Sunday, September 04, 2016

3 Reasons You Should Use Sefaria For the New School Year

I have always admired Sefaria, the online platform for Jewish text. I wholeheartedly subscribe to their vision of creating freely available, high-quality online Jewish text both in Hebrew and translation. I love their start-up feel with a team of dedicated coders incrementally improving Sefaria on a regular basis, supplemented by thousands of contributors who through crowdsourced translations and public worksheets have augmented the product. Their commitment to the open and free use of their digital text and source code has allowed an ecosystem of Jewish apps to be built using Sefaria including BetaMidrash and JiTap.

The explosive growth of Hebrew sources featured on Sefaria has caused some growing pains though. The original, elegant interface included text with translation when available and when one clicked on the text, a verse from the Torah for example, all of the commentaries related to the text in a scrolling sidebar. This was wonderful in theory but when a verse had a dozen or more connections from commentaries like Rashi, Ibn Ezra, Ramban, Sforno, Haamek Davar, Midrash, and Talmud, it became a challenge to access all of these sources. The worksheet tool also while adding awesome features like embedded pictures and YouTube videos directly in the digital sheet, was not easy to manipulate especially when working in a classroom setting or when trying to create a printed copy of the sheet.

This is why I am so ecstatic about Sefaria's improvements in the past 3 months which have not been of the incremental kind but have been ground-breaking. They have created a whole new Sefaria which has made the platform a must-have addition to any Judaic classroom for the new school year.

1) Sefaria's Completed Redesigned Interface

Sefaria replaced the scrolling sidebar of textual connections with a Connections tab containing an organized listing of various commentaries and other connected sources. This addition alone has transformed the usability of Sefaria in the classroom with all of the gems included in Sefaria now easily available at one's fingertips.

But this is not the only noteworthy addition in the new interface. Sefaria has also added a series of Tools for each text. These include sharing text on social media or email, adding notes to any text while logged into Sefaria either privately or publicly to share with others, and even comparing two different texts from Sefaria side-by-side. 

These last two features could be indispensable in the classroom as a teacher could require students using Sefaria as their primary text to share their notes either with the teacher or with the class. In analyzing texts, teachers or students can now easily compare and contrast units using Sefaria. I plan to use this during the first weeks of school when teaching the Book of Ezra to compare and contrast the Hebrew version of the Cyrus Proclamation in Ezra Chapter 1 with the Aramaic version found by Darius some years later in Chapter 6.

2) Sefaria's Google Drive Export

I have always loved utilizing Sefaria to post digital versions of worksheets for my students. I found that when embedding a sheet from Sefaria onto my TanachRav blog or into my Learning Management System, one could not only view the sources on that sheet but one could see them in context simply by clicking on any individual source quoted to open it in its original format. Also, since Sefaria sheets allow for embedded YouTube videos, a digital version of the sheet could "come to life" with a Flipped classroom video or some other video hook placed directly into the worksheet. 

However, there were times that my students did not have a device or I did not want them to use one, either when learning on Shabbat or Yom Tov or just out of a desire to place a greater focus on the text without any technological distractions. At these times, I would print out the worksheet. This could be a frustrating experience since Sefaria is not designed for a print view so texts often bleed over into multiple pages in a format less than optimal for students. This is why Sefaria's new Export to Google Drive function is truly a game-changer. One can create a full worksheet in Sefaria and then, if intended for printing in class, one could first export the sheet to Google Drive which allows for more sophisticated word processing tools to design it to perfectly format to the printed page.

3) Sefaria's Assignments Tool

Even though the ability to print out well-formatted worksheets using Sefaria and Google Drive is a wonderful tool, one can only really unlock Sefaria's full transformative potential when utilizing it to create a paperless classroom. I already listed some of the added benefits to this above. For example, the ability for a student to click on any source to see it in its original context and to use Sefaria sheets to create a Flipped Classroom by embedding YouTube videos directly into the sheet. 

However, the biggest impediment to the paperless classroom for most teachers has been something far more prosaic, the workflow. How does the teacher give a sheet out to students, how do they fill in the sheet, and how do they hand it back to the teacher? 

Enter Sefaria's new Assignments features. 

Assignments allows the teacher to create an unlimited number of copies of any sheet for the student to digitally fill in with their account and hand in to the teacher. This is similar to Google classroom but built into the Sefaria platform so its much easier for most teachers, especially those who do not use a Learning Management System or who use one different than Google Classroom. All the teacher needs to do is create a worksheet in Sefaria with some comment blocks for teacher questions, then click on Assignments, and Assign this Sheet. 

A link is generated which the teacher can now share with all of her students. When each student opens the link, it creates a new version of the sheet using the student's account. The teacher merely needs to find her original sheet in Sefaria and she will see her students' Saved Assignments together with her original version. When the assignment is done, she clicks Stop Collecting Assignments and the students are no longer able to submit responses. This assignments feature has made the dream of the paperless classroom with an easy student workflow within reach of any teacher.

These three upgrades to Sefaria's already powerful platform, the redesigned, user-friendly interface, the export to Google Drive, and the Assignments feature are why I am so excited to use Sefaria for the coming school year. 

If you are already a Sefaria user but have not checked it over the summer, give it another look. Besides the features listed above, Sefaria has added so many enhancements, I am sure it will not disappoint. And if you are new to Sefaria, give it a try. It might just transform your students ability to engage with high-level Torah texts, make connections throughout the corpus of Tanakh and Torah She Baal Peh and begin to develop and share their own Chiddushei Torah, original interpretations.

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