How To Hold School In A Blizzard

Some New Haven schoolkids missed no classes during the blizzard—thanks to two new approaches to learning.

The students attend the Jewish High School of Connecticut, which moved this academic year from Bridgeport to the Greater New Haven Jewish Community Center (just over the Woodbridge town line).

They returned to classes Monday after their regularly scheduled February break. Unlike students in New Haven’s public schools and in other communities, they were able to take that scheduled break because they had all their classes the prior week, despite the fact that Blizzard Nemo dumped a record 34 inches on the city.

How’d they do it?

By logging on to the Internet. And to Google Chat.

“We felt that as long as the students and teachers had power, that school should go on. There really wasn’t a need to cancel classes,” said the school’s principal, Rabbi Yonatan Yussman, who’s 37 and lives in Westville. In an interview he spoke of how his small high school of 37 students kept classes going. He spoke of how the strategy fit into a larger approach adopted by his school, which is in its third year of operation. (Click on the play arrow at the top of the story to watch him discuss the blizzard classes.)

Teachers and students conducted classes online from their homes through Google Chat and Google+ Hangout, and GoToMeeting. They could all see each other and conduct conversations. (The teachers did “restrict chatting features” to cut down on crosstalk, according to Yussman.) Online learning has been a growing trend at all educational levels; Yale is sending lectures to the world for free via the Internet. For a school like Yussman’s, in-person is still preferable; the students couldn’t pray, eat lunch, or have gym when they were logging in from their blizzard-bound homes.

Some of the classes operated on a variation of “blended learning”, a student-centered approach that’s catching on in some education quarters these days. Students absorb the “facts” of lessons at their own pace, from lessons or lectures posted online.  (Click here for an overview of this approach offered by Sal Khan.)

When there’s no blizzard, the Jewish High School gathers in real-life classrooms, of course. It is transitioning to more use of the blended learning approach. This combines computer learning with face-to-face instruction or discussion. Rather than aim for the “middle”—at a pace too fast for kids who are struggling, too slow for advanced students—the teacher acts more like a “coach,” checking up on them individually, Yussman said. “Often what would have happened was the teacher was the person who had the facts giving over to the sponges, ... In this model the kids are learning the information at their own pace.  The teachers are more of a “guide on the side”, rather than a “sage on the stage”. Then they come back together for discussion, for experiments, and so on.” Click on the play arrow to watch him elaborate.

Yussman is also promoting an unconventional approach to parochial-school education. Jewish day schools, like many Christian and Muslim schools, are traditionally affiliated with a denomination or “movement” within the religion. The New Haven area, for instance, has Jewish schools run by or affiliated with organizations from the Orthodox or Conservative movements. Those different groups often have very different ideas about learning—whether boys and girls can pray together or learn certain subjects together, for instance. Yussman’s school calls itself “pluralistic,” affiliated with no single movement and dedicated to enabling people from all strands of Judaism to learn together. That’s no simple task; it has been a work in progress. Click on the play arrow to watch him address that challenge.

Students have the taken the lead in charting this “common journey,” Yussman said.

“One of the huge problems in Jewish life today is that there’s is a very small number of Jews, and we’re very divided,” he argued. “This is a different model, a different vision of Judaism. Our students, who are going to be the leaders of Judaism tomorrow, are showing us the way of how to bring together all the different denominations.”

Ian Applegate animated the NHI outro tag at the end of the videos.

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posted by: Yaakov on February 27, 2013  5:00pm

Great article about a wonderful school. Rabbi Yussman and his faculty are doing amazing things for our young people and our community.