Monday, September 22, 2008

An Un-Technology Post (Courtesy of Hurricane Ike)

I am sitting in a well lit air conditioned room in front of a functioning computer connected to the internet.

I could not have made any of those statements a week ago.

On late Friday September 12, Hurricane Ike hit Houston Texas. Over 90% of the fourth largest city in the United States was left without potable water, electricity, or phone service. As we emerged from in our safe rooms Shabbat morning after a terrifying night, we gave thanks to the Almighty for sparing our lives while we surveyed the carnage to our homes and neighborhoods. As the last storm bands moved off to the north, the level of destruction to the city’s infrastructure began to sink in. Over 2 million homes and businesses were without power. Due to a power outage at the principle municipal pumping station the city’s water supply was not considered safe to drink for several days. Thousands of power lines, phone lines and cell phone towers were downed by the storm. Several major TV and radio broadcast facilities were taken out as well. This had the collective effect of severely limiting almost all forms of communications (ironically the most reliable form of communication following the storm was text messaging). We were in the dark both literally and figuratively. Gas was in short supply since most gas stations didn’t have the power needed to pump the fuel out of their underground tanks and the stations that did, quickly ran dry. Most stores were closed not having lights or refrigeration. Virtually all traffic lights and signals are still out, making every intersection a 4-way-stop assuming you can navigate around the massive piles of storm debris and fallen trees.

This is not to forum to describe living a week without electricity (A/C) for a week in Houston, Texas, nor is it the place to recount the details of the incredibly inspirational ways neighbors and communities forged together to offer support and aid to all who needed.

This is a forum to discuss education and technology.

Monday after the storm, we, (our school, the Robert M. Beren Academy) started giving informal Limmudai Kodesh (Judaic Studies) classes for students at one of the local synagogues that had regained power early.

Learning goes on.

These classes continued and as the week wore on, we began to add AP classes for the high school students so they wouldn’t fall behind in those content intensive courses.

Learning goes on.

At the time I am writing this, our school is still without power and our lower, middle and high schools are spread over three temporary satellite campuses that have electricity, but with virtually none of the tools one would expect in even the most rudimentary classroom.

Learning goes on.

Around one third of our students’ homes are still without power. They are staying with friends who have regained power or who have purchased generators. Some are wearing borrowed clothes since they have not been able to get to their homes or don’t have the power to do laundry.

Learning goes on.

Are we inconvenienced? Yes
Are we letting it stop us? No
(Most) Students (begrudgingly) realize they WANT to learn.
We teachers realize that we NEED to teach.

Learning goes on.

This “return to basics” has reminded me of something so fundamental that it often goes without saying.

And since it often goes without saying, it probably needs to be said a lot more often.

Ultimately, education is about an educator communicating with, and teaching a student. It has been done for millennia before there were Smartboards, wikis, and computers. And it can and does go on without them.

It is a human process, not a technical one.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

A Lesson on When the Shark Met the Fish

As part of our efforts to raise awareness among the 7th grade students about the plight of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier who is being held captive by the Hamas, we decided to introduce a book that he wrote when he was 11 years old and that his parents had published in Israel. Without telling the students why, we had them write dialogues in Hebrew between and a shark and a fish. The students worked in pairs to create their skits. They performed the dialogues and we videotaped them. Since the students knew ahead of time that they would be videotaped, they were highly motivated to do the best job possible.

The next step is for the class to watch the videotapes and the students will self-evaluate their own Hebrew writing and speaking skills through the content and performance of the dialogues that they wrote. We prepared a rubric to facilitate the students' evaluation. After the self-evaluation, we will use the same rubric to give our own feedback to the students.

We used the SmartBoard in class to show the class how non-Jewish students in the Bronx in New York were reading Gilad Shalit's book When the Shark Met the Fish. We also connected to other sources that gave information about Gilad and the negotiations for his release from captivity by the Hamas. The students logged into a website where they could voice their own opinions and feelings about what they had learned that day. They wrote on the website in both Hebrew and English.

Our use of the video cameras to tape the class, along with the SmartBoard internet connections to both the class in the Bronx and the website on Gilad's captivity, added so much to the lesson. The kids went home over the weekend and could talk about little else at the Shabbat table.

--The 7th Grade Hebrew Teachers

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

DVD Launch planed for mid – November

DVD Launch planed for mid – November

The Frankel Jewish Academy students are working full speed in order to complete the first DVD in the series "I've been there – stories from the battlefield". As of now the editing team works on "weaving" films, photos and music into the interviews assisted by another team working on English subtitles.

The plan is to launch the first DVD in mid – November. This DVD is the first in a series of at least 4 DVDs recounting the stories of the Israeli wars from the point of view of Israeli war veterans, now living in The States.

The first stage will be to send the DVD to Jewish Day High Schools around the country and to the Israeli Ministry of Education. We hope that this DVD pilot will receive good reviews so we could expand our distribution to all Jewish Day schools.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Rosetta Stone-(cont.)

In terms of the technical aspects, RS was fairly simple to set up, all we needed was a windows machine to run as the "server". However, unlike Version 2, which gave you the option to install the language files to each local client machine, version 3 requires the language files to stay on the server which produces a small lag when several people are trying to start the program up. Otherwise, version 3 is much better than 2.

The students have really been enjoying using the program and they seem to be learning from it. i even found one student using it during a study hall. The program works on reading and speaking skills, requiring the student to read sentences and words and pronounce them correctly. It seems to be a great way to supplement the Hebrew curriculum.

Rosetta Stone

We are using the new version of Rosetta Stone Hebrew language software that was released this summer. We were concerned about adopting and adapting a business product to an educational setting. It has proven to be intuitive enough for students to use on their own as well as within a class setting without needing too much assistance from a teacher or tech person. The initial learning curve took some time and some teachers are less enthusiastic than others as their seems to always be this underlying fear of being replaced by machines in some way. The opposite is actually true. Students can do better independent work in school and at home at their computer and the teacher can avoid marking tremendous amounts of homework assignments thus freeing up more time for preparation and focused feedback to students.

We are a high school but I know some middle schools have used this tool as well even using the program as the basis of a class curriculum. I wonder what results people have had with it so far either in middle or high school with the new version. I know my students are enthusiastic about using the software and the immediate grading of progress feedback is much quicker than any teacher could give. Right now it is a supplemental tool to enhance our Hebrew program which has been our weakest link educationally. An additional systemic change has proved helpful but pricey. We now run all Hebrew language classes to ensure proper level placement. The software takes it one step further by helping instructors differentiate levels although it has been used mainly helpful for introductory and intermediate level conversational skills. Advanced Hebrew speakers seem hard pressed to utilize the program that much.


Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Integrated Ninth Grade Curriculum

Tomorrow is the first identity/wiki meeting with the ninth grade faculty. Actually, we've decided to have three meetings during three time slots, so teachers can come during free periods. Since we do want to meet as a whole group, we'll try to do so on an in-service faculty day. Meeting in smaller groups, however, will enable teachers unfamiliar with a wiki to learn how to use it better. We also want teachers to connect with ones from other disciplines so that there is cross-curriculum sharing.

We hope that what teachers gain from the meeting tomorrow is a clear idea of what topic they want to post and discuss on the wiki and a better understanding of how to use the wiki. Hopefully, we'll be able to create a calendar that will show when the different classes will be utilizing the wiki and to what end.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008


Getting Started

We got a late start on our project, but now we are going to try to make up for lost time. At the end of the summer we equipped each of our Hebrew teachers with a small Flip video camera and, during our staff days before school started, we trained each one how to use them. We chose these tiny cameras because of their ease of use.

Our Hebrew department is populated by wonderful, hard-working, enthusiastic, but not technically sophisticated teachers. We really wanted to set up everyone for success in the videotaping part of our project, and we wanted the technology to enhance our vision and not get in the way. These cameras are very small and incredibly easy to use. They are able to plug directly into your computer after you make the tape.

As it turned out, one of our most senior members of the staff was the first to take the plunge. She is also our Israeli music specialist, and she starts every year sitting with her students in the youngest grades, singing with them and watching their faces light up as they remember the songs they learned in previous years (some of which they sang at last year's Zimriyah). This year she had her video camera with her, and she taped the children on the 1st and 2nd days of school.

Unexpected Results

What was interesting to us was that she expected, as we all did, that the children would be self conscious because of the video camera and would not want to sing out they way they had in the past. In fact, almost the opposite occurred. The camera is so small that she was able to hold it away from her face and just enjoy the students singing while she was doing the taping. To our teacher, it seemed that the students were even more responsive than usual, knowing they were being taped. She also shared with them that she was making the film as a record of what they sounded like on the first day of school, and that they will be able to compare that to what they sound like as they grow and learn much more Hebrew. The children were as excited about the project as the teacher.

Now that one of us has broken the ice, it will be easier for other members of the team to start using their cameras. We'll write again soon to keep people posted as we branch out with some of the other aspects of our project.