Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Text and Context

Over the past month, many of the Judaic Studies teachers have approached me to say that they've been availing themselves of the PowerPoint presentations I've posted, not only to give to classes I don't get into but also simply to prepare for when I do come in. Some of the teachers are also then able to incorporate the material more fluidly into the classroom and curriculum. As the school becomes more tech-comfortable, I've also been receiving interesting PowerPoints and websites from other teachers and tech support that I can use to enrich my own knowledge and programs.

I've also been meeting with a tech person to discover new ways to improve and excite the PowerPoint presentations I give. So far, I've learned how to incorporate sound into my presentations. This is something every 5th grader probably knows how to do, but those of us who weren't born into the iPod generation need a longer learning curve. I discovered that finding sound clips takes just as long if not longer than finding good images from websites, but I did manage to find the Pesach song, "Ten Makot, Makot Ten," for one of my plague presentations that has the eponymous title. It's a cute addition, though not a particularly academically enriching one, I know.

On a side note: I just returned from an AP Art History trip to Italy, and I have to say that despite all the wonderful technology we have that allows us to visit great buildings and museums online and to show them to the kids in that way, there is really something quite exciting about teaching Michelangelo's David in front of the actual sculpture. All the students agreed that seeing the sculpture in a book or on a computer really cannot prepare one for the visual impact the work makes. We also saw the technological advancements of the ancient world, such as the Colosseum and the Pantheon. Returning to the technological advancements of our world, no matter how high tech, has been an adjustment. Teaching art live and in situ was really an extraordinary experience.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Getting Hebrew Text Right

One of the challenges I've been facing while using the Smartboard this year is finding an effective way to get Hebrew into Notebook. The system I developed works for me, though it is somewhat cumbersome, but a number of people who downloaded my files have told me that they can't read the Hebrew--it's coming out as gibberish.

So this past week I finally got around to exploring different ways to get Hebrew into Notebook to see if I can come up with a universal method that works on everyone's computer.

There are a number of different scenarios where a user would put Hebrew in Notebook. Most often, I'm copying in sections of pesukim, midrashim, gemara, etc. In that case I'll be cutting and pasting from another source. Turning Hebrew support on or off does not seem to affect this. In fact, I find if I have Hebrew turned on when I use Davka (I have version 4), it seems to mess it up, so I've been primarily working with Hebrew support turned off.

The drawback is that I need to go through two steps to get the Hebrew into Notebook: copy from Davka, paste into Microsoft Word, then copy from Word and paste into Notebook. If I skip the Word step then it comes out like gibberish in Notebook. Word seems to be able to convert the text into a font that Notebook recognizes. That brings me to the second drawback: someone without Hebrew fonts sees gibberish, even when I use that two-step process which looks fine on my computer.

Does anyone out there have the latest version of Davka (6) and have you tried pasting text into other software? The list of upgrades seems to indicate that a "copy for Unicode" option is available, which may solve this problem. Has anyone tried it, and have other people been able to read your files even without Davka or Hebrew fonts installed?

The second common scenario is to write a word, a phrase, or a short sentence in Hebrew--sometimes mixed with English, often standing on its own. I'll often write a short phrase from a passuk instead of going to the trouble of tracking down the source, copying and pasting it.

Until now I've been using Davka for this too, primarily because my Hebrew typing skills aren't that good yet, and the onscreen keyboard in Davka is great--it shows you what key you're typing so you can keep an eye on the screen and catch any mistakes. I know I can bring up an onscreen keyboard in Windows to help locate the letters, but it doesn't show what key you're hitting as you type, so I find it less convenient.

Since this method has the same drawbacks I listed above, I decided to try typing these shorter pieces directly into Notebook, by turning on Hebrew language support. It seemed to work well, though I did have one episode where the letters rearranged themselves after I finished the paragraph. That happens occasionally too with the cut and paste method, though, so I think it's a general Hebrew problem. I also don't like the onscreen keyboard nearly as well as the Davka version. Sometimes it gets stuck on English and I have to click back and forth before it registers that I'm working in Hebrew.

I would really appreciate hearing from those of you who use Notebook. If you could download the following file and let me know how the Hebrew looks on the various pages:

I'm especially interested in how it looks on a computer without common Hebrew fonts installed.

Also, if you have a method that works well for you, please share it! I'm especially interested in finding a good cut and paste method that will allow for easy editing in Notebook and other software.

ADDITIONAL NOTE - I haven't been using nekudot at all, since I am teaching high school, but this is certainly an issue when I copy and paste from Davka--I need to strip off the nekudot first or it comes out looking like a mess. Does anyone know how to set up Word and other applications so they support nekudot? Is it just a question of turning on Hebrew support?
Educators have hailed the benefits of personal experience as an integral part of the learning process. This precept is certainly applicable to students using the Smart Board during a classroom lesson. It is especially appropriate when teachers aim to simultaneously enhance the technological skills of their students, the next generation of knowledgeable Smart Board users.

While teaching Tanakh and Jewish History, ivrit b’ivrit, at Herzliah High Schools in Montreal, I thought my students would gain added value by doing something extra with the Smart Board. In addition to the typical classroom student utilization, usually consisting of moving key words, reconfiguring sentences and grouping picture parts, I wanted them to get a better sense of this technological tool by assigning a project in which each student creates a complete Smart Board lesson/module of his/her own.

Therefore, I assigned my 10th and 11th grade students research projects in Jewish History and Tanakh. They are currently preparing approximately 75 Smart Board lessons/modules in Hebrew. Since these projects are synchronized with the grade 10 Jewish History and grade 11 Tanakh curricula, the extra load of presenting the project on the Smart Board is insignificant.

For more details and instructions on these projects, please see attached PDF files.
Grade 10 Project Grade 11 Project

My grade 10 Jewish History students are currently researching the 3rd, 4th and 5th Aliyot. Thus, their Smart Board modules will deal with the various forms of settlements (Kibbutz, Moshav, Moshavah, City) in the Land of Israel in the early part of the 20th century. Meanwhile, my grade 11 Tanakh students are studying Kohelet (Ecclesiastes), Iyov (Job) and Tehillim (Psalms). Thus, their projects will focus on teaching different chapters of Tehillim, while incorporating their acquired knowledge of Kohelet and Iyov. To ensure that online users will learn the material while enjoying themselves and being challenged, students have integrated a game into each Smart Board module.

To overcome technical difficulties, students were advised to proceed in the following manner:
1) To prepare their project on PowerPoint, a program with which they are familiar.
2) To transfer the project to Smart Board Notebook, which they need to learn to use.
3) To present their module in class.

My grade 10 students have already completed the first step and are currently working on transferring their projects to Smart Board Notebook. My grade 11 students are just nearing completion of the first step.

A sample of students’ Smart Board modules will soon be posted on the school’s new online Pedagogical Center. These modules can be downloaded and fully or partially incorporated into teachers’ lesson plans.

For now, all is proceeding according to plan. However, only in the coming weeks will I be able to start evaluating the success of this experiment. I will keep you updated about the results.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Setting up a school internet radio station: A tech tangent

I realize that this posting is not relating to tablet PCs or Smartboards but I wanted to share a recent tech project I had the opportunity to engage in over the past week even though it has nothing to do with our AviChai grant.

Our school the Robert M. Beren Academy in Houston is hosting a basketball tournament and several other schools (mostly from the northeast) are attending. With most of the games taking place during work hours we realized that many of our player’s friends and families would not be able to attend the tournament. Additionally we have alumni all over the country and Israel who have an interest in our teams. I suggested we try to set up an internet based “radio station” that can be accessed by anyone with an internet connection. Since I know almost nothing about basketball and would be as useless behind the mike as a snowmobile in Houston, (I do know it involves putting a round thing inside another round thing) I found two faculty members who could provide color commentary and play-by-play. The tech end was my baby.

There seem to be several ways to set up a steaming audio feed. The most popular approach involves using a streaming network called Shoutcast which is supported by Nullsoft the makers of Winamp. Winamp is a powerful PC based media player. There is a shoutcast plug-in for Winamp which allows you to stream the MP3 files you play on Winamp to your streaming audio host server and have your “radio station” listed in the Shoutcast network. This works fine for most internet radio applications since they involve queuing pre-recorded audio files and playing them. Setting up 24 hours of music with commercials for broadcast can be done in a matter of minutes. Setting up a live feed is an altogether different matter and it did not seem as simple to set up the Winamp/Shoutcast software for microphone feed as opposed to MP3 files. For the live broadcast I used a small applet called SimpleCast which allows us to encode and stream input from a computer’s line in jack or microphone jack.

The next task was to either set up or “buy” a streaming audio server. Setting up your own streaming audio server is difficult but not overwhelming, and the software and utilities on the Shoutcast website describe it fairly well. After I read the blogs of a few internet radio broadcasters I realized that there is a serious issue of bandwidth. A simple 64k to 128k audio stream does not seem like a lot, with buffering it is even in the range of dial-up. What was not immediately apparent is that every listener subtracts a slice of your total downstream bandwidth. I realized that even with only twenty listeners I would have teachers complaining that they can’t access their email due to the reduced bandwidth. So in the end I opted to outsource the audio server. There are dozens of streaming audio server services out there with very competitive rates. Small scale basic packages are available for around ten dollars a month. As you increase the potential number of listeners, and the audio quality, you are using more bandwidth and the prices go up. We are using a 48k stream which is super for voice, and is nearly equivalent to the audio quality of FM radio reception.

Setting up the software involves inputting your domain/user name, password, server host, and network information, setting up the audio encoder, and the audio / microphone inputs. If you want better audio quality and control or the ability to have multiple inputs I would recommend a mini mixer available around $30 to $ 40. We are currently using a cheap desktop mike w/o a mixer the biggest complaint from the broadcasters is that there is no mute button and that we can’t use two separate mikes, both are relatively easy and inexpensive to fix . The software with the full streaming audio set-up was installed on a laptop in preparation for the first tournament game.

We ran a few tests the day before the first game and were pleased with the results. As we set up in the gym before the first game we connected the to the school’s wireless internet and got ready to broadcast. As the broadcast began we realized that we had no output due to instability of the wireless connection. We quickly switched to an Ethernet cable (wired) connection and have been up without a hitch.

A “Listen now!!” direct link to the audiocast was sent out in a broadcasted email and a link was put on the school website, and people started tuning in! It was very exciting to get an email from one of our alumni in Israel who was listening to the game!

Hardware costs - $0 We are using an internet connected school laptop and an old mike of mine.

Server / Host fees: Around $25 for one month of 48k stream with a 30 simultaneous listener cap. Should we opt for an ongoing subscription, the monthly prices drop significantly.

Now that it is set up we are exploring other uses for our own “radio station”. We are considering broadcasting an upcoming Siddur party and a third grade Purim play. I think it would be great for working parents who can not get free from work to attend in school performances. Imagine “Daddy/Mommy couldn’t be at your Chanukah play but he/she was able to listen to it live at the office” . Other potential uses for the technology are broadcasting school announcements, Divrei Torah, school closure and weather emergency information.

I will repost on this topic if the school decides to maintain a streaming audio host server subscription and we explore other uses for this technology.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Setting up a Hebrew Language Lab- Torah Day School of Atlanta

Tu B’Shevat was an outstanding opportunity to expand the children’s receptive and expressive Ivrit vocabulary, especially because such a wealth of material was available on Israeli websites. The students began with research on Internet about trees in Israel, learning about what each variety needs in order to thrive. They learned about the differences between Astei Noy and Astei Pri. A PowerPoint story “HaOren HaBodid” (The Lonely Pine Tree) sparked discussions and a question and answer session to assess comprehension. With this good vocabulary base upon which to build, each student researched information about a specific type of tree, then wrote and shared orally a short story or poem about it.
Speaking of sharing, 5th grade girls were so proud of the puppet shows they created that they have taken them “on the road” to all of the younger classes. They researched Aggadot (Legends) as a class, then broke into groups. Each group selected an Aggadah story and retold it as an original puppet show. Their Ivrit keyboarding skills are steadily improving along with their increased conversational prowess.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Lafayette, website, Elementary, CCJDS, February, 2008

We are moving ahead and making progress! In my last entry, I noted how our entire wi-fi network was unstable and I made a silly "new-bie" mistake: I never checked the capacity of the old, Apple Air port base stations. That is, I never check to see how many simultaneous internet connections that they could handle and discovered to my shock, that they can handle only TEN connections at a time! So with 20 students and at least 10 faculty members trying to access the internet at any given time, as well as trying to print via the networked printers, it is no wonder our base stations have been crashing every other day!

So after a lot of research into trying figure out which product would best replace the base stations, I decided that it made more sense to stick with Apple's latest upgraded hard ware, the Apple Airport Extreme base stations which can handle up to 50 simultaneous internet connections and also have USB ports to connect our printers to make them wirelessly accessible via the network. So they should be arriving in the mail anytime soon and hopefully we will have solved the problem of network stability.

And in another front, our teachers were finally ready to continue with "phase two" of our grant plan--purchasing digital cameras and microphones to start creating and producing digital works to show case their student works online. So we purchased two Canon PowerShot A570's with 2GB memory cards because they take both decent still and video, and two USB Logitech desktop microphones for podcasting. Now the teachers and students are slowly beginning to produce some digital content and uploading it onto our school's server, which was one of the original goals for the tech. grant! So far, so good!

Friday, February 01, 2008

Studio 613 Vancouver Hebrew Academy

Well, it was bound to happen sooner or later. This week we hit two small snags. I know we will be able to overcome these challenges, but for now…we are all devastated.
So much for my dramatic flare.
Here is the problem…please let me know if you have come across this same issue and how you have dealt with it.

SOUND! The microphone that is built into the camera we are using is not as capable as the zoom feature on the lens. Meaning, when you film from a distance, you cannot hear the voices very well.
A friend suggested something called a “remote microphone”, has anyone ever used such a gizmo? I have been looking at local tech shops but it may be a specialty item.

Please let me know if you have any ideas.

Also, his particular camera does not like to connect to our Mac computers. It is a model PV-GS320 Panasonic Digital Video Camcorder. Has anyone experienced difficulty with this camera before? Right now we are using an older camera just for the download process, so we are OK on this point, but I would love to iron out the issue.
Well, back to work…with or without the little “issues” we are still having a great time and the students are learning too!

Text and Context

Another development that has occurred because of the Integration program is that teachers are approaching me to talk about upcoming lessons and give suggestions for them. Even in class, sometimes a student asks a question that the teacher is better prepared to answer, so then I get new information for the presentations in that way. In either case, the integration is enabling (at least for me) a rich sharing of ideas with knowledgeable Chumash and Nach teachers, a sharing that perhaps wouldn't take place if we were all locked in our classrooms, simply teaching on our own (I teach English lit and art history when I'm not doing the Integration).