Educator Spotlight: A Vision for Personalized Learning with Rav Tomer Ronen
In this Educator Spotlight, go behind the scenes of a unique learning model with Yeshivat He'Atid's Head of School, Rav Tomer Ronen.
A highly respected leader both locally and nationally, Rav Tomer Ronen has over 20 years of experience in Jewish education. Originally from Rechovot, Israel, Rav Ronen began his career in the United States as a teacher and Junior High School Coordinator at SAR Academy in Riverdale, NY. Following SAR, he held the position of Rosh HaYeshiva at Ben Porat Yosef in Paramus, N.J. for ten years. In the beginning of the 2016-2017 school year, Rav Ronen joined Yeshivat He’Atid as Head of School.
What inspired you to become an educator?
I grew up in Israel and learned in a yeshiva for many years. An opportunity came along that allowed me to teach second graders. Sometimes, one is lucky to receive an unexpected opportunity that actually changes their direction for the future and this was that moment for me. Standing in front of those children, it just clicked. The spark in a child’s eye when they understand a concept you are teaching; the excitement you see when you call on a child who knew an answer; understanding the influence you can have on a young mind.
I became observant at fourteen, together with my family. For me, to be able to influence children to be passionate about their Judaism is so fulfilling. I didn’t receive that as a child; being able to inspire students to love Judaism is very rewarding for me.
What brought me to be a principal? Influencing 20 students is rewarding. A whole school community--teachers, parents, students--is the ultimate reward. I was Head of School at Ben Porat Yosef for 10 years where I was fortunate to bring a vision of educating children completely through a Hebrew immersion program to reality. When joining Yeshivat He’Atid, I was excited to have a special opportunity to take a groundbreaking vision to the next level once more.
You came to this school that was built around someone else’s vision for education. How does that compare to your own personal vision? What is your long-term vision for the school?
I joined Yeshivat He’Atid last year. The school was founded in 2012 with a specific mission: to deliver an excellent Jewish education in an affordable manner. (Tuition is less than $10,000.) I brought my experience as an educator and as a principal and incorporated educating our staff and our students in a unique method that ensures that each child is taught on their specific learning path, and creates independent thinkers and curious learners. Everything I do as a Head of School is to support this mission. Combining Yeshivat He’Atid’s vision with my own of educating each child according to his way, we have created a visionary approach to educating the future Jewish leaders of Am Israel.
We have a very ambitious goal: to be able to have an affordable Jewish school in every community in the US. That’s a big dream, and we need to start at home. We need to prove to ourselves and our parent body that we are delivering an excellent education, one that we are able to measure with clear conclusions, all while keeping our tuition low. Our hope is to open a high school that will continue in this same vein. This year, we opened our Middle School. We are doing something that is revolutionary in education and we hope it will make an impact everywhere, not just in our community.
Many Jewish day schools have had teacher-driven, frontal teaching where students are passive learners. How has your school addressed the pitfalls of that approach in the blended learning model you use?
Educational research has repeatedly shown that one-on-one instruction is the best learning method for improving student outcomes, focus and confidence. Using our blended learning model, teachers can spend over 80% of their teaching time in individual or small group settings.
Our blended learning model achieves a high level of one-on-one instruction without additional staff in 3 ways:
1. Optimization of teacher and student time
The key to one-on-one instruction is efficient use of teacher and student time. Our model helps teachers develop schedules, spaces, routines and resources to create ample daily opportunities for one-on-one instruction. It guides teachers using insights from extensive classroom trials and latest educational research.
2. Proven, personalized learning software
Personalized online learning allows students and teachers to focus their time together where it’s needed most. We partner with several of the most sophisticated online content providers in the marketplace today. While teachers work one-on-one and in small groups with some students, others are able to engage in personally-tailored, adaptive online programs to facilitate their educational progress. These online tools engage students, while precisely measuring their progress on a daily basis.
Technology Programs we use are:
I-Ready: Children love I-Ready and teachers love the valuable information it provides concerning a child’s math and reading ability. It is a fun, interactive practice for students to reinforce skills.
ST Math: Spatial-Temporal (ST) Math was created by MIND Research Institute. It is a game-based instructional software for K-12 and is designed to boost math comprehension and proficiency through visual learning.
3. Real-time tracking of student progress
In order to make one-on-one time as valuable for students as possible, our approach enables teachers to use up-to-date indicators of student progress on a daily basis. Personalized learning software unobtrusively tracks each student’s progress or struggles in real time. It then collects the data, analyzes it and delivers daily reports to teachers’ inboxes so they can precisely focus where each child needs their support that day. This information also aids the teacher’s ability to adjust her curriculum based on the students’ needs and helps her decide what she will focus on tomorrow or the day after.
This model is implemented in our Kindergarten through 6th Grade.
We are one of 330 schools in the country using the Summit Learning platform for our Middle School and one of only four Jewish Day Schools using it. It’s a new way of providing personal learning time (PLT). The goal for each student is for him to understand the concepts he will need to know for an upcoming lesson. The teacher now comes to the lesson already aware that the student understands those concepts and can take it to the next level. The teacher can challenge the students and facilitate a high level lesson once they know the content. Students are setting their own personal goals concerning what they are going to learn each week. A student may choose a goal that they couldn’t achieve or he can surpass his goal. This teaches the students how to take ownership, be accountable and reinforces to the student that it’s not the teacher giving knowledge. Rather, as the student, they decide what they will learn today and tomorrow and at what pace. It’s all in the hands of the students. We see tremendous growth and they are so proud and invested in what they are doing.
In our model, the child is learning in a group of 3-4, a small intimate environment sitting face to face with the teacher. The teacher can’t “miss” a child. There’s not a point in the day when the child is bored. If the top ability group is really excelling, the teacher can change the lesson and enrich those children. We don’t need resource or enrichment teachers because it’s all happening right in the classroom with the two teachers who know the children best. A child can be high in some subjects and low in others and we can put them in different groups for any lesson.
What kind of student success have you seen with your model? What do students say about it? What do parents say about their children’s experience at Yeshivat He’Atid?
After just one month with the Summit Learning platform, our students can explain their own goals; their individual successes. It is amazing to see how the children reflect on and take ownership of their learning. They are so proud of what they learned. It’s even more incredible to see that they are proud of how many times they might have failed and overcome this obstacle and succeed. When you walk into a classroom and see children engaged, sitting down by themselves, focused and learning, not because someone told them to, but because that's what you do, that’s empowering. When you see them working on the computer and data shows they are progressing, you understand this is the right way to educate the new generation of learners.
Parents are excited and appreciative of everything we’re doing. I regularly receive beautiful notes from parents to tell me how their children are happy, engaged and love to be part of the Yeshivat He’Atid community.
Those who visit our school and see our rotational model understand what education means to us in our school today and it becomes clear that this is how students learn best.
To clearly measure our success, we do MAP testing (Measuring Academic Progress) three times a year. In addition to the constantly accessing where our students are academically, MAP helps us see if the growth of each child is as expected, how can we get a student to reach higher levels, beyond their limits.
What is the role of technology in education at Yeshivat He’Atid? How does it support personalized and blended learning?
Strong teachers use technology to enhance the learning but it absolutely does not replace good teaching. Technology supports the learning that is happening in the classroom. We also believe that every student needs to have an individual learning path, so in the classroom, there are four different paths, but on the computer the student has his own learning path. If you see seven kids on the computer, none of them are doing same thing.
How has personalized and blended learning supported students in Judaic Studies and helped to foster a love of Jewish learning?
We are using TaLAM in the elementary school as the curriculum for Ivrit [Hebrew]. We are part of a pilot program for iTaLAM [digital component of the program]. So in one of their rotation groups, our students are the digital program and it’s working out very well for them. In our Middle School, we are developing our own curriculum online and offline. We believe a student in Middle School can learn the peshat [straight/basic meaning] of pesukim [verses] on their own. So we created curriculum guiding them to master the content on their own. As in general studies classes, there will be two to three groups working independently to understand basic content -- the peshat -- and then with the teacher they are going deeper into the iyun, learning Rashi and the nuances of the pesukim [verses]. The AVI CHAI Foundation really helped us to develop that curriculum. My larger vision is to put this curriculum onto the Summit Learning platform.
What has been most rewarding about being head of your school? What has leading this unique environment taught you?
Being able to see the impact that this school has had in Bergen County and on the larger Jewish community, nationally and internationally. I gave a tour to presidents from many schools in the UK, I got another call from a school in Canada, and had a tour from the Qohelet Foundation in Philly. They see we are offering something very unique to our families and they want to hear about it. That, to me, is priceless. That’s exactly what I believe in and believe I’m building -- not just another school -- I’m building a future for Am Yisrael.
Each morning, whatever opportunity the day brings, I truly believe that we, at Yeshivat He’atid, are changing history. By working in the education world in North America, we constantly hear from parents and grandparents about the struggles regarding tuition. We are making a change in this area. And as far as education, we are changing the face of education with innovative, progressive methods. Combining affordability with these unique educational models are changing the way education will be seen from here on in. This is a very exciting time for the future of education and I am thrilled to be in the forefront of these changes.
In Israel, there is a center that helps train Principals called Avney Rosha. Three of the four administrators of that organization came to visit schools across America and they came for a tour and wanted to hear about our school. While I was trying to describe our philosophy to them, I realized that my words cannot do our program justice. I quickly changed my focus and just took them to the classrooms. After 45 minutes, I had to drag them out. They had never seen anything like our program--students so engaged in learning, the class so calm, the teacher knowing exactly what every student was doing. That’s when you know you’re doing the right thing. That was my “aha moment.”
Learn more about educational technology at DigitalJLearning.org.
Yonah Kirschner is Project Manager, Digital Content and Communications at The Jewish Education Project.