Educator Spotlight: Google and Gemara with Rabbi Yehoshua Lindenbaum
In this Educator Spotlight, Rabbi Yehoshua Lindenbaum explains how educational technology and blended learning have transformed the learning experience for his students.
Rabbi Yehoshua Lindenbaum teaches 10th and 11th grade Judaic Studies (Gemara and Halacha) at SAR High School in Riverdale, NY. He received his rabbinic ordination from the Rabbi Zalman Nechemiah Goldberg of Jerusalem and graduated with a B.A. in History from Yeshiva University. He worked for several summers at Camp Moshava (Indian Orchard) in Honesdale, PA. He also co-compiled and co-edited a reimagined Selichot booklet and service for SAR High School students.
When did you realize you wanted to be a teacher?
When I was in high school I was pretty good at gemara [rabbinic analysis and commentary], and in 10th and 11th grade my teacher would have me help students who needed extra support. I would help them understand the text. I was totally energized to be the person who helps other people to learn. It felt like a really great thing to do with my life - that’s the first inkling I had that I wanted to teach. I still love helping people learn.
How did you learn to integrate technology into the classroom?
I’ve always been good with technology; I can learn things pretty quickly. I didn’t have formal training until I became a teacher at SAR. When I got to SAR, the school used Moodle as an LMS. The school was assigned Gmail email addresses, and I would just post Google documents and share them with students. I was really into Google pretty early on; in 2007 I started using Google Docs for all classroom word processing. Everything I have I saved and organized in the Googleverse, and I started having my students do that as well. I would ask them to collaborate on different pieces of a presentation with the sharing technology like Google Slides or Google Docs.
A year later, Rabbi Avi Bloom took on the Director of Technology Integration position and eventually brought us to 1:1 with iPads and Chromebooks. All the teachers now also have school-assigned laptops and iPads. Rabbi Bloom brought a lot of teaching into the Googleverse, and since every student now had a device, we could do a lot more. For gemara specifically, Rabbi Bloom helped me find apps and websites to have students record themselves reading, and this was all tied into our new LMS, Haiku. There has been professional development as well to support teachers in learning the new tools.
What are some ways you use technology in your classroom?
Over the past year, I’ve been thinking very carefully about what tools will fit best with which unit. Each one is a little bit different. For every unit I use Explain Everything to assess the students’ gemara reading skills. I’ll demonstrate reading the beginning of a gemara in either a video or audio recording, which the students will watch or listen to in class. Then they have to record themselves reading the Aramaic and Hebrew back correctly. I have them do this activity right away at the beginning of the lesson, because it helps establish familiarity with the text and it enables me to determine early on if anyone is making mistakes and might need more individualized help with reading. I like for the students to be able to ask me questions when they’re in class, and this lesson format gives them the opportunity to do so.
I also use technology to start off units with a type of formative assessment that’s fun and low stakes. Kahoot! and Socrative let me ask multiple choice questions on whatever topic we’re covering. These tools really let me track what’s going on and see what the class knows. Then I can tailor the learning in the upcoming unit to what the students don’t know.
How do you create lessons that use blended learning?
I start by explaining concepts in class and then asking students to share their thoughts with each other. During this more frontal learning time, I’m constantly looking for ways to give students more voice in the classroom. It’s difficult to be in conversation with students when they can’t all talk at once. Technology is great for this because it enables us to all talk at once and I can see all of it. Poll Everywhere is good for a quick “What are your thoughts?” and to see if they understand or not. This quick formative assessment is a sign for me to go over a concept again if they need more help.
Once we’ve established the meaning of a particular gemara, I lead the class in applying the knowledge they’ve acquired. For example, often we study gemara that look obvious on the surface but are actually more complicated. To show their understanding, the students make a whole series of comic strips on their iPads. Using Notability, they create 3-4 panel comic strips, complete with characters talking through speech bubbles, to model what’s in the gemara. One comic strips plays out according to the literal text of the gemara. Another comic strip shows how the situation would play out today, and others shows how it would play out in other kinds of situations. I encourage the students to use the same kind of rhythm in the comic strips as is found in the gemara, and to insert as many Hebrew and Aramaic words from that source text as possible. With the comics, the students apply what they've learned, and make that content real, relevant, and even fun to share with parents and friends. They love it!
When they’ve completed the comic strips, we break into the broader questions from the unit, such as “How much do we value unspoken thoughts in general? In Judaism? In life?” I’ll send students online to find quotes about intentions and thoughts, and we’ll discuss philosophically where we stand on these issues as Jews, people, friends, etc. Then they each write a paragraph about what they’ve learned. At the end of the unit, there’s a larger assessment where they need to encounter these larger questions and address them with references to the sources that they learned as well as one or two new sources they find on their own.
What’s another EdTech tool you like?
One app that really impresses me is Showbie, which is similar to an LMS and is easy for students to get started with right away like Kahoot!. There’s a code that gets the students into the class, and once they’re in it’s incredibly powerful. If I want a lesson to totally take place with them on their iPads then I use Showbie. I set up what I want to happen in the lesson beforehand - I can assign names of students who should work on a certain piece and provide instructions so they know exactly what to do and where to go next. I can include links to Google Docs, online quizzes, YouTube videos, etc. These features let me take them through the journey of the lesson. They can move through the lesson on the iPads at their own paces. This lesson format does require work from me beforehand, but the actual experience for the student is so much better, and it gives me time to walk around the classroom and help students individually. Showbie doesn’t get cluttered; the user experience for students is very clean. It’s also easy to see what all the students are doing and is great for workflow.
What are the advantages of using educational technology and blended learning?
The advantage of technology is that it enables students to add their own personal flair to their work. When they do so, they take ownership of their work and feel that connection to the learning. When you make something feel like it’s really yours, you create a personal connection to the material. With so much info out there, there’s something special about applying the knowledge. The way students are learning now is shaping the information into something new that no one has done before. That’s how learning happens today, taking information and shaping it. That creative spark is where a lot of the connections get made now. Designing a cartoon series, making a video of a parody song - technology makes these activities possible and lets students engage in meaningful learning.
How do you use data from formative assessment to inform your teaching?
The initial assessments with Kahoot! and Socrative tell me what the students know or don’t know before we’ve even started the unit. I put that data into Google Sheets. In Sheets, I also track how each student is doing on reading gemara and on understanding the content. To get myself organized I use color coding on the spreadsheet. If a student is doing very well, I’ll highlight it in one color and another color if they’re struggling. There’s even a way to program the sheet to automate the colors based on scores. I’ll then use the data in the spreadsheet to determine who needs more help on a particular topic or area. The data is also really helpful when having conversations with the students, especially for assessments of their reading.
What educational technology would you like to see developed in the future for Judaic Studies?
I’d like to see something developed for tefillah [prayer]. In the standard siddur [prayerbook] text, there are zones of prayer; you move from one theme to another theme. We don’t usually think too hard about what it takes to move from one theme to another. What if we used the model of gaming for that and brought technology into the prayer space? That hasn’t been explored enough; the image of a student on an iPad during prayer still looks strange in our eyes. But what if an app asks them why they’re thankful or what they’re feeling to help them reflect on the purpose of the daily prayers? It would be using gaming concepts to engage the students in that prayer space. Virtual reality could work for tefillah as well. You could travel and feel like you’re in another place during prayer - feel like you’re at the Kotel or in a synagogue in Krakow. That experience would bring up whole new ideas and things to be grateful for.
What is your favorite part of using technology in your classroom?
When my students say, “Rabbi, that was so cool!” or “Rabbi, I loved that!” Those comments are great and I store them away in my mind. Also, there’s always a student in any class who’s really quiet and doesn’t share that much. With technology like Poll Everywhere, quiet students can can share thoughts that then end up on the board for everyone to see. Some students feel more comfortable typing into their iPads than talking to the class. The technology helps create an atmosphere in which everyone can participate. Students who don’t usually share verbally get to become part of the conversation. It’s facilitating those moments that I really care about. After class I’ll say, “That was your idea,” and I’ll get to talk to that student and celebrate what he or she shared. That’s really meaningful. That’s why I teach.
Yonah Kirschner, former Project Manager, Digital Content and Communications at The Jewish Education Project.