The Power of Blended Learning Graphic

The Power of Blended Learning in the Jewish Studies Classroom

by Rabbi Reuven Spolter, Kitah Founder and Director

Reuven Spolter, Founder and Director, Kitah

Recently, a respected Jewish educator raised the following question in an online on an educational forum.

How much time and effort do you put into making Torah relevant to your students’ lives, as opposed to imparting knowledge and teaching skills?”

This might be the most fundamental question vexing Jewish educators today.

A debate ensued, but most agreed that schools must first make Torah relevant. Teachers argued that only if our students feel that Torah is important to their lives will they want to study it at all. This makes intuitive sense. How can we expect our students to learn Torah if they don’t connect to its teachings?

The question places two critical educational goals at odds with one-another: relevance versus knowledge and skills.

We can frame it another way: Should we emphasize emotional connection to Judaism or intellectual connection? Is it more important to hold a kumzitz so our kids will be passionate and feel connected to Judaism, or a study session giving them more insight and greater knowledge about their heritage?

Can’t it be both? Can’t we teach our students knowledge and skills while also imparting within them a sense of love and passion about their heritage?

Sadly, too often, the answer today is “no.” This is by no means the fault of Jewish studies teachers, who would love nothing more than to pull apart a complicated Rashi or study a difficult piece of Gemara. Due to significant changes taking place around the world – the proliferation of screens, an increased unwillingness to read text of any kind or length – many children find it increasignly difficult to engage in serious reading, even in their native language. Jewish schools face the even more daunting challenge of educating students to master ancient Jewish texts. Moreover, the Hebrew of Tanach and Mishnah is not really modern Hebrew, to say nothing of the Aramaic of Talmud or Halachah.

Even when teachers do tackle teaching text in the classroom, this often comes at the expense of connection. After the grueling work of teaching the basic mechanics of a text, little time (or energy) is left for the next level, the meaning that comes from the text. So teachers often opt to skip the step of text-skill acquisition and give a short synopsis, so that they can engage their students with the deeper thinking and higher order skills that bring intellectual excitement and meaning.

An International Challenge

This problem is not just a Diaspora problem. It’s a global issue that educators in Israel face as well.

Rabbi Moshe Lichtenstein of Yeshivat Har Etzion

In the Diyyukan of this week’s Mekor Rishon newspaper, Rabbi Moshe Lichtenstein, Rosh Yeshiva at the Har Etzion yeshiva in Israel decried the declining state of textual Gemara learning in the average Israeli high school. He said,

“The bitter reality is that the study of the Gemara in high school yeshivahs is eroding. In the Chareidi-Leumi sector, the situation is different, but in the National Religious public, they give a low-calorie Gemara diet, and when a person eats low-calorie, he remains skinny. The volume of material studied is in constant decline, dealing with light, popular and seemingly more attractive tractates, and the result is that students have difficulty reading basic texts. The order of the hour is to establish scholarly high schools, because it is lacking today…
In fact, there is one very pretentious thing here: an attempt to study ancient texts in the source language. The general world despaired of it after World War II. Instead of breaking teeth and learning Greek or German to end up reading twenty lines of Homer or Goethe, the perception today is that it is better to read all of Homer or Goethe in translation. So maybe it’s more effective, but in translation you mostly get the insights, and lose the living affinity for the text. You are not in dialogue with him, you have lost the unmediated contact.”

What is true for Israelis is doubly true for Jewish teachers and students throughout the Diaspora.

Yet, I think that there can be a middle ground.

There is a way to try and overcome the daunting challenge of text study without sacrificing meaning. There’s a way to harness the power of modern technology to bring text learning to students before they step into the classroom.

The solution is called “Flipped Learning.”

The Benefits of Jewish Studies Flipped Learning

In the Flipped Learning model, students learn basic skills through educational video, gaining a basic understanding of a concept. This model, popularized by Salman Khan and the world-famous Khan Academy, enables students to learn challenging educational material at home and then spend class time doing practice exercises, when they are under the tutelage of teachers who can give guidance and offer help when necessary.

For Jewish Studies Flipped Learning, the classroom can and must be so much more than that.

Imagine a classroom where the teacher, instead of teaching the students how to read and decode the text, was confident that her students had already learned the text sufficiently to be able to read and follow it inside. That is what the power of Flipped Learning can bring to Judaic studies.

Rather than try and teach twenty or thirty students at different academic levels in an integrated classroom, a teacher using a Flipped Learning model can assign the students to watch a pre-lesson and learn the text at their own pace, answering questions about the text as they progress. The teacher gets immediate, real-world feedback about each student’s progress, and can identify students who are struggling or whether a specific element of the text needs greater explanation and attention.

In a Judaic Flipped Learning classroom, students have already read the text and answered basic questions about phrasing, vocabulary and understanding. The teacher can begin the class at exactly the point that’s most interesting. Instead of teaching the “what”, a teacher can begin with the “why” and “how”, leading to a far more engaging learning experience.

Using Talmud Study as an Example

Torah learning takes place on a series of levels, building one on top of another. Let’s take the study of Talmud as an example. Talmud study, like most Jewish text learning, happens in a series of levels.

1. First there is the most basic challege of the text; of simply decoding the meaning of the words.

2. The second step is understanding the logic of the Gemara – what is the Gemara trying to say through those words.

3. Above that comes the interpretation of the Gemara: Why did the Gemara choose this particular line of reasoning over another? Here we reach the level of the commentaries, beginning with Rashi (another text challenge) and Tosfot, moving on from there, where the sky is the limit.

4. Finally, there is the level of meaning: What is the halachic concept underlying that line of reasoning? Why did a particular rabbi rule the way that he did? How can we unravel his understanding of the issue based on that understanding?

Without the first two levels; without being able to understand the words and unravel the logic, a student will never independently be able to climb to the higher levels and truly appreciate the beauty and power of what learning Gemara is all about. But, once the two steps have already been completed, a teacher has the ability to reach the truly “fun” part of learning.

The joy in Talmud study lies in the higher order skills – the “why” of the Gemara, and the deeper sense of meaning that these questions ultimately bring.

Rethinking a Classic Model

Traditional Chavruta-style learning has been a staple of Jewish education for centuries

Truthfully, while the use of technology represents an innovation, our approach really draws from centuries of Jewish educational practice. For many years, Jewish studies teachers assigned a block of material to their students to prepare in the Beit Midrash. The students learned b’chavruta – in pairs – making a “layning” – a preparatory reading on the text. Once they had prepared, students would be ready for the “shiur” – the class where their teacher would draw upon that preparation and take the class to an entire new educational level.

Today, technology can help students do the pre-reading, giving them not only a first understanding of any Jewish text, but over time, the confidence to tackle new texts on their own.

That, of course, is the most important educational building block of all.

Parshat Hashavua for Parshat Bereishit 5781

Kitah’s Parshah Lesson for Bereishit 5781

What was Noach’s original job, before he became an “ark builder”? By studying a Rashi near the end of the Parshah, we can learn about Noach, what his name means, and how Rashi uses Midrash to explain the pesukim.

You can find the source sheets here if you’d like to print them out for the Shabbat table. To learn more about Kitah for Home, click here.

Special Sukkot Lesson Graphic

Kitah Sukkot Lesson: Understanding the Four Minim

Welcome to this free Kitah lesson prepared by Rabbi Reuven Spolter!

To access the lesson, click here;

If you are a teacher, we invite you to share this lesson using Google Classroom or any other online e-learning platform. You can find the link to the editable form here.

About this lesson:
In this lesson, Rabbi Spolter analyzes the source in the Torah for the taking of the Four Species. We all know that the Four Species are the Lulav, Hadasim, Aravot and Etrog. Yet, many people do not realize that the names of the those plants don’t appear in the Torah the way we describe them! The Torah uses different words entirely. How did the Sages decide which branches to take on Sukkot?

In this lesson, we’ll study the verse in the Torah as well as the Midrash Halachah that derives the meanings of the words very carefully. We also use the words to understand not only which plants we take, but how we hold them as well.

Suggestions for Class Discussion:
Here are some suggested classroom activities for a classroom lesson, after the students have watched the lesson and answered the questions.
1. What do you think that we can learn from the words ביום הראשון – “on the first day” – about the taking of the Four Species?
2. Can a parent give his or her Four Species to use on Sukkot? Why or why not? How is this connected to the words of the Torah?

3. Why does the Torah connect the taking of the Four Species to happiness on Sukkot?

4. What is the connection between the Four Species and being “Before God” in the Beit Hamikdash?

How to Share the Lesson with Your Students
To use this lesson, you can access the editable version of the form with this link.
It will prompt you to make a copy of the form which you can save and share with your students. Feel free to add or change any of the questions, as you see fit.


Feedback
We’d love your feedback on this lessons. Please take a moment to send us an email and let us know how the lesson went with your students at feedback@kitah.org. You can view the lesson below!

Kitah Rosh Hashanah Lesson For Teachers: Simanim and Tashlich

Welcome to this free Kitah lesson prepared by Rabbi Johnny Solomon! We invite you to share this lesson using Google Classroom or any other online e-learning platform.

About this lesson:
In this lesson, Rabbi Solomon studies the sources in the Shulchan Aruch about why we eat special foods on Rosh Hashanah, as well as why we “cast” our sins into the sea during Tashlich. You can assign the lesson as homework, or as an in-class assignment (if the students have their own devices)

Suggestions for Class Discussion:
Here are some suggested classroom activities for a classroom lesson, after the students have watched the lesson and answered the questions.
1. Does your family have an unusual simanim that make special use of words either in Hebrew or English, or have some type of experience?
2. Divide into groups, and try and “create” three new Simanim that will have special meaning for us for this year: What foods would you use? What blessings would you offer.
3. What is the most unusual place you’ve done Tashlich? Did you feel like you “threw” your sins into the water?

How to Share the Lesson with Your Students
To use this lesson, you can access the editable version of the form with this link.
Click on “Use Template” in the top right corner, and save it in your Google Drive to share with your students. You can also feel free to add or change any of the questions, as you see fit.


Feedback
We’d love your feedback on this lessons. Please take a moment to send us an email and let us know how the lesson went with your students at feedback@kitah.org. You can view the lesson below!

Kitah Classroom Graphic

Registration for the 5781 Kitah Classroom is Now Open!

We are very excited to announce that expert Torah and technology educator Rabbi Jonathan Simons has agreed to serve as the first Kitah Classroom teacher. Rabbi Simons is an experienced Torah teacher and is also a trained consultant in educational technology. Most importantly, he recognizes the importance of connecting with his students and giving them the best possible learning experience. You can read Rabbi Simons’ bio on our Staff Page.

With Rabbi Simons’ position secured, we are very excited to officially open registration for the 5781 Kitah Classroom.

Dates and Schedule:
The first Kitah Classroom class begins on Monday, September 7th, 2020
. (We know that this is Labor Day in the United States, but remember that all KITAH classroom lessons are asynchronous. While the lessons will be assigned on Monday, your child can study at any time throughout the week.)

Courses:
The first class will study two courses weekly:
1. Chumash Shemot with Rabbi Johnny Solomon
2. Mishnah Berachot with Rabbi Reuven Spolter
Each course is twenty weekly lessons. With the completion of those courses, students will begin new classes.

Cost:
Kitah Classroom is priced with families in mind. The cost is $99 per month per family.

To register your children please fill out the contact form here, and we’ll be in touch!

We’re looking forward to seeing your children in the classroom!

An Innovative New Online Jewish Education Platform to Help Address the COVID crisis – Our First Press Release

For Immediate Release:

Contact Information:

www.kitah.org 

Rabbi Reuven Spolter, Founder and Director

Email: spolter@kitah.org

Tel: +972-54-220-4347, (US number in Israel: +1-​347-434-9212)

Rabbi Reuven Spolter, Kitah Founder and Director

Kitah, a new Online Jewish Education Initiative, to Help Schools Weather the COVID Crisis

KITAH unveils an exciting online Jewish Education platform to help Jewish Day schools and Jewish parents address the uncertainty they will face over the coming year.

YAD BINYAMIN, ISRAEL – Last March, when the COVID crisis struck shutting down cities and communities around the world, schools scrambled to shift to distance learning. Teachers and students adapted to Zoom classes and virtual schedules, utilizing online teaching resources to bring their students meaningful learning experiences.

Teachers quickly realized that they could not expect the same level of attention and focus from their students in Zoom lessons that they did in person. Judaic teachers discovered that while their counterparts on the “secular” side could access a wide range of digital teaching resources, very little ready-made online Jewish material was available for their own instruction.

“It was a struggle,” said Adina Blaustein, a high school Tanach teacher at the Fuchs Mizrachi School in Cleveland, OH. “I couldn’t just email a worksheet and expect the students to manage on their own. And there simply was no available digital teaching material that we could easily assign our students.” 

Recognizing this need, a group of English-speaking Jewish educators built an online educational platform aimed at giving Jewish studies teachers powerful digital educational tools.

Titled Kitah (which means “class” in Hebrew”), the platform is modeled after the world-famous Khan Academy “flipped classroom”. In a “flipped” classroom, teachers assign students lessons via YouTube which they watch on their own. When the students meet in class, a teacher can follow-up, enhancing and expanding on what the students have already learned.

Kitah is built on this innovative educational model. However, instead of teaching math or science, Kitah focuses on classic Jewish subjects including Chumash, Navi, Mishnah and Gemara. Courses combine YouTube videos prepared by seasoned Jewish studies teachers with Google Forms, making the lessons easy for teachers to use in classrooms around the world.

“We built Kitah to allow teachers to assign home-based study focusing on skills and text reading,” explains Rabbi Reuven Spolter, founder and director of Kitah. “A student can watch a lesson once, or as many times as needed, in order to answer the included questions.” This allows students the time and focus they need to properly understand the Hebrew text, greatly enhancing and improving the classroom experience later on. “A teacher does not have to start from scratch. Students enter the classroom having been exposed to the basic meaning of the text, allowing teachers to focus on broader themes and deeper lessons they otherwise might not address.”

This coming school year, with the significant possibility of further community closures, Kitah offers schools the peace of mind that, should they need to shift to distance learning, they will have digital Jewish studies lessons ready to deploy.

“While we did not build Kitah because of the COVID crisis,” explained Rabbi Johnny Solomon, Kitah’s educational director, “Our platform is certainly an important option for schools looking for Jewish online learning tools.”

Spolter agrees. “In the end, we know that we’ve built a tool that will help Jewish children learn and connect to classic Jewish texts. If we can help Jewish schools and teachers weather this incredibly challenging time, that will be an added bonus.”

For more information about Kitah, contact Rabbi Reuven Spolter or visit their website, Kitah.org.