By Larry Gordon
School principals and administrators are dealing with an interesting challenge out there today, which is how to use the advances in modern technology to aid the learning process. One place that this latest phenomenon is being carefully studied and implemented is the Hebrew Academy of the Five Towns and Rockaway.
Several weeks ago I was invited to HAFTR to see how computer technology is being utilized there to educate students in the elementary and middle schools. My host was HAFTR’s “ed tech” coordinator, Benjamin Gross, who patiently walked me through several HAFTR computer labs where we observed students dealing with a series of online educational assignments.
Gross talks at length about the much-used concept of “blended learning,” which entails educational institutions bringing computer technology into classrooms, often as a way of cutting down on personnel while simultaneously reaching greater numbers of students. That is not the case here, and Gross adds that HAFTR educators firmly believe that there is no replacement for the personal interfacing with a teacher in the classroom. At the same time, the value of accelerating the learning process is something that this and other local schools are exploring and implementing.
On Monday, Ben Gross stopped by my office to bring me a dreidel. As you can imagine, I have many dreidels, both at home and in my office, but this large red one was special. The other day Ben called to say the students at HAFTR had created a gift for me on their computers and their 3‑D printer. That’s right—this dreidel was designed on students’ computer screens and then “printed,” or produced, on this high-tech printer that is capable of producing multidimensional items.
I left the dreidel on my desk and, over the course of conversation during a few meetings that day, I mentioned, “Oh, you see that dreidel? It was made on a 3‑D printer at HAFTR.” Across the board the reaction was that it’s sensational.
Through a special grant from the Center for Initiatives in Jewish Education and HAFTR families, the school was able to launch this unique ed-tech adventure. Through this funding, HAFTR acquired the equipment needed to create this special program. Currently the yeshiva has two of these 3‑D printers, desktops, iPads, and related supplies.
It is really something to behold, observing young students working studiously on iPads and laptops, paying careful attention to what looks like plain old video games from the distance. But students were actually sharpening skills in mathematics or other subjects, using specially designed programs that teach and improve those skills.
The principal of the middle school, Ms. Joy Hammer, with whom we met for just a few minutes, shared in the enthusiasm for the computer projects and how the technology is facilitating the educational process. She related to us that some parents had commented to her that when their children come home from school they prefer engaging with educational videos on their laptops or iPads instead of some of the many games kids play today for entertainment purposes.
The expectations are high at HAFTR for the innovative, advanced technological programs. To that end, the school has contracted with HAFTR parent Dr. Edward Roberts to run the Learning to Code program. Professor Roberts has a doctorate in technology from North Carolina University and extensive experience teaching technology to students and staff. Along with the HAFTR skilled educational technology department, Dr. Roberts will facilitate the students’ understanding of the 3‑D printing process.
There is great promise and possibilities that 3‑D printing is introducing to society. A quick look online tells us that amongst the things that can be designed on computers and produced in 3‑D are guitars, some medical models used to train doctors, iPhone cases (everyone can use those), lighting fixtures, coffee mugs, and I even saw a pair of shoes that were produced by a 3‑D printer.
As the HAFTR project evolves, the school has teamed up with Hofstra University. Ben Gross, the ed tech director, is currently a doctoral candidate at Hofstra and will be assisting in creating professional development for college students based on curriculum created at HAFTR.
So how has the new computer project evolved at HAFTR? “Our iPad program has grown to over 100 iPads across all divisions of the school,” says Mr. Gross. “KidBlog, Ariot, Dreambox, and Vocabulary City are some of the programs in use in our lower school,” he says. He adds that all the students have their own e‑mail through Google Education. The programs will allow for collaboration between students and teachers and will follow students throughout their HAFTR career. When they graduate, they will have a full student portfolio of projects that they have accomplished over the years.
The HAFTR model is commitment to academic excellence, and it’s clear that the incorporation of high-tech innovations into the curriculum will only enhance that effort and the school’s sterling reputation.
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A Drink And A Check
This was a first of sorts. Two bearded young men came into my office last week with a bottle of vodka and a few small schnapps glasses. They poured three cups and wanted to drink l’chaim. I rarely drink, and if I do, it’s Shabbos morning at Kiddush and not Wednesday afternoon in my office.
They are two Chabad young men who are raising money to finance a spot on the globe they found where they feel they can influence Jews who might live there or visit there on business. They are both from Arad, Israel and they are making the rounds, they say, to put together $50,000 to finance their move and set up shop in Nelson, New Zealand. Only one of my two visitors is planning on making the move over the next few months, with the other young man to follow once he is set up. They are both married and each has one child.
“Are you kidding me?” I asked. What is in Nelson, New Zealand that requires the presence of a Chabad shliach? Well, it turns out this planned foray into Nelson is not occurring in a vacuum. A little research and scratching beneath the surface and—what do you say to this—Nelson is home to about 120 Jews. The young men added that there are travelers on business—many of whom are Jewish and from Israel—who flock to New Zealand. And they add, with the climate as it currently is in Europe, many post-military Israeli young men and women are making their way to New Zealand instead as part of their rite of passage and their desire to explore the world after serving in the IDF.
I don’t think we have written extensively enough in this space about the Chabad enterprise of shlichus except around the time of the annual convention that brings thousands of these men, and many women too, to New York to compare notes and share experiences with one another.
From an economic perspective, picking a spot on the globe and moving there with your family is not what it once was in the early years. Today you have to hustle—like these two in my office last week—to make it happen. If you cannot raise the money to go, it is pretty simple—you’re not going.
I have a young cousin who set up a Chabad House in Bozeman, Montana a few years ago. He lives there with his wife and three very young children. Montana is a big state with not that many people. My cousin, Chaim Shaul Brook, once told me that the state has a total of about 900,000 residents and 25 million registered guns. And, yes, there is one other thing; there is no crime in Montana.
After years of identifying and meeting with the Jews in Montana, he finally has a pretty nice minyan on Shabbos morning. It took a while and I recall him telling me that the first thing he did was set up a Torah class in his home on Shabbos morning, though most of the people left after the class, so there was no minyan.
There are about 4,000 Jews living in Montana and many are intermarried. Last year, Chaim Shaul brought out another couple to assist him. This past summer, I met him here in New York when he was in town to attend the wedding of a young lady who is the daughter of one of his congregants in Bozeman. He sent her to Israel to study in a seminary. He arranged a shidduch for her with a young man with a similar background from California.
Back to these two Israeli men and their plan to move to Nelson, New Zealand. It sounds innovating and exciting. It looks like a nice country and one that already has a long and interesting history of Jewish life, though with a tiny but very committed population. There already is a Chabad rabbi who travels from another part of the country to visit Nelson on special occasions.
The two men, who were just sitting in my office when I returned from Minchah one day last week, poured three cups of vodka so that we could drink l’chaim. One knocked down a full jigger while the other just took a sip. He said he was driving and didn’t want to drink. I took a sip, too, just to be friendly and sociable. I asked them to be in touch and they said they would be. Nelson, New Zealand, is in for some kind of treat. They left the one empty cup and the one nearly full cup of vodka on my desk. They took the bottle to their next meeting.
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