by Rabbi Batsheva Appel
The question of how to combine technology with teaching is nothing new. There is a well-known Hasidic story
from the turn of the last century where the disciples ask their teacher, what can we learn from the invention of the train, the telegraph, and the telephone? The rabbi answers: From the train we can learn that in one moment everything can be lost, from the telegraph we can learn that every single word counts, from the telephone we can learn that whatever we say here is heard there.
How would I update this story for the turn of this century? What can we learn from the invention of the smart phone, blogs, and Twitter? From the smart phone we can learn that despite multi-tasking, we still can’t dance at two weddings at the same time. From blogs, we can learn the power of being anonymous, which can empower us to say the important things that need to be said or can make it hard for us to remember to be a mensch. From Twitter we can learn lot of information is shared in just 140 characters and that information is recorded for posterity.
Technology can add so much to our teaching. When KAM Isaiah Israel made the decision to move our mid-week Hebrew program to a distance learning program that we call Ivrit@Home, people were very excited , because we were being very up-to-date, and very modern, after all our children are now learning on the computer in the middle of the week. I am very excited that Ivrit@Home is working for our families and helping us to accomplish our education goals, but we shouldn’t be so quick to congratulate ourselves. All we are doing is shifting one element of our Religious School program to the computer, not changing how our students are really learning. There is nothing new about a teacher working with a child individually. Ivrit@Home makes one-on-one instruction possible for every one of our students, but there is nothing new here. We are not even scratching the surface for what could be accomplished with technology.
In the Mishnah we read that each of us should see ourselves as if we had been redeemed from Mitzrayim, as if we had experienced the Exodus. What are the possibilities of recreating that experience for each of our students and ourselves using technology? We already tweet the Exodus, blog the Exodus, put pictures of the Exodus on Instagram and Pinterest. We can make videos or use animation to tell the story. What if we developed a role playing game about the Exodus? What could be possible in the future using virtual reality to recreate crossing of the Sea of Reeds?
The last thing that I want to close with is from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel who talked about the role of the teacher. Because no matter what technology we use, whether quill on parchment, or printing in books, or writing in chalk on a chalkboard or sending out Tweets
Everything depends on the person who stands in front of the classroom. The teacher is not an automatic fountain from which intellectual beverages may be obtained. The teacher is either a witness or a stranger. To guide a pupil into the promised land, the teacher must have been there themselves. When asking themselves: Do I stand for what I teach? Do I believe what I say?, the teacher must be able to answer in the affirmative. What we need more than anything else is not textbooks, but textpeople. It is the personality of the teacher which is the text that the pupils read: the text that they will never forget. [edited for gender neutrality, from On1Foot.org]
Rabbi Batsheva Appel is the senior rabbi of KAM Isaiah Israel in Chicago. She is intrigued by the possibilities of technology, is considered tech savvy, and uses a fountain pen.