Game Time For Teachers


David Bryfman, director of the Jewish Education Project’s New Center for Collaborative Leadership, would love one day to see Hebrew school teachers team up with computer programmers to develop educational games.

In the meantime, he’s hoping to get more Jewish educators trained in “games-based learning” — exploring ways to add high-tech and low-tech play in their classrooms, learning how to use free game-designing platforms like ARIS, SCVNGR and Gamestar Mechanic.

Ten educators, all of them women, who teach middle school and high school grades at 18 synagogues on Long Island and Westchester, just finished the Jewish Education Project’s first-ever workshop on the topic. Games they’ve developed so far include card games, board games, group scavenger-hunt activities using the GPS capabilities in cell phones, and some experiments on virtual worlds like Second Life.

One teacher, who has transformed old iPod Touch devices for use as “buzzers” in classroom games, said electronic games are “what engages and excites the kids.”

“It’s totally transformed the way I teach, the way I’ve set up my classroom,” another said. “Last year 70 percent of my class was taught frontal-style. Now it’s more like 25 percent.”

The workshops come amid growing interest throughout the Jewish community in using games to engage children and teens. Of the Covenant Foundation’s nine “signature grantees” in Jewish education, announced last week, two are game-related projects: $65,000 over two years to ConverJent or the design, development and rollout of “the first Jewish history-focused mobile game app” and $59,000 for design and development of Ramah365, mobile networking and gaming apps for Ramah movement staff, young adult alumni and campers “to maintain and build engagement, connections and program participation throughout the year.” The foundation also awarded a smaller “ignition” grant to a Cambridge, Mass., media lab for developing and launching a mobile app to introduce young children to Hebrew literacy skills.

Barry Joseph, director of the online leadership program at Global Kids, an after-school program that has pioneered the use of games-based learning, taught the Jewish Education Project’s workshop. He also has been hired to present to Jewish day school teachers, Jewish camp directors and Jewish museum educators around the country this year — presenting most recently at last week’s North American Jewish Day School Conference in Atlanta.

Rabbi Arnie Samlan, who coordinated the Jewish Education Project workshop, told The Jewish Week he hopes to help the teachers become “advocates for technology and for the use of games in their own schools and synagogues.”

“We always tell kids, ‘Put your cell phones away when you come into the classroom.’ This is a group of teachers that’s going to say, ‘Well no, you’ve got your technology, so how can you take that phone you’ve brought to class and use it as part of your learning?’”