Computer Programming: An Unexplored Path to Jewish Literacy
By Ziva R. Hassenfeld, Ph.D.
and Marina Umaschi Bers, Ph.D.
The patriarch Avraham, represented as a green cat with a white head, appears on the screen of the iPad. He announces in a word bubble written in Hebrew, “I want people around but there are none.” As Avraham finishes speaking, three white cats with black beards appear on the screen. Avraham exclaims, “Oh, people!” He walks over to them and says, “Hello! Come please. Sit and I will give you bread.” He moves across the screen and addresses Sarah, a turquoise cat with a brown head and says to her, “Quick, we have guests, bake bread!” The first scene of the program concludes.
The third grade student who created this project was part of an integrated technology-Tanakh unit at a Modern Orthodox day school. The assignment asked students to use ScratchJr, an introductory programming language that enables young children to explore fundamental computer programming concepts such as algorithms, modularity, control structures, representation and debugging through creative expression. This particular Tanakh assignment required that students “summarize what they had learned in perek 18 in a fun and creative way using words of the text and choosing the proper characters to portray their understanding.” The students produced a range of programs, including, but not limited to, Avraham the cat, Avraham the wizard, and God, the hovering white scribble.
Jewish education, both teachers and funders, have embraced educational technology with zrizut and enthusiasm. Over the past decade, we have seen incredible tools and initiatives emerge. To name a few, there has been Sefaria, chinuch.org, the Online Judaic Studies Consortium, Education Technology Experiment Grants from AviChai, Gemara Berura, the Kadima Technology Conference, and many more.
But all of these initiatives to bridge Jewish text study with technology focus on access. In a variety of ways, each uses technology to provide students greater access to intellectual and textual resources. They each offer opportunities to Jewish education, and educators and funders alike have acknowledged that.
But ScratchJr offers a whole new direction for integrating technology and Jewish education. ScratchJr, as a programming language, is not a tool for accessing the wisdom of the Jewish tradition, it is a tool that supports students in crafting their own interpretations. In addition, while doing it, they learn how to code, problem solve and think systematically, a much needed skill in the 21st century. Using ScratchJr, students can bring their textual questions and insights to life. The 3rd grade student above is doing much more than animating cats of various colors. He is offering his interpretation on a number of textual questions. Why is Avraham sitting outside at the beginning of perek 18? How does Avraham feel about the events of perek 18? Why does Avraham welcome the three men so enthusiastically? The program begins with Avraham announcing, “I want people around.” It is for this reason, more than any other, that Avraham reacts with such haknasat orchim, welcoming of guests. In the student’s program, Avraham only offers the three men a meal (though in the biblical verse a meal is offered alongside feet washing and water). This interpretation makes sense given the student’s representation of Avraham as lonely – a sit down meal is certainly more socially promising than a glass of water or a fresh bath.
The student used the open-ended programming platform of ScratchJr to express thoughtful textual interpretations. Programming offered a new way into the text, to confront the most pressing questions in the text, and to offer his interpretation. While as educators we are used to, and will always be partial to, whole group discussions and verbal discourse as an interpretive medium, we know that class discussion doesn’t work for every child. Programming enables a different modality. Another canvas for the student to explore and interpret the text. What’s more, it offers an authentic curricular integration, bringing Jewish studies and computer science together in authentic and productive ways.
We developed ScratchJr in the DevTech Research Group to be unique among programming environments. Although many apps may reveal children’s ability to work out logic puzzles, ScratchJr provides an opportunity to explore how children build and interpret complex systems of code with meaningful story lines and characters. The assignment described above was a project designed and implemented by a day school teacher who participated in Dev Tech’s graduate certificate program on Early Childhood Technology at Tufts University. As more Jewish educators become trained in early childhood technology and Dev Tech’s unique programming tools, we look forward to documenting the exciting new learning opportunities through our ongoing research initiatives.
Ziva R. Hassenfeld (Ziva.Hassenfeld@tufts.edu) is currently a post-doctoral fellow at the interdisciplinary Developmental Technologies research group of Tufts University. Her research focuses on the tools and reading strategies young children employ when reading biblical and literary texts, as well as the pedagogies teachers use to support student textual interpretation, fluency and comprehension.
Professor Marina Umaschi Bers (Marina.Bers@tufts.edu) is professor and chair at the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development and an adjunct professor in the Computer Science Department at Tufts University. She heads the interdisciplinary Developmental Technologies research group. Her research involves the design and study of innovative learning technologies to promote children’s positive development.