Apr 18, 2017
At the Annual Conference of the Association for Jewish Studies in December 2016, In geveb organized a roundtable discussion entitled, “Teaching Yiddish in the Digital Age.” This essay is the fourth in a series of reflections by Yiddish educators and scholars inspired by that conversation. You can read the full series here.
Imagine an intergenerational group of students sharing a friendly Yiddish conversation about their lives, then taking turns reading aloud from a story by Kadya Molodowsky, and stopping after each paragraph to ask questions and comment on the text. This would not be unusual, except the students are in Maryland, California, Texas, British Columbia, and Hawaii (on vacation); and their teacher is in New York.
What I am describing is what took place in a weekly class I started teaching on Google Hangouts in 2013. The class was held virtually in a program that allowed me to display the text so that all students could be looking at the same document at once and participating together. The participants could hear and see each other and share visual and sound materials. Such a class was not possible in the past.
I first explored the use of computer technology as an aid in language classrooms in my Spanish and ESOL teaching, for which I learned how to create PowerPoint presentations. I am now applying these skills to create materials for teaching Yiddish. I use digital technology in both online and in-person instructional settings, and these new technologies enhance the interactive language learning that is at the center of my pedagogy. I began gathering small groups of students from different parts of the United States and Canada on Google Hangouts in the winter of 2013. Since that time, I have taught students virtually using online meeting platforms, such as Skype, Google Hangout, WebEx and Adobe Connect, and I have found that the digital teaching methods I was already using in the real-life classroom (images, easy-to-read slides, etc) were even more crucial in the online classroom.
I continue to teach Yiddish in virtual as well as in real spaces, but no matter which platform I’m using, the same instructional principles apply: 1) students must be supported in their learning process, and 2) communication and feedback is essential. For all that digital platforms offer opportunities to innovate in teaching techniques, I believe that these basic principles are continuous between digital and real classroom experiences.
In order to support my students, I have created PowerPoint presentations using Preview for scanning and screenshots, Nisus for Yiddish word processing, GarageBand for sound recordings, and iMovie to assemble these various pieces. I also take advantage of the many resources available on YouTube, the websites of the Yiddish Forward and the Yiddish Book Center, Sheva Zucker’s blog Candles of Song, and others.
PowerPoint presentations allow me to bring in a wide variety of content so that I become a curator of a pedagogical exhibit. The projection screen holds a different function in the classroom than a blackboard might; it is not just about providing a written component that emphasizes and reinforces the activities of the class, it is also about illustrating, displaying, and interacting with materials that are central to the learning process I now employ. I almost never write on the board in my real space classrooms; I do not spend class time with my back to my students, spelling words for them. Instead, I project material that supports emerging reading skills and vocabulary development with appropriate text, images and sound.
In the photo above, former students of the Midtown Shule of the Workmen’s Circle play the flign-shmayser (fly-swatter) game, learning Yiddish vowels, moving, and having fun.
The rules of the game are simple. Two students holding fly-swatters stand at either side of the projected screen. They listen for a vowel sound and cover it with their fly-swatter. The student who covers the corresponding letter first gets to remain in the game. The other student sits down and another student takes his place. The pace is quick and students get to participate frequently. Those waiting to play get to prepare for their turn silently. Playing the game allows the students to take risks in making mistakes, which is just part of the game, but enhances their learning. The added element of competition and the opportunity to get out of their seats and move makes it possible for the students to keep on practicing.
Using PowerPoint to display the letters makes it unnecessary for me to waste time in drawing the printed letters on the board. It also makes it possible to introduce students to multiple Yiddish fonts, increasing their reading fluency.
Multimedia Resources Compiled from Websites
The image above is from the Forverts website. I used this article focused on Yankev Glatshteyn’s poem, “A gute nakht, velt” and the embedded videos for a multi-level intermediate class.
Together with this resource, I assembled a variety of multimedia materials to create a content-rich lesson around Glatshteyn’s poem. This example shows how it’s possible to take advantage of texts and recordings available on the internet. Here is a list of the materials I used:
- An article from the Forverts website with audio/video including:
- A video of photos of the poet with a recording of him reading his own poem
- A video of a Yiddish interview with the poet subtitled in English
- A Garage Band recording of the article read by me
- A screenshot of the poem from the Yiddish Book Center’s digital archives
- An English translation of the poem by Richard Fine (which can be found below the YouTube video at the link)
By providing all these materials to my multi-level intermediate class, I was able to bridge the difference in their levels. The English translations were helpful in enabling the low-level intermediate students to access content beyond their language ability, and all of them were exposed to an important poet who was unknown to them. As the students prepared for our meeting, they used the multi-media materials, and we were able to use class time efficiently.
A lot of my grammar instruction grows out of what I hear my students trying to say in our conversation segments, or from what appears in the texts we read. Often it happens spontaneously, and when it does, I have grammar charts, conjugations and examples ready to use on my computer or my USB drive, and I’m able to support my students in saying what they really want to say in Yiddish, or in understanding what they are reading. Making grammar lessons relevant to what students need at the moment in addition to planned grammar lessons is important to me, and the instant nature of digital communication is critical in this endeavor.
Having resources readily available in digital form allows me to easily pull them up precisely in the moments when students need clarification, rather than only when they are outlined in a curriculum. It makes my grammar teaching more flexible and relevant to students’ needs.
In real-space classrooms or online, I have benefited from the flexibility, portability, access and time saving options digital materials provide for teaching and learning.
Communicating Digitally as a Teacher
Creating an environment in which students feel supported in their learning is one of the principles I value. The other principle, related to the first, is to keep two-way communication open. It is important for students to voice their questions and share their feelings with their teacher, and it is equally important for the teacher to read her students and to give them feedback. This level of communication is difficult to achieve using digital platforms.
I have had extensive experience in practicing open communication and providing feedback for my students in real-space classrooms and feel competent at it. However, the online platforms I have worked with still present challenges in this area. There is limited visual access to facial expressions and body language, especially when screen sharing or when the size of the class makes it necessary to view a list of student names instead of their faces. The muting feature prevents sound from multiple sources from entering the online classroom, but it also reduces spontaneity and takes away from the instructor’s focus on the students and the content. That is why I limit my own internet group classes to five students; I find that larger virtual classes do not provide adequate opportunities for everyone to participate and communicate. When I teach Workmen’s Circle online classes which have more than five students, I try to compensate by being attentive to making sure that each student has had a chance to answer questions or make comments, but this does not occur as organically as it would in a real life situation.
Despite their drawbacks, the expanded opportunities of online instruction platforms and the digitization and accessibility of materials made possible by contemporary technology are huge advantages to teaching and learning Yiddish. Hopefully, with time and effort, they will continue to improve.