How ISTE is Helping Me Transform My Judaic Studies Classroom

| By Adam Friedman

 

After attending ISTE 2017 this year, I could not get those four days spent in San Antonio out of my head. It was my second year at ISTE, and I have to say, Year 2 was qualitatively more meaningful and certainly more productive.

I went into ISTE 2017 with a few specific goals, like companies and representatives to seek out, technologies and ideas to try, and people to interact with and learn from. As ISTE was unfolding, I realized my goal there was very similar to my goal every day in my classroom - connections. However, I was not only focused on establishing new ones; I was looking to cultivate and grow “old” or previous connections. Some were with the actual people behind software or hardware already being used in my school, some based on broadening pedagogical and EdTech ideas that excite me, and others meant to deepen my practical know-how, to help myself, my fellow teachers and my students.

ISTE is a bit of an overwhelming experience that can leave doubt whether you’ve “accomplished” anything, through the sheer magnitude of what’s available there. If you’ve been to ISTE, I imagine you’ve felt some of the following doubts:

1) “What are they talking about?”
2) “I’ve never heard of that tech before. How far behind am I?”
3) “Why is my school/district not doing ________________?”
4) “Where do I even start?”
5) “How have I never heard of __________________ from the Midwest (or wherever)?”
6) “I didn’t attend a session by ____________, did I miss out on something big?”

However, the biggest takeaway from Year 2 at ISTE was the chance to reorient myself from the goal of “accomplishing” to one of “connecting.” Building bridges and strengthening bonds at ISTE reshaped the entire experience, and brought with it tremendous excitement for the coming year. I would like to highlight some of those, both old and new, why they are important, and how I hope to move forward with them.

Kahoot!

At our school, Kahoot! is everywhere and the students are always asking either, "Can we play a Kahoot!?" or “Can we make a Kahoot?” It was wonderful to meet the people behind Kahoot! and to speak with them about the platform. As we were explaining how Kahoot! is used in our school, I think that the Kahoot! representatives were even surprised by how much we were using it. We started to brainstorm ideas and challenges, and we were given access to the beta app and opened the channel for a school site visit from Kahoot!. Being able to play around with the app before its official release excited me for the upcoming year. 

Two new features I loved in the app were the challenges and the levels or rounds. All subjects, whether in a given lesson or a larger unit, unfold as time goes by. Breaking down the lessons and units are key to student learning. Until now, I have used Kahoot! primarily as a fun summative assessment or review at the end of a unit. Begin lesson, learn content and ideas, and check for understanding at the end. One of the issues with that is what to do when at the end of a lesson or unit a group of students missed something or learned something incorrectly.

The new Kahoot! challenges allow me to present layers of questions for the students, like rounds in a game show, to guide them through a lesson or unit. It can work with individuals, chavrutot, or larger groups.In this way, the fun Kahoot! moves from the end of a lesson and integrates into the lesson itself. It also allows you to track which students are struggling as well as where students are excelling or can be challenged differently.

You can also have students creating challenges as they learn, so by the end, their summative assessment will be partially - if not entirely - created by them. Personally, I am no fan of traditional tests - never have been. However, as I reflect now, even as an elementary school student, if my fellow students and I were able to write questions for a test, let alone create a game, my attitude would have been different.

Learning should be fun from start to finish, but it should also make the students think and use their minds. The Kahoot! app seems like it's working towards that goal.

Mercava

As a Judaic Studies teacher, one of my goals is to instill a love of learning Torah. For my seventh graders at WDS that goal is reflected through the study of Talmud - a wondrous and very complex puzzle that requires tools, methodology, and craft to unlock. I am always looking for help from those with more knowledge, insight, and experience to guide my practice.

I was excited to hear about Mercava 2.0 at ISTE and the potential it has to help our students. I was not around the educational world during Mercava’s initial start and subsequent disappearance, but there was a lot of excitement and energy surrounding 2.0’s reveal. Mercava has an extensive catalog of Jewish texts and I can clearly visualize how it can help make the Talmud more accessible to my students.

One of the challenges my students face is learning "Talmud speak". Aramaic and Hebrew do not structure sentences like English. My students would translate the words directly and have no idea what the Talmud was trying to convey. This hindered their ability to be independent learners as well as gain access and feel connected to the words of our Sages. Mercava allows you to take a piece of Talmud, and see the literal, expanded, and explained translations. What really is special is that all of this is happening on the Tzurat HaDaf (an actual page of Talmud,) with highlights guiding the student as to specific words being translated. Giving students the ability to enter the ground level on their own and hopefully see how to think and speak as a Talmudist gives them hope for connecting to and developing that love of Torah.

Another exciting part of Mercava is the chavruta opportunties it provides. The Talmud states, “Torah is only acquired in community.” As a Jewish educator, a goal of all my classrooms and activities is the fostering of community. The classroom should be a space where students can learn what it means to be a member of a community, and chavruta learning provides the model for them. Over the previous year, I had developed a method and routine for my students to break down a piece of Talmud. I would break them up into smaller groups of two or three and frame for them how they should be learning in chavruta. However, I could not hear what they were doing, how they were speaking to one another, if they were actively listening, questions they were or were not asking each other, etc. I could only get a glimpse when I passed by their specific group, which was not often in a larger class.

The chavruta element within Mercava allows students to record their conversations. This has two benefits. The first is that the students don’t need to be with each other always. These recordings can cultivate a real sense of community, as chavruta can now happen even when one student is absent or lives in a different physical community. Second, by students recording their conversations about a pasuk, Mishna, or sugya in Talmud, the teacher can be part of the conversation in a real and meaningful way. We, as Jewish educators, can better guide our students on the journey of learning Torah by hearing the way they learn and speak, and then providing feedback. The conversation is always happening and the community we are building grows because of it.

Working with Mercava presents a unique opportunity for the Jewish classroom. It has the potential to enhance ancient methods of study and transform the learning of Torah for my students.

All in all, both Kahoot! and Mercava provide potential for helping to continue the transformation of the Judaic studies classrooms into vibrant, creative places. These tools can help our students become independent learners able to chart their own course in life, as proud Jews connected deeply to Torah and its wisdom. Plus, along the way, our students will be able to say, “School is fun, learning is awesome!”

Adam Friedman is a Judaic Studies Teacher and Technology Advisor in the middle school at Westchester Day School.

www.westchesterday.org