Looking Through Google Glass at Jewish Education

How will Google Glass affect Jewish education? This is the blog post I recently published on The Jewish Week’s “Jewish Techs” blog on that subject:

In 1982 when I was in first grade at Hillel Day School, a Jewish day school in Metropolitan Detroit, my father brought in our family’s Apple II computer for show-and-tell. There were no computers in the school at that time so it was a seminal technological moment for the school. I’m sure my father figured he would blow my classmates minds by showing them how to type a few lines of the LOGO programming language and get the turtle cursor to turn and move across the screen. However, my peers didn’t have any mind-blowing experiences that day — it was only the beginning of what our generation would come to expect from computers and technology.

Fast forward to 2013 when, earlier this week, I was a guest speaker in my son’s third grade classroom at the same Jewish day school. Speaking on the subject of technology and Jewish education, I became nostalgic and told the students how when I was their age we would save one word processing document on a floppy disc. I then took a USB flash drive out of my pocket to explain Moore’s Law — the observation that, over the history of computing hardware, the number of transistors on integrated circuits doubles approximately every two years. They weren’t impressed. These young people have become accustomed to better, smaller, faster technology being rolled out every few months. They see their parents turning in their smartphones for better ones and downloading new versions of operating systems. They know that the graphics on the next generation of video game consoles in their basements will be more realistic than the ones before.

Rabbi Jason Miller wearing Google Glass at the Macklemore Concert during the AT&T Developers Summit

Rabbi Jason Miller wearing Google Glass at the Macklemore Concert during the AT&T Developers Summit

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Jewish Learning Opportunities During the Omer

It is customary to study Jewish texts – mostly commonly Pirkei Avot – during the period of time between Passover and Shavuot. Many take the opportunity to occupy themselves with Torah study in the late Shabbat afternoons when the days are longer. The sages believed it was a worthwhile practice and would keep people focused on Sabbath observance.

Here are four opportunities for online study during this period:

 

TORAH DAILY
I launched the Torah Daily Facebook page after reading Jennifer Preston’s article in the New York Times about Jesus Daily. I was convinced that there was a need to provide spiritual and inspirational texts and quotes from Jewish wisdom. With the encouragement and assistance of the leadership of Clal’s Rabbi Irwin Kula, Rabbi Brad Hirschfield and Rabbi Rebecca Sirbu, I created the Facebook page and invited friends and colleagues to follow it. It quickly gained a following and then one of my colleagues in Clal’s Rabbi’s Without Borders fellowship program Rabbi Juan Mejia worked with me to create the Spanish language version called Torá Diaria. Torah Daily has close to 1,000 followers on Facebook, which is nothing close to the 17.5 million fans Jesus Daily has but it’s become a dependable source for inspiration. Several rabbis and Jewish educators contribute meaningful lessons to inspire Torah Daily’s followers. The almost daily posting of quotes from Jewish wisdom can be shared with friends on Facebook and discussed using the Torah Daily Facebook page as a forum. I described the need for Torah Daily in a Huffington Post article.

 

Huffington Post - Torah Omer Learning

 

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Alleged Fraud with Tech Fund in Haredi Schools

The importance of increasing access to technology in our schools became a top priority during the Clinton Administration. In that vein, President Clinton and VP Al Gore sought to incorporate technology into the classroom and ensure equal opportunity for students to benefit from technology by creating E-rate. In the years since its creation, these federal grants have helped public and private schools across the country connect to the Internet, increase the number of computers in classrooms, and provide technology training for teachers.

Julie Wiener, a former Detroit Jewish News columnist who is now associate editor of The Jewish Week in New York, recently uncovered potential fraud relating to the E-rate program in ultra-Orthodox schools in New York. In a three-part exposé Wiener, together with special correspondent Hella Winston, explained how several ultra-Orthodox day schools and yeshivas in the New York area have been receiving millions of dollars of technology through the E-rate program, but never actually putting that technology to use in their schools because of their community’s disdain for the internet.

Julie Wiener, associate editor of The Jewish Week, discovered the potential fraud with the E-Rate program.

Wiener’s four-month investigation revealed that of the almost 300 Jewish schools benefiting from E-rate, ten schools (all but one Chasidic) collectively were approved for nearly $9 million in E-rate-funded services in 2011, which amounted to almost one-third of the Jewish total. One yeshiva submitted requests in 2012 for 65 direct connections to the Internet including 40 computers, but no computer or Internet connection were ever installed. Wiener’s investigation also found a disparity in the amount of technology funding the New York area’s ultra-Orthodox schools were receiving. She writes, “While Jewish schools enrolled approximately 4 percent of the state’s K-12 students, they were awarded 22 percent of the state’s total E-rate allocations to schools and libraries.”

After reading the three-part series I had a chance to talk with Wiener about her investigative reporting and what she hopes will happen now that these schools’ alleged misuse of a federal technology fund has become publicized. “I’d like to see more investigation and oversight on the part of the FCC and the USAC [Universal Service Administrative Company, which oversees E-Rate], including more audits and actual visits to make sure the equipment that’s actually paid for is being used. I also want more people to know about E-rate. There are more schools that could benefit that haven’t even heard of the program.”

Wiener, who has been writing about Jewish education and technology over the past few years, says she first honed her investigative skills at the Detroit Jewish News in the mid-1990s. She answered some questions about the E-Rate story:

HOW DID YOU FIND OUT ABOUT E-RATE?
My colleague Hella Winston, who has done a lot of coverage of the ultra-Orthodox community, got a tip from someone several months ago and then found the E-rate Central site, where all the data is contained. The idea immediately appealed to us, because the Asifa – the May 2012 [Haredi] rally against the Internet – was still fresh in our memories, and also, I had been covering the whole issue of technology in Jewish education and yet had never before heard of E-rate. Initially, it felt overwhelming to go through the enormous amount of data, but fortunately I was taking a class at CUNY Journalism School this fall, which both inspired me to do data-driven articles and empowered me.

WHAT WAS THE PROCESS?
We decided early on to narrow our focus to New York State. That’s because this was already an enormous project, and because we are based in New York. We also knew that New York has the largest number of fervently Orthodox schools, and when we started we were unsure if the E-rate application process and rules vary from state to state. It turns out they don’t, but it still made our lives easier to focus on New York. I am hoping other journalists will follow our lead and look at E-rate use in other states with relatively large Jewish populations.

We spent a lot of time researching E-rate online, going through various audits and rulings, and congressional testimony about it. We also researched the schools and service providers online. To learn more about what goes on inside the schools, we spoke with the Jewish Education Project and various alumni of these schools. Hella has a whole network of people who have left or currently live in the community. We were reluctant to approach the schools, or even the E-rate consultants/USAC people until very late in the process, as we were worried someone might tip off the schools, making it difficult for us to obtain information, or even, if there was fraud happening, making a cover-up easier. Also, the program is so complicated and confusing that we wanted to make sure we understood it well before we interviewed anyone.

WHAT RESPONSE HAVE YOU GOTTEN SO FAR?
Overall the response has been very positive. Many of our readers are horrified that this is happening and concerned about this community – which doesn’t even use the Internet – getting tens of millions of dollars that other schools might make better use of. Assuming that at least some of this money is being misused – and it is hard for me to imagine it is not – this is hardly a victimless crime: USAC denied over $2 billion in requests last year, and for the past few years only the highest-poverty schools have been eligible for Priority 2 services – connections that make it possible to bring the internet into individual classrooms. Also, the money comes from a tax that we all pay into – the Universal Service Fund.

We’ve certainly gotten a number of angry comments from the ultra-Orthodox community – mostly along the lines of, “Why are you always picking on the ultra-Orthodox?” and “Why put this in the papers rather than just notifying the authorities?” There have been very few substantive critiques from the ultra-Orthodox as no one has explained why these schools need such costly tech services or how they are using things.

Yes, E-rate can be used for some non-Internet expenses, but the fact is that these schools are billing a lot of money for the Internet too and some have spent millions of dollars over the years. I find it interesting that none of these schools or service providers will talk to us, that there is no effort to show that they have the equipment they’ve billed E-rate for and how they are using it to benefit their students. Also, we live in a democracy, and the public has a right to know how tax dollars are being spent, particularly nowadays when government coffers are stretched so thin.

DO YOU THINK THERE IS FRAUD?
I have to be careful here, because I don’t want to be accused of slander or libel. However, I think that at the very least something inappropriate is happening. It makes no sense why schools that don’t give students access to the Internet – or even, in many cases computers – are disproportionately benefiting from this program, particularly when there are other schools whose needs are not being met. I am also puzzled as to why the USAC and the FCC have allowed this to go on for so long.

I should note that I doubt that, if there is fraud, the money is enriching individuals or going to fund luxuries – my guess is that it is sustaining the fervently Orthodox community which is financially struggling because individuals have very large families and don’t see public school as an option, most receive minimal secular education or career training, and many men study full-time, rather than work. While I sympathize with their need for money, it is not fair to ask the government to subsidize this lifestyle. If they invested in secular education or even considered enrolling in public schools, and if they encouraged people to pursue the training necessary for modern careers, they would be in a very different situation.

WHAT DO YOU HOPE WILL COME OF THIS ARTICLE?
I hope FCC and USAC investigate this matter and seriously audit these institutions – both the service providers and the schools. I also think it’s important for the public to be aware of the E-rate program – something that is little-known outside the circles of IT people at schools – and the Universal Service Fund, particularly at a time when all tax dollars are being increasingly scrutinized.

The Jewish Week’s three-part story on E-Rate and the Ultra-Orthodox schools in New York begins here.

Originally published in the Detroit Jewish News

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

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

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

Making the Four Children Speak to Us

One of goals of the Passover seder is make this ancient, traditional ritual speak to us today. On Monday night, throughout the world, Jewish people will retell the story of the Exodus with the commentary of the Haggadah.

For me, the most poignant part of the seder ritual is the section describing four different individuals. These four children have been used as metaphors throughout the ages to show the varied personalities of humankind. They have been portrayed in creative ways through art and other media. Jay Michaelson recently compared the Four Children to characters on the hit TV show “Glee.”

Michaelson writes that ‘Glee is… among the most ‘out’ Jewish shows to grace the small screen. Like the show’s gay, disabled, multiethnic and differently sized kids, what’s interesting about its Jewish characters is how their difference marks them as ‘other,’ but, precisely as it does so, includes them in a very 2011 world in which difference is the one thing we all have in common. As it happens, the four Jewish characters in McKinley High School’s glee club map quite neatly onto the four children of the Passover Seder, and the way each of them performs his or her Jewishness shines a different light on American Jewish identity, and on the themes of the Passover holiday.”

A few years ago, I compared the Four Sons (recently changed to “Four Children” for egalitarian reasons) to four distinct male students I had taught over the years in various Hebrew School settings. I recognized that the descriptions of the Four Children resonate with different learning styles and abilities. I have changed the names of the students to protect their privacy.

Teaching to All: The Four Children in Our Classrooms

Several of my young students have made lasting impressions on me as a teacher. However, four of these students in particular, and specifically my interactions with them, have helped define me as a teacher and influenced my educational methodology.

During my second year of Rabbinical School, I was asked to teach a class of unruly seventh graders in a suburban New Jersey synagogue school. Out of the fifteen or so seventh graders, there was one over-achieving sixth grader. Ethan had been pushed up a grade because he consistently claimed boredom in his previous years of religious school. After the first rough month, I effectively established proper classroom management, but one student remained disruptive. Once I recognized that Ethan had to be challenged in more advanced ways than the other students did, we connected. His interests lay in grasping difficult Talmudic concepts and halakhic disputes. While the other students worked to make sense of the Hebrew language, Ethan spent class time deciphering pages of Talmud and then he would review them with me after class. To this day, we’re still teaching each other, as I spend a couple of hours at his home each week introducing him to the texts I’ve encountered in Rabbinical School.

Then there was Andrew. Andrew was the first student I met on my first day of teaching fourth grade afternoon religious school during my first year of college. I could tell instantly that he was what teachers would label as “the bad kid.” And sure enough, he spent his time in class testing me. It wasn’t a normal day in class if Andrew didn’t question the point of even attending Hebrew school at all. As a rookie teacher without much supervision, I made a ritual out of sending Andrew out of the class each time he misbehaved following numerous warnings. It was only after a frank discussion with him before class one day that I realized the problem was mine. I might have been teaching the right information, but I wasn’t teaching it in the right way for Andrew. That class was a watershed moment because from that day on, I approached Andrew differently as a learner, and he responded by changing his attitude in the classroom. Andrew was my star student the following year in fifth grade and in the subsequent sixth grade. Last year during Pesach, we had a chance to sit together, catch up, and study a little Torah. I took the opportunity to wish Andrew well as he prepared for his first year of college.

When I received a phone call asking if I would consider tutoring a young boy named Jonathan, I was given a stern warning from his mother. “Jonathan, well, he has a learning disability. It’s severe. You know, he’s just not a real smart kid and he couldn’t handle Hebrew school.” I accepted the challenge nevertheless, and discovered that Jonathan learns best when the material can be connected to his interests. We talked about Judaism in hockey terms – his favorite sport. I would ask Jonathan about a rule in professional hockey, and then, I would explain a rule in Judaism. And since he could only concentrate for small amounts of time, we would study the Hebrew alphabet or holidays or Jewish values, and then take a break and schmooze for a few minutes. The relationship developed, and after four years, I officiated at Jonathan’s Bar Mitzvah. The boy who was told he wouldn’t have a bar mitzvah because he’d never be able to read Hebrew led the congregation in a beautiful Havdallah service and taught us how he understands his role as a responsible member of the Jewish community.

Another student who made an impact on me as a teacher, perhaps without ever knowing that he did, was Kevin. Kevin was a fourth grade boy with autism whose parents requested that he be mainstreamed into religious school even if it just meant sitting in the back of the room and watching the other children learn. He rarely spoke, and when he did, it was never applicable to the class’s conversation. One day, as the other students worked on an art project, I handed Kevin some paper and some markers. I asked him to draw whatever he wanted. He put marker to paper and depicted the various themes of Rosh Hashanah – the exact topic the class had been discussing the week prior. Kevin didn’t, and indeed couldn’t, articulate that he understood the lesson until I asked him to respond in the way that best suited his learning style. His disability made him the student who just didn’t have the capacity to respond – or at least not in the normative way. K’neged arba’ah banim dibra haTorah – Four students, four very different types of learners. And four very different approaches that I, as a teacher, had to utilize.

Howard Gardner, a professor at Harvard, defines seven types of intelligences. Some students, he explains, are more skilled with language, while others are more logical or spatially perceptive. Some learn by physically acting out new skills, and others are better listeners. Some learn better in groups, and others are more introspective. These are the multiple intelligences. It’s no secret that we each learn best in different ways, but the million-dollar question is how teachers can best teach to all students, to all learning styles. This is the central objective of my rabbinate – to be a Jewish educator who can reach each student in the most optimal way for that student to best comprehend the content knowledge. And it is a challenging objective. As a student of Gardner, I understand that I cannot value any one of the intelligences over another – and therein lays the challenge of meeting each student’s needs as a learner.

The debates among educators today focusing on the best practices for teaching are not new to us. In fact, we see them come alive each year at the Pesach Seder. The midrash of the arba’ah banim, the Four Children, presents four individuals who ask about the tradition in very different ways. The wise, the rebellious, the simple, and the one who does not know how to ask. They are four very different learners who need to be addressed as individuals. And the Rabbis of the Mishnah, in their wisdom, understood this well. In Mishnah Pesachim, they prepare us for the Seder by teaching u’lefi da’ato shel ben aviv melamdo – that parents are meant to share their Jewish identity with each child “according to his or her intelligence,” taking into account background, age, personality, attitude, and learning style. Perhaps without possessing the language that Gardner introduced to us over twenty years ago, the Rabbis still understood the concept of multiple intelligences.

We see this elaborated on in Pirkei Avot – the Teaching of the Sages. We learn about four types of students. Maher lishmo’a u’maher l’abed – quick to understand but quick to forget. Kashe lishmo’a v’kashe l’abed – one who understands with difficulty but seldom forgets. Maher lishmo’a v’kashe l’abed – quick to understand and seldom forgets much like our wise child at the Seder. And kashe lishmo’a u’maher l’abed – learning is difficult for this student and when knowledge is gained, it is not retained. Further, in Pirkei Avot, metaphors are attributed to these four learners: the sponge, the funnel, the strainer, and the sifter. These mishnayot describe four diverse learners, but they do not advise on how to best instruct them. The Haggadah addresses this need.

The Seder is a pre-packaged curriculum that considers the multiple intelligences. Dr. Ron Wolfson characterizes the Seder as “a talk-feast in four acts.” And throughout these four acts, a variety of teaching methods are presented, making the Seder a model for teachers. The Pesach Seder, as a system or process, demonstrates that we need to have a supply of pedagogical tools at our disposal when presenting information.

Throughout the evening and into the night, the Seder keeps our attention and that of the children. It does this through experiential learning, with songs and games, with show and tell, through interpretive text study, and by way of a forum for questions and dialogue. The Seder Plate, the eating of odd mixtures of food, the mnemonic devices, the telling and re-telling, and the catchy tunes are all ways to attract our varied learning styles. And if we want everyone at our Seder to truly feel a part of the Exodus from Egypt, as is the mitzvah, then it is incumbent upon us to provide the telling, the Haggadah, in a manner that allows everyone to receive the Tradition in the best way possible. We must draw on our creativity for this to work. And we must not give up. We must be persistent, telling the same story over and over in different ways until we get it right for every learner assembled in front of us.

Maimonides saw the need for this approach as well. He suggested ways to arouse the children who are too bored or cynical at the Seder. His words encourage us to invent our own provocations for these types of children. He understood the intention of the Rabbis in trying to stimulate inquiry and, perhaps before his time, Maimonides saw the need to motivate those who were apathetic at the Seder due to alternative styles or barriers to learning.

The complication about how to teach to the multiple intelligences is that there are more than just four types of learners. And there are more than just seven intelligences to consider. Each of us possesses characteristics of the Four Children. And we each respond best to different teaching techniques depending on the subject, depending on the environment, and depending on our mood. The Four Children provides a strategy for addressing four different aspects of each student.

Rashi, the Medieval French Biblical commentator, questions the placement of the Four Children text in the Haggadah. He explains that we are not likely to think that it is connected to the section preceding it, but it is. In fact, he reads the section Baruch Hamakom Baruch Hu right into the Four Children section, telling us that it is samuch – connected. Thus, Rashi’s understanding is that we are praising the Holy One for giving us the Torah and making it accessible to each of us, alluding to the characteristics of the Four Children. Reading Rashi with our understanding of the multiple intelligences, we, in effect, are thanking God that the Torah addresses different learning styles. I also understand this to mean that we are grateful for God’s gift of the Torah, but it is now up to us to figure out how best to teach it to our children and to others. Just as we are partners with God in creation, so too are we partners with God in education.

Being God’s partner means having to accept that there are those for whom barriers exist to learning due to a disability. This poses a challenge to both the learner and the teacher. In Judaism, we are empathetic to those for whom disabilities get in the way of learning. Some of our greatest leaders had disabilities. Both Yitzchak and Ya’akov suffered from blindness in old age. Moshe, our leader par excellence suffered from a speech impediment. And a handful of our rabbinic sages experienced disabilities that did not hold them back from being links in the chain of our Tradition.

Our Torah teaches us that we must not put an obstacle before the blind. This directive can be understood to mean that we must try to not teach in a manner in which the student will comprehend. We must teach so that the student will succeed. We must focus on their strengths rather than on their weaknesses or disabilities.

On the subject of special education, Rabbi Reuven Hammer wrote twenty-five years ago that “the responsibility of the Jewish community springs from the traditional Jewish emphasis upon the importance of education not only for the elite, but also for everyone.” We, as educators do not want to label children or pigeonhole them into broad categories as the Haggadah does, but we must identify their strengths as learners. And we must detect what barriers exist to learning for them, so we can work around those barriers and make the necessary connections for educational success.

Today, the Conservative Movement’s Solomon Schechter schools are addressing the growing need for special education by reaching out to those with exceptional learning styles and individual requirements. Camp Ramah’s Tikvah program is a national model for excellence in summer education for those with learning challenges. And a new organization is providing a wealth of special needs services for children with learning disabilities, creating a new, cutting-edge curriculum for Jewish day and synagogue schools.

MATAN co-founder Meredith Englander explained the goals of the curriculum in a recent article in the New York Jewish Week. “In each class, you are likely to have students who experience success through different modes of learning. This multi-leveled curriculum presents varied lessons, each coded with a special symbol indicating a particular learning style, such as tactile, experiential, kinesthetic, auditory or visual, providing different levels with different learning modes.”

The learner who is unable to phrase the right questions might possess a barrier to learning. It is up to us to help these learners in the she’eno yode’a lish’ol category construct the necessary questions. From the Haggadah, we learn that asking the right questions is an essential component of the learning process. The Four Questions that the youngest child at the Seder traditionally asks are also a pedagogical tool. They are spoon-fed to the child to precipitate dialogue and encourage question asking from all the participants at the Seder. But they are also used to teach the child who might not come up with questions on his or her own, that questioning is important and it is how we learn.

Wednesday night at your Seder, I encourage you to ask your guests about their own learning styles you would have seen that there exists a wide variety of approaches to learning at the table and that’s precisely why the Rabbis created the Seder in such a way. Think of your Seder as a classroom with a multiplicity of learning behaviors, with a wide-range of social and emotional paradigms. Just as educators cannot teach in one voice to the entire classroom and expect 100% reception, neither can we expect our Seder to be one-dimensional. We must teach to each individual in a unique way.

The Book of Proverbs advises chanoch lana’ar al pi darko – “Train a child according to his way.” This is the lesson I have learned as a Jewish educator over the past few years. While Ethan, Andrew, Jonathan, and Kevin may not always fit precisely in one of the Four Children categories of the Haggadah, they each, in their own way taught me about how they learn as individuals. They taught me how I must teach to be successful, always keeping in mind the learning needs of each individual student.

Education is a balancing act. We must embrace all of the learning styles represented by the arba’ah banim, and tailor our Haggadah, our telling of Jewish history, to each other’s intellectual capacity, attitude, and interests. Only then will we all have the merit of fulfilling the central mitzvah of this festival, b’chol dor vador chayav adam lir’ot et atzmo k’ilu hu yatza mi’Mitzrayim – that in every generation we must envision ourselves as having been part of the Exodus from Egypt. If the educational approach is personal, then our encounter with history will be a personal experience as well.

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

The Giving Tree for Tu Bishvat

Ten years ago I was asked by the editor of the journal Conservative Judaism to write about my favorite book from my childhood. There was no question I would write about Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree. In honor of the Jewish holiday of Tu Bishvat — the birthday of the trees — I republish those words on this blog.

The Giving Tree

“And then the tree was happy… But not really.” Ever since I made the decision to become a rabbi several years ago, I have had a recurring vision of my future rabbinate. In this vision, I am sitting in a nursery school classroom at the synagogue reading The Giving Tree, my favorite children’s book, to the class. It is a tender story with many lessons to give about a young boy’s relationship with a tree. Through the years I have discovered many of the metaphors that abound throughout this parable – metaphors about nature, parents, and God.

The tree has a simple goal, and that is to make the little boy happy. When he asks the tree for money, she suggests that he sell her apples. When he asks for a house, she offers her branches as lumber. He keeps asking and she keeps giving, until all that is left of the tree is a stump when the young boy returns as an old man. And he sits on it.

This is a wonderful story for teachers to use when discussing the law of bal tash’chit – the Torah’s ban on wanton destruction of nature. Our role as God’s children is to repair the world (l’taken olam b’malkhut shaddai) and we must be careful not to exploit such precious gifts as trees, and nature’s other resources.

It is telling that as the boy matures into an old man, Silverstein continues to refer to him as the “boy.” This shows that the tree continued to give even as the boy grew, just as this wonderful book continues to give even as the audience of young boys and young girls gets older. People of all ages will appreciate the feelings of both joy and tears that this book elicits. This is why I no longer only envision myself as a rabbi sharing The Giving Tree with nursery school children, but with “children” of all ages as well. Each time I read this story, I am taken away and then I am happy… But not really.

(Originally published in Conservative Judaism, Vol. 53, No. 4, Summer 2001)

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

The Adin Steinsaltz Talmud and the Global Day of Learning

In 1994, following the death of my maternal grandfather, David Gudes, I received his entire library of Jewish books. In his collection were all of the volumes of Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz’s translation of the Talmud into English that had been published thus far. These beautiful light-yellow volumes prompted me to start learning Talmud as a college freshman. At first, I would sit in my dorm room by myself and try to make sense of the Aramaic with the assistance of Steinsaltz’s translation. Then I began learning with my friend and first chavruta (study partner) PJ Cherrin in the library of the campus Hillel. Those Steinsaltz volumes proved helpful as I began to navigate my way through the “Sea of Talmud.”

In rabbinical school, at the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Steinsaltz English edition was banned from use because it was considered to be a crutch for those who were too challenged by the puzzling Aramaic of the text. In other, more traditional, circles Steinsaltz was shunned because he altered some of the long-standing conventions when he placed his commentary in the space traditionally reserved for the commentator Rashi and changed the traditional layout and pagination in his translation.

While I wasn’t allowed to use my grandfather’s Talmud set with Steinsaltz’s English translation, I often referred to the Steinsaltz translation of the Talmud into understandable Hebrew. The addition of vowels, punctuation and a contemporary commentary made Talmud study much more accessible for me and for many thousands of other students.

Steinsaltz’s undertaking is coming to an end with his publication of the final remaining Tractate (Chulin) into the more manageable Hebrew (his English translation ended after only a dozen or so volumes were complete). In celebration of this milestone, Rabbi Steinsaltz has declared this Sunday to be a “Global Day of Jewish Learning” to raise awareness about the joys and spiritual reward of Jewish study. Through Rabbi Steinsaltz’s organization, The Aleph Society, and with the leadership of Detroit native Rachel Weiss Berger, a website has been set up for individuals to locate resources for self learning.

I am excited to be one of the local teachers who will lead a session on the “Global Day of Jewish Learning.” My session will explore the theme of water as it runs through Jewish texts and tradition. Water is an appropriate subject for a day when the world celebrates the work of a man who helped the Jewish people navigate through the Sea of Talmud.

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

Why Tony Danza Should Stay Out of the Classroom (& Reality TV)

Here’s my latest blog post for Community Next’s “Rabbi J in the D” (a Jewish celeb blog):

One evening in the summer of 2000 when I was working as a chaplain intern at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, I walked into one of those family waiting rooms outside of the patient unit. The television was turned on to a new reality TV show called “Survivor.” I watched for about ten minutes and then promised myself that I would no longer watch reality television. Ever. Again.

So, it’s been over a decade and reality TV has taken us from people trying to survive on a deserted island to families with too many kids and too many problems. From celebrities in need of rehab and dance lessons to Italians in New Jersey. I still don’t watch any of that. Some would say it’s my loss for not watching “The Bachelor” or “American Idol,” but I think it’s a wise move.

But then I heard that Tony Danza was coming back to TV. This time he wouldn’t be a housekeeper, but a public high school teacher. And I thought to myself, “This is not going to go very well.” I had to tune in (or at least set my DVR since I’m a little busy as a rabbi on Friday evenings!).

If you haven’t seen A&E’s “Teach: Tony Danza,” I recommend you don’t. The former “Who’s The Boss” and “Taxi” star is teaching 10th grade English for this new reality show. When I watched a little bit of the show, I immediately thought about all the other actors who would be better teachers than Tony Danza. In fact, since this is a Jewish celebrity blog, I came up with a list of Jewish actors who already have teaching experience on TV or the big screen.

Here’s my list:

Richard Dreyfuss (“Mr. Holland’s Opus”)

Ben Stein (“Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”)

Bridgette Wilson (Veronica Vaughn in “Billy Madison”)
*She’s not Jewish, but her husband, Tennis player Pete Sampras, has a Jewish paternal grandmother

Jeremy Piven (“Old School”)

Harry Shearer (Voice of Seymour Skinner on “The Simpsons”)

Gabe Kaplan (“Welcome Back Kotter”)

Honorable Mentions (They’re not Jewish):

  • Paul Gleason (“Breakfast Club”)
  • Dennis Haskins (Mr. Belding in “Saved By the Bell”)
  • Robin Williams (“Dead Poet Society”)
  • Arnold Schwarzenegger ( “Kindergarten Cop”)
  • Tina Fey (“Mean Girls”)

The bottom line is: Anyone but Tony Danza!
(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

The Jewish Classroom, More Wired Than Ever

Also published in The New York Jewish Week’s Fall Education supplement and cross-posted to Jewish Techs

Many 30- and 40-year-olds will remember when a cart with a computer and monitor was wheeled into the classroom and students formed a single line waiting for a chance to use the device for a few minutes. Perhaps it was typing out a few lines of code in BASIC to move the cursor several inches along the screen, or perhaps it was creating an elementary art design.

Today, the Technology Age has entered the classroom at full speed and it is integrated in every subject and curriculum. Jewish day schools have recently added chief technology professionals to their management teams. Congregational schools have technology experts on the faculty. Synagogues have cleared away dusty books in the library from a bygone era to make room for student computer labs and SmartBoards.

At the Jewish Academy of Orlando, Apple iPods are not an unusual site. While the students are not allowed to listen to Miley Cyrus or Matisyahu in school, they can be found hooked up to their iPods to learn Torah trope (cantillation). One of the school’s Hebrew teachers has created a set of podcasts for the students to learn individually as she works with small groups. The school has also used blogs to connect with other Jewish schools on topics of interest. Digital photography mixed with the latest production tool was used to create a slideshow of the children in kindergarten using their bodies to form the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Linda Dombchik, the school’s director of technology, explains that middle school students used technology to create a virtual Holocaust museum using Keynote, Apple’s presentation creator, to teach their peers.

While many Jewish day and supplemental schools provide access to computer labs with dozens of computers, some schools have transitioned to ensuring that each student has access to a laptop computer throughout the day. Many schools struggle to keep up with the latest technology as students become accustomed to faster computers at home and the technology quickly moves toward obsolescence with each passing school year. Jewish federations and foundations, like AVI CHAI, work with day schools and synagogues to provide the newest computers and devices, including SmartBoards and iPads.

The AVI CHAI Foundation has engaged with classroom teachers through experiments in an educational technology grant program, in which 400 applications were reviewed and 30 allocations were made. Eli Kannai, who directs educational technology at AVI CHAI, notes that the field is now starting to use SmartBoards (“more than just fancy projectors”) in many classrooms demonstrating the shift to “interactive teaching.”

In the past decade, the Jewish classroom has become integrated with technology. What was once a stand-alone experience, technology is now a utility for all subjects in schools, from math and science to Hebrew and Torah study.
Students at Hillel Day School in Metropolitan Detroit use an interactive tool called Wordle to visually represent the concept of technology. These young students might type a descriptive paragraph about the week’s Torah portion, a poem by Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai, or the words of a psalm. Wordle then generates a “word cloud” with the provided text. The words appearing more frequently show up comparatively larger in the word cloud.

Perhaps the single greatest technology integration into the Jewish classroom centers on Hebrew language learning. Kannai cites the enhanced use of audio and video devices to teach Hebrew. Rather than rely on the language labs of old, both day and supplemental schools are using the latest interactive software applications to make learning Hebrew fun and challenging. Students who are accustomed to playing video games at home enjoy the thrill of gaming at school to learn the ancient Jewish language.

TES, the largest Jewish software distributor, has released several applications focused on teaching children to read Hebrew, conjugate verbs, and master biblical Hebrew in an innovative way. Today’s children are more comfortable in front of a computer than any previous generation and the mode of learning must match the familiarity level.

Another trend is “user-generated content” in which teachers now create richer lesson experiences for their classrooms, and share these tools with other teachers. Each teacher maintains a webpage and blog that students and parents may access to complement classroom learning. Additionally, students are generating their own content by filming videos and uploading them to YouTube, blogging their research projects, and collaborating with their peers on websites and PowerPoint presentations to teach classmates.

These forms of user-generated content create a virtual classroom of sorts without formalizing the distance-learning approach.

As more students own personal devices that can access the Internet, we are near a situation when every student will have such a device in class, be it a Smartphone, tablet, or small laptop. The lessons of the past should prove helpful to a Jewish education system that needs to continuously adapt to the technology changes in this new world.

It is up to the educators to realize that before banning iPods, iPads and laptops from the classroom, they must seek out the ways to integrate this technology into the curriculum.

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