image
For an online class for sixth graders at Barnert Temple, Sara Losch asked students to name the guests, alive or dead, they would like to invite to visit them in the sukkah.

Sara Losch never expected that she would be at the leading edge of technology use in religious schools in northern New Jersey.

Losch is the director of lifelong learning at Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes, overseeing both the religious school and the early childhood program. While she is comfortable using a computer, “I’m not one of those people who play around.” All her research over the years failed to convince her that technology belonged in the classroom.

But materials from Jerusalem EdTech Solutions, an Israeli provider of Jewish educational and professional development online courses, helped her reframe the question from whether students should have technology in the classroom, to “giving me the tools to have the technology as a school director and as a teacher,” she said Losch.

So she signed up for a course taught by Smadar Goldstein, a Yeshiva University-trained educator and one of the founders of Jerusalem EdTech.

“I shocked myself at how positive I felt about it and how successful it was for me,” she said.

She told Lisa Harris Glass, who heads Jewish Educational Services at the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey. Now, the federation is paying for the program for a group of 10 of her colleagues at other Jewish schools, who are taking the course this summer.

“They are so excited,” Glass said.

“It’s been really great,” said Bess Adler, principal of the Bergen County High School of Jewish Studies.

The course began earlier this month and already Adler is learning “a lot of really great tools. I’m excited to have the opportunity to bring this to my faculty.”

“It’s important that the teachers are aware of the tools. It really enables the kids to connect. We all know this, that the kids are wired, they’re on their handheld, they’re on their computer, they’re always on,” she said.

Through the course, she’s learning about “tools to use to be able to talk their language, to get them to really engage more fully in the learning,” Adler said.

One tool that has excited her is checkthis.com, which lets teachers (or anyone else) post a picture online and then collect comments and survey results. She set up a sample example at http://checkthis.com/bchsjs.

The course meets Tuesday evenings; the participating teachers study with Goldstein through web-based video conferencing for an hour and a half, and then participate through homework assignments during the week.

“When Smadar said we were going to learn through both synchronous and asynchronous learning, I said I’m going to throw up. I don’t know what it means,” Losch said. (Synchronous is simultaneous, like the video conferencing; asynchronous assignments are the ones done at the student’s convenience.)

But the Israeli educator was able to talk Losch past the jargon. “She’s so fabulous. She knows how to break it down.”

“It’s hands-on project-based learning. Every single thing we did we were actively involved in,” Losch said.

One program she learned to use let her create a little video of a turkey, to which Losch added her voice. “We sent it out to the preschool right before Thanksgiving, and people loved it. It was a nothing, but it was a something, because the message to my families, and to the older religious school kids, is that Sara’s starting to get it.”

Losch has been passing on her knowledge of the tools to her teachers, and she took the bold step of trying to run an online-only class.

A group of sixth graders often was absent from their Sunday school class. Working with the synagogue’s Rabbi Elyse Frishman, Losch created an online class.

Barnert Temple sent the students an online lesson every week. It was asynchronous; “they could do it whenever they wanted to,” Losch said.

The course used the variety of the interactive online tools Losch had learned about.

“The kids did their work, and they responded to each other,” she said.

Even without sharing a physical classroom, the students created a sense of community, she said.

The class was a success – for the first four months.

Then, however, “they petered out. The first blush was off. I think they got involved with sports,” she said.

Still, “that was a great beginning foray,” she said.