DJLN Educator Spotlight: On the Cutting Edge with Debbie Harris

| By Yonah Kirschner, Project Manager, Digital Content and Communications

In this Educator Spotlight, Debbie Harris gives the inside scoop on her school's Innovation Studio that is challenging students to think and design creatively. She also talks about supporting teachers and shares a neat Judaic Studies project (with a 3D printer!) for teaching the Shema.

Debbie Harris is the director of educational technology at the Sager Solomon Schechter Day School in Northbrook, IL and teaches religious school at Lakeside Congregation for Reform Judaism. Involved in Jewish education for over thirty years, she received an education degree from Northwestern University with a concentration in instructional media. She is skilled in using and teaching desktop publishing, video editing, presentation and animation software; and consults and presents regularly on integrating technology into Judaic studies. She co-chaired the technology track for CAJE 33 in Vermont, is a SMART Certified Trainer for SMART Notebook version 10 for both MacOS and Windows, and a 2011 recipient of the Grinspoon-Steinhardt Award for Excellence in Jewish Education. Debbie blogs at and tweets as @tktchr.


Can you tell me about your role as Director of EdTech?
The best part is that there is no such thing as a typical day. Every day is a bit different. I work to support the faculty in integrating technology, I work with teachers on their skills, everything from simple work processing to making explainer movies to designing for the 3D printer. Whether it’s editing movies or getting the most out of our Google Apps system, I work with the teachers on everything.

We don’t teach computer classes that are standalone. I work very closely with the faculty to determine where and how to integrate technology into the curriculum. That’s always been the philosophy of the school; it’s a very organic approach to teaching with technology. As mobile computers became more accessible we were proactive about putting devices into the kids’ hands, and now they use them everywhere in the building. My students from 3rd to 8th grade all have devices assigned to them. They come in and know there is a device with their name on it.


What’s an example of a lesson you worked on with a teacher that was successful?
I work with an 8th grade language arts teacher on a project, where her students read a novel about social justice and then create movie trailers to sell the book. They work in groups of 3-4 to create the trailers and learn collaboration skills. Trailers are a hard concept. How do you entice someone to read the book without giving away the ending? How do you make a compelling visual? The students develop a screenplay and a storyboard, translate their ideas into videos, and then shoot their scenes using iPads or phones. They enlist teachers to play different roles. Then they edit their movie. Watching the trailers together is one of the highlights of our Purim celebration each year. It’s the pinnacle of that grade and the goal is for them to understand compelling storytelling. Everyone feels successful when they finish that project, and they also have this really cool video.

I also worked with a 6th grade teacher on a culminating project for an Ancient Civilizations unit. The kids worked in groups to create a theme park based on an ancient civilization. They chose characters and rides, and tied it into what they learned. They used Google Slides, so they could collaborate after school and hone their skills in Google, because all the high schools we feed into are using Google Apps. I would like to move this project one step forward and have them 3D print some object that would be in their imaginary gift shop.


How are Judaic Studies teachers using technology to support learning?
This year when the 6th graders finished a mishna unit on the Shema, we gave them the option to design a trinket that reminded them of the prayer for the 3D printer or to cut out of vinyl. These 6th graders who had never used 3D printer software before made a whole variety of objects. Some made phone holders with the words “relax” or “breathe” on them, some beautiful vinyl stickers for their wall to look at when reciting the Shema. It was a culminating project for a unit so they took what they learned and had to translate it in into an actual object. In Judaic Studies in 3rd grade, the students design sukkah models using Tinkercad and 3D print mini sukkot. Our students don’t think of technology as something you only use in a computer lab; it’s like air, it’s everywhere.

Our Hebrew classes are also frequent users of technology. They do movie-making, create commercials in Hebrew using a green screen, and develop games to teach others about the holidays.


I heard you have a space called the Innovation Studio. Can you tell me about that?
A generous grant from a donor allowed us to renovate a room adjacent to our library and create the Innovation Studio. It has a huge poster printer, a 3D printer, electronic paper cutters, carts of iPad Pros and Macbooks - all very high end creativity tools. Teachers bring students there to be collaborative and work together at the moveable tables. I work with them on how they’re going to use the space and what their goals are for their students.

We also have electives older students can take in the Innovation Studio. They are learning that you can take your design and make it real. A 3rd grader in need of a greater math challenge worked with my partner and me to research the tallest building in Chicago, the Willis Tower. He learned its dimensions, used his fraction skills to design a scale model of the tower, and then 3D printed it. His skills far surpassed what was going on in the classroom and the Innovation Studio enabled him to explore those skills.

The 7th and 8th graders wanted to create pencil holders for the iPad Pros, so we talked about why what was out there was insufficient. They went through an iterative design process and created a beautiful pencil holder and 3D printed it. When we took it off the printer and put pencils in, they didn’t fit. They hadn’t taken into consideration the thickness of the material. It was a wonderful lesson for them, and we talked about “successful failure” and what that meant. When they printed the final pencil holder and it worked, it was a really good experience for those kids. One of the moms says her son is now thinking about being an engineer.


Any interdisciplinary projects you’ve seen in the Innovation Studio?
The students read To Kill a Mockingbird and then created a gallery of images evoked by the book. Using iPad Pros they drew images that evoked the book for them and then we converted them to files that the electronic cutters can read. The students chose a color of vinyl and then we cut their images out of adhesive backed vinyl. They stuck them on their lockers, so we had this gallery of images evoked by the book. They wrote artist statements and explanations of what their images represented. The level of deep thinking demonstrated was amazing. And the kids loved it. When the 8th graders were packing up their lockers, they needed help pulling the vinyl off so they could take it home. They wanted these images. It was an amazing activity and just awesome to see the pride they had in their work.


How do you support teachers with professional development?
We offer a variety of classes every summer. The year we went to using Google, and we offered PD about how to integrate and use Google Classroom, Docs, Slides, etc. We always look at what’s coming next year and then help teachers prepare. We have offered open studio time for teachers to learn how to use everything in the Innovation Studio. This summer we’re focusing on differentiation and how to use technology to support that. We’ll cover how to create games for students at different levels and how to do technology-based formative assessments. I also work one-on-one and in small groups with teachers when they ask to learn about a particular tool. For many the summer is a critical time for professional growth.


What’s been most rewarding about integrating technology?
When I started here, the faculty didn’t have email, and didn’t even have computers. Where I’ve seen teachers go in the last 20 years has been absolutely remarkable. I have a department of three others and we pride ourselves on providing a tremendously high level of support for our teachers. Whether they’re trying to download something, design a movie, or create something for the 3D printer, we pride ourselves on meeting teachers where they are and helping them get where they want to go. We have a “Yes, and” attitude, and even if teachers come to us with outrageous requests we don’t shoot them down. 20 years ago a teacher asked me to type up something for her, and I said “I’ll sit with you and show you, but I’m not typing it for you.” She was furious with me, but we sat together in front of the word processor and she did it. We still work together and she is now one of my most proactive users of technology and embraces it.


Related Reading:
Educator Spotlight series
Paper Clips and Duct Tape: Getting started with the maker movement

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