Monday, June 9, 2014

Religious School 101: The Importance of Chutzpah

Learning about chutzpah isn't traditionally part of Hebrew school curriculum, but Israel's new place as a major player in the global technological expansion is causing everyone to sit up and take notice of how the famous Israeli "chutzpah" may be behind Israel's new reputation as the world's Start Up Nation.

What is chutzpah? In her class with the 4th graders at Vancouver's Beth Israel Hebrew School, JETS director Smadar Goldstein opened up the question: How do you define chutzpah? What is there in the Israeli character that has propelled Israel into first place as the world's most innovative country?
From an overview of the amazing inventions and advances that come out of Israel on an almost-daily basis, Smadar created an online lesson that encouraged the students to look at the phenomena in a different light.
·         Who were the start up personalities of the Tanach?
·         What does it mean to "leave your comfort zone" and explore the possibilities that await?
As the lesson progressed, Smadar linked the 21st Century Start-Up nation with the Tanach. She pointed out that the Torah is not a storybook but is, rather, a list of incidents and people who break the mold to become great. This teaches us that we have the ability to change, to break out of our mold - To not only answer a call, but create one to answer.

The students took parts in a skit which illustrated Judaism's first start-up personality – Abraham. They read the skit aloud. Some of the highlights:

The kids were enthralled with the subject. After watching the short clip of the role that chutzpah plays in Israel's rise as a leading force of innovative technology they expressed pleasure in the realization that chutzpah was a valued commodity in Israel.

 "omg, Israel invented the playstation."

"chutzpah: I've got chutzpah!"

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

JconnecT – An Interactive Complementary Religious School Option that has Kids Asking for More!

Over the course of the past several decades, reams of reports and piles of papers have been written about what's wrong with complementary Jewish education in North America.
The hours are inconvenient….parents are uninvolved….the subject material doesn't relate to the students' lives….participation often requires mandatory Temple/Synagogue membership which pushes up the price….discipline is lax….staff members are not always well-trained…..
There is, however, much that is right in Hebrew School education. This is particularly evident when looking at some of the educational models that have been developed over the last 10 years or so in which Religious school professionals have recognized the problems in the system and have taken steps to rectify the issues.
The new online Hebrew School offers one such model. Suddenly, as students study Judaism online, they find that they are actively-engaged in an interactive and engaging online complementary school where they have the opportunity to learn meaningful subjects through stimulating experiential activities.
Online religious school offers students the opportunity to learn about their heritage from the comfort of their own home. Parents can easily be involved, to the extent that they wish, by simply joining the lesson. The lessons can be scheduled at a time that's convenient to the child and family, and the instructors, can be located anywhere in the world, ensuring that professional and proficient educators facilitate the classes.
JETS has been running the online JconnecT Hebrew school for 3 years. Each year the school grows as more and more families recognize the benefits of online Jewish learning and decide to offer these advantages to their children.
Judging by the evaluation comments of this year's students, the 2013-2014 school year was the most successful year yet. Students from North Carolina, Omaha Nebraska, and other far-flung regions "met" virtually every Sunday morning with Michal Lashansky, a professional educator based in Israel.     
Throughout the course of the year, the students learned about Jewish traditions, holidays, ethics, language, culture and more via participatory project based learning activities which included discussions and debates, online presentations, collaborative projects, posters, online bulletin boards and audio and video casts. Some of the highlights of the year included
·         ordering a falafel (in Hebrew)
·         hearing people in a local mall describe how they celebrate Chanukah
·         reviewing celebrities who embody Jewish values
·         presenting about Judaism and healthy living
·         identifying Jewish heroes
·         discussing Israeli leaders
·         examining the question of what makes Israel a Jewish state

When asked whether they would recommend JConnecT to a friend, the entire class answered in the affirmative.

JconnecT will begin again for 5th – 8th graders in September 2014. Registration opens June 2014.

" I learned so much about this then i ever could before and i really like this school because i learned more then i learned before." JConnecT student, course evaluation, 2013-2014

" I love shopping!!!!! and I thought that it was cool to learn about all the different things Israel has made in such a short time." JConnecT student, course evaluation,  2013-2014

"Interesting and not too difficult …. I learned a lot of new things from this class.". JConnecT student, course evaluation,  2013-2014


Tuesday, June 3, 2014

PBL Works for Testing Too!

It's springtime and, as any parent of an Israeli high-schooler will tell you, it's Bagrut season. The dreaded matriculation exams have begun, but in truth they occupy high schoolers' thoughts throughout the entire school  year. Starting in September, the teachers start dangling the carrot over the kids' heads with almost every activity, every test and in every unit of every subject. My fifth child is now in the middle of her 11th grade exams. I've actually heard teachers remind her that "you won't finish your Bagruiot if you don't……" since she was in 5th grade!

The unfortunate thing is that, as these kids study intensely for their matriculation exams, they very rarely retain any of the material for more than a few weeks beyond the test. I recently sat at a Shabbat table with my kids, now mostly in their 20s, as they struggled to remember even the basic elements of some of the history and Tanach that they had blissfully "passed" (with reasonable scores) a few years previously.

Beyond giving "The Grade", how else can educators use evaluation tools to assess student learning? One of the benefits of project based learning, discussed in previous blogs, is that it provides opportunities for alternative assessment techniques, many of which place the students in the role of self-assessment. Edutopia writes that, in the same way that Project-Based Learning models promote "directors and managers of their learning process, guided and mentored by a skilled teacher," project-based evaluations drive students to develop the skills that they will need in the future as they enter a knowledge-based technological society.
JETS has embraced this strategy.  Yeshivat Kadima's Contemporary Jewish Issues students have repeatedly noted that they appreciate PBL evaluation methodology and feel that they learn and gain more than when they are evaluated by traditional testing formats.

To sum up a year in which the students studied Jewish history in the light of Contemporary Jewish Issues, Smadar Goldstein, the instructor, assigned the students to summarize the final units of the course, Lopsided Prisoner Trades, Jewish Military Ethics and What Makes Israel a Jewish State? 
The students were given their choice of how they wanted to present their summary. Options included writing an additional stanza for the poem במה אברך ובמה מבורך  which relates to returning captives, writing a blog post that reflected on soldier Aharon Karov who joined a battle in Gaza the day after his wedding and the motivation of Israeli soldiers, or creating a Google presentation that showed varying approaches to a prisoner trade, an example of what makes a Jewish State and an example from a "meeting" with a combat soldier and how it affects Jewish identity or feelings about Israel.
In addition to the final assignment, other PBL evaluation tools that Smadar has used throughout the course include
·         Oral projects (debates,  oral presentations)
·         Products (making games, posters and brochures)
·         Multimedia (creating PPT presentations, audiocasts and videos)
·         Writing (letter-writing to historical characters)
·         Collaborative projects
·         Analyses of decisions made by Jewish leaders throughout history
Yeshivat Kadima student final project
Yeshivat Kadima student final project
Yeshivat Kadima student final project
Yeshivat Kadima student final project
Smadar notes that it's important to be flexible when creating PBL assessments. Sometimes she gives the students clear rubrics which will be used to evaluate the assignment while at other times she gives herself the option to use her own estimation of the students' progress.
"Until now I never realized how relevant Jewish history was." Yeshivat Kadima student, final evaluation, 2014
"I enjoyed learning this way especially because I could always work on it and I felt I was pulling knowledge and references from everywhere. I also felt like I was developing informed opinions of my own. I was given material and I was able to draw on outside and inside knowledge and form MY ideas and opinions, which I think is important for us at this age." Yeshivat Kadima student, final evaluation,  2014
"I absolutely would recommend this program to another student because I think that this class doesn't only teach fascinating information, but it also teaches the students how to become a different type of learner, and this is a skill used for life." Yeshivat Kadima student, final evaluation,  2014