Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Fifth Child has a new home (click here to be transported)

The Fifth Child has moved to JCast Network.  You can access my blog here.  When you travel to  you'll find a lot of great content from Rabbi Joe Black, Amichai Lau-Lavie, The Schmoozer, and many other Jewish cultural and educational leaders.  Check it out!

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Occupy Jewish Education

Something has been bothering me lately. Where are all the congregational educators? Let me back up. If you've read my previous posts, you know that I've been taking part in on-line conversations about Jewish education. They've been great. They've opened doors that lead to a bevy of potential Jewish futures. But there's one element that is noticeably absent. My colleagues. Congregational/complimentary Jewish educators.

 Don't get me wrong. There's been a relatively large cohort of complimentary educators participating in the webinars I've "attended". There's a lot of irony here. Webinars are becoming "old school". They're "formal" learning environments in cyberspace - a lecture in the cloud. Sort of passive (though one can chat). They're like frontal teaching in a classroom. L'havdil, the twitter and google+ based conversations that have popped up (#edchat, #jedchat, Hangouts) represent a new type of "informal"and "experiential" learning. And it's here that we find a dirth of synagogue educators. Why?

Okay, I know - we're out there. Of course we are. The majority of students that are enrolled in some type of structured Jewish educational program attend supplemenatary/congregational schools (at least according to Jack Wertheimer's "Recent Trends in Supplementary Jewish Education"). And yes there is some very very important work being done to transform the way the majority receives their Jewish education. One great example is The Coalition ofInnovating Congregations, in the New York area. This community that has taken on Cyd Weissman's "Lomed Challenge" will ultimately change the face of complimentary Jewish education. Kol HaKavod. My issue is that a disproportionate amount of attention is being lavished on full time Jewish education, even though it does not service most of the students. PLEASE NOTE: This is not a critique of the Day School movement, which serves an incredibly important purpose. I'm commenting on a state of affairs that relates to (mostly) synagogue based education.

At the last two #jedchats, I attempted to ascertain if any congregational educators were present in that portion of the cloud. I asked the question: "Any congregational/complimentary educators here?" The virtual silence was deafening. All of the other participants were Day School/yeshiva educators. A couple of weeks ago, educational technologist Sarah Shapiro-Plevan (@shaplev)hosted a google+ hangout geared specifically to synagogue educators. The turnout was...well... underwhelming. Why does it seem that we are so underrepresented in the emerging Jewish cloud. Where is our digital footprint? We teach the majority. Why aren't we present?

Day Schools, like their mostly secular counterparts (both public and private) are beginning to devote a larger proportion of resources integrating technology into their programs. Most synagogues are not able too. Their leaders are too concerned about paying the electric bills. I know of very few synagogues (actually I've only heard of one or two) that have any type of specialist devoted to Information/Education Technology. Usually it's the innovative teacher or education director who will explore the cloud, usually on an antiquated PC or laptop. It's an issue of time and money. And that's the problem. We need to draw attention to ourselves. We need the world to see that "Hebrew school" isn't the same as it was. It's evolving. And it's worth investing in, like Day Schools. Jewish public money from Federations as well as from private funders stream into the Day School movement. Why shouldn't the majority receive a proportional level of this largess?

We complimentary Jewish educators need to raise our voices. We need the movers and shakers in the Jewish world to start noticing that we are transforming part-time Jewish education, creating a climate that will encourage our students to engage in a pluralistic Jewish life tomorrow. We must stretch ourselves, take a risk, enter uncharted virtual territory and raise our profiles. Let's participate in #jedchat (Wednesdays at 9:00 EST). We can join videoconferences such as the Google + Hangout #jewpronet, hosted by Darim Online's Miriam Brosseau (@miriamjayne). The next one is at 2:30 pm EST on Thursday, December 1. Of course, last but certainly not least, we can appear at the next congregational educator Hangout (#congedchat) taking place on December 6, at 12:30 pm EST. Contact Sarah Shapiro-Plevan (@shaplev) to "rsvp".

Maybe now is the time to take a cue from the OWS movement as it's being evicted from physical space. 
Maybe now is the time to Occupy Jewish Education - at least in the Cloud. All in the name of Complimentary Jewish Education.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Big Bang - Adventures in Cyberspace

The universe is expanding.  That’s the core of the Big Bang Theory. As the cosmos gets older, everything in it moves apart.  Not to delve too much into such esoterica like Hubbles Law, I need to affirm - אני מאמין - I'm a believer.  In the last week I experienced something akin to this phenomenon in my own universe. Let’s call it the Virtual Big Bang.

Last Wednesday I participated in the first #jedchat., organized by  Dov Emerson, Rabbi Akevy Greenblatt and Rabbi Meir Wexler. What was special about this was its synchronicity. Dozens of Jewish educators from around the globe simultaneously came together on twitter to build a new professional learning network.  This  real-time inaugural conversation focused mostly on introductions and general brainstorming about how to use twitter to grow this nascent PLN.  Suggestions for the topic of this Wednesday’s (November 2nd at 9:00 PM eastern time) were thrown out.  We are all anxiously awaiting the result of the online poll that will ultimately determine what we’ll tweet about.

Then, earlier this week I took part in a Google+Hangout, initiated by Miram Brosseau, focusing on the bridge that is being constructed between technology and experiential education.  If you haven’t yet experienced a G+Hangout, you should.  All it requires is a Google+ account, a quick and painless browser plug-in download, a webcam and yalla…you’re in.  Video conferencing is old news, I know, but what G+ seems to have done is created a free and seamless environment for folks (up to 10 at one time, according to Google!) to come together to explore and learn together. What was exciting about this hangout experience was that it expanded my PLN that has, up to this point been, in a large way twitter based. Now, these tweeting encounters are being enhanced by virtual f2f encounters that deepen the educational experience. And it’s always fun to see the face and hear the voice behind the tweet.

We’re in the midst of a process of learning and development.  As we all know, technology has the tendency of not working at the most inopportune time. At a hangout I facilitated last week we found ourselves gazing at each other while using the phone - one of our participants had microphone issues.  But you know, that’s okay.  Let’s call it growing pains.

For the past few years there has been a lively discussion about the nature of community in the 21st century.  What does it mean to be part of a group of people who may never physically meet?  What are the ramifications of non-f2f encounters that take place in the cloud?  Paradoxically, as social networks evolve and expand, (like galaxies moving through space), we individuals are drawing closer. The technology that expands our worlds is becoming the very tool that brings us together.


Monday, October 10, 2011

Steve Jobs, the Consumer, and Inventing the Jewish Future

Of all the recent retrospectives of the late Steve Jobs, the one that has had the most impact on me contained the observation that he “hated traditional market research”.  It was a comment made by one of the guests (advertising consultant, Cindy Gallup) on the public radio show “The Take Away” on Friday, October 7. You could hear the entire recording here.  Mr. Jobs believed that successful marketing and production must be customer centered, but that consumers don’t really know what they want. He believed in what Alan Kay once said: “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”    According to author Steven Johnson, also on the same show, Jobs understood that a product’s design incorporated usability.  It isn’t just what the product looks like; it’s how it can be used by the consumer.  Jobs’ genius according to Johnson, was that he believed that when designing a product,   “the totality of the experience of using the product” must be part of that design process.  So what do we, as Jewish educators and innovators take from this?

The iPod was created to fill a vacuum. Its creators saw what was trending in the business of music: (napster and clunky mp3 players) and created something new, thereby creating demand and changing the way we listen to and buy music.  This is the paradigm that could work for Jewish education.

When we design a Jewish experience, we need to remember that there is a delicate balance between the goals we set as educators for our constituents, and their desires and needs.  Franz Rosenzweig was right when he taught us that the periphery leads us to the center.  Whatever Jewish experiences we develop, they must relate to where our students and families are today. It can’t just look cool.  They need to be practical, useful and accessible. But therein lies the dilemma.  Do we, as Jewish leaders, design experiences that we believe will serve the purpose of (and forgive  me for using this phrase but it actually is apt) Jewish continuity, or do we develop models that may, in the short run, seem appealing, but in the end, add nothing to creating a  Jewish future?  Another way of asking this question is: Do we want to fill a vacuum (like the iPod did) or do we want to enhance the already existing empty space of ideas that lead nowhere?

Following Steve Jobs lead, what we design must be multifaceted, and  informed, though not determined by conventional wisdom.  Just because an idea is popular doesn’t make it The Truth or The Answer.  We are on a narrow bridge, and need to make sure that we don’t fall off into the chasm of irrelevance.  The subtlety is following the teachings of Steve Jobs in creating a synergy between what we design, how it works and our roles as leaders.

So we need to pay attention to what’s trending in our congregations and communities.  Parents are busy.  Kids are overwhelmed.  There is a drive to create models of juvenile Jewish education that can fit into our overscheduled families’ lives. The question is….will these experiments really lead to a Jewish tomorrow?  Is “fitting in” enough? 

Collaboration, construction of knowledge and finding personal meaning are all guidelines that need to shape what type of Jewish experiences we design.  We need to master the tools available to us in the 21st century, both digital and experiential to make Jewish life to enhance the usability of the “product” we design. The role of a Jewish professional is to learn from conventional wisdom and then apply knowledge and experience to invent a new future. 

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Of Quills, iPads and the New York Times

The other day I opened up my print copy of the New York Times (yes, I still rely on that ancient form of technology: The printed newspaper.) I couldn’t help but notice the article on the front page, above the fold: Grading the Digital School: In Classroom of Future, Stagnant Scores. The piece described how the drive to digitize classrooms has not led to improved student scores, as measured by current standardized tests. Its perspective, in part, mostly challenged the prevailing philosophy that educational technology will result in increased student achievement. As I read it, I couldn’t help but think that all this is beside the point.

It isn’t that using iPads and Google Docs will necessarily make our students smarter. For better or worse, we live in an increasingly electronic world. The screen of tomorrow will define how we will interface with our environment; just as ink and paper defined how previous generations interacted with their universe. What we as educators need to do is grasp how the ubiquity of digital technology is shaping the way our students learn how to live in their future. We need to redefine our paradigms and expectations so that we can help them be prepared for tomorrow.

Indulge me as I look backwards: This is something I wrote nine months ago:

Technology is not meant to be the end, but to be the means. Technology is a tool to engage our students. Web 2.0 has introduced us to new ways of creating and defining community. Just as the chalk board created new ways to create relationships between the student and the teacher and the nature of education itself, the digital universe we are entering is opening up new doors that will lead to a different learning and teaching reality. It is incumbent upon us to grasp this new type of chalk, and start writing on the virtual chalk board.

I wrote the above words as part of a homework assignment for my just completed education technology certificate course. I called this, at the time, my edtech “mission statement”. I still believe it. My understanding of the ramifications of using education technology in the Jewish classroom has deepened as I’ve learned how these tools can be used. More importantly, I believe more than ever that ultimately all of these programs and applications are merely aides to help us achieve a final goal – creating a Jewish future.

Yes we have no choice but to embrace this digital universe - but not blindly. We need to be critical consumers, analyzing whether this gadget or that program will serve our needs. Will using a smartphone help our students learn to chant Torah? How? Will creating a VoiceThread effectively teach our students what the Amida is all about? What would be a more effective way to learn about midrash: Through bibliodrama or Animoto? We need to define our goals, and then determine the best way to reach them.

Yes, I believe now, more than ever, that 21st century technology is a means to an end. But I also am mindful that the words of Torah are written on animal skin using a bird’s feather and ink made of gallnuts. They can be just as meaningful on that ancient form of technology as they are on my iPad screen. It doesn’t matter how I let those words touch me; its that they do. And that’s the point.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Variable Rates of Change

“A little rebellion now and then is a good thing”.  This little piece of wisdom was uttered by Thomas Jefferson in 1787. What does this have to do with Jewish education and social networks?  Everything. 
At the ISTE (International Society for Technology in Education) conference I was immersed in a sea of digital technology.  I attended classes and window shopped at the technology expo – an open market filled with vendors selling their wares, both hard and soft.  At one of the classes I attended, educator and author Dr. David Thornburg explained how we are in the midst of a revolution that is changing the social and cultural matrices that define our society.  He described how we are living in the third of a series of “disruptive technologies” that have shaped learning and teaching. The first took place thousands of years ago, with the invention of the phonetic alphabet.  In the 16th century the world was changed through the introduction of mass-produced books. The current “mobile revolution” is impacting the way our students (who will become the adults/parents/consumers of the future) look and interface with the world.   He stressed that we educators need to recognize the new “21st Century Literacies” of our age.  Another presenter, Lee Crockett, author, artist, and co-founder of the 21st Century Fluency Project, had his own criteria, which he not surprisingly called, “21st Century Fluencies”.  Both lists are more or less similar.  These intertwined concepts can be roughly called survival skills for the future. They define how our students view their world, and how those perspectives will shape what that universe will look like. They include the ability to:
  • critically assess content and resource 
  • prioritize between a myriad of stimuli
  • participate and collaborate 
  • seamlessly integrate the different types of digital and social networks and media
  • engage in creative problem solving.
All these proficiencies are expressed within the context of living as global digital citizens.
The kids in our schools respond to a learning environment that is characterized by being relevant to their interests.  A structure has to be in place that provides the opportunity for students to create something that is their own. It also has to be authentic - touching upon their real lives. Learning happens when what is being presented matters to the student. If the kids don’t care, they won’t learn.  So we as educators need to foster a process of discovery that sticks to their souls.  To accomplish this, we must bring our school parents into the picture. We need to encourage them to participate and collaborate with their children to create a truly personal sense of Jewish engagement.  Our educational goals should relate to our families’ lives.  Lee Crockett put it best when he said that learning in the 21st century is not about the teacher - it’s about the learner. Our families need to care about being Jewish.  They need to be engaged in creating a Judaism that belongs to them.
So now we get to tachlis. How do we translate theory into practice?  Our students (youngsters and their parents) need to be comfortable with the idea that God can be found at the beach, in their neighbor’s house, on facebook, Google +, as well as in the synagogue sanctuary.  Teaching for tomorrow is defined as the art of curation and facilitation. Creating environments for self discovery, informed by our 4,000-year-old tradition as translated by Second Life and Apple, are the new roles for Jewish educators. There are no concrete answers and “how-to’s” to offer, because tomorrow someone may invent a new app “that does that” (whatever “that” may be).  That’s the point.  Change is constant.  It’s the rate that is variable.  That’s the paradigm for Jewish education today:  Adapting and designing for Jewish engagement that is consistent with this rate of change.  Let’s learn from Yochanan Ben Zakai, who was carried out in a coffin beginning the process that led to the writing down of the Oral Law, adapting Jewish life to a new post-Temple future. It’s no longer a question of what Judaism will look like next week. It’s what we, as educators, will do to make that change meaningful.
Disruption has always been the Jewish norm.  Rebellion to the Jewish status quo should not be a surprise or anathema. It’s what we learn from it that is important.  This is the challenge that will define our future.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Finding Dragons in the Clouds

I remember, as a kid, lying on my back on the side of hill looking at the sky, finding a dragon, George Washington and a tree floating amidst the white, billowing clouds.  I'm going to bet that most of us have had similar experiences, finding disparate symbols in the mist that resides in the sky.  Clouds are made up of water vapor, much of which has previously fallen near or to earth and then evaporates. They are self-renewing. But I think they stand for something else:  The infinite reaches of nature.  For me a cloud summons Heschel's idea of radical amazement.  So attending ISTE 2011 I find myself being amazed and amazed again.  Not at the works of nature or God, (unless we believe that the Deity's Hand is in everything) but at the efforts of Woman and Man.  It's not so much that I am blown away by the latest animation software or iteration of optical touch screens. I am. It's that we are not done yet.  We are still Primitives.  Next year at ISTE there will be new technology.  New applications.  What is innovative today will be passé next summer. But that really doesn't matter.  What's important for me, at least, is what these works of humanity represent.  It's the symbolism that I'm writing about.

I have a confession to make.  In the middle of the day today I escaped the world of apps and androids.  I needed fresh air.  I also had a pilgrimage to make.  You see, I’ve never seen the Liberty Bell in real life.  It’s always been a part of every American’s life.  For my family and me, all being immigrants from the “old country”, it took on special significance, as my parents had chosen the freedom of America that The Bell represented.  So I figured that I’d take a couple of hours to visit this symbol of liberty for which my parents risked their (and my) lives to reach.

Symbols are something conceived by humans to represent something greater.  Our Jewish tradition is full of them: the Chanukiah, challah, the mezuzah, and tallit to name a few.   The Liberty Bell is an example of one of the icons of American secular religion.  I was surprised by my reaction as I stood before this flawed chunk of metal.  I was truly in Awe.

As I gazed upon the cracked and silent bell, I realized that it’s message of liberty (an idea that was associated to the bell 100 years after its casting to protest the abomination of slavery) transcended its physicality. The Bell represents something greater than itself.  It is a symbol that bridges the past with the future.

What does this have to do with Google, Second Life, and wireless document cameras?  These amazing constructs that astound us at their power are but transient symbols and signposts pointing to tomorrow. One of the sessions I attended focused on virtual games and simulations. The instructor (Dr. Greg Jones) pointed out that there is no definitive research that shows that using gaming and sims in the classroom results in higher student achievement. They are short lived. Tomorrow there will be something new. Dr. John Medina, the keynote speaker on Sunday also said that it is still to early to judge the long-term impact of digital technology on the brain. The ISTE conference and the drive to integrate education technology in our classrooms is not The Answer.  It is a symbol for a direction that we are choosing to travel.  It is representing a new way to interact with our environment, what we have learned, and what we will learn.

In the Jewish world, we are also travelling this evolutionary path.  We are used to it. We started out with Oral Law.  Then we wrote it down.  Then we interpreted it…again and again. That’s what the Responsa and commentary are all about.  We’re still doing it.  Storahtelling.  Media Midrash. Bible Raps. G-dcast.comJewish Education Network. YU 2.0. There’s more.  Things I don’t know about and things we haven’t yet thought of.  And before all that I am…Amazed.

Clouds represent the infiniteness of nature, and if you will, the Holy as It interacts with the physical world.  The cloud that we are creating represents human potential.  Just like the Liberty Bell.  The cloud we are crafting does not reside in the sky.  Lo BaShamayim Hee.  It resides in us, in our hearts. Clouds flit across the sky, ever-changing.  The electronic cloud we are creating also doesn’t stand still. We shape its form and direction.  We must remember that we are in the midst of an ever-changing process that defines intellectual and technological development.  This also applies to how Jewish learning accommodates and adapts to contemporary reality. If we want a definition of Jewish survival, I think that’s it: We never stand still. We change our shape and form, but we won’t dissipate into nothing.  We adapt and renew, taking on new forms. Just like clouds.

Before I forget, here's a picture of the Liberty Bell.  Can you find the crack?