Tech Rav
Discussions of Jewish EdTech

Saturday, December 29, 2012

I Hear the Sound of Thinking

When I was in rabbinical school studying in the Gruss Kollel in Jerusalem, I had the privilege to learn with one of the greatest teachers of our generation, Professor Nechama Leibowitz zt"l, during the last year of her life. I was especially fond of one of her teaching methods. She would ask a question, give out a stack of small pieces of paper, and require every student in the class to write down their response. She would then read these papers one by one, commenting on each of them often accompanied by a sigh or a shrug for those who were a little off and an exclamation of, "נכון!" (Correct!) for those whose answer was on target. I lived for that נכון.

This educational approach appealed to me since I was the type of student who was a slow thinker but a good writer. I rarely raised my hand in class since by the time I had processed the teacher's question and thought up something, other students usually were already called on to respond. When I was put on the spot by a teacher's calling on me even without my hand up, as some teachers were wont to do to make sure every student was involved in the discussion, I would often clam up and struggle to give an intelligent response. Speaking in class was even harder for me in a class like Nechama's which was conducted in Hebrew since I had the added difficulty of quickly articulating my response in a second language. However, I excelled on essays and written responses. I could think with my pen and I really appreciated the opportunity to reflect, the "Wait Time" as it is called in educational circles, that Nechama's approach of written responses afforded me.

When I started teaching in high school, I tried to emulate Nechama's approach in my own classroom. However, this method was much easier for the 5-10 adult students in my graduate level class with Nechama, than with my 20-25 high school students. Over the years, I have attempted to utilize technology as a medium to ask a question and quickly receive responses from every student. I have experimented with both Twitter and PollEverywhere. However, I have found Twitter hard to set up for every student and PollEverywhere hard to moderate so that only responses I wanted the students to see would appear and not either ill thought out or downright silly responses.

Enter Nearpod. Nearpod is an iPad app that allows a teacher to run a presentation that simultaneously appears on every student's iPads. The teacher creates the Nearpod using the Nearpod website and logs in on their iPad. Students join the presentation by entering a PIN. The presentation can also be simultaneously beamed to the classroom Smart Board by using the following link: (replacing the presentation's PIN with the "PIN" in the link).

These presentations not only allow students to manipulate the slides on their iPad but allow teachers to create a number of types questions for students to respond to which are beamed to the teacher's iPad. These include multiple choice quizzes, polls, questions requiring students to draw a response, and, most importantly for the current discussion, open-ended questions that require a student to compose a response. Open-ended questions can even include a reference image for students to look at while responding.

This is Nechama's approach adapted for the 21st century. Teachers easily see every single student's response on their iPad. They then can decide which ones to share with the entire class both on every one of the student iPads and on the Smart Board.

I observed Nearpod utilized with great effect in four different classes this past week. The teacher chose responses to show the class that were both well formulated and from students who rarely participated in regular classroom discussions. The reaction students had to seeing their words displayed to the class was fascinating. They were worried at the beginning of the lesson that their responses would be shown to others and the teacher assured them that only she could see the name of the student by their response. (The default in Nearpod is that only the teacher sees which student composed which response but when sharing these responses with the class the student's name does not appear.) However, once a response was shared with the class, the student would invariably volunteer with pride, "That was my answer!"

The dynamic of the class was also quite interesting. The classes were loud and boisterous as students viewed various slides. Students were able to pinch the pictures to zoom in on segments and they often were sharing with their friends observations about each piece. However, once the questions appeared for students to respond to the class became very quiet. All one could hear was the tap-tap-tapping of students on the keyboard of their iPads as they composed their responses. The teacher gave a comment which exactly encapsulated the moment. She said, "I hear the sound of thinking."

Saturday, December 22, 2012

5 Lessons from the first week of our 9th grade iPad Program

This week we launched our first 1-to-1 iPad program for our 9th graders at The Frisch School. This program, made possible by a generous donation from Mr. Dan and Mrs. Marjorie Fried, was initiated with the belief that the iPad with its portability, long battery life, relatively low cost when compared to laptops, multi-media tools, and apps could transform education. This week has been exhausting but exhilarating as students and teachers quickly adapted to the iPad.

Here are 5 lessons that I have learned from this amazing week.

1. The importance of student-centered learning.
The iPad is the ideal platform for student research, exploration, and content creation. For the teacher willing to take a step back and help guide students to find and evaluate information, this can be a tremendous boost. However, for teachers who wish to be the sole source of information in the classroom, "the Sage on the Stage" as it is described, this can be very threatening.

As my good friend, Rabbi Aaron Ross from Yavneh Academy put it when I asked on Twitter about introducing iPads:
Do the teachers understand how to use them? If not, say hi to expensive notebooks. By which I mean, do the teachers understand how ipads can change the way class runs and are they prepared to change their style?
2.  The best tool in class is the one that is always available.
One of the primary justifications of a 1-to-1 iPad program as opposed to carts is the iPads are always available for students in every class. This can be transformative. The simplest lessons can become student explorations with the iPad.

For example, in one Talmud class this week, students were learning about the structure of the morning prayers. The Rebbe asked them all to open the iSiddur app and have them read through the morning prayers and categorize them. Obviously, this activity could have also been done with regular siddurim but the students do not regularly bring their siddur to class. They now all bring their iPad.

In one Hebrew class, they were learning about the Hebrew poem/song לכל איש יש שם. Rather than tell the students the song or bring it up on the Smart Board, the teacher had all of the students research the song themselves, bringing up the poem, versions of it on YouTube and information about it. Students then typed this into Evernote and shared it with each other and their teacher.

In History class next week, students will be taking a virtual field trip to the Met to research Greek and Roman art and characterize it based on which period it represented. Obviously, this cannot substitute for an actual field trip to the museum but students cannot go on field trips every day, and when it comes to other world class museums like the British Museum or the Louvre a trip would be quite expensive. Through the iPads, students can bring these great works to their classroom on a regular basis.

3. Be flexible: Expect the unexpected.
With this new technology, teachers have to be willing to "go with the flow" as they lessen the reins of the class a bit and let students have more control.

For example, this week, two math teachers planned on using an online math quiz from their textbook to introduce the lesson. They had gone over the quiz in advance, knew exactly which questions would be asked, and planned their follow-up accordingly. What they did not know is that this quiz automatically generates different questions for every student. But the teachers were flexible. Once they realized what was happening, they asked all the students to share what questions they got wrong from the quiz. A quick poll discovered that all of the wrong questions were about the same topic which students quickly started teaching to each other. The class was loud and a bit out of control but genuine learning was going on directed by the students. The teachers were flexible enough to allow their students lead the flow of the class with the assistance of their online tools. This leads to my next point.

4. When students get iPads, magic happens.
Kids use the iPads in ways that we cannot anticipate. The iPads students were given only had the apps that we had collected and installed for them. We did not give them access to the app store. This was planned out of necessity since the mobile device management software which we purchased to monitor student downloads when they receive the app store later this year, had not yet been installed. In reality, this decision was a big win for us since it meant that students focused much more on the apps that we gave them, which they might have ignored otherwise, and found new and creative uses for them.

For example, students have been using Educreations to make color coded diagrams and include notes that were color coordinated to each part of the diagram for their Math class and students in Biology class were using Evernote to photograph complex models from the board to insert into their notes. The students discovered these and other tools that we gave them and quickly found creative ways to help them personalize their learning.

5. Create lessons to harness the power of apps.
While the serendipity of giving kids iPads loaded with useful apps and letting them create with them cannot be denied, it is also powerful for teachers to plan lessons utilizing them. Besides the examples that I described above, here are a few examples from this first week of our iPad program.

  • In history class, two teachers created a Nearpod presentation to describe the difference between the Archaic, Classical, and Hellenistic periods of Greek art. You can view pictures taken during this lesson here. Students were not only able to carefully explore each piece of art by zooming with their fingers, but they composed answers to a number of questions about the different time periods that immediately were shared with the teacher. The teacher then judiciously shared some of these responses with the entire class, usually choosing responses that were both high quality and came from students who were usually quiet during regular classroom discussions. This lesson will be followed up with the virtual field trip to the Met which I described above.
  • In another history class, the teacher had students read a website describe the Persian period and then create Flashcards using StudyBlue which they shared with their classmates and quizzed them on. 
  • In art class, students used various art apps including 123SculptD and SketchbookX to create self portraits for their identity unit. You can view pictures of this lesson here
  • Students will be using these same apps in English class next week to create Greek masks as an introduction to Greek drama.
  • Finally, in Talmud class students are using their first iBooks textbook entitled Makom Kavu'a: Save My Seat which includes many interactive activities and video to help students explore this topic. This iBook, our first publication on the iBookstore was created by a talented and hard working team of Rebbeim at Frisch who hope to follow up with many more books in the future. I will explore this book in more depth in a future posting.
These are five lessons that I have already learned from the 9th grade 1-to-1 iPad launch. I am SO excited to come to school Monday to see what this second week will bring.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

The Message Behind Frisch's The Alumni

I have been in the midst of helping to coordinate our get-out-the-vote drive for the Avi Chai Foundation's Jewish Day School Video Academy Awards: Alumni Edition. ---Here's my PSA: If you have not already done so, please vote for our entry in this contest by going to and giving Frisch's The Alumni a "Thumb's Up".--- What I have learned is that this contest is not just a great lesson in digital storytelling and the art of social media but has also been a tremendous boost for our school spirit and a great model for our student's of all the values that we hold dear.

Let me explain. Frisch's entry Frisch's The Alumni is another first class production from our team of talented faculty alumni filmmakers, Rabbi David Goldfischer and Rabbi Jonathan Feldman who in the past have produced such popular hits as The Fiddler on the School and The Sound of Ruach. When you watch the current video side-by-side with the Avenger's Assemble movie trailer it is spoofing- I have embedded both videos below- you realize how clever this video truly is. However, it is much more...

By featuring twelve alumni who have chosen to rejoin our school as Frisch faculty, this video is a tremendous model for our students of the importance of service and giving back to the Jewish community. The values we preach, we teach and follow ourselves. Full disclosure: I am NOT a Frisch alumnus although many of my friends in high school went to Frisch (I was kind of jealous of them), I have taught in Frisch for eleven years, and now I am the proud parent of two current Frisch students.

During our drive Thursday to get our students to vote, I realized how remarkable a message this is. "Please support your Frisch faculty alumni by voting for our video because one day you will be a Frisch alumnus and they might make a video about you and how you are giving back to the Jewish community!" What an incredible message! And the kids responded and voted and voted. Over 250 student voters in one hour. (The candy we were handing out didn't hurt.) But what our kids were truly voting for was their deep respect for their alumni teachers and their desire some day, in some way to follow in their footsteps.

So please share this video below with your friends and family. Not because we want your vote- although we do, don't forget but because in its over-the-top, funny way, it shares such an important message that our Modern Orthodox Jewish world needs now more than ever; the importance of giving back to our Jewish community. This is the ultimate way that we can show our hakarat hatov, thankfulness, for all those who have given so much to make us into committed and thoughtful Jewish individuals.

Below is Frisch's The Alumni:

And the Avengers Assemble trailer that it is spoofing. Enjoy the videos and the message!