Helping Educators Thrive: An Online Experiment in Cross-Network Learning and Collaboration
By Ellen Rank and Mindy Gold
“On a scale of 1 to 10, how would you describe yourself vis á vis the value of hesed? What would be different about your life if you could magically rise up a couple of notches on the scale? What advice would you give yourself to take steps toward practicing more hesed?”
These were some of the questions that our network colleague, Rabbi Gary Greene, brought to his own colleagues after participating in an online book study of Becoming a Soulful Educator (Ben David, 2016). Rabbi Greene’s extension and application of our group learning was a thrilling result of our first online, asynchronous slow-chat book study with members of multiple Jewish Education Project educator networks.
This virtual slow-chat book study was a serendipitous outcome of the intentional culture of collaboration inherent in the Innovation in Jewish Education network, a national, virtual network for educators in part-time Jewish education. The network, facilitated by Ellen, meets six times a year for text study, sharing ideas, and collegial support. The seeds for the book study were sown during a meeting when Joan Hersch, a network member from the Philadelphia area, shared that she had given a copy of Becoming a Soulful Educator to each of her staff. Joan described meeting with her staff over coffee several times to discuss the book. The reading and the meetings gently pushed teachers to think more about how and why they teach and what it means for them to be a soulful educator. After hearing Joan’s excitement, the members of our network expressed interest in reading this book together.
The first step was to decide how and when to meet. To overcome the challenge of finding a specific time that would work for everyone, Mindy suggested that we arrange an asynchronous slow-chat book study using Edmodo, an online learning management system. This would allow everyone to join in at a convenient time, share their reflections, and read and respond to what others had written. We discussed how having more people participate would make the book chat more vibrant. After meeting with Suri Jacknis, Director of Educator Networks at The Jewish Education Project, Suri and Ellen reached out to invite members of other networks to the book study.
As our coalition of education network participants ventured into this new online book study format, Mindy posted guidelines on how to participate in a slow-chat book study, including how to be present in an online space. She invited everyone to introduce themselves, virtually, to the group. We divided the book into six sections; reading one section each week. Next, we asked for volunteers to co-moderate for a week. The moderators were responsible for posing a prompt question in Edmodo each morning and for responding to what others had written. Twelve educators joined the slow-chat book study, with seven of the group taking turns as moderators. There were also at least two educators who didn’t have time to participate in the group, but were inspired to independently read Becoming A Soulful Educator because of our slow-book chat.
Relationships and connections were built in this asynchronous space. Some of the educators knew one another before we formed the group, very few knew everyone. Two of the educators who had never met in person volunteered to serve as co-moderators. They knew one another from our virtual network and greatly enjoyed having the opportunity to collaborate online in this new context. We also found that people used this platform for sharing deep reflections and very personal stories. The slower, asynchronous format (one question a day, answer when you have time) gave us time to articulate our thoughts and ideas at moments in our day when we were able to turn our attention to our own learning. The format seemed to assuage some of the stress that we, as educators, sometimes experience in trying to fit in professional learning for ourselves amidst an already busy schedule of commitments and daily tasks.
At The Jewish Education Project, we are dedicated to helping children, teens, and families thrive in today’s world and we know that educators need professional learning opportunities to thrive themselves if they are to carry out this mission. The following words, written by Joan Hersch at the close of the book study, point to how this experience contributed to her thriving: “I have truly enjoyed exploring this added dimension to my abilities as a Jewish Educator, and a soulful one as well. I enjoyed this platform (Edmodo) as it allowed me to share and explore ideas on my own schedule and to take time to ‘percolate’ and reflect. I thank Mindy for guiding me in learning another technological tool!” We, too, are reflecting on this online, slow-chat format and considering future cross-network online learning opportunities that will support our network members flourishing as people and as educators.
Ellen Rank is a Senior Education Consultant in Jewish Education and Engagement at The Jewish Education Project. She facilitates the Innovation in Jewish Education and the Long Island Innovators networks.
Mindy Gold is the Network Weaver for the Mandel Teacher Educator Institute (MTEI). She is also the founder and lead consultant at EdtechMMG, an education consulting firm. Please reach out via email to firstname.lastname@example.org.