‘Are we using our tablets today?’

‘Are we using our tablets today?’

Federation funding supports high tech Hebrew school learning

Temple Beth Or sixth graders and their teacher. 
From left: Kalyani Halisband, Aydan Goldstein, Cammy Bourcier, Mikaela Baum, Lily Rosendahl, and Jason Morales
Temple Beth Or sixth graders and their teacher. From left: Kalyani Halisband, Aydan Goldstein, Cammy Bourcier, Mikaela Baum, Lily Rosendahl, and Jason Morales

The sixth graders at Temple Beth Or’s Hebrew school can’t wait for the magic words: “Please take out your devices.”

Cammy Bourcier, their Hebrew teacher in the Washington Township synagogue, believes in “aligning with technology rather than arguing with it.”

So whether it’s having the class look something up, or competing against each other on vocabulary quizzes, smartphones have a place in her classroom.

“If you can’t beat them, join them,” she said.

She credits her “new mindset” largely to an online course in educational technology that she and nine other supplementary school teachers took last summer. The course was provided by Kulanu NNJ, a program that helps the community’s synagogue schools. Funding to pay for the course came from the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey and the Covenant Foundation. The distance learning course was conducted by an Israeli educator. It exposed the teachers to a wide range of online tools and challenged them to learn to use them.

“It was a lot of work,” Ms. Bourcier said. “It totally stretched my brain.”

The course also knocked down some of the walls separating the religious schools. “One of the biggest things we’ve seen is the collaboration between different teachers and the different religious schools,” said Sarah David, the federation’s education coordinator.

The teachers have shared with each other more than 75 classroom activities they’ve created, ranging from quizzes on the Shema to getting-to-know-you questionnaires for the start of the school year to slide shows on holidays.

“A couple of teachers not from our school did these beautiful activities related to Tu b’Shvat,” Rabbi Shelley Kniaz, the director of congregational learning at Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley in Woodcliff Lake, said. “My teachers are going to use them.”

Rabbi Kniaz and Rabbi Paula Feldstein of Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge organized Kulanu NNJ and wrote the grants for the teacher training program .

The technology training is having a ripple effect, Rabbi Kniaz said. “One of the things that we were hoping would happen is that other teachers would be inspired to start learning these things and our current participants would mentor. It’s already happening.”

Rabbi Kniaz has been using high tech in her Hebrew school for years. Her interest was sparked by a course the federation ran for principals of supplementary schools. On Monday, when northern New Jersey public schools shut down for a snow day, Temple Emanuel’s seventh graders took part in their regularly scheduled class on Israel, video conferencing from home, as they always do on Monday afternoons. A teacher in Israel leads the class. “The kids are really involved,” Rabbi Kniaz said.

In Devorah O’Brien’s sixth-grade classroom at Temple Emanuel, Google Slides has replaced worksheets. If she’s teaching about Joshua, for example, she will pose questions and assign students to small groups to research the answers on their iPads or phones.

“They’ll put together pictures and a little bit of history and their own thoughts on how it applies to them in their own life onto a Google Slide,” Ms. O’Brien said. Then each group will present to the rest of the class. “It’s very visual, very engaging, and everyone feels they’re a part of it,” she said.

She uses Google Forms to get feedback from her students at the end of class to find out what interested them most and what they would like to learn next. Ms. O’Brien has been teaching at Temple Emanuel for 15 years. “Educational technology has made a huge change in engaging the children,” she said. “My classroom is much more exciting. Children are more excited to come to school than ever before.”

She said that bringing this technology to Hebrew school is particularly necessary “because it’s what they’re doing now in public school.”

At Temple Beth Or, Ms. Bourcier is using Quizlet, a flashcard app and website, to teach Hebrew. She has created flashcards with prayers and translations. That lets the students practice the vocabulary on their phones.

More electrifying is something call Quzlet Live, in which students compete against each other to be first to match the words with their definitions. “The kids love it,” Ms. Bourcier said. “They go nuts. They beg me to play it.

“When you create excitement you also generate learning,” she added.

Her advice for teachers afraid to embrace technology: “Get over it.”

She said that training made a difference. “We really had a lot of support. There were times when I was frustrated trying to do something. I always had someone to call to get help going through it,” she said.

Peninah Pick teaches fourth grade at Temple Emanuel. Her web tool of choice is JI Studio, which lets students put words and pictures together to create books. After teaching the story of creation, she asked the students to use JI Studio to illustrate the biblical verses.

“Some of them finished it up at home,” Ms. Pick said. “Parents said they had never seen their kids so involved in their Hebrew school homework before.”

She credits the Kulanu workshop for giving her the skills and confidence to bring technology into her classroom.

“Years ago they would have been drawing something on a piece of paper; today they’re making an animated version of it,” she said. “It comes much more to life. It’s something they’re excited about doing and happy to be sharing with their friends.”

When her classes start, “the first question they usually ask is ‘Are we using our tablets today?’ This is what they want and what they expect.”

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