Tech Rav
Discussions of Jewish EdTech

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Student Created Review Sheets

I have written in the past about the power of asynchronous online student discussion forums to facilitate knowledge sharing and higher order thinking. In this model, teachers post prompts connected to documents, links, or pictures and ask students to comment on the prompt and then comment on each other. I have been experimenting with another use for the discussion forum model, to facilitate student created review sheets.

The idea is rather simple. I posted the following prompt: 
Post your favorite essay question below of the 3 you submitted in class. Since all these questions will be visible the whole class, this online essay discussion will serve as an extra review sheet to help you in your preparation for Friday's test.
No 2 students can post the same essay.
In addition to the requirement for all students to do this as a homework assignment, I also added a tangible reward as an extra incentive for students to work hard composing questions. Any student whose essay question appeared on the test would get 3 points extra credit. Then I waited for the questions to arrive.

This activity accomplishes a number of things.

  1. It requires students to use higher order thinking in their review because they have to evaluate all the possible essay questions that might be given and judge which ones to use.
  2. It creates an extra review sheet for students who need one. Usually my review sheet only contains important people, places, and phrases. This review sheet contains sample essay questions which can be very valuable especially for the more concrete thinkers who have difficulty coming up with essays on their own.
  3. It helps students practice metacognition. They have to "think like the teacher" about the learning process.
A few caveats, 
  • I would not give this assignment early in the year. Students need to take at least 2 tests with me to get used to my testing style and understand what constitutes a good essay question in Nach before they can start writing their own.
  • Students can be very scared of this type of activity. I did receive some push back with students asking why they had to write essays since this is the job of the teacher. Therefore, one should give lots of hand holding, explanation in class of the assignment, and be flexible on due dates.
The test is Friday so I will see how this experiment goes. I am looking forward to reading the students answers to the essays, and their questions!

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

A Framework for Educational Technology for General and Jewish Studies

As the calendar year comes to a close, I would like to end the year where I began.

On January 1, 2010, I blogged about using technology to attack the problem of student boredom. Below is an article that I wrote a few months later elaborating on the same points. Both my blog posting and article are based on ideas first developed for my inaugural webinar for Yeshiva University's Institute for University-School Partnership which is archived here.

For many more viewpoints on the current state of educational technology in Jewish day schools, I recommend you read the many fascinating articles in the Fall 2010 edition of Jewish Educational Leadership which is devoted to j ed tech 2.0.

Monday, December 27, 2010

The Talmud and the Internet

I just reread the classic essay by Jonathan Rosen, The Talmud and the Internet. This book has always fascinated me as an educational technologist and a rebbe who has taught Talmud many times in Yeshiva high schools and who has trained teachers in Gemara Berura, a technology-based methodology for learning Talmud. 

The basic thesis of the book is that, the Talmud, the ancient Jewish classic, and the Internet, the modern information superhighway, are actually quite similar. They both have no clear beginning or end. Each are compared to an ocean, one "swims" in the Sea of the Talmud of Halacha", and one "surfs the web". Like one big ocean with many beaches, everything ultimately is connected to each other through cross-references or hyperlinks; it is just a matter of where you jump in that determines where the conversation begins.   

You can see 2 illustrations of this below:

Tonight, I was learning Gemara with my son Maseches Horayos for a siyum we will be making, and he intuited this nature of the Gemara. I gave as an example to him of student who was not learned as one who knows only one page of Talmud. My son commented that a person could never only know one page of Talmud since even a single Talmud page references so many other pages as well. Thus one who thinks that he knows only one page actually knows many more. To elaborate on my son's point, each page of Talmud then functions as its own homepage from which one can connect to subjects on this page and many others throughout Shas and Poskim. So too with the Internet.

This was the subject of a fascinating Lookjed discussion 2 years ago on Google, the Internet, and Education. You can read my post on this matter where I elaborate on the points above and make many additional connections here or here.  

I believe that this analogy can connect our current Gemara students to the logical structure and flow of Gemara in a way that would have difficult for my students to understand when I began teaching 15 years ago and near impossible to explain to me when I started as a student in high school 25 years ago. Our students are intimately familiar with asynchronous online discussion forums. This is what they are used to in their Facebook discussions and it is a format that has been adapted in many schools through the introduction of blogs and wikis. In a discussion forum, individuals first comment on a posted article, picture, or quote. Then as the discussion continues they start to comment on each other until after many layers of argument, proof, agreement, and disagreement someone returns once again on the original posting. 

This is the format of the Talmud. It is an asynchronous discussion forum in written form recording the oral discussions in the Batei Medrash in the academies at Sura, Neharda, and Pumpedisa spanning centuries. When I have given this analogy to my students, it has helped them to understand the fundamental difference between learning Gemara and all of their textbook based general studies subjects and caused them to see the relevance and overal organization of our rabbinic texts. 

One application for students of the analogy between the Talmud and the Internet is to have them design their own "Page of Talmud" modeled after an actual Gemara page which explains the role of the various commentaries and "hyperlinks" on the page. I have done this project as a WebQuest a number of times using Eliezer Segal's Page of Talmud as the basic student resource. Here is a question sheet that I created for Eliezer Segal's page with answers written by students and a sample student project. 

Since the Talmud is an ocean, I leave you with the advice given to me by my rebbe in Israel. Jump in and enjoy the swim!

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Blogging for an audience of one

People often ask me why I blog. Why do I devote so much time and effort into this undertaking? What benefit is there in it it for me? I must share with you a secret. I don't blog for fame and fortune. I don't even blog so that I can have a large audience of readers. I blog for an audience of one, myself. I blog so that I can have a space where I can document various websites and learning activities connected to Educational Technology and develop my thoughts and theories about EdTech.
I am not saying, G-d forbid, that you, the readers, are unimportant. You are very important to me and I get much pleasure from when you comment on my blog, email me about it, or retweet my postings. But you are just gravy. The real reason I blog is for me not you. 
As a student, I was always the quiet one who took copious notes, understood most if not all that was going on during the lesson, but would rarely raise my hand or speak unless directly called upon. When the teacher asked a question, often I was still trying to completely understand what the teacher was asking for, when another adroit student had already answered it. I am smart but not a quick thinker. I do not do well in verbal arguments and only debate well when I am overly prepared.

Writing helps me think. When I blog, I better develop my own ideas so that I can then share them with others both in my school and outside of it. I even copy and email many of my blog posts to my teachers in my school as a regular email column that I call "Tech Tips for Teachers".

I think it very important that we give opportunities for our students to do the same. To write well requires thinking deeply. If we want to develop thinking students in the various subject areas then writing is important across the curriculum. If we could get our kids to write online through blogging or online discussion forums (like we have on The Frisch School Wiki), we can help our students to be more thoughtful learners and succeed academically in all subject areas. 

Saturday, December 25, 2010

OMG My students are following me on Twitter!

Recently, a number of my students have joined Twitter and started following me. I asked them why, since most of my tweets are about educational technology and other geeky stuff which I would not think high school kids would be remotely interested in. But yet some of them seem to be. They have even complimented me on many of my postings (some are probably reading this blog right now since I tweet all my messages). 

I recently had a rewarding conversation with a senior who, by following my Twitter updates, discovered my Lookjed dispute with a colleague about applying literary analysis to the study of Tanach which I posted on my blog. He said that after reading both presentations, he saw the truth in both sides of the argument. I smiled and replied: Eilu V'eilu Divrei Elokim Chaim, these and these are the living word of G-d.  

So where is the line? When is it OK for your students to follow you and when is it not? 

In the past, I have written about how I believe it is inappropriate for teachers to use Facebook to find out information about students. This was the source of a very public scandal in the prep school Horace Mann. Even if my students, friended me and I was not "going undercover" to connect with their Facebook account, I still think this to be the case. Students treat Facebook as their private space, even though obviously anything shared with one's 350 closest friends can hardly be called private but that is the subject of a different posting. They quickly forget about any "adults" that they have allowed into their space and continue to post about whatever is on their minds. I would not like to be in the position to have to deal with personal issues that only came to my attention through my viewing a student's Facebook profile. Honestly, many times I don't even want to see my student's profile pictures which, unfortunately, are often beyond what would be considered proper in any public setting. Obviously, if an issue about Facebook was brought to my attention by other students then that might be a different story since it is a very different situation.  

So Facebooking one's students is out but Twitter is in. What's the difference? 

The public nature of Twitter makes it a fundamentally different animal than Facebook. Twitter is by default public while Facebook is private (or at least it claims to be). This is one reason why many kids hesitate to get a Twitter account. I would estimate that only a small minority of my students Twitter and those who do tend to be upperclassmen. Virtually all of my students Facebook and they probably started when they were 12 or 13. Kids are afraid to Twitter because of its public nature and for good reason. 

What Twitter is good for is sharing your passion with link minded people; not updating people on where you are or what you're doing. Those who follow me on Twitter know nothing about my family. They don't know what I like to do for fun. They don't even know where I live. But they know a lot about my job and my passion for educational technology. Most of the people I follow on Twitter are the same way. I learn so much from my personal learning network (PLN) of like-minded educators on Twitter. If one of my students would like to join this network and understands the limits of what should and should not be posted in this public environment then all the power to them.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Using YouTube and other streaming videos and interactive objects in your Smart Notebook presentation

Last night I was at Parent Teacher Conferences for my daughter. Her Chumash teacher, who is a wonderful educator and very adept with the SmartBoard, asked me how she could download videos from Youtube and other Jewish video sites like's Video Gallery  to be used in their Smart Notebook presentations.

The easiest answer is to just hyperlink the video's website address to a picture in the presentation. To do this in Smart Notebook, you click on the drop-down handle on the top right of every image and select "Link" and type the web address. You can then choose either to insert a corner icon so you have a reminder that the link is there or to link the entire image to the web address to surprise the students.

This method while easy is not always reliable or useful in a classroom. Some classrooms do not have Internet which makes streaming video impossible. Even with a reliable Internet connection, videos can take a long time to load and they can stop in the middle of a video stream for buffering. Also, the video you want could be taken down by the website host so you can no longer open the link. Finally, one might be hesitant to open the video in class because all of the other clutter on the page like ads and related videos could be distracting for your students at best or downright inappropriate.
  • To solve the final problem is YouTube one can use a site called ViewPure that will "purify" your YouTube videos so that you only see the video with nothing else on the page. However, this does not solve any of the other problems stated above. 
The best solution is to download the video to play directly in the Smart Notebook program since Smart Notebook comes with a built-in Flash player. This means that any Flash video (an .FLV file extension) or a Shockwave Flash object (an .SWF extension) will play directly in Smart Notebook. Therefore all one needs to do is download or copy the FLV or SWF file and one should be able to paste or insert it to Smart Notebook.

There are a number of methods to download the video or other objects from the web.
  1. Keepvid  is a website designed to download Youtube videos. Just open your video in your web broswer and copy the web address. Then open Keepvid and paste this address into the URL bar and click download. After a few moments, you will get a popup asking you if you want to allow a KeepVideApplet from Java to run. Click "Run". Keepvid will then give you a number of formatsfor saving your video. To run in Smart Notebook, choose "Download FLV low quality" and right-click "Save Target As" or "Save Link As" and navigate to where you want your video to download to. Sfter the video is downloaded in Smart Notebook, select Insert Flash Video File and you should be done. All you have to do is resize your video for your page (by dragging the corner handle) and lock it in place (using the drop-down menu on the top right corner of the video) and your video will play automatically in Notebook.    
    • A much faster method which was recently added by KeepVid is to drag a KeepVid Bookmarklet from the KeepVid homepage onto your Bookmarks bar. This will add a "Keep It" link. While watching a video on YouTube, just click Keep It and it wil automatically open a KeepVid page with options to save the video to your computer in the various formats. 
  2. Use Firefox Add-Ons. Go to Tools>Add-ons and search for "Video Downloadhelper". After you install this add-on and restart Firefox, every time you visit a site with a video an animated icon will appear that you can press to download the video. This is sometimes more reliable than Keepvid and works for many video sharing sites besides YouTube. If you wish to download animated maps or other Shockwave Flash objects (SWF files) you should search for and install Embedded Objects. This extension will download all embedded objects on the page including FLV and SWF files.
  3.  If Keepvid and Firefox extensions don't work than you will need to be a little more creative and "go under the hood" in order to download your FLV and SWF files and insert them in Smart Notebook. The thing to realize is that every object on a webpage is actually a file that is cached in the web browser after it is played on the page. What this means is if you can navigate to where the web browser saves all of its cached files, you should be able to just copy and paste the FLV or SWF files directly from the web browser to Smart Notebook. The easiest way to do this is using the Internet Explorer Web Browser. Below are step by step instructions for this. 
    • Go to Tools.
    • Go to Internet Options.
    • Under Browsing History click Settings.
    • Select View Files. This will open all of your Temporary Internet Files
    • You should sort by type and look for "ShockwaveFlash" and "FLV Files". There will be a little try and error to find the right ones. Look at the Internet Address and Last Accessed columns to limit your choices and find the correct files. Then just copy each file and paste it directly into Smart Notebook. If it's the right file, it will play directly in the Smart Notebook program.
As always, please share with me your feedback about how useful this blog post is in helping you download and install Flash Video and Shockwave Flash files into your Smart Notebook presentations.

    Student Wikis for Israel Advocacy

    If you are a reader of this blog you probably know about The Frisch School Wiki. This wiki was created to foster integration across the curricular areas. Teachers post materials on the wiki pages from various subjects centered around a common theme and students interaction primarily through the Discussion section of each page.

    I would like to share with you another wiki originating from The Frisch School which is completely created and run by students, Students4Israel. Since it's creation 3 years ago by a group of Frisch students, the Students4Israel wiki has expanded to include 5 participating schools. Below is the Students4Israel Mission Statement:
    Students4Israel is a dynamic community that fosters advocacy among high school students on behalf of the State of Israel. Our key vehicle is our website which seeks to be "one-stop shop" for high school Israel advocacy programs by providing factual information about Israel and the world, acting as an aggregator for the free sharing of ideas, and most importantly, bringing the community and high schools together to act as a united body in support of Israel. We are dedicated to helping students from all backgrounds and all schools advocate for Israel, both as individuals and through their schools. We continue to hope and pray for Israel's peace and safety.

    The reason a wiki was chosen as the platform for Students4Israel is because it is the fastest and easiest way to post information online. In one session with the student creators of the wiki, I was able to teach them what they needed to know to be able to continuously post compelling content online. We chose Wikispaces as our wiki provider since they offer ad free, password protected wikis for K-12 schools for free.

    Besides posting information of interest to students who wish to advocate on behalf of the State of Israel, this wiki has become the focal point for many online petition drives to the United States Congress, the President, and the United Nations. In the Frisch School, these petitions are facilitated by Israel Advocacy Laptop Stations that are set up in high traffic areas in the school so that hundreds of students can sign the petitions in a single day. With the help of the wiki, these petition drives are posted in one central location and coordinated with the other participating schools so that they all can be signing petitions on the same day.

    Our hope is that through this wiki and its many online projects, we can train the next generation of Jewish leaders who know how to advocate effectively for the State of Israel. If you are involved with a Yeshiva high school in the United States or elsewhere in the Diaspora and would like your students to become involved in this project, you can contact them using the following link: Contact Students4Israel.

    Tuesday, December 21, 2010

    Our Survey Says...

    Classroom game shows have always been a staple of exciting classroom reviews and informal educational programming. Through the use of technology, one can easily make these game shows incredibly realistic for a totally immersive experience. PowerPoint is the platform of choice for this. I have used PowerPoint to design Jeopardy, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, and The Weakest Link games for school Purim programs and Shiriyah, our yearly color war.

    There are three keys to effective PowerPoint game shows: graphics, sound effects, and hyperlinked slides. The game show has to look like the real thing through convincing graphics, sound like it by using the actual theme songs and various sounds associated with the game, and act like it through slides that advance for questions and answers in the same way they do in the actual game. I think the most important of these three are the sound effects. The right theme music and buzzer sounds gives the game show the genuine feel you want for a convincing experience. I also highly recommend using a game show buzzer system which your school might already own for college bowl or other teams.

    Although these games appear to be technically challenging to create they are actually quite easy through the use of predesigned templates. Here is a site for PowerPoint templates and sound effects for $100,000 Pyramid, The Hollywood Squares, Wheel of Fortune, Who Wants to be a Millionaire, Wheel of Fortune, Jeopardy, Family Feud, Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader, and Deal or No Deal. Here is another site with more PowerPoint game show templates. When I create my game shows I often choose more than one template of a specific game show and then combine the best elements of both. I also add my own flourishes such as the head of the teacher who is the game show host appearing instead of the head of Alex Trebek or Regis Philbin. If one does not wish to use PowerPoint to create game shows then one can also use Smart Notebook. Here are a list of Jeopardy templates from the Smart Exchange.

    • One idea for the Who Wants to be a Millionaire PowerPoint game is to use Poll Anywhere for the Ask the Audience option. This would involve creating multiple choice questions in advance on Poll Anywhere  for every Millionaire question. When a contestant chooses ask the audience, one would click on the Ask the Audience icon on each slide which would be hyperlinked to the specific Poll Anywhere multiple choice online poll for that slide. The audience would then be instructed to take out their cell phones in order to respond to the poll. One might want to purchase one of the Poll Anywhere plans for this as the free plan only allows up to 30 audience responses per question.

    I have found a number of game shows that do not even require a specific program to run since they either use HTML or Flash. One such online Jeopardy builder is Jeopardy Labs. This site contains a really simple editor to create Jeopardy games that are hosted online at a specific web address for each game. One can also browse the various Jeopardy games created by other users. These games look convincing. The one big drawback of them is that they lack sound effects which is a key feature to creating a convincing game show.

    My favorite site for Flash based games is a site that allows you to easily build Family Feud games complete with music, sound effects, and a scoreboard that keeps score. Family Feud is probably the best game to play for a large group since one can easily have 5 members per team and switch players every round so that in the course of a game 30-40 students can get the chance to play. Family Feud is also a favorite because one can survey real students and teachers prior to the show for the "100 people survey". Here is the site for the Family Feud Flash based game. I created a Kashrut Family Feud game based on the Flash program above.

    Click on the following link to access this complete: Kashrut Family Feud game with question generator. It will require you to create a Dropbox login.

    Have fun! It's Time for Family Feud!

    Monday, December 20, 2010

    Google Does it Again! Body Browser: Google Earth for the Human Body

    Google keeps making free applications that offer a rich, educational, and totally immersive virtual experience that is out of this world. I have blogged earlier about the first of these applications, Google Earth. This program, with it's integrated birds-eye and street view, it's place-markers, 3D buildings, photos, and videos is breathtaking. With specialized overlays for historical and biblical places and events it has become a leading technology app for the Jewish Day School classroom. If you have not taken a look recently, you should because Google Earth keeps getting better with additional views of the sky, ocean, the moon and Mars.

    Now Google has done it again, this time for the human body. Welcome to Body Browser a beta product of Google Labs. This web-based program features a full virtual tour of the human body with separate layers for the Muscular System, Skeletal System, Digestive System, Circulatory System, and Nervous System. To the left, is a picture of the controls to navigate to the different layers. The transparency of each of these layers can be adjusted individually for a unique user experience. If one wants a more detailed description of what one is seeing one can click the Show Labels button on the bottom of the slider and labels will appear for the various organs on the screen.

    Besides the slider to adjust the different layers, one can navigate through the body by moving in and out using the zoom and by moving up and down and in a circular motion using the scroll wheel so that one can easily focus in on any part of the body. One can also type specific organs or systems into the search bar similar the way one would type locations into the search bar in Google Earth to navigate directly to that part of the body.

    Below are a number of screenshots so you can get a feel for the amazing precision and detail of this program.

    Here is a video demonstration of the Body Browser and its various layering tools:

    Since this program is a brand new Beta version, it has some limitations one should be aware of before trying to use it. Although, it requires nothing to install since it is purely web-based, one will find after navigating to the website: that the program probably will still not appear since it does not work in standard web browsers. The simplest way to run the program is by downloading and installing the latest Beta version of Google Chrome or Mozilla Firefox. This will mitigate one using it in a networked school environment without getting permission and assistance installing the Chrome or Firefox Beta from the network administrator. The program also currently only comes with a virtual female model since, unlike G-d in the book of Genesis, Google created woman first. A virtual male model should be available in the Body Browser in the coming weeks.

    Applications to Education:
    This program can transform a middle school or high school science class. When projected on a Smart Board, students can easily navigate to various organs themselves by touching the board and can choose the level of detail they would like to focus on. Since the program is so detailed and versatile, it can be used in almost any level class from middle school science to 9th grade Biology, to AP Biology and Anatomy. Today, I showed it to one of my teachers who teaches both 9th grade Biology and a Junior elective in Anatomy. I could see her excitement as she glanced through the website for the first time. This program should be an excellent tool not only for frontal learning in class but for student review out of class. Since it is purely web-based and merely requires installing a Beta version of Chrome or Firefox, it will easily work on almost any students' personal computer both Mac and PC. A teacher can even design an online quiz or WebQuest for students to complete based on the Body Browser to direct them to the various areas they should be focusing on.

    I highly recommend that you give the Body Browser a try for yourself and please continue to share with me your thoughts.

    Sunday, December 19, 2010

    Applying literary analysis to Tanach

    Recently Rabbi Yaakov Blau, a colleague of mine at The Frisch School posted a critique of the use (or overuse) of literary analysis in teaching Tanach to the Jewish Education Discussion Forum Lookjed. You can read Rabbi Blau's well thought out critique and various responses to it by clicking on the following discussion thread.

    I recently posted a response Rabbi Blau which should appear in a Lookjed forum in the near future. While it deals more with teaching Tanach than educational technology, I decided to post it for my readers on this blog since it might be of interest for those in Jewish education and it does contain some interesting applications to Ed Tech. My posting appears below. As always, I welcome your insightful feedback.

    Re: Applying literary analysis to Tanach
    While Rabbi Yaakov Blau, my esteemed colleague at The Frisch School, makes some valid points about the overuse of literary techniques in teaching Tanach, I must take issue with him on both a personal and pedagogic level.

    On a personal level, I remember most of my Tanach classes on the elementary and high school as a dry exercise in learning pasuk by pasuk with Rashi and occasionally other commentaries. Obviously, I value Rashi as the father of all the commentaries, and do not discount our other great medieval and modern commentators such as Ibn Ezra, Rashbam, Ramban, Seforno, Radak, Ralbag, Metzudot, Netziv, and Malbim and the list goes on and on. However, what this approach lacked was any knowledge of the "big picture" of what was going on or much room for original ideas and interpretations on the part of the teacher or the student.

    I contrast this with my experience learning in a post-high school Israel program when I first fell in love with Tanach. My Madrich in Yeshivat Shaalvim, Rabbi Moshe Shulman, introduced me to what at the time I considered to be the revolutionary approaches of Rav Meidan and Rav Yoel Bin Nun. What made these approaches so exciting for me were how they looked at entire story units asking the big questions and daring to give original responses to these questions based both on their piecing together of various commentaries and their close reading of nuances of language and theme in the text. This is what I now attempt to impart to my students.

    Pedagogically, let me deal which each of Rabbi Blau's issues point by point.

    1. Breaking up the perek: I grant that our chapters are an artificial convention created by Christian monks in the early middle ages and can at times diverge from a traditional Jewish reading (although Nehama Leibowitz often had interesting exercises where she asked her students to justify why the Christians chose to break up the chapter where they did). However, the biggest value in having students read the chapter and break it down into sections is requiring them to go through the entire chapter before delving into the individual pesukim and commentaries. For example, if we wish our students to get a feeling for the story of Yosef in the parshiot from these past few weeks or the rise of Yehu in Kings II Chapters 9-10, then a Bekiut style reading chapter by chapter is imperative. 
      • As a technological aside, one great way to have students illustrate their breakdowns of the pesukim, is to project the perek on a Smart Board and have students come up to highlight their different sections in various colors writing a title for each.
    2. Milat Hamincha: This exercise when done right can further help the student to see connections and general themes that the Tanach is trying to communicate to the reader. For example, in the Yaakov and Yosef storys which we have been reading in the parshat hashavua, the word HaKeR appears repeatedly in various contexts. The students can see that from various places in the story where these words keep appearing the general theme of hiding and revealing from the time Yaakov hides his identity from his father to get the blessing, to when he is then tricked by Lavan who hides Leah's identity, and his son's who hide the fact that Yosef has been sold to Egypt, and Tamar who hides her identity from Yehuda but then asks him if he recognizes his belongings which she attained in her secret encounter with him. This finally comes to a climax when Yosef recognizes his brothers in Egypt but hides his identity from them. In this example, the mila mincha stitches all of these various stories together. This is an exercise I find tremendously exciting to do with my students and, with the right scaffolding, I firmly believe, I can help my students to see this type of mila hamincha on their own. 
      • One tool that is great for revealing the mila mincha in 1-2 chapters of text is Wordle,, which creates a word cloud of most commonly used words and works beautifully with Hebrew and nekudot. Here is an example of one that I created for Kings II Chapter 9 where one can clearly see the prominence of the mila hamincha, HaShaLoM: [].
    3. Chiastic Structure: This is also a great tool especially in Biblical poetry and one that students can easily find on their own especially when looking for it in individual pesukim. I prefer to call this Tav structure since the Greek Chi and our English X were the letter Tav in ancient K'Tav Ivri.
      Refer to the following chart:
      Chiastic structure can represent a number of things most notably divine justice as explained by Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks in his introduction to his siddur or as a mark of death as seen in Ezekiel Chapter 9 and the Gemara Shabbat 55a.
    4. Intertextuality: I think I illustrated this above in my example from the stories of Yaakov and Yosef. More examples are too numerous to mention. Once again, if scaffolded well in a classroom setting, students can be trained to find these parallels themselves. This only adds to the excitement and understanding of the class as they view a text in a new light based on its comparison with a parallel piece from elsewhere in Tanach.
    Once again, I thank Rabbi Yaakov Blau for starting this insightful conversation. I hope that through a combination of the parshanut and literary approaches we can continue to excite our students in learning Tanach and give them the skills to come up with new insights on their own.

    Dropbox: The Future is Now

    Cloud computing has become a catchphrase in technology today. Simply defined cloud computing involves saving your documents on remote servers over the Internet for access from any computer and for sharing and collaboration. Clearly, this is the future of computing, where most of our computers and smartphones for that matter will become dumb terminals which one will use to log into one's virtual operating system, applications, and documents. The advantages of this are obvious. Remote backup of all files, instant access on any computer, and the ability to work together with anyone from anywhere. This is the future of computing. With applications like Google Docs, SkyDrive, and Dropbox, the future is now.

    My favorite is dropbox. This program is revolutionary in its simplicity. It gives you a shared folder that you can load on any computer, Mac or PC or even an IPhone, Android, or BlackBerry. You can save documents to this folder whether you are connected to the Internet or offline just like you would use any other folder. When your computer is connected to the Internet, this folder syncs automatically to an online folder and to every other dropbox folder that you have on every other computer. It even gives you a Public folder which you can use to share documents of any size with anyone by sending them a direct link. I use dropbox on MacBook Pro, my Dell PC, and on a computer on my school network and all documents sync flawlessly. The only limitation of dropbox is space. You get 2 GB of space for free. If others sign up for dropbox using your link, this space can grow to 8GB. You can pay for additional space at a nominal fee. Please click on the following link to sign up for dropbox and help me get more space on mine at the same time: Signup for Dropbox. By the way, if you sign up by referral you get 250MBs extra space too so it's a win-win.

    What are some applications of dropbox for school? 
    1. Get rid of that pesky thumb drive. Save all your documents you need for school in your dropbox and you will no longer need to worry about emailing them to yourself or transporting them on a USB drive that can be easily lost or stolen. You can access them in school even if you cannot load the dropbox app on your computer simply by logging in from the website.
    2. Help facilitate better collaboration on student projects. Students can solve the problem of having some of their documents saved in different people's profiles. When working together, they can use the public dropbox folder which they can access online in school and also save on their personal laptop or home computer. Dropbox even saves a revision history of every version of a file to easily figure out which student has worked on a project and which is merely piggybacking on others work.
    3. Create a shared folder for teachers to access at home. Once again, teachers no longer have to worry about getting on their school network at home since they can collaborate on documents in their dropbox.
    Some similar applications are Google Docs and Windows Skydrive
    • Google Docs allows you to work entirely in the cloud and gives you a free Word Processor, Presentation tool, Spreadsheet program, and the ability to create forms and drawers. It's drawback is that you cannot use it as a shared folder to collaboratively work with some of the powerful tools that programs like Microsoft PowerPoint, Smart Notebook, or Keynote provide. 
    • Windows Skydrive theoretically gives you everything dropbox offers and is MUCH larger with 25 GBs of free space. The one problem with it is that it does not have a reliable app to create a shared folder that will automatically sync with your Skydrive on your computer and it limits individual file sizes to 50 MBs or less.
    Enjoy working in the cloud! This is only the beginning!

    Thursday, December 16, 2010

    How NOT to use technology in education

    A few weeks ago one of my children visited me at The Frisch School where I am the Director of Educational Technology. After a day at Frisch, my child said to me, "Abba, now I finally understand what your job is. You not only help teachers use technology in class but you help them figure out what technologies not to use."

    My child was touching upon a very important point. Not all technology is educational beneficial. Some technology, in fact, is detrimental to student learning. My rule of thumb is that for a technology to be worthwhile it should give teachers more tools to reach different kinds of learners.

    For example, if a teacher is only teaching by speaking, she is only reaching auditory learners. If the same teachers uses a whiteboard to write down key words and draw charts or diagrams, that teacher can now reach visual learners. Give that same teacher a Smart Board with access to the Internet and learning tools like Google Earth, Smart Ideas, or Gemara Berura and that teacher can now have students interact with the board. Give the teacher access to a laptop cart or a computer lab and help them create WebQuests or other worthwhile computer assisted activities and the students can learn by doing.

    The key in my description above is the TEACHER. Any technology that seeks to enhance the teacher can be tremendously powerful. However, the reverse is also true. Any technology that seeks to diminish or replace the teacher can have disastrous effects. That is what worries me so much about so many technology programs. I see administrators making technology decisions not based on what can improve teacher instruction and student learning but based on what can replace teachers to "save" costs.

    For example, in my work for my school, I have reviewed a number online learning programs like Study Island, Math XL, and Acellus Learning System. All of these programs are wonderful tools if used to help a teacher differentiate instruction, review key concepts learned in class, or provide remediation and enrichment above and beyond the regular lesson. But when these programs are used to REPLACE teachers as many schools hope to do especially in the current economic climate it is horrible.

    Similarly, video conferencing is a great tool to give students access to experts in the field that they could not normally interact with in the classroom due to geographic difference or economic unfeasibility. But when a video conference class is used to replace a real teacher in the room that is not improving the instruction. A talking head on a screen or a computer in the classroom can NEVER replace a competent teacher.

    I trust my teachers. Let them teach. Give them all the tools technology can provide to help them accomplish this. But never seek to replace them with technology.

    Wednesday, December 15, 2010

    Take out your Cell Phones, class. You will need it for today's lesson!

    In the past, I have blogged about using Twitter in the classroom. My dream has been to create a venue for 100% student participation where student responses immediately pop up on the Smart Board for the entire class to discuss. This method is possible through Twitter when every student tweets their responses to a teacher prompt using either a laptop or a cell phone and these responses are projected using either a Twitter app or the class Twitter page. However, this approach requires a great deal of setup time. Every student needs to create a Twitter account and to follow a class Twitter page, usually one that is private so no one else can follow these tweets. Also, many students are hesitant to use Twitter and certainly don't want a Twitter account created in their name. This has caused me to use Twitter infrequently in class.

    Enter Poll Everywhere. Poll Everywhere is a free web-based tool that allows teachers to post questions online using a "hidden URL" that students answer by texting a code followed by their response to a specific number. When students hit send their responses magically appear online or on a PowerPoint slide.

    This type of response system has been proliferating in higher education as evidenced by the NY Times article: More Professors Give Out Hand-Held Devices to Monitor Students and Engage Them. A similar clicker type of system called the Smart Response PE Interactive System is being marketed by Smart Technologies, makers of the Smart Board. The problem with these types of systems are they are expensive since you have to purchase a set of clickers for every class which can easily malfunction, be lost, or stolen. Furthermore, these clickers usually only allow for multiple choice or true/false responses which I consider to be a low level of student participation.

    Poll Anywhere does not have any of these problems. Firstly, it offers a free version which is adequate for most classes and a more robust version that is still very inexpensive. Also, Poll Anywhere lets you post either multiple choice or free response questions. Most importantly, it harnesses a technology that virtually all high school students already have, the cell phone, and uses a medium that adolescents already use on a constant basis, text messaging. Students love this because they feel that they are doing something devious by using what is normally contraband in school, the cell phone, for educational purposes.

    I highly recommend that you give Poll Everywhere a try in your class and please send me your feedback so we can continue the conversation.

    Sunday, December 12, 2010

    Presentation on Music of the Soul

    I am proud to say that I collaborated with Mrs. Tikvah Wiener and Mrs. Racheli Weiss on the following presentation. The prime mover for this one was Mrs. Racheli Weiss who is not only an excellent educator but a talented musician who it was a pleasure to work with. This presentation combines a vast amount of research with visuals of the musical instruments of the Bible and beyond and audio examples of Jewish musical compositions and how they developed over time.

    The presentation was originally created using PowerPoint 2007. I used a PowerPoint add-on called iSpring to convert the PowerPoint presentation to Flash format and then upload it to a website to host the presentation called Slideboom. What is so amazing about this tool is it not only uploads the PowerPoint but all the transitions as well which it handles much better than other presentation sharing sites like SlideShare. It also works very well with Hebrew. Finally, it even uploads the audio and video files which are linked the PowerPoint and plays them automatically. You can see the finished presentation below. Please remember to click next to advance the slides as I did not want them to advance automatically and cut off some of the musical renditions.

    Facilitating Compelling Online Discussions

    In the past, I have written extensively about The Frisch School Wiki which we use as our online discussion forum for our students about topics in various Judaic and General Studies subject areas related to curricular themes. In the course of moderating these thousands of student postings, I have noticed some patterns for what creates a successful student discussion with a great deal of student interactive and evidence of higher order thinking.

    Let me share with you some tips for facilitating these compelling discussions where students utilize higher order thinking skills and interact with each other.

    1. The key to a good wiki discussion is the teacher prompt. The best type of wiki questions are those that are Essential Questions. These are defined by Grant Wiggins, the creator of the Understanding by Design curricular approach, as questions that cause genuine inquiry into big ideas and core content; provoke deep thought and lively discussion; stimulate on-going rethinking of big ideas; spark meaningful connections to prior learning; and recur naturally throughout the curriculum. These discussions often involve synthesis of a number of different sources of information. Using the wiki platform, teachers can ask students to reflect on ideas presented in class and on articles, videos, or cartoons posted on the wiki page in composing their response. This can often spark an even richer discussion.
      • Two recent wiki discussions in my school that successfully dealt with these types of “big” questions were the discussion on Torah and Science in the context of the book of Genesis and a discussion on the Mosque near Ground Zero which you can follow here. Each of these discussions dealt with key curricular issues which evoked lively discussion amongst our students. In the case of Torah and Science, the place of the book of Genesis in light of modern science is always an issue that our Modern Orthodox students grapple with as they should. In the case of the mosque, students were asked to balance their personal opinions about Ground Zero and the role of Islam in America with first amendment issues of freedom of religion.
    2. A second point to ponder is the importance of the teacher consciously facilitating discussion amongst his/her students in the wiki question. Teachers should not assume that just because students can read every other student’s response on the wiki, they will. In most cases, our students who are already harried with homework in 11 different subjects and just want to get the assignment done, will not take the time to read their fellow students postings- unless they are required to. Every wiki discussion should, therefore, also contain an interactive component. The simplest way to do this is to add a second part to the assignment that requires students to comment on another student’s posting by explaining why s/he agrees or disagrees with the post. Some more sophisticated examples of this would be to ask the students to rate the best wiki response and explain why it was superior to the others or to assign a student summarizer for each wiki discussion whose job is to read all of the student postings and summarize the highlights from each of them.
      • One thing teachers should NEVER do in facilitating student interaction in a wiki discussion is to state his/her own personal opinion. A teacher can post an encouraging post, complimenting students on their participation in the conversation, but s/he should not become a participant in the discussion. Once the teacher becomes a participant in the discussion, this usually causes all of the students to shut down and leave it to the teacher to do the thinking for them.
    3. One final point is the importance of knowing what does NOT constitute a good wiki discussion. While our students really appreciate using the wiki when it is done right (although they might not admit it since it’s still a homework assignment), they really resent an online discussion which they do not consider to be a wiki discussion. This is a discussion prompt that is the opposite of the essential question that I started with. When the wiki merely asks people to share simple knowledge or to do something which they could better do by composing a paragraph or short essay and handing it in, this does not constitute an effective use of the wiki. One should use one’s discretion and only use the wiki for big questions that encourage student interaction.

    You have all this great technology in your classroom, Use It!

    The Smart Board has been proliferating in various classrooms both through US stimulus funds and grants from organizations like the Legacy Heritage Foundation (more about them) and the Gruss Foundation's Center for Initiatives in Jewish Education. This interactive white board is usually accompanied by many other powerful tools including video and audio on demand, Internet access, Smart Notebook software and the list goes on and on. So my next Tech Tip for Teachers is a simple one.  

    You have all this great technology in your classroom, Use It!
    I am not advocating exclusively using technology for every lesson. What I am saying is that since in any given class you have many types of learners, you want to reach them with as many modalities as possible. The Smart Board coupled with the projector and sound system in every room is a powerful tool to do just that. You can reach visual learners by projecting images on the board, auditory learners through audio based lessons, kinesthetic and spatial learners by calling on students to manipulate the board etc. As a teacher, you need as many tools as possible to reach your students. The Smart Board gives you so many more.

    Here is one specific suggestion to get you started.

    Use Smart Notebook:
    The Smart Notebook presentation software loaded on every computer at Frisch is ideally created for the Smart Board. There are special tools for Math teachers, interactive activities in the Lesson Activity Toolkit for review, great learning devices like the Screen Shade and Smart Pen, and the ability to watch video directly from the Smart board without streaming online. Even if your lesson is as simple as bringing up a text of Gemara or a Shakespearean sonnet to highlight and underline key passages, putting that piece of text into a Smart Notebook file instead of highlighting from a website allows you to save the notes for future classes. These notes can then be used as review before a test or exported as a PDF and posted on the website for weaker students who need the extra support. Smart Notebook also helps you plan lessons that integrate that text into a rich multi-media lesson with supporting charts, images, and activities. You have so many technology tools available to you in the classroom. Use them!
    • You can download thousands of Smart Notebook lessons created in Yeshiva Day Schools in any subject area (both General and Judaic Studies) from the Legacy Heritage Fund Smart Notebook Lesson Database at:
    • You can download a free 30-day trial of Smart Notebook software for your home computer using the following link: Ask the network administrator in your school for a product key to convert your trial software to the permanent version.
    SJED Lesson Stimulus Contest! - Legacy Heritage Fund:
    As an extra added incentive to create interactive Smart Notebook Lessons, you can upload your finished Smart Notebook lessons to the Legacy Heritage Fund Database for the chance to win many prizes including a trip for 2 to Israel for yourself or a portable Smart Board for your school. Please see the details below:
    Legacy Heritage Fund is pleased to announce the SJED Lesson Stimulus Contest!
    Day schools, supplemental schools and teachers are eligible to win SMARTBoards,
    a trip to Israel, gift certificates, personality appearances and many other
    exciting prizes. For more details about the contest, please follow this link:
    For questions, please contact Marci Karoll at Legacy Heritage Fund, or at 212-578-8190 x126.

    Back in the saddle again

    I have not blogged for a while. I could give various excuses, school workload, wanting to spend more time with my family, making a Bar and Bat Mitzvah for my children etc. etc. etc. The real reason that I have not blogged is because of a promise that I made to myself which I now regret. I promised that I would not post to my blog until I had completed my doctoral dissertation proposal.

    You see for the past few years I have been an ABD (All But Dissertation). I have completed my coursework for a dissertation in educational technology from Yeshiva University's Azrieli Graduate School or Jewish Education and Administration. This summer I made a lot of headway in my dissertation work. I decided on my area of research, online discussion forums in a Yeshiva High School. I have already collected my data since I have been moderating the discussion forums on the Frisch School Wiki for 3 years and have an archive of every discussion forum containing thousands of postings. I even determined my research method, a qualitative study using grounded theory to look at student interactive patterns and evidence for higher order thinking skills in postings to the online discussion forum on the Frisch wiki. I also collected a great deal of articles and books for my Literature Review. I went through all of them taking copious notes using the Qualitative Research Tool, Atlas, to help me organize my thoughts. I exported all of these notes into a Word document ready to compose my Lit Review.

    Then life got in the way. Summers are easy to get work done. During the school year it is much harder. Balancing my work at Frisch and time for family, Limud Torah, and recreation, I have had little time to work on my dissertation. I thought that my promise not to blog would give me more time for my doctoral studies but this has not been the case. It has merely deprived me of my primary forum for fleshing out my technology ideas and deprived you, the reader, of the opportunity to join in on the conversation.

    So I am back in the saddle again. I am restarting blogging with the hope that this will get my intellectual juices flowing. This should benefit my continued growth in educational technology, hopefully, contribute to your knowledge and application of Ed Tech, and perhaps, hit the restart button on my dissertation proposal as well. I welcome all encouragement and/or ideas for pulling this off. I will keep you posted.