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The Identity Wiki: A Ninth Grade Integration Project
Tikvah Wiener and Tzvi Pittinsky      Email This Article

Rabbi Tzvi Pittinsky teaches Tanakh and is the Director of Educational Technology at the Frisch School. He is also a doctoral candidate at Yeshiva University’s Azrieli Graduate School of Education and Administration.

Tikvah Wiener holds a B.A. in English Literature from Stern College and an M.A. in English Literature/Creative Writing from Queens College. She recently received a grant from the AVICHAI Foundation to integrate art and history into Tanakh.

 

In a school environment, teachers often work in isolation treating their classrooms as their own private islands.

A Wiki is a powerful online tool. The authors describe a project they undertook in their school to use Wikis as a vehicle for curricular integration focused on Jewish identity.

American Jews are fortunate – and must be grateful – that we live in a society that is so pluralistic and not only curious about a multitude of cultures but willing to embrace them as well. As we know, though, society’s openness to and interest in all ways of life often cause Jews today to abandon or slacken halakhic practice and to explore other cultures and traditions. In addition, the secular world’s siren call of unlimited physical pleasures is hard to ignore. The job of the parents and schools – to keep their children/students “on the derekh” – is increasingly demanding. As a Modern Orthodox yeshiva high school, The Frisch School (Paramus, NJ) sees as one of its primary goals as strengthening of a student's identity before he/she enters college and the “real world”.

To aid us in pursuing this goal, this year we decided to experiment using wiki technology and the cooperation of the entire ninth grade faculty. The ninth grade curriculum lends itself to a discussion of issues pertaining to identity, and the freshman year is an appropriate time to explore this topic with students, as they are entering the more socially, intellectually and religiously complex time that is high school. By integrating the classes and focusing them on the topic of identity, we feel that we are attempting to address the many facets of a young American Jew’s identity in one kind of effort to harmonize it.

The ninth grade program includes Biology, World History/Jewish History, World Literature, Geometry, Foreign Language, Hebrew Language, Torah, Nakh, and Talmud. The theme of identity lent itself easily to many secular studies’ subjects – in science students explore who they are biologically, in World History they examine how ancient cultures made the world we live in today. In English, students study coming-of-age stories and learn about the experiences humans across many times and cultures share. Foreign Language reveals to the students the contributions other cultures have made to the contemporary world, and Hebrew Language teaches students about their identities as religious Zionists.

A Judaic Studies curriculum focused on identity had to be developed after the secular studies one, because the entire school studies the same Jewish studies texts for Tanakh and Talmud. The theme could be applied to Judaic Studies only once those texts were selected, but this proved not to be a difficult task as many of the ideas discussed for the rest of the subjects coalesced well with the books that were selected. Humash classes will be studying Bamidbar, Nakh classes will focus on shivat Zion (the return to Zion) as seen in Ezra, Nehemiah, Haggai, Zekhariah and Malakhi. In Talmud, students will be learning Bava Kama.

The biggest challenge was how to get the teachers talking to each other and how to connect the classes for the students. In a school environment, teachers often work in isolation treating their classrooms as their own private islands. They might rarely talk to teachers in their own department, let alone share materials across departments and between General and Judaic Studies. We decided that the best way to solve this lack of communication was to use the web to connect our teachers to each other and to the students. We wanted a technology platform in which teachers and students could easily add web-based content with little technological expertise. We ultimately chose to create a wiki to anchor our theme of identity.

Wikis

Wiki, Hawaiian for quick, is a web-based technology designed to quickly create web pages with little, if any, knowledge of code. It is an example of a technology known as Web 2.0 in which users not only access content from the web but post content as well. Many readers might be familiar with Wikipedia, the famous (or infamous) granddaddy of all wikis. However, many wikis are available for individual and school use as well.

There were many reasons that we chose to use a wiki. Firstly, wikis use a simple text editor, so that teachers who know how to use a word processor can easily post items to the wiki. They also are fully compatible with Hebrew language, so teachers can post for both General and Judaic Studies on the same page. (The only addition one must make when posting is the code [[rtl]] before and after the Hebrew text to make the paragraphs go from right to left.)

Unlike other Web 2.0 technologies such as blogs, wikis allow one to easily post not only text and pictures but entire files such as Word documents, PowerPoint presentations, and PDFs. Being able to post different files formats was invaluable in our Ninth Grade Integration Project, since we envision the wiki not only as a place for teachers to post course content but also as a location to post student work such as art projects and PowerPoint Presentations. Ordinarily, these projects would require posting using different programs.

Wikis also contain a Discussion feature which can be invaluable in a classroom setting for student assignments. We anticipate that teachers will use the discussion to post subject specific questions for students to answer by posting comments. Students can be required not only to respond to the teacher’s question, but to fellow students’ postings as well. The discussion can happen within the context of a single class, or students can be required to respond to students from other classes.

Wikis allow for true collaboration. Different members can post to the same wiki page even at the same time. The ability to simultaneously post is a vast improvement over teachers’ posting documents to a shared folder on a school network where once one teacher opens the document, other teachers can only open a read-only version of it. The collaborators on the wiki can be anywhere in the world. Remote access to the wiki was invaluable for our summer preparation, as many of our teachers spent the summer in various locations and could not meet in school to work together. We also anticipate sharing the wiki with a sister school in Israel, so that teachers and students from across the globe can interact with each other in real time.

The History feature of the wiki saves every version of every single page that has been posted. This means that if a teacher or student ever erases something by mistake, s/he can retrieve it in seconds. We told our teachers that using the wiki is like walking a tight rope with a safety net, since they could do anything to “mess up” the wiki and we could easily reverse their mistakes.

Finally, wikis allow one to lock pages from editing so that only organizers can edit the page while members of the wiki cannot. We have designed our wiki so that teachers are organizers who can edit every page, while students are members who cannot edit. When we are ready to post student work, we will create one wiki page that students will be able to edit, and we will watch that page very carefully. 

We chose as our wiki provider, www.wikispaces.com, because it offers free password protected, ad free wiki pages to any K-12 school. We password protected our wiki, so that only members of our school community can see it. This safety feature allows students to express themselves using their real identities, something important for an “Identity” project, without any fear on our part of posting personal information on the web. Thus the wiki was also a great lesson for our students about when it is and when it is not appropriate to post information on the web.

Collaborative planning

At the end of the 2008 school year, the entire ninth grade faculty met, was introduced to the theme and was shown what a wiki was. The wiki shown to the teachers was made for the identity program and had mock pages that pertained to the topic. Most of the teachers were unfamiliar with a wiki, so over the summer they took technology seminars at the school to learn how to use one. There were postings over the summer by teachers as they learned the new technology. Teachers shared their curriculum plans with other teachers, learned how to monitor discussion boards and asked questions about how to integrate the wiki into their classrooms.

Since the beginning of the school year, the wiki has been prepared for the students. The Home page is a welcome to them and an introduction to the identity integration project as well as the wiki. The pages that have been assembled so far are inter-curricular. There is a page entitled “What’s in a Name?” that explores the power and meaning of names in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet; in Sandra Cisneros’ book, The House on Mango Street; in an article by a Hispanic writer; and in Sefer Bamidbar vis a vis Joshua.

There is another page called “Return to Zion,” which begins with a picture of the Cyrus cylinder, something students will learn about both in World History and in Ezra. The text of the Cyrus cylinder is on the page, as well as the references to it from Ezra and the text of the Balfour Declaration, which teachers can compare with Cyrus’ proclamation. Hebrew Language will be adding to the page when they teach a unit on the first and second waves of aliyah, as well as on Rav Kook’s exhortation to praise secular Jews for rebuilding Israel.

Yet another page is called “Israel” and shows Israel’s coat of arms and the reference to it in Zekhariah. The page then contains a picture of the Arch of Titus, where the candelabrum used on the coat of arms is seen. A poem entitled “Ecology of Jerusalem” by Yehuda Amichai is also on the page. The idea of this page is to have students explore Israeli history and better understand the country of their heritage. The Hebrew Language department has a sister school in Nahariya and plans to invite the students from the Israeli school to post and discuss topics with the Frisch students.

Another page called “My Story” focuses on poems and prose works that have to do with formation of the self. On this page are self-portraits by Vincent Van Gogh and Frida Kahlo, with links to information about the artists’ lives. Poems by Seamus Heaney, Emily Dickinson and a Frisch teacher appear on the page, as well as personal narratives by Helen Keller and Dick Gregory. Student contributions to the page will include personal narratives about their own lives, memories that made a particular impact on them and helped them become who they are so far.

The first class to use the wiki has been World History, which has posted its Election 2008 project on the “Leadership” page. This page will explore the qualities of good and bad leaders in History, in literature through various characters, in Nakh and in Sefer Bamidbar. The Election project has the students look up the views of both presidential candidates and research them at length and ends with having the students weigh in on which qualities they think are important for a president to have.

Under development is a page on “Classification,” which will show how taxonomy is an important part of identifying and understanding anything – whether in the realm of biology, literature, math, halakha and more.

The identity theme was launched on September 17, 2008 with a grade-wide assembly during which the summer preparatory reading for ninth grade students was connected to the theme. A special video presentation about identity was also shown and the identity wiki was shown to the students to give them a sense of its look and feel. The response of students, parents, and the administration was very enthusiastic. After the presentation, our principal sent an email to the entire parent body describing this exciting project.

Since the school is integrating the curriculum and introducing the wiki in the same school year, we’re moving tentatively and getting a feel for what teachers are comfortable doing and what is realistic about the project. The idea is for teachers to be creative in their use of the wiki. Not every topic that a teacher covers will appear on the wiki, but at some point during the school year, every ninth grade teacher will have students post work or information or discuss a topic relating to identity on the wiki.

Many of our students (and many adults in our community as well) live a bifurcated lifestyle. Identifying themselves as Modern Orthodox, they celebrate both general and Judaic knowledge, yet they fail to integrate this knowledge into one unified identity. By the end of the year, we hope that students will see how their classes and all parts of their lives are inter-connected. By viewing primary sources across the curriculum and by focusing on different aspects of the Identity theme through the pages of the wiki, students will see how their courses have helped them gain a better and stronger understanding of themselves as humans, Americans and Jews. Our hope is they emerge from the year aware and proud of their complex identities and able to successfully balance the many parts of their lives.  

 


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