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 

Sunday, July 07, 2013

ISTE 2013...AVICHAI Style!

         This was my second time at an ISTE (International society for technology in education, now say it five times very fast, GO!) conference and as usual it was an earth-shattering, overwhelming, and exhausting event. From the opening keynote about Gamification (Yes, we are now turning every classroom into one giant Kinect thingamajig) to the closing remarks by Adam Below, everything had a significant impact on my life as an educational technology coach. But, as opposed to last year where I went on my own, this year I was fortunate to be part of a remarkable group of individuals spanning the United States, brought together by none other the spectacular AVICHAI Organization.
             I originally thought that the sole benefit of this cohort was free room and food (seriously!); I figured I’d do my thing at the conference, come to the hotel, eat some “airport food,” (No Kosher meat eateries anywhere!!!) and be on my merry way. I had no idea that this would be an experience I probably will never forget!
              Every evening, after an exhausting day of workshops, sessions, and vendors marketing ploys (Yes, the chachkas are great, but seriously…), we were treated with a big smile by Jennifer Newfeld, who so graciously arranged all of our meals, and was one of our liaisons for Avichai throughout the trip (You were awesome Jennifer!). At each table you could hear each person’s excitement, sharing ideas, schmoozing with one another and trading business cards (yes, we’re at a tech conference and we are still using these.)Then the magic really began (cue Indiana Jones theme song); the famous Dr. Jones…Eliezer Jones closed the night by facilitating a great group talk reflecting about the (e)vents of that particular day.
              Thanks to Mrs. Rachel Abrahams, a wonderful program which allowed me to connect with people from LA (My hometown BABY!) to New York and everything in between was done beautifully. From the first time we met in the unforgettable River room (San Antonio has this scary obsession with the word “River”), down to the last Minyan on Wednesday morning (yes you read that right, we had a Minyan, with a real Sefer Torah, every single day of the conference, Shachris, Minha and Mariv, first time ever!), I was able to build great relationships and excellent networks of like-minded Jewish educators whose sole purpose is to enhance the way we do Education in all Jewish Day Schools.

Friday, July 05, 2013

Gameification and Trouble with the Curve

The night before I was headed to ISTE13 I enjoyed the movie Trouble With The Curve starring Clint Eastwood, Amy Adams and Justin Timberlake. While this is not a movie review, I thought the movie was good, enjoyed the story and appreciated the messages delivered. One of these messages is one I believe in strongly and was reinforced the next day at the ISTE opening Keynote given by Jane McGonigal, Learning is an Epic Win, which was focused on gamification in education.

Towards the end of the movie, Johnny (timberlake), a scout for the Boston Red Sox is talking about his short lived career as a baseball player and says, “as you know, to hit the magical 300, you fail seven out of ten times.” In fact, the highest career batting average of all time is only .366 by Ty Cobb and the second best average (.358) was by hall of famer Roger Hornsby who was quoted saying, "I don't like to sound egotistical, but every time I stepped up to the plate with a bat in my hands, I couldn't help but feel sorry for the pitcher.” That is pretty cocky for someone who misses nearly 65% of the time. Although, I doubt anyone would call Cobb or Hornsby a loser by any means.

Jane McGonigal echoed a similar statistic where gamers, during game play, typically fail 80% of the time, yet continue to play until they achieve their goals. With over 1 billion hours of gameplay accounted for daily, according to McGonical, what is it about games that keep us coming back even in the face of that high fail rate?

Gaming is all about solving puzzles, reaching goals, staying alive and above all learning from mistakes to become better at the game. Each time a gamer jumps into a world they explore and work at achieving whatever goals are set forth by the game. At first the game environment is new and the mechanics might be unfamiliar. Yet, there is only one way to go from noob to prestige and that is to press start and figure it out along the way. Everytime you fall off a cliff, get shot, explode, freeze, crash, come in last or just plain die you start over and try again, often doing better than the time before. Most gamers do not give up when they do not score or receive a score that is less than brag worthy. They fail time and time again so that they can come back into the game better for it and continue to level up. In education, we simply do not afford enough opportunities for our students to level up and I wonder what impact that has on our student’s motivation to learn.

As a proud lifelong gamer myself, I enjoy the challenge of the various games I play and the learning that occurs. As a young child, my grandparents bought me an Atari 3000 when I was home sick with pneumonia and having a miserable time with it. Frogger and Pitfall certainly made the medicine go down and I was hooked. I graduated over the years to Nintendo’s NES, a short stint with the TurboGrafx16, the first playstation as well as the second, a handful of handheld devices and eventually grew into the devoted XBOX fan that I am today. Besides the acceptance of and learning value I find in failing time and time again in games, I also find many other aspects of gaming that are important to education.

As a gamer, you have choice over a huge library of games that you purchase based on your interests. During gameplay you are given constant feedback (points, badges, items, etc.) on how you are doing and that feedback helps you improve. Another wonderful factor of more recent games is multiplayer modes where you play with others and can collaborate to achieve success. Often the challenges in games also require high levels of critical thinking, problem solving and creative solutions to unusual problems. Finally, failure is an option. In fact, it is a necessity. I am not aware of any gamer, although I am sure there are a few, that have finished a game completely the first time without losing once. Yet, we still play even though we know it is impossible not to fail at least a few times and in most cases hundreds of times. However, the score is not a sign of failure, but real-time evidence of how you are doing and, generally, how you are improving.

In gaming your score is something you are always motivated to increase and with the many points, badges, unlocks and levels there are many real-time methods of assessment that it inspires instead of frightens. As educators, there is something to learn from gaming in regard to how we assess, what we assess, why we assess and how often we assess. One of the reasons I am excited about aspects of blended learning is the real-time data it collects which can be used to assist educators in making data-driven decisions  more often than are traditionally made.

I have always hated the games where the save points were very far from each other. You wind up spending what feels like an eternity trying to reach a goal only to start over again even if you lose right before the save point. Yes, it is a great sense of accomplishment and relief when you finally do reach that goal, but if the goal is so far from attainable with little support and reinforcement along the way you no longer care about the goal. The great games save often, have a wide array of challenges, have many opportunities for scoring and never start from zero when you have no more health or lives. The score is something that you are always building upon no matter how much or how little you achieve during that gaming session. However, in school, the save points are often too far apart and the score you get is not used as a building block, but rather a final score that you have little or no opportunity to change.

In her interview on the wonderful colbert report, Jane McGonigal states, “when we are playing games we are tapping into our best qualities; our ability to be motivated, to be optimistic, to collaborate with others, to be resilient in the face of failure.” Wouldn't that sound wonderful if she was also talking about our schools? I am not suggesting that gaming frameworks and mechanics are the only answer to stale and unsuccessful teaching and learning. There are many strategies and models of 21st century learning that are critical to successful education. However, I am suggesting that we take a closer look at why gaming is nearly a 70 billion dollar industry despite an 80% failure rate and what aspects of it might be useful in our 21st century educational tool box. 

Cross-posted at 

Thursday, July 04, 2013

Back Channels

Thanks to the AviChai foundation, I spent four days at the annual ISTE conference. Four days of lectures, workshops, exhibits, brainstorming, networking, and a fair share of corporate marketing. When I had to capture the essence of those four huge days in one small blog post, I realized that it wasn't about a specific app or strategy or even a keynote speaker's powerful one liner. For me, it was about the way the presenters and attendees at ISTE 
embodied all of the reasons we try to integrate technology: ease of access to resources, creating shared knowledge databases, and most importantly - greater communication. 

Conspicuously absent were the professors who lecture for three hours about the need for hands-on,  individualized learning while their idealistic students scramble to take notes so they can prepare for a traditional test.  At the conference, each session would begin with the sharing of a blog, twitter handle, and links to the slides and websites. Then, the presenter would encourage the participants to start a back channel. Checking phones or typing on tablets was not considered rude.  People were tweeting their observations, joining virtual conversations on TodaysMeet, and jotting down their notes on a shared GoogleDoc. And it was okay because it meant that they were participating in a parallel, yet connected conversation.  Because of those backchannels, each session was so much more than a presenter and what he/she had  to say. It was about forming connections: between presenter and participant, among participants, and between participants and the world. 

At the ISTE conference, I learned that if a teacher is willing to cede some control, his/her message can reach deeper and farther and wider...

- Chaya Goldberg 

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Integrating or innovating with technology?

One of the most meaningful sessions I attended at ISTE13 was a presentation by 5th grade teacher Julie Ramsay, about the difference between integrating and innovating using technology in the classroom. Ramsay articulated a clear and powerful vision for teaching and learning, based on 21st century skills and encouraging students to engage in higher-order thinking. Ramsay emphasized the difference between integrating technology into education - using new technology but teaching with the same goals and pedagogy - and  innovating with technology - using technology to transform classroom teaching, resulting in different pedagogies, different goals and different leaning outcomes. Technology can be used to get students to engage in higher-order critical thinking. Technology is a tool that opens up possibilities for a smart teacher to have students involved in higher order thinking, but it is still just the tool. The tool can't define the learning. The teacher always plays a critical role in shaping student learning. If a project is called the 'PowerPoint project' that's missing the point.

Ramsay shared a number of captivating examples to illustrate her point.
  • Student presentations can be 'innovated' using technology, making it easier to assign students engaging and meaningful presentations in a format that appeals to today's learner. Ramsay demonstrated how a linear PowerPoint slide presentation assignment can be transformed so that students create interactive Choose-Your-Own-Adventure stories.
  • Student work can and should be shared online, so that it can have a global audience, rather than the audience of one (the teacher). Wikispaces and LiveBinders are two websites that make it easy.
  • Students can engage in 'books chats' on student-blogs on websites such as Kidblog.
  • Another idea I liked is to have the students do a tech tools scavenger hunt, looking at previous students' work. This way students get familiar with the wide range of tech tools that are available, and will be able to make choices about the most appropriate tool to use to create each assignment.
  • Kids need time to explore their passion. One way to do this is modeled after the 20% time that Google employees receive to work on projects they are interested in that are not directly related to their specific job responsibilities. Giving students an 'Innovation Day' or 'Genius Hour' allows them to learn and share about areas they are passionate about that might not be on the school curricula. Most of these projects are not digital, but by documenting the students' experiences with video, the event becomes 'amplified' and receives a larger audience. 
Ramsay's presentation was a breath a fresh air amid the numerous sales pitches disguised as presentations by corporate sponsors and their fans. While it seemed that many people at ISTE were distracted by the new and shiny, Ramsay articulated a clear, focused and powerful rationale for using technology to innovate teaching and learning. I hope more educators continue to be influenced by her ideas, choosing to prioritize pedagogy over products, and encouraging learners to use technology to become producers not just consumers. 

Jared Matas
JCDS, Boston's Jewish Community Day School