Monday, May 12, 2014

My Yom Haatzmaut Station

Yom Ha Atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day, is a meaningful celebration for Jews worldwide, but especially outside of Israel. Celebrating Yom Ha Atzmaut has been a way to express solidarity with the State of Israel and to strengthen own alliance with it. Many organizations and communities around the world come together on Yom Haatzmaut to celebrate Israel and what it means for the Jewish people. Regardless of what stream of Judaism you may come from, many Jews celebrate Israel in a public display of love and appreciation.

Our day schools are often challenged with the task of celebrating Yom Ha Atzmaut in memorable and meaningful ways to impart the love of Israel onto their students. Most of these students have never even been to Israel but we teach them that the connection to the Land and the State of Israel is a huge part of our Jewish identity. As educators, we are constantly challenged to develop programs and experiences that our students will enjoy and learn from. We want them to celebrate Israel’s Independence day in a meaningful way. A way that will prompt them to think about the land and what it means to them as well as share what they have learned about the country.

This past Yom Ha Atzmaut, the activities director asked me to be one of the “stations” at our annual Yom Ha Atzmaut interactive experience. “Huh?” What am I supposed to do with the kids? I don’t bake pita, I have not served in the IDF, and my Hebrew is mediocre. Isn’t this a “Hebrew teacher thing?” So she challenged me to think of something to do in my computer lab that was in the spirit of Yom Haatzmaut and under 15 minutes per time slot. I started out with my usual buddy Google looking at some sites and videos and creating a Symbaloo web page for my Yom Haatzmaut links. My internet findings included, episodes from Shalom Sesame for the younger students, great videos showcasing Israeli cities from to pop music, and even the “Let it Go” song from the Frozen movie in Hebrew by Mona Mor, “LaAzov” .

I included an interactive tour from Discover Interactive Israel, a glimpse into the Google Campus Tel Aviv project, a video called What does Made in Israel Mean to you?. I also found an interactive map from Eye on Israel and displayed the famous Kotel Cam on my SMARTboard, while live Israeli radio was playing in the background.

But the best part about my “IsraTech” station was my new find, the Green Screen app by Do Ink! Green Screen makes it easy to create incredible green screen videos right on your iPad. When I first heard about green screen technology in the classroom I thought that it would be expensive and also require a lot of creativity. I figured that it was something high tech and fancy that high schools might use in their media lab for school TV news and channels and would never work in elementary school. I was looking for something easy to “transport” our students to Israel and wanted to look deeper into green screen technology. Thankfully, my Google search included the keywords, green, screen and app. That’s where I watched a cute little girl explaining how easy it is to use the app. So I gave it a try. I found green (you can use any color) bulletin board paper and covered up my whiteboard in the back of the computer lab. I hooked up the iPad to the tripod and set it up so that students can stand in front of the iPad with the green wall behind them. My iPad was also setup with the Apple TV screen so that students can see themselves on television. I previously selected pictures of the Kotel, the beach in Tel Aviv, Golan heights and many more.  I called in a couple of students at a time to pretend they were davening at the Kotel. One student even pretended to put a kvitel into to wall. They set up their scene as I recorded it easily with the app. Then we played it back for the class to see. What a riot! They were amazed by what they say. Some of the kids pretended to float in the Dead Sea, surf on the beach in Tel Aviv, eat fruit at the shuk, and ride on a camel in the desert! Not only were they mesmerized by the fact that they were on “TV” and “in Israel”, they were discussing how they once went to that spot in Israel or got excited for their upcoming summer trip to Israel. One scene was a kosher McDonalds and two students were ordering a meal in Hebrew! The teachers got into it too! This was really a fun exercise and really made the station come alive!

After this experience, I realized how much technology and tech tools are able to assist not only in content learning but also experiential learning. The students truly had a visual experience that heightened their excitement and love of Israel that day. You know what they say, “there’s an app for that”, even for Yom Ha Atzmaut!

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Shiny New App

I’m sure many of you have been hearing the buzz around the Mercava Project which promotes an innovative app that will take the future of Jewish Education by storm. Of course, we can all claim that all education is changing and evolving along with 21st century living and innovation. Jewish education as we know it today is changing partly because of technology and the other part due to affordability. More and more schools are moving toward mobile learning in the classroom as a way to take advantage of a new wave of electronic devices that offer portability and ease of use on a budget. Mercava is just one of thousands (closer to hundreds of thousands) of examples of using technology to enhance traditional learning methods and assisting students with critical thinking opportunities that they are already engaged in. Many apps and online programs attempt to improve the student learning experience in the classroom in various different subject and core curriculum areas. It’s really great to see that more Judaic tools are being created to add to the educators toolbox but it might be far from any tool to claim to be the key to education. But that’s OK. Once again, anyone can claim to be the best!

Over the past few weeks, administrators, parents and board members in our school community have been sharing the links to the Mercava project video through email and social networking sites (free PR!). I get tons of emails asking me to “Check this out!” or “We need to contact them immediately!” Board members and parents have shared with me how they know some of the educators and Rabbaim in the video from their days living in the the NY area. They see this shiny new tool and think about how innovative our school could be (just like a NY school!) if we used that tool in our classrooms! Don’t get me wrong, I love to see our school community excited about something relating to technology (job security!) So I feel bad breaking their spirits down and crushing their excitement.  I gently tell them that I appreciate their excitement in technology and innovation and that I will take their inquiry into consideration but ultimately, it’s not the tools that will create innovation in the classroom, but the teachers and students “on the frontline” - in the classroom. Any innovative program needs support from all parties involved from the administration of the school right down to the students in the classroom. The creativity, communication, connections and information sharing that happens in the classroom are the most innovative “tools” that can elevate our students learning experience.

Ultimately, successful school-wide change will not occur without strong resources and support from a variety of sources. While few technology innovations could be implemented without considerable financial resources; money alone will not ensure successful implementation. Changing an entire school requires hard work by all involved. Changing a school also requires that teachers and administrators support each other and share a vision for the future of the school. Mercava, Sefaria, Artscroll and other Judaic apps as well as the actual technology, mobile devices, online blended learning models, are amazing facets of innovative Jewish education. However, they are not the ultimate answers. It is the school culture, trained teachers, administrative support, parental support and motivated students as well as the clear mission of all school members that is the future of Jewish education.