Tech Rav
Discussions of Jewish EdTech

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

What are you planning for Digital Learning Day tomorrow?

Tomorrow is Digital Learning Day, a day devoted to reflection on best practices for utilizing educational technology to enhance teaching and learning. You might be wondering what is the big deal about this day since for many of you already every day is a digital learning day with the use of the Smart Boards for interactive lessons, Wikis and Blogs for communication and collaboration, and integration of many other computer applications and web-based tools for helping our students attain mastery in various subjects. However, it is always important to continue to add to your teaching repertoire and technology can be a great tool to do this so I highly recommend that you take tomorrow as an opportunity for continued growth.

Here are a few suggestions:
1. Attend a webinar:

  • Webinars are free and easy opportunities for professional development embedded directly into your school day. 
  • The following webinar by the YU School Partnership is being given by Dr. Eliezer Jones, YU School Partnership's Educational Technology Specialist along with Esther Feldman, The Lookstein Center for Jewish education's Director of Information Technology and Financial Services and Smadar Goldstein, Founder and Director of JETS - Jerusalem EdTech Solutions which we used to conduct a webinar about Ethiopian Jewry with our entire 10th grade as a part of their Frisch Africa Connection. It is taking place tomorrow from 12-1PM. Here is the link:

2. Read an article:

  • I wrote an article last year on utilizing technology in Judaic Studies for Jewish Action. It might offer a good introduction to this topic. You can read the article here: Technology in the Classroom

3.Conduct a classroom poll.

  • Polleverywhere is a great tool to get instant feedback from all of your students using texting on their cell phones what is called BYOD, Bring Your Own Device. 
  • I have blogged in the past about using PollEverywhere as a classroom exit ticket here.

4. Utilize your Smart Board as a truly interactive tool:

  • Smart Boards have become ubiquitous and virtually all of us use them on a regular basis but do we really utilize it's capabilities to promote student interaction or is it just a glorified white board. One easy way to make our lessons more interactive is by using the Smart Notebook Lesson Activity tool kit which is installed on EVERY computer at Frisch. 
  • Here are simple step-by-step instructions:

5. "Flip" your classroom:

  • Many teachers have already started to "flip" their lessons by assigning videos from Khan Academy or videos they created themselves for students to watch for homework. I have blogged in the past about the pros and cons of this approach here, here, and here.
  • Here is a link to and Screen-Cast-O-Matic an easy tool to record your own "flipped classroom" videos. 

6. Assign your students a Voicethread:

  • Many Judaic Studies teachers have also used Voicethread as an easy tool for assigning audio assignments in which every student reads or discusses a text for you to watch later. 
  • I have blogged about this in the past here
  • I also recommend this article by Rabbi Aaron Ross entitled The Wonder of Voicethread
  • You can access Voicethread here:

7. Use Glogster or Prezi for your next student project:

  • Glogster is an online multi-media replacement for the traditional poster board. You can find it here:
  • Prezi is a free online presentation tool that allows you to focus on both the "big pictures" and the "nitty gritty details" of a topic in ways not easily replicated using the traditional PowerPoint presentation. Here is a link:

8. Try something completely new!

Please share your ideas for Digital Learning Day in the comments to this blog. I would love to continue this digital conversation!

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

My response to Thought Questions vs. "Spit Back"

Rabbi Yaki Blau, a colleague of mine at The Frisch School has raised an interesting discussion on Lookjed about Thought questions vs. "spit back". You can read his query/comments and the ensuing discussion here. Rabbi Blau recommends exclusively using "spit back" questions on formal tests for various reasons. I just wrote a response that I am including in this blog for the benefit of my readers since it touches on an important educational topic that has some applications to technology that I discuss below. I would also recommend my posting on IBM's computer Watson, What Watson Can Teach Us, which touches on the broader issue of the place of knowledge vs. skills in this new age of computer databases, Watson, and Google.

Dear Shalom and List:
Regarding the query by my colleague at The Frisch School, Rabbi Yaakov Blau on Thought questions vs "spit back", I believe that the best answer, as is often the case, is there is a place for both of these types of questions on well written assessments.

My philosophy towards testing is greatly influenced by a seminal class that I took a number of years ago with Dr. Scott Goldberg in the Azrieli Graduate School for Jewish Education and Administration. We used the textbook, Classroom Assessment: Principles and Practice for Effective Standards-Based Instruction by JH McMillan which I would highly recommend. In the course, Dr. Goldberg advised that the teacher first identify Learning Targets for their course and then make sure that all assessments address at least some of these goals. This is similar to the Understanding By Design approach where you "Begin With the End in Mind", as Stephen Covey would say, or put another way, סוף מעשה במחשבה תחילה, as we describe the Shabbat in לכה דודי. The learning targets should include the areas of Knowledge and Simple Understanding, Deep Understanding and Reasoning, Skills, Products, and Affective Targets.

Obviously some of these targets would require "spit back" types of questions while others would call for more "thought" based questions. Even in reference to "spit back" questions, it is important to recognize that there are different types of "spit back". One can ask questions for simple knowledge like basic translation and information and one can ask more sophisticated deeper understanding "spit back" that requires the learner to follow the various stages in a logical progression like the back and forth arguments in a long Tosfot. This is the type of high-level "spit back" that I believe Rabbi Blau recommends for formal exams. However, if one's targets include skills like using keywords to read a Talmudic sugya or applying knowledge to new situations then "thought" type questions are also warranted whether in a formal test or using alternative forms of assessments as Rabbi Aaron Ross advocated.

Technology can greatly assist in constructing these alternative skills-based assessments for Talmud. For example, students can indicate their mastery of the Shakla Vetarya of a sugya by breaking down the stages of the Gemara and classifying them using a computer program like Gemara Berura. They can also read the sugya for the teacher to listen to later using Voicethread, a web-based app that allows students to record their voices using a computer's microphone . This is much more practical than the oral testing that Rabbi Blau advances but points out cannot easily be done in a Yeshiva Day School schedule. Since the teacher can listen to the Voicethreads at his/her leisure, these types of assignments can be assigned regularly. They can also include any Hebrew text including Talmud, Tanach, Rishonim, or Acharonim so they can be easly adapted for many levels of learners.

At the same time, when I have taught Gemara in the past, I also included skills-based "thought" questions on my formal tests as well by giving my students "unseen" Gemara texts containing the same keyword structures studied in class. My students were naturally worried about these "unseen" texts but soon realized that they were eminently doable since I only asked them to replicate exactly the skill learned in class; to use the keywords to explain what a new Gemara is doing in terms of unlocking the Shakla Vetarya, the back and forth of the debate, rather than decipher what an unfamiliar Gemara is saying in terms of the content of the "unseen" Gemara. This is an important skill for students to master so they can learn to "make a laining" on a new Gemara as we would say in Yeshiva, to gain the ability to independently read an unfamiliar Gemara. Since this is an important learning target, naturally I included this on my exams. I also included application questions on my tests as well, although I usually limited them to one or two questions at the end for many of the same reasons Rabbi Blau mentioned.

The bottom line is that one should test to the learning targets that one teaches. Therefore, I believe that a good assessment should include simple knowledge and deeper understanding "spit back" questions, skills based questions, and some application type questions as well. If a test is balanced and closely aligned to the clearly communicated learning targets then students will adapt to them and use these assessments to show their knowledge and grow in their understanding.

I welcome continued feedback on this most fruitful discussion.
Kol Tuv,
Rabbi Tzvi Pittinsky
Director of Educational Technology
The Frisch School

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Digital Textbooks in Jewish Day Schools: Is the future now?

I just posted the following question to Lookjed, the Jewish Educators listserv sponsored by the Lookstein Center. You can follow the Lookjed discussion online here. I will share feedback from the List as I receive it. I welcome feedback from my blog readers as well. Please share your experiences in the comments to this posting.

Dear Shalom and List:
With the recent announcement by Apple about their K-12 textbook publishing partnerships and new software for creating and customizing textbooks for the iPad (, I was wondering whether anyone could share their experiences using digital textbooks in Jewish Day Schools. I know that there have been similar discussions on the list in the past here and here but it might be worth revisiting since technology keeps advancing at such a steady pace.

The way I see it there are 3 advantages to using digital textbooks on iPads or other e-readers.

1. Convenience: Having one small tablet to carry back and forth from school is much easier and healthier for our students than lugging large backpacks full of books. The present situation forces many students to leave their textbooks in school or at home rather than transport them back and forth or to own 2 copies of their books which is obviously not the ideal.

2. Multi-media content: Digital textbooks can offer much more than the traditional text and pictures. They can include audio, video, animations, and interactive content that can greatly enhance the educational experience.

3. Cost savings (maybe): Digital textbooks might be cheaper than purchasing all those traditional books although, since paper books can be reused for many years, the veracity of any promised cost savings has to be carefully examined.

The drawbacks of digital textbooks are also many. Ipads or similar e-readers can be lost, broken, or stolen; content needs to be created for Judaic subjects as well as General Studies; they cannot be used on Shabbat or Yom Tov; and there is a large cost for purchasing iPads or similar e-readers for every student and creating/replacing current textbooks.

My question to the List is does anyone have experience implementing digital textbooks in Jewish Day Schools for General or Judaic Studies and/or does anyone have any plans to pilot such an implementation in the near future?

I welcome the feedback from the collected wisdom of the various educators on this list.
Kol Tuv,
Rabbi Tzvi Pittinsky
Director of Educational Technology
The Frisch School

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

#FrischShiriyah takes over Facebook (and Twitter too)!!!

The following is cross-posted on The Frisch School Blog.

It is always so exciting to watch our students using all of their talents for Shiriyah. This year we have added additional aspects to the Shiriyah experience utilizing the world of social media with which our kids are so familiar. We do this with the philosophy that Shiriyah can be an opportunity to model for our students the great power of social media as a tool for constructive sharing, what noted technology thinker Clay Shirky calls Cognitive Surplus.

With that in mind, you might have noticed our ubiquitous presence on our Frisch School Twitter feed sending updates about the various events of this exciting week with the "hashtag" #FrischShiriyah. We have also launched for the first time our Frisch School Facebook Page so we can post even more rich and interactive content about Shiriyah including videos and photos. You can access this page by going to the following direct link: While you're on our page, make sure to "Like Us" so you can see our updates during Shiriyah and throughout the school year on your Facebook News Feed (screenshot below).

However, this is only a part of our use of Facebook and Twitter for Shiriyah. We have provided our students the opportunity to use it as well. We have done this by creating Facebook Groups for each grade. These groups are closed to the world at large but open to our students and faculty. This was an experiment, we really did not know what to expect, while we closely monitored this undertaking. I am happy to report that so far our experiment has been a resounding success. The grades have really come together harnessing the power of this new medium to brainstorm, organize, and create.

Each grade has used their groups to post a laundry list of everything needed for the Hallways, Stomp, Project Runway, Cake Boss, and the list goes on and on. They have also found more creative ways to use this online medium. Here are a few specific examples.

  • The Freshmen posted YouTube videos of each of their songs for Shiriyah night for everyone to watch and practice at home. 
  • The Sophomores have posted photo albums of "The Midbar Experience". 
  • The Juniors have posted pictures of various odds and ends that they had around the house (including wood and old dressers) to use for the hallways. 
  • The Seniors have been posting to their "Chevra" constant words of encouragement about the stomp, choir/medley, banner, video, and mural.
I wish I could show you the tremendous work and creativity that I am seeing online till late at night, the virtual Shiriyah after the physical building has already been closed for the evening, but these groups are only open to our students (with close monitoring by the faculty) so they can feel comfortable interacting informally with their classmates to help make such a massive undertaking into a reality.

The grades have also utilized public twitter feeds to broadcast to the world their enthusiasm and excitement about Shiriyah. You can view them using the following links:,,,

Finally, we are excited to announce that this year for the first time we will be live streaming Shiriyah night for friends relatives, and alumni who cannot make it to the Frisch gym but would like to share in the Shiriyah experience. All you will need to do is go to our homepage, and the video should be streaming directly from the website starting at 7:30PM. We are looking forward to seeing all of you Shiriyah night either physically in our gym to cheer on our talented and hardworking students or virtually through

Kol Tuv,

Rabbi Tzvi Pittinsky
Director of Educational Technology
The Frisch School