Thursday, August 8, 2013

Guest post by Peter Eckstein: Bringing the Sand Home: Reflections on the RealSchool Summer Sandbox

Three days of  hardfun and rewarding work. Three days of creation.  Three days of collaboration.  That’s how I’d describe the recently concluded RealSchool Summer Sandbox conference. As I wrote  here,   prior to travelling to this event in Teaneck, NJ I had no idea what to expect, or if  it would be worthwhile at all.  As I look back though,  I have to say that I got  a lot out of it.  It was a rewarding risk worth taking.
I was the only congregational educator in attendance.  The rest of the participants consisted of a  group of Jewish day school teachers and representatives of various national Jewish organizations.  This didn’t put me off, because I came with a specific agenda. I wanted to explore linkages between the world of Jewish day school and congregational education.  I also was looking forward to learning more about digital badges.  Most importantly however, I yearned for tachlis – for something real and concrete to come out of all of  this. I’ve had enough with theory. I wanted to bring something home with me.
When I arrived (late – the vagaries of air travel strike yet again!) I walked into the middle of a process that had begun that morning.  Participants were breaking into smaller cohorts, each of which focusing on a specific question, problem or project. Each group would explore an issue and ultimately create a learning experience that could be implemented in their specific environment.  What would be produced in The Sandbox was the first iteration. Everyone understood that the final product might very well look different. The idea, simply put, was to throw spaghetti at the wall and see what sticks.  I wandered around, observing this process and ran into Tzi Daum, (a fourth grade dayschool teacher, the founder of and in the twitterverse known as @torahskills). He and I’ve had had a cloud-based collegial collaboration for the past few years via twitter and Facebook.  This was the first time we had met on earth.  We sat down and began to talk.
Peter (left) and Tzvi Daum begin having "hard fun" at the Sandbox!
Tzvi and I shared two interests. One was exploring themes and questions that Jewish day  and congregational schools shared. We discovered a common challenge: Connecting what the kids learn in school with their home and family life. How do we get what the kids learn in school to be relevant to them, their parents and families at home? The other interest we shared was online and blended learning.  We both have worked with the Moodle learning management system, so we decided to create our project using it as one component of  our learning experience – an experiment in blended learning.
In the project we began to design, our students and their parents will be charged with determining how funds raised in a class tzedakah drive would be allocated.  The families have tasks that they need to fulfill together – both in class as well as online.  They will need to research causes and organizations and learn about the difference between tzedakah (righteous giving) and g’millut chassadim (acts of loving kindness). Most importantly, parents and kids will together reflect on this process of discovery and family education, submitting these thoughts in writing, via the moodle platform.  The culmination of this project consists of both digital and physical presentations, focusing on the family’s choice of who would receive the funds, and the reasons why. In the final assessment, one of the criteria will be the level and type of parental involvement. Tzvi and I are still working on this project – fine tuning the moodle-based lesson so that it would be appropriate for our specific learning environments. Our hope is to pilot it in the fall.
Peter and Tzvi doing "iterative prototyping," that is, planning out their PBL unit
My second goal – learning about digital badges – focused specifically on how they can be used as a tool in part time Jewish learning environments.  I first heard about this idea of cloud based reinforcement and  credentialing from Sarah Blattner  (founder and executive director of Tamritz and known on twitter as @tamritzlearning), who is doing amazing work integrating the use of digital badges in a number of Jewish day schools. I was excited to be able to learn more from Sarah, (albeit remotely – she skyped in her session). I had learned the theory back in May at Edjewcon, now I had the chance to learn more about the nuts and bolts.  From Sarah I learned what tools I would need as well as ideas  about how to  link the badge to a student’s e-portfolio – creating an added level of engagement in Jewish learning for the student AND his or her parents and family.  As a result of this experience, I have begun the process of applying the use of digital badges into my congregational school.
Peter and Tzvi present their work
I attended The Sandbox to experience a practical type of professional development that focused on practice. As I wrote before the conference,  I wanted to immerse myself in a climate of experimentation, hard work, and fun. I wanted the freedom to try something new, and to “see what happens”. But there was one more thing I was searching for: A professional development experience that I would like to try in my community, both in my congregation as well as with my colleagues from other institutions. If we truly are striving to transform part time Jewish education, then we need to also transform how we as learn, and how we teach. Playing in the sandbox might be the answer.