In this Educator Spotlight, Avi Bloom talks about how technology is supporting learning across disciplines and creating brand new educational possibilities.
Avi Bloom is the Director of Technology at SAR High School where he is responsible for both educational technology Integration and the IT infrastructure. Avi first came to SAR as a preschool student and returned in 2006 to teach in his alma mater as a Beit Midrash fellow at SAR High School. Since then he has held various positions, including student activities coordinator, Talmud Teacher and EdTech Integrator before becoming Director of Technology. Avi received a Master’s degree in Jewish Education from the Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration at Yeshiva University and semikha from YU's Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary. Prior to that he received his BA in Psychology at Yeshiva University’s undergraduate division. When Avi is not at SAR he can be found training for marathons, playing golf and spending time with his wife, Anat, and their two children, Eliora and Ilan.
When did you realize you wanted to be a teacher? How did you get into EdTech?
That goes back a long way. I always knew I wanted to be a rabbi, and through rabbinical school I took an interest in education. When I started at SAR, I taught gemara and worked on student extracurricular activities. Over time, my natural interest in technology made its way into the classroom and I started testing and utilizing lots of different tech tools. This allowed me to provide more differentiated educational opportunities for my students that were engaging to them. That evolved into a strong passion for using EdTech in the classroom. I thought “I want to share, I can help people with this stuff.” It’s so rich. When the IT director and administrators [at SAR] said they needed to formalize an EdTech role, it was clear to me that this was my natural next step. Since then my role has been evolving.
What’s your role as Director of Technology at your school? How do you support teachers?
In my role as Director of Technology, I have the unique vantage point of overseeing both the IT side of the operation and also the Educational Technology used in the classroom. I believe strongly that schools need to have integrated technology departments that foster collaboration between the educators, seeking to utilize technology to better achieve their goals, and the IT support team who are charged with helping the teachers realize their educational goals. The face of technology in schools is changing and schools must work to create unified IT and EdTech teams. Having professionals in this nexus who can speak the languages of education and technology is critical to the success of the entire endeavor.
Supporting teachers cuts across a lot of different lines. Most important is that everyone is getting help at their range of comfort with technology. Just as we do with students, it’s critical for me to personalize guidance and support for each educator. For example, when we rolled out our 1:1 iPad program, it was important that all teachers do something, but we knew it would look different based on each teacher’s facility with technology. By keeping our approach flexible, we can help teachers not only meet their educational goals, but also reimagine what their goals can and should be in the 21st century reality. There are skills and proficiencies that are new for all of us and critical to our students’ success, so the goals need to be consistently redefined in light of the changing landscape.
For example, something we take for granted, like a Google Doc, was innovative not that long ago and it has changed the way teachers at SAR educate their students. It has allowed teachers to be collaborative in ways you couldn’t imagine before. Our iPad program has opened up worlds of possibilities for teachers and students with subject-specific apps, science simulations, video recording, media presentations, and so on. It’s about thinking through an educational lens - what can we do and what should we do to maximize the opportunity of education.
I often ask myself, “What do I want SAR students to walk out with?” I want them to have a basic understanding of the technology out there, understand how it can help them be efficient at meeting traditional challenges in new ways. The world of possibility in the realm of technology is endless, and I believe that in my role as an educator it is my duty to foster as much exposure to all the new tools that are out there.
Can you speak a little about the unique challenges of leading tech integration at the high school level versus lower school or middle school level?
While I have never taught in middle or lower school, I can say that at SAR High school the challenge is that the curriculum is demanding and rigid and often imposed by outside forces (AP, Regents, SAT IIs, basic liberal arts education, etc.) We don’t have as much time as we might like for experimentation, as there are significant curricular requirements student must meet on a daily basis. We have an all-star team of faculty here, many of whom have been master educators for 20+ years, and with an intense environment and jam-packed schedule,there’s not a lot of time for teachers to focus on EdTech professional development. I would even say, the stakes are so high that people are less apt to try things and experiment.
The significant asset of working with SAR High School students is precisely their life-stage. Students who are becoming young adults present tremendous opportunities for growth as they identify their passions and interests. They are able to be educationally adaptive, they can take an idea, or a program, and run with it. As they prepare for college and grow Jewishly, they are beginning to find their personal and educational pathways, thus, their experiences around technology can be profound. Taking a group down to a coding event at Google can be transformative for them as they begin seeing their future selves and the paths they might choose professionally.
My general approach is that we should all be thinking about what the learning goals are and how we can use technology to achieve them and also what goals we should have in light of the tech that’s available. Technology provides opportunities for rethinking goals we never could have dreamed of.
Can you describe some lessons that have integrated technology in a meaningful way?
For conversational Hebrew, students created videos in their own kitchens baking and talking through the process of baking. They watched the videos and then discussed them. That was a great way to use video to document, share, and practice their spoken Hebrew in a personalized setting that enabled them to be creative.
Students in gemara class collaborated to learn about a particular holiday by researching the original text sources and then creating slides using a shared online presentation platform. Through each other’s presentations, the class learned about rituals, customs, and laws related to each holiday, while each student gained significant experience with Jewish text and technology platforms.
In the biology lab, students use digital sensors and probes to send information to a computer, document it, and then graphically produce lab reports with all digital analytics and representations of data that they likely could not have modeled on paper in the same way.
Students in geometry class worked on geometrical proofs by freehanding them on iPads (writing with a stylus) and then sending their digital images of their work to a large screen in the front of the room to talk through their work with the whole class.
How has technology played a role in Judaic Studies?
Beyond the example above of student tech work, as educators we use classroom display technology and individual student devices to step into the text as a collective. Being able to put a text up on the screen and mark it up using different interactive tools, ensures that students and teacher are in-sync. For me it has been an extremely powerful tool in Judaic Studies classes. Additionally, with their 1:1 devices, students now have the ability to collaborate. On these devices students have unparalleled access to the Jewish bookshelf. They can easily look through the entire Tanakh and myriad of Jewish sources with their fingertips.
What are the unique challenges of EdTech in Hebrew and Judaic Studies?
However, there aren’t that many platforms with Judaic Studies content. Some technology doesn’t play nicely with right to left languages. Any time I look at a product, one of first things I look at is how it handles Hebrew right to left. For text tools, we’ve had partnerships with Sefaria and Mercava. Our teachers are great partners in working with and testing different tools. Kahoot! can be used with any material.
The blessing of SAR is that from a philosophical perspective there is full support in utilizing technology to teach Jewish sources. We know the potential concerns about having students consuming technology and SAR very carefully engages with these issues thoughtfully and strategically. Judaic Studies itself offers a whole separate host of challenges and opportunities because it carries intense religious significance. The learning goals are more complex because this is not only about mastering material, but it's about a lifetime of learning and commitment. In this context, I think technology can play an important role in that it provides access to something that might otherwise feel foreign. It can bring ancient texts and ideas to life in powerfully meaningful ways.
What else is happening at SAR tech-wise right now?
Our extracurriculars are blowing up and (for now) it’s one of the places that tech is really shining -- coding, engineering, robotics, 3D printing, biotechnology, digital film, digital design, an amazing broadcasting club that is editing footage and making highlight clips. We have a computer science class and an app creating class, but extracurriculars is where tech is really shining. Our students have driving passions and interests. We have a digital media lab where students can do film and photography work. They produce remarkable films. All of our student publications are designed digitally by SAR students. A student leaving SAR has the professional skills to do the layout for a magazine. We really have a robust co-curricular program thanks to supportive faculty and school administration that is invested in strategically engaging in these areas.
Where are you looking to take technology integration at SAR in the future? What’s on the horizon?
I want a future in which teachers are critically evaluating what pedagogy should look like in our current reality and are open to reflect on that in an ongoing way. I think of myself as platform agnostic, meaning whatever [technology] you have, you can do great things with; it’s really all about pedagogy, learning, and education. You need a range of faculty from hesitant to enthusiastic and engaged in the enterprise.
What’s been most rewarding about working with technology at SAR?
The ability to reach students more widely, more intensely, more deeply, more of the time, in ways that matter - it's really powerful! Whether it's helping kids use a tool they didn't have before, or watching them develop a skill they didn’t have before, or watching them create something new. I met recently with a student who is putting together a digital portfolio for college. She’s been working on digital composition and is quite talented. She’s going to digitally record her music on piano and guitar using the digital tools SAR has in place. These allow her to take her music to a level with she likely couldn't have gotten to outside of SAR. Seeing this kind of personal passion project come to fruition is always particularly compelling.
Thanks for the opportunity to share.
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