A Letter About Purim

Dear Rabbi Pollock,

I think that it is disgusting that you mentioned the idea that drinking on Purim can be beautiful to your class of elementary school  boys. You are the mentor of impressionable young neshamos. After hearing what you said in class, my own child told me that he wants to drink on Purim when he grows up. I am completely sure you did not think of the effect that your words may have. I merely ask that you pay heed to your words because in today’s world, alcohol abuse is a big problem. 

Respectfully your, 

A Concerned Parent

I have been thinking about what you said since Purim. You are correct. It is not a good thing to make light of such a potentially serious thing as drinking. We don’t want our children to think that this is something that is socially acceptable.

In regards to telling children that it is beautiful to get drunk… a boy came back from Purim talking about his Purim seudah and mentioned that the son of someone well connected to the school was drunk. He was describing the brochos this bochur was giving to people and the songs he was singing. I said that it sounds like this bochur got drunk in the proper way. Unfortunately, on Purim we often see people drinking and ending up doing the things that you described in your email. However, sometimes when a person who is a Ben Torah drinks on Purim, all the externals fall to the wayside and you see his penimius – who he really is on a deeper level. It is beautiful when you see that all this person wants deep down in his heart is to be close to Hashem. I have seen many people crying on Purim that they don’t daven with enough kavanah, that they don’t do their mitzvos carefully enough, that they don’t set aside enough time to learn torah and that they feel that they can accomplish more in their avodos Hashem. I was using the term beautiful to describe this boy’s desire to connect with Hashem because that was truly beautiful. That is what we want every Jewish person to want. This is supposed to be the focus of our life.

Obviously I did not go this in detail in class. A young child can not understand more than the idea that it is beautiful to want to connect with Hashem. But, I think it is important for these impressionable young neshamos to know that this is a focus in life. They are 7 and 8 years old and life is simple to them. We learned about Hagar this year. She was a princess in Paroah’s palace and he gave her away to Avraham because “it is better to be a servant of a tzaddik than to be a princess in a royal palace.” When I ask the boys what they would rather be. Rich princes or servants to a tzaddik? Every single one answered that they would give up all the money in the world to serve a tzaddik. The boys are impressionable. It is obvious to them that this is the correct answer. In another year or two the world won’t be so black and white to them. They will be a little bit more savvy about life. These questions will not seem so simple. Kedushah vs. Money? How many of us adults would be (easily) able to make that same decision.

My goal every day in class is to make Yiddishkeit real to the boys. When we daven, it is because Hashem is really there. When we learn, it is because this is Hashem’s Torah. We daven and learn for people who are sick because Hashem can really make them better. I try to make them realize that Hashem is part of their life and we can get close to Him. That is what I want them to take out of each Yom Tov. On Rosh Hashana we daven to Hashem. “He loves us. Does your father love you? Of course!! Hashem loves you the same way. We can ask Him for anything we want. Do you need a new bike. Daven and ask. He can make sure you will get one this year… or He will say no because it is not the best thing for you this year.” On Succos, I want the talmidim to internalize that we are moving outside into Hashem’s house. I attempt to drive this idea home every single Yom Tov. The same is true when we are learning Chumash. Avraham was a real person who reached the level that malachim frequented his house. He really talked to Hashem. Hashem was part of his life. I want my second graders to know that Hashem is part of our lives also.  That is where the Purim comment was coming from. Perhaps you feel that this was still too much for a second grader and if so, I am sorry. My point was not to romanticize alcohol consumption in the slightest degree. My point was to germinate the idea that every boy in the class can have a personal relationship with his Maker.

Sure, there are people who drink too much and this is completely not okay. If a person looks at Purim as a time to get wasted, then let him get himself wasted someplace far away from our children. They don’t need to see that. Drinking is not okay on Simchas Torah, at a kiddush, at a restaurant or in any other social scene. I emphasized  to the boys that in my house there is a little bit of wine by kiddush on Shabbos and that is it.

Thinking through the whole conversation in class and reading your email, I was wondering if perhaps,  a better response to this kid could have been, “Ew, that is disgusting.” and then just to move on to the next thing in class. Perhaps it would have been better to sidestep this whole idea and not expose these precious young boys to something that has the potential to be misused. On the other hand, I am nervous that by not exposing these precious neshamos to ideas that are essential to life as a Torah Jew that something eternal might be lost. It is precisely at this time when their minds are so impressionable that they are able to understand that the reason we were put into this world is to connect ourselves to Someone greater.

I am not writing this to try to change your opinion in the slightest. I feel that just as you took the time to express sentiments, it is important that you should hear mine.

Once again, I appreciate your candor and your taking the time to put your thoughts into writing. It is obvious from seeing your son’s actions in class just how much effort you are putting into him to make sure he grows up to be a Ben Torah and Yorei Shamayim that we will all be proud of.

Your Son’s Rebbi

Rabbi Yisroel Pollock

A Look Back

 Yesterday, I looked back at the first essay I wrote for my educational technology course, entitled My Educational Technology Mission Statement. I wanted to see if anything changed over the past nine months since I started the course. Perhaps I came to some new understanding about myself or technology that I had been unaware of. And I wondered what the repercussions might be if it changed… or perhaps even more frightening, if it didn’t change after nine months of being immersed in educational technology.

                I originally wrote that Judaic Studies teachers and General Studies teachers have different goals regarding the use of technology. I explained Judaic Studies teachers are preparing the students for a Torah life. Their goal is that the student should be familiar and comfortable in all aspects of Jewish life. Technology is only there to help with the task, but not an end in itself. A General Studies teacher is given the task of preparing the student for a successful career. They need to guide the students in general knowledge as well as keep them up to date in the latest technological innovations to ensure they are competitive in the workplace.

                Over the course I have interacted with many dedicated Secular teachers. I must backtrack and say that overwhelmingly they see technology as a tool to help teach the knowledge to the children. Their goal is not technology for technology itself, but rather to train the children to think and to apply what they know. Of course, Judaic and General teachers have different objectives because they both serve a different purpose in a child’s life. That is why our children need both of them. The General studies teacher is teaching for general knowledge that a child needs for life and the Judaic studies teacher is teaching toward what the child needs to live a Jewish life. Both are important and necessary. In regards to technology, all teachers use them in the same way. To enhance the student’s knowledge.

                That was where I backtracked from my original thoughts. I joined the course originally because I was looking to find a better way to integrate technology in a purposeful way into my classroom. I still firmly believe that we all must evaluate each technological tool before we use it and ask ourselves if this adds to the lesson I want the students to learn.

                I enjoyed learning about the ISTE standards that give expectations for what a student is expected to know in each grade. I appreciated the opportunity to work on each web 2.0 tool to figure out ways it could be used to enhance the teaching that is happening in my classroom. I would have liked to work on more collaborative projects because I feel that this is an area where technology has a huge advantage over the established way. I feel that students can accomplish so much more when they collaborate together. I would have enjoyed seeing that in action a little bit more.

 It was also amazing to see how quickly technology is changing. In the textbooks that were written only a couple of years ago, there was nary a mention of mobile technology. Nowadays many people are only using iPads. Computer sales are down and people need to use them less and less. Some of the tools we learned about might not be around in the next year or two. Something bigger, better or more effective is already out there. However, I have the tools to keep myself up to date on the latest trends in educational technology. I learned about those too. And I will keep up with what is going on and keep connected to people in my PLN to make sure that I can give my students the knowledge that they need and deserve.





Insanely Great?

Torah Studies with the iPad is “insanely great” because…

Can you complete the sentence? I keep thinking about this and still do not know the answer. Sure, there are advantages to having an all-around tool that can be used to take pictures, record, and take notes, but those will enhance any classroom. I wanted to know if there is anything that specifically makes the Chumash or Gemara easier for the students to learn

Recently, I bumped into a colleague from another school and inquired how the school year was going. Last year, his school piloted a 1:1 iPad program that has been touted as a highly successful model to follow. My friend has a reputation as being one of the teachers who embraced this technology and is an innovator in classroom integration. Naturally I jumped at the opportunity to ask him just how the iPads improved the learning in his Torah Studies Elementary school classroom.

He said that he uses the iPad’s every day in class. His classroom is a paperless classroom. All worksheets are done on the iPad.

“Is that better?”, I asked.

He hemmed and hawed. “Well I guess they can’t lose their papers, but otherwise it is nothing special.” He went on to explain that a lot of what he does is shtick that keeps the interest of the students, but there was nothing that made the Chumash learning better.

We continued our discussion and he expressed his frustration that though there may be certain advantages to having iPads in a classroom, there is nothing that he does on the iPad that is “insanely great” for Torah Studies, in particular. Of course, we could go back and forth and discuss the ways of creating presentations to show knowledge of the materials learned or having the students create a stop motion video to display their knowledge of the perek. But what do you use to actually help them learn the Chumash better?

Perhaps one might argue that any technology by definition does not advance the learning. Chumash and Gemara are age old materials that are not meant to be learned with new technologies. They are supposed to be learned only with a sefer and being taught the materials orally by a Rebbi or Morah. This is how they are meant to be learned. Anything else is not pure Torah and only detracts form the lesson.

According to this argument, Torah Studies teachers should not use whiteboards because that is not pure, undiluted Torah Study. They should not use index cards. It is not pure undiluted Torah study. They should not use lights. That is not pure undiluted Torah study. The only proper way to study Torah is by candlelight in a dark room.

That is obviously not the case. Torah Studies teachers are quick to innovate. They are excited about new methods and and ideas…but only when they advance the lesson. Chumash and Gemara are multifaceted materials that require an understanding at many levels to gain true mastery over the materials. Those teaching Torah Studies are constantly looking for ways to help the students understand the materials at a deeper level. Just how do you break apart a word in Chumash? Can you decipher the possuk independently? Why does the Torah use that specific word? Can you figure out what was bothering Rashi on the possuk? Those are examples of some of the skills that the students need to successfully learn Chumash on their own. Is there a way to use an iPad to give over these skills? I am still looking.

In my classroom, I use an interactive whiteboard. I enjoy being able to manipulate the words on the board and show the students how to properly conjugate the words of the pessukim. (Of course, it is possible that the iPad will soon replace IWBs because of their prevalence of apps such as Notability.) Lately, I have also been using an Elmo document camera. I love being able to put my Chumash or worksheets under the camera and zoom in. I can write on the paper or on the board. I can mark up my Chumash and show the students how I am understanding the materials. These are examples of two tech tools that will enhance the student’s understanding of the Chumash or Gemara. Both are practical advances that make the learning better. I fail to understand how using Storyrobe or Puppet Pals will make the students understand better. These are great tools for assessing understanding after the students have already learned the materials.

People often get excited about the next great idea. It is easy to fall into the trap of being caught in the moment and losing sight of the bigger picture. Each time we introduce a new piece of technology, we need to ask ourselves if this is getting us closer to our teaching goals. First, we need to define our objectives. What do we want the students to walk away with? In Torah Studies the goal is often that they should be able to learn on their own, unaided. If so, we need to think carefully before we introduce a new app into the class. Is this on the road map to helping them achieve that goal? Too often we try to fit the Torah learning into the new technology. We lose sight of our objective and drift off course. It is great that the students can tweet the story of Avraham bring Yitzchok to the Akeida.

@Yitzchok There is a reason we didn’t bring a sheep #readytobeakorban

@Avraham tie me down so I don’t flinch #nervous

DM @Avraham @Avraham Don’t touch the boy #justatest

But does that advance their understanding of the Chumash? Does it bring them the skills and knowledge necessary to open up a Chumash on their own? I would argue that it only shows that they understand the story line. Sure, you can ask them a deeper question that they need to think about and have them discuss it on a VoiceThread. Perhaps that works for High School. You can put everyone online and have a collaborative discussion. In Elementary school where the goal is skill building, it is hard to make the argument that the iPad is “insanely great”. It is definitely a nice tool to have in the class, but it is not the amazing tool that it can be in the Secular Studies classroom.

Just to clarify – added 4/21/13

I am not saying that there is no purpose for an iPad in a Torah Studies classroom. You can still use it for all the amazing things that you can use it for in a Secular Studies classroom. I am just saying that right now there do not appear to be many apps or tools that will enhance a Chumash or Gemara lesson and make it easier for the students to understand the content.

In addition, I had small idea for a use that I think does have a purpose. I have been using an Elmo document camera to project the actual page of Chumash on the board. I love that I can write on the board or I can write on my Chumash. Very often I have the students come up and mark up my Chumash. The annoying part of everything is if I write the comments on the board with a marker and the chumash moves slightly – all the answers on the board are suddenly in the wrong place. If I mark up the actual Chumash, then they are always in the same place, but there is no room for mistakes. Last week on of my second graders put quotation marks on the bottom of the words in the same place you would put a period or comma. Also, there is the distraction in class taken when you need to turn the page and line up the new page and make sure that it is perfectly situated on the board.

Wouldn’t it just be easier to take a picture of the page of Chumash with the iPad and project that on the board using one of the many whiteboard apps. Then you can mark it up as you desire. You have the ability to erase and nothing will move. You can put the iPad on anybody’s desk and let them put answers on the page. That seems to be better than what I am doing now.

I welcome your comments and thoughts.

There Is Nothing Wrong With Your Life – Second Life

Have you ever tried a virtual world such as Second Life? It was recommended that I check it out. I signed up and tried it out. I can’t imagine using it for my students. You are in a virtual world. Sort of like the Wolfenstein 3D that we used to play as kids. (Did I just date myself – What games did you play as a kid?)  You can move around wherever you want (No evil Nazis) and interact with the world. There are other people who are logged into that same world and you can connect with them. It is sort of like a strange social network.

It seemed to me that there were too many distraction and places that I did not want to visit. Every other world seemed to be for the purpose of meeting people and doing things that you would never do in real life. Why would you want to interact with a strange person who hangs out in make believe worlds, of whose gender you have no clue. You haven’t an inkling of their true appearance. They are trying to be someone who they are not. At least in Facebook and Twitter the people you meet are purported to be who they say they are. It is possible that there are people on Twitter who I am following, but are not teachers, yet they act and seem like teachers. I grant you that it is possible, however they need to be able to communicate coherently in the ongoing conversation. If they can fake it that far then let them say their piece. In Second Life, the people are purposely trying to be people whom they are not. I do not want my students using something like this. There is too much “bad” that could happen. Stick to your real life. There is nothing wrong with your life!

That is my opinion. Is there a way you envision using Second Life in your classroom. Would you send it home as a homework assignment? What are your thoughts about Second Life in general? Please comment below.

Blogging: More Than Just Writing

I once had the opportunity to go personally to a talk by Tammy Worcester and chose instead to go to a different session. Tammy is a popular presenter at and the author of over a dozen books on Educational Technology. Her website, Tammy’s Technology Tips for Teachers is a great destination for teachers who are looking for a Web 2.0 trick to spice up their classroom. At the time, I had not heard of her and chose to go to a different session that I imagined would be more worthwhile. A colleague went to Tammy’s session and came back so excited about the different web tools that were demonstrated. I remember being so frustrated at missing something that was so good.

Recently, my assignment for my Ed Tech course was to watch one of the available videos from ISTE 2011. You can imagine my excitement when I saw that one of the videos available was a presentation by Tammy Worcester. Her topic, Go Digital, focused on the myriad of ways that a blog can enhance a classroom. Her presentation was engaging and the topic was fascinating. Here is the link to her presentation: http://www.isteconference.org/ISTE/2011/program/search_results_details.php?sessionid=60706747&selection_id=82647615&rownumber=18&max=54&gopage=15

Tammy showed many nonconventional ways to post to a blog. I didn’t know I could post from an email. You write the post and email it to an address that is known only to you and it posts automatically. Many schools block Blogger and WordPress and suddenly you have a way to post even though the blog is not accessible.

She also spent a lot of time showing how you can embed any web 2.0 tool that had the option to give you HTML code. If you have a YouTube video or Google document, it is very easy to embed them in the blog. Just copy the HTML code and when you post to the blog you click on the tab to add HTML and whatever you created on that website is automatically stored on the blog. For example I am putting in the HTML code of a YouTube video that I created:

For the same price I can embed a Google doc in my blog. The neat thing about embeding a document form Google is that when you edit the document on Google Drive, the newly edited version will appear on you blog. Imagine if you would embed a Google spreadsheet that is linked to a Google form. You can ask a question on the form and email it to the students and then have the results show up on an organized spreadsheet. Here is a sample form I created. Feel free to put in a fake name. After you submit the form, look below and see the spreadsheet that automatically recorded your answer. (You might need to refresh your page.)

Fill out the form.

And here is the spreadsheet.

Imagine that you have the students do this at night for homework.

Tammy stressed that you can put any embeddable page into your blog and then they will automatically update as those websites get updated. You can have a dynamic changing blog that does not rely on you to publish new information.

What would you embed into your blog. Please comment below with your ideas.

The Wiki and the Dodo

Several years ago, a colleague showed me how he uses a Wiki in his class. I remember being impressed with the collaboration between the teacher and the students, as well as the interactions between the students themselves. It was technology at its best. Being used to enhance the learning. The students gained and the teacher gained. It appeared to be a powerful, well thought out use of technology. I even set one up, but never ended up using it live.

If you’ve read my blogs, you know that I am taking an educational technology course. Each week we’ve been working on a different Web 2.0 tool and learning how to use them in an organized manner. This week we revisited Wikis. I started to think of the Wikis that I use regularly. There is Wikipedia. Then there are … um… I think I bought a Bluetooth once and the help page was on a Wiki. So I started to look online for popular Wikis. There are definitely some that do pop up on a Google search. But many of them are old and out of date. I saw Wikis that were not updated in since 2010!! I googled “Best Educational Wikis of 2012 and the list was surprisingly sparse. Of course there were some. When I browsed through them I found that although many were well done, they often reflected the work of an individual rather then celebrating the collaborative nature of a Wiki. A sort of personal website.

The truth is that many of the reasons to create a wiki are outdated. Wikis were touted because of their collaborative nature, their ease of use, and change tracking. There are newer, more effective ways to do that. Google Docs comes immediately to mind. I can create a document that people can edit and add to and track changes through my Google account. What am I gaining by creating a Wiki? The ease of use of a Google Doc is at least as easy, if not easier than the editing tools available on a Wiki. Plus, I can embed my Doc into any website for public viewing. If it is collaboration through discussion that I am hoping to get, there is Facebook and Twitter. I can get instant feedback to whatever I want to know. If my goal is just to get my point out, then a blog or website is the way to go. In class, I would much rather used a closed social network such as Edmodo than to assign them a page in a Wiki. I am hard pressed to come up with a specific situation where I would want to use a Wiki at all.

I am sure you are wondering how I am going to answer Wikipedia and similar sites. I would claim that those were created when Wikis were the best tool. They achieved global recognition and are now firmly planted there as a sort of status quo. I would be surprised if a new wiki popped up and gained popularity to the levels of a Wikipedia.

Please feel free to comment and let me know what you think. Am I missing the boat on this one? Is there still a place for wikis or is it going the way of the dodo? Are there other popular tools that will not be around much longer? I would love to hear what you think.

Tech Is Not A Substitute For Teaching

I had the opportunity last week to go to an iPad Boot Camp given by Sam Gliksman. Sam runs the popular iPads in Education Ning (http://ipadeducators.ning.com/) and recently published iPads Apps for Education for Dummies (http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1118375386/?tag=wwwwileycom-20). He gave a fascinating class about effectively using the plethora of different iPad apps to facilitate the classroom learning. He spent a lot of time showing different ways that the students could create content and show their understanding of the materials.

It was eye opening to see the powerful apps that can be utilized on the iPad. He modeled checking for understanding by having the students create a book and then emailing it to the teacher’s Evernote homework notebook. We learned how to connect our iPads to our computers and use them as a substitute for an IWB . He showed us different strategies in Socrative to encourage active participation. He amazed us when he asked us to input three adjectives to describe a character in a story and used Wordle to make a word cloud out of our answers. The tools that are available are out of this world. If properly used, they can change your classroom. They not only add a visual perspective to the learning, but they also allow the students to manipulate the data and experience the learning hands on.

We sat entranced as we pondered the technological wonders we could incorporate into our classrooms. We now have a device that could motivate our students to want to learn. We would no longer need to discipline and we wouldn’t need to work as hard. The learning would just magically happen…

Then he said it….Technology is not out to replace good teaching. Nothing is magic. A good teacher uses any tool at their disposal to ensure that the students are learning. The iPad is just another tool, albeit a versatile one. Its purpose is not to replace good, solid teaching. It was quite obvious from Sam Gliksman presentation that he viewed the iPad as a tool. It is just a means to the end and not the end itself.The apps were to encourage the students to think. He viewed the iPad as a tool to help us step away from the teacher centered classroom and glide into the role of the teacher as the facilitator. It is proven the retention rate is higher for students who have the opportunity to learn the materials on their own. We are letting the students down if we think it is enough to let them memorize verbatim. They need to be trained to think on their own. They need to acquire the ability to analyze a situation and think through a solution.

The same holds true for any visual learning tool. The web offers thousands of tools that can add flavor to your lessons and pizzazz to your delivery. Many of them can be utilized to help the students understand using real life data and hands on experience. Using them effectively can be invaluable for your students. The key is to use them effectively and not fall prey to the desire to use them because they exist.

It is important to think through each aspect of every lesson you give over to your students. What is the best way to get them to learn. Is it to create an online presentation and collaborate with their fellow classmate or is it to sit down with a pencil and paper and work it out the old fashion way? You need to decide your learning goal and then figure out the best way to get there. If the answer is using paper and pencil, then encourage them to use paper and pencil. If the best way is to post to a wiki, then they post to wiki. Don’t be afraid that you are selling your students short by not using the technology. You are selling your students short by not giving them the best opportunity to learn.