In this Educator Spotlight, Rabbi Yoni Fein shares how personalized learning is helping all his students to succeed and explains how one particular element of blended learning is the real game-changer.
Yoni Fein is the Assistant Principal of Judaic Studies & Student Life in the middle school at The Moriah School. Over the past two years, Yoni served as Blended Learning Coordinator, overseeing the middle school's transition to a 1:1 personalized learning approach. He was recently selected by The AVI CHAI Foundation as a fellow at the Harvard Graduate School of Education Principal Institute. Yoni is also an EdTech & Blended Learning Specialist and a Certified Google Educator, and the Founder and CEO of DigiU, a platform in its early development stage that aims to digitize pre-existing and new educational content. Yoni has a M.S Ed from Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education & Administration, and consistently takes part in continued professional learning. Yoni loves to learn Torah, hang out with his family, and everything sports. He is always looking to connect with people who have a passion for Jewish education and if you'd like to contact Yoni you can email him at email@example.com.
When did you decide you wanted to be a teacher?
I have always had a passion for education, and I wanted to find a way to be involved in the exciting possibilities that were there to advance Jewish education. I ended up majoring in Psychology at YU and was preparing to apply to a doctoral program and pursue smicha [rabbinic ordination]. I was a youth director at the Riverdale Jewish Center when the principal at Moriah approached me with an opportunity to join his faculty. I was excited to check out the school, and I came to Moriah on a Monday for a visit, and on Tuesday I was already teaching 120 students, seven periods a day. I never had formal training, and it was certainly learning by fire, but I instantly fell in love with it. I was very fortunate to have great mentors that first year. I said, “This is what I want to do for the rest of my life.” I was lucky that I was at Moriah when they won the BOLD grant from AVI CHAI. The school was transitioning to 1:1 and I like to use out-of-the-box thinking in education, as well as to incorporate cutting edge tech tools in the classroom, so it was a natural transition to the position of Blended Learning Coordinator.
How did you learn how to integrate blended learning into the classroom?
I was lucky to work with Lisa Fusco, Director of Technology at Moriah. She is incredibly talented! I met with her frequently throughout each week and discussed both the technology and education side of integration. I also worked with Lauren Adler, Instructional Technology Coordinator for the Lower School who is an amazing leader and was pivotal in our transition from traditional to personalized learning. Our school also hired Marcia Kish, a world-renowned blended learning consultant (blendedlearningcookbook.com) who gave me priceless one-on-one coaching every week. So a lot of learning was through people I worked with. I also did some online courses through Coursera and EdX. Technology is fluid and you have to look for new programs and play around with them. That’s why I always took opportunities to attend conferences such as ISTE and iNACOL to network with others and learn about successes in the field. I also started my own education startup; through that and the people I met, I got to know the industry well and how technology is made and how it is bought by schools and what issues they have. It’s helpful to understand the gaps between what schools need and what the companies think the schools need. That experience helped me understand how to integrate them together to meet our teachers workflow.
How have you used blended learning in your Judaic Studies lessons?
When I started teaching, my focus was mainly on introducing fun, engaging technologies to draw students in and help them learn Torah in ways that they never did before. I started to realize that while this is possible, technology integration was just scratching the surface. A couple years ago I started teaching 6th grade Torah Sheba'al Peh [Oral Torah]. It’s tricky because it’s a transitional year. You have to make sure they remember Mishnah skills from Lower School, where lessons are more about skill building than content. After giving a pre-assessment to see what information the students retained from 5th grade, I realized there was a wide spectrum of student success and that my curriculum didn’t match up to where all of the students were. I thought there must be a way to use the power of technology to create personalized pathways, so students could go through all the skills they need for Gemara in steps.
I experimented with several free platforms that allow me to aggregate my own Judaic content into a digital interactive program. I found Blendspace, which helps teachers aggregate different kinds of media all into one place. You can also weave in digital assessments throughout the lesson. It’s a great starting point for any teacher. The beauty of Blendspace for Judaic Studies is that it allows for me, the rebbe, to take content that is not subject-specific and create a lesson with it. It lets me create these lessons without having to reinvent the wheel. And it’s Hebrew enabled! I also get real-time data on my screen so I am able to see what students need help with almost immediately.
The influx of real-time data was exciting, but it also led me to the realization that the data is only as valuable as what I do with the data. So, I began designing my lessons to incorporate rotations where students would work with chavrutas [partners], independently on a project or assignment, at a digital station with the Blendspace, or learning with me at the teacher station in a small focused group. The rotations were game-changing and it allowed me to differentiate, to let students progress as they mastered skills and content, and to provide students the opportunity to work at their own pace. I make sure to create agendas for students so they can be independent learners. I share their goals and challenges with them so they can be stakeholders in their own learning. And it really pays off. With personalized learning, in which you’re not lecturing in front of the whole class, you might think, “Wait, if I’m losing the lecture, how am I going to teach the students?” But in the end what I’ve found is that the quality of those seven minutes of small group instruction is so much higher. I’ve actually connected more to my students and how they learn. That has really motivated me. With this personalized learning model there is so much potential and endless opportunities to improve education for every child.
Can you share a little more more about how you use student data to differentiate learning?
To personalize learning every student needs to have their own pathway of steps, based on data, to get from where they are now to a place where they are reaching their goals for each unit. Once students are in their pathways, then there is differentiation at each blended learning station. For a short period of time, a group of students will come to my small group instruction station, and each small group with me is qualitatively different; they’re all at different levels. I have to work within that personalized framework in those small groups; otherwise you’re just doing the same thing at different times and that’s not differentiation.
Teachers who want to differentiate can start with small steps. For example, just do a round of 15 minute rotations so you get more comfortable not being in front of the class every single day. Then you could add some online content. Drastic change can be intimidating for teachers. Once they know how to personalize and how to truly differentiate, it’s less scary. Some teachers might say “Technology is going to replace me” and to that I would respond “No, because the most valuable resource in the classroom is the teacher.” The value of the teacher increases exponentially with technology, which can do administrative tasks in minutes and provide longitudinal and accurate data on individual student needs. Students should have the most valuable resource, the teacher, available when they need it. Then the teacher can get to really know them, guide them, and can gain insight into students’ learning that wouldn’t show up in data. Data is valuable for teachers, and it’s most valuable when it’s a starting point for deciding which students to work with in small groups or individually. Integrating technology for technology’s sake can make learning worse. But when you let it help you to do what you do better, that’s a game-changer.
What are some other EdTech tools you’ve used to support blended learning?
Wizer.me takes the idea behind Blendspace and makes it more advanced. Blendspace only has the multiple choice questions, whereas in Wizer.me there are a lot of other elements. The teacher can create online worksheets. You can upload pictures and tag them - I’ve used that feature to have students identify a shoresh [Hebrew word root] or label a mitzvah on an image. There’s also long answer questions and the ability to create polls.
For flipping the classroom, I’ve uploaded videos into Zaption and embedded assessments into them so that I get data immediately from students. I use Google Classroom for distribution of Google Doc assignments, and Quizlet for students to learn vocabulary. For oral assessments, I use Voicethread to check students’ reading comprehension and translation skills. They record themselves reading in Voicethread, even the punctuation, and then submit it to me.
Students have also done Gemara tweets once a month. For one sugya, the students take on one of the Tanna’s positions, and they have to have a Twitter debate with another Tanna. The student Sanhedrin [court] then judges who made a more convincing argument. Twitter forces students to write succinctly and coherently about what they want to say. They have to make their argument in as direct a way as possible. They have to ask, “How do you communicate still in an articulate fashion in social media language?” (I don’t use actual Twitter for this but the discussion forum feature in our LMS - Haiku).
Another tool I use is RealTimeBoard, an unlimited online canvas to which you can add content. Imagine an infinite whiteboard online. You can collaborate on the board and it stays in the cloud. It’s become my lesson builder. I upload all the content there, including student projects, and when I zoom out I can see the entire year’s worth of work.
One cool success story I had was with a group of students in the lower level track. I wasn’t sure if they understood certain content, and they weren’t performing well on traditional assessments. I had them do a deep dive at the collaborative station. They created a website, using Weebly and Wix, that demonstrated their mastery of the idea of lashon hara [evil speech/gossip], the unit’s subject. They created a web page with clips from TV, movies, and current events that depicted scenes with potential lashon hara. They also created a discussion forum for the whole school and asked questions such as “If you booed Justin Bieber at the Knicks game, did you commit an act of lashon hara? Did you cause damage to the person?” The whole grade went back and forth debating the questions posed. These students used technology to create a conversation around Torah. When students are doing something just for the teacher it’s very different than doing something for the world. There’s that saying that kids are the future, but that’s not right. Kids are our present, too, not just our future. Students can make an impact on their community right now. I want to convey to my students that their ideas are valuable and they should share their Torah with the world.
What have been students’ reactions to educational technology and blended learning?
A large majority enjoy how we are implementing technology in our current model. We’re learning more and more that we need to have students as partners in the process; we need to include them more in training. A lot of schools don't recognize that students need training on technology, too, and that they can also benefit from conversations about why technology is being introduced into the classroom. Whenever I introduce an app, I give the students time to explore it and always explain why it will benefit their growth. Students also need to be part of conversations about what personalized learning means and why we’re doing it. One great outcome is that our students really do not see education as a competition. We speak about data with them frequently and openly, and provide constant feedback and assessment, and that has greatly decreased anxiety around tests. Students are more confident because they got the help they need beforehand and they know where they stand all the time. Also, students in a group who need more help no longer have a stigma. It’s “I’m on my path to reach my potential” and whatever work they’re given is going to challenge them. We’re also moving toward a model of having student conferences before parent-teacher conferences. Students will be able to have open conversations about their goals and create individualized plans. It’s great to see trust built.
What are the advantages of using blended learning for Judaic Studies specifically?
Just as in other subjects it’s all about students’ learning, and the best way to learn will be different for every student. In Judaic Studies we’re used to the same content, worksheets, and traditional lecturing that we had when we were students. We recognize that we can do more for our students. There’s not so much digital Judaic content out there ready to use, so we need to create our own content that will reflect our understanding of students’ individual needs. There are fantastic free tools that allow us to do that without as much work as it might seem. We need more collaboration between educators who will create quality digital content, which we can then aggregate online so it can be shared easily. Educators can search and find my Blendspaces and get ideas from them. Using these tools, I have more time in class to help individual students, I have a deeper and richer understanding of the children as learners and what they need, and I am able to use data to guide my students through their own pathway of learning skills that will set them up for future success in Talmud Torah, including reading, vocabulary, content knowledge, higher order thinking, and much more.
What advice do you have for other Judaic Studies teachers who want to start using educational technology or blended learning in their classrooms?
First, focus on the why before the what or the how. Before you do anything with personalized learning, know the goals at the macro level. Personalizing at the micro level is too hard if you don’t have standards and benchmarks and concrete goals. Teachers have to be prepared for when a student surpasses the benchmarks. Have the why in place at the very beginning. Second, build a network of peers and colleagues for professional development. You’re going to need to be exposed to new tools and collaboration makes that process so much easier. Go on social media and connect with people at conferences. I’m always open to meeting new people and collaborating. I recently gave a two-part introductory workshop to beginning the transition from traditional to personalized learning in Judaic Studies, and I’d be happy to share and hear ideas from any passionate educators who’d like to join. Don’t do this all on your own. Third, remember that it’s a process. When something doesn’t go well, remember Carol Dweck’s growth mindset. Technology is always changing, and so you have to live and breath a growth mindset. Be willing to fail and face times when things don’t work.
What are your future goals for blended learning?
I hope that personalized learning at the very least creates an invigorating conversation among Jewish education leaders about how to create the ideal learning environment for all students. That conversation alone is so valuable. No matter which way you place it, the more you personalize the better it’ll be. The more people who share their successes with personalized learning, the more buy-in you get and the more resources you get developed for educators.
What has been a highlight of personalizing learning for your students?
A week and a half before Purim I had taught all the dinim [laws] and wanted students to do divrei Torah on the Megillah. I had the Purim story on cards with pictures for all the events in the Megillah. The cards were on a table and the students had to put the events in chronological order. None of the students successfully completed the assignment. From a young age students are told a skit-like story but many haven’t actually looked at the words of the Megillah. With just a few days before the start of the holiday, I had students who did not understand the basic p’shat [meaning] of the Megillah story! So I created screencasts for each perek [chapter], each 5-7 minutes long and at the bottom I included commentary. We called it Megillah Marathon! The students would watch the videos at home and answer questions, and as the data came in, I would pull out students into small groups in class. For students who finished, I had a choice board available for them where they could choose from a variety of activities that included poetry, songs, paper or digital brochures, Twitter stories, essays, and more.
In just a few days, 90% of the students successfully learned the Megillah, something that we could not have accomplished using traditional methods in that time frame. I used the whole project for assessment and we had a celebration for their accomplishment of finishing the entire Megillah. It was an “aha!” moment. I was able to engage students on multiple levels and we were able to accomplish so much more than if I was just a source of information. I feel I’ve made the biggest impact with lessons in which I can see students are getting what they need, when they need it, and are learning at their own pace.
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