Monday, August 19, 2013

Sunday Morning Live from Israel!

When E. T. asked her parents if she could attend Hebrew School, they were wary. Neither R. nor R., his parents,  had enjoyed a particularly successful Hebrew school experience and they had ignored the religious school question until their 11-year-old daughter raised the issue.

Growing up on a southern army base N. Z., who has spent his life in Africa, Jacksonville and now in Corpus Christi, TX, wasn't aware that there was such an institution as Hebrew school but  his parents, Captain Z. and wife J., were hoping that they would be able to find some kind of Jewish enrichment alternative for their son.

A. L. left his Hebrew school in Vancouver, Canada, because the hours conflicted with hockey practice. Although his parents felt that a Jewish education was a priority, they didn't want their son to see Judaism in a negative light so they reluctantly pulled him out of his congregational school program.

Five years ago the B. family moved to rural Vermont to enjoy a slower-paced, more relaxed lifestyle. While that part of their lives has panned out, they hadn't thought ahead to the time when their children K. and E. would need some kind of Jewish educational framework.

A.  S. from West Orange, NJ,was about to turn 13 and wanted to celebrate his Bar Mitzvah but his parents hadn't found a local congregation in which they felt comfortable. They questioned how A. could learn about Judaism and about Bar Mitzvah concepts that were important to their value system without becoming "members" of a Temple or synagogue. 

M. K., son of Dr. J. and S. K. graduated from Jewish Day School in Birimngham, AL. He and his parents were looking for ways to supplement his Jewish education, as the local day school went only until 8th grade.

All of these youngsters have one thing in common -- they've reached the age in which they need an environment of Jewish enrichment that meets their needs in an open and dynamic setting of vibrant Jewish engagement.

JconnecT Learning, the Sunday Morning Live Hebrew School, was created to answer that need. JconnecT brings online Jewish learning directly to the students' personal PC or mobile device, enabling the kids to engage and interact with Judaism as they learn about Jewish culture and traditions in a relaxed atmosphere along with teachers in Jerusalem and peers around the country.

JconnecT held two Open Houses this summer and students from throughout North America joined together to explore new topics, exchange ideas and thoughts and meet in an environment of open learning as they prepare for the 2013-2014 JconnecT online Jewish school "Sunday Morning Live."

The August 18th Open House class dealt with the coming holiday of Rosh  HaShana and connections between Gan Eden (Paradise) and the promises of new beginnings. Students were invited to chat in their answers to the open-ended questions which were aimed at increasing their critical thinking processes and helping to explore what they already know about Judaism and how they can build on their existing knowledge to move to new levels.

JconnecT joins other innovative alternatives as a realistic Jewish learning opportunity to engage and inspire young Jewish learners. JconnecT is a pluralistic, non-denominational online learning program which is open to all young Jewish learners. 
to Join the JconnecT/JETS Israel newsletter please contact Smadar. 

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Teaching Tzedaka Long Distance

Shulamith Cohn

As a veteran educator, having spent thirty plus years both in formal and informal education, I was excited to try something new and different. I was offered a position by JETS, teaching an 8th grade Judaic Studies class on Jewish Values online to Adelson Community School in Las Vegas, NV, three times a week.

I was excited, but nervous. Several questions came to mind:  Could I effectively connect with the class so far away? Would my lessons be interactive and exciting, a "Beit Midrash" style where ideas and opinions were easily shared? Would the students be able to work in groups and "discover" concepts as I successfully encouraged when I taught in a f2f (face to face) classroom?

The following are my thoughts as I reflect on the current topic.

Connecting modern students to their ancient heritage is an exciting and dynamic process. Kind hearts and the giving nature of people come across through skype or directly in a class room. These are the topics I aimed to get across, and, I discovered, the goals are the same whether they are f2f or online.

"How much should we give? Which organization best meets the needs of the poor? How do I prioritize my giving? Can one give something else besides money?"

These, and other questions, arose in our discussion of our obligation as Jews to engage in Tikkun Olam whether they relate specifically  to the concept of Tzedaka or building a world of chessed.

My first goal, therefore, was to 'climb the Maimonidies's ladder of Tzedaka!' Students worked in groups to identify different ways of giving and found the picture that best matched the Maimonidies's principles.

"Wow," says one student. "That just happened yesterday! I packed cans at "Three Square". This qualifies level seven of Maimonidies' Ladder of Tzedaka, when both receiver and giver don't know each other.

"Before Shabbat I put some money in the tzedaka box," contributes another student. This qualifies as the sixth step on the Maimonidies's ladder of tzedaka.

Group work followed and pairs of students researched different charity options by viewing videos and articles detailing the work  of different organizations who :
  • provide food and shelter for the poor,
  • sponsor a school for children at risk,
  • provide a loan of medical equipment, 
  • offer job training and new skills to enable someone to find a job
  • provide services for seniors who are Holocaust survivors

Each team presented its charity and the class as a whole decided how much "virtual money" to allot to each of the above listed charities. Everyone had an opinion, each student proudly shared their own personal favorite tzedaka.  Most importantly, the lesson was internalized as each student resolved before Passover to find an opportunity to give real tzedaka.

Reflecting on the lesson and preparation I feel satisfied that my students were able to internalize the concepts and I with extensive preparation was able to give them  a solid learning experience.

In teaching long distance,  one must furnish students with different activities that will help them concretize the knowledge and acquire the skill set being taught. Online  technology tools can be used that allow the student to interface with classmates and with the teacher. At times, effective technology allows a student to review  in a fun way and removes the  tedious factor from review. In that respect,  using online technology might actually prove superior to the “ regular “ classroom since the student seems to enjoy  the review when using technology for homework purposes.  As the goal of teaching is to make students active participants in the learning process, I think that distance learning and its online platform satisfies the students need for action and allows them to take an active  role in  the learning initiative .

Monday, August 12, 2013

Shutafut blog

When I was growing up in the pre-Internet days our Hebrew school assemblies were full of movies about Israel. We saw plenty of movies about Israel's achievements and military struggles but the movies that made the most impression on me were those that depicted the lives of every day Israelis. Our teachers tried to explain how Israeli kids lived, what their homes looked like, what they did at school and on vacations and, in general, how their lives differed from ours but the descriptions were vague and I never really felt a connection.

Today the Internet has brought us the ability to learn about each other more easily.  Jewish American youngsters are still fascinated by Israelis and Israeli kids are just as curious about the lives of their North American peers.

A unique Shutafut -- Partnership -- program is being run by JETS,Jerusalem EdTech Solutions, in which North American classrooms are twinned with Israeli ones. The program connects Jewish Day Schools and public schools with Israeli peers to allow them to "meet" each other virtually and explore each other's cultures in an atmosphere of mutual collaboration.

Once two classrooms have been twinned,  heterogeneous groups are created between the two schools, , with equal numbers of Israeli students and North American students in each group. The small groups facilitate better communication between the students who can more easily express themselves within "their" group and begin to develop relationships with each other.

Assignments are presented on an LMS – Learning Management System such as wikispaces or Haiku LMS and the students are encouraged to work asynchronously to investigate, research and express ideas on their group's platform. After the students introduce themselves to each other they respond to in depth projects, answering questions, discussing issues and reviewing each other's submissions. Teachers from both schools brainstorm with JETS to choose a meaningful topic. ,

The Israeli studentsare encouraged to post in English to strengthen their English language skills and, as appropriate, the North American studentsare encouraged to post in Hebrew to encourage their Hebrew skills.

Topicscovered include
·         Holiday celebrations
·         Tikkun Olam, Volunteerism
·         Environmentalism
·         Cultural issues
·         Jewish Demographics
·         Jewish life in Israel and in the Diaspora
·         Israel achievements
·         Building unity

To date, JETS has facilitated over 15 school partnership twinning programs, including cities such as Birmingham, Rosh Haayin, Vancouver, Edmonton, Emek Hahula, and Metulla. Due to popular demand, the program has expanded to include new classrooms, both in Israel and in North America. The program is expected to expand to the UK, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand in the near future.

Throughout my high school years, I reveled in pen-pal relationships with Israeli teens. In many ways the Shutafut program also functions as a high tech pen-pal arrangement. Students build relationships, learn about each other and have a chance to strengthen their language skills as they study about each other's day-to-day lives and cultures, all as part of their school experience. 

Please email JETS Israel if you'd like to peruse the Partnership LMS's. 

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz, recognized for his work in promoting tzeddek and Jewish ethics, recently shared his thoughts on the Times of Israel blog about the failure of the Hebrew School framework to prepare Jewish youth to grow and develop as committed, active members of the American Jewish community.
The article was criticized by some readers for "rehashing old news" but since the majority of American Jewish youth who receive any formal Jewish education do so through the congregational enrichment model, the subject seems as timely as ever.

In his article Yanklowitz reviewed many of the problems that are inherent in today's Hebrew school framework. These include the problems that  the material is irrelevant to most of the kids, many teachers are ill-equipped to teach on a proper level and the families themselves see Hebrew school as last on the totem pole of priorities -- a message that the children pick up quickly and well.

Yanklowitz even goes as far as to say”there is no correlation between attendance in Hebrew school and a sustained commitment to Jewish life. I’d like to say it is better than nothing but I’m not sure anymore. Sometimes the damage of forcing our kids to participate in a boring, out of touch Jewish experience can alienate them forever."

Yet tens of thousands of Jewish families are committed to providing their kids with a Jewish education and since JewishDay School is not a solution for everyone, the Hebrew school model seems to be here to stay. A recent article by Jordana Horn even goes as far as to indicate that Hebrew schools can be, in some instances, a better option than Jewish Day Schools (her view is questioned by many observers).

Which brings up the question that Jewish educators have been struggling with for decades -- how does the Jewish community create an engaging congregational school framework that will address these issues?

Yanklowitz makes several suggestions. These involve moving the classes to Saturday mornings so that parents will be included in the process, creating more experiential Jewish learning as a basis for further study, strengthening peer-learning activities and reducing the emphasis on Bar/Bat Mitzvah study (as well as the obligations to "join" the Hebrew school for a specific amount of time in order to celebrate a Bar/Bat Mitzvah at the synagogue).

Introducing online learning into an existing Hebrew school framework can also strengthen the afternoon school experience. Distance learning offers new and vibrant opportunities that include asynchronous activities, games, interactive assignments and other enjoyable components that create an energetic and engaging learning environment to present a high quality atmosphere which heightens the students' interest and motivation.

JETS' online learning programs have been a staple of Jewish day schools for several years but they are now being adopted by increasing numbers of afternoon schools. Topics are chosen by the students and their teachers -- Contemporary Jewish Issues, Virtual Tours of Israeli Historical and Archaeological Sites, Jewish Leadership, Hip Hop Hebraics, Tikkun Olam, Ancient Israel, Interactive Textual Study, Jewish environmentalism, Israel's Ethiopian Community, and more. The classes then meet with a teacher who provides material for consideration along with follow-up games and activities that the students can enjoy on their laptops or tablet devices.

Online learning means that the students are not obligated to listen to lectures, take tests, wait their "turn" to participate or sit through boring lectures. The classes create a vibrant environment that combines collaborative learning with independent exploration for a truly new look at what Hebrew school can offer.