Modern communications began with telegraph inventor Samuel Morse transmitting a religious question, “What hath God wrought?” across state lines. It is fitting, then, that the most recent evolution in telecommunications — the Internet — is now instrumental in transmitting religious knowledge across America.
Faced with the challenge of enhancing teachers’ continuing education in regions of the country with little in the way of secondary Jewish educational opportunities, the Jewish Education Service of North America, Jewish Family & Life and the Nash Family Foundation joined forces to take action. At first, they considered setting up a network of satellite schools to provide classes for educators working at Jewish institutions, but such a system was cost-prohibitive. Instead, they decided to take advantage of the nearly limitless and cost-effective communication opportunities provided by the Internet. The result was JSkyway (www.JSkyway.com). Through the use of audio/visual presentations, selected readings, written assignments and threaded online discussions, JSkyway provides educational development to any instructor with an Internet connection.
The program benefits from instruction by experienced and knowledgeable faculty. Among the program’s instructors are: Rabbi Scott Goldberg, an instructor at Yeshiva University; Sharon Charish, a former teacher and principal of the Solomon Schechter Day School in New Jersey’s Essex and Union counties, and Dr. Joseph Novick, a therapist with varied experience as a school psychologist, director of community relations and educational consultant at day schools. Course offerings include: “New Technologies for Jewish Learning,” “Developmental Issues in Adolescence,” “Teaching Jewish Texts” and “When Real Life Invades the Classroom.”
The courses, which last eight weeks on average and cost $100, operate on weekly schedules: New content is uploaded to the site every week, and the course participants can work on assignments and post messages to the discussion boards any time before the next update. Classes are geared toward teachers of different denominations, and although the curriculum is designed with day schools in mind, fully one-third of JSkyway’s participants come from congregational schools.
“What I like about the courses is that it was so flexible, you could do it anywhere, day or night, as long as you have an Internet connection,” said Alan Weisner, a teacher of 7th-grade Jewish studies at Cohen Hillel Academy in Marblehead, Mass. “The ability to take ideas and immediately apply them in classes is also terrific.”
“I took the course ‘The Skills for Teaching’ and I really enjoyed it,” said Anna Besser, education director at Beth El Synagogue in Omaha, Neb. “I had a positive experience because, living in a small Jewish community, I had little opportunity for educational development.”
Besser also spoke highly of the program’s utility at the administrative level. “There were things I could learn I could also pass on to my teachers,” she said. “I’ve always notified my teachers of the courses and let them decide for themselves whether they think it would be worth taking.”
These courses have the advantage of being immediately applicable to classroom situations. “I have shared what I learned online with my teachers and they have implemented some of the techniques,” said Besser. “Teachers have noticed that students are less disruptive because they are interested in the activity of the day and there are fewer discipline problems. Teachers have begun to implement student assessments to see if they are teaching for understanding and I have challenged them to look at their routine and see how it can be improved.”
Since the program’s inception in 1999, over 120 schools and 300 teachers across the country have taken part in JSkyway, which continues to expand. Two new courses will be available in 2004: “Teaching Israel Through Problem-Based Learning” and “Teaching Jewish Values,” which will coordinate its curriculum with a newsmagazine called “BabagaNewz” that is aimed at students in 4th through 7th grade.
“Teachers are seeing the values of their learning immediately as they apply it back into the classroom,” JSkyway project director Heather Martin told the Forward. Martin hopes to extend the program’s reach to assist the more than 20,000 Jewish educators in both day and congregational schools. “We’re just hitting the tip of them.”