Kohelet Foundation Ushers in a New Era of Education

Kohelet Foundation First Annual SmartSchool Showcase; courtesy.
Kohelet Foundation First Annual SmartSchool Showcase; courtesy.

by Frayda Leibtag

The pilot year of the Kohelet Foundation’s SmartSchool initiative culminated this June with the First Annual SmartSchool Showcase. The Kohelet Foundation launched and funded the SmartSchool program – in partnership with Apple and OmniComp – to provide students with the best in technology and collective learning tools. A total of 1,200 iPads were distributed to the student population and 150 iPads to the faculty.

David Magerman, President and Founder of the Kohelet Foundation, explained the vision behind the SmartSchool initiative: “What guides us is the drive to challenge our educational institutions to deliver the best education even though in many instances that means taking a big step away from the status quo. We need to recognize that today’s students live in a world that’s fundamentally different than it was even five years ago. To inspire these kids to be the leaders of the next generation we have to step into their world.”

At the Showcase, students and teachers from across the Jewish Day School Collaborative of Greater Philadelphia came together to share and show how the program has influenced their schooling. Using their iPads and Apple TVs, Showcase participants demonstrated how technology and collective learning is transforming the classroom environment. For Magerman, the most rewarding part of the Showcase was “seeing that every teacher and every student is different and one size does not fit all.”

“By utilizing technology to expand what schools can offer, those differences are a gift and no longer an impediment to teaching and learning,” said Magerman. Lev Ziskind, a 16-year old rising senior at Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy in Bryn Mawr, PA, is a musician who is interested in new types of music. The SmartSchool program has provided him with the opportunity to develop and hone this interest. At the Showcase event, he presented the Garage Band app which he used to experiment with making different types of music, including hip hop beats and instrumentals.

Rabbi Aryeh Wasserman, a member of the Judaic Studies faculty at Kohelet Yeshiva High School, emphasized how technology enables teachers to focus on the creation and sharing of student content. “One of the biggest things that I am able to do now that was impossible before was sharing student work on a large scale,” noted Wasserman. He uses the iPad for “almost everything,” including worksheets, student homework, reading assignments, quizzes and exams, lesson plans and grading.

The students participating in the SmartSchool program are also singing its praises. Students are using apps such as Notability to take notes and stay organized and Keynote to instantly create slideshows with pictures, videos and class notes. “Now that we use iPads, it’s pretty hard to get bored and basically impossible to fall asleep during class. The iPads make every lesson so much livelier,” said Reena Bromberg Gaber, a fifth grade student at Kellman Brown Academy. The benefits reach beyond the classroom as well. “I’ve also realized the long-term impact of the SmartSchool program. Learning how to use iPads is a life skill, and we’re practicing things we may need when we’re looking for jobs after we graduate!” exclaimed Bromberg Gaber.

Are the iPads a distraction in class? “I must admit I was a bit skeptical about how to keep the students focused with this new ‘toy’ in their hands during class when I myself was always ‘playing’ on mine!” confessed Karen Sinai, a science and computer teacher at Politz Day School of Cherry Hill, NJ. Rabbi Wasserman also acknowledged that it is very easy for the students to get distracted when they have iPads in class. “This just goes to highlight the importance of a good teacher who will be able to interest the student and motivate them to learn on their own. It is in the hands of the teacher to create lesson plans that utilize the iPad effectively in engaging the students with the material in a meaningful way,” he said. Sinai also noted the challenge of keeping “two steps ahead of some of our more computer savvy kids” as well as the need to regulate student iPad use so that students weren’t using the tablets during recess or lunchtime.

Any drawbacks seem to be significantly outweighed by the outstanding advantages that the SmartSchool initiative has brought to the classroom. “Student interest and enthusiasm rose even though I was basically doing the same labs I’ve been doing for years,” said Sinai. Another added bonus in the lab for Sinai is the ability to replay any lab results in a video, invaluably contributing to student comprehension.

Laura Lyn Stern, Studio Art teacher for grades six through twelve at Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy, found that the SmartSchool program “created an atmosphere of excitement that allows for increased experimentation and discovery in my Art classes.” In Stern’s “Art Skills” class, students used the “Draw Free” and “PS Express” apps to create sketches on their iPads for an “Architectural Painting” project. The apps enabled the students to experiment with color, texture and design while gaining an idea of how their finished painted works would look.

Student accessibility to teachers outside of the classroom has also significantly increased. “They are much more likely to interact with me with questions about class via email,” said Sinai. This email interaction between students and teachers “allows the classroom to become more student-focused and independent instead of teacher-focused and dependent,” commented Rabbi Wasserman.

Other added perks for teachers and students include allowing students who are sick at home to participate in class via FaceTime, as well as the ability to go paperless. “I have been using so much less paper since we received our iPads. And since I am someone who cares about the environment, it’s nice that I can express my support for the Earth through my schoolwork!” said Ariella Hyman-Fessler, a sixth grade student at Kellman Brown Academy.

The common denominator in the feedback on the SmartSchool program is that it enables teachers and students to educate and learn creatively. The Kohelet Foundation has empowered each school to utilize iPad technology in a way that is enhancing its own existing programs. “They own their learning much more than before,” said Sinai.

“There’s a revolution taking place in the world of education. We want Jewish day schools to be a part of that revolution, to lead the way,” concluded Magerman.