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Tomorrow’s classrooms today

Influx of iPads adds to high-tech trend in area day schools

 
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Kayla Markovitz uses an iPad to work on a presentation of the Talmud passage she has been studying. She is a student at Yeshiva Noam.

Rabbi Tavi Koslowe of Yeshivat Noam sits at his desk in the far corner of the sixth-grade classroom. Four girls are clustered around him. All five are holding oversized volumes of Talmud.

“Ta, shma,” he reads in Aramaic, as they follow along. “Come and hear.”

The words are a reminder that the technology they are holding in their hands — words written on paper —once was controversial and cutting edge. The notion that the Talmud — the Oral Law — would be written down was highly problematic 1,300 years ago. “Come and hear” recalls the original voice-activated technology, the call for a trained scholar to recite rabbinic teachings from memory.

But in this classroom, the students using the printed texts were the old-fashioned ones.

A few feet away, a girl held an iPad computer tablet. She pressed a button and a little video of the teacher opened up in the bottom corner of the screen. He was reading and explaining the portion of the page of Talmud that filled most of the screen. She pressed the rewind button; the explanation repeated.

At another desk a girl held her iPad over her Talmud. A camera program was running. She took a picture of the page of Talmud she had studied. She highlighted a line. She spoke into the recorder. She was preparing a presentation for the rabbi. It was like the one he had prepared for the class, but this one was to show him that she understood the material they had studied.

Welcome to the yeshivah classroom of the 21st century.

Just as technology has transformed everyday life — how we shop, stay in touch with family and friends, read books — so too Jewish education is changing.

For some, this promises a more student-centered educational system, one that will let students better find their own place in their studies.

For others, the hope is that more computers in the classroom will translate into fewer teachers — and lower tuition bills.

“I believe that class size will increase because of technology, and tuition will come down,” Dan Fried said. Fried, a chemist by trade, is jumpstarting technology in Bergen County classrooms by funding iPads for students in three Paramus yeshivot — elementary schools Yeshivat Noam and Yavneh Academy, and a high school, the Frisch School. The plan — which began with sixth graders at Noam last year — is for each student to have his or her own school-issued iPad.

To date, Fried has donated about 500 iPads to the three schools, equipping their entire sixth or ninth grades. He has spent about $250,000 for those iPads, along with about 20 laptops and 25 desktop computers.

And he intends to do it again next year. He wants to provide iPads to the schools’ new sixth and ninth graders while this year’s recipients continue to use them in seventh and tenth grades.

For Noam’s principal, Rabbi Chaim Hagler, the measure of technology is its ability to improve education. He believes that “we are able to enhance the quality of education using technology. I do see a real improvement.

“If we just had technology in school and children weren’t exposed to technology outside of a classroom, perhaps we wouldn’t see the impact that it’s having,” he said. “Because the use of technology is part of everybody’s life right now, it has to be a part of the educational life of the child as well.”

Apple iPads are only the latest technology to change classroom instruction in the last decade or so. There are Smart Boards, which project a computer screen onto the front of the classroom while detecting gestures on the screen. There is video conferencing, which connects students to peers and teachers anywhere in the world. There are laptops and personal computers. There is even the use of cell phones — students can be asked to text answers to questions.

While technology is easier to implement in the secular side of the curriculum — after all, there is a whole industry devoted to bringing national curricula standards to iPads and computers — it is the use of the technology in the Judaic studies departments that raises the most interesting questions, and poses the biggest challenges to schools that largely are writing their own curricula.

“The question of authenticity is a fascinating one,” said Rabbi Yehuda Chanales, who not only teaches six sections at the Torah Academy of Bergen County high school in Teaneck but also leads the technology component of the Jewish studies curriculum there.

“What’s the more authentic form of learning?” he asked. “Is it sitting in front of the same Gemara that my grandparents and great grandparents sat in front of? Or is it taking the technology that’s so much a part of our students’ daily life and bringing the Jewish learning to that?

“We struggle with that. We want both.”

“It’s about the education, not about the technology,” agreed Rabbi Tzvi Pittinsky, director of educational technology at Frisch.

Education is about more than just translating texts or mastering math techniques. While an observer might expect computers to put more information into students’ heads — and that impression is easy to get from watching two dozen middle-school boys wearing headphones at Noam quietly work on individualized math problems in the computer lab (with a teacher monitoring their progress on her own iPad) — what excites the educators most is how technology enables them to draw more out from the students.

Pittinsky recalls that during his rabbinical studies in Israel, “I had the privilege to learn with Nechama Leibowitz,” the premiere modern Orthodox Bible teacher (and sister of philosopher Isaiah Leibowitz, featured on page 33). One of her techniques: She would ask a question, and every student would write his or her answer on a piece of paper. She would collect the pages, and read them — sometimes with pleasure, sometimes sighing with disappointment.

With an iPad, the teacher can ask a question and every student can type an answer. And then the answers go automatically to the teacher, who can choose which to display on the Smart Board at the front of the classroom.

“It really helps reflection. It makes kids really think about their answers,” Pittinsky said. “Every single kid is participating, and the teacher chooses to share the answers from the kids who are usually quiet in class. It’s a chance for the kids who don’t usually have the opportunity to shine because of their personality, because they’re tongue-tied. At first, the kids were very worried that the teacher would share their answers and they would be embarrassed. The first time the teacher showed an answer — without saying whose it was — the kid shouted, ‘that’s my answer!’ They realized the teacher was giving them an opportunity to be the star.”

At the Torah Academy — which is weighing the pros and cons of equipping students with iPads — teachers achieve a similar effect with the students’ cell phones. Students can respond to a question by sending a text message to specific website.

“They’re very excited to see their answers pop up on the board,” Chanales said.

At first, they’re also shocked to be asked to take out their cell phones — ubiquitous among high school students — which normally must be turned off and put away during class.

“We have to talk about how you’re going to take out the phone, with the assumption that you’ll put it back away when it’s time,” Chanales said.

There’s no question that “the distraction of technology and internet access, or being able to play games, it is a tremendous challenge for classroom management,” he said. “No matter how engaging you can make your class, it’s not going to compete with games. It pushes us to think differently about the way the classroom is structured, and what we’re asking students to do in the classroom.”

The Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey, an elementary school in River Edge, is almost finished installing Smart Boards in all of its classrooms. According to its head of school, Rabbi Daniel Price, acquisition of the boards has been made possible in large part through technology grants provided to private schools by the state legislature on a per-student basis.

The Smart Boards have made a dramatic change in how students are able share their research with their fellow students, he said.

“I teach a class in prayer for eighth-grade girls,” Price said. “Each one has a blessing they’re teaching to the class. They’re playing the role of the educator. They create their own lesson. Using the computer, it’s very attractive and inviting. They can use sound and graphics that capture the audience.

“It’s no different than a partner in an accounting firm making a presentation. We’re preparing the kids so they’ll have the business-ready skills.”

At the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County in New Milford, the goal is to use Smart Boards “to engage students in the learning process,” said Daniel Jaye, the school’s director of academic affairs. In the early childhood classrooms, the Smart Boards have been mounted at child level rather than the traditional blackboard height, so students can interact with the screen. “It’s not just a projector; it’s a tool that asks students to classify objects, select objects, bring stories to life. We want students to be actively engaged in the learning process.”

Schechter provides its sixth graders with Mac laptops.

At Noam, iPads are used in classrooms for some of the youngest grades. In a kindergarten classroom, students use them to respond to their classes on Noah. They draw animals, they photograph a picture of the Ark pinned to the bulletin board, and they record narration for the teacher.

In a fourth-grade classroom, students use an app on the iPad to practice making change and learn the values of quarters and nickels. The children focus on the iPad, working in pairs, as the teacher moves among them, answering questions and providing encouragement.

For the Jewish studies classrooms without curriculum, the students recording themselves that took place in Rabbi Koslowe’s sixth grade Noam classroom is an important change.

“In the past, if a rebbe wanted to do a reading assignment, each kid got only 30 seconds to read, or it took a week of classroom time,” Frisch’s Pattinsky said. “In one classroom period, each kid can read the Gemara and record it on the iPad and have the teacher listen to it later.”

At the Torah Academy, Chanales has his students record themselves at home reading Gemara to ensure they’re practicing at home. “There’s no way” he can listen to every recording, he said, “but it gives me the possibility of following up with a student who is struggling and to keep on top of them to make sure they’re doing the assignment.”

For Chanales, putting a recording device in the hands of every student is one argument for adopting iPads. So is the ability it gives students to draw on top of their images of the Talmud page, highlighting and outlining to show they understand the structure of the argument. (In the last few years, color printing technology has made it into some yeshivah classrooms. Students have received Talmuds that have different aspects of the pages highlighted in different colors, making it easier for them to see its structure.)

And amid the practical discussions, theoretical questions remain.

“There’s not enough discussion about the particularly Jewish side, and how all these exciting technological advancements are connected to the sense of Jewish tradition we uniquely want to convey,” Chanales said.

“Is having a page of Talmud on the iPad in front of the students the same as having a Gemara? Or does that question not matter five years from now, when adults will be studying Talmud on an iPad and printing it out for Shabbos?” he asks.

 

More on: Tomorrow’s classrooms today

 
 
 

A man with a computer vision

Dan Fried woke up one morning with a vision for bringing technology to area Jewish schools.

“What if we just do a pilot project, with a one iPad per student for all the sixth graders?” he wondered. “What would it look like for them to have it?”

So he funded it, giving the money first to Yeshivat Noam, next to the Frisch School, and then to the Yavneh Academy, all in Paramus, so the schools could each provide a full grade of their students with iPads.

Fried is an enormous fan of Jewish day schools.

 
 
 
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