Showing posts with label Torah Aura. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Torah Aura. Show all posts

Sunday, December 1, 2013

I've Got Sunshine!

Me and Barb at a
NATE Leadership meeting
Barb Shimasky, a wonderful educator at Temple Sinai in Milawaukee who blogs at – and a former student of mine (oy.) – nominated me for a Sunshine Award. It is an interesting award, since there is no actual competition. If you are nominated, all you need to do to win is to accept. And that is where the catch comes in. You have to follow the five rules.
  1. Acknowledge the nominating blogger.
  2. Share 11 random facts about yourself.
  3. Answer the 11 questions the nominating blogger has created for you.
  4. List 11 bloggers. They should be bloggers you believe deserve some recognition and a little blogging love!
  5. Post 11 questions for the bloggers you nominate to answer and let all the bloggers know they have been nominated. (You cannot nominate the blogger who nominated you.)

Responding to something like this is not strictly speaking why I maintain this blog. I began it three years ago to create a conversation about Jewish Education and to crystalize my own thoughts.

Doing this feels a bit self-promotional – not my favorite thing. So I gave it some thought before deciding to accept and follow the rules. And it seems to me the best reason for doing to is to introduce anyone reading my blog to 11 of my favorite bloggers who write about Jewish Education. So I am going to start by listing those bloggers (in order of the individuals’ first names) because that is the important stuff. The rest is just because I want to honor the spirit and intention of the awards which require me to share something about myself. Feel free to skip all of that and just visit the 11 blogs listed.So let's talk about what these bloggers are talking about!

Blogs I am nominating and hope you will visit (in addition to Barb’s):
  1. Community Organizer 2.0 – This is Deborah Askenase's blog. Her main gig is as a digital strategist, non-profit executive, and community organizer. She occasionally writes about Jewish education, but I think every educator can learn from her organizing and digital repertoire.
  2. eJewishPhilanthropy – Dan Brown (not the author of several best sellers) lives in Jerusalem and does a remarkable job of collecting articles from a wide variety of people on a wide variety of topics: Jewish philanthropy, Jewish education and Jewish Peoplehood to name a few.
  3. Jew Point 0  – This is the blog of Darim Online, which includes Lisa Colton's brilliant team. 
  4. ayekah — where are you? Conversations about how we respond to the world through a Jewish lens – Rabbi Fred Greene of Temple Beth Tikvah in Roswell, GA is a great friend and colleague. And I love the way his mind works.
  5. The Gris Mill – Joel Lurie Grishaver's Blog. Joel was one of my inspirations to get into Jewish education and is one of my dearest friends. And he has some pretty interesting ideas.
  6. The Torah Aura Bulletin Board – Includes a lot of Joel's writing, but also a group of terrific educators writing about technology, early childhood education, art and other great stuff.
  7. Muse for Jews – Debbie Harris is the director of educational technology at the Sager Solomon Schechter Day School in Northbrook, IL and teaches religious school at Lakeside Congregation for Reform Judaism. She is also one of the most gifted at bringing technology to Jewish education.
  8. Itzik's Well – One of my oldest friends, Irwin Keller serves as Spiritual leader of Congregation Ner Shalom in Cotati, CA. He is also founder/performer with the Kinsey Sicks, America's Favorite Dragapella Beautyshop Quartet (
  9. Or Am I – Rabbi Paul Kipnes was one of my classmates at the Rhea Hirsch School of Education at HUC-JIR in LA. He is the Rabbi and Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, CA and one of the most thoughtful people I know.
  10. Jewish Education Lab – Wendy Grinberg is a terrific educator and consults with Jewish educators all over.
  11. Sects and the City – My bunk mate Rabbi Liz Wood's journey through life and learning.
11 Questions for those I am nominating:
  1. If you had an extra million dollars lying around that had to be spent on Jewish education, what would you do?
  2. What is your favorite holiday and what do you do to make it uniquely special?
  3. If you only had time to visit one place in Israel, where would you go and what would you do there?
  4. If you only had time to visit one place NOT in Israel, where would you go and what would you do there?
  5. What is one piece of advice you would give to someone beginning their first full time job as a Jewish educational leader?
  6. What is the best general release (i.e. not specifically Jewish) film you have seen in the last eleven months and what is one thing you liked about it?
  7. What is your favorite Jewish song (at the moment)?
  8. What made you choose to pursue the career you have chosen?
  9. If you were given a six month sabbatical and more than enough money to fund it, what would you do? Where would you go?
  10. What is the one Jewish food - that if your doctor told you had to stop eating it - you would be most upset ?
  11. What is the best book you have read lately?
11 random facts about myself:
  1. I love to cook, but my son is better at than I am.
  2. Every time I watch a film, I cannot help but look for the scene that will help me teach something Jewish. It is a curse. And a blessing.
  3. I have played quiddich. Really.
  4. A part of me never leaves Jerusalem.
  5. I have too many books next to my bed.
  6. I am very handy with power tools. Habitat for Humanity considers me a skilled.
  7. I believe that latkes are made with grated potatoes. Shredded potatoes yield hash browns.
  8. While I could not keep up with their scientific conversation, I could otherwise hold my own with Leonard, Sheldon, Howard and Rajesh.
  9. I am a member of the Pi Lambda Phi fraternity. Not four years, but a lifetime!
  10. I once danced in a paid (not to me) performance of the Twyla Tharp Dance Company
  11. I love what I do for a living.
Answers to Barb’s questions:
  1. What is one change you try to be in the world?
    To be a good father, husband and teacher.
  2. What is your favorite drink from Starbucks?
    Five shot Grande Americano with room (I add some skim milk).
  3. What is the best thing that has happened in your life during the past week?
    Both sons are home for Thanksgiving and they are filling us with joy!
  4. If you had $100 and were required to spend it on yourself, what would you buy?
    Tickets to a Cubs game, a hot dog and a frosty malt.
  5. What was your favorite childhood movie?
    The Great Race
  6. Where is a place you would like to travel that you have not yet had an opportunity to visit?
    England (Incl. Scotland, Wales and Cornwall)
  7. How many tabs do you have open in your browser right now?
  8. What is your favorite board game and why?
    Clue. Professor Plum, in the Dining Room with the Lead Pipe. Need I say more?
  9. What is your favorite website?
  10. What is something that makes you weird?
    To whom?
  11. What size shoe do you wear?

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Summer Camp in the Classroom?

There have been a number of articles and a bit of buzz about making religious school  more like camp. My teacher Jeffrey Kress wrote "So, You Want Your School To Be More Like Camp?" back in March. My camp counselor and colleague Roberta Louis Goodman has created "Camp NSCI" for the 3rd and 4th graders at North Shore Congregation Israel in suburban Chicago:
"Camp NSCI with its ruach (spirit) interpreting Torah through drama games and film making, and cool materials for visual arts, Hebrew chuggim (electives) that have included sports, cooking, smartboard, computers, ipads, yoga, games, singing, visual arts and more!"

And even one of my congregants, who grew up at Camp Ramah has asked for our music curriculum to become more like his camp memories (I think we are almost there, Ted!).

I have been thinking for a while about this and what I might have to say here. My first impulse is to agree with much of what Jeff has to say in his article in the Jewish Week. We have to ask what about camp do we want to emulate. And like him, I believe there are certainly some aspects we can draw from the camp experience. And I will blog on that later in the summer. From Eisner Camp. Where I am going on Sunday. Because camp is a huge part of why I became a Jewish educator.

But here's the thing: while there are many facets to what is the "essence" of Jewish camping, I believe it all comes down to the 24/6+Shabbat aspect. It is the total immersion of the camper in the community of camp. It is the keeping of parents and school friends at arm's length for 2 - 8 weeks that allows the camper to enter a completely different head space. There are mores at camp that have little meaning at home. Some good, some less attractive. But they are components of an immersive culture that take campers to a different world. Eisner director Louis Bordman calls it being "under the bubble." It is a magical place. And so is nearly every other Jewish camp.

But that was all my first impulse. Yesterday my Club Ed shipment arrived from Torah Aura Productions.*  Inside was a copy of Experiencing Jewish Prayer.Wow.

So I grew up at Olin Sang Ruby Union Institute in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. Where Joel Lurie Grishaver tested what eventually became Shema is For Real and the Prayerbook Board Game.  As a camper in 1975, I remember the staff and my rabbi, Mark S. Shapiro, taking us on a journey through Jewish prayer each day during Shiur/Sicha (today we call it Limmud), culminating in the Prayerbook Board Game. It was the second iteration of the program since Joel had developed it and OSRUI had published it.

Since then, Joel has used it as a springboard for the Shema is for Real Hebrew curriculum and he has revised the original as the All New Shema is for Real. He has been doing the experiential approach to teaching prayer for longer than most people have been able to spell experiential. Each version was designed for a new generation of teacher and student. Yet each left a decidedly "classroom" feel to it.

Experiencing Jewish Prayer is something else. In some ways it is another take on Shema is for Real. Which is a very good thing. But it is so much more. As I read through it this morning, I was imagining teaching with it. I didn't feel myself in a classroom. I felt like I was under a tree or on the Quad at Eisner having a lot of fun with campers who were getting into the idea of talking about and more importantly playing with the idea of prayer.

There is a version of the classic four corners game with several questions about God. The visual representation makes it easy for a teacher who has never been to camp to visualize how to make it work in a classroom. There are texts for chevruta study. In invitation to create a human sculpture of a car wash that feels like it comes from the New Games Book - a standard in my library as a camp counselor. (You should get one!) To understand the idea of long and short brakhot, it invites students to team up, get a siddur and analyze actual brakhot to determine which is which. It is filled with stories and analogies and metaphors.

I still believe that for religious school to become like camp, we need to keep the students overnight for a few weeks and separate them from their own bedrooms and social media. But I think that the peulot (activities) in this book will give my teachers a very real opportunity to make prayer come alive in ways we had only been able to do at camp or in youth group. I am buying one copy for every teacher in the relevant grades to start off. And one grade will be using this as a text as well.

If you are not a member of Club Ed (Torah Aura's review approval service), then call them at 800 BE TORAH and order a copy for your review. You will be glad you did.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Let Me Show You My Portfolio...Bazinga!

Alan Rowe is an old friend and one of the principals at Torah Aura Productions. Alan has been a tech guy in Jewish education since before the internet was available to mere mortals (those of us who were not in the military or at one of a handful of universities using PLATO). He for as long as I have known him (almost 25 years) he has been beta testing one program or another. Sometimes to see how it can help Torah Aura in their work, sometimes to see how it might help Jewish teachers. And as often as not, just to see what cool things were possible. He is that kind of guy. 

A few weeks ago he sent me a link to a blog posting about using Evernote to create student portfolios. He wanted to know if I thought there might be an application for synagogue or "complementary" education.

GREAT CAESAR'S GHOST! [O.K. Not that one.]

As soon as you finish this reading posting - or sooner, you may not care about what I have to say - check out Rob Van Nood's blog posting "How to Create a Portfolio with Evernote."

Educational Portfolios

Dr. Helen C. Barrett maintains that one of the many purposes of the educational portfolio is "to support reflection that can help students understand their own learning and to provide a richer picture of student work that documents growth over time." We in complementary schools have many frustrations - not enough time or enough days for learning, the supply of teachers, parents who bring their children to us for many different reasons, and not always the ones we think they should have - just to name a few. I think that getting students to reflect more deeply on the learning and meaningful evaluation are two that we don't often even get to when we are bemoaning the things we wish we could do. Barrett continues:

"Artists have maintained portfolios for years, often using their collection for seeking further work, or for simply demonstrating their art; an artist's portfolio usually includes only their best work. Financial portfolios contain a comprehensive record of fiscal transactions and investment holdings that represent a person's monetary worth. By contrast, an educational portfolio contains work that a learner has selected and collected to show growth and change over time; a critical component of an educational portfolio is the learner's reflection on the individual pieces of work (often called "artifacts") as well as an overall reflection on the story that the portfolio tells. There are many purposes for portfolios in education: learning, assessment, employment, marketing, showcase, best works."
I first learned about portfolios as a graduate student in Jewish Education a long time ago. They sound wonderful don't they? Imagine if we could collect the creative output of each of our students over the course of the year. Every once in a while a teacher could ask each student to share what they think their best work was so far, or to discuss an idea they have been developing. 

Parents could be invited to review the portfolio in a conference with the teacher and student and get a real sense of what their child has been doing at temple each week instead of a progress report with letter grades and a brief paragraph that might include the phrase "I really enjoyed having Ploni in my class this year." And items from the portfolios could be displayed, celebrating each child in the eyes of the congregation!

Ah well. That sounds awesome for a day school or general education school. They have enough hours in the day and enough days in the week. They have professionally trained and licensed teachers who have more time to give. Our teachers are awesome, but they have so little time and we pay them so little. We all know that song. We sing it every time we come upon an educational innovation. Poor us. We are too small, too poor and have too little time. We could never do it.

(Those of you who can remember the comedian David Steinberg know what that really means.)

I am tired of those excuses. Saying "Yes We Can" is more than political slogan. I have spent a fair amount of time evangelizing for using Web 2.0 technologies to leverage the things we might be lacking like time, money and staff. 
We can and we should be using portfolios. They hold so much promise for making meaning. And Evernote just might be the way to do it with all of the limitations we believe we are our burden.
Evernote's logo is the head of an elephant. When you got to the headline is "Remember Everything."

It is actually "a suite of software and services designed for notetaking and archiving. A "note" can be a piece of formatted text, a wb page or exerpt, a photo, an audio recording or even a handwritten ink note. They can be sorted into folders, tagged, annotated, edited, given comments and searched. They can even be exported as part of a ntoebook."

What's so Shazam about it?

This is where Rob Van Nood's posting comes in. He begins: "I started teaching 15 years ago and that is when I first came across this concept of a ‘portfolio.’ A portfolio is a storehouse for projects, writing pieces, art, and performances. It can be used by students, teachers, and parents to document what they’re doing (either day-to-day things or through their best work or improvements they’ve made). I see portfolios as a way to hold onto and think about what you’re doing." He is on the same page as Dr. Barrett. Here are some the things he does:
  • When our school first decided to use Evernote, we set up demos with the students to show them how to use Evernote. At their age, students familiarize themselves with technology really quickly and naturally. A few picked it up immediately and started teaching their fellow classmates. Getting everyone up to speed didn’t take a lot of time.
  • Before setting students up with Evernote accounts, I created a set of guidelines for the students so they knew what kind of things to put into Evernote. We also discussed the kinds of tags that they should be using, so we’d all be on the same page.
  • Students started asking, ‘How can I put this into Evernote?’  I set my classroom up with a Lexmark Pro scanner so students are able to immediately capture their work and send it to their Evernote portfolio. They can also capture using any number of mobile devices where they have Evernote installed. They’re even able to access their work on their iPod Touch in class.
  • When a student comes up with an interesting strategy on a whiteboard, I have them write down their name next to it and take a picture of it, or record them explaining what they came up with. Great ideas are saved to Evernote to show progress over the course of the school year.
  • I’ve actually started emailing parents with these progress notes immediately after I capture them. I’m able to show the parents that their kid had a great growth moment or did something they’ve never done before. The real-time sharing was appreciated not only by the parents, but also excited the students.
  • The final ‘piece’ of the portfolio work is, of course, sharing. For our Spring conference, we asked students to have one example of work from each area (math, writing, art, kinesthetic) to share with their parents. The students actually taught the parents how to use Evernote at our conference by familiarizing them with their portfolios.
He also uses it for parent teacher conferences.

I will be spending some time with our Religious School Vision Team and some members of our faculty exploring using Evernote Portfolios. I am hoping to introduce them in one or two grades next year. In our school, our students in Kitot Alef - Vav (1 - 6) have two teachers. One is for general Jewish studies and the other focuses on Hebrew. I think that the portfolios will give the two teachers a powerful tool for connecting the learning between their classes. 

And I am incredibly excited about curating these portfolios in a way that will allow us to share students' work with the entire congregation (with their permission of course). And the opportunity for kids to share their work with grandparents will open opportunities for intergenerational learning. 

Are you using Evernote Portfolios? Please share. And contact me if you are interested in exploring the possibilities with me. And also check out Van Nood's Evernote Portfolio Blog.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Serious Approaches to Learning

My friend Josh Mason-Barkin gives a great review of the new Coen Brothers' film A Serious Man from the perspective of a Jewish Educator. I found one section particularly relevant given my experience this week with the Jim Joseph Foundation Fellows and my previous post. Read Josh's whole review at (Full disclosure-Torah Aura Productions publishes some of my work from time to time, and is owned by people I consider to be part of my family. That doesn't make them wrong!)

Jewish schools need to strategically and thoughtfully integrate technological tools into their classrooms, and publishers need to create materials that are congruent with these efforts. For the past several years, Jewish educational publishers (ourselves at Torah Aura included) have been trying to offer computerized tools that are basically digitized (or computer-gameified) versions of textbooks. Furthermore, publishers have seen educational technology as the next frontier in publishing, a new way to make a buck by selling software that claims to make Jewish learning “exciting.” That’s the wrong attitude. Instead of trying to use software to answer the same old questions (“How do I get kids to properly decode Hebrew?”), we need to be asking a new set of questions.

How can we utilize new technologies like Google Wave, twitter, and YouTube to allow for collaborative (hevruta for the new generation!) learning? How can computers help us to maximize our financial resources? How can the internet help us engage (and empower!) parents and families in new ways? How can we use technology to open up the world of Jewish education to better integrate the arts, science, and communication?

Lots of smart people are thinking about these issues, and we (both publishers and our customers, Jewish schools) need to listen. A bureau executive told me recently that Jewish education is miles behind secular education in these fields. That must change, and we as publishers must be leaders, not followers. We need to help teachers and students think about using tomorrow’s technologies, not provide them with hokey and simplistic “educational” games or digitized flashcards for iPhones.