iPads in Jewish Day Schools

A version of this appeared on the JTA.org website

Bill Gates paid a visit to Steve Jobs toward to the end of the Apple visionary’s life. The two technology giants talked about the future of education. According to Walter Isaacson’s biography of Jobs, both men agreed that computers had made surprisingly little impact on schools. Gates said, “Computers and mobile devices would have to focus on delivering more personalized lessons and providing motivational feedback.” One of the many projects Jobs had hoped to develop before his life was cut short, Isaacson explained, was “to disrupt the textbook industry and save the spines of spavined students by creating electronic texts and curriculum material for the iPad.”

High School students using their iPads at
the Frankel Jewish Academy in Metro Detroit

Rabbi Joshua Spodek regularly studies the Talmud at home with his son, but when he began using an iPad and the iTalmud app, he noticed how his son responded to the “fusion of modern technology with ancient text.” Spodek, who works at the Scheck Hillel Community Day School in North Miami Beach, thought of a way to bring that technology to the classroom. The school is now offering an entirely paperless Talmud course.

“The increased levels of engagement, portability, and space and cost saving have been enormous,” said Seth Dimbert, the school’s director of learning technologies. “Normally, when you study the Talmud, each page is covered with cross-references and tertiary commentaries, and you have bookshelves filled with dozens or even hundreds of secondary reference texts. Using an iPad application puts all of that reference material in hypertext. It’s an ideal way to study the Talmud, which is in some sense the original hypertext.”

At the Frankel Jewish Academy (FJA) in suburban Detroit, students began this school year with a nice surprise. Each student in the high school received a new 16GB WiFi iPad2. The school-wide distribution of the iPad to each student is the result of both a generous gift from an angel donor and the advantageous timing in the school’s computer lease agreement with Apple. Patti Shayne, the school’s director of technology, believes the iPad project is in line with FJA’s reputation as a cutting-edge institution, especially in the area of technology.

“The move to this incredible new technology gives teachers access to so many more sources and enables students to leverage their learning. With the iPad, students have one central place for assignments, communications and in many cases, text books and reading material. They will be able to access sources not available before,” explained Shayne. “Our job is to make that learning as inspiring and exciting as possible and prepare FJA students for a future where competency with all web-based devices is the norm.”

Kindergarten students at the Bohrer-Kaufman Hebrew Academy
of Morris County, New Jersey (Photo by Johanna Ginsberg)

The students aren’t the only ones in the school who have embraced the iPads. The teachers had a chance to play with them before the students even returned from summer break. One teacher at FJA was already an iPad pro. Robert Walker, a government teacher, has had an iPad since 2009 when they were released to the public. “Where I see the iPad really impacting learning is that it appeals to so many different learning styles. Students will have more freedom in choosing the direction they want to go to master their coursework,” Walker said. “While meeting the requirements, students will also have the ability to go above and beyond what they are required to do. It’s a powerful tool that will support learning in any number of ways.”

One way the iPad will help students learn is by giving them the opportunity to review a lecture they might not have fully understood the first time. FJA’s chemistry teacher videotaped himself going through a problem and then uploaded the informational video onto the students’ iPads. “Students now have the opportunity to watch his demonstration several times,” explained Shayne. “Sometimes you don’t catch it all and some students are hesitant to speak up. With the iPad they can listen to the explanation as many times as they need at home or at school.”

That same chemistry teacher uses a free app called Mahjong Chem, which his students use to practice matching elemental names to symbols, naming polyatomic ions, assigning oxidation numbers, earning electronic configurations and understanding metric prefixes. Other apps that are being used include Pages (for word processing), Keynote (for presentations) and Numbers (an app similar to Microsoft Excel). Students are allowed to purchase their own apps, as long as the apps meet the standards of the school’s Acceptable Use Policy. Teachers may even require students to purchase apps; a requirement explained to parents in a document from Shayne as the equivalent to asking students to purchase a calculator, notebook or other necessary school supplies.

Are the students using the iPads for serious academic work or are they just expensive video game consoles with a pretty screen? According to 12th grader Shira Wolf of West Bloomfield, it’s a mix. “In Jewish Leadership, our teacher, Mr. [Marc] Silberstein, is trying to be completely paperless so we went over the syllabus on our iPads and got to play around with the neuAnnotate app to annotate it.” She also noted that it’s common to see her peers playing the popular game “Words with Friends” on their iPads during study hall or even in class, which is frowned upon.

Other Jewish day schools across the country are incorporating iPads into the schools as well. While it’s mostly middle schools and high schools, there are also some elementary schools that have made iPads part of the learning process. At the Modern Orthodox Ohr Chadash Academy in Baltimore, all fourth-through-sixth graders have an iPad. As Julie Wiener, educational writer at The Jewish Week points out, the iPads “bring challenges as well: they are fragile, expensive, awkward to type on and chock full of distractions, especially when connected to the Internet. And it is unclear whether — once its novelty wears off and if it becomes as commonplace as pencils and notebooks — the toy-like iPad will retain its magical power over children.”

Some educators are quick to point out that if teachers use the new technology to teach the same way they always have then the technology is not being used correctly. “To let students simply listen to lectures on their own time – that doesn’t require an iPad. It requires a tape player. Or to study Talmud in the same way, just with a different visual – again, we’re not revolutionizing education,” argues Dr. Erica Rothblum, the Head of School at Beth Hillel Day School in Valley Village, California. “At our school, we have a 1:1 iPad program for all students in grades 4-6, but we are very aware that this is a tool. There are times that a pen and paper are better tools, and students will use those. The iPad does allow us, however, to encourage discovery, play and research.

At Rothblum’s school, the students are creating a “visual tefillah” by finding visuals that represent their prayers and using keynote, including animation, to illustrate what the prayer means. Students there are also creating “voicethreads” in Hebrew in which they record themselves telling a story or a conversation in Hebrew and then parents, teachers and their peers can listen to the recording and leave comments.

So, what’s next? Mobile device learning is certainly the wave of the future and school administrators are predicting innovations that never would have been believed a decade ago. When cell phone technology became inexpensive enough for high school and middle school students to be able to bring their phones to school, policies were quickly implemented to first ban the communication devices and then eventually place restrictions on their use.

One thing that has changed with this younger generation is the innate comfort level they have with technology. After all, this is the generation that has grown up with iPods, digital cameras and smartphones. Shaindle Braunstein-Cohen, former director of the Hermelin ORT Resource Center, underscored this when she said, “We used to teach technology as a subject. We would teach how to use a device. It’s no longer the ‘something’ that we teach; it’s the platform on which we deliver information.”

When asked how long Shayne expects FJA will keep the current crop of iPads until they become stale or even obsolete as Apple continues to release more powerful versions each year, she responded, “We are looking at a three-year refresh rate. As to what the future holds, maybe one of our students will invent it.”

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Bar and Bat Mitzvah Etiquette for Teens

When I was twelve-years-old I took part in a Joe Cornell dance class with just about every other Jewish teen my age in Metro Detroit to prepare for the bar and bat mitzvah circuit. When my mother was twelve she also learned to dance from Joe Cornell. It’s something of a Detroit tradition.

While Joe Cornell has been retired for many years, the company is still around (after more than fifty years) and has actually grown immeasurably over the past decade under the leadership of owners Steve Jasgur and his sister Becca Jasgur Schlussel. In addition to providing DJ services and dancers for bar and bat mitzvah parties, Joe Cornell still runs its “Learn to Dance” dance studio for the pre-bar and bat mitzvah crowd.

My own children are still too young to even be thinking about attending bar and bat mitzvahs, but I read with interest an article about a new program that Joe Cornell is running at local Hebrew Schools and day schools. Patch.com reported on Joe Cornell’s Mitzvah Circuit 101 gatherings, which teach b’nai mitzvah etiquette to teens. Attending bar and bat mitzvah services and parties requires a lot of social cues that many twelve- and thirteen-year-olds don’t yet possess or at least haven’t yet had to draw upon. I remember my parents teaching me the etiquette for responding to a bar or bat mitzvah invitation before attending my first one, but there are still many other aspects of good manners that these children (and they are still children) must learn.

“We were asked to speak to a group of students about how to behave, respond to invitations and socialize successfully and we jumped at the chance,” Jasgur said. “It was great fun – and the kids really got into the discussion of do’s and don’ts. Then, of course, we had to add an element of fun to the night, so we gave the group a taste of the kind of Joe Cornell fun they’ll see at b’nai mitzvah parties this year.”

“In preparation for the 7th-grade social scene, our dance program teaches 6th-graders social interaction and social responsibility,” Schlussel said. “This Mitzvah Circuit program is simply an extension for that 21st century cotillion-style preparation we specialize in. We all want our children to be gracious guests, but sometimes the lessons hit home more readily when conveyed by someone new.”

When I was a twenty-year-old youth group adviser I was asked to be on a panel that discussed teens’ behavior at bar and bat mitzvahs in front of an audience of parents. I remember thinking how ironic that was since it was only seven years earlier that I was one of the misbehaving teens at these parties. In recent years, however, I have certainly noticed that teens are better behaved at both b’nai mitzvah services and the parties that follow. I think it’s imperative that these middle schoolers are learning about the etiquette required at bar and bat mitzvahs as it will improve the experience for everyone, and I’m glad that Joe Cornell Entertainment has taken the lead on this.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Technology in Jewish Schools

I still remember the time in 1st grade when my father brought our Apple II Plus into the classroom in an effort to show my classmates the wonders of Turtle Graphics. It was 1982 and each little 1st grader waited in line to get a chance to touch the odd looking keyboard and try to make the little turtle move. My father beamed with pride as he watched each child get their three-minute opportunity to try to program the blinking green turtle cursor to move across the black screen.

That day was the only day that entire school year that we students would touch a computer at Hillel Day School in Metropolitan Detroit. Today, thirty years later my own children attend Hillel and the Head of School, Steve Freedman, has just announced a new technology plan he hopes to implement for the 550-student Jewish day school, which will include a 1:1 technology program.

Today’s students have more technology in their pockets than entire school districts once owned. In fact, a few generations ago, one would never have imagined the possibility of students bringing battery-powered graphing calculators into math class. Today, the Texas Instruments graphing calculators are still being used by students, but they are the least technologically impressive gadgets in the students’ arsenal.

The thinking goes that the more techy the classroom, the better the students will perform. This is not always the case. In a NY Times article this past September, Matt Richel wrote about a school district in Texas that spent millions on new technology including SMART Boards and laptops for every student, but its students test scores had stagnated. “This conundrum calls into question one of the most significant contemporary educational movements. Advocates for giving schools a major technological upgrade — which include powerful educators, Silicon Valley titans and White House appointees — say digital devices let students learn at their own pace, teach skills needed in a modern economy and hold the attention of a generation weaned on gadgets. Some backers of this idea say standardized tests, the most widely used measure of student performance, don’t capture the breadth of skills that computers can help develop. But they also concede that for now there is no better way to gauge the educational value of expensive technology investments.”

Whether test scores will be affected or not, Hillel’s Freedman is aiming to raise the tech bar at his school, which introduced SMART Boards into every classroom a few years ago. The SMART Boards are “a fantastic tool,” Freedman told me. “Its best integration is the active learning. I see the teacher explaining something and there is interactive instructional learning taking place. The kids can create something that really engages them with the teacher’s instruction.” He is cautious not to allow his day school to get caught up in any tech fads of the moment, however. Like other school administrators Freedman recognizes that the latest technology cannot replace hands-on-learning or the tactile experience of pencil on paper.

A few miles away from Hillel Day School, the Frankel Jewish Academy (FJA) has provided each of its high school students with their own 16GB Apple iPad this year. The school-wide distribution of the iPad to each student is the result of both a generous gift from an angel donor and the advantageous timing in the school’s computer lease agreement with Apple. Patti Shayne, the school’s director of technology, believes the iPad project is in line with FJA’s reputation as a cutting-edge institution, especially in the area of technology.

“The move to this incredible new technology gives teachers access to so many more sources and enables students to leverage their learning. With the iPad, students have one central place for assignments, communications and in many cases, text books and reading material. They will be able to access sources not available before,” explained Shayne. “Our job is to make that learning as inspiring and exciting as possible and prepare FJA students for a future where competency with all web-based devices is the norm.”

Robert Walker, a government teacher, said, “Where I see the iPad really impacting learning is that it appeals to so many different learning styles. Students will have more freedom in choosing the direction they want to go to master their coursework. While meeting the requirements, students will also have the ability to go above and beyond what they are required to do. It’s a powerful tool that will support learning in any number of ways.”

One way the device will help students learn is by giving them the opportunity to review a lecture they might not have fully understood the first time. FJA’s chemistry teacher videotaped himself going through a problem and then uploaded the informational video onto the students’ iPads. “Students now have the opportunity to watch his demonstration several times,” explained Shayne. “Sometimes you don’t catch it all and some students are hesitant to speak up. With the iPad they can listen to the explanation as many times as they need at home or at school.”

At Hillel one thing is certain about its technology future. Freedman has already announced that the school will be wireless by the end of this year. The questions that remain unanswered there center on the type of device that will be best for each student in a 1:1 technology program and whether the students should be allowed to bring their own device to school. Like in any enhanced technology program, whether for a school or a corporation, Freedman is trying to get the answers to these important questions before taking the plunge and purchasing expensive equipment that he knows will become outdated and slow in a matter of years.
In a blog post, Freedman attempted to lay out the new technology plan for the school, but first provided the background on the intricate subject of technology in schools. He wrote:

Recently, the New York Times ran an article about a private school in the middle of Silicon Valley that has a complete ban on technology. This school firmly believes that technology gets in the way of a child’s development and stifles creativity. They even frown on the use of technology at home. On the other end of the spectrum are schools that have fully embraced technology to the point where a book is hard to find and paper is rarely used. These schools see technology as the panacea to all that afflicts education today. And then there are the conversations that would make one think that this is all new to the 21st century; as if we just discovered technology and its uses in schools. Schools celebrate the adoption of new devices as if they are pioneers in a new frontier and that this is the greatest addition to the classroom since the blackboard. (By the way, when the blackboard was first introduced to classrooms, it was met with great resistance!)

Do a Google search on the body of research that discusses the impact of technology in schools and you will find many arguments at both ends of the spectrum. The reason that there is a growing body of research is that technology has been in the classrooms for over two decades (yes, the 20th century!). As Hillel Day School carefully considers our next steps in adopting the latest technology in our school, a committee of educators has been discussing this with other schools and has made visits to other school as well. Recently, some of our staff visited a school in Cincinnati that has been engaged in 1:1 technology (one personal device per student) since 1996! We fully plan to benefit from the lessons other schools have already learned.

Most likely Hillel will begin to implement its 1:1 technology program next year with the 7th and 8th graders. The school will ensure that the teachers are well trained in the technology before rolling it out to the students. Of course, the young students are already comfortable using the new technology and wireless gadgets because of their home use and because they don’t know from anything else. This is the generation that has grown up with iPods, digital cameras and smartphones. Today’s teachers were educated at a time when technology was a subject in the schools, but today the technology has become the tool in which learning is delivered. Technology in the schools is always going to be a game of catch-up because the technology is moving at a faster pace than any school committee and by the time the funding and teacher training is in place, the technology has already advanced. We owe it to our children, however, to at least try.

Advanced technology in the schools doesn’t only affect students’ educational performance; it can also have an effect on hiring faculty. Studies have shown that teachers are choosing their employment based on the level of technology at the school. “If a teacher has two schools to choose from and one has the new technology and the other doesn’t, guess where that teacher is going,” said Gary Weidenhamer, a school district director of educational technology in Palm Beach, Florida.

When asked how long Shayne expects FJA will keep the current crop of iPads until they become stale or even obsolete as Apple continues to release more powerful versions each year, she responded, “We are looking at a three-year refresh rate. As to what the future holds, maybe one of our students will invent it.”

Cross-posted to the Jewish Techs blog at The Jewish Week

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Midrash, Manicures and Middle School Girls

I love reading about the creative ways in which my colleagues are bringing people closer to Torah. Over the weekend I read about one young colleague (a Conservative rabbi) who is using manicures to teach midrash in a Jewish day school. Yes, manicures!

Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times

The NY Times reports that Rabbi Yael Buechler of the Solomon Schechter Day School of Westchester, New York teaches her middle school students how to do their nails with designs inspired by the weekly Torah portions. 

It’s the Midrash Manicures club at Schechter, a Jewish day school here, where the weekly club offerings include math club, glee club, sports writing club and this one, in which Rabbi Yael Buechler teaches girls in the sixth, seventh and eighth grades how to do their nails with designs inspired by the weekly Torah portion. (The term “midrash” refers to the deep textual interpretation of the Bible, with every word examined for meaning.)

If the mix of acetone fumes and Torah study strikes you as unusual, you’re not alone. When Yarden Wiesenfeld, 13, first heard about the club, she wondered whether there was another meaning for “manicure,” one that did not involve the coloring of fingernails.

But Rabbi Buechler has been at it since college, when she seized upon the manicures “as a way for me to personally explore my own Jewish learning.”

“Re-envisioning education is what this is all about,” said Rabbi Buechler, 25, who was ordained in May by the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary and is the middle school student life coordinator at Schechter. “If I said come to a Midrash course, I’d have five or six students. But Midrash Manicures? Twenty plus.”

It seems to me that this is a wonderful example of how a rabbi who is a woman is embracing her femininity and using it to achieve the goal that all rabbis are striving for — teaching Torah. Rabbi Buechler, who’s father Rabbi Howard was ordained from JTS in 1985, is not trying to be like her male rabbinic predecessors. Rather, she is doing something that those male rabbinic predecessors could never have done. She brilliantly connects with these middle school girls in a Jewish Day School environment and makes Torah learning fun.

Prof. Jonathan Sarna, who taught Rabbi Buechler as an undergrad at Brandeis University, told the NY Times that “her Torah-inspired manicures were both innovative and in keeping with the Jewish precept ‘that we worship God with all of our bones and our muscles and, by extension, with our fingernails.'” I especially liked the quote from Rabbi Buechler’s boss, the school’s principal Nellie Harris (wife of my beloved Torah teacher Rabbi Robbie Harris), who described the manicures as “a modern tzitzit.”

Incidentally, this is now the second time this year that I’ve blogged about Rabbi Buechler, although the last time (March 2011) she was still a couple months shy of gaining the title. On this blog I referenced a very funny video Yael Buechler made for Purim at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York starring the Seminary’s Chancellor Arnie Eisen as Sesame Street’s “Ernie” and Professor Burt Visotzsky as “Bert”.

I certainly hope that her manicure curriculum takes off and that other Jewish Day Schools (including the one my own children attend) begin offering this club to their female students. Perhaps some day my own daughter will get a Torah-inspired manicure from Rabbi Buechler. I’m already very proud of my beautiful daughter who turns 6-years-old later this month and can already (pretend) to read from the Torah. Here’s the video:

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller