Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Test Podcast

I've been testing creating a podcast using GarageBand on the Mac and uploading it to the web so it's available for subscription.

My test podcast can be found at http://www.schechter.org/middle/podcast/.

There is a link so listeners can access the mp3 file directly (it's not exciting - remember, it's a test) as well as a link to the .xml file for subscription purposes. If anyone wants to see the code for the .xml file, feel free to email me for it.

I also submitted it to the Apple iTunes store for inclusion in their search engine.

The next steps are:
  1. work with our teacher who is going to be recording the files once school begins
  2. determine what Hebrew reading assignments will be uploaded
  3. "market" the new service to the appropriate students
Only a few weeks until school begins...

Monday, July 30, 2007


Our server should be up some time late this week or next week, and the new websites that I have created should then be able to come to life! In the mean time, I have been setting up blogs for my various classes. One of the blogs I just set up is for my 8th Grade History of Israel class. I team teach this course with the Social Studies teacher, and the blog will be an effective way for our students to discuss major issues and topics that we will be learning about. Kids love to be "published" and to know that their opinions will be heard. Have a look at the beginning of our blog: http://ghahoi.blogspot.com/ Blogs are a great way to get our kids thinking deeply, in a way that appeals to them after school hours. They can be moderated, needless to say, in order to make sure that their comments are always appropriate. I have allowed our blog to be viewed by everyone, but limited the posting to our class, and the people our class decides are allowed to post. My 5th Grade will also have a blog about topics we cover in Sh'mot. I will post that shortly...

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Smartboard: The Interactive Element

As part of developing the lesson plans that will best use this new technology, I've been in close contact with other teachers who have used a Smartboard. And we're all struggling with the same question--is the Smartboard merely a glorified projector? Or does it add a functionality to the classroom that aids in active learning?

My experiment assumes that the Smartboard is more than just a visual medium, it's an interactive medium that will get students involved in the learning process. This question is very relevant at this stage in the process, because I need to decide which software to use in the classroom. I'm becoming convinced that this decision will affect the dynamic between me, the students, and the material they're learning.

Basically, it comes down to Powerpoint vs. Notebook. Powerpoint, or any presentation software, can produce really powerful lessons. Everything can be set up in advance. In the classroom, I would move smoothly from slide to slide, each slide illustrating another step in the learning process.

I've seen some Powerpoint presentations designed for the Smartboard, and they are very impressive. Words of the passuk are broken down, moved around, extra words added to demonstrate various approaches, colors highlight information--it's all very clear.

So why am I hesitant? What's wrong with this picture?

I find that the interactive element is missing. The student isn't moving around the words in the passuk--you are. You've set it all up in advance. And you know you've got the information right. But where is there room for the student to move things around, to try to find the answer, to fill in the blanks, if you've filled it all in already?

That's why I'm considering Notebook. Notebook provides the interactive element. You can't really set everything up in advance, as you do on Powerpoint, and it definitely isn't as flashy. But anyone can be up there, moving things around, testing them out, until together you reach a final conclusion.

What I'd really like is something that offers a combination--a Notebook-style beginning, for the experimental part of the learning process, and then move to a Powerpoint-type presentation, where the final conclusion is clearly presented. Right now I can have one or the other, but not both. (Switching back and forth from one program to the next will, I suspect, be too distracting in the classroom and too much work for me to set up.)

The interactive element is important to me. In fact, that was the primary push behind my decision to go ahead with the Smartboard. I did strongly consider the notebook PC/wireless projector combination for a while, but I decided that I really want those students up there, experimenting, becoming a part of the learning process.

So I think I'm going with Notebook as my primary software tool, though I can always use Powerpoint presentations when I feel that will be most appropriate. I keep reminding myself that this is an experiment, after all. And the only way to know if an experiment will work--is to try it and see! If the Notebook approach doesn't seem to be working, I'll try Powerpoint for a while and see how that operates in the classroom.

If anyone has any other ideas for a presentation medium--particularly ways to get the students involved in the process--I would love to hear it!

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Text and Context: First PowerPoint for Art, History and Sefer Shmot

I've recently finished the first PowerPoint presentation for my integration program. The presentation is on Sefer Shmot, and it establishes the awesomeness of the Egyptian empire by showing various artworks, including the Palette of Narmer, the Gizeh Pyramids, the treasures of Tutankhamen and Ramses II's Temple at Abu Simbel. The presentation takes the students through the 3000-year history of the ancient Egyptians, showing them ancient Egypt's culture of the dead, mythological system and various advanced and not-so-advanced beliefs and practices that the ancient Egyptians had. The presentation also addresses who was the possible pharaoh of the Exodus story -- Ramses II is a strong candidate -- and ultimately stresses the fact that no earthly ruler is as powerful as God shows Himself to be in Shmot. Students learn that despite the impressive civilization that the ancient Egyptians established and the often terrifying amount of power the pharaoh wielded, the Torah makes clear that the Egyptians and the Israelites end up knowing that God is in charge.

The presentation leads nicely into the next one, which I'm currently working on and which is about how the Makot succinctly undermine all that is important to the Egyptians' religious, political and economic lives.

I've already learned so much this summer -- including how to remove cataracts the ancient Egyptian way -- with the brain of a tortoise and a powerful incantation spoken by the local ancient Egyptian priest -- and I look forward to learning even more.

Tikvah Wiener
The Frisch School

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Setting up a Hebrew Language Lab

Our experimental technology grant is dedicated to using computer-assisted instruction (CAI) to improve conversational Hebrew skills in elementary school students in a day school setting. We chose to set up a mobile lab for logistical and instructional reasons:
The room in which the full-time Ivrit teacher, Mrs. Shoshana Javits, teaches is a small one, accommodating twelve to fifteen students. The interactive computer component will be only one of several facets of her teaching.
Mrs. Javits collaborates with the classroom Limudei Kodesh rebbeyim and morot, all of whom are fluent in Ivrit, but are not native speakers. They split the classes for conversational Ivrit sessions. The mobile lab will “live” in the Ivrit classroom, but can readily move to the regular Limudei Kosesh classrooms using our wireless network. We beefed up the signal throughout the building with several additional routers this summer for this purpose.
Mrs. Javits felt that she would have optimal success with this as a pilot program with specific student groups who are old enough to use laptops effectively and to work independently.

We have also been working out ways to assess the effectiveness of CAI for conversational language and are developing some ideas with our resource coordinator because of her background in language assessment.

After speaking with other schools that use CAI for Hebrew instruction, mostly for Ulpan/resource small group or individual support, we have decided to use Rosetta Stone software as our core program. It offers the widest range of skill levels and individual progress reports, which will be critical as more students begin to use it. Many Internet websites have been suggested to us to supplement and add interesting variety to the learning. We are very excited about getting started with the language lab. Suggestions are welcomed as well!

Friday, July 13, 2007

Lafayette, website, Elementary, CCJDS, July, 2007

With the end of the school year, our technology working group went into high gear. We have met and spoken with our outside tech consultant many times and did a ton of research on web hosting companies and purchasing remote server sites and finally made our decisions. We are staying with our current site and our web site remains www.ccjds.org, but we have upgraded our account to include e-mail accounts for our domain for all staff and families (for forwarding addresses) and an interactive group calendar.

Perhaps more important is that we have whittled down our wish list and finally purchased over $3,000 worth of equipment and software. Specifically, we bought a Mac Mini to serve as our school's server to host networked home folders for staff and students, homework web pages, Judaic resources and other documents, and to manage network printer queues. We also purchased Apple's Server Administration tools and FileMakerPro for server to create network based report cards, progress reports and other resources.

As the putative overseer of this grant and initiative, I also laid down a chunk of my own $$ along with the school's/grant's to attend Apple's Server Essentials class in San Francisco to learn how to become a server administrator and it was well worth the cost. I can't wait till the equipment and software arrives and we can begin setting everything up. Other members of our tech working group have totally updated our website, instituted the new e-mail system as noted above as well as the group calendar, and I have been pouring myself into planning the new network, familiarizing myself with the server administrative software tools and planning how to upload and access a huge library of Judaica documents, like the entire Hebrew Bible and Mishnah on our local server. I'm so excited--and busy! Boy, will the rest of the faculty be blown away in August when they return to find a completely new CCJDS network ready for them to access and learn how to use! Not to mention the students!!

My First PowerPoint

My project to create Jewish History PowerPoint lessons began to bear fruit this past week. I was able to put together a PPT on a JH topic(the Dead Sea Scrolls) with sound, video clips and links to the web. This, I believe adds a certain dynamic component to PPT as a teaching tool. There were a few difficulties and technical glitches but I was able to get it working. The clips I took from the COJS (Center of Online Jewish Studies) website (which is worth checking out- www.cojs.com). I also attended their workshop this week at NYU and they are really doing some great work.
I will continue on my next piece and report my progress as it happens, with G-d's help.
I welcome comments, suggestions and questions. Shabbat Shalom.


Thursday, July 12, 2007

Keying into Kenote

In the last couple of weeks, I have been creating the on-line siddur that is the project being funded by the technology grant from AVICHAI. It has been exciting to learn to work with Keynote, Apple's presentation software (like Power Point). It works successfully with Hebrew (you can input the Hebrew more easily than in Power Point) and I am slowly learning how to create those magic links that are so easy in Power Point (to jump from slide 3 to slide 20, for example, when that's an appropriate leap to make for a given audience).

It is tempting to try to develop a presentation for each of the blessings in the amidah as well for use in our tefillot at the Robert Saligman Middle School in Philadelphia, where I teach, but I am going to leave that and some other things for students to do as part of the eighth grade tefillah curriculum.

I would be interested to hear about experiences with importing video materials into Keynote. There are some interesting videos either involving the Shema or evoking it on YouTube and I am interested in importing a video or two into my on-line siddur, but I don't know if that is technologically possible.

I also would be interested to hear from others about their successes and disappointments or pitfalls in using technology to enhance the experience of tefillot, especially with student groups larger than 100.

I hope everybody is having a good summer.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Photoshopping for Focus

(Gemara Skill Synchronization)

I am working on developing the backgrounds and templates for implementing the
Gemaras skill synchronization platform.

Looking at a page of 1500 year old text is not particularly exciting to your average student. A typical page of Gemara can have between 8 and 10 different content zones each serving a different purpose. Teaching the student how to navigate through the different content zones on the page is part of the introductory lessons of any beginner’s Talmud curriculum. True familiarity with the page only develops with practice. The Catch 22 in this situation is that in order to guide the beginner it is essential that both the teacher and student not only be on the same page but also be on the same part of the page which involves knowledge of the page structure.
Photoshop to the rescue
Taking a Hi Rez (600 dpi) scan of a page of Gemara, I set the page as the background layer. I then selected the section of text we would use in the first unit and saved the selected text as a separate layer. I then went back to the background layer and created an adjustment layer raising the brightness and lowering the contrast. The results are here. (Left image) I am considering enlarging the selected text slightly to have it “pop” off the page a bit more while maintaining the integrity of the standard page layout like this. (Right Image)

I would appreciate feedback from the AviChai community as to whether there is a more efficient way to do this in Photoshop, as well as feedback regarding which of the 2 versions is best pedagogically and aesthetically.

Note: I am well aware that the Smartboard software has tools which make much of this unnecessary, but this part of the experiment is focused on what we need to do if e are using a Tablet PC. (Hopefully more on the Smartboard side in the next posting)

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Text and Context: Integration of Tanakh with History

My work for AVICHAI will keep me busy over the next three summers. During this summer and over the course of the 2007-8 school year, I'm excited to be working on ten PowerPoint presentations, five on Shmot and five on the Megillot. The Frisch School, where I teach, will be teaching these books to all grades in the school over the coming year. My integration program, however, is geared only to the eleventh and twelfth graders.

The five PowerPoint presentations on Shmot will hopefully be on the following topics (although topics are subject to change):
Shmot is replete with ideas about Egyptian culture and acts as a clear polemic against Egyptian belief and practices. My first two presentations will explore Egyptian culture and how G-d undermines it.
Presentation 1: This presentation will depict the awesomeness of the Egyptian empire and G-d's subsequent proving that He is the One, True Awesome G-d.
Presentation 2: This presentation will focus on how the plagues not only attack the Egyptians, but also the very beliefs they hold so dear. The presentation may have to be divided in two, if it becomes too long.
Presentation 3: The presentation will contrast Law Codes in the ancient Near East and Egypt with the Torah's Law Code, the Aseret Ha'dibrot.
Presentation 4: The presentation will be on the sin of the Golden Calf and the nature of what Aaron actually did, especially given ancient practices of worship.
Presentation 5: This presentation will be on Shabbat, the Mishkan and the sanctification of time and space. What exactly does the Torah innovate here that can be contrasted with the ancient world?

The presentations for the Megillot have not been sketched out completely, but 1-2 of them will be on Esther as seen through the lens of the Achaemenid Dynasty, Persepolis and Persian ways of partying.

Note: Many of the presentations can be adapted for elementary school children. I've given integration presentations already for Pesach and Purim, discussing ancient Egypt as well as Persia with a fifth grade class.

Tikvah Wiener
English, Art History, Tanakh Departments
The Frisch School
Paramus, New Jersey