Nov 9, 2009

Hebrew College Blog: "Why My Students Were Texting in Class…and Learning"

Hebrew College Blog: "Why My Students Were Texting in Class…and Learning"

Picture this: You walk into a Prozdor classroom of ninth graders and see them all texting on their cell phones while the teacher is writing on the board. "So sad," you think, "another case of teaching gone bad." In fact, I was the teacher (filling in as a substitute), and I was encouraging the students to text during an introductory class about mitzvot. How did I come to design a class using text messaging as my active learning experience? And why do I think this was a successful and effective class?

In designing my lesson plan, my hope, as a constructivist educator, was to create an active learning experience that would engage the students by using tools that were familiar and comfortable for them. At first my plan was to play a game, something like "Mitzvah Jeopardy." But I needed something different, something new, which would push my boundaries as an educator. Answering a text on my phone in the midst of my planning, I found my inspiration: text messaging in class as a tool for collaborative learning.

"How many mitzvot are there? Let's text a sister, a friend, Dad, as many 'lifelines' as we want." My students eagerly clicked on their cells, and the numbers started coming in. "Do we have to fulfill all the mitzvot?" A quick yes/no text poll of everyone sparked an engaged conversation about the different understandings of commandment as obligation.

Comments from our lifelines punctuated our conversations: "My mom thinks that the mitzvot we fulfill are about making our lives feel more connected to other people." "My dad thinks we can't do mitzvot that have to do with the Temple." One friend remembered that there was "something about Israel" and how that changed which mitzvot we do. Our conversations became multidirectional--we were conversing around our text and around our texting, and we were conversing with one another and with our lifelines, who were conversing with us and with their texts (at least one parent was on Google and another on Wikipedia). 

The students loved this lesson. They loved using their phones, but more than that, they loved the learning. Our classroom discussion was rich, full of personal connections and probing questions. While I have no empirical evidence that it was the medium that provided this depth, as a teacher, I had the clear sense that the conversation was informed by the medium. The explicit and implicit integrated curriculum brought it all together. An added benefit was that parents loved this lesson. It provided a rare window into their kids' experience at Prozdor without having that awkward car conversation: How was class? Fine. What did you learn? Whatever. 

It is time for Jewish education to engage 21st century technology, to connect with our students using the media that are such an integral part of their daily lives. This is an educational imperative for formal as well as complementary Jewish education, and it is a valuable pedagogy for experiential education, as well. Texting is only the beginning. Distance learning courses, wiki building for Jewish teen education, YouTube instructional videos, Twitter for Jewish education, fantasy world gaming meets the Bible--all this and more are the next steps in today's Jewish educational teen curriculum.

As for me, I can't wait to hear from you--how are you using technology in your Jewish educational venue?  I want to know before I have to substitute for my next absent teacher.   


Rabbi Karen G. Reiss Medwed, PhD, is Assistant Professor of Jewish Education at Hebrew College, where she is Dean of Faculty of Prozdor, Director of the EdD in Jewish Education Leadership and Coordinator for the Pardes Educators Program. This spring she will be teaching a distance learning course at Hebrew College, Theories and Foundations in Jewish Education, where she will explore theories such as constructivist education, and practices such as collaborative education and technology in Jewish educational venues. 


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Rabbi Menachem Creditor
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