Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Teach children to be their own Internet filters

"For it's one, two, three strikes...never mind."
I learned may things about many things while a Jim Joseph Fellow at the Lookstein Institute for Jewish  Education in the Diaspora at Bar Ilan University. One of them is to "Listen to Dr. Eliezer Jones." He is usually funny and nearly always right. This past Sunday Orthodox Jews did what the New York Mets couldn't - they filled Citi Field. And they did it to hold a rally against the internet (the rally was advertised on the web, curiously. I dismissed the whole thing when I first heard about it as just another example of an insular part of the of the Jewish people becoming even more insular. Today, my friend Eliezer and a colleague of his from Yeshiva University made me think again. And again. They taught me something (more than one something). Let them tel it as published by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency...

NEW YORK (JTA) -- Tens of thousands of Jews filled Citi Field in Queens on Sunday and heard from haredi Orthodox leaders that the Internet should be avoided in the home at all costs and used sparingly at work, and then only with a filter blocking content that could be damaging spiritually.
Debate as you will what some may see as draconian edicts to protect the Jewish community from moral corruption. But at the heart of the matter is a question that should concern us all: How do we keep our children safe on the Internet?

We know that we cannot work around the Internet. Research from the Pew Foundation indicates that 54 percent of children say they go to Google first when they have a question, as opposed to only 26 percent who say they go to a parent and 3 percent to a teacher. Rather we must figure out how parents and teachers can make this important tool work safely and effectively for our kids.

The difficulty is that even the simple solutions are incredibly complicated. Powerful filters can block illicit images and material, but those filters often block out the good with the bad and limit far too much useful information. This solution has been discussed and debated on our own campus concerning Internet access in dormitories.

Some yeshivot have considered avoiding technology altogether and sticking with books and blackboards. But that would leave students without the digital competence required to succeed academically in college and beyond, not to mention that it would rob teachers of increasingly exciting and effective educational tools.
The only real answer is that as parents and teachers, we must instill in our children a strong value system based on Jewish morals and traditions that allows our children to become their own filters when exploring the Internet. That would be far more powerful than any protective software.

The onus is clearly on us because it seems that children will listen to our rules, at least when it comes to the Internet. Only three in 10 young people reported to a Kaiser Foundation survey that they are given clear rules about how much time they may spend using a computer, watching TV or playing video games. The average child with no rules spends more than three hours per day on such media. Those who are given rules spend considerably less time.

Yeshiva high school students said they would be receptive to rules. More than half of those surveyed by researcher Debbie Fox, director of the Aleinu Family Resource Center, a program of the Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles, said that they would welcome more guidance from parents regarding Internet use.
These same students, in fact, said that they would be far stricter with their own future adolescent children regarding responsible Internet use than their parents, and would monitor their children much more closely.

The dangers of the Internet are not limited to challenging content. A 2010 Kaiser Family Foundation study showed that about half of students in grades seven through 12 said they do their homework with media open that do not pertain to their task at hand. In other words, about 50 percent of middle and high school students are doing homework with divided attention. And while some kids may believe that they are being more efficient, multitasking has been proven in adults to cause higher levels of stress and lower levels of efficiency.

While some kids can multitask well, it's up to parents to actively determine if their children work more efficiently while doing so or while focusing on their work without interruption. Parents should collaborate with their children to test whether they are more efficient when not being interrupted or distracted, and then meter their background activity accordingly.

The greatest challenge of all, however, may be making sure that our kids completely separate from the Internet at times.  According to the Pew Foundation, 75 percent of American teens prefer texting to in-person contact with friends. Perhaps it's no coincidence that this generation's empathy levels among adolescents are significantly lower than those of previous generations.

It may seem that adolescents in every generation feel isolated and tuned out at some point or another. But it turns out that their computer habits may be compounding the problem. Parents need to teach children that some of their relationships must include direct face-to-face interaction without the distraction of text messages and cell phone calls.

While some of what occurred at Citi Field this past weekend might seem foreign, we must work to ensure that our students and our children can grow up as highly moral and successful Jewish digital citizens.

(Dr. Eliezer Jones is the educational technology specialist at Yeshiva University's Institute for University-School Partnership. Dr. David Pelcovitz is the Gwendolyn and Joseph Straus chair in psychology and Jewish education at YU's Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration. For more information about safe Internet rules and guidelines, visit

Monday, May 7, 2012

Tell Me about the Future of the Jews

File Under Peoplehood
This is a Jerusalem Post column and blog posting by Rabbi Daniel Gordis. He wrote it for Yom Ha'atzmaut and I nearly missed in the flurry of events and postings surrounding the week from Yom Hashoah, through Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha'atzmaut. Rabbi Gordis spoke at the gala for the Jewish High School of Connecticut in our sanctuary a month ago. I remember thinking that I have never read anything by him or heard him speak when I haven't found myslef thinking. A lot. This is no exception. Much of my focus at work has been about Jewish peoplehood in general and connecting to Israel in particular. This fits right in. Enjoy. 

Imagine it's January 1946. Imagine, too, that you are exactly who you are now: thoughtful, educated, worldly, rational. And then, someone says to you, "Tell me about the future of the Jews." .... The Jews have a future because the Jews have a state. There are moments when a People has earned a celebration.  Yom Ha'atzmaut is, without question, one of those moments. 

Imagine it's January 1946. Imagine, too, that you are exactly who you are now: thoughtful, educated, worldly, rational. And then, someone says to you, "Tell me about the future of the Jews."

So you survey the world in January 1946. It's a year after the liberation of Auschwitz, and just months since the war has ended. You cast your eyes toward Eastern Europe, which not much earlier had been the world's center of Jewish life, learning, literature and culture. Eastern European Jewry is gone.

Though we commonly say that Hitler annihilated one third of the world's Jews, that number is technically correct but misses the point. The number that really matters is that after Hitler, 90 percent of Eastern Europe's Jews had been murdered.  
Prior to the war, there had been some 3,200,000 Polish Jews. At the end of the war, merely 300,000 were left. By 1950, estimates are that 100,000 Jews remained in Poland. As far as Polish Jewry was concerned, Hitler had won.

Hitler won in Hungary, too, and throughout Eastern Europe. The great seat of Jewish life was simply no longer. There are a few Jews left there, of course, but many of those who did survive will for a long time be living under Soviet rule, which, if you'd had a crystal ball, you'd know was going to get infinitely worse long before it got any better. A future for the Jews? It did not look pretty.

You could look a bit westward. You might turn your attention to Salonika.  
Some 56,000 Jews had lived there before the war; 98% of them died. Westward still, you might consider France. But the story of Vichy France would bring you no solace.  
Europe, until only some 10 years earlier the center of the Jewish world, was an enormous, blood-soaked Jewish cemetery - only without markers to note the names of the millions who had been butchered.

So you might turn your attention across the Atlantic Ocean, to the United States.

But the American Jews you would have surveyed in 1946 were not the American Jews of today. Today, at AIPAC's annual Policy Conference, for example, thousands of American Jews (and many non- Jews, as well) ascend the steps of Capitol Hill to speak to their elected officials about Israel. They do so with a sense of absolute entitlement (in the best sense of the word), with no hesitation.

But between 1938 and 1945, how many Jews ascended those steps to demand that at least one bomb be dropped on the tracks to Auschwitz, or that American shores be opened to at least some of the thousands of Jews who had literally nowhere to go? During the worst years that the Jews had known in two millennia, virtually no Jews went to Capitol Hill or the White House. There was the famous Rabbis' March of October 1943, in which some 400 mostly Orthodox rabbis went to the White House (though FDR refused to meet with them), but that was about it.

In January 1946, American Jews did not interview for positions on Wall Street wearing a kippa, and did not seek jobs on Madison Avenue informing their prospective employers that they would not work on Shabbat. The self-confidence of American Jews that we now take so for granted was almost nowhere to be found back then. With European Jews going up smokestacks, American Jews mostly went about their business, fearful of rocking the boat of American hospitality. A future for the Jews?
There was, of course, one other place where there was a sizable Jewish population - Palestine. But in Palestine, too, the shores were sealed. Tens of thousands of British troops were stationed in Palestine, not only to "keep the peace," but to make sure that Jews did not immigrate and change the demographic balance of the country. The story of the Exodus is famous, perhaps, precisely because it ended reasonably well. Most Jews today can name not even one of the ships that sank, carrying their homeless Jews with them. In January 1946, the British weren't budging. A future for the Jews? In January 1946, there was little cause to believe in a rich Jewish future. You might have believed that a covenant promised some Jewish future, but it would have been hard to argue it was a bright one.

Now fast-forward 66 years, to 2012.

Where do we find ourselves today? Jewish life in Europe, while facing renewed anti-Semitism in some places, is coming back to life. Berlin is one of the fastest growing Jewish communities in the world. There are Jewish cultural festivals in Poland (though staged largely by non-Jews, since there are few Jews left). In Budapest and Prague, Jewish museums, kosher restaurants and synagogues abound. Soviet Jews are largely out, and those who remain have synagogues, schools, camps and community centers. And across the ocean, the success and vibrancy of American Jewish life is legendary.

There was no way to expect any of this in 1946, no reason to even imagine it.

How did it happen? The simple but often overlooked truth is that what has made this difference for Jews world over is the State of Israel.  
It was Israel's victory in 1967 that injected energy into Soviet Jewry and led them to rattle their cage, demanding their freedom.  Post-1967, the world saw the Jews as people who would shape their own destiny.  Unlike the Tibetans (or Chechnyans or Basques, to name just a few), Jews were no longer tiptoeing around the world, waiting to see what the world had in store for them.

The re-creation of the Jewish state has changed not only how the world sees the Jews, but how the Jews see themselves.  The days of "We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we appeared to them" (Num. 13:33) are gone, and the reason is the State of Israel.

We are a people sometimes over-inclined to indulge in hand-wringing (and at others, unwilling to do the hand-wringing we ought to). And we face our challenges. Iran is worrisome, Egyptian peace is tenuous. Hila Bezaleli's tragic death was a metaphor for the lack of accountability that plagues this country.  The behavior of Lt.-Col. Shalom Eisner, as well as the reactions to what he did, is also deeply unsettling.

But let us remember this, nevertheless: it is far too easy to lose sight of what we have accomplished. Sixty-six years ago, no sane, level-headed person could have imagined that we would have what we have. A language brought back to life, and bookstores filled with hundreds of linear feet of books in a language that just a century ago almost no one spoke. More people studying Torah now than there were in Europe at its height. An economic engine that is the envy of many supposedly more established countries. A democracy fashioned by immigrants, most of whom had never lived in a functioning democracy. Cutting-edge health care. An army that keeps us so safe, we go days on end without even thinking about our enemies.
That's worth remembering in the midst of the attacks on us, from the international community as well as from Jews.  
There's much to repair, and too often, we fail to meet the standards we've set for ourselves. All true, and they demand our continued attention, but at the same time, we dare not lose sight of what we've built. To borrow the phrase from Virginia Slims, "we've come a long way, baby."

The Jews have a future because the Jews have a state.  
There are moments when a People has earned a celebration. Yom Ha'atzmaut is, without question, one of those moments.  

The original Jerusalem Post
column can be found here:

Comments and reactions can be posted here:

Thursday, May 3, 2012

This is not optional anymore…

Want to know the best thing about Twitter (at least for me)? I can have TweetDeck open in the background, set to have a little box pop up periodically with things that people tweet. Most of the time I ignore it. But often enough, I glance at it, find someone has posted a link that sounds promising and I click on the link. The web page it refers to opens in Firefox (but I don;t see it, because I am still looking at the e-mail I was reading or the document I was working on - it opens in background as well. Later, I get a cup of coffee and flip through the open tabs in browser, looking at what I had clicked on earlier. It is my like my late-morning newspaper, containing only articles that sounded interesting. That is how I cam upon the article below. Thanks to @PEJEjds (Ken Gordon) for the link. It comes from The Principal of Change, a blog by George Couros, a Division Principal of Innovative Teaching and Learning with Parkland School Division, located in Stony Plain, Alberta, Canada. Enjoy! - Ira

Spending the last four days at a national leadership conference (CASA 11) in Niagara Falls on 21st Century Learning and Innovation (which had no Twitter hashtag until a few of us got together to start one), and then spending the week prior at ISTE, the conversation about technology in schools is a major theme.  Although technology is dominant in the conversations, I keep hearing the following phrase:
“You can be an effective teacher without technology.”

The above statement is increasingly frustrating as it seems to give people an out from using technology in the classroom.  There are so many skills that our students need in today’s world as the ability to collaborate, create, communicate, and apply all of these in their environment.

My question is, in our world today, can you be an effective learner without using technology?  We constantly talk about preparing kids for their future but I am concerned that some of them are not even prepared for their world right now.  Gerald Aungst pushes this thinking when he talks about other professions moving forward with technology, but educators seeming to have the option to opt out of implementing this:
Do we have the right to say, “I don’t do that”? Perhaps if it were only an individual decision. But educators have accepted responsibility for the growth of the students in their care, and choosing to avoid technology for themselves leaves their students with no choice.
I will be honest…I am getting increasingly frustrated getting “handouts” at  a leadership conference discussing innovation and “21st Century Learning”.  Not everyone is in the digital world and I believe in differentiated learning, but it seems like I didn’t get the option of how I learn best.  Do our kids? In only one presentation that I attended were there actual digital copies of information, and only one session with a place for people to collaborate during the session online.  As leaders, we need to get this sooner rather than later.

A year ago, I wrote a post entitled “An Open Letter to School Administrators“, where I ended with this:
This is not about technology. This is about connecting and sharing with others and yes, technology can be a fantastic medium for this. It is still ultimately about the relationships you create. Remember that there is a difference between an educational administrator and an educational leader. How do you want to be remembered?
Has much changed in this last year? There are so many more administrators and educational leaders that are connected now and pushing the thinking and practice in schools, reflecting the importance of taking risks in their learning, and are getting better for the sake of their schools.  But through many of my conversations and observations, there are many that are not.  The excuses of “there is no time” doesn’t fly anymore; this needs to become a priority.  It is not the only priority, but it is one deserving of the time and effort to implement and move forward.

All educators need to get on the path and move forward in the area of understanding and implementing meaningful use of technology to serve learning.  Sustainable growth takes time to develop and when we see growth, we know we are moving forward.  This is fantastic. (Rome wasn’t built in a day…)

Our educational administrators however really need to get going on this.  Leaders right?  If teachers in your school or division see that you are not moving forward with some conviction in this area, why would they believe that there is any sense of urgency?  Why would teachers think this is important if our administrators aren’t modelling effective use? The teachers that are moving forward need you to understand this area and support them.  They don’t need you to be at the same level, but they at least need to know you trust them and will put the systems in place for them and more importantly, their students, to be successful.  Take some risks and model both in success and failure that you are a learner; this is what we expect from our students.

There can no longer be an “opt out” clause when dealing with technology in our schools, especially from our administrators. We need to prepare our kids to live in this world now and in the future. Change may feel hard, but it is part of learning.  We expect it from our kids, we need to expect it from ourselves.

This is not optional anymore.