Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Teaching Tzedaka Long Distance

Shulamith Cohn

As a veteran educator, having spent thirty plus years both in formal and informal education, I was excited to try something new and different. I was offered a position by JETS, teaching an 8th grade Judaic Studies class on Jewish Values online to Adelson Community School in Las Vegas, NV, three times a week.

I was excited, but nervous. Several questions came to mind:  Could I effectively connect with the class so far away? Would my lessons be interactive and exciting, a "Beit Midrash" style where ideas and opinions were easily shared? Would the students be able to work in groups and "discover" concepts as I successfully encouraged when I taught in a f2f (face to face) classroom?

The following are my thoughts as I reflect on the current topic.

Connecting modern students to their ancient heritage is an exciting and dynamic process. Kind hearts and the giving nature of people come across through skype or directly in a class room. These are the topics I aimed to get across, and, I discovered, the goals are the same whether they are f2f or online.

"How much should we give? Which organization best meets the needs of the poor? How do I prioritize my giving? Can one give something else besides money?"

These, and other questions, arose in our discussion of our obligation as Jews to engage in Tikkun Olam whether they relate specifically  to the concept of Tzedaka or building a world of chessed.

My first goal, therefore, was to 'climb the Maimonidies's ladder of Tzedaka!' Students worked in groups to identify different ways of giving and found the picture that best matched the Maimonidies's principles.

"Wow," says one student. "That just happened yesterday! I packed cans at "Three Square". This qualifies level seven of Maimonidies' Ladder of Tzedaka, when both receiver and giver don't know each other.

"Before Shabbat I put some money in the tzedaka box," contributes another student. This qualifies as the sixth step on the Maimonidies's ladder of tzedaka.

Group work followed and pairs of students researched different charity options by viewing videos and articles detailing the work  of different organizations who :
  • provide food and shelter for the poor,
  • sponsor a school for children at risk,
  • provide a loan of medical equipment, 
  • offer job training and new skills to enable someone to find a job
  • provide services for seniors who are Holocaust survivors

Each team presented its charity and the class as a whole decided how much "virtual money" to allot to each of the above listed charities. Everyone had an opinion, each student proudly shared their own personal favorite tzedaka.  Most importantly, the lesson was internalized as each student resolved before Passover to find an opportunity to give real tzedaka.

Reflecting on the lesson and preparation I feel satisfied that my students were able to internalize the concepts and I with extensive preparation was able to give them  a solid learning experience.

In teaching long distance,  one must furnish students with different activities that will help them concretize the knowledge and acquire the skill set being taught. Online  technology tools can be used that allow the student to interface with classmates and with the teacher. At times, effective technology allows a student to review  in a fun way and removes the  tedious factor from review. In that respect,  using online technology might actually prove superior to the “ regular “ classroom since the student seems to enjoy  the review when using technology for homework purposes.  As the goal of teaching is to make students active participants in the learning process, I think that distance learning and its online platform satisfies the students need for action and allows them to take an active  role in  the learning initiative .

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