Teach Your Children, When You are at Home: A Call to Jewish Education to Prepare for COVID-19

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By Dr. Karen Reiss Medwed

As the CDC monitors COVID-19 it currently labels the US low risk. Yet it continues to warn us to be guarded in case of a possible domestic and global pandemic. Simultaneously, health officials call on US citizens to prepare for the possibility of more aggressive disruptive measures. As Jewish professionals and educators it feels like this is the time to anticipate and prepare for such measures which might include closures impacting our schools, synagogue gatherings and more, as we head into this Spring holiday season.

Health officials have put forth many recommendations relating to learning including: school closing or dividing into small groups for learning; using online access to learning; video conferencing for work and other options. What each option shares is the ability to leverage tools and strategies of connecting in virtual spaces where meaningful learning, engagement, and collaboration takes place while protecting our community’s health and wellbeing. So what might this disruption in education look like? 

The smallest footprint of this response could be the very simple preparation of workbooks or pdf worksheets online, so that students learning is not interrupted while “engaging at home.” But it is 2020, and 1979 is asking for its workbooks back. Disruption in education is finally both a goal and an achievable outcome.

Close your eyes, and imagine with me how “engaging while at home” at this moment in time, fraught though it might be in the very real angst and scares of this pandemic, might suggest ways to reach out and connect with one another in creative different ways.

Imagine how “engaging at home” and being grounded could set free new collaborations between and among schools and communities not restricted by dismissal times, traffic and soccer games, for “engaging while at home.”

Imagine how “engaging while at home” might be the impetus to identify and create a global network of small interest groups across areas of engagement no one educator can afford to offer at their one home location.

Imagine how “engaging while at home” might allow learners of all ages to meet and develop online connections with one another.

While there are real and scary reasons to need to put emergency plans into place, this presents as a creative opportunity for new and exciting approaches to Jewish learning. It is a chance for some real domestic and global collaboration to prepare interesting and different experiences. This is a moment in Jewish communal domestic and global life to leverage technology and collectively prepare for a possible shared need for “engaging Jewishly together while at home.” But what might an emergency plan for “engaging while at home” look like in Jewish education and in Jewish communal life? 

This is also an exciting opportunity to open up our repertoire of content and reach for areas of learning our students don’t often have the opportunity, the time or the resources to taste from. Talented educators in different regions are available to support these learners across the country without the same financial constraints for access or travel.

Imagine how affinity groups might use snapchat to meet up and connect across the country in pursuing their talents, collaborating and reaching out beyond their passions and talents to connect with others. A singing group prepares the music, passes their work along to a group of dancers to prepare tik toks, while another group is doing a deep dive into the text and providing resources through Sefaria creating memes on Instagram.

Or imagine this happening in discrete areas of unique interest. Imagine your kid has always wanted to learn more about Jewish gangsters. Not enough local interest for a class? When we are “engaging while at home,” Norm Finkelstein can convene an online community for the dozens of children scattered across the country to explore his expertise on Jewish gangsters alongside them. We can already hear the podcast they might create to keep us engaged while at home. With so many talented educators whose passions can supports small group gatherings the possibilities could be endless.

The key to success is to make “engaging while at home,” simple with easy access. Right now, before there is a panic or pandemic, Jewish educators can leverage our resources, such as the powerful group Jedlab on facebook, to organize a plan with a master collaborative document identifying areas of unique expertise, curricular competencies and available educators across time zones. 

Local communities can support efforts, offering teachers preparation for this work, creating some simple technology professional development. While ISTE participants might offer some expertise in identifying best platforms for safe connected nimble learning, such as FlipGrid, Poll Anywhere, Vialogue and more. 

Educational leaders will need to ensure their communities support the educators across the myriad of ways that educational experience might be facilitated during times of uncertainty. The disruption will require both a coming together of communal collaboration and a letting go of ownership, ownership of content and of accountability of personnel. We will need to trust the learners to follow their passions in their affinity groups to engage in this authentic learning, and trust the teachers as the conduits of relational and connected learning. 

Adult educators will no longer serve as experts as much as they are network connectors and facilitators for students “engaging while at home.” Content is no longer a barrier to overcome or conquer, so much as a new opportunity to build on previous knowledge and experiences in order to create something completely new.

There is plenty of uncertainty right now in the US in face of the possibility of possible shut downs of schools and other large organizations. In Jewish education we have long favored the second half of the passage of the Shma, learn on the road, with experiences. This looming crisis calls on us to expand our vision of experiential Jewish education located outside the home and to come back to the home. It invites us to imagine the real possibility of our students sitting in their homes away from one another and from our centers of learning. Let’s prepare to support their social, emotional, spiritual and intellectual needs in case these measures come to fruition and be prepared to learn with them and from them while sitting at home.

Dr. Karen Reiss Medwed is Assistant Dean of Networks and Digital Engagement at the Graduate School of Education, College of Professional Studies of Northeastern University. Ordained at JTS, she has previously worked as a Hebrew High School principal as well as Dean of Faculty of Prozdor, Boston.