“In the last year or two, my school has started to embrace technology in a big way,” said Sheppy Coodin, who teaches Judaic Studies – and juggling – at Gray Academy of Jewish Education in Winnipeg. “Our administration is on board to make big changes. So it’s exciting to see what can work for us and our students.”
Coodin was one of 25 Jewish educators at the first-ever Jewish Education and Technology Institute (JET) last month, hosted and organized by The Contemporary Jewish Museum (The CJM) in San Francisco, with major funding from The Covenant Foundation.
His expansive outlook reflected that of many Jewish educators anxious to know how to incorporate the digital revolution’s most potent elements into their classrooms.
JET organizers, proponents for giving technology a central place in Jewish schools, said that educators must at once be boundless in thinking, but also mindful of utilization, effect and value.
“There’s a chasm between the hype and the use of technology,” said Fraidy Aber, Director of Education at The CJM. “We often get stuck debating this app versus that app. But our challenge is much more than that. It’s about using technology strategically for creative engagement and expression, building connections and changing the classroom culture.
“This is the higher purpose, and one that Jewish schools must join and even lead.”
So by design, the five-day conference – singular in its focus and specific outreach to Jewish educators – combined skill building and introductions to new tools with broader conversations about digital literacy, the 21st century Jewish classroom, and integrating technology into a school’s Jewish mission and values.
For sure, educators were exposed to Jewish learning apps and tech-based teaching tools like ShowMe, LiveBinders, and others. But they also engaged in serious discussion about how students want to learn and how educators should adapt in this digital age.
As adaptation occurs, JET is providing the tools, context and support to drive a culture change.
For Beverly Pinto, who teaches Jewish Studies at Brandeis Hillel Day School in San Rafael, north of San Francisco, three decades as a Jewish educator has presented its share of challenges and adjustments, but perhaps none as monumental as the emergence of a digital generation now populating her classes.
“Students today are native speakers of all things computer, apps, social media and the like, and I feel sometimes like an immigrant to technology and how best to use it as an educator. So JET is the right place for me.”
Although she’s embraced a fair amount of sophisticated digital strategies, like the increasingly popular “flipped classroom” model that delivers some instruction and lessons online beyond class – the JET conference equipped her with the knowledge, perspective and confidence to go much further, she said.
This school year, for example, she will enhance a Holocaust Studies class with iWitness, a project of the USC Shoah Foundation that enables teachers and students to explore and curate video testimonies, and to create their own videos on a particular survivor or witness.
“This will demand and develop their judgment, research, and digital skills,” she said. “They aren’t listening to me lecture; they are becoming the educators as they transmit knowledge and engage with others,” she said.
“It is important that technology fit into the classroom seamlessly, and this is a good example of that.”
For his part, Coodin – of Gray Academy in Winnipeg – is taking a similar approach for his seventh-grade Explorations in Judaism class. He plans to assign students to make Jewish “how-to” videos – how to blow a shofar, for example – that include interviews with community members, explorations of tradition, and interpretations of meaning.
“I’m a fan of creating a bigger audience for my students, not just having them hand something over to me for a grade,” he said. “It increases motivation and enhances their involvement on their terms. So this can be a great benefit of strategically focused technology in my classroom.”
And at Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School in Northridge, CA, Jewish Studies teacher Jody Passanisi returned from JET and produced a ShowMe video to instruct students interpreting primary source documents to build historical narratives.
It was, she said, one of many practical tech takeaways that she could immediately put to use in a classroom already boasting smart boards, online learning management tools and mobile devices, to name a few.
“My school is staying cutting edge with educational technology,” she said. “But it’s not enough for a tool to be new and cool. It has to be purposeful and elevate and enhance the educational moment for students individually and collectively, in the classroom and beyond it.”
JET 2013 was not an isolated moment. To create momentum and further professional growth, participants will be assigned one-on-one coaches and an online community of practice will form.
“We are at a time of dynamic change in Jewish education,” Aber said. “How we are teaching, how knowledge is accessed and built by the next generation, the changing ways in which Jewish community is organizing – these are all simultaneous and overlapping conversations. JET aims to put technological innovation squarely in the forefront as a catalyst to move Jewish education forward and grow our community.”
Besides convening a second JET cohort of educators next summer, The CJM will establish and present its first JET award in the spring to an educator exemplifying best and most effective use of technology in Jewish education, to create a national conversation with innovative teachers in the field.
“We’d be doing a huge disservice to our students, ourselves, and the Jewish future if we act like ostriches with our heads in the sand, pretending that all of this doesn’t exist,” Coodin said.
By H. Glenn Rosenkrantz, for The Covenant Foundation