Technology Transforms Local Jewish Education
by Yaffi Spodek
How do you take an ancient text like the Bible and make it relevant and exciting for students today? You teach in a language that kids can relate to, and in today’s world of ubiquitous smartphones and i-gadgets, technology is the unanimous keyword.
Walk into a local Jewish classroom today, and it’s rare to find a piece of chalk or a traditional blackboard. From personal iPads and Chromebooks to SMART Boards and Apple TVs, Jewish schools are outfitted with the most advanced technology. In this digital age, engagement through technology keeps teachers and students on their toes and is a staple in classrooms at our local congregational schools, day schools and early childhood centers.
Synagogue Schools See Surge in Technology
At B’nai Torah Congregation’s Mirochnick Religious School, students use tablets and a variety of apps that reinforce foundational skills like learning Hebrew letters, and online programs that teach them how to chant the prayers. Often, teachers will simply ask students a question and see who can find the answer fastest on their phone.
“The kids have the devices, so instead of trying to fight them, we incorporate them into the learning,” explained Cathy Berkowitz, Director of Education. “Our use of technology has definitely increased, especially among the younger teachers, and it’s not just for the students -- it’s also a way to engage the parents. We make videos of what goes on in the classroom and send them to parents to get them more involved.”
A little creativity can turn common tools into fun learning opportunities. Students at B’nai Torah use a spoof site called “Fakebook,” which allows users to create profile pages for study purposes to showcase what they’ve learned about Biblical personalities.
At Temple Beth El, Hebrew textbooks have online learning components so students can work on their skills at home and teachers can track their progress. Videos and engaging programs like Godcast offer interactive cartoons and lessons about the weekly Torah portion.
“It’s so important in our congregational schools to make sure the learning is hip and on the cutting edge, because it’s extra for these kids,” said Robin Eisenberg, Director of Jewish Learning & Living at the temple, who recalled the desktop computers and floppy disks they used when their computer lab was first built 20 years ago. “Times have really changed, and so has our approach to using technology. The key is to engage kids and we want to stay ahead of the curve -- the more we can do, the better. We’re very lucky that publishers like Behrman House are now thinking the same way and making resources more available through technology.”
Social media is also a useful tool for engagement. The 10th grade at Congregation B’nai Israel created their own class Twitter handle to use this semester, so students can stay connected in class and beyond. Younger students use online apps and touchscreen computers to learn Hebrew, and also correspond via email with Israeli pen pals in Neve Michael.
“We challenge our teachers to think out of the box and do hands-on experiential things, because it’s all about keeping kids engaged and at the forefront of technology,” said Kim Beame, Director of Religious Education at B’nai Israel.
These schools have the right approach: according to research from the Future of Education Technology Conference (FETC), 63% percent of students in grades 6-12 agreed that blended learning was a good way to learn, and the reasons were three-fold: they can learn at their own pace (64%), they can develop creativity skills (63%) and they can collaborate more with their peers (61%). Students also said they benefitted from video technology for the following reasons: they can learn at their own pace (59%); they have more control over their learning (50%); they can learn in a way that better fits their style (49%); and because their learning does not stop at the end of the school day (37%).
Days Schools Go Digital
While congregational schools are ramping up their use of technology, local Jewish day schools are doing even more. Though most secular subjects have a pre-determined curriculum, with iBooks and other online tools easily accessible, many Jewish Studies teachers need to create their own materials and work with the limited digital resources available for Judaic and Biblical texts. These educators have stepped up ably to the challenge of finding fresh ways to engage their students.
Rabbi Mordechai Smolarcik, Chair of Technology and the Talmud Department at Hillel Day School of Boca Raton, created the Torah iTextbook Project, an innovative approach to teaching Talmud. Initially designed for use on an iPad, the project transforms the Talmud curriculum into a series of topical lessons that teach vocabulary, reading skills and practical laws in an engaging way, replete with pictures, videos and interactive assignments and quizzes to gauge comprehension. The concluding “It’s a Wrap” section challenges students to apply the Torah’s laws and values to modern-day situations.
“We always try to focus on transmitting the relevance of what we’re learning, and the technology aspect was an afterthought,” explained Rabbi Smolarcik. “But then we realized that if we can create the lessons as an iBook that can be used on an iPad, there’s no better way to reach these students who are living in a digital world. Technology is what they know. Now they enjoy learning and seeing the applications of what they’re learning, and their skill sets have grown as well.”
Thanks to a $50,000 grant from the Jewish Education Innovation Challenge, an initiative of the Mayberg Family Charitable Foundation, Rabbi Smolarcik has now developed 20 topical lessons that can span a three-year curriculum for middle school or high school students. Day schools around the country have already adopted the Torah iTextbook Project for their Talmud curriculum, and it’s being marketed further. Also in the works is an online version that can be used on any device, beyond the iPad.
Other local Jewish day schools, including Donna Klein Jewish Academy (DKJA) and Yeshiva High School (YHS), have officially been designated Google Apps for Education (GAFE) schools, with faculty and students using an entire suite of digital tools designed for classroom collaboration. One of the main tools is Google Classroom: with a few clicks or swipes, a teacher can create an assignment, send it out to each student in the class and collect it as well. There’s also room for real-time collaboration; if students have a question or need assistance, they can communicate with the teacher, and the teacher can track their progress.
Every student at the Claire and Emanuel G. Rosenblatt High School at DKJA has their own Chromebook, and individual teachers use various websites and apps to enhance the learning. One 10th grade Jewish History/Tanach class is planning to build a class website next semester, where they can post work and discussions, while another class will complete an assignment using iMovie.
“These types of projects allow the students to have fun and be creative while learning,” said Rabbi Marshall Lesack, Principal of Claire and Emanuel G. Rosenblatt High School at DKJA. “Technology is a powerful tool, and we have to harness it to engage and inspire our students, while giving them the ability to learn better.”
Educators are also cognizant of the constantly evolving nature of technology, and attendance at conferences such as FETC, International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) and JED Camp (specifically for Jewish educators) is crucial for staying up to speed on the latest developments.
“We started using Chromebooks instead of iPads in the high school because we felt they were more compatible with the new GAFE, and it’s important to train our kids to be comfortable using both Apple and PC products, depending on their needs,” Rabbi Lesack added. “We also bring in outside professionals to conduct workshops for our teachers to teach them how to maximize the use of GAFE to enhance the learning.”
From a practical perspective, part of the appeal of GAFE is its efficiency, noted Rabbi Kroll, Head of School at Yeshiva High School. Going paperless and having most materials available online is easier for both the students and teachers. “No heavy books need to be lugged around and texts or assignments are easily portable and can be accessed from any device,” he said. “Gone are the days where a student can lose their homework or forget to hand it in, and class time becomes more engaging. Teachers can ask a question, and instead of waiting for students to raise their hands and calling on one person, several kids can respond at the same time on their iPads and the answers show up right away on the main flat screen TV. It streamlines things for the teachers and makes everything more interactive for the kids.”
While many of the textbooks for secular studies are gradually being replaced by iBooks, the Hebrew texts are studied using traditional paper volumes. “The tactile experience is something we still want to give the kids exposure to, and the apps that exist right now for Judaic Studies are not up to par,” added Rabbi Kroll. “We do use apps for Tanach and other Judaic texts, more as supplementary materials, where students can look something up quickly as a reference.”
Outside the classroom, electives are offered for YHS students to learn photography and videography skills and enhance their knowledge of digital media. There is also a group of students that meets each year with Holocaust survivors and documents their stories, with the students doing the filming and editing work on their own.
Learning Lessons Online in Lower School and Beyond
For younger students, some teachers use Israeli apps, which can help kids learn Hebrew letters, and practice their Hebrew reading, writing and pronunciation. In addition to being a visual tool, iPads can be an effective audio tool as well.
“Our students record themselves practicing Hebrew and reading verses from the Chumash,” said Anat Jatwes, fourth grade Judaics teacher and technology integrator at DKJA . “They can also access these apps at home, which is great for review.”
Encouraging students to use technology also fosters innovation. “It’s not so much about using technology as an educational tool to learn, but more as an outlet for creativity by letting kids create something based on what they learned. This showcases their skills and reinforces their understanding,” said Jatwes. “Our fourth and fifth graders act out stories from the Tanach and record their own interactive videos, all using the iPad, and it really makes the text and stories come alive for them.”
Video technology is used in countless ways as well. Students at DKJA pray at the Kotel every Friday, thanks to a program that broadcasts a real-time view of the Western Wall in Jerusalem. An app called Periscope lets teachers broadcast live segments of the class so parents can virtually join them to watch special programs.
Google Voice is also a popular tool in several of the schools, allowing students to call a phone number and record themselves reading or translating a text, which the teacher can then access by phone or computer.
The impact of technology also extends beyond the classroom. At Hillel Day School, Rabbi Gershon Eisenberger, a fourth grade Judaic Studies teacher, uses Educreations, which allows him to record dynamic video tutorials for students. “I can record a video-feed of myself reading verses from the Tanach, and as I’m reading, the words are being underlined or highlighted on the screen,” he explained. “Students can access it at home or anywhere, from any device, and they don’t even need to bring home any books because every verse they learn is on there. They can also listen to it and review it more than once. For these kids, using technology is always exciting for them, every time without fail.”
In such a fast-paced, high-tech environment, one challenge is finding a balance between using technology and more traditional teaching methods.
At Torah Academy of Boca Raton, “teachers don’t integrate technology just for the sake of using technology – it’s because they feel it’s the best way to maximize success for that particular class,” said Jacy Orlinsky, General Studies Principal. “We have a varied toolbox, and it’s not about following the trends – it’s about what works best for the students, whether that’s using new technology or age-old frontal teaching or another method. Our Judaics teachers use a lot of different methods to make the lessons come alive.”
One tool they use is a method of blended learning called the “flipped classroom.” A teacher will record a video of himself teaching a lesson, which can be viewed on any computer or mobile device. The students watch the lesson at home, and then come into class the next day to discuss it and do group work based on what they learned.
Other tech tools include SMART Response, which allows teachers to do quick informal assessments on the screen and students use individual clickers to submit their responses, as well as a variety of technology-based tools used for reading and practicing Hebrew.
While using technology so freely, educators also need to be vigilant when allowing students to access the internet. “Every device in the building is filtered and monitored, so we know what our kids are watching and learning, and we also teach them about cyber-ethics and how to use research skills responsibly,” said Orlinsky. A positive partnership with the parents is a priority as well, and Torah Academy has certain policies to ensure that everyone is accommodated. “We as a school are sensitive and respectful of any families without Internet access at home, so we always give a non-Internet based option for completing assignments.”
Pre-Schools Prep Students for High-Tech Learning
It’s never too early to start training kids in how to use technology safely and effectively: even local preschoolers are benefitting from the digital wave.
At Congregation Bnai Israel’s Nadel Center for Early Childhood Education, the children use iPads as well as touch screen desktop computers in their lab. The preschool also has their own blog, which helps parents stay informed and allows students to review their favorite lessons at home. Games and apps help to reinforce visual perception, and reading and math skills, while videos help teach Jewish values and themes. But the learning goes beyond the digital content.
“The bigger aspect we focus on when using these devices is helping the kids learn to follow directions and to work together,” said Heidi Estrin, librarian and computer specialist at B’nai Israel. “We intentionally double up and have two kids per screen so they learn to share and help each other. The program has also evolved as tech has evolved. We used to teach students the skills of manipulating a mouse and keyboard, but now we use touchscreens, which kids are familiar with early on.”
At the Betty & Marvin Zale Early Childhood Learning Center at the Adolph & Rose Levis Jewish Community Center, students use iPads for individual and group work, and lessons are projected onto a large screen TV. From handwriting apps and alphabet drills to videos on the holidays, some form of technology is integrated into the pre-K classes a few days a week.
“The iPads are conducive to all different kinds of learners, by stimulating children who may not be thriving from the more traditional types of learning,” said Kim Greenbaum, Coordinator of Baby, Toddler & Me and Early Childhood Admissions at the JCC. “It motivates preschoolers who may be reluctant to do some assignments on paper, and find it easier to trace letters on an iPad than write with a pencil. It also fosters independence because the kids can use it by themselves and it allows them to be successful while reinforcing different skills.”
The iPads are also great for improving fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination. “Students view them as an instructional tool that allows them to discover new things every day,” Greenbaum added. “We also enhance and update the iPad program each year to stay current. We need to teach our kids to be learners for the next century.”
It’s hard to imagine what kind of technology will be prevalent in schools in the next few years, let alone the next century, but it will undoubtedly bring students to new heights and even higher levels of learning.
To learn more about South Palm Beach County’s Jewish congregational and day schools, as well as early learning centers, visit jewishboca.org/community/schools.