Tech Rav
Discussions of Jewish EdTech

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Teaching Isaiah and Amos using the Smart Board

The Smart Board is a great tool for teaching Tanach since one can easily manipulate text, show biblical images, and use the highlighters and pens to point out important themes. This is especially true for biblical poetry where the nuances of language, syntax, and structure are most important. I have created a number of Smart Notebook lessons to try to take advantage of these tools for teaching Amos and Isaiah.

Below is my Smart Notebook lesson on Isaiah Chapter 1 which I recently uploaded to the Smart Exchange:

I have loaded some of my other Notebooks onto my virtual Skydrive (a free service from Microsoft that gives you 25 GBs of free storage space in the cloud) in a public folder. For Introduction to Later Prophets, which exceeds the 50MB file limit for Skydrive, I uploaded it using Google Docs. Please feel free to use these files, modify them, and share with your colleagues.

I only ask three things:
1. Please give me constructive feedback so I can continue to improve my lessons.
2. Please give me credit if you use my slides or modify them for your classroom.
3. Please send me your modified versions of the Notebook so I can gain from your improvements.

Here is my Smart Notebook files on:
Please note you need to download Smart Notebook to view these files.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Using Voicethread for Judaic Studies

Voicethread is an amazing tool to conduct asynchronous audio discussions online. Much like a discussion forum on a blog or wiki students can post comments about a teacher's question or a visual cue. However, Voicethread is different because students are not limited to typing their comments, they can say them as well. To do this Voicethread uses a model not of a discussion thread but of a series of comments by user avatars surrounding a picture. The comments can be posted on Voicethread using a webcam, computer microphone, or even using a telephone. The user enters her phone number and Voicethread automatically calls back with a recorded message to leave the comment after the beep. This means that one can use Voicethread for homework assignments without worrying that some students will not have the equipment necessary to complete it. If you have a phone, then you can use Voicethread.

There are many educational applications for Voicethread. One of the most important for a Tanach or Talmud class is to practice reading skills. Every teacher complains that students do not know how to read. In the lower level classes, they have trouble just reading the Hebrew/Aramaic correctly. In higher classes, students might be able to read the words but do they know how to translate? Do they pause in the right places and use the correct inflection to indicate the difference between a question, answer, or statement? The primary challenge teachers face in teaching reading is reading is boring. It is hard to give an engaging lesson that addresses many different learning styles and excites students with higher order thinking while at the same time having the time and patience to call on many students to read. This becomes even more of an issue in high school where students cannot be motivated easily to listen to each other read.

Voicethread becomes the perfect venue for this. It uses educational technology to teach something everyone agrees is important but cannot easily be done any other way. One can post the verses from Tanach or the lines from the Gemara as the picture in the middle of the thread and then the students can all be required to read it. Not only can students read on Voicethread, they can listen to their reading and correct it, or listen to others read to model their own reading. Voicethread also has advanced features like hidden URLs and comment moderation so teachers can easily control the Voicethread by not allowing inappropriate comments and can keep privacy concerns on a thread to a minimum.

I just setup my first Voicethread with my class today. The assignment is due Friday so one student has posted his comments so far. Here are the step-by-step instructions that I gave to my students (with the direct thread link removed to protect the privacy of my students).

Here are the instructions for our first Voice Thread Reading Assignment:

  1. Click on the following link to access the VoiceThread assignment: (put direct Voicethread link here)
  2. You will need to sign in, to leave your comments.
  3. Click, “Sign in or register” in the bottom left hand corner of the screen.
  4. When you get to the sign-in screen, click “Not Registered Yet? Register!”.
  5. You will have to enter your first and last names (NO NICKNAMES!), your email, and a password to log in.
  6. After you are signed in, click “Comment” in the middle lower part of the screen.
  7. You can comment either by using a microphone in your computer, your webcam, or by giving your number and it will call you so you can comment with your phone. Do not type comments as this is a reading assignment so only audio comments are accepted.
  8. After you comment, you will see it and be able to listen to it. However, it will not appear for others until I moderate it. Be careful to only leave appropriate comments.
  • If you choose a profile picture, only use one that I would consider appropriate for a Torah class.

Why don't you give Voicethread a try with your class! Send me your comments about your experiences either as a comment on this blog or speak your comments on a Voicethread of your own and send me the web address to access the thread. I would love to hear!

Thursday, May 06, 2010

What I learned from the Berman Jewish Policy Archive and JESNA's Conference on Technology and Jewish Education

Yesterday, I had the privilege of attending a conference entitled, "Technology and Jewish Education: A Revolution in the Making?"Sponsored by The Berman Jewish Policy Archive at NYU Wagner and JESNA’s Lippman Kanfer Institute. JESNA is known for their Jewish Education 3.0 project which is what intrigued me enough to be a part of this conference.

This was my first experience with this rather diverse group of Jewish educators, Jewish communal workers, and lay leaders all interested in educational technology. I found the presenters and discussion to be stimulating. You can read highlights of it on Twitter using the hashtag #je3conf.

Here are my initial thoughts about what I learned.
  1. There is a strong interest in creating rich online resources for Jewish textual learning. This is not just true of the Orthodox Jewish population as many participants from various religious backgrounds expressed this same desire. They don't just want to read articles about Jewish learning. We have enough of these online on various websites like or They want resources to learn text. For example, they desire Hebrew text which can be hyperlinked to translations, cross references, video, and audio files when clicked and the ability to use this text in real time chavruta learning using annotations on the page and skype. 
    • The presenter who best illustrated this was Daniel Sieradski . His examples are featured on It seems that many others shared Daniel's sentiments. This would obviously assist many different types of learners both formal learners in Jewish day schools and Yeshivot, as well as independent learners for whom the Internet might be their primary source for Jewish information. 
    • One challenge that was expressed in connection with this was the need to create free open source platforms for Jewish digital text to build these rich applications. Even ancient text like Tanakh and Talmud becomes copyrighted when digitized on websites like Mechon Mamre. The Jewish community needs to invest in a database of free digital text created in the latest formats like XML (I don't know what this is but it was Daniel's format of choice) so that developers can work on this.   
  2. Technology is no longer a separate subject but needs to be seamlessly integrated into everything we do. Nobody says today we will be learning with a whiteboard or a pencil. We just use them as needed for the lesson. Technology needs to be the same way. For our students this is already the case. Technology is a natural part of their everyday life. If we forbid their use of these technologies in class (like forbidding Smart Phones or laptops) this is unnatural for them.  We need to find ways to integrate the technologies students already use into their learning rather than ban them. Here are two examples from the past few days, the first a positive one and the other a case where I missed the opportunity to let a student use technology to further his religious growth.
    • One of my English teachers was learning a poem with her class that used the words "host" and "bliss". In the context of the work, these obviously were (Christian) religious references that were designed to elicit very specific imagery in the minds of the readers which our students would not know. Rather than teaching these references frontally, the teacher asked her students many of whom had laptops in class what they thought they symbolized. They quickly looked up these words online and were able to share with the class their significance. This was faster, more efficient, and more student-centered than the traditional instructor method for presenting the significance of these references.
    • Just today, I took away a cell phone from a student who was texting during morning prayers. I asked the student after davening was over how he could be texting others at a time he should be focused on talking to God. He told me that he was texting his mother to get the names of some cholim (sick people) that he wanted to daven for during his Shemoneh Esray. Because I had quickly confiscated his phone rather than first investigate the reason for its use, I deprived him of helping others through his prayers.  
  3. Technology can help create new and dynamic communities of learners. Just my presence at this conference was one example. I barely knew anyone in the room personally coming in. When I asked how I was invited, I was told that I was recommended by people who follow me on Twitter. I soon realized that many of these total "strangers" were actually my friends and confidants from my virtual world. Technology was able to create a community for me with like minded people to learn and discuss new ideas. This is something that we can encourage amongst our students as well, either to enhance a traditional school community through "blending" classroom learning with online interaction, or by creating interactions with students who could not otherwise join us in class because of geographic distance.
    • For example, in our school we have created wikis to serve as virtual communities where students can work together on educational projects and communicate using asynchronous online discussion forums. We find that these interactions outside of class allow for students in different classes to connect with each other, something impossible in the typical high school day. They also help students, who might have much to say but who are afraid to speak, to express their thoughts in writing through the online discussions.
    • Our wiki has also allowed us to collaborate on projects with sister schools in Nahariya and Gush Eztion. In this case, the wiki technology allows for students in different parts of the world with different time zones to work together in the same "classroom" even if they are not working at the same place or time.
These are just a few of my observations about what JESNA's conference says about the future of Technology and Jewish Education. You can read another account of the conference here. Thank you to all of the people at The Berman Jewish Policy Archive at NYU Wagner and JESNA’s Lippman Kanfer Institute for putting together this stimulating conference and inviting me to participate. Hopefully we can continue this discussion in the future.