If you ask me (and, if I had to guess, many of my peers), there is nothing worse than Hebrew school. In the world of fun Jewish activities, with Yom Kippur fasting being a one and hooking up with Israeli soldiers on Birthright a 10, attending Hebrew school is a lowly three.
On Sundays, when all I wanted to do was sleep, I was dragged out of bed by my parents, stuffed into a minivan and sent off to learn a language that was so complicated and had so many funny looking letters that paying attention was a hopeless endeavor.
And it didn’t stop there. At least once a week, after a long day of secular school, I was carted off to synagogue to stare blankly at books for another two hours. I ran out of the classroom as fast as I could, unlikely to ever crack open our workbook. After seven years, all I could say was “I don’t know” in the male personal form. Suffice it to say that my comprehension of the Hebrew language was, and continues to be, minimal.
Luckily, it’s the dawn of a new era for bored and irritated Hebrew school students! Behrman House, a Jewish educational publisher in operation for 90 years, is trying to change those dreary (and ineffective) educational experiences by harnessing the power of the Internet. In early 2012 Behrman House became the first Jewish educational publisher to launch an Internet portal. Called the Online Learning Center, it provides digital lesson plans, articles and textbooks.
“We started with the idea of how can we make Hebrew exercises easier for students and families to use and provide greater flexibility,” said Vicki Weber, Behrman House director of communications and customer support. Offering a variety of games, the Online Learning Center seeks to increase the potential hours for learning outside the classroom, as well as motivate students to spend more time on their homework.
I remember my Hebrew school learning as a two-steps-forward, one-step-back process. With in-class instruction just once or twice a week, every time I learned a new word or vowel, I forgot it by the next class. I was given the opportunity to try out one of the Online Learning Center games for second- and third-graders, “Ready, Set… Go Alef Bet!” and I could quickly see the appeal to children. Before I began the lessons, I created my own avatar, an experience akin to choosing a Mario Kart player. Though her bright orange skin and purple hair did not bear a strong resemblance to my own physical attributes, I thought her kicky newsboy cap conveyed my spunky eagerness to learn Hebrew. There were 20 lessons in total. Letter sounds and words from the previous sets were always interspersed in new sections. This was the continuity and reinforcement that my Sunday and Wednesday Hebrew lessons lacked.
Each section was filled with hysterical mnemonic devices such as “Shin looks like a ship,” “Bet looks like it has a belly button” and, my favorite, “Mem looks like Moses standing on a mountain.” That last example was pushing it, I thought, but it did hammer in the letter sounds. Hearing each new letter and word articulated with a clear, crisp accent was very helpful. As a Hebrew school student, I often had American teachers who couldn’t do a Hebrew accent well or Israeli teachers who spoke too quickly and were difficult to understand. The Online Learning Center trains the ear to pick up on and form Hebrew accents.
An added advantage to the Online Learning Center is that these educational games provide teachers with an entirely new set of assessment tools. The student’s performance is automatically saved and made visible for the teacher. The instructor can track his or her students’ strengths and weaknesses continuously, rather than on a periodic basis.
In reporting this story, I also accessed a sixth-grade online classroom where students could start discussion threads about Judaic subjects. Each student had a profile displaying his or her photo. Instead of devolving into online trolls, these students had a thoughtful dialogue on Masada through their posts, though my favorite exchange was when one student wrote she wanted to discuss human sacrifice and another responded, “Ew. Gross.”
While online learning might be the new frontier in Hebrew education, Weber stressed that it’s not a replacement for classroom learning. “It’s not pedagogically sound as a stand-alone,” she said. “It’s part of a complete experience for students who are being taught in a classroom.”
In fact, Behrman House does not sell the online materials independent of its traditional print curriculum. For both printed materials and access to the Online Learning Center, prices start at under $20 per student for Hebrew language and under $10 for Judaics. Teachers can pay $50 a year to set up as many online classrooms as they like. Individual lesson plans run from $2.99 to $4.99, but some on specific holidays go for as little as $10–$20.
Weber said the company is still facing challenges as the Online Learning Center expands. Approximately 250 schools and 4,500 students utilize it. Tailoring a single program to work with so many different schools across the country is difficult because “every system has its own way of being,” said Weber. And while many of the kids are technologically savvy, their teachers may not be. Hebrew schools that don’t have the most up-to-date computers and software also pose a problem. “It’s hard to run a 21st-century program on a computer that’s five to ten years old,” Weber said.
I can only speak from my own experiences, but from the comfort of my personal computer, I found using the Online Learning Center to be a breeze. Games loaded quickly, all words and sounds were clear and, cheesy as it may sound, every time the program congratulated me with “good job,” I felt encouraged to move on to the next section.
While the word matching and sound identification games were no substitute for Madden or Halo, they were certainly more fun than the workbook homework and lists of vocabulary words I was assigned in Hebrew school. And although it’s sad, or even pathetic, that seven years of Hebrew school and three semesters of college classes have left me with such a paltry knowledge of the language, the Online Learning Center did improve my comprehension. If I somehow garner the willpower to apply the hours I spend watching TV on Netflix to the Online Learning Center, I’m sure I’ll be fluent in Hebrew in no time.
Emily Shire is the chief researcher at The Week magazine and is a freelance writer. Find her work at emilyshire.wordpress.com.