In this interview with Rabbi Simcha Schaum, you'll find out how he's getting students excited about the study of mishnah through project-based learning and authentic assessment.
Rabbi Simcha Schaum is a Judaic Studies teacher for 4th, 6th, and 7th grades at Yavneh Academy, where he has been teaching for 9 years. He is excited about educational technology and project-based learning and the possibilities they offer in a Judaic Studies classroom. Rabbi Schaum studied at Yeshivat Har Etzion and received his Bachelor's and Master's Degrees and Rabbinic Ordination from Yeshiva University. He lives with his wife, also a teacher, and their 3 daughters, in Teaneck, NJ.
How did you learn how to integrate technology into your classroom?
My school is good about supporting the teachers, so there is professional development about different apps and tools that can help. Four years ago, our middle school principal for Judaic Studies, Rabbi Dr. Aaron Ross, sat us down over the summer and introduced us to project-based learning. He also emails us cool things continuously. It’s a mix of formal and informal professional development. I’m also on Twitter and I follow the #jedchat hashtag, so I find things that way. A year ago I went to the ISTE conference and that was also helpful. At the conference, I saw that there are two sides to EdTech. One is the actual technology used in education (“What apps do you use?”). The other side is looking at how education today is happening in a world where students have access to technology, and they can create cool things, share with each other, and have more sources of information than just the teacher. I’d rather focus on this latter side. It’s about teaching kids to think critically and exploring education models that can be used in a world where kids do have access to technology.
How does EdTech help your students to learn Mishnah?
I want students to become familiar with the text of the Mishnah and be able to read and translate out loud. In a typical classroom, this would be nearly impossible, because an entire class reading out loud can be boring and usually doesn’t work well. With Evernote, the text becomes interactive. I’ll take a picture of the Mishnah text and then send the students that as a note, so they’ll all receive it in their Evernote accounts. On the iPads the students can record themselves reading, highlight parts I’ve asked them to find, and then they can email the whole note back to me with their annotations. It’s a great way for me to check how they’re doing - I’ll listen to them read out loud, look at their highlighting. I can email them feedback on each note and can ask them to do second drafts if they need more practice. It makes the whole formative assessment piece so much more efficient. Sometimes that back and forth keeps going and they’ll try and perfect it with a third or fourth draft.
What does project-based learning look like in your classroom?
The project I’m really excited about is one for which my 6th grade Mishnah class prepared lessons for younger students in the school. The 6th graders worked collaboratively in groups of two or three to write their lesson plans. They were learning the second half of the fifth perek of Brachot, which talks about some essential aspects of davening, like kavannah and the role of the chazan. They had to pick a topic for a lesson that they would then teach to the 3rd grade students. I gave them access to the sources and they could look up others on their own. They wanted to make the lessons as interesting as possible for the younger students, so they got very serious and were really thinking about the information. The project was really teaching them to think critically. They had to come up with the main idea by seeing what the sources say and then had to support their ideas by including references from the Mishnah. All the middle school students have iPads, so each group worked together using shared Google Docs. The lesson plans were also shared with me, so I could check their progress and make comments at night without them giving me a stack of papers. In class, I could just open up the doc while working with each group. It made the whole feedback process easier and formative assessment much more doable. The kids put their all into their lessons and did a great job teaching their 'students.' They became experts in, and passionate advocates for tefillah and were exhilarated by the experience!
How does the data collected from formative assessment inform your teaching?
I have a Google spreadsheet that I use to track student progress; it’s like a gradebook, but it saves me a step, because I only have to write the feedback in one place. Once I record the feedback in the spreadsheet, then I can use a mail-merge feature that allows me to send a quick email to the individual students so they can see how they’re doing. So if a student translates one line of Mishnah incorrectly, I can send feedback and they can use that to do the assignment again and it enables them to fine-tune their knowledge of the Mishnah. If I see that one or two students are way off, then I’ll write them feedback and go over it with them the next day or I can go over that part with the whole class. Being able to do this kind of efficient formative assessment means I get to differentiate and work one-on-one with students or with the entire class depending on their needs.
What are the advantages of using EdTech for your students?
The biggest educational advantage is the ability to have all of those little opportunities for informal assessment, because that’s where a lot of learning happens - between the tests and major projects. The tight feedback loop lets me really check how they’re doing.
There is also a lot more opportunity for adjusting pace. A few years ago another teacher and I collaborated on a website, and we put all the lessons for one of our classes online. So now the students can work at their own speed. The lecture material was made into 4-minute animated video clips, and the students do all the work in Google Forms, which grades the multiple choice assignments and then sends me the results. It made feedback quicker and easier. The videos explain difficult concepts, which the students can skip and then go back to if needed, so it’s very self-paced. I’m there to answer questions and am able to help them individually while they’re working online.
How do you see the role of EdTech in Judaic Studies?
I've found that, with EdTech, the one big thing is, if you teach frontally and interact minimally with the students, the technology actually works against you - you have to walk around more and monitor the students. The tech works in your favor when you have the students actively doing things. It forces you to teach in a way where you’re giving the students more to do. That was difficult, because the only way to make the lessons work is to give them something meaningful to do. That’s the biggest challenge. When teaching Mishnah, you want to give them as many tools as possible, so you can help them become independent learners who can use their translation and analysis skills as much as possible on their own. That tradition of independent learners goes along really well with project-based learning. Studying Mishnah takes creativity and drives critical thinking, so in a way, the EdTech is just a better way of doing what we’ve been trying to do the whole time.
What are your favorite tools?
The basics like email, Google Docs, and Evernote, are powerful. I find that the more versatile the app the more powerful it is. Some other apps we use are iMovie, Keynote, Educreations, Explain Everything, Adobe Voice - these are all good for students to present what they know creatively.
What are your future EdTech goals?
One is to explore more ways of enhancing student research. I want to teach them to do their own research, but I’m not yet sure what role research would have in a Judaic Studies text course. They have access to everything online, but I need to teach them how to research effectively. I’m also looking into an LMS to keep all the students’ work in one place. It would be great to have the students more organized.
What have been your most rewarding experiences with classroom innovation?
The most rewarding part of teaching in general is when students not only learn what you want them to learn, but are also excited about it with you. That’s hard to get to, but project-based learning has gotten them to that point most often. Kids are excited when they have the chance to use the things they’ve learned in a meaningful way. For example, when my students had to teach the younger kids about a particular Mishnah, or when they came up with recommendations for improving davening in middle school - these gave them a chance to really do something meaningful with their learning. They had to think about real issues. The end goal of project-based learning is to do something with the learning that is important and meaningful, not simply with a test. When you’re aiming for a practical result, like standing in front of the shul’s rabbi and presenting your interpretation of a text, then you want to make a good impression. That practical goal means students are more likely to be motivated to learn.