Gone are the days of “the dog ate my homework.’’
So says rabbinic literature teacher Rabbi Yossi Kahan of Scheck Hillel Community School, who Skyped author Patrice Samara from New York into his seventh-grade class in North Miami Beach recently as part of a writing workshop series.
The conversation was fluid between students and Samara, co-author of “Alphabet Kids,” a children’s book series. From a camera perched atop an electronic blackboard in front of the classroom, Samara called on students who raised their hands.
“How do you turn a biography into a children’s book?” asked one student.
Samara suggested going to the library to find examples of picture books.
The Skype session is part of a yearlong project in which three seventh-grade classes will write biographies of Jewish people who have made an impact on the world. Students have chosen to profile the likes of Brian Epstein, the manager of the Beatles, and Mark Zuckerburg, one of the Facebook founders.
Skyping authors is part of a schoolwide approach to incorporate technology in the classroom.
“The goal is to help them understand that technology is a tool that can help them tell a story, or start a social movement,” said Opher Yunger, chair of design and technology, “but, they still have to independently think about what they want to learn.”
Next door to the Skyping seventh-graders, sixth-graders gathered around computers in pairs and small groups. Rabbi Meir Wexler wove around the computers, iPad in hand, helping students navigate the online class, called Mishna, or Oral Jewish Law. Each student learns the ancient text at their own pace.
The Advanced Placement Psychology and U.S. History classes at the high school are conducted entirely over Skype. Moving to Israel has not stopped the classes’ teacher, Rhea Schwartzberg, from teaching.
“Technology has shattered the traditional classroom,’’ said Rabbi Joshua Spodek, Scheck’s Head of Judaic Studies and Hebrew Languages. “The more [technology] we push into the classroom, the more we are pushed out of the classroom.’’
But, the educators cautioned, there are drawbacks to technology.
“Our world is a beautiful world…kids miss out on that,’’ said Spodek. “I see it in my own kids who are stuck to their phones. That is something I worry could be lost on this generation.’’
Developing interpersonal skills, such as maintaining eye contact and verbal communication, may also be a challenge for students born digital native, Spodek said.
Teachers will often step in and pull the plug in situations where technology can hinder rather than help. When Yunger asked his tenth graders recently, for example, to solve a problem of their choice, he led them outside to a grassy area where they brainstormed in groups about the best solutions. Only after they had chosen a solution were they allowed to return to the Internet for more information.
To help teachers and parents feel comfortable using technology, Scheck Hillel holds workshops once a month, and offers two, full-day sessions throughout the year.
Said Yunger: “We are building a community where what we expect from our students, we have to do too — share, communicate, collaborate and lean on each other to spawn new ideas.’’
Indeed, students already are imagining how classrooms of the future will be very different.
“We’ll just be sitting and staring at screens. No books. No paper,’’ said seventh grader Shaul Levy. Instead of walls, he said, “There’ll just be force fields.’’