Ethan Zadoff, teacher at The Frisch School and participant in our Tech for Learning Initiative, describes how students are delving into modern Jewish history using Google Maps, and shares other experiences from teaching history with technology.
Ethan Zadoff is co-chair of the History department at The Frisch School, where he has been a faculty member since 2014. Ethan teaches a variety of classes, including World, European, and Jewish History, and has served as a Tefillah advisor for the sophomore and senior minyanim. He received a BA in Jewish Studies and History from Yeshiva University, an MA in Medieval Jewish History from the Bernard Revel Graduate School, an MPhil in History from The CUNY Graduate Center, and a PhD on the development of medieval Jewish marriage law in the Department of History at The CUNY Graduate Center. Dr. Zadoff has authored and edited several publications, including his most recent, Jews and the Law (Quid Pro Press). Previously, Dr. Zadoff worked in both formal and informal Jewish education and non-profit management at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun and the Association for Jewish Studies, and, for four years, served as a visiting assistant professor in the department of Hebrew Studies at Hunter College, CUNY.
When did you realize you wanted to be a teacher? How did you get into EdTech?
My mother is a teacher, so growing up there was a strong feeling that teaching and helping the next generation is important. It was a part of my upbringing and everything I’ve done. As a teenager I worked with local synagogue youth groups. I always knew I wanted to work in education and I started as an academic. While I was teaching at Hunter College I came to the realization that I didn’t want to pursue academia from a research point of view, but I very much loved the engagement with students on a day to day basis. I transitioned to working in a high school. What’s very important to me is the building of relationships on a day to day basis and seeing the students grow.
In terms of EdTech, I’ve always been fascinated with technology. I remember going to the British Library, Bodleian Library, Oxford and the Jewish National Library and seeing the digitization process of very old manuscripts and books and seeing how technology could make them more readable and widely available. When working on my master’s degree with Professor Steven Fine of Yeshiva University, I used technology to take photographs of and analyze a tiny Jewish amulet from the 6th century CE. That began my fascination with using technology to understand history, so as I moved away from academia to Jewish schools, it was only natural for me to bring technology to the classroom. I’m very lucky at Frisch to have a superb Director of EdTech in Rabbi Tzvi Pittinsky who works with teachers and has amazing ideas and really makes anything possible. I was able to really learn from him about how to enhance educational experiences using technology, as opposed to making technology the centerpiece.
How do you use technology to support learning in your classroom?
Technology is all around us, so getting students used to interacting with technology in a responsible way is absolutely key. I have a paperless classroom -- everything we do uses technology and the Internet. That has pros and cons but it’s needed to help students understand that this is going to be a part of their lives moving forward, and they have to use it responsibly. On a practical level, I use technology to streamline daily work. Everything is handed in via Haiku Learning (an LMS) where they can access all their assignments and readings from wherever they are. So from a practical point of view, it makes it easier for them and makes them more accountable for their learning experiences. Plus, I can see if they submitted an assignment and can put all of my notes and slides online for the students to use. Students are given the opportunity to collaborate with their peers using Google Drive or the LMS.
I also use technology on the teacher end. I’ve created flipped videos with Playposit, which has been a fantastic experience -- now if they’re watching a video, they’re answering questions and have to actively engage.
Students are also asked to create videos to teach the rest of the class certain material. In the 10th grade Holocaust unit, I break students into groups and they create videos telling the stories of specific ghettos. Instead of me teaching at the front of the class, we watch videos of the students themselves telling stories of Jews’ experiences in these ghettos and they learn from each other.
In what other ways is technology helping students learn history and delve deeper into texts?
We’re moving beyond the standard way in which we analyze texts in the history classroom. Instead of text analysis being teacher-centered, I want students to be able to take the initiative. In one particular class, what we’re doing is working as a class to create a methodology of analysis. They are given specific sources and I ask “What are the key questions we need to ask as we analyze these?” As a class they come up with these questions (related to point of view, focus, context, audience, authorship, etc.) about how to engage with texts and then record their questions in a mind map using Mindomo or Kami. This tool then embodies the questions the students have asked over the entire year. It can be replicated and used in other classrooms, so they’ll know “When considering authorship, these are the three questions I should ask myself’” “When considering audience, these are questions I should ask myself,” etc. The students lead that process of figuring out what to ask, so it’s moving from teacher-centered to student-centered learning. This approach also removes students from the day to day content analysis of history and allows them to consider the larger history questions that are sometimes lost when we think about specifics. It’s a way of brainstorming and thinking much bigger and putting the learning experience in the hands of the students. At the end of the day if a student doesn’t remember dates but he thinks critically, then we've done our job. The goal is not for them to memorize names and dates, but to develop critical minds for looking at the past and the present as well.
How else is technology supporting students in learning history?
Over the last four years, we rewrote the entire history curriculum, and as we were writing, we wanted to think about the relationship between history and geography and the rise of early civilizations and the age of empires. Geography is key and will often dictate why civilizations rise or fall and why people move from one place to another. So we’re working on integrating the two subjects. When I was thinking about our early modern Jewish history unit in 10th grade, I wondered about how to best understand the totality of that period, especially because it’s defined by new Jewish communities and movement of Jews all over the world. Where do they go? What kind of communities do they set up? How do they maintain their identity and engage with each other? So instead of me teaching and moving from one community to the next, I thought, “Let's do this so students can see this visually -- where are these Jew going? What communities are they building? What are their similarities and differences?” The best way to do this was to use Google Maps to have them create their own maps. It’s a good way to allow students to be the catalysts of learning in the classroom and to make a student-centered learning environment. After some days of introduction, they were broken up into different groups, and each group was given a different geographic region throughout Europe and the Americas and had to study a particular Jewish community there. We created an interactive map in which each group focused on telling the story of their community. I gave them categories -- population, communal institutions, relationship to the local government, key rabbinic figures, intellectual development, etc. -- and they had to research them for their specific geographic area. Each group built their own interactive map using the various categories and they could also see what other groups were doing. Each group had their own layer they would use to build up the data points. For the final assignment they had to look at the map for similarities and differences between their area and what their peers did, and then draw conclusions about Jewish life in the early modern period. It allowed us to cover a vast array of material in a much shorter time, and also gave them the opportunity to research material on their own and be active, engaged learners.
Each class will now continue to use the map and will create maps for the modern period. I’m already thinking about next year and how we could bring this project to each individual student in 9th grade. They will make their own map and then as they move in sequence they will create their own annotated map of the world, so they can track very clearly the connection between geography and history. They'll also be able to see key historical concepts -- how regions change over time, how interactions with people in these lands change, how places become hot spots for violent behavior. So next year, by the end of 9th grade they’ll have created an annotated map of the entire world from the age of empires to the early Renaissance. It creates a portfolio aspect and emphasizes that they’re not learning about civilizations in a vacuum. They can see clearly how an area of land undergoes change and how people engage with their environment.
We have a 12th grade elective on the history of New York City and I showed the Google Maps project to the teacher and he loved it. The tool can be used in lots of different history classrooms. Instead of telling students to go home and memorize a map, this method is allowing them to become much more active learners and creators in the classroom.
What was a highlight of your experience at the Tech for Learning Initiative Summer Institute?
A couple of different things. First of all, meeting and talking to colleagues from other institutions. Too often we live in bubbles of own institutions, and we don't always get to talk to colleagues about what they are doing, their ideas, and the common issues we face on a day to day basis and how they’re negotiating them. That was absolutely amazing and showed me a lot of perspectives on issues that I’m thinking about. A second highlight was talking to staff from The Jewish Education Project. These are experts who understand the material and who have time to think about the broader issues we’re trying to tackle. The facilitators were not just theorists. They’ve taught before and continue to teach and understand the practical nature of these questions. I loved getting their expertise on how to model a project, present it, and analyze key questions. They helped us through the planning process by asking what our goals were and what we wanted to achieve. Talking through ideas with people who have been in the classroom and have the professional background to facilitate us in thinking through those questions was absolutely vital. Far too often we don't have the time to talk to experts in the field for a real substantive discussion. That is a key aspect for me for professional development -- having the opportunity to think about and engage in these issues and hear from people who have the teaching experience.
What’s your school’s Tech for Learning Initiative project? How will it change learning at Frisch?
Our key educational challenge is creating a student-centered learning environment at Frisch. One way we’ve done this is what I described before -- students working collaboratively in small groups, using a methodology of textual analysis, to create a textual annotation tool. From my students’ points of view, it really has changed their perspective on how we work in the classroom. They’re understanding that history is not just about facts, it’s about being reflective and analytical. It’s a process. They’re beginning to see and understand that there are broader implications to what we learn in history and larger questions that we can ask ourselves. They’re stepping back to look at the larger picture. They're gaining an understanding that what we're doing and questions we’re asking are extremely important. They see that the questions we ask about history we can also ask about all parts of our lives, so this project has started to change their points of view. On the teachers’ side, when we presented to the faculty, what I kept coming back to is that this process we’re undergoing with this project can be replicated in almost all of our classrooms. My hope is that the project can and will be replicated.
What’s been most rewarding about supporting learning with technology?
Our 10th grade created a capstone project called the Frisch Museum of Contemporary History. Each student chose a specific topic in contemporary history that they wanted to study and created a museum for it, including a technology component. Students who are not the best writers or the most studious used this as an opportunity to show their creativity. The first time we ran this project seeing the creativity the students had and their expertise and interests just overwhelmed me. Some created virtual reality experiences for other students and parents to explore created short movies. Seeing students who have sometimes struggled with more traditional approaches in a history classroom take this opportunity to create a magnificent and wonderful product -- the first time I saw that it really overwhelmed me. It’s an experience that I'll never forget.
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