Hebrew School’s New Game Theory

Hebrew School’s New Game Theory

‘Fun’ teaching tool catching on to engage tech-savvy teens, but development costs may be big hurdle.

Like most of her friends, Jenn, a Long Island teen, loves computer games. She even plays one at Hebrew school.

With her teacher’s permission.

“Petri World,” a virtual environment in which players have avatars and build a city together, is not a forbidden classroom activity that distracts from the lesson. In Jodi Mishkin’s class at Temple Beth Torah, in Melville, it is the lesson, with students learning about modern Israel as they play.

“Petri World” is just one of many games that Mishkin uses with her students. The longtime Hebrew school teacher, who also works as assistant technology specialist for the Jericho School District and is pursuing a Ph.D. in educational technology, is at the vanguard of a small but growing movement to use computer (and non-electronic) games as tools for engaging — and educating — Jewish kids, especially teens.

Once regarded as distracting if not downright dangerous, computer games are winning new respect in the mainstream education world. The MacArthur Foundation has invested $85 million over the past five years in a “digital media learning initiative,” much of which is for game-related projects. And a recent report by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop argues that “digital games offer a promising and untapped opportunity to leverage children’s enthusiasm and to help transform learning in America.”

While no one in the Jewish community is sinking major resources into games, at least not yet, the topic is getting increased attention.

“While playing games, people are challenged and excited, not bored,” notes Rabbi Owen Gottlieb, the founder of ConverJent a nonprofit under the auspices of Clal: The Center for Jewish Learning and Leadership that seeks to develop and promote “seriously fun” games for Jewish learning.

“Good game design places the player into the ideal learning state,” Rabbi Gottlieb adds.

Numerous projects have emerged recently. Some examples:

  • New York’s Jewish Education Project (formerly the Board of Jewish Education) this fall launched a pilot project on “Games-Based Learning in Congregational Schools”;
  • ConverJent’s Rabbi Gottlieb is developing several Jewish educational games, including a board game, a computer game and a mobile app, and also runs workshops (and is teaching a fifth-grade Hebrew school class) integrating game design with Jewish text study;
  • Two simulation games on the Second Life virtual reality platform — one teaching about the history of Jewish life in Krakow, Poland and another about the founding of Tel Aviv — are in early stages of development;
  • Sviva Israel, a Jerusalem-based program that brings Jewish day school students and Israeli students together to learn about environmental issues, runs EcoCampus, in which participants can interact with each other and play various educational games;
  • Behrman House, the leading publisher of Hebrew school textbooks, now offers a variety of games as auxiliary materials for its textbooks and has developed several games for use on iPhones and iPads.

In congregational schools, where educators have a limited amount of time with their students and must compete with a range of extracurricular activities for attention, the “fun” aspect of games is especially attractive.

Temple Beth Torah’s Mishkin, who is one of 10 participants in the Jewish Education Project workshop, told The Jewish Week she was drawn to using games in the classroom because “we need to reach students in different ways.”

“We want them to enjoy, understand and remember, and we need to think about how we can teach so it’s not boring and dry,” she added.

Deborah Salomon, of Greenwich, Conn., developed her entire Jewish educational program, called Hebrew Wizards, around games and having students accumulate points and prizes as they master material.

“Kids can earn ‘gold coins’ at home and get credit for it in school,” she said. “It’s no fun saying, ‘Do you want a homework assignment,’ but it is fun saying, ‘Do you want to earn a gold coin?’ It’s more fun to say Color War is breaking out, rather than next week we’ll be reviewing what we’ve learned.”

Deborah Nagler, who is working on the Tel Aviv and Krakow simulation games and also helping Gratz College develop a certificate program on technology and Jewish education, said games give students a nonthreatening space in which they can learn from their mistakes.

“The best part” of games “is there’s no fear of failure,” she said. “In school it’s a sin to fail, but in gaming you just figure out how to fix it and move on.”

While most agree that educational games must be fun, absorbing and convey information or build skills, not everyone agrees on what constitutes a quality game — and whether there is an added value in simply converting a non-digital game to a digital format.

Many Jewish educational games, like “Jewpardy” (a Jewish version of the quiz show “Jeopardy”), some of the Behrman House apps and even a new “Who Wants to Be a Hebrew Wizard” app developed by Hebrew Wizards’ Salamon, are heavy on fact memorization, activities that — save for the accumulation of points and the sound effects — are not dramatically different from using flash cards, taking an online quiz or even participating in a rote drill.

ConverJent’s Rabbi Gottlieb notes in an upcoming article in the journal Sh’ma that not all games are “good” nor is every Jewish educator “literate in games, game design and games for learning.”

“Most current Jewish games deal with trivia as opposed to deep learning (something I'm trying to change),” he writes, adding that educational game design “is a discipline, which requires dedication and study.”

Rabbi Gottlieb, 37, whose eclectic professional background includes teaching dance, designing software, screenwriting, leading Jewish wilderness trips and earning ordination from the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College, also emphasizes the importance of “balance between spending time in digital spaces and nature spaces.”

Currently a doctoral student in Jewish education and digital learning at New York University (and one of a handful of graduate students nationally who are funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation), Rabbi Gottlieb told The Jewish Week that his particular interest is in games that are “about action modeling and rehearsing complex systems, thinking about things like ‘What does it mean to build a mishkan?’ [tabernacle].”

An avid game-player, (his favorite is “Settlers of Catan,” a strategy board game in which players acquire and trade resources in order to build village). He is hoping eventually to create a sort of “Catan” meets the Talmud, in which a player builds a Talmudic-era community while confronting challenges and following rules that are discussed in Talmudic texts.

“A big part of Talmud and Torah are rule systems that guide us,” he explains, noting that addressing them in the context of a game can be more tangible and memorable than simply reading about and discussing the ideas and concepts.

Second Life, the virtual world with one million active users, is best known for its recreational aspects, with people using their avatars to decorate dream houses, socialize and explore sexual fantasies.

But increasingly the site is also being used for educational and business purposes. And Deborah Nagler, director of Simnik, a startup that creates 3-D immersive environments for education and training purposes, sees it as a promising venue for Jewish educational games — as long as such games remain accessible only to registered students and restrict their users from interacting with strangers or accessing Second Life’s R- and X-rated neighborhoods.

Nagler is currently working with the Center for Educational Technology in Israel on a Second Life-based simulation game designed to teach about Jewish life in prewar Krakow, and is also in discussions with Los Angeles’ central agency for Jewish education about a simulation game that teaches the history of Tel Aviv.

The Krakow game, still in preliminary stages, would allow students to, through their avatars, travel around a replica of prewar Krakow, interact with each other and with historical figures, and learn about key aspects of Jewish life in this period.

Creating a successful game on Second Life is not cheap or easy, Nagler said.

“You need to invest in making it look realistic, and you need to create an environment that stimulates learning and questions, and is fun,” she says. “You need to have things to interact with and things to do.”

Nonetheless, the money and time required to put something on Second Life pales compared to “multimillions that go into a beautifully rendered video game,” she says. “This is something that is interesting and accessible.”

Nagler dreams about there one day being a whole array of virtual worlds, where students could learn about different periods of Jewish history and “meet people from the Talmud.”

“As you level up, you’d be gaining knowledge and building on what you’ve learned,” she says, adding that “children today need the visuals: sound, light and music.”

Kids find it more exciting to share what they’ve learned by building something or presenting something in the virtual world, rather than writing a report, she says.

“It’s motivating,” she said. “Kids like it — it’s like, ‘Cool, I have my avatar, and it can jump and run, and I can build something.’”

Jodi Mishkin’s students certainly seem to think so.

Even without Petri World, “I would still go [to Hebrew school], because my friends are there, and I like the social and religious aspect of it,” says Jen. “But it definitely is a really fun thing.”

Geoff, another 10th grader, says he especially likes being able to design things and be creative on Petri World.

“Kids don’t have the biggest attention spans, and by adding a game to the mix of learning it’s definitely the best way to teach kids some things,” he notes.

“You will enjoy it more and get more out of it, remember what you learned and have fun doing it.”

Please see sidebar on "The High Cost of Developing Games."

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