Friday, November 01, 2013

Reflections from attending iNACOL

Sweetly Mixing Torah Learning with Computer Technology[1]

In his commentary on this weeks’ Torah portion, Toldot, the holy Piaczesno, Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, in his book Derekh Hamelekh, talks about the connection between body and soul:

In the upper worlds there is a lot of holiness; the essential glory and kedusha of the soul is also revealed there. But there is a need to reveal this holiness also in this world, in the earthly body. Not simply putting the body and soul together… but rather, that through the connection of the body and the soul there will be revealed a type of holiness that is not present even in the upper worlds: the soul and the body transformed together into a united holiness.
Consider the metaphor of a burning candle. There is, in the fire, oil and wick. However, do we call the fire 'oil and wick?' In the beginning there was 'oil' and 'wick' but now they have transformed to light, one united illumination.

I’d like to extend the Rabbi’s teaching about the importance of truly uniting body and soul – and not just having them be put together, side by side – in order to explore how to combine Torah learning and technology. Indeed, we are encouraged in the morning blessings to engage in Torah in ways that create a sweet mixture - Ve’ha’erav na Hashem Elokeinu et Divrei Toratekha Be’finu, G-d please sweeten/combine the words of Torah [emanating from] our mouths. The word “Ve’ha’erav” from the root e.r.v means both “sweeten” and “combine.” I read this as guidance to create sweet combinations – of tradition with contemporary life, of text and self, of ancient content and contemporary technologies, and of wicks and oil that transform into innovative illumination.

To be sure, some approaches to combining Torah learning and computer technology - are merely doing what the Rabbi has called ‘simply putting them together.’ But I’d like to think there could be more than that.  Much more.  Indeed, what would be the equivalent of “transforming body and soul into a united illumination,” an approach that unites Torah learning and technology to deliver 21st Century learning befitting Jewish day schools?

The term “blended learning” perhaps reflects a hope of combining the best of what the teacher has to bring, with the best of what online learning can offer – a synergistic illumination. For synergy to happen it is important not to lose the real-time nature of learning. Teachers selecting a pre-packaged course - “off the shelf,” so to speak – even if the teacher is in the room interacting with students, still may not be coming close to what’s possible. It is important to allow learning to emanate from the creativity of the teacher. Indeed, Rabbi Nachman of Breslov teaches that there is a real – hiluk – difference between learning from a book and learning from a teacher.[2]

On one hand, learning benefits from having top quality presenters delivering excellent content – and the prospect of bringing world-class presenters into every class is exciting.  On the other hand, quality learning is not only about the presenters, it is also about the students.  Learning is most engaging and dynamic when it resonates with what is happening in students’ lives, with other subjects they are studying, with current events in the community and the world, with students’ interests and challenges. 

Teachers in the room may not be serving as the main presenters, but they need to play an essential and creative role in connecting learning to the uniqueness of students in the room.  Teachers also need to bring in their own presence to enable direct human encounters between students and teacher – and as Martin Buber has described, this encounter also brings in the presence of the transcendent. This may be why Rabbi Nachman stresses the difference of learning from a teacher.

At the iNACOL symposium, my most exciting take-away is something that seems to begin addressing this need, and may lead toward creating a “sweet mixture” of Torah learning computer technology. Here’s what I learned:  Raymond McNulty, the Chief Learning Officer at Pennfoster, told me they have  a large selection of vocational high school stackable modules of content that educators can select from and use to creatively customize learning for their students.

A learning module is a succinct block of on-line content available for teachers to use in building their course or for self-directed learning. An educator could stack learning modules – that is assemble them - for students to experience them sequentially or could allow students to explore a set of modules in an order of their own choosing. The relatively short duration of modules can allow an educator to respond to real-time needs and to appropriately select and assemble modules to meet emergent learning needs. 

Platforms that make it easy for teachers to select and use “stackable modules” can enable them to customize learning to fit each student and the teaching moment.  Done well, it could combine teachers’ own creativity and sense for what will uniquely resonate with students, with top quality pre-packaged content, and foster real-time context-rich learning. 

For example, at The Binah School, middle and high school students are currently engaged in a learning expedition that builds on Torah teaching about areyvut (mutual responsibility) and engages students in creating something in the area of assistive technology that can help people with disabilities. I can imagine using stackable online learning modules to get students up to speed on engineering basics and tools they will be using (such as computer aided design). Getting the new content from a honed online resources and then brining in an expert to work with the students on their projects may exemplify “a sweet mixture.”

My colleague, Nomi Feinberg, pointed me to how the Gates Foundation is creating a resource for such modular units with PowerMyLearning – a free digital learning platform for K-12 students and educators with learning activities selected from across the web. Their educators vet games, videos, and interactive simulations from publishers like PBS, Discovery, National Geographic, Khan Academy, Scholastic, and tag them by subject, grade, Common Core standards, and other criteria.

I believe we have an important opportunity: to develop a user-friendly platform of quality online Jewish content in stackable modules. There are beginnings of this already happening, for example with Aleph Beta and other resources. These will support teachers to blend more quality Torah wisdom, not only into Jewish studies classes, but also into general studies and even into supplementary learning, where time is even more limited. 

I would appreciate learning from you about new resources that are becoming available in this rapidly evolving field. Please share what you know, either as a comment to this blog or send me an email at:

Stackable Torah modules may be one in a set of the tools, that taken together, will enable teachers to play creative roles in connecting learning to the uniqueness of students, and to foster direct encounters between students and teachers. Part of the work will always include the teacher's inner-journey. Parker Palmer puts it this way: "The transformation of teaching must begin in the transformed heart of the teacher." Indeed, Torah teaching benefits greatly from a teacher's connection with G-d. 

The word in Aramaic for Torah is Oraita, which means light. I'm excited to continue to be in the conversation with remarkable educators on how we can most synergistically use technology to spread the light of Torah. 

Dr. Ronit Ziv-Kreger combines her passion for Jewish learning and life with her MIT training in management science to train and coach educators and to offer school and learning design consulting for The Binah School, other day schools, and for CJP’s initiative to reinvent supplementary education in the Boston area. She is a graduate of the Pardes Educators Program and received her PhD from MIT’s Sloan School of Management. 

[1] I’m grateful to the AVI CHAI foundation, and to Program Officer, Rachel Abrahams, for generously supporting me to attend the iNACOL symposium to represent educators from The Binah School, in Sharon, Massachusetts, together with the school’s director of humanities, Nomi Feinberg.

[2] Likutei Moharan, Torah 20:4

Sunday, October 20, 2013

“Hafoch Bah v’Hafoch Bah” – Flipping the Judaic Studies Classroom

“Hafoch Bah v’Hafoch Bah” – Flipping the Judaic Studies Classroom 
Reflections on my flipped class journey and lessons from ISTE

Over the past few years, “flipped classroom” videos of the Khan Academy variety have become increasingly popular and widespread among educators, particularly with the proliferation of (free) whiteboard apps.  Teacher-generated video lessons can be valuable tools for differentiating instruction and enabling students to work at their own pace. They shift the focus away from lecture-style presentations onto teacher-guided work or activities, wherein students apply the lessons learned from the video.  They may serve as anchor activities for students who have moved ahead in class.  And of course, videos enable busy students to pause, rewind and re-watch their teachers whenever and however often they want.  The flipped class methodology—which generally entails units built around short videos which students watch at home, followed by “homework” done in the classroom where the teacher is available to clarify and guide the learning—has been shown to make assignments more effective, and to increase student engagement as well as achievement. 

In the Jewish educational context, I had certainly seen (and created) YouTube videos of the how-to variety (“how to have an aliyah”) or the talking head variety (“weekly d’var Torah”), some of which were quite engaging and some which were as dull as any classroom lecture.  But I had never encountered instructional videos that were integrated in a systematic way into a class setting.  Wondering if flipped videos could be applied to a day school Jewish Studies classroom, and excited and intrigued with the possibilities, last year I set about experimenting with flipped videos for my middle school Tanach and Mishnah classes.

My initial thinking has been to create video content on relatively broad topics which are not overly curriculum-specific.  That way, they could be utilized by our Judaics faculty across grades, years and curricula, since they could potentially be applicable to a variety of content matter and re-watched in various contexts.  Additionally, they could serve as online resources to other students or educators beyond our walls.  So, for example, I made several videos about broad concepts in Rabbinic/Torah Commentary, such as “Kal Va-Chomer” and “Gematria.” Since we use iPads in our middle school, I initially have worked with Educreations, which the students can easily pull up through the app on their iPads or watch through a link on our website.  Educreations (or the comparable ShowMe app) is also useful for students to create their own instructional videos as class-work, an enrichment activity or a summative assessment. 

Screenshot from "Kal Vachomer" Video made with Educreations app

At the end of last year, I asked for student feedback regarding the videos, and they gave positive reports regarding their level of engagement, desire to watch more videos, and using the videos at their own leisure.  Based on their surveys and their work in general, I felt it was a successful “beta-test” year.  However, I knew there was room for improvement in many areas, including editing capability and interactive questions.   

Screenshot from Educreations video on "Gematria"

Thanks in part to a grant from AVI CHAI, I was fortunate to attend the ISTE ’13 conference, where I was able to explore in greater depth some best practices for integrating technology, including creating flipped classrooms.  There is certainly much to be said about the teacher practices and pedagogy which must accompany flipped videos, to ensure real learning.  But sticking to tools and resources, here is just a small sampling of new info and insights I came away with from ISTE:

·        Web Content Concerns.  There is always anxiety, with good reason, regarding what students will come across when watching online content.  Quietube is a great way to share videos online without the distractions and “crud” that accompany many Youtube videos.  You may choose another video platform like Vimeo, or distribute video files by uploading to an internal class platform like Edmodo, instead of via the internet. 

·        Flubaroo.  This is a mechanism for managing online assignments with a Google Form, for students fill in after watching.  With this tool, teachers can include quick formative assessments with the video to check for understanding.  This increases the interactive element, and gives teachers a sense of where students’ understanding is and how to tailor instruction for group-work in class.  A follow-up also can be created to engage parents.
·        Aaron Sams’ Video Rules. The flipped class guru, whose book I got at ISTE, preaches several rules for flipped videos.  Some—like animating your voice and adding humor—can be done regardless of what software or video tools you use.  Others—like adding zooming, callouts and annotations—are much more difficult with the free products (you get what you pay for).  Over the year I was fortunate to receive a grant from the Jewish Community Foundation in Cherry Hill for Camtasia screen capture software.  Camtasia is the industry standard – superlative editing tools, but not as simple or user-friendly (or free).   

·        Captions and Subtitles.  A teacher may choose to use a script to read off of to narrate the video.  If a script is used, then it can be synced with the video once uploaded to Youtube.  (Instead of Educreations, which uses its own site, try Screencast-O-Matic or Aww – A Web Whiteboard, for this.)  Save your script as a plain text (txt) file. Then, in the Edit menu on your Youtube video, choose Captions and upload your file; your words will now appear on screen, enhancing the level of engagement and interaction.

·        Whose videos?  The consensus is that making your own videos is the best course of action when possible, because it creates a more personal connection with your students.  Ultimately, good teaching is based upon relationships, and flipping the classroom can help foster this.  But teachers should also make use of the myriad videos that are already out there, and not feel it’s necessary to reinvent the wheel for every topic.  Sites like Blendspace (Edcanvas) list video content by subject, and can be shared to Edmodo for students to watch and discuss.  My hope is to see more Jewish Studies videos out there in the near future to share and collaborate with!

The Mishnah teaches, “hafoch bah v’hafoch bah d’kula vah – turn it [Torah] around and around to find everything inside.”  Likewise I hope that flipping the classroom around will be one more tool to help students reach deeper levels of knowledge, insight and understanding. 

Micah Liben is the Rabbi in Residence at Kellman Brown Academy. 

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

ISTE 2013

I want to thank Avi Chai for giving me this amazing opportunity to be at ISTE in San Antonio. i felt like a child that got to play in a huge playground and can't wait to learn and try more and more new things. It was great to be part of an amazing group of educators that are excited about technology and see the opportunities in emerging developments in educational technology. All Avi Chai team made my experience positive and valuable. Rachel Abraham, Ayelet, Jennifer Newfeld that welcomed us in San Antonio and took care of our meals. Every evening Eliezer Jones, always with a smile engaged a group of tired and overwhelmed teachers in great conversation. TODAH RABBA As an educator, I was excited to hear the keynotes presentations focused on the application of game design to education by Jane McGonigal, an American game designer, she spoke about her research in creating games designed to teach students how to solve real world problems. She described how the player is engaged, using critical thinking, motivated and keep on reaching higher goals when playing. Being busy all year with curriculum, Instruction, assessments, report cards and parent meetings I never had the chance to take the time and learn about how games can be part of my instruction. This keynote presentation introduced me to this unique topic and showed me the potential gaming has to remove boundaries in education by engaging students and forcing them to think critically. Our Avi Chai conversation in the first evening was focusing on gaming and why it's important to use it in education. It was very interesting to hear each person's thoughts and personal experience. The gamers in the group were so excited and shared some project they are using in their school. I specially remember that in one school students had the option to use 'Minecraft' to build a model of 'Beit Hamikdash'. the teacher shared how this experience kept them engaged and motivated. I’m excited to share this topic with other teachers in my school and i hope to continue the conversation with other educators using social media.

Friday, July 19, 2013

As I was waiting for my baggage a few weeks back at LAX, after arriving home from an amazing four days of ISTE learning, I struck up a conversation with my baggage claim neighbor Marcy. She was telling me about the events and parties she went to during the ISTE evenings. They sounded fun and I know I would have rocked out at the Edutopia Karaoke. However, as I told her, I had the privilege of facilitating a group of Jewish educators who were sponsored by the Avi Chai Foundation to attend ISTE. In fact, I had the privilege of facilitating a larger group as Avi Chai invited many Jewish educators to the kosher dinners and many chose to stay for the intellectual desert of reflection. And reflect we did. 

Each night at ISTE the Avi Chai cohort met for dinner and after we discussed our day of learning and plans for the next day. The first night was focused on getting to know each other, what we wanted to get out of ISTE in general and how we experienced the opening keynote by Jane McGonical on gamification (click here for a previous post on that keyote). The other nights we shared what stood out for us and how we might apply it to our classrooms and schools. We not only shared our own experiences which enhanced our learning by having to remember what we actually experienced, but increased our learning through hearing what others learned. We also shared different perspectives, provided support for new ideas and gained from each others experience. Additionally, as evidenced by the first night and the subsequent ones, the group reflection was a powerful way to learn and revise our focus for the upcoming day. These discussions had immediate positive impact on our learning at ISTE and I suspect beyond.

I explained all of this to my baggage buddy as I was daydreaming about belting out my version of “baby, we were born to run” by The Boss, when I realized Marcy looked disappointed. How could she be? She went to all these great after ISTE parties. So, I asked her what she was thinking as clearly we have bonded over the hypnotic twirl of the LAX baggage carousel. She said she wished she had spent some time with her colleagues reflecting on her learning instead of enjoying tequila shots at the PLP Party Barge.

Upon reflection of our conversation about reflection, it is no wonder an educator would find value in the activities the Avi Chai cohort engaged in each evening. It is a critical element to any learning, whether for our students or us as professionals. To take a page from the project-based learning playbook, we need to spend more time reviewing and reflecting through giving and receiving feedback on what we create as well as as think about what and how we are learning. Although it was only three discussions, I think we did just that each night. We were sharing ideas, the ways we practice our craft, giving each other feedback on those ideas and ultimately improving our choices for the next day at ISTE and hopefully in the way we educate.

So, thank you to the Avi Chai Foundation for asking me to facilitate a fantastic group of educators. Thank you for also affording this group the opportunity to come together to learn at ISTE and with each other. Finally, thank you for continuing to make a difference for Jewish education.

I will leave this post with a good article of fostering reflection. Enjoy!

Cross-posted at

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Finding Torah in Technology at ISTE

A favorite joke of mine depicts a congregant approaching the rabbi before Kol Nidre.  “I can’t make it to services; it’s the World Series, and I have to watch the game.”  The rabbi nods sympathetically, but suggests there might be some middle ground. “Isn’t that what a DVR is for?” The congregant pauses as the wheels turn, then exclaims:  “Great—so you’re saying I can record Kol Nidre!”

It’s a classic, but still resonates today.  The tensions it highlights (Jewish observance versus American pastime, emergent technology versus established religious norms) are very much at the heart of contemporary discussions regarding technology in Jewish religious/educational contexts.

It was this dichotomy that I was, on a certain level, most interested in exploring at the ISTE conference, which I attended thanks to a generous grant from AVI CHAI.  As a school administrator, I was committed to gathering new resources for bringing educational technology to our Jewish Studies classrooms back at KBA.  As a teacher, I was seeking practical information and tools to aid in my own ongoing project of “flipping” my Mishnah classroom.  But beyond all the tachlis, I was hoping to gain a greater insight into the relationship between using new tech resources and teaching Jewish values.

It is not merely a theoretical concern.  As our tools and technologies change ever-more rapidly—and with them our established cultural norms and values—the tension inherent in the “DVR vs. Kol Nidre” paradigm continues to grow.  I have heard some skeptics speak in dire tones about the evils that can result from technology, and I have been advised by others about the merits of simply taking it slow, so as to ensure adequate reflection and evaluation before racing onward to a brave new world.  

Some of these points are well taken.  Indeed, to what extent does technology itself challenge the values that we hold dear?  To what extent does the use and culture of the Internet increase the “borrowing” of words for assignments, provide a platform for bullying or slandering, or simply dissolve the authentic discourse of personal encounters?  

More and more, the value of modern technology for the classroom is becoming a given in day schools (as it should be!), and KBA is no exception.  To that end, we currently have iPads for all 5th-8th graders, flipped video archives, and a host of apps and software programs for math, science, and languages (to name just a few things).  We also utilize the Gemara Berura software program to build skills for decoding rabbinic texts. 

But while the benefit of educational technology for both students and teachers is becoming more widely accepted, it is still met with some skepticism.  Some in the religious world recognize the value of things like databases that hyperlink texts and commentaries, yet continue to see the technology itself as a sort of necessary evil, one that may help students learn but ultimately threatens more traditional methods.  And for their part, many students see new technological innovations as existing in a separate sphere, divorced from Jewish Studies rather than an integral part of it.  As we continue to integrate technology into our curricula, Jewish educators have a responsibility not only to help students navigate the questions posed above, but to proactively inject Jewish values—as they relate to technology itself—into the curriculum.  

It was with this in mind that I approached my first day of ISTE sessions—and was delighted by what I encountered.  The presenter in my afternoon class (named Philip Vinogradov) had sent all the attendees a Google Doc ahead of time, so that if anyone learned a new insight or resource about the topic from an earlier session they could share it with the group.  By the time the class began we already had a dozen new tools and ideas to use as jumping off points.  From there, it only got better. The instructor had us sign into TodaysMeet, where we could post questions and comments on a back-channel throughout the session.  Mr. Vinogradov would respond to posts every so often, but essentially the back-channel served as a way for attendees to bounce ideas off each other as the session went on.  I was so impressed by the collaborative nature of the session that I was fully prepared to write an eval at the end of the week extolling Mr. Vinogradov as a stand-out instructor—until it turned out that this was essentially the norm in all the sessions!  Whether by using TodaysMeet or creating unique Twitter hashtags, almost every presenter encouraged and enabled participants to connect and work together en masse in a way I had never experienced, sharing insights in real time and ultimately heightening the learning experience for all involved.  

I knew I'd seen this concept somewhere before… The Gemara discusses the notion of scholars sharpening each other’s minds in matters of law (“mehadedin zeh at zeh”). This Talmudic passage expressing the idea that two heads are better than one exemplifies the traditional havrutah method of partner-based learning, and has its application in contemporary cooperative learning models. At ISTE, I truly felt as though I was participating in a digital display of mehadedin zeh at zeh at the highest level, with all the learners sharpening each other’s thinking and ideasHow powerful it would be to introduce students to the expanded uses of Twitter—with all of its ability to connect, collaborate and communicate ideas—in the context of this sugiyah, or of  Pirkei Avot’s teaching of kneh l’cha haver,” finding a partner for study.  

This theme of collaboration—which is truly a hallmark of technology today—continued through the closing keynote address by Adam Bellow.  “I love to share!” he declared.  Mr. Bellow displayed a model very different from the proprietary, ego-driven model that is characteristic of many disciplines.  In stressing the benefits of technology for collaboration, Mr. Bellow also displayed modesty about his personal accomplishments.  Near the start of his speech, he gave a “shout-out” to those in the tech world who preceded him, specifically referring to a woman who, as he put it, “was Edutecher before Edutecher was invented.”  (Edutecher is an online resource Mr. Bellow created.)  Here was an individual being honored as the keynote speaker at ISTE, with an impressive resume of innovations and inventions, who chose to lead off by recognizing the work of others—others whose shoulders he acknowledged he stood upon.  What a wonderful model.  Pirkei Avot teaches, “One who says something in the name of its source (b’shem omro) brings redemption to the world.”  Perhaps it was no coincidence, then, that his speech was entitled, “An Invitation to Change the World.”  

If we can use technology to enable students to connect and collaborate on a greater scale, and do it through the lens of hevruta; if we can guide students through the process of gathering and curating material from among the vast store-houses of information on the web, and do it in the context of“b’shem omro;” if we can encourage creativity and innovation tempered by anivut (humility); then we truly meet our goals both as educators and Jewish role models.  
Armed with technological know-how informed by Torah principles, perhaps our students truly will change the world…or at the very least, they’ll both be tech-savvy and also attend Kol Nidre!  

Micah Liben is Rabbi in Residence at Kellman Brown Academy