Tech Gadgets in Jewish Day Schools

Tech Gadgets in Jewish Day Schools
Rabbi Jason Miller

Just in time for the kids to go back to school, a photo made its way around the Internet. It was a picture of a smartphone sitting atop a piece of graphing paper with a math problem written on it. The phone has a scientific calculator application on the screen. Above the picture was the quote: “You need to learn to do this without a calculator. You are not going to be carrying a calculator around with you everywhere you go!” -4th grade math teacher.

It’s laughable, but true. 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.

Walking from classroom to classroom at Hillel Day School in Farmington Hills, one can’t help but notice the large white gadgets attached to the wall. These SMART Boards might not be what people think of when they hear the term “educational gadget,” but these devices have revolutionized the field of Jewish education in a very short time. Hillel introduced the SMART Boards a few years ago and they were quickly embraced by teachers and students. Local congregational religious schools in the community also have integrated SMART Boards thanks to a grant from the Legacy Heritage Foundation.

Steve Freedman, Hillel’s head of school, said that “the SMART Board is a fantastic tool. 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.”

The SMART Boards are used in each of the school’s grades based on the students’ abilities. In a kindergarten classroom each student virtually moves her name from one side of the screen to the next to participate in the attendance process. In a middle school classroom the students collaborate on the SMART Board to solve an algebra problem or learn to read Torah.

At the Frankel Jewish Academy (FJA), students began this school year with a nice surprise. Each student in the West Bloomfield-based 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.”

Matthew Orel’s son Aaron is a 9th grader at FJA. The West Bloomfield father remarked that the iPad was Aaron’s introduction to the school. “You should have seen the ear-to-ear smile on his face that day.”

It’s not only the students 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 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.”

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.

Hillel Day School is about to embark on a new strategic plan that will include a task force on technology.  The school, like FJA, has tried to stay on top of the latest innovations in educational technology. “When it comes to technology we’re investigating what, if any, personal devices will be best for kids and at what age,” said Freedman. The latest research is really showing that it’s not about a particular device, but what’s [sic] the criteria that’s needed in the device… And is it best for each student to have the same device or should each student have a device that is most comfortable for him or her? Those are the things we’re considering.”

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. Today, schools are looking toward creative ways to integrate the students’ mobile devices into the classroom.

There are many more tech gadgets available to educators today. Imagine a classroom of fifth graders who no longer raise their hand if they have a question or want to give feedback to the teacher. A hand-held clicker now allows teachers to receive instant feedback from students on tests and lesson plans. Students are able to respond to a teacher’s question by pressing a button. In the future they’ll use their cell phones to respond to the teacher’s questions or classroom polls.

So, just how soon will it be until schools turn the students’ smartphones into learning devices? Freedman predicts five years. With the speed of hi-tech gadgets being integrated into the classroom, it could even be less.

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.

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, a local technologist, 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.”

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