Sunday, March 23, 2014

Winter Flu Meets the Classroom Cloud

The flu finally caught up with me last week. I shouldn't have been surprised -- everyone in my neighborhood has been sick at least once this winter and I live with a teenager who spends more time at home 'sick" than she does in school. But frankly, I rarely get sick and wasn't prepared, especially not to teach an online class at 2:00a.m.

My Hebrew School kids, however, tell me that they look forward to our classes and since we only had 2 more scheduled sessions, I didn't want to disappoint them. By Wednesday morning, when it was clear that I would be coughing and hacking my way through any verbal exchanges, I figured that I'd better plan ahead so I prepared a lesson that would require me to speak minimally yet would allow the kids to walk away from the class with as much knowledge as if their teacher had been chatting for 30 minutes straight.

Our class is about "Israel," a broad subject that gives me a lot of leeway to present a wide range of materials. For our second-to-last class I wanted to throw the class open and just ask the kids "What's so special about Israel?"

In planning the lesson, I also had to take into account the fact that the equipment at the school is limited -- some of the devices don't always work and most don't support advanced websites or elearning tools. But I can usually count on the ability to show videos and use linos and google docs, so I built the lesson around those features.

I created a linoboard that displayed five different aspects of Israel that I find special. These subjects included:
1.       Jews' connection to the Land of Israel
2.       Israeli leadership in the environmental field
3.       Israel as a refuge for Jews from throughout the world
4.       Israeli leadership in helping in disaster areas around the world
5.       Israeli Diversity

Each of the five lino posts displayed a link to a video and an article about that specific topic. The students were invited to select one of the topics that speaks to them and to research it, using the video and article materials provided (plus any other information that the student wished to include).

We created a corresponding Google Presentation with a matching slide for each subject. The students were asked to record their findings on the appropriate slide and share it with their peers. The kids could then view each other's findings, comment, add their own thoughts and impressions and continue to pass the information on.

Preparing the assignment wasn't exactly time-economical -- it took a good amount of time to locate appropriate articles and videos -- but the students' comments  throughout the lesson made the investment worthwhile -- "I never knew this!", "Wow. This is great!", "Why don't they publicize this more?", "I'm so proud of Israel."  

And my achy throat survived the night.  

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Shutafut, WIKIs and Friends Across the Sea

For many years, students in American Jewish day schools have learned Hebrew by memorizing words, completing grammar exercises, and reading contrived textbook stories. Israeli students study Hebrew in a similar fashion. Now however students in both locations can open classroom laptops or tablets and connect with their peers across the ocean in collaborative activities that allow them to use and expand their language skills in a more meaningful and authentic manner.

The JETS Shutafut program twins American and Israeli schools in a partnership program that strengthens the students' language skills as it allows the kids to "meet" their peers online and learn from them by collaboratively learning an online curriculum.

The Shutafut program is facilitated by the WIKIspaces platform. Using Wikispaces, each student focuses on a page of activities to which s/he contributes by joining in discussions, submitting original material, editing, and answering questions,. The activities and assignments are posted in both English and Hebrew to facilitate language acquisition of both English-speaking and Hebrew-speaking students. Every time a student signs in, s/he can see the comments that his/her peers "across the ocean" have submitted and comment on them and/or submit more material.

JETS teachers update the WIKIs weekly, adding more material and working with the classroom teachers to monitor each student's progress.

The partnership schools include Vancouver Talmud Torah partnered with Alai Giva (Kibbutz Kfar Giladi), Calgary partnered with Hagome (Kfar Blum, Birmingham (Jewish and public schools) partnered with Rosh HaAyin, and Edmonton Talmud Torah partnered with Emek HaHula.

Shutafut projects allow students to explore a wide range of topics including their own families' backgrounds and ethnicities, their respective communities, mutual responsibility, Jewish peoplehood and more. Each unit contains numerous activities that encourage the students to use available web tools to express themselves in various modes as they examine the subject matter and practice their language skills. Students are invited to post their thoughts in the WIKI's discussion sections, participate in polls, add note to the collaborative linoboards, comment on videos, create audio and visual presentations, use google docs to prepare interactive documents, and more.

The Shutafut project brings students together to learn about each other's lives and worlds.

Lior Lechner, English teacher, GVANIM School, Rosh Ha’ayin, Israel "7-grade pupils from GVANIM School, Rosh Ha’ayin, had the opportunity to interact with students from a different country and culture in the Shutafut School Partnership Program.  To my great joy, despite the distance and the language barrier, we discovered that the Internet is a wonderful tool which allows easy communication, and contacts were made between boys and girls who have never seen each other.
Students communicated regularly and continuously through the WIKI. They wrote about their hobbies, movies, computer games, family, heroes and even the Holocaust. They were enthusiastic to meet the students who came to visit from Birmingham, Alabama. My students said it was a unique experience for them. I was happy to guide this connection between the students and I have to say that it couldn't be done without the help and the guidance of Semadar Goldstein and Rabbi Yoel Cohen from JETS."
Alex P., 6th grade, NE Miles Jewish Day School, Birmingham, AL "I really appreciate the opportunity to talk to kids in Rosh Haayin. It is so much fun and I'm having a great time posting and messaging on it.  Thank you again."

Monday, March 3, 2014

Use of Technology in the Classroom II: Changing Student and Teacher Roles -- Developing Learning Communities

Stanley Peerless

As mentioned previously, the more active role of the students in their learning fostered by online instruction turns the teacher to some degree into a facilitator of learning. In addition to providing appropriate learning activities, it is the role of the teacher to create and maintain a learning community with a culture of collaboration. A learning community is defined as “a group of people who are actively engaged in learning together from each other." In our context, a learning community can include the whole class, can involve smaller groupings within the class, or can extend beyond the classroom where the student interacts with resources and/or people who can provide information or expertise on the particular subject under discussion.

Tips for Creating Effective Groups
Let us focus on the middle case – groupings - which is perhaps the most frequent framework for collaborative learning. The following are 7 best practice tips, taken primarily from "Facilitating Collaborative Learning: 20Things You Need to Know From the Pros” by Miriam Clifford, with some editing and elucidation:

1.      Keep groups midsized. Small groups of 3 or less lack enough diversity and may not allow divergent thinking to occur. Groups that are too large create “freeloading” where not all members participate. A moderate size group of 4-5 is ideal.

2.      Establish group goals. Effective collaborative learning involves establishment of group goals, as well as individual accountability. This keeps the group on task and establishes an unambiguous purpose. Before beginning an assignment, it is best to define goals and objectives to save time and to focus the group’s work.

3.      Build trust and promote open communication. Successful interpersonal communication must exist in teams. Building trust is essential. Deal with emotional issues that arise immediately and any interpersonal problems before moving on. Assignments should encourage team members to explain concepts thoroughly to each other. Studies have found that students who provide and receive intricate explanations gain most from collaborative learning. Open communication is key.

4.      Consider the learning process itself as part of the learning and assessment processes. Many studies such as those by Robert Slavin at Johns Hopkins, have considered how cooperative learning helps children develop social and interpersonal skills. Experts have argued that the social and psychological effect on self-esteem and personal development are just as important as the learning itself. In terms of assessment, it may be beneficial to grade students on the quality of discussion, engagement, and adherence to group norms. Praise younger groups for following collaborative learning standards. This type of learning is a process and needs explicit instruction in beginning stages. Assessing the process itself provides motivation for students to learn how to behave in groups. It shows students that you value meaningful group interactions and adhering to norms.

5.      Foster the diversity of groups. Social learning theory counters many teachers’ intuition that homogeneous grouping produces better results, implying that heterogeneous grouping creates a dynamic in which students are more likely to learn from each other. Keep in mind that heterogeneous grouping is not defined only by academic level.  Rather, mixed groups that include a range of talents, backgrounds, learning styles, ideas, and experiences are best. Studies have found that mixed groups tend not only to learn more from each other, but also to increase achievement of low performers. Rotate groups so students have a chance to learn from others, and stress the need for different perspectives in group discussions.

6.      Groups with an equal number of boys and girls are best. Equally balanced gender groups were found to be most effective. Some research suggests that boys were more likely to receive and give elaborate explanations and their stances were more easily accepted by the group. In majority male groups girls were ignored. In majority girl groups, girls tended to direct questions to the boy who often ignored them. You may also want to specifically discuss or establish gender equality as a norm. This may seem obvious, but it is often missed. It may be an issue you may want to discuss with older students

7.      Be wary of “group think”. While collaborative learning is a great tool, it is always important to consider a balanced approach. At times, group harmony can override the necessity for more critical perspectives. Some new research suggests that groups at times favored the more confident members. Changing groups periodically can help counter this problem, as can monitoring by the teacher and the use of assignments that demand individual accountability.

Expanding the Learning Community beyond the Classroom Walls
An important element of learning communities discussed in educational literature is diversity. It is important that the group be exposed to and benefit from diverse areas of expertise, cultural backgrounds, and perspectives. Learning communities within a classroom, even within a heterogeneous school, are inherently limited vis-à-vis the degree of diversity that they reflect. This is, of course, even more of an issue in schools that tend to have more homogeneous populations. Electronic networking tools, both synchronous and asynchronous, can facilitate the extension of the learning community beyond the confines of the classroom. In addition to enhancing access to resources, internet tools and social media allows students to actually communicate with experts in the field, with other students who are engaged in learning the same discipline or material, and with people who can provide them with input or feedback from different geographical or cultural perspectives. 

These individuals can be become regular members of the learning community, or can be "guests" who provide input to the learning community but do not become long-term members. An example of the latter is crowdsourcing, which is defined in wikipedia as "the practice of obtaining needed services, ideas, or content by soliciting contributions from a large group of people, and especially from an online community." One interesting method of crowdsourcing is polling, which can be facilitated by a number of available online polling tools. Additionally, students can present their findings to other students who might find it interesting. 

In her book, entitled Beyond the Classroom: Building New School Networks, Rosalyn Black describes how school networking has been used to enhance student learning in geographically isolated school districts in Australia. This model might be relevant as well for Jewish day schools, many of which are either geographically or socially isolated from larger and more diverse populations. The development of school networks enables students to utilize the internet to expand their learning community while maintaining a level of control and security, issues that are important to many teachers and parents.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

TALI Schools Partner with North American Day Schools


Throughout the 2013-2014 school year, JETS has been facilitating a unique program of online classrooms in which American and Israeli students collaborate on shared projects as a means of "meeting" their peers virtually "Across the Sea." 

The TALI Shutafut project twins classrooms in North America with classes in Israel to enable the 5th and 6th grade students to share projects and review each other's thoughts, outlooks and opinions. The program is based on the TALI system's "Friend Across the Sea" curriculum which JETS has adapted for online asynchronous classwork.

Every week the Israeli and American students review the new assignments on the shared Learning Management System. All assignments are posted in English and in Hebrew. Each assignment sends the students on tasks such as participating in polls, adding information to discussion groups, creating online social posters and bulletin boards and sharing their opinions and knowledge with their peers via numerous interactive activities.

The fast-moving curriculum covers multiple topics which range from explorations of each student's genealogy and country of ancestral origin, unique aspects of Jewish life in Diaspora communities as seen through a look at Jewish journalism, and unique aspects of Jewish life in Israel and what makes Israel a Jewish state.   

During the course of the year the curriculum propels the students from explorations of their own lives to the lives of their families, neighborhoods and -- eventually -- to the larger community.  Lessons place significant emphasis on soliciting the students' thoughts on relevant issues – e.g. Is it important to know what's happening in the world? Is it important to know what's happening in the Jewish world? What can be done to help Jewish youth remain part of the Jewish community? What are good reasons for Diaspora Jews to make aliyah, and what are good reasons for them to remain in the Diaspora?

From there, the students are presented with a variety of activities. During one recent lesson on "Seeing the World through Jewish Lenses", the Wiki Project sent the students to research a headline that presents a news story that is important to Jews throughout the world. The students then shared their headlines and described why they feel that these particular news stories are important.  Polls surveyed the students about their news-gathering habits as well as their parents' habits. These activities then led into the next lesson which centered on "Responding to Challenges in the Jewish Community."

The "Friends across the Sea" shutafut curriculum not only helps students meet their "Across the Sea", but also to better understand their common concerns and their different contexts. 


Saturday, March 1, 2014

Use of Technology in the Classroom I: Changing Student and Teacher Roles

by Stan Peerless

The use of technology and online learning in the classroom has serious implications regarding the respective roles of teachers and students in the learning process. In general, the learner plays a much more active role and the teacher plays a less central role. The student is actively making choices about how to generate, obtain, manipulate, or display information. Technology use allows many more students to be actively thinking about information, making choices, and executing skills than is typical in teacher-led lessons. Moreover, when technology is used as a tool to support students in performing authentic tasks, the students are in the position of defining their goals, making design decisions, and evaluating their progress. Thus, in a sense, the teacher changes from a repository of knowledge and becomes more of a facilitator of learning. This does not mean that the teacher no longer teaches, but that teaching is defined less as transmitting knowledge and more as guiding students to discover and process information. Within this framework, some of the primary roles of the teacher are to design appropriate learning activities, create a learning community with a culture of collaboration, and monitor student growth and development. In this series of articles, we will focus on each of these three elements.

Designing Appropriate Learning Activities
In order to engage all of the students in computer-supported collaborative learning, teachers must prepare well structured learning activities that exhibit the following characteristics:

Nature of the Assignments
·      Choose assignment topics or tasks that are related to the real world, and can be connected to students’ lives. One example is for students to analyze and solve a current local or international problem, or issues that they commonly encounter in their own lives. Similarly, lessons that do not inherently relate to the immediate world of the students should be personalized whenever possible.
·      Use open-ended questions: Open-ended questions do not suggest an answer, and cannot generate a short answer response. Rather, they require the student to draw on their knowledge base to evaluate or draw conclusions. As such, open-ended questions should lead students to think analytically and critically.
·      Questions and tasks should be challenging, yet within reach – i.e. within what Vigotsky referred to as the students "zone of proximal development" (activities between what the student can do unaided and what the student cannot do) and what Krashen referred to regarding language acquisition as "i+1" or "level + 1.
·      Diversify Activities – There are a number of ways in which learning activities should be diversified. Firstly, it is important not to get stuck with one collaborative learning mold that is used repeatedly. There are avariety of group learning strategies that might be employed.   In addition, learning activities should be multi-interest based and multi-ability based, reflecting Gardner's multiple-intelligence theory as well as including components that reflect different levels of difficulty.

Structuring of Assignments
Collaboration scripts are the most important design elements in computer-supported collaborative learning (CSCL) and aim to support learning activities by structuring potentially deficient interactions. Scripts are methods that structure collaborative learning based on the assumption that structured collaboration is more effective than free collaboration. "A script describes the way students have to collaborate: task distribution or roles, turn taking rules, work phases, deliverables, etc. This contract may be conveyed through initial instructions or encompassed in the learning environment." (Dillenbourg and Jermann, 2007). Scripts generally foster interaction by creating "splits" that divide the group with regard to knowledge, roles, skills, or interests, and leads them complete the assigned task with a greater degree of interactivity.

According to For Kollar, Fischer, and Hesse (2006), collaboration scripts consist of at least five components:  learning objectives, type of activities, sequencing, role distribution, and type of representation.

The following are some helpful tips regarding the structuring of computer-supported collaborative assignments:
·      Break a larger assignment into smaller pieces and set multiple deadlines to ensure that students work toward reaching milestones throughout the process rather than pulling it all together at the last minute.
·      Give the students individual roles and responsibilities on a rotating basis. Commonly used roles include: Leader / Facilitator, Recorder, Time Keeper, Learning Material Manager, and Presenter / Reporter.
·      Incorporate peer review at each milestone to encourage self-awareness and to ensure ongoing feedback. Having to listen to, analyze and respond to another's opinion sharpen the student's reasoning powers, imparts precision and clarity into ideas that would otherwise remain vague, and often generates entirely new insights in his understanding of the subject matter.
·      Assignments should require interdependence. Some assignments inherently require interdependence. However, assignments that do not inherently promote interdependence can be presented using techniques that require each student to contribute to the final product, and for students to learn from each other. The jigsaw cooperative learning technique is a classical example. In the jigsaw, each student is assigned to a particular expert group in which the participants master a part of the information needed to complete the assignments. Subsequently, groups consisting of a representative from each expert group are formed, and the students teach each other and complete the assignment together.

Coming up in Part II of this article: Developing Learning Communities