Seasoned educators know that regardless of the hours spent planning, sometimes, teachable moments take on a life of their own.
That’s precisely what happened when, in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris on November 13, hundreds of middle-school students participating in JCAT, a web-based project that involves virtual role playing and discussion around significant Jewish figures and events, took to their computers to question, process and begin to try and understand the harrowing events, in real time.
The catch? They were all “in character.”
This year’s JCAT case–set in France–concerns Laila Mokeddem, a young Muslim high school student who lives near Grenoble and was denied entry to her high school because she was wearing a hijab, and Gilles Blum, a Jewish high school student living in the Marais district of Paris, who was told that he could not attend classes while wearing a kippah that school officials deemed to be too large and distracting. Laila and Gilles challenge French law against ostentatious religious symbols, and claim that the ban violated their human rights. The French courts reject their appeals, and Gilles and Laila bring their case to the Jewish Court of All Time, where students are now currently debating and discussing French secularism, the ban on outward religious symbols, and related issues of anti-Semitism in France and the state of Jewish life in Europe.
And now, even more than that, too.
“We spent a lot of time, over several days, responding to questions and comments in a reflection forum, from the President of France to Lady Gaga,” explained Deborah Skolnick Einhorn, Assistant Professor of Jewish Education at Hebrew College and a RAVSAK Project Director, referencing just two of the many roles that the 2015-2016 JCAT middle school students are currently playing in this virtual game.
“Unprompted, the students began changing their JCAT profile pictures to French flags, or to the Eiffel Tower peace sign image, which in many ways mirrored what was happening on social media platforms outside the game. It reminded me of how this program is true experiential education.”
“We had a student who posted a condolence on his personal Facebook, page and it happened to have been the student who was playing the role of Pol Pot, the brutal Cambodian dictator,” said Jeff Stanzler, Director of the ICS group at the University of Michigan, and a co-creator of Place out of Time (the basis for JCAT and the brainchild of Stanzler and colleagues Michael Fahy and Jeff Kupperman, an Associate Professor of Education at the University of Michigan-Flint).
“One of the ways that an online classroom enhances the learning experience is that it allows for a dramatization of relationships between self and character,” Kupperman said. “The students are playing all different people, contemporary and historical, and what gets foregrounded is ‘what do I think,’ ‘how do others think,’ and ‘how do I want to express myself to a captive audience?’”
Stanzler also explained that for these 7th and 8th grade students, this could be one of their first experiences with an engaged public audience who are very interested in what they think.
“It’s the ‘enchantment factor,’” added Yael Steiner, Student Programs Coordinator at RAVSAK, The Jewish Community Day School Network, quoting a term coined by Fahy about this process of finding a voice online. “When [the student playing] Golda Meir posts a speech, you really are transported as you read it. There’s a weight to what’s happening in the virtual space, and the students respond in such a serious way. They feel like their words matter. It’s quite empowering for that 12-year-old.”
Miriam Raider-Roth, a Project Director, a Professor of Educational Studies and Director of the University of Cincinnati Center for Studies in Jewish Education and Culture, called her introduction to JCAT an eye-opening experience, as both a professor and a parent. She discovered JCAT through her son, who participated in the pilot program when he was in 7th grade.
“He was playing Albert Einstein,” explained Raider-Roth, and I noticed something altogether different about his engagement. He was a shy writer and didn’t like to read aloud in class, but suddenly he was writing his character responses with force and power in that virtual space. And since then, we’ve seen a lot of kids like him use the space to locate and articulate their voice.”
“The virtual space [of the JCAT website] creates an emotional safe space, where a student can really inhabit their character fully, while also learning how to be respectful of differing opinions,” added Einhorn. In yet another real-life twist, Einhorn also mentioned that there’s a student currently playing the role of Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right French political party Front National who has advocated for much stricter immigration policies in France. “And on the discussion board, the student playing Le Pen stayed in character, but did it in a gentle way, through coaching from her teacher.” That delicate dance of navigating the chasm between natural empathy the students might feel in their “real” lives and the historical accuracy required for them to play their roles successfully, has added benefits, Einhorn explains.
“This helps adolescents become safe online participants,” added Meredith Katz, Clinical Assistant Professor of Jewish Education and Coordinator of the Online MA Program at JTS, “and learn how to conduct polite online conversation. While that’s a lot for a 12 or 13-year-old to hold in his or her head, we are in partnership with classroom teachers, and they are helping students practice those conversations as well.”
This partnership becomes especially important when students are playing “controversial” or not so popular characters like LePen, added Katz, a JCAT Project Director. As she explained it, the characters are vital to a healthy discussion and an exciting simulation, but the students playing them can take a lot of heat, understandably. The Project Directors work with the teachers of the students who choose to take on these roles to provide support.
“From my perspective,” offered Jeff Stanzler, Director of the ICS group at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor and a Lecturer in the School of Education, “the virtual space contributes to the slowness of response time; allows us to take a beat and not respond off the cuff, as we might if we were face-to-face. In this game, students have to pause and carefully consider the merits of their words.”
On the JCAT site, someone opens a new conversation thread, and participants respond in kind. The faculty all agree that while there are exciting new ways that the technology of the JCAT program could be enhanced (with cool tech add-ons like “second-life avatars,”live video,or 3D real-time interactions),for sound pedagogical reasons, they’re not in a rush to go there.
“We know that the relatively slow pace of interactions that happen on the site, where you receive a message, and you might compose a response, but first, you might also show it to your teacher or peer–this process could take a whole day, and so the response doesn’t come immediately,” explained Kupperman. “This allows for some face-to-face classroom interactions that are actually pretty important in the pedagogical sense.”
Kupperman added that when considering JCAT’s merits, it’s crucial to remember that the middle-schoolers are participating in a classroom, not a distance learning course where kids are sitting at a computer on their own.
“Most often, there’s a whole classroom doing things together, and teachers are using what’s going on in JCAT as a starting point for interesting discussions in the classroom. And we don’t want to undercut those necessary learning opportunities.”
And the learning opportunities don’t just exist for the students. In fact, the Reshet, the RAVSAK-run email listserv that exists just for the teachers, a space for them to discuss what’s happening in their classrooms, has become a place where teachers can connect and form community, and share resources, too. “We have 35 teachers who currently participate in JCAT—in the early years there were 10—and in addition to webinars, the Reshet has taken off as a space for teachers to share, learn from each other and connect. We can see how much the teachers value that space, and their expressions of gratitude to other teachers for sharing what’s happening in their classrooms,” said Steiner.
One more layer of JCAT comes from the work of graduate student “mentors,” students enrolled in JCAT-related coursework run by the project directors at their home institutions, noted Katz. The graduate students assume characters with the simultaneous assignments of participating in the simulation as a learner exploring the case and as a coach to probe the analytic and discussion skills of the middle school characters. It is a unique opportunity for these students to explore blended learning “in action.” They use course time to reflect on their experiences, consider examples of student work and brainstorm potential developments for the case. The Michigan students have a weekly face-to-face class meeting while at JTS and Hebrew College the courses take place online.
“Without this a virtual space,” said Einhorn, our classroom wouldn’t exist. We have graduate students all over the world, who, for various reasons, can’t be physically present on campus, and so the seminar must be virtual, in order to work. Through the online classroom, they can share their collective field experience and reflect, which make this a unique and essential learning opportunity.”
And the field is taking note. Raider-Roth noted that a recent book, Going Online with Protocols: New Tools for Teaching and Learning, published by Teachers College Press, offers a write up of the JCAT protocol used for the teachers’ webinar. “The protocol offers a guide for how to create a structured discussion, where instead of saying ‘what do you all think,” which can get messy in a webinar format, there’s a process for walking through a conversation.”
“What’s happening in the simulation spaces has been important to me and my students here,” Raider-Roth added. We’re looking at how this type of learning can change, support and improve pedagogy.”
“The world of Jewish education is contributing to larger conversations about technology and simulated play,” she said. “Now, the field of Jewish Education is not just learning from General education, but also, informing it.”
“There are people out there who are educating their hearts as we speak. They’re getting on with the work, they’re loving their kids, they’re loving their students, they’re loving their communities. We must retrain our vision toward those people—we must develop eyes to see and ears to hear where that love is already happening—that is worth our energy and our care and our time, to tend that love, to show that love ourselves.”
—Krista Tippett, Founder and CEO, The On Being Project
“There are just two outcomes that really matter: First, that students feel Judaism is the fertile ground in which they get nurtured to grow, and second, that they find Judaism joyful.” Rabbi Joy Levitt, Executive Director, JCC Manhattan
"Civil discourse requires us to listen generously and to act as though—and to really believe—we could be open to persuasion. We each may think: 'I did not cause this situation, I am not to blame.' Yet we each have the capacity to help society turn the corner, if we honestly ask what went wrong and what we can do about it."
- Martha Minow, the 300th Anniversary University Professor at Harvard University and Joseph William Singer, Bussey Professor of Law, Harvard University
The Wow Metric of Success: Jewish Life in Bloom on the Farm: Spring has arrived, and the Jewish community is busy planting with purpose. In Vaughan, Ontario, the yellow coltsfoot and purple-blue scilla are just starting to flower at the Kavanah Garden, a half acre community garden that’s part of Shoresh, the Canadian-based Jewish environmental organization that includes the Kavanah Garden and Bela Farm. Last Sunday, on “Yom Manual Labor” volunteers gathered to turn the soil, plant seeds, paint outdoor tables and participate in construction projects with the Shoresh team, preparing the garden for growing season.
“Our Jewish community is only as strong as its ability to include all members in the fabric of Jewish life. Doing so helps each of us recognize the unique strengths we all bring to the Jewish community, and that community cannot possibly be complete until we actively and intentionally welcome each other.”
-Meredith Englander Polsky, 2017 Covenant Award Recipient, Director of Institutes and Training, Matan, and Developmental Support Coordinator, Temple Beth Ami Nursery School
“From all of my teachers, I have grown wise.” Psalms 119:99. Framing Jewish Education, a project of The Jewish Lens and supported by The Covenant Foundation, was created to engage teachers, students, and families in conversation about the value of Jewish education and to illustrate the power of great teaching and learning via a curriculum based on visual literacy and text.
“For me, study is a divine and daily imperative; I study a page of Talmud daily so that I am not only teaching. My teaching is constantly being fed by my learning.” —Erica Brown Associate Professor, George Washington School of Education and Human Development. Director, Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership, 2009 Covenant Award Recipient
The Covenant Classroom means something different to every educator but common goals are to motivate, engage and be inclusive of all learners. In this volume, we’ve collected an array of Teachings on Inspiration and Motivation in all areas of Education.
#ThankATeacher It has been twenty-five years since The Covenant Foundation first opened its doors, and we continue to be humbled by extraordinary Jewish educators from across North America and across the spectrum of Jewish life who have devoted their careers and considerable talents to the field of Jewish education. Now, in celebration of a quarter-century-old tradition of honoring Jewish education and educators, and to kick off a year of public engagement around great teaching, we’re proud to share The Covenant Foundation voices app with you: a new digital way to give and share your gratitude.
“What would it look like if we bet on Jewish early childhood education for the long-term, as our tradition instructs? The task might seem large, but the reward, we know, is great (Pirkei Avot 2:15).”
“Countless leaders have been inspired by the story of the Jewish people leaving bondage in Egypt – those whose names we know, like Martin Luther King, Jr. and those whose names we never will know, whose every-day acts of kindness and resistance fuel social change. This story, our story, has become a cornerstone of modern social justice work.”
—Abby Levine, Director of The Jewish Social Justice Roundtable
This is how I see a “Covenant Classroom”: a place where challenging topics are passionately discussed; a place where complex ancient texts are grappled with; a place in which self- esteem grows, and motivation to learn increases exponentially because of it. An environment in which each Jewish soul is given the confidence to continue the eternal search for meaning.”
—Dr. Sandra Ostrowicz Lilienthal, Curriculum Developer and Instructor at The Rose and Jack Orloff Central Agency for Jewish Education of Broward County and 2015 Covenant Award Recipient
“When powerful, new approaches to learning are introduced through digital tools, meaningful disruptions occur along the way… When this happens, new approaches which previously seemed inaccessible, are suddenly within reach.”
—Barry Joseph, Associate Director for Digital Learning, Youth Initiatives, American Museum of Natural History
“The future of Jewish teen engagement can in fact be found in 3D printers, and in text-people, and in service, and outdoor education, and in anything that brings teens into contact with authentic learning experiences and passionate, caring, knowledgeable educators.”
—Charlie Schwartz, Senior Jewish Educator, Director, BIMA & Genesis, Brandeis High School Programs
Portal seems like a particularly apt metaphor for entry points into Jewish life and learning because ultimately we want those experiences to be deeply experiential and transformative. We also want them to be accessible. A portal has no toll; passage is free. At the same time, a portal is particularistic, not a generic entrance. It conveys a sense of magic, ritual, and power. Similarly, we want to convey that Jewish life is rich, layered, and meaningful beyond what is immediately apparent. We want the encounter with Jewish life to take you on a journey that is profound and surprising. And, given that each of us may enter through the same portal but have a completely different experience of what is on the other "side," the possibilities are endless.
— Judith Rosenbaum, Executive Director, The Jewish Women’s Archive
"We need a new kind of creativity in the classroom that’s going to reach Jewish kids… If a teacher is imaginative, he or she is going to connect to students’ hearts and souls.”
—Dr. Arnold Eisen, Chancellor, Jewish Theological Seminary, Board Member, The Covenant Foundation.
"There are four types of students... The sponge absorbs everything. The funnel brings in on one side lets it out the other. The strainer lets out the wine and retains the lees. The sieve lets out the flour dust and retains the fine flour." —Pirkei Avot 5:15
"There’s a misconception that a venture must depend on large grants from big donors. It makes more sense and it’s more sustainable to test out an idea, and see whether it has the opportunity to make an impact on people’s lives."
— Ariel Beery, founder, PresenTense
I think [creating new Jewish texts] is a really good description of what we’re trying to do. These days we’re increasingly creating products that are intended to be shared on the web. We’ve felt and continue to feel that this medium, and virtual communication as a whole, is being under-tapped for its possibilities for making art.
— Reflections from Sam Ball on the New Jewish Filmmaker Project