that every student is capable of learning math. The key is breaking down each skill or concept into micro steps and then practicing each step. He suggests that the teacher needs to provide guidance and scaffolding to help students master new concepts. According to an American Psychological Association Report, “Practice for Knowledge Acquisition”, student performance is affected by how much they engage in effective practice.

After reading this article, I realized that Mighton’s approach was also a big part of both my sheets and my lessons. I thought back over the hours (and I am not exaggerating) it sometimes took to analyze the steps needed to understand a new concept or skill, in order to present the material in a way my students could absorb.

And, I realized that the whole point of the “flip” was to provide more time in class to practice each new skill.

I agree with Dan Meyer that students need to be able to talk about math and work together; I encourage collaboration and peer instruction. But I also agree with John Migton that kids need guidance and a framework to learn information for its own sake.

My first teaching job was at Hunter College High School and my first chairman was an incredibly talented educator, Dr. Harry D. Ruderman. He always warned his teachers that if a lesson is properly structured our students will be willing to join us on the exploration of new territory. The minute a student asks, “why do we have to know this” what he is really saying is “you lost me”.

Learning is a fascinating activity. The brain loves to learn and that is our ace in the hole. I have found that my passion and love for math influences my students. I don’t teach to their limited vision of what is important; I try to invite them to share mine. 

In the end, I try for a Meyer-supported and Mighton-based classroom. The biggest support I have for continuing to teach this way comes from my students. After accepting that I will not teach what they would secretly call a “joke course”, they very reluctantly accommodate this crazy woman, with the quirky sense of humor, who actually loves math and often thinks math problems are “cute”! And as they see that they can learn the material and be successful, their delight and excitement is its own reward. I often hear, at year’s end, that they are amazed by how much they have learned and understood; they take pride in what they have accomplished. Students often tell me that they feel smarter and they say it with confidence; if they could learn math this year, then why not next year as well? A subject that they had previously written off is now a potential resource. That feeling can open doors and that is the whole point!

(Cross-posted on the The Emperor Can't Do Math)

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

(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 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

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.