Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Asifa and Centrist Orthodoxy

As is well known by now, on Sunday night there was a huge gathering ("asifa") of Orthodox Jews in Citi Field to talk about the dangers of the internet. This was a primarily a Charedi event, and, as such, the messages were primarily the standard Charedi messages of banning the internet, or at worst using a filter (and even then only at work, not at home). Much has been said about the gathering already - including the huge irony of the massive amount of internet coverage and the number of people at the event possessing smartphones. I would like to focus on one overarching point.

Obviously, coming from a Centrist perspective, I am generally in favor of the internet. My broad position is that it is a tool that can be used for good and for bad, as virtually everything can be. Obviously I am aware that the internet is somewhat different in terms of how much is available and how easily it is available, and I have thought about to what degree that should alter our thinking on this issue.

However, at the end of the day, the divergence in opinions between the Charedi and Centrist/Modern approaches seems to me to be a question of which risk everyone is willing to take:

1) The Charedi approach is to demand that everyone avoid the internet. The risk is that when people fail to heed that warning that they will be ill-equipped to deal with the many and varied temptations and heresies that they will stumble across.

2) The Centrist/Modern approach is to allow the internet and to try to educate people into becoming savvy consumers of content, able to discern between what is useful and what is harmful. The risk, of course, is that our students will be exposed, sometimes unwittingly, to a wide range of objectionable and forbidden materials and will not always have the tools or the resolve to turn away.

Which approach is sounder? Honestly, I am not sure. The all-or-nothing approach is attractive as long as it succeeds, and I am sure that it often does. However, I am also sure that it does not succeed as often as its proponents claim that it does (if it did succeed, there would be no need for an asifa). On the other hand, allowing ourselves to use the internet not only opens up wonderful vistas and opportunities, but also strikes me as a more mature approach. Unless one is planning on living his entire life sheltered from the world, and I am not, then one will eventually need to learn to live and deal with the many complexities that exist.

Friday, May 11, 2012

A Very Cool Site for Teaching Texts

Just this week, someone called my attention to a new website, Sefaria.org, and my twitter account has been lighting up about it for the past couple of days. The site is at the same time brilliant and brilliantly simple, and its possible uses for a classroom are just being thought about. According to its make-a-contribution (not monetary) page, "Our tradition is full of connections between texts. We want to make a complete list of these connections in a form that a computer can understand." Put differently, Sefaria is trying to collect as many traditional Jewish sources as possible and link them all together.

The way that this works is quite simple. The major Jewish texts (Tanach, Mishna, Talmud, Midrash) have already been loaded onto the site (some in English, some in Hebrew), and visitors to the site are asked to add any commentaries or other connected sources to each existing source. For example, on the first chapter of Bereishit (which has been done as a sample), the JPS translation of the Torah appears on the left 2/3 of the screen, while the right third of the screen is a column with over 100 comments and Midrashim on those verses. By clicking on one verse, the comments relevant to that verse remain in bold while the other comments fade to gray. As this is an open source project, visitors are invited to add any other source that they may want to share on the site, and the site can accept both Hebrew and English versions. The contributions page offers several tips for how to add sources and where to find online collections of sources for easy copying and pasting.

While this, once developed, has the chance to be a wonderful resource for anyone trying to quickly look up sources (whether or not a quick look-up is a positive or negative thing could go into the argument about the proliferation of shortcuts to learning), I can think of at least two reasonable uses for it in a Judaic Studies classroom:

1) As the resource it is meant to be. There is a skill involved in trying to write a shiur or a dvar Torah, and the hardest part for many of our students is figuring out where to look. Let's face it, all of those books on the shelf, even if translated, are just so imposing. The layout and interface on Sefaria are cleaner and more inviting, and could be used as a good entree into further research. I can imagine asking a student to find three comments on the site that look interesting, and then directing him to find those specific comments in the original. This will allow students a comfortable entry point while not giving up on more "authentic" learning. And, hopefully, at some point this set of training wheels can be removed and students can learn to begin with the original.

2) For more precocious or higher-level classes, they can be given the assignment of adding to the site. For a class that is learning a perek or a daf that has not yet been developed on Sefaria, each student or group of students can be assigned a different commentary, asked to provide a write-up or translation under rigorous guidelines, and have the goal of producing something that the teacher deems worthy of being shared with the world. This seems a half-step beyond student blogging, as in this case the enticing goal is not merely publishing something online, but publishing it in a location where it is likely to be read and relied upon by others.

I am sure that much more will be said and written about this site as people tinker with it further. Looking forward to more discussion about it.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

A quick video tour of Web 2.0 in Action

I recently created this video for a presentation I am giving about how I use Web 2.0 tools in action. The video was created using Camtasia studio, a slightly costly but completely worthwhile screenshot and video editing program. Camtasia allows you to take "video" of whatever is happening on your screen along with your narration. Once you have taken your video, Camtasia has a full suite of effects and editing tools that are as simple to use as being able to read. I was able to shorten clips, add and edit music, insert text boxes, and do a whole host of other things that you will not even notice.

Beyond making this little video, I have been using Camtasia to create a series of videos for my students to allow them to learn material without my assistance outside of the classroom setting, what is known as "flipping the class". While the jury is still out on the flipped approach in general, it definitely worked in the limited way that I have employed it thus far.

Any feedback on this video is welcome and encouraged.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

We're All Connected

In a span of five hours this evening, I took part in the following activities:

1)Had a Google+ Hangout conference call with the members of my Critical Friends group. We meet once per month to take up a new issue that one of us may be experiencing in our schools, and we are now moving these conference calls onto Google's wonderful group videochat platform.

2) Skyped with two fantastic educators from San Francisco about a panel that we will be participating in next week (sadly, I am skyping into the panel - no jet-setting travel for me this time).

3) Took part in this week's Jedchat, which had roughly 30 participants, many of them joining in on Jedchat for the first time.

In total, in five hours I used three different platforms to be in significant and meaningful contact with roughly 40 Jewish educators located from Boston to Florida to Cleveland to Memphis to San Francisco to Lord only knows where else. We discussed topics ranging from difficult school leadership crises to the role of technology in education to bullying in the Jewish Day School.

If you are wondering why professional development is changing in schools, it is because we no longer need to cart in a recognized "expert" or "guru" to provide us with exciting ideas that we will soon forget and ignore. Instead, by being able to have constant and consistent communication with so many of our colleagues from around the world of Jewish education - what is referred to as a Personal Learning Network (PLN) - we are able to have rich and meaningful conversations that we can continue at any time through a wide variety of applications (and from almost anywhere - I did all of these from my computer, but I could have done the same from my smartphone or a tablet). When I started teaching, I communicated with my colleagues in my building and perhaps occasionally with friends who were teaching elsewhere. Over time, email (or listservs)became a useful tool for connecting with people in far-flung areas, but it still required asynchronous back-and-forth, often depending on having time to right long and thoughtful letters. We have moved now to real-time conversations, and I believe that they are not only easier to carry on, but that they are richer, deeper, and more meaningful, and that they allow us to include more and more people in our PLN's due to the inclusive nature of social media.

We often say that technology is merely a tool to be used towards attaining our educational goals, but it should not be confused with the goals themselves. In the case of PLN's, they rise to a slightly higher level, as without the technology, all of this communication would not be possible.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

What are We Doing?

A few weeks ago, a discussion was held on the Lookjed educators list (link currently not available) that began with a quote from Rav Mordechai Gifter who had once asked what day school were actually doing. Rav Gifter looked at students coming out of schools who had weak skills in a wide range of limudei kodesh subjects, and wondered how schools were spending their time if their students emerged with such a paucity of knowledge.

Leaving aside the idea that there are many, many factors that go into the final product that is a day school graduate and that the school is only one of them, the fact is that many students do graduate from 8 or 12 years of day school with a shocking ignorance of many subjects that we treasure so much.

While this could be the result of many factors, I wonder if part of the cause is that we are not always fully clear on what we are trying to accomplish. It's not that I do not have an answer; the problem is that I have
too many possible answers, each of which could potentially dictate our actions in a different way. To some extent, each of them could be true, while at the same time there has to be a sense of priorities. Here are a few possibilities:

1) We are trying to teach some specific bank of knowledge in a wide range of subjects.

2) We are trying to teach some specific collection of skills in each of a wide range of subjects.

3) We are trying to teach broader and more generalizable learning skills that will enable our students to feel comfortable in any learning environment.

4) We are trying to create the fabled "lifelong learners" - students who will have a desire to continue learning beyond their formal schooling.

4a) We are trying to create "lifelong learners", specifically referring to students who will make Torah study a regular part of their lives.

5) We are trying to create good citizens, i.e. students with a well-grounded moral compass, a sense of compassion, and a sense of responsibility to the community.

6) We are trying to keep students "on the derech" by providing them with positive religious experiences led by positive religious role models.

I am sure that you could add even more possibilities to this list, but I think that I have made my point. At times, I think that there is a thin line between being jaded and being introspective. I look at the reams of assessments and projects and activities and homeworks and tests and whatnot that we ask our students to do and wonder if the goal is the process or the product or the hidden lessons that they do not even realize that they are learning. Is it more important for them to know the 15 famous Rashis in Sefer Shemot, or that they only learn 10 of them but learn how to do it on their own, or that they only learn 5 of them but that they feel inspired to keep learning or that who knows how many they learned but they had a positive experience in class with a wonderful religious role model and that will keep them frum (ignorant, perhaps, but frum)? To a degree, all are correct. On the other hand, we do have to decide what approach we are taking in the classroom.

I am going to short-circuit this post here. Looking forward to reader response. Please remember to include your name in your comment.