As a teacher who received her teaching certification in the '80s, the challenge of moving to an online venue was daunting, to say the least. I taught in the States before my aliyah and taught English in Israeli classrooms in the '90s. However, when I first saw the advertisement for JETS Israel, an educational concern which facilitates teaching North American kids about Judaism and Israel through distance learning, I almost didn't apply.
Sure, I knew how to Google, email and even find friends on Facebook but who was I to run an interactive lesson on iPads?
Turns out that techie-phobics like myself were exactly what JETS was looking for. JETS educators are committed to Judaism, committed to Zionism and committed to bringing these elements of Jewish identity to kids in North American day schools and congregational schools. The technological details are secondary.
After completing an 8-week online JETS PD course called "No Teacher Left Behind," in which I was challenged to do what I would be expected to do with my classes, I was ready to roll. My assignment was an afternoon school in the Midwest, meaning that, in order to teach them at 6:30p.m. their time, I had to wake up at 2:30a.m. my time. Well, if the kids didn't mind seeing me in my jammies, I didn't care.
Our subject for the year was "Tikkun Olam" and we proceeded through the year by connecting various elements of tikkun olam to the seasons and holidays of the year. I began teaching right before Tu B'Shevat so we used videos and online work sheets to examine the Talmudic saying "Man is like the tree of a field." As the students collected their answers about the Jewish view of environmental responsibility they stuck virtual sticky notes on our online blackboard, created google drawings and documents, watched inspirational videos and shared their thoughts about their personal relationship to various textual materials that brought the connection between ancient Judaism and modern environmentalism alive.
Tu B'shevat got us talking about tithing the kids were surprised to hear that many Jews continue to tithe in modern times. We spent a lot of time on that subject. The online framework enabled a much more active discussion than would have been possible otherwise as the kids traded questions, thoughts and impressions using Earthtools, Wikis, social posters and other engaging multimedia.
My favorite Tu B'shevat lesson occurred when I threw out the question "Why does man, like a tree, need soil? How does a person's deeds root him into the ground?" The kids came up with some great topics for exploration such as "What do we do in our lives that roots us?" and they then shared their thoughts on our online bulletin board.
I don't think that anyone will ever mistake me for a technology maven but after my first year of distance teaching I became a believer. There are many different options within the world of online education that are simply not available elsewhere. These tools create a learning environment of engaging and interactive excitement. Distance learning isn't an answer to all Jewish educational needs but it definitely has a place in the Jewish classroom of the 21st century.