In this Educator Spotlight, Rabbi Avrohom Wagshul shares how the flipped classroom model helps his students learn mishnah and the many ways educational technology helps bring Torah to life.
Avrohom Wagshul is a father of five, and elementary school Judaic Studies teacher and Kesher Hebrew School Director at Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy in Beverly Hills, CA. He recently completed his Master’s Degree in Teaching and courses in educational leadership at the American Jewish University in Bel Air. His passion is finding innovative ways to bring Torah learning to life, especially using technology to bring out student creativity and motivation. He has recently begun a blog with his ideas for integrating technology and Torah at techtorah.wordpress.com, and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
When did you decide you wanted to be a teacher?
It happened when I was on shlichut [outreach] in Sydney, Australia. I spent two years there. One year I was studying for smicha [rabbinic ordination]. The other year I was doing communal work helping a synagogue as a youth leader doing programming. I had an idea to do a night kollel where kids come and learn Torah with the rabbinical students. We wanted the kids to actually be interested in what they’re learning, and I had to prepare lessons. I met Rabbi Zalman Kastel, a veteran Jewish educator. He introduced me to all kinds of educational activities to drive home a message. That was one thing that inspired me to teach. Another was when I met Rabbi Zev Simons ob''m on a tour of the school in Sydney where he was principal. He told the group I was with, "If you really want to make a difference, go into Jewish education." This was the moment when I knew that my calling was to make a difference as a Jewish educator.
How did you learn how to integrate technology into your classroom?
I’ve always tried to experiment and find new things to get my students to enjoy learning. A few years back here at Hillel Hebrew, there was a rumor that the school would try out iPads. I thought, “Hey, let me be ahead of the curve here,” so I went out and bought an iPad. I found ways to screencast and upload videos, and I became inspired by the technology. I’ve made over 100 educational videos and have posted them on YouTube.
What are some educational technology tools you’ve used?
PlayPosit (formerly eduCanon) is a favorite of mine. I use it extensively to create videos and then embed questions, which makes watching the videos interactive. Instead of giving word lists to the students each week, I have them study on Quizlet. As the teacher, I can see their study progress. Quizlet is part of their regular homework schedule. They can also use it to play an interactive team game in class. The students really enjoy that - by the time they finish, they know those vocabulary words cold. It’s a lot of fun, but they understand that the game really helps them remember the words.
How have you integrated technology specifically into Judaic Studies?
Each week the students create a page of a book in Book Creator about a perek [chapter] of Chumash and Mishnah. It’s a way to demonstrate their learning more creatively than just a worksheet. The advantage of the technology is that there is differentiation and students can go deeper in Book Creator than they could with a worksheet. You can see the depth of their learning, a whole new richness, when they describe it in a video or give examples.
In tefilah [prayer], you read words from the siddur [prayerbook], but imagine if they could speak to you. I gave each student a pasuk [verse] and they had to choose an image and type up something about why they chose that picture and what it represents. I combine these slides into an iMovie slideshow and in class we sing along with the student and use the slides to focus on the meaning behind the prayer, one new slide per day. The words of tefilah come alive in this way.
I use Google Voice to monitor and assess Hebrew reading. The students call in each week and record themselves reading. I can see how many words per minute they can read and can make sure everyone is up to speed. I’ll listen to the recording and can color-code my grading spreadsheet based on how students are reading. Then I can make sure to get support for students who need it.
For teaching the Haggadah for Pesach, I’ve used ChatterPix. Each student gets a part of the Haggadah to read and study. Then they ask questions about it and write up a little script, which I approve to make sure they understand. They choose an appropriate image for their section and place the image into ChatterPix. Then the picture animates and speaks the script the student wrote. The students have to make sure it’s the right picture telling the story. For example, the student who had Avadim Chayinu [“We were slaves”] chose a cartoon picture of slaves. As a class we watched each animation one-by-one and I asked questions about them.
We’ve also used stop motion video. I divided the students into groups, each with a scriptwriter, technology director, videographer, and actors. Each group created their own script for one perek from Megillat Esther [Scroll of Esther] and they used stop motion to film their story. One group actually wanted to use Minecraft. They had a character walking into a palace and a guard asking him if he’s on the guest list for King Ahasuerus’ party. When all the videos were finished, we had a viewing party for all the parents.
How do you use the flipped classroom model for teaching mishnah?
We cover masechet [tractate] shabbat in one year. To accomplish that, I divide it into mishnah concepts, and for each concept I make a video. I explain it and capture that lesson in the video, and then I embed questions into it. The students will watch it and answer the questions. Then the next step is for them to go to Book Creator where they create their own slide. They have to explain the mishnah concept by creating their own scenario where the concept applies. So I can start a lesson in class, and then the students can watch the video at home, and then in class again I can help everybody while everyone is proceeding in creating their slide at their own pace.
The students love this model. It brings out the best in each kid; it brings out their creativity. It brings out the voice in the quiet ones. I had a really quiet student in one class. During a class discussion, you wouldn’t hear his voice at all, but with animation videos from ChatterPix, his voice is heard in front of the whole class and he has pride in that and a smile on his face now. Another student said to me, “I feel really accomplished right now.” There’s lots of pride from students when they can create something.
What are other advantages of using technology in Judaic Studies?
Student buy-in! If you’re teaching something like chumash, students might say, “How does this affect me now?” It needs to be relevant to a student in the modern age, so if they’re using a fun modern way to learn it, that helps with relatability and buy-in. Technology makes it alive, makes it fun. You can engage their creativity and bring the Torah to life for them. I feel like EdTech really can make this ancient text come alive. It makes it relevant in the here and now with the tools the kids are using in their everyday lives. Bringing Torah to that venue, that modality they’re using and are familiar with, that’s very important. If they can’t relate to how Torah is expressed, then they won’t relate to the Torah. We’ve got to make it relatable in the communication and speak the language of the modern student. In the Tanach [Bible], there’s a line that reads “All of my bones shall say [Your praises].” One of the explanations for that verse is that we should be so much into serving God in praying that all our bones, the whole body, should be into it. When you teach creatively, and when students are using everything they’ve got in that same way, you’ve got the whole person into it. Then the learning is retained for the long term.
Another advantage relates to two areas that are really important in Jewish day schools today: differentiated instruction and data-driven instruction. With technology, those dreams become achievable. Before it would have been very difficult, but enter technology, and I really found I could keep everybody productive and learning at their own pace, and I can keep track of it. I can assign projects and can look at the results later. I use technology to create an independent learning environment. At the beginning of each week, the students get an independent learning checklist. Everyone stays busy. They can use the technology to move at their own pace, and I can help them at their own level. I’m available to help struggling students while the advanced students can listen to my voice in a video. Everyone can go at their own pace; it’s individualized learning.
What has been the most rewarding part of teaching with technology?
It’s really every single time that I see a student take something they’ve learned and create something that is totally “them.” They’re really proud of how they’ve expressed an idea from mishnah and chumash in their own way. They get so animated and enthusiastic and excited. They come running to me with their iPads and say, “Look what I’ve done!” Those are my favorite moments.
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