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School offers alternative Hebrew lessons via Skype
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School offers alternative Hebrew lessons via Skype

Long-distance learning engages kids, expands choice of teachers

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Nancy Hersh, religious school director of Congregation Beth Hatikvah in Summit, found just the right person to teach Hebrew reading to fifth- and sixth-graders.

The fact that the teacher lives in Massachusetts is not the obstacle it might seem.

That’s because Hersh has split off the Hebrew language curriculum at the Reconstructionist synagogue from the rest of the school. Fifth- and sixth-grade students still attend the school one day a week on Saturdays for the Judaics curriculum, but now learn their Hebrew reading and prayers via Skype, the video chat service.

Hersh schedules the lessons based on student and teacher availability. The students learn from their own homes with teachers handpicked by Hersh. It’s an innovation that meets a number of challenges.

“I wanted to engage the kids more, and I needed teachers who could understand our Reconstructionist philosophy,” said Hersh. One of the biggest benefits, according to Hersh, is that she is no longer limited by the pool of local applicants.

Meanwhile, parents have one less activity to shlep their kids to, and highly connected kids get one-on-one time and the opportunity to advance at their own pace. For the teachers, it’s an opportunity to try out a new model that they can implement in their own schools down the road.

That’s what got Kim Bodemer, the director of education at Temple Chayai Shalom in Taunton, Mass., interested in the first place. Hersh described her idea at a conference last summer. “I was curious about how it would work, and I jokingly said I’d teach,” said Bodemer. A few weeks later, Hersh called Bodemer with a real offer, and Bodemer accepted.

And while it isn’t something Bodemer will implement immediately in her own school, she said she has enjoyed connecting with kids in another part of the country so much that she plans to continue with the program this year, its second at Beth Hatikvah.

“It’s cool to see that these kids are all thinking about the same things and struggling with the same things, whether they’re in New Jersey or Massachusetts,” Bodemer said. And as a parent of three children who have to get to activities plus religious school, she said, “For busy 21st-century parents, this kind of program is a godsend.”

Beth Hatikvah member Lisa Tognola of Chatham said that when she first heard about the program, “I was skeptical.” Her biggest concern, she said, was that her daughter, Elana, 12, “would not get as much social time with her friends and connect with her peers.”

But, she said, the school “made up for it by scheduling other social events, and she still saw her friends on Saturdays.”

Tognola’s other concern was that “this was unprecedented and experimental. I was worried — would she learn as much? But I had faith in the director. And it was a really positive outcome. Elana never complained and was very independent,” she said.

At her scheduled Skype time, every Sunday at 5:30 p.m., “Elana would take her computer and remove herself from the family for the lesson. I’d sometimes forget and she’d do it on her own. I’ve been very pleased — not to mention the convenience factor for me.”

Elana liked the program as well. “It was great to have a one-on-one experience with a tutor,” she said. “And I didn’t have to wait for other people who were on different levels. I didn’t have to get bored listening to them. I definitely got to work at my own pace.”

Similarly, when it might have taken her a bit longer than the rest of the class to catch on to a particular idea, she said, the tutor “would take the time to wait until I understood. If everyone else in the class had understood right away, the teacher would have moved on.”

Still, the initiative has its challenges. There’s an occasional audio delay, said Bodemer, that can be “so frustrating that sometimes we hang up and try again or just switch to telephone with the visual on the computer. But we work through it.”

The other challenge is keeping kids focused. “I have developed a sense of when kids are not really focusing. Now I have a babysitter or a parent in the room to make sure they’re on task,” Bodemer said.

Hersh thinks fourth-graders are “a little young for Skype” and seventh-graders have private tutoring for their b’nei mitzva.

Hersh has set down a few ground rules for the initiative: Adults must be in the house and the Skype lesson must be held at the same time every week. Teachers must submit weekly reports to her and monthly reports to parents. She currently has three teachers scheduled to work with 12-15 students during the coming year. Hersh herself evaluates students several times a year.

Innovation isn’t new for Hersh. Several years back, she experimented with “pods,” small groups meeting in individual homes. Although briefly successful, the experiment ended when students could no longer agree on convenient times and teachers became less available. She has also just implemented a workshop system for kindergarten and first-grade families who aren’t ready to commit to full-time religious school or to synagogue membership, or have seasonal conflicts. They can choose from rotating multi-day workshops offered throughout the year.

Bodemer, who runs a Reform religious school but belongs to a Reconstructionist synagogue, enjoys helping kids think about the meaning of liturgy and the Torah service. One thing she misses on Skype, however, is the exchange of ideas that occurs in the classroom and that often sparks other ideas.

While the cost of hiring extra teachers will require a subsidy for fifth- and sixth-graders, Hersh thinks it’s worth it. Although there was some resistance when she implemented Skype Hebrew last year, she said, now, like Elana, “the kids love it.”

Click here for more information on the use of Skype as an aid to education and expanding the global classroom.

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