Sunday, May 25, 2008

Conference: The Frisch School presentation

I teach English and art history at Frisch, and my goal has been to create PowerPoint presentations that integrate art and history with Tanakh, thus giving eleventh and twelfth graders a greater awareness of the historical context of Torah, Ne'viim and Ketuvim as well as instilling a greater appreciation of the works in the students. Frisch launched the program last year with the whole school, but we felt that the upperclassmen are really the ones to benefit the most from a program like this, as they have the most well developed worldview, so we narrowed the program down to them. [I have modified my presentations for elementary school children, and on an individual basis teachers at Frisch have used my presentations for classes on all grade levels.]

This program seeks to solve the pedagogical problem of students in a yeshiva feeling fragmented and unaware of how to bring all their learning together. I try to do that by showing them the works in Tanakh are from a certain historical context and that understanding that context makes us better appreciate not only the world, but also our religion and what is unique about it.

At the conference, I gave a sample of what I did; the sample was for the school's Open House presentation and began with discussion of vase painting from a famous Archaic Greek vase, the Francois vase. The work is important art historically as it shows influence from the ancient Near East in its band-like registers. The work is also impressive as it has over 200 figures, some of whom are Peleus and his famous son Achilles. Achilles is of course renowned as a warrior and for his vulnerable heel. Another famous Greek hero with foot problems is Oedipus, whose name means "swollen foot." After showing another work from the Classical period of Oedipus on his way to Thebes and to his downfall as his mother's husband, I then sum up the secular portion of the program by emphasizing that Achilles and Oedipus do not recover from their weaknesses and are irrevocably "tripped up" by them. This is in contrast to Ya'akov and his story, which I cite from Be'reishit. Ya'akov wrestles with the "ish" and then receives a leg injury, but after the fight, he becomes "Yisrael," the root of which can be translated as "upright." Thus students see that our tradition shows our hero struggling with his sneakiness, his being the one who "supplanted" Eisav (Eisav says "ya'akveni") in a deceitful way, but ultimately overcoming his craftiness and walking upright with God.

Q1: Do you actually use these presentations in your teaching, and what else do you use as support?

TW: I use these presentations and present with a laptop and projector or, ideally, a SmartBoard. The one drawback is that I go into the Torah and Nach classrooms and get one class period. Sometimes the lecture takes two if there are a lot of questions, and obviously a lot of questions are good; we want to generate discussion. However, there isn't a lot of time for students to interact. Because of the medium and time limitations, there's sometimes not a lot of interaction. Also, the kids aren't making these presentations. I make them and bring them in. This is only the second year we're running the program. Maybe as we go along, some of the kids could make their own presentations.

Eli Kannai: I get these on email and I enjoy them. If others wanted to see them, are they online somewhere?

TW: Anyone can email me and I can send them the presentations. The Frisch website is secure and can only be accessed by people within the Frisch community, so my colleagues and the students and parent body can access the presentations [and I have sent the presentations to fellow teachers as well as students], but I cannot invite anyone I want to my webpage. [I've now posted all my slideshows on slideshare. They can be found at:]

Postscript: I've just finished my last presentation for the year, on the book of Ruth. As I wrote after the conference, I was very inspired by the conference to make the lectures more interactive and to develop ideas that would include students more in the making of multimedia presentations. So -- 1) Over the course of the year, I've gotten more adept at making PowerPoint presentations and having students interact more with the slides. For the Ruth presentation, I had the students read the slides themselves and began discussion of ideas once they did so. But of course, this does not solve the problem of bringing in these presentations myself, pre-packaged. Therefore -- 2) I wrote on a previous post that I assigned my art history students the task of preparing artworks inspired from the natural world and tied them into pesukim from Shir haShirim for a presentation on art from the natural world. My art history students then presented the slide show. I'd like to do more of that next year. 3) I'm now the Chairman of the English Department and I want to use the English Department as a jumping off point for more cross-curricular integration. Next year, the school is integrating the ninth grade curriculum under the theme of Identity and Development of the Self. We may use a tefillah project as a wrap-up for the year, so thank you for that inspiration. The Educational Technology Director at Frisch suggested making a wiki for the tefillah project, and I jumped at the chance, only because I was familiar with the term from the AVICHAI conference.

In sum, thank you, AVICHAI, for letting me participate in this inspiring project. I've learned so much from everyone and have become energized by all your ideas.

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