By Shoshi Becker
As soon as iTaLAM got word that the first of our 330 schools across the globe was closing down due to COVID 19 – our team got moving. Within three days, our educators and developers in Israel and Canada had developed support materials and teacher training on distance learning for the schools as they began to close, from Italy to Eastern Europe, Western Europe, North America, South America, and Australia. The iTaLAM comprehensive digital curriculum already being used in schools across 40 countries to teach Hebrew language and Jewish heritage was about to have its greatest test yet – and early results show it has created a quiet revolution in Judaic studies for the lower grades. Thanks to special discounts and free access to some digital content for new and current schools, the average number of daily online users of iTaLAM has doubled in just three weeks to 8,600 students per day, with a total reach of nearly 48,000 students across the globe.
We want to share our experience of the last several weeks with eJewish Philanthropy readers because we learned some important lessons. First and foremost, for the many parents who have expressed concern about too much screen time and the down sides of digital learning in the classroom – the iTaLAM program has proven to be an eye-opener. Concerns by our teachers that children might not stay engaged because of the distractions of home, and parents would not be in favor of intensive learning via the internet, proved to be unfounded. Special attention by iTaLAM to encouraging study through the students’ immediate surroundings, not just via the screen, as well as the enrichment offered by the curriculum- through songs, games, and other educational media – is helping parents and students find a meaningful level of comfort with the program, while reinforcing learning. Furthermore, iTaLAM’s significant focus on ongoing teacher training is paying off, big time. With Pesach fast approaching, iTaLAM online training is making it possible for hundreds of teachers to effectively manage their virtual classrooms, employ our sophisticated Learning Management System to monitor and support the work of each student, and ensure that each student is keeping up with his/her studies while learning new Hebrew-language units related to Shabbat, holidays, Torah, and Israel education.
I cannot emphasize enough that having the experience of teaching digital curricula in the classroom has clearly prepared our iTaLAM teachers for the work required to engage in successful distance learning, with an educational product that is already familiar to their students and, in many cases, representing the highlight of their school day, as our iTaLAM educators have witnessed repeatedly.
In the words of just one of many thankful principals and teachers, Rabbi Yaakov Sadigh, Head of Hebrew Academy of Nassau County told us, “We literally set up an online virtual school in 24 hours, You would think our students are attending HANC University. Truly inspiring! As a school that has benefited from iTaLAM, we feel that when it came to distance learning we were ahead of the game. Our students have been working on the iTaLAM online platform with their teachers all year long, which made very easy to transition to learning from home.”
We are making monumental efforts to ensure that all of iTaLAM’s digital units are wholly appropriate for distance learning, and that supplemental print materials are also available to each student through downloads, to enhance their learning and round out each learning unit. Among these many materials is, for example, an interactive Haggadah for first graders which has become a favorite with our teachers and their students.
We also want to share with eJewish Philanthropy readers the options available in the coming months to access iTaLAM digital materials for use in both synchronous and asynchronous distance learning. iTaLAM has made available a range of curricular materials and activities as well as multiple, free-access online teacher training sessions each week on using and optimizing the materials for home-based learning around Pesach as well as continued learning in other areas of Judaic studies. All of this is made possible by the support of our philanthropic partners, most notably the Azrieli Foundation, which is generously funding the development of all of our blended-learning programming and making it possible for us to be nimble and support distance learning in many different ways.
Through these special offers, current iTaLAM schools can have more extensive access to materials for more grades and more content areas, at no cost; TaL AM schools not yet using the digital platform have options now for free digital content access; and schools not using either program have access to deep discounts for our digital materials for the remainder of the school year. It is our sincere hope that these and other iTaLAM materials will continue to help tens of thousands of young Jewish students across the world continue to learn, and enjoy their learning, throughout this difficult period.
Shoshi Becker is the CEO of iTaLAM.org.