Who isn’t aware of the madness that has plagued the world in recent weeks? What began as a mysterious local epidemic in an exotic wet market in China has become a global pandemic leading to desolate airports, eliminated cultural and sport events, and has begun a global paralysis. Of course, our tiny nation has not been passed over. Here too, in Israel, we began by sending the hundreds of Israelis who entered from specific countries into isolation. That number blew up to five thousand, while hundreds of personal, sport, cultural and religious events were cancelled. The climax arrived on Thursday, March 12, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that all school, barring a few exceptions, would be cancelled until after Passover.
Now, the situation is that, instead of having an already long two and a half week vacation for teachers and students, we are caught in a larger vacation lasting over a month. Schedules and plans have all gone awry, our lesson plans and the content we hoped to teach, especially with an emphasis on Passover, will now be missed.
When I think about this situation, this is a concern that I believe we should all have. The Coronavirus has been declared a pandemic, the entire economy is suffering severely, people around the world are sick and dying and here in Israel the citizenry is struggling to buy food in a situation where they do not know what will come next. It is my opinion that yes, even when things are difficult and there is a great deal of uncertainty, it is of utmost importance that we try to maintain some semblance of normality and routine. Attention should be paid towards those things considered less critical in the moment, such as learning the mitzvot of Passover and preparing for Nissan. The subjects of math, history, and English are also not things that can be neglected, placed aside because we are in a crisis. Because, even if it takes only two more days, two weeks, or even two months, this situation will end and we will have to pick up and move on with our lives. We must minimize the damage done by continuing the education of the future.
I acknowledge that this is not an easy task when students find themselves untethered and outside the framework of the education system. It requires time and a great amount of mental and physical resources. Yet, despite the difficulty of the task, we need to find a dedicated specific time for this important mission. This mission is intensified and assisted when the expectation is there from the school systems and the students themselves.
Thus, if we’ve decided that we are seriously going to do this, we must ask the question; What can we do without being together in the classroom that will be effective and meaningful for them and for ourselves?
Everywhere we look people are speaking about online learning as if it is the key to solve all our problems and that it shows that we, in fact, do not need physical classrooms and face-to-face meetings between teachers and students. This may be true for university students who have come to study a specific area they are passionate about, and whose main goal is to acquire knowledge, pass an exam, receive a specific degree and move into their dream field of work. For these students, observing a recorded lecture from a comfortable location at a pace and manner they prefer is an excellent option.
However, this is not an accurate portrayal of our audience in Judaic studies courses. Our students need to be guided by an instructor who they can approach and speak to eye-to-eye. The material being studied requires experiential learning, something that recorded lectures do not provide. What we can do is give them tasks, such as recipes and matzah baking tutorials. We can use a variety of methods to share these tasks, such as a simple Whatsapp group where they can share photos of their performing the experiential task. They can meet to study in hevruta, join small groups using remote learning, prepare for the experiences together, and even create videos of themselves saying the special blessing of Nissan. Another idea is to encourage our students to comfort the elderly in their families through phone or video calls? This is an opportunity for them to do a mitzvah, after which they can write an essay about it and explore what it meant.
We have to think a bit outside the box here. Above are just a few ideas I have considered myself, some are great, others perhaps less so, but it is time for us to stand up, take up our role and succeed by being more creative. I’m sure many of you also have excellent ideas or even mistakes you’ve made as a “remote” educator, and I’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments.