Albert Einstein Academy (AEA), the premier Jewish Day School of the Brandywine Valley, was one of the first schools in the United States to be wired. Since then, the development of internet and computing technology has moved well beyond creating the infrastructure to network a school. As the new Head of School, it has been my challenge to determine a path forward to put AEA ahead of the curve again.
The August 2013 issue of our local Jewish community newspaper, The Jewish Voice, published a series of articles from JNS.org suggesting that 21st-Century Jewish Day Schools should be using tablets and any of a number of online learning tools. These articles do a good job of creating excitement around the innovative use of technologies to support learning. Less obvious is the undercurrent of concern about aligning the right hardware with new programs and programs yet to be developed.
In the spirit of the school’s namesake, we are going to experiment and to network. Albert Einstein’s theories came as a result of thinking through options to find those ideas that conformed to science and physical reality. He corresponded with fellow scientists around the world to test his ideas and to learn from others. This year, faculty, staff, and some students and parents will test options for digital education tools. The faculty and staff will be asked to use Google Apps for Education to see if its tools and privacy provide a vibrant space for teamwork, organization, and lesson plans that incorporate web-based resources. After tapping my network at the University of Delaware and the JEDLAB Facebook group for advice, I registered to log into edmodocon on August 7th to check out EdModo. During the year, willing teachers will be encouraged to try Kidblog and/or Schoology for individual classes or projects. If we had older students, we would look at other systems like Haiku. By year’s end, we ought to know better our reality–where to focus our attention for the school’s 45th year and whether we should be investing in Chromebooks, tablets, devices from home, or our current desktops. I say year’s end because choosing the right hardware depends greatly on what programs one will use on it.
More to the point, these devices, learning management systems, and online tools matter much less than what we are trying to achieve—preparing our children to succeed in the world they will inhabit. Given our quest to educate the whole child, today’s tech must be seen, not as the goal, but as a tool among others.
The real technology of a Jewish day school is lived Jewish learning. Jewish learning is, at its roots, relational. No student is a blank canvas onto which data is plotted. Jewish learning asks students to partner with other students and to interact with generations of commentators. The relationship is not merely temporal, it is active–active inquiry. We ask questions: questions of our study partners, questions of our teachers, questions of the sages of the tradition, and questions of the texts themselves. The network is assumed; Jewish learning activates it. By learning how to activate the learning network, students learn who they are; they become grounded with roots that allow them to deal with all the information and all the experiences they will encounter as they grow into a world we can only imagine.
One of my favorite Jewish technologies is Shabbat, a time to cease from work and to re-soul. When we stop working, we are able to look back and appreciate our progress. We give value to our work by entering a space of appreciation for all we have. This experience holds true for much of the year as the technology of the Jewish calendar forces us to note the seasons and our foundational histories. Rituals for the Jewish lifecycle are the software that feeds our spirits as we celebrate milestones, mourn in community, and tap into our unique purposes.
If we are not focused on the Jewish technologies of how to learn and how to live, neither the latest gadget nor the best new app will educate our children. We should seek the best tools for advancing our efforts to teach, but we must do so with our eyes on the prize, the prize of a self-motivated learner who has the moral empathy and inquisitive grit to gain wisdom. If we do that, we will surely be ahead of the curve.