In this Educator Spotlight, Eti Ben-Shalom shares how students are succeeding in Hebrew thanks to blended and personalized learning.
Esther “Eti” Ben-Shalom was born and raised in Jerusalem. She earned her Master’s in Jewish Studies and Jewish Education from Siegal College and taught for over 15 years in Jewish day schools in Atlanta, serving as a pilot teacher in the TaL Am program. She moved to Miami in 2011, and has since been working as a Hebrew and Judaic Studies teacher at Lehrman Community Day School. She loves teaching, especially trying new things with her students. She also enjoys reading and computers, and of course family, which includes her husband Adam and three sons who are Lehrman students.
When did you decide you wanted to be a teacher?
In college, I was majoring in Design and Marketing, but I started teaching Sunday School at a synagogue and fell in love with teaching. I extended my studies and got a Masters in Jewish Education. I was also part of the TaL Am program and went to many seminars related to Hebrew instruction.
How do you use blended learning in your classroom?
I previously taught at The Epstein School in Atlanta where I worked with students with learning difficulties. The goal was to meet every child’s individual needs using the rotation system. So when I came to Lehrman, and started to do blended learning, I was already familiar with rotation groups and personalized learning. In every Hebrew class, the students are grouped by ability. One group typically works with a teacher on grammar in a workbook. A student might be working one-on-one with me. At another station students might be doing independent work like a project on the computer, a packet to review grammar, or a workbook assignment. The independent station varies because it’s based on student needs; it's very flexible and gives them more ownership of their work. When customized, adaptable Hebrew lessons are on the computer and in a game format, students have fun and learn more than they think they are.
How else does technology support Judaic learning?
For a lesson on Pesach, students used Google Forms to ask their friends questions about the holiday. They love Google Forms for creating quizzes because there are lots of options; they can insert music, videos, multiple choice questions, open questions, and more. We’ve also used Google Docs for projects on midrashim. For example, we studied the story of Yaakov and Leah. Then they picked a character and wrote a journal entry about midrashim on the story. They did all the writing in Google Docs and also used Google Drawings to draw scenes from the story. They wrote their thoughts in English but for certain names and terms they used Hebrew.
In the TaL Am curriculum there was a story about the different kinds of stones found in Jerusalem, so I asked the students to choose one stone they wanted to learn about and present on it. One student asked great questions about Jerusalem in a beautiful presentation using eMaze, some students used Kahoot! for the project, one student used an app that stitches pictures together. I have taught the students how to use a virtual Hebrew keyboard, so they can even use technology that doesn’t come with Hebrew functionality; they just have to copy and paste it into whatever program they choose. I also learn so many online programs from the kids. They show me new tools and say, “You should use this.”
How have these new approaches changed your teaching and your classroom?
I really have to think in advance now to plan. Acquiring a second language for students often demands additional support, and I've learned that having an assistant teacher is very helpful in a blended learning Hebrew class. Before they present their work, you have to check all their answers, which can be time-consuming.
What benefits have you seen from using blended learning and educational technology?
My students all were working at different levels and pacing themselves accordingly. Teaching them as a whole group was not benefiting them, but in small rotation groups they did great. Other teachers walked into my classroom and were amazed. There was a quiet buzz and everyone was very engaged. You could see learning was happening. The more advanced students are more engaged in small groups in personalized learning rotations and those groups also help the kids who really need more support and individual attention. I always write on the board which student is at which station in which group and with which teacher so everyone knows exactly what to do. They know their group, look at the board to see their station, and they just go! Each rotation is 45 minutes long. We do the rotations on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, so I plan three lessons for the whole week that include rotations for different levels.
What is a challenge you had that blended learning helped to solve?
I had one student who was very down and unmotivated. He was not having an easy time, but when we started the rotation groups, because of their small size, he had more opportunities to ask me questions he didn’t want to ask in front of everyone. I felt that I could reach him more, not only academically but personally as well. Then he started coming in with a smile and didn’t feel as frustrated.
You mentioned participating in our JBlend Miami program. What have been the highlights of JBlend for you?
I love all the sessions and meeting educators from different schools. It’s helpful to share experiences, talk about different programs we’re using for Hebrew and Judaic Studies, and see what colleagues are doing in their schools. At the beginning I thought technology would be too time consuming, but I learned that technology should be used as a tool and is not to replace the curriculum or teacher. JBlend was helpful in how to think about the big picture and using all tools together, including technology. Another highlight for me was visiting schools in New York and getting to actually see how blended learning and educational technology are being implemented using different techniques.
What’s been most rewarding about using blended learning and technology?
We felt before like we couldn’t reach all the students, both those that were having a harder time and those that were moving quickly through the curriculum, but with the new approach, it was like magic. They use more Hebrew now. When Gary and Tatyana visited for JBlend, the students spoke to them in Hebrew. There are still challenges, but now the kids are engaged and speaking lots of Hebrew.
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