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ARTICLE It’s All Fun and Games: How Digital Innovation, Social Justice, and Partnerships Yield a Curriculum for the Ages

Right now, some parts of the country sit under a blanket of snow several feet deep, while in other places students stare out classroom windows at grey skies or rain-soaked streets. And even in warmer locales across the United States, it’s still February, it’s still winter, and everyone—teachers and students alike—is getting a little stir crazy.

“Being outdoors is really important, in terms of learning research,” offers Rabbi Owen Gottlieb, Founder and Director of ConverJent, an organization that develops Jewish games for learning, Assistant Professor of Interactive Games and Media at the Rochester Institute of Technology and a faculty affiliate at the RIT Center for Media, Arts, Games, Interaction, and Creativity (MAGIC). “When you’re outdoors, and moving your body around, the level of student engagement is tremendously high.” In this case, Gottlieb is speaking specifically about the benefits of engaging students via a mobile GPS game—one that he’s created—as they explore a city and learn about Jewish history. “Part of what a mobile GPS-based game allows for,” he clarifies, “is to literally use motion and movement and bodies as part of learning.”

Motion, movement, bodies, iPhones and iPads, to be exact. Jewish Time Jump: New York is a location-based, mobile GPS game created with the help of a Covenant Foundation Signature grant in 2011, and intended for use on specifically those same devices that students today are glued to, for better or for worse. “This game uses tool sets that our young people are already attached to,” Gottlieb acknowledges, and we’ve seen how using the game has really helped students pay attention.”

And pay attention they undoubtedly will, for unlike the sedentary classroom environment, when students play the game they are immersed—on foot—into the fantastically rich history of Jews and other immigrants who came to New York in the early 20thcentury by taking them on a tour through parts of New York City where the story of Jewish immigration and activism unfolds.

“But right now, it’s winter,” Gottlieb continues, “and the game is focused on New York City, where there’s snow on the ground, making it a challenge for students to play this [outdoor] game.” So instead, for the time being, Gottlieb and his partners at the Jewish Women’s Archive have been focused on the release of a curriculum they’ve developed to accompany the game. A second Covenant Grant awarded to ConverJent in 2013 supported the creation of the curriculum, as well as a teacher training workshops last summer. The lesson plans are all currently available on the JWA website.

A commitment to acts of social justice has always been at the heart of the work of the Jewish Women’s Archive, which is why this partnership was particularly well-designed. “It’s clear that issues of social justice and activism offer a real opportunity for kids who need an entry point but might not otherwise have a Jewish framework for that connection,” explains Judith Rosenbaum, Executive Director of JWA. “What was really great about this partnership with ConverJent,” she adds, “is that we know the best way for material to get out there into educational settings is for it to be woven into the kinds of experiences that young people are having today—like using mobile devices and digital games to learn. Although we have a really rich and exciting collection of resources on our website,” she continues, “we need partners to help us get this material out into the community.”

Rosenbaum adds that at JWA, history is an essential part of any contemporary Jewish communal story, and whenever JWA sees an opportunity to make connections and find partners willing to weave the historical piece into what they’re doing, the endeavor becomes a fruitful opportunity for everyone involved. “We’re all working towards the same goals and visions for the Jewish community,” she says. “A partnership like this is mutually supportive, and strengthens all of our work.”

What’s more, the partnership yielded a robust curriculum, complete with four modular lesson plans as well as a parent’s guide. Aimed at students in grades 5-7, the lessons focus on Jewish workers, employers and labor activists in the early 20th century, and directly complements the game but may also be used without the game component. Supplementary materials include traditional Jewish texts as well as stories about contemporary labor issues.

“The lesson plans are incredibly deep and are meant to support educators as they dive into the content,” explains Etta King, Education Programs Manager at JWA and a lead author of the curriculum. “We aren’t just looking at who these people were, but also, what was at stake for them, and what the connection was between the Jewish textual tradition that they might have encountered in their synagogues at the time, on a Saturday, versus what their lives looked like when they went back to work in the factories on a Monday.”

King adds that the lesson plans provide “scaffolding” for teachers, so that they may adapt the material as it fits their educational goals. “I think that teachers who are doing a project-based learning unit about immigration or social justice projects with their students will find a plethora of resources here,” she asserts. King adds that the audience for this material is “everywhere.” Since it’s all online, people from all over the world can find their way to these resources and put them to use in their educational settings.

“I don’t know if students will experience one of these lesson plans and then decide to become a union organizer,” King adds, “but I do think that an encounter with this material helps them become critical thinkers, build a relationship with the idea of justice activism, and gives them a framework for understanding labor issues today.”

Labor issues, citizen journalism, issues-based advocacy, the tango between power and organization—these timely topics are all explored through Jewish Time Jump and its related curriculum, and the pedagogy is inquiry-based learning at its best.

As Rabbi Gottlieb attests, the overarching goal of Jewish Time Jump is an attempt to build good leaders for the Jewish community of the future. “This game is at the heart of the intersection between tikkun olam and democracy, he offers, “and it’s about our commitment as Jews to acts of social justice and to what it means to be a good citizen.”

But perhaps most importantly, playing Jewish Time Jump and then exploring the related texts and stories gives kids a chance to reach a hand back through the dusty annals of time to try and touch some of their history, if only once they’ve lifted their heads from the screen and engaged in a conversation about what they’ve just learned. Perhaps they’ll be prompted to ask questions about their great-grandparents, who might have owned a shop, or at some point, been members of a union. And then, perhaps, they’ll take that very immediate connection to their own family history, and through twin lenses of compassion and multiple perspectives, begin to consider and reconsider the world around them, and their place in it.

 

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