Friday, April 29, 2011

Bridging the Generation Gap

15 years ago I discovered AOL. I wasn’t sure what it was, but it came to my house in the form of a CD-ROM and I had my father upload it to our PC, enter his credit card info and we had our own dial up account to the internet.  Except, to get on the web, I had to choose a screen name, and interested in anonymity, I chose my screen name “spottingu” out of my love for the film Trainspotting. For fifteen years “spottingu” has been my personal online identity for email, instant messenger, accounts, twitter, etc, if only I had realized that everyone presumed I had an interest in online stalking.

Today, I began the process of “growing up” and established a gmail account, with the hopes of transitioning out of my AOL identity in order to establish a new online identity more befitting my 32-year-old self.  Not wanting to completely obliterate my less than professional presence online, I chose a new moniker that reflects my childhood nickname, and will now be “yakhoffman”. Please do not think that this is not a big deal.  Being “Spottingu” fostered my growth and development of both my online and adult identity. I met my wife in an AOL Jewish Chat Room (anyone remember Jewish Chat 18-15? ASL anyone?), not to mention many good friends as well.  All of my family and friends have always known me and communicated with me online as “Spottingu”. I applied to countless jobs as “Spottingu; what was I thinking?

I bring this up as I read Marc Prensky’s seminal works “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants” Part I and Part II and Don Tapscott’sGrowing Up Digital”, within which both authors articulate a clear generational divide between those that are digital natives or from the net-generation, respectively, and the digital immigrants and baby boomer generation.

In Growing up Digital, Tapscott comments on the Net Generation (N-Generation):
The generation of children who, in 1999, will be between the ages of two and twenty-two, not just those are active on the Internet. (P.3)

The N-Generation now represents 30 percent of the population, compared to the boomers’ 29 percent. For the first time, there is another generation large enough to rival the cultural hegemony of the ubiquitous boomers. But what makes N-Geners unique is not just their large numbers, but that they are growing up during the dawn of a completely new interactive medium of communication. (P. 15)

Some have suggested we describe today’s youth as Generation Y. I am not convinced this is the best term to use and I think it important to get it right; terms acquire meaning and they share our thinking (my emphasis). No one is clear what Generation Y really is. Most of those who have raised the term use it to refer to the youth of today, those who were born at the end of the 1970s when the birth rate began to increase after he baby bust years, but beyond that the notion is fuzzy. More important Generation Y also builds on the confusion sown about Generation X, which isn’t a generation at all but the last few years of the boom. I believe that N-Generation is a better term in that it codifies in a unified term the power of demographics with the power of new media analysis. (P.33)

While I have always felt comfortable with Prensky’s designation as a "digital native", fluent in the digital language of computers, video games and the Internet, I found the “Digital Natives” designation to be too broad, since I found people much younger and older sharing this fluency. I always became frustrated that I seemed to have to arrived too late to be a part of Gen-X. I love my grunge, but I came onto the scene in my later teens after the hype had already died down. I too felt too old to fit into the characteristics of Generation-Y.  Tapscott’s designation of the N-Generation seemed to fit me much more comfortably, as if I finally found a designation that fit both my age (I just made the cut, being 21 in 1999) and my early adoption and engagement in the Internet and the New Media and its impact on me.  While I may have missed my professional opportunity to engage in (and cash in on) the Dot-com bubble, I am now appreciating the value of being an educator in the 2010s as one of the elders of the N-Generation.

Reading Tapscott’s “Growing Up Digital”, published in 1998, took me on a wild nostalgic ride to the days when chat rooms reigned and Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, a member of the N-Generation, was still in high school dreaming of going to Harvard. Tapscott did not foresee social networking, let alone Napster and its impact on file sharing and piracy, which wrecked havoc on traditional media outlets.  Tapscott did prophesize the explosion of self-expression, see youtube and myspace. He foretold key characteristics of the N-generation (acceptance of diversity, broad curiosity, assertiveness and self-reliance).

On education, Tapscott wrote, "We need to understand the purpose of the schools-the ends of education, not just means." Tapscott already recognized that the rise of the N-Generation would lead to many Baby Boomers to react by trying to infuse technology into schools and to try to maintain the status quo of socialization and acculturation that satisfied their generation.  Yet, as has been proven, the N-Generation demands more from their educational efforts, and we must still address Tapscott’s truism to understand the purpose of schools in the new age.

My Jewish identity and learning developed distinctly because I received, to my “Spottingu” email inbox, hundreds of emails a week offering me direct Torah study, list servs and web resources through which I expanded and diversified my Judaic understanding, providing me with the pluralistic and complex diversity of understanding that allows me to serve as a Rabbinic educator today. I fell in love with the study of bible/Tanach, due to the range of sources available online. As an early adopter of the Internet, I met my wife online before J-Date existed, I found Jewish learning and community online and create new material to share with others.

While I was not necessarily born into the digital age, I came of age during the rise of the Internet allows me to serve as a unique bridge between the Baby Boomer generation and the Net-Generation (and between Gen-X, Gen-Y, and Gen-Z).  As an educator of today’s generation in their formative teen years, I can provide a bridge between the knowledge of the past, the processes of the present and a vision of the future. I can share with today’s youth their characteristic passion to explore new worlds, to express themselves and to solve real world problems now. While I did not go through adolescence with a super computer in my pocket (I got my first cell, ne’ car phone, in 1996), I relate to the need to be connected at all times to others digitally. 

Yet I also appreciate the concerns of the Baby Boomer parents, academics and administrators still struggling to grasp how quickly the world has changed. Even I wonder if Tapscott’s 1998 is just 13 years ago. Four and a half years ago my first daughter was born, before I had first signed up with Facebook. I can’t even imagine how I notified all of our friends and family of her birth, let alone share pictures, prior to Facebook. I wonder if the point isn’t to be nostalgic of a long ago past, or to believe we can prophesize what the future holds, but to appreciate that this May, as hopefully our second daughter joins us, I will have amazing digital tools, such as Facebook and text messaging, to celebrate with others, otherwise I may have had to rely on phone trees and the post office.

I hope to explore further how my unique vantage point, as an elder member of the N-Generation, provides me with a unique perspective on educating today’s youth for the digital world we live in, as Jews, American citizens and humans.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Make Judaism Matter NOW

In his TedxPhilly talk Chris Lehmann argues “why can’t what students do matter now? I would argue that Lehmann’s charge to general education applies as much if not more to Jewish education. If anything, now more than ever Jewish students of the 21st century have capabilities and capacities to engage in real world work at younger ages, because they are of the digital age. We need to free them from the shackles of unsophisticated and four-walled Jewish learning rooted in the past, and engage students in learning that centered in their lives. We need to engage Jewish students in learning that matters NOW.

The Jewish Journal posted an article about the recent High School Jewish Futures conference and project I created along with Rabbi Gordon Bernat-Kunin at Milken Community High School as a means of engaging Jewish students in Jewish learning that mattered NOW. After years of satisfying our needs to create relevant learning through seniors sermons, personal theology statements and student led teaching sessions, this year we took the leap to true Jewish and educational innovation. 

Originally, this project started out inspired by Limmud and LimmudLA as a conference in which teens will lead sessions of their passion and choosing for other teens and the community.  However, we recognized early on that although this model contains much power and potency, it remains very difficult to curricularize. Our aim to encourage as many of our students as possible to engage other teens in ideas that mattered to them evolved into a specific project asking students to create their own unique approaches to renewing and innovating Judaism.  Inspired by the Jewish Futures Conference at last year’s GA, I started to consider how engaging our students in the question of the Jewish Future would ultimately matter more NOW than any other question we could pose to them.

Throughout the process of creating the project, Rabbi Bernat-Kunin and I struggled with defining an approach to the essential question and process of the project that would ensure that the project mattered to our students and that their work would matter to the Jewish community. In his introduction the HS Jewish Futures Conference, Rabbi Bernat-Kunin eloquently frames the tension between his renewal approach and my innovation approach, and you can view the video here.

Every student had to initially study the literature of the historical context of the questions of change, innovation and renewal in the 20th and 21st centuries; their presentations and essays are found on this wiki that collected their work. Following their literature review, students studied and reviewed current organizations, such as Hazon, Uri L’tzedek and Heeb. They differentiated these organizations based on sector of influence (i.g. community, learning, education, feminism, culture, etc.) and whether their process of engagement was renewal or innovation. Their synthesized findings were collected on a wiki, utilized by students throughout the classes as basic research for initial ideas and organizational structures. Finally students broke into groups to address a specific change area of their interest in order to create an organization or project they could propose to the Jewish community to address needs and transform the Jewish future. Their ideas range between low tech and high tech, local and global, and for a wide range of demographics.

The students, who opted to engage in an innovation approach, rather than a renewal approach,  created websites to exhibit their teaser videos, proposal and content for their change projects.  While eighteen groups created innovative projects, six finalist groups pitched their ideas during the High School Jewish Futures Conference. They presented to a panel of community leaders, including professional coaches, representatives of the Jewish federation, leading marketing experts and Jewish innovators.  In addition, in the audience were parents, community leaders and their peers. We livestreamed their pitches to offer those not present at the conference the opportunity to be a part of the experience as well. The project provided a thorough process into problem based learning that engaged students in serious inquiry in order to create something real for Judaism in the 21st century.

Just a few quotes from students about the importance of this project for them:
The Jewish Futures Project, which challenged me to think critically about the Jewish future and problem solve is a business-like "real" world scenario.

I think that the process of the Jewish Futures Project was important to my Jewish identity but I feel like the actual conference was the point where I just really felt proud to be Jewish.

I REALLY liked the Jewish Futures Project. Not only is it one of a kind and also a great idea, but also really got me and my group thinking about modern problems and how WE can change them NOW. The conference was a huge success I hope and I really think that there is a lot of potential in this project.

I think my Futures project has the potential to actually have an impact to go farther than just the confines of a classroom.

I always intended for this project and conference to be just a beginning. We hope to engage the Jewish institutional leaders, educational institutions and innovative organizations in Los Angeles and beyond in sharing the vision for how we engage the soon to be graduates of our teen programs, for whom the questions of the Jewish future truly matters. Rather than building a future FOR our teens, we can empower our teen to create a Jewish future WITH us.  Please be in touch with me if you want more information on our past project and conference and how you can be involved in developing the future.

Today’s generation of youth show a great hunger and promise in their ability to create real work that matters NOW (for the future). I intend next time to write more on the uniqueness of today’s generation of youth, and why I am so fortunate to be teaching in this day and age.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Passion for REAL Jewish Learning

Jewish education in the 21st century demands a rethinking of both our chosen goals and methods.  In recognizing that the environment for learning, the demands on learners and the processes for learning are rapidly shifting, we must reconsider the models of learning Jewish education assimilated. While much focus remains on web tools, smart boards, nings and cellphones, the key does lie in the tools (nouns), but in the way we teach and learn to enhance what our students can do (verbs). Marc Prensky demands that we distinguish between nouns and verbs in our thinking and planning for 21st century education. Yet, beyond differentiating between our emphasis on nouns and verbs, Jewish educators need to stake our claim on our approach to how we engage our students.

In a recent interview by with Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach on learning for the 21st Century, she described a transformation in education resulting less from a change in tools, but in a complete shift in how we teach. Beyond transitioning the teacher away from the knowledge giver in total control of the classroom that many 21st century learning models have proposed, Bussbaum-Beach goes farther:

Instead of me having all these preconceived ideas of what they should doing, saying, and producing, I have to be open to what I find in each student. I have to discover—and help each student discover—their talents and interests and create a learning environment where they can use those gifts and passions to learn from a position of strength.

Nussbaum-Beach contends that 21st Century teaching and learning must embody a sense of wonderment, not just tapping into, but also deriving from student’s passions. This allows students to work from their strengths and interests, and thus requires teachers to continuously informally assess students for their passions as well as their learning growth.

Passion-based learning provides a powerful model to integrate with Marc Prensky’s partnering pedagogy.  Prensky’s pedagogy depends on creating “real learning”, and not just relevant learning.  So often in Jewish education, we strive at our best, to construct through our choices of materials, creative sets and authentic assessments relevant and authentic learning. Prensky argues that:

I don’t think that is really what all of today’s student need or want. What they do need and want is for their education to be real. What’s the difference between relevant (or even authentic) and real? Relevant means that kids can relate something you are teaching, or something you say, to something they know.

I am as guilty of trying to relate to my students using relevance to relate to my students as the next Jewish educator. I have used Batman Begins, Lord of the Rings and Star Wars to address character development, literary devices and the use of interpretive method when teaching Chumash.

To truly engage in partnering with my students in their Jewish learning and journey, I have had to go beyond trying to make Judaism relevant to kids by relating Judaism to something within pop culture. There has been nothing like working with high school seniors to open me up to the possibilities of engaging students as partners in creating something “real”. Two examples I hope to explore in more detail in later posts are the Viral Judaism Project and the Jewish Futures Project.

I first realized the potential of truly partnering with students, in the manner Prensky advocates, in my work developing the teen presenters program for LimmudLA over the last two years. Through this program, LimmudLA partnered with teens from Milken Community High School to develop a session to be delivered at the adult conference. The students achieved this great task through the support of coaches, workshop and much diligence. Above all, what made the students successful in delivering their presentations to a real adult audience at an adult conference was that their sessions derived from their passions and interests such as, Being a Secular Jew and Loving It, Hip-Hop & Judaism and From Temples to Facebook: American Judaism.  These students created, persevered and excelled in developing sessions that conference attendees considered to be the premier sessions of the conference, by an adult or a teen.  The Jewish Journal’s summary of the conference captured the energy created by teens allowed to learn “real”.

Jewish education needs to tap into more opportunities to engage students in their passions in real ways by engaging students in the community around them and offering them real ways to engage in education that matters. As today’s teens show more and more their readiness to contribute in ways that manner to our current society and Jewish community, we need to make these opportunities a central part of our curriculum and not marginalized accidents we are so proud to show off when they occur. I hope to address the power of today’s generation of young learners in my next post.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Innovation, Passover & 21st Century Tools (updated for 2013)

This week, Jews around the world celebrate the national birth of the Jewish people through the holiday of Passover.  One of the primary tenets of celebrating the Passover holiday is the commandment to “remember” (Exodus, 13:3) and commemorate what happened to the Israelites in Egypt. Furthermore, the Israelites were commanded to “tell your son” (Exodus 13:18). Historically, during the period of the Second Temple, Israelites began to engage in the Passover Seder experience an innovation of experiential learning in order to fulfill the injunction to “remember” and “tell” the exodus narrative from generation to generation.

The Seder experience serves as a complex educational model, integrating Jewish and Greek methodology, hands on ritual, a rich text and intricate number and word play, all to promote active participation and inquiry from its participants. Familiar elements, such as the Karpas and Afikoman, originate in Greek custom. The repetition of the number four creates patters. The structural order creates a planned pacing designed to enhance the sensory and learning experience, within which we touch (Yachatz), taste (Karpas), speak (Kadeish), listen (Magid) and even smell (Marror).   This innovative educational tool serves as a model for how we in the 21st century aim to utilize new tools, adapted from the environment we live in order to satisfy age-old educational processes.

We, as lifelong learners, should use the tools of our time, just as the Rabbis in their time used the Greek tools and methods to enhance the storytelling and experiential learning experience for the Passover holiday. Today, we must utilize the new technological tools, whether digital or not, but we must keep in mind that when we say “technology”, we really mean the tools that have been brought to market in recent years. As the Passover Seder proves, we have always been using technological tools to enhance learning experiences to be more participant-centric and experiential.

Technology enables us to learn, both skills and content, but cannot become the central purpose of the learning experience.  The new technology of today surely becomes dated even more quickly now than ever before (anyone use ICQ or AOL Chat anymore?). As educators, we must play with as many tools as possible, become familiar with those we don’t access and embrace the reality that we will never have knowledge, let alone mastery, of every tool available, let alone the one’s our students use. In our capacity as educators, we serve our students as partners to plan and guide our students in how to utilize these great tools to meet the same educational purposes as ever before.  Since biblical times, story telling critically served to foster between generations the memories and values inherent to a people. Today, we need to foster expertise in digital storytelling, which teachers can master using sties such as Digitales and the University of Houston’s Digital Storytelling Site.

The Passover Seder has evolved over time, incorporating customs that utilized the technologies and methods of the contextual environment they evolved from. This year, two new tools incorporate the spirit of open source to allow Seder leaders and participants new tools to enhance their learning experience. and DIY Seder provide a range of tools to allow users to post, comment and share content and tools for their Seder experience, by constructing their own planned experience and a personalized Haggadah. These new tools, specific to 21st Century technology, clearly provide a model for how new tools clearly impact the educational process of Jewish experience.

Update Passover 2013:
This year, G-dcast unveiled a brand new FREE IOS mobile app "Let's Get Ready for Passover" that introduces children (of all ages) to the narrative of Passover preparation through an interactive game. It includes a short hidden object game that teaches about Bedikat Chametz (the ritual search for leavened foods) plus a Passover recipe. This simple game provides easy access for learning about the holiday experience beyond the exodus narrative, in a way that embraces storytelling through gamification.
I hope this Passover season, you will consider how the Seder learning experience and methodology can impact other Jewish experiences. What other new tools will we utilize to renew and advance the experience of Jewish life in the 21st Century? This year make your Seder memorable.

Racing to Nowhere in the 21st Century

In the last year two movements have been dominated my thinking about the future of education:
  1. The questions of the culture surrounding education, as explored in the film Race to Nowhere
  2. The preparation of learning for the world of the 21st Century as promoted by initiatives, such as The Partnership for 21st Century Skills. 
This weekend I read an article in the Jewish Journal by Milken Community High School's Head of School, Jason Ablin, sharing his reflections and commentary about Race to Nowhere, titled "Waiting to Nowhere." I find myself conflicted about some of my Head of School's conclusions and omissions in his critique, such as the role our schools have played in promoting this race, but I definitely agree with his assessment of the film.
“Race” contends with a serious subject in an unsophisticated and simplistic way, both minimizing the problem and its possible ramifications. One teacher in “Race” calls the current test-crazed American educational system “a mile wide and an inch deep.” Unfortunately, the film addresses the issue in exactly the same manner.
Simultaneously, I happened to be reading for my doctorate course on 21st Century Jewish Education Marc Prensky's Teaching Digital Natives. Prensky argues that great contextual changes in the world we live in demand a change in the methods of education as well.
Today's students will not live in a world where things change relatively slowly (as many of us did) but rather one in which things change extremely rapids-daily and exponentially. So today's teachers need to be sure that, no matter what subject they are teaching, they are teaching it with the future in mind (Prensky, 2010, P.5).
Prensky proposes a pedagogy of "partnering" between teachers and students. His metaphor for the educational experience differs from the traditional metaphors, such as "keeping the train on track" or "watering a tree so it can grow big and strong".'s kids are more like rockets....Why should we think of today's kids as rocket? At First blush, it's their speed; they operate faster than any generation that has come before. Although little may have changed in the rate kids grow up emotionally, there has been enormous change in what today's kids learn and know at early ages, and therefore, many think, in the rate they grow up intellectually (Prensky, 2010, P.11).
Prensky warns:
As with all rockets, kid's fuel mix is volatile. Some go faster and farther than others. Some lose their guidance or their ability to follow direction. Some go off course or stop functioning unexpectedly. Some even blow up. But as we get better at making them, many more hit their mark, and it is our job as rocket scientists to help them do so (Prensky, 2010, P.11).

I started to think about the incredible connection we need to explore between Prensky proposed pedagogic model and the culture of schooling superficially explored in the A Race to Nowhere. As we investigate and project into the future of Jewish education, how do we reconcile our desires to construct a new pedagogy centered around student's passions, interests and innate mode of learning, when the culture of schooling surrounding them promotes entirely oppositional values.

While I have invested much of my work over the last few years into developing a model of 21st Century Jewish learning, in both my classroom formal curricula and experiential learning experiences, I constantly have to face the reality of the culture of schooling within which Jewish education, especially day school education, finds itself. As much as my students embrace constructivst learning and PBL over traditional text oriented and teacher centric models of Jewish learning, they still struggle to muster up the will and motivation to engage in learning when facing the very pressures that the Race to Nowhere film describes. As more and more of our Jewish day schools aim to appeal to families seeking the factories that yield college ready students, as depicted in the film, we must consider the cost in effectively developing engaged Jews, lifelong learners and a generation prepared for 21st century life.

Many of the values espoused by Prensky and others as being core to the 21st century learning model evolve out of a deep concern for the student, constructing methods and frameworks that center learning around the student's experiences, interests, knowledge and tools. However, all of this depends on the student being interested in engaging in schooling for the same purpose and the same drive as one does for life beyond school. Prensky aims to blend the "in" school and "out" of school learning experiences through the "partnering" pedagogy, but what if our 21st century student do not wish to do so. What if they want their "play" to be open and driven by their passions, but they want their "work" to be structured, goal oriented and determined by an authority that can promise to make achievement possible no matter what the cost.

As I enter spring break, after a long second semester with seniors for my high school, my students claim to be made lazy and numb to learning from the three and a half years of hard work and the college application process. Once their acceptance to a college has been determined, school becomes less critical, and they choose to opt out of the learning process as the race comes to a close.

One student shared with me:
However, the last few months (sic) have been fragmented and dull in my eyes and I do not want to leave this school with that memory...When in high school can the students truly explore their passions? There's a lack of student freewill considering that everyday is spent in a fourwalled classroom.
 At this point, I am only formulating the question:
"For the 21st Century, can we truly build a partnering model, if we continue to promote the race to nowhere?"
Will we as educator accept the responsibility for not just cultivate new modes of learning, but also taking accountability for our culpability in promoting the race to nowhere? Does Jewish education bear an additional responsibility to break down the social constructs that sustain the race to nowhere? While much responsibility lies with the parents who buy into the socio-culturally constructed race, what responsibility do schools have to stand up to their "customers" and tell parents "no, your student can't take six APs as a Junior" or "your student can't be the student government president, star in the school musical and keep straight As". When do take a stand against unmitigated homework, Sunday reviews for APs and private college counselors? Why do students need to visit every college they apply to, apply to 20 colleges and then have to decide between their 8th and 9th choice because they over reached for their first 7 (but were absolutely certain they would get in)? Why do we allow students to fib their transcripts to show they ran clubs and engaged in community service when they never did so? When will be able to intrinsically motivate our students to engage in learning about their heritage, religion and beliefs without holding a grade over their head? When will we truly be able to have an honor code and not just penalize students for cheating?

We can not expect students to opt into an idealic model of 21st Century learning, in whatever form, unless we are willing to create a model of schooling that contains social and cultural purpose and meaning, for our society, for our families and for our youth.

I hope to explore potential responses to these critical questions in coming posts, but I eagerly await your responses as well.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

What makes 21st Century Jewish Education Unique?

What might be the unique nature of 21st Century Jewish Education which sets it apart from the education we have encountered until now?

The changing nature for how people learn, gather information, collaborate and communicate in the 21st century greatly impacts both the nature of Judaism and education. If we are to understand education as the process of teaching and learning new skills and understandings through the development of cognitive, affective and sensory-motor processes.  In the spirit of a Deweyian progressive educational model, Jewish education has the potential to engage learners where they are at in order to empower them to further their own learning initiatives. However, we must go beyond educational purposes, such as socialization and acculturation, and focus on empowerment, leadership and lifelong learning theories.

Much of previous educational models heavily focused on the acquisition of skills and content knowledge that would offer the literacy needed to access Jewish learning, spiritual, ritual and social engagement.  As the nature of how Jewish communities are forming, the growing influence of innovative start-ups, the influence of online information sources, search devices, aggregating sites and social networks present new challenges and opportunities for growth. As new paths for personal Jewish journeys and communal engagement develop, Jewish education must rethink both the process of learning, and content and skills needed.

21st Century Jewish Education must rest on three pillars: 1) Student centered learning (PBL, Inquiry learning, Constructivist learning, etc.) 2) Experiential learning 3) Collaborative learning. While none of these pillars represent a unique approach to education for the 21st century, or are particular Jewish approach, they each provide a unique framework to address the specific needs of preparing today’s learners to adapt quickly and engage in lifelong learning. 21st Century Jewish education utilize technology to allow learners to deepen and broaden the reach of their learning and empower learning to obtain more control over the choices and learning path. As such, 21st Century educated Jews should be more able to determine their own learning journey, able to identify sources of legitimate information, create learning communities globally and gather experts and guides to support them, all for the purpose of become holy personally and being a light unto the nations.  This truly exemplifies the model established in Avot (1:6) "Make for yourself a teacher and acquire for yourself a friend, and judge each person favorably."