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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Haggadah Feeling – Some Fresh Haggadot for Passover

I began collecting different versions of the haggadah, the Passover seder’s playbook-script-manual, when I was in college. It all started by ordering a new one each year in anticipation of the holiday and somehow my collection now exceeds 100 and has demanded its own bookcase. This pales in comparison with the vast haggadah collection of Irwin Alterman of blessed memory, a brilliant community leader in Detroit who passed away earlier this month and had an exquisite library of some 1,500 haggadahs. His son, a childhood friend, tells me that plans are underway to allow the public to admire his collection soon.

For many Jewish families the version of the haggadah is as much a family tradition as the food served during the seder meal. Just ask many Jewish Americans and they’ll tell you about their deep connection to the Maxwell House Haggadah from childhood seders.

The 21st century, however, has seen a seismic shift from the rather bland (and free) Maxwell House Haggadah to more creative versions. And that transition has also afforded many Jewish families some poetic liberties with the seder script. The more traditional families have always tended toward the keva (Hebrew for rote or routine), while more progressive families allowed for more kavvanah (that unscripted spontaneity)  while telling the Passover story. Truthfully, the seder was always intended to be a symposium or talk-feast with an ample mix of both keva and kavvanah. A famous rabbi quoted in the haggadah believes one must only mention the paschal lamb, matzah and bitter herb to fulfill the obligation of the seder. The rest as they say is commentary.

So when a family is ready to make the move to a new haggadah, what should they look for? It’s important to remember that adopting a new hagaddah can be a costly investment at first. While the Maxwell House Haggadah came compliments of the coffee corporation, today’s options can cost around $20 each which adds up when all twenty-five guests require a copy. The haggadah will be reused year after year (with an increasing amount of wine stains and matzah crumbs) and that’s why it’s important to choose the right one at first.

My two favorites in my collection are the (Arthur) Szyk Haggadah and the (David) Moss Haggadah, but these works of art are more suited to be displayed on the coffee table than used at the seder table. So I’m going to recommend a few options that your family might consider adopting for annual use at the seder.

WELLSPRINGS OF FREEDOM: THE RENEW OUR DAYS HAGGADAH
(wellspringshaggadah.com)
This haggadah was edited and published by Rabbi Ron Aigen, a Reconstructionist rabbi in Montreal who has also edited a siddur and a machzor (high holiday prayerbook). This haggadah draws on several modern scholars to provide the commentary of the familiar tale of freedom from slavery. It contains more of the biblical narrative than other haggadahs and uses a “split screen” format meaning the page is divided between the spoken story-line of the seder and the personal, inner journey found in the commentaries. This haggadah, with colorful artwork every dozen or so pages, encourages the leader to be creative and engaging.

JONATHAN SACKS HAGGADA
(www.korenpub.com)
Maggid, a division of Koren Publishers in Jerusalem, offers a haggadah with two texts in one. The traditional text is joined by a collection of thought-provoking essays by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth. The newly revised edition, recently released, includes a new translation and layout. The essays are scholarly, yet eloquent. Sacks addresses the relationship between Passover, Jewish identity, and Jewish history, as well as the role of Passover in Western political imagination and offers new interpretations of the traditional haggadah text.

MY HAGGADAH: MADE IT MYSELF
(madeitmyselfbooks.com)
The Passover seder is unique in that it is a serious discussion around the dinner table that is meant to include both adults and children. But that can also post challenges when the children are very young. Francine Hermelin Levite created her own very kid-friendly haggadah several years ago to keep the little ones enthused. Now, with help from Reboot.com she has made it available for purchase. Packed with nearly 40 pages of engaging, open-ended questions and drawing prompts to do before, during, or after the seder, this haggadah creates lively Passover conversations around the table. Children are able to personalize the traditional story through their own pictures and art (it comes with stickers). The simple, creative haggadah is built around the 15 steps of the seder and, while it is an out-of-the-box publication, it still includes the basic blessings, songs and stories. The essence of the seder is to ask questions and drum up discussion. Hermelin Levite’s haggadah helps that process along (and with little kids there isn’t much time to waste before the eating begins).

BRONFMAN HAGGADAH
(bronfmanhaggadah.com)
The well-known Jewish philanthropist and international communal leader Edgar M. Bronfman has joined with his wife, artist Jan Aronson, to produce a radical reimagining of the Passover text. The inspirational readings that Bronfman included span from Frederick Douglas to Ralph Waldo Emerson and poet Marge Piercy. The underlying message of the Bronfman Haggadah is that we all possess the capacity for peace and understanding. The watercolor paintings are stunning and are sure to evoke discussion. It’s evident that Bronfman spent a great deal of time putting his version of the haggadah together and it’s sure to become a popular fixture on seder tables this Passover. It’s been described as an “engaging and interactive contemporary account of Passover, which will foster meaningful and constructive dialogue between Jews and non-Jews alike.”

HAGGADOT.COM
If you don’t like anything you see in already published haggadahs, there’s a website that allows you to become the creator and publish your own. As the introduction on haggadot.com states, “Passover is about freedom. But when it comes to the seder, many of us are lost. This website is a resource for Jews of all backgrounds to make the Haggadah that finally feels meaningful for a contemporary seder, with unique perspectives gathered from individuals worldwide.” With an array of classical texts and contemporary interpretations, this website allows the user to create a more personalized version with original writings and artwork. The creators invite users to mix and match content from other users as well as previously published haggadot so that one family’s haggadah may include selections from a 16th century haggadah interspersed with feminist and social justice readings or poetry. The final step is a PDF copy that can be reproduced for seder guests. Wine stains? Just print a new copy. Of course, as the children get older an amended, more comprehensive version can be created and used.

There’s no shortage of haggadahs on the market. Each denomination of modern Judaism has published its own version. And as more haggadahs are available each year more families are reconsidering how they present their seder, the most practiced Jewish ritual today. It’s encouraging to see this change in culture from a rote Maxwell House seder to an embrace of creativity and creating the opportunity for multi-generational dialogue. After all, that’s the whole point of the Passover seder.

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

Fun Passover Activities for the Seder and Beyond

Passover, which begins on March 25, is one of the most widely observed Jewish holidays. Each year during the Passover seder, Jewish people attempt to integrate the old traditions of the holiday with innovations. Mostly, these innovations are meant to keep the children (and many of the adults too!) alert and engaged during the seder.

Innovations in the Haggadah are certainly valuable for keeping things fresh at the seder while still sticking to the centuries-old script. However, for young children it can be a frustrating and kvetchy experience as they watch each adult at the table take a turn reading the midrashic commentary of our ancestors’ exodus from Egyptian slavery — no matter how lovely the artwork is in the newly published Haggadah.

Rabbi Vicki Tuckman, on the ReformJudaism.org website, writes that the “most important thing in leading a Passover seder is feeling that you have the freedom (pun intended) to be as creative as possible.” These days many families — especially those with young children — are scrapping the traditional seder symposium and opting for fun activities that keep everyone participating. Some families I spoke with pitch tents in their living room and tell the Passover story while pretending to be the Israelites camped out in the desert.

In the weeks leading up to Passover, which arrives quite early this year, I had the opportunity to review a few games and activities that I plan to use to keep my kids having fun at the seder this year. Some of them I’ve been using for years and others I’ve only discovered this year.


PASSOVER BINGOTamara Pester, a Denver lawyer, sent me this game back in January and my kids started playing it right away. They enjoy playing Bingo and I was thrilled to see them using Bingo cards with some educational value rather than a bunch of numbers. Pester came up with the idea for Passover Bingo when she saw her niece and nephew getting restless during the family seder. “Instead of drudging through the Hagaddah, wondering when it’s time to eat,” she explains, “people will be motivated to follow along with the story of Exodus. Guests at your traditional Seder will be participating and paying rapt attention to the pages, thanks to this easy-to-play game.”

The game retails for $24.99 and features six colorful game boards with Passover keywords such as Egypt and Elijah. The game also includes 96 foam markers, and is recommended for children ages three and up. To help fund the project, Pester turned to Jewcer.com, which offers crowd-sourced funding for Jewish projects. “Actually, the Jewcer people contacted me because they’d never done a promotion with a product before,” she said. The Jewcer site waived fees and helped Pester raise nearly $3,000 for the game. Pester’s sold over 150 of the games through Jewcer, the Passover Bingo website, and several synagogue gift stores.

PLAGUES BAGS
I first discovered the Plagues Bags back in the late 1990s when I saw an ad for them in Moment Magazine. I ordered one and began to use it at my family’s seder which I started leading after my grandfather passed away in 1994. It became a custom at our seder for my young cousins Jeff and Ben to put on the hand puppets of Moses and Pharaoh respectively and act out the dialogue between the two. The two cousins are now in their mid-20s and, while their hands no longer fit in the plastic puppets, they’re good sports and still play along.

Rabbi Alan Silverstein thought so highly of the Plagues Bags that he decided his synagogue would take over the sale of them each year. In 2001 my wife and I moved to Caldwell, New Jersey where I served an internship at Congregation Agudath Israel with Rabbi Silverstein. He put my wife in charge of the Plagues Bags and that year she reported to me that they had sold several thousand in the week before Passover.

What’s so great about the Plagues Bags? They encourage the seder participants to have fun during what could otherwise be a very tense time during the seder. The horrible plagues God brought upon the Egyptians, including the death of the firstborn children, can be difficult to explain to children. It’s also getting close to the festive meal and everyone is hungry at this point in the seder. The “toys” inside the Plagues Bags help the seder leader keep everyone’s attention and bring some levity to the “talk-feast”.

JEWISH HOLIDAYS IN A BOX
At JewishHolidaysInABox.com, they’ve completed a new guide called “Celebrate Passover: How to Plan a Fun, Simple Seder”. This creative guide helps families who are novices when it comes to the Pesach seder or want to make their standard seder more engaging and fun. Their The 3-part downloadable package comes with a 36-page PDF + 2 audio tutorials and is available on the Jewish Holidays in a Box website.

RESOURCES FOR INNOVATIVE AND FUN SEDERS
Two books I recommend to help seder leaders enliven the seder each year are David Arnow’s “Creating Lively Passover Seders” and Ron Wolfson’s “The Passover Seder: The Art of Jewish Living”. Danielle Dardashti and Roni Sarig also have a great chapter with some fun Passover seder projects for children in their book “The Jewish Family Fun Book”. All three books are published by Jewish Lights Publishers. This year the Foundation for Jewish Camp has published an activity book for the seder to promote its “One Happy Camper” program. The activity book includes games, Madlibs, and even Capture the Flag using the afikomen.

The Foundation for Jewish Camp’s “Camp Passover” activity book for the seder

SKITS
Many families perform skits during their seder, which is a great way to observe the commandment that we should all act as though we were actually part of the exodus from Egyptian bondage. Behrman House, a wonderful educational publishing house, has a couple scripts on their website. “Seder Time” is a skit by Stan Beiner, a well known Jewish educator who created Sedra Scenes. Meredith Shaw Patera’s “The Courage of Nachshon” is another good skit available on the Behrman House Passover activity website. Aish Hatorah lists ways for participants to act out the ten plagues on their website.

On Facebook and Twitter I asked people to share some of the innovative activities they have adopted at the seder to keep the children participating and the adults from dozing off. Here are some of my favorites:

Rabbi Michael S. Jay: We’ve had children prepare commercials for Matzah or other symbols of the Seder.

Rabbi David Locketz: I find out what songs all the kid who are coming have learned at school and then incorporate them into magid. Give out parts in advance and we act it out in song and brief dialogues.

David Kaufman: We had all the kids bring knapsacks filled with the items they would want to make sure they brought out of Egypt. Then, when we begin Maggid, we all get up from the table, they take their knapsacks, and we make an “exodus” into the living room. There, we start doing Maggid, and the kids also show us what they would bring and explain why.

Prof. Michael Satlow: I had the kids do a play of the Exodus from the Egyptian perspective. It really taught me something and opened discussion.

Jennifer Levin Teper: I make oragami frogs and use them as placecards. Then everyone, can “jump” them during the seder. Our favorite is trying to get it to land in your water glass.

Melanie Dunkelman Hartong: I found silly masks of the plagues at my local Kroger- kids thought it was hysterical!!

Lynn Davis: We throw plagues (tiny plastic animals, etc.) but I realize that a rowdy seder isn’t for everyone!

Rabbi Judah Isaacs: My sister buys a Pesach puzzle and gives out the pieces for answers to questions. She has the kids put the puzzle together during the Seder.

Shawn Broida: When our kids were little and we knew we couldn’t get 6 cousins under age 8 to sit through a seder, we decided to do a bedouin seder on the floor and let them roam! Aside from a few almost disasters with the seder plate getting kicked across the room, it was more relaxing for everyone and the kids had a ball!

I wish everyone a Chag Sameach… may your seders be educational, innovative, and memorable!

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

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

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