Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Let Me Show You My Portfolio...Bazinga!

Alan Rowe is an old friend and one of the principals at Torah Aura Productions. Alan has been a tech guy in Jewish education since before the internet was available to mere mortals (those of us who were not in the military or at one of a handful of universities using PLATO). He for as long as I have known him (almost 25 years) he has been beta testing one program or another. Sometimes to see how it can help Torah Aura in their work, sometimes to see how it might help Jewish teachers. And as often as not, just to see what cool things were possible. He is that kind of guy. 

A few weeks ago he sent me a link to a blog posting about using Evernote to create student portfolios. He wanted to know if I thought there might be an application for synagogue or "complementary" education.

GREAT CAESAR'S GHOST! [O.K. Not that one.]

As soon as you finish this reading posting - or sooner, you may not care about what I have to say - check out Rob Van Nood's blog posting "How to Create a Portfolio with Evernote."

Educational Portfolios

Dr. Helen C. Barrett maintains that one of the many purposes of the educational portfolio is "to support reflection that can help students understand their own learning and to provide a richer picture of student work that documents growth over time." We in complementary schools have many frustrations - not enough time or enough days for learning, the supply of teachers, parents who bring their children to us for many different reasons, and not always the ones we think they should have - just to name a few. I think that getting students to reflect more deeply on the learning and meaningful evaluation are two that we don't often even get to when we are bemoaning the things we wish we could do. Barrett continues:

"Artists have maintained portfolios for years, often using their collection for seeking further work, or for simply demonstrating their art; an artist's portfolio usually includes only their best work. Financial portfolios contain a comprehensive record of fiscal transactions and investment holdings that represent a person's monetary worth. By contrast, an educational portfolio contains work that a learner has selected and collected to show growth and change over time; a critical component of an educational portfolio is the learner's reflection on the individual pieces of work (often called "artifacts") as well as an overall reflection on the story that the portfolio tells. There are many purposes for portfolios in education: learning, assessment, employment, marketing, showcase, best works."
I first learned about portfolios as a graduate student in Jewish Education a long time ago. They sound wonderful don't they? Imagine if we could collect the creative output of each of our students over the course of the year. Every once in a while a teacher could ask each student to share what they think their best work was so far, or to discuss an idea they have been developing. 

Parents could be invited to review the portfolio in a conference with the teacher and student and get a real sense of what their child has been doing at temple each week instead of a progress report with letter grades and a brief paragraph that might include the phrase "I really enjoyed having Ploni in my class this year." And items from the portfolios could be displayed, celebrating each child in the eyes of the congregation!

Ah well. That sounds awesome for a day school or general education school. They have enough hours in the day and enough days in the week. They have professionally trained and licensed teachers who have more time to give. Our teachers are awesome, but they have so little time and we pay them so little. We all know that song. We sing it every time we come upon an educational innovation. Poor us. We are too small, too poor and have too little time. We could never do it.

(Those of you who can remember the comedian David Steinberg know what that really means.)

I am tired of those excuses. Saying "Yes We Can" is more than political slogan. I have spent a fair amount of time evangelizing for using Web 2.0 technologies to leverage the things we might be lacking like time, money and staff. 
We can and we should be using portfolios. They hold so much promise for making meaning. And Evernote just might be the way to do it with all of the limitations we believe we are our burden.
Evernote's logo is the head of an elephant. When you got to www.evernote.com the headline is "Remember Everything."

It is actually "a suite of software and services designed for notetaking and archiving. A "note" can be a piece of formatted text, a wb page or exerpt, a photo, an audio recording or even a handwritten ink note. They can be sorted into folders, tagged, annotated, edited, given comments and searched. They can even be exported as part of a ntoebook."

What's so Shazam about it?

This is where Rob Van Nood's posting comes in. He begins: "I started teaching 15 years ago and that is when I first came across this concept of a ‘portfolio.’ A portfolio is a storehouse for projects, writing pieces, art, and performances. It can be used by students, teachers, and parents to document what they’re doing (either day-to-day things or through their best work or improvements they’ve made). I see portfolios as a way to hold onto and think about what you’re doing." He is on the same page as Dr. Barrett. Here are some the things he does:
  • When our school first decided to use Evernote, we set up demos with the students to show them how to use Evernote. At their age, students familiarize themselves with technology really quickly and naturally. A few picked it up immediately and started teaching their fellow classmates. Getting everyone up to speed didn’t take a lot of time.
  • Before setting students up with Evernote accounts, I created a set of guidelines for the students so they knew what kind of things to put into Evernote. We also discussed the kinds of tags that they should be using, so we’d all be on the same page.
  • Students started asking, ‘How can I put this into Evernote?’  I set my classroom up with a Lexmark Pro scanner so students are able to immediately capture their work and send it to their Evernote portfolio. They can also capture using any number of mobile devices where they have Evernote installed. They’re even able to access their work on their iPod Touch in class.
  • When a student comes up with an interesting strategy on a whiteboard, I have them write down their name next to it and take a picture of it, or record them explaining what they came up with. Great ideas are saved to Evernote to show progress over the course of the school year.
  • I’ve actually started emailing parents with these progress notes immediately after I capture them. I’m able to show the parents that their kid had a great growth moment or did something they’ve never done before. The real-time sharing was appreciated not only by the parents, but also excited the students.
  • The final ‘piece’ of the portfolio work is, of course, sharing. For our Spring conference, we asked students to have one example of work from each area (math, writing, art, kinesthetic) to share with their parents. The students actually taught the parents how to use Evernote at our conference by familiarizing them with their portfolios.
He also uses it for parent teacher conferences.

I will be spending some time with our Religious School Vision Team and some members of our faculty exploring using Evernote Portfolios. I am hoping to introduce them in one or two grades next year. In our school, our students in Kitot Alef - Vav (1 - 6) have two teachers. One is for general Jewish studies and the other focuses on Hebrew. I think that the portfolios will give the two teachers a powerful tool for connecting the learning between their classes. 

And I am incredibly excited about curating these portfolios in a way that will allow us to share students' work with the entire congregation (with their permission of course). And the opportunity for kids to share their work with grandparents will open opportunities for intergenerational learning. 

Are you using Evernote Portfolios? Please share. And contact me if you are interested in exploring the possibilities with me. And also check out Van Nood's Evernote Portfolio Blog.

Monday, April 16, 2012

How Do We Talk to Our Children About Israel?

Andi Arnovitz, Dress of the Unfaithful Wife (left), 2009,
Japanese rice paper, hair, dirt and film, 110x46x13, collection of the artist;
Coat of the chained woman (detail, right)

My wonderful daughter had her Bat Mitzvah recently. She sang beautifully from the Torah, built an amazing model of her “Personal Tabernacle” inspired by the portion, and took part in a lovely service she had helped to shape. I am overjoyed that my daughter’s experience of Judaism has been of a wise and deep tradition, fantastic stories, warm Friday nights, and inclusivity for both genders.

It wasn’t until we went with her to an exhibition on Jewish Feminist art at Ein Harod Museum that we came across a different aspect of Judaism. We walked around an exhibition created by furious female artists. Laws of niddah, modesty, and exclusion were beautifully screamed at, ridiculed, and mourned through video, photography, installation, sculpture and embroidery. From the wedding dress decorated with the hair shorn from the bride, to the photo of the disembodied hand holding a JNF box thrust through the curtain of the women’s section, there was some strong and strikingly painful work there. Yet although my daughter must be the most Jewishly knowledgeable of all her friends, I needed to explain every single reference to her.

She had had literally no idea of how aspects of Jewish tradition can be cruel to or disdainful of women.
This is because we had never taught her about them, and she’d never come across them until this exhibition. We knew instinctively that if we had exposed her to the anti-feminist narrative of Judaism at an early age she would have emerged knowledgeable about yet emotionally distant from Judaism. We didn’t want that for our kid.

I’m left reflecting on these ideological choices when thinking about Israel education for our kids. Because you see the thing is that my wife and I have absolutely no regrets at constructing “rose-tinted spectacles” for our child’s experience of Judaism. Our choice to induct our daughter into Judaism was not related to the moral rights or wrongs of the entirety of the tradition. We wanted for Judaism to be a part of who she is.
I believe we need to take the same choices with our young children with regards Israel. Prior to and irrespective of our attitudes to Israeli policies and politics, we need to make an ideological choice. Is Israel important to a Jew, or not?

As any thoughtful Israel-engaged Jew can attest, growing up with a deep connection to Israel does not have to lead one to love everything about Israel. The fact that my kid was not just surprised but also deeply concerned by much of what she learned at the Jewish Feminist exhibition shows that one can be brought up to identify with a tradition, a people, a place, and still continue to develop a moral stance that might be at odds with elements of that tradition.

Bringing up our children to “love Israel” should not mean we are brainwashing them or serving evil reactionary interests. Sometimes I fear that too much superficial education has given love and commitment a bad name. A knee-jerk rejection of “teaching to love Israel” is – I would suggest – mainly a response to the extent to which such a concept has been shorn of its depth. Love is crucial, but it’s not simple.

We need our children to be knowledgeable and wise enough to be able to question what they have received, and at the same time we need them connected enough to care. Their commitment will be inherited from that of their parents – hence the necessity for us as parents and future parents to make that first ideological decision that Israel is important to us and to our children.

What would an education look like that seeks to establish a commitment that is strong and passionate but not blind or paralyzed? How might we cultivate the roots of critical loyalty in our young?

We at Makom would advocate for two approaches. We would take care to give pre-teens what we might call the “philosophical training” for them to embrace complexity, “and we would give them a framework of “spiraling questions.

Embracing Complexity
Rather than simplifying issues for a little kid to grasp, we should encourage them to grapple with the complexities of simple situations. For example, at the age of five, issues of “Hugging and Wrestling with Israel” are tough! But questions such as “has your best friend ever done something you thought was the wrong thing to do?” fit right in to their lives. Follow up questions can go further: Did you tell your friend they had done wrong? Did you tell them in private or in public? Are you still friends despite the wrong-doing? Rather offering a simplistic explanation of Israel’s Separation Barrier, we might ask where there are fences in our children’s lives? (House? School?) What are the advantages and disadvantages of fences? Do good fences make good neighbors or deepen divides? Who decides where to put a fence, and (why?). Our “Car Pool Conversations” about Israel are freely downloadable here.

These are the kinds of conversations that can help our kids develop a familiarity with complex moral issues, and build a suitable vocabulary to begin to address them when they arise. In this way our children learn that complexity and “messiness” (Israeli characteristics if ever there were!) can be fascinating and not frightening.

Spiraling questions
At Makom we would suggest that the moral and political issues of Israel emerge from four key values expressed in the Hatikvah anthem: To Be A Free (Jewish) People In Our Land. What does it mean and what does it take to survive (To Be)? What does it mean and what does it take to be free? What does it mean and what does it take to be connected to the Jewish People? And what does it mean and what does it take to be In Our Land?

These four questions underlie every headline we ever read about Israel, and they are four questions that we can ask and explore at every age. As little kids our questions about being Jewish and connected to other Jews will yield different answers from those we may reach today. Likewise the expansion of our understanding of freedom – its limitations and responsibilities – will grow with the years. But the more we empower our children to engage with these four “pillars of Zionism”, the more we enable them to connect to, critique, and affirm Israel at every stage of their lives.

All the above opinions have been developed and inspired by my work with Makom, and consultations with Dr. Jen Glaser who first introduced me to the teachings of Vygotsky.

Robbie Gringras is Artist-in-Residence at Makom, a partnership of Jewish communities around the world and the Jewish Agency.