My daughter’s Bat Mitzvah

A month ago (Dec 14) was Shabbat Parshat Vayechi and the Bat Mitzvah of my daughter, Shifra. In case anyone who wasn’t lucky enough to be there is interested, here is the Dvar Torah I shared with her:

This week’s Parsha, Parshas Vayechi, tells us about the brachot — the blessings— which Yaakov gives to each of his sons before his death. Each of the sons receives a unique bracha and the lessons we can learn from them are rich and varied.

I’d like to examine the bracha Yaakov gives to Dan. In 48:16, Yaakov proclaims that, “דן ידין עמו”  - that “Dan will judge his nation,” based on the literal meaning of Dan’s name: the Hebrew verb “dan" means "to adjudicate," a judgment is a "din" and a judge is called a "dayan.”

The bracha implies that, in some sense, Yaakov’s son Dan —and, through him, his descendants, the entire tribe of Dan— possesses a middah of din, a unique character trait of justice. It is for this reason that the tribe of Dan produces judges for Am Yisrael, notable among them is Shimshon, Samson, who judges the Jewish people for 20 years with a sense of fairness he must have inherited from his great-grandfather, Dan, the son of Yaakov.

Our verse makes an appearance in the Talmud, in the tractate of Pesachim (4a). The Gemara there tells us of an man who would always “דונו דיני אמרי” - who was known for always saying “Judge my case.” Rashi explains that, whenever this man would have a disagreement with someone, he would say, “Judge my case in court.” The Gemara concludes:

"שמע מינה מדן קאתי, דכתיב (בראשית מט, טז) דן ידין עמו"

In other words, every time this man had an argument with someone, his response was, “So sue me. Take me to court, if you dare.” Because his immediate reaction was to seek his day in court, the Gemara concludes that he must have been member of the Tribe of Dan.

This is difficult to reconcile with the nice things we were saying about Dan just a moment ago. The Gemara’s depiction of this man’s litigious tendencies doesn’t seem complementary; if anything, it seems the opposite: negative, critical and condemning.

When Yaakov said, “Dan will judge his nation” he was referring to a beautiful middah —a positive character attribute—of the tribe of Dan — his sense of fairness and justice. However, here the Gemara implies that Dan’s attribute is bad, by assuming that this fellow, who would always say, “sue me” or “I’ll see you in court,” must have been from the tribe of Dan. How do we reconcile this contradiction?

I think this Gemara teaches us an important lesson about character traits (middot). We speak about a person having good character traits — being honest and humble, not losing his temper, not being haughty. Why are they referred to as “middot” (a word which literally means “measurements”)?

An underlying principle of character traits is that they have to be measured. Why is there no commandment in the Torah that a person should have good middot? Perhaps because there is no such thing as a character trait that is all bad or all good.

Instead, our challenge is to use various character traits in the proper measure. Sometimes it is appropriate for a person to have a ‘measure’ of anger, and sometimes a person needs to have a ‘measure’ of arrogance.

Where we get into trouble is if a character trait gets out of hand. This Gemara is telling us is that Dan had a tremendous sense of din (justice). However, this trait that the founder of the tribe had in his genes went haywire in the fellow mentioned in Pesachim. He took the ‘measure’ of justice too far. His sense of justice was too strict. There was never compromise. It was always ‘Din' — “See you in Court!”

Now, Shifra: being a Bat Mitzvah means that you are now your own person. You’re a full-fledged member of Am Yisrael, with all the commensurate rights and responsibilities. From now on, the actions you take, the decisions you make, the mitzvot you perform and the opportunities you let go by… they are all on your scoreboard now.

Your mother and I, along with your grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, teachers and friends —all of the people gathered here tonight to celebrate with you— we have all done our best to guide and teach you, mold and shape you, support and nurture you, cajole and convince you to always try, do and be your very, very best.

You are blessed with some remarkable middot. You have a great sense of humor, a generous spirit, an optimistic attitude, a quick and beautiful smile. These, among many others, are your middot… and the measure of how you use them define who you are.

Dan’s bracha teaches us that any middah, even the best, if not applied in its proper measure and in its proper context, can go bad. Our bracha for you, as you become a Bat Mitzvah is:

May you always be funny, but never at the expense of others.

May you always be generous, but not to your own detriment.

May you always be optimistic, but never unrealistic.

May you always be happy, but never too easily satisfied.

New tools for creating slide-based videos

I think it’s finally safe to stop talking about the Flipped Classroom as an innovation. The technique has gone mainstream and, while the vast majority of classroom teachers have still not created videos for their students to watch at home, I think it’s safe to say that most know about the technique and have placed it on their “I’ll try this someday” pile.

I’ve come across two new tools this week that might help some of those teachers move flipping into the “Let’s give this a shot this weekend” pile by making the entire process far less technical and much more accessible. Both tools let you start with a presentation file, like a Powerpoint or Google Presentation and add audio or webcam video then share the resulting video online.

Knovio

This is a great tool, simple to understand, easy to use, does just what it says on the tin. You create a Powerpoint presentation, upload it to their site then record webcam video to go alongside it. Here’s a quick and dirty demo.

I know this is hard to believe, but that only took me about 5 minutes to create, and that included making the beautiful Powerpoint deck. Knovio is a solid tool and everyone, including technology-newbies, will have no trouble getting it to work right away.

Movenote

Movenote is the second tool I found recently and —spoiler alert!— it’s the one I prefer. It offers a number of significant capabilities which Knovio does not; I’ve outlined a couple of them in this demo video.

For example, and most notably, Movenote accepts many different filetypes in addition to Powerpoint. You can upload PDFs or images and even pull content directly from your Google Drive, including Docs as well as Presentations. Once those files are all uploaded to Movenote, you can reorder the slides, which is another thing Knovio doesn’t do. The software intelligently breaks documents up into different slides, so you can pepper your business Powerpoint deck with vacation photos if you want.

Movenote is also simple to use and gives you more sharing options for your video at the back end, including page backgrounds and some other bells and whistles. Additionally, Movenote allows your viewers to download the files you associated with your video so if, for example, you narrated a presentation about the Civil War, your students can download the slide deck itself as a PDF after watching; this goes for all of the files you upload, including all of the various file types.

Wrap-Up

Both tools are capable, powerful and easy to use. I found Movenote to be a winner, but the interface at Knovio provides more information at each step so novice users may prefer it. One other feature unique to Knovio is that the viewer can use a slider to resize the video and slides while watching so he or she can make your pretty face larger or smaller relative to the slide images. This is a pretty cool feature.

Both tools require you to record all of your video at once and neither one has any editing capability: what you shoot is what you get. If you sneeze or someone walks into your office, you’re going to have to either live with it or start over from scratch.

That’s about all I have. Give them both a try and see what you prefer!

Is #Mercava (@TheMercava), a new #EdTech Tool for Jewish Education, worth a look?

So I’ve gotten a ton of emails, tweets and IMs over the last 48 hours from people asking me what I think of Mercava, a “whole new experience” for Jewish Education. Here is the announcement video that’s making the rounds:

In a nutshell, Mercava (which is Hebrew for “chariot”) purports to be nothing less than a game-changing, paradigm-shattering new platform for Jewish education, featuring things like:

  1. "Over a thousand lessons for every educational setting"
  2. A video series to make Jewish history come to life
  3. A series of” Hollywood-style” educational content videos
  4. An interactive lesson-building tool to allow users to create their own high-quality educational content
  5. The “biggest thing to happen to Talmud since Talmud”

Before I get into what I think of Mercava’s features, let me get one huge thing out of the way: of all of the extraordinary promises that the super-excited introductory video makes, only one is currently available (the online Talmud). At this point, everything else is vaporware so I wish everyone would calm down a little. There, I said it.

Now, what about the part that actually does work?

It’s OK, I guess.

Try this: visit the site and click on the “Sign up” link in the top-right corner.

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Fill out the short form, complete the email confirmation and then return to the site to log in. When you do, you will see your name up there, right next to a promising-sounding link to your “Launchpad.” Click it.

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When you do, you’re taken to your Launchpad, the starting point for all of Mercava’s exciting features:

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Yup: that’s all of them.

Clicking the icon will take you to a page of Talmud, the Daf Yomi (which, if you’re unfamiliar, is the page of Talmud corresponding to “today” in the seven-year-long cycle of daily Talmud study). You will see a traditional view of the page, with a couple of interesting features:

  1. Although you begin on “today’s” page of Talmud, you can use a simple menu system to navigate to any one of the 6,200+ pages in the Babylonian Talmud.
  2. Two major commentaries on the Talmud, Rashi and Tosafot, appear right alongside the text in most editions so, to distinguish them, they are usually printed in a different typeface. The “Toggle font” button switches them both to traditional Hebrew text and back.
  3. The text includes a phrase-by-phrase English translation/explanation which you easily navigate by clicking on the text.

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These are valuable, powerful features (particularly the translation) and will, I am sure, prove valuable to students of the text. However, the hype and marketing effort behind Mercava built up such a sense of expectation that I find myself disappointed in this single, somewhat limited offering.

For example, there are other tools online which offer similar features… some of these have been around for years:

  • Sefaria includes many, many more texts, along with cross-indexing capabilities and an open-source license.
  • DafYomi.org includes the text (but no translation), but adds links to audio classes and other resources for the serious daily student.
  • Halakhah.com offers downloadable PDFs of entire tractates translated into English.
  • Mechon-Mamre delivers the Hebrew text in a copy/paste-able format.

I don’t mean to be negative but the EdTech industry, like any technology-space, if full of people with good ideas and no follow-through and, right now, that’s about all Mercava is. I heard about it several months ago and, once the Talmud tool came online, I shared it with colleagues and teachers whom I thought would find it useful. It’s a good start and has a place in the toolkit but I simply don’t understand why the Jewish EdTech world has gone as nuts about it as it seems they recently have.

I’ve tried to sign up for all of the coming-soon features and received many auto-responder emails from the Mercava team assuring me that, while “It might take us a while to get back to you, we will get back to you as soon as we can.” I’m looking forward to hearing from them so I can begin to explore.

Making time, thanks to @Calendly

I’ve been using Calendly for a couple of weeks now and, to be honest, I am smitten.

In my current position, I spend a lot of time working one-on-one with teachers on how to best integrate technology tools into their lessons and projects. I love the job but it’s challenging to find the time to meet with each teacher, discuss their upcoming needs and help them plan. There are, after all, over a hundred of them and only one of me. That’s where a meeting-scheduling tool comes in.

I’ve used tools like Calendly before, but the ease-of-setup and simplicity make it the best meeting scheduler I’ve ever used.

Here’s the deal: you visit the Calendly website and register then, with a surprisingly small number of clicks, you set it up to integrate with your Google Calendar. Once you do that, you’re done. You now have an online form that anyone can use to schedule a meeting with you.

For the folks who want to meet with you, the process is three simple steps, much like scheduling a trip to your local Apple Store’s Genius Bar:

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They select a meeting type, then a day and fill in their name and contact info - that’s it! You both get an email notification and it’s simple to edit or cancel the appointments after they are set.

The site offers a ton of features, including buffers between events, customizable advance booking options, automatic reminders and more, all of which can be set differently for each event type. The only feature that seems to be missing for me is the option to moderate requests so that I must approve them before they are scheduled.

Did I mention that Calendly is totally free?

I’ve already created a Canned Response that gives people the link and asks them to schedule a time to talk. I’ve used it with teachers, parents, colleagues and strangers… no one has had any trouble booking time to talk.

If you use a Google Calendar and need to be available to meet with lots of people, Calendly could be a great solution for you. 

iPad-based photo kiosk for the first day of school

At a recent Admin meeting, our Head of School asked us to try to come up with some sort of fun activity to liven up the entrance to school as our students entered the building this week for the first day of classes. We tossed a couple of suggestions around the table and one of the ones that was dismissed as too expensive was renting a photo kiosk machine so that students could take pictures of themselves as they came in.

I gave the matter some thought after the meeting and came up with a way to accomplish the same thing for almost no cost. Here’s what we did:

  1. We pulled a couple of iPads out of our carts. You obviously need at least one iPad to make this idea work but it’s likely that you have one somewhere.
  2. You’re going to use PhotoBooth on the iPad to take the photos. And, in order to make sure that the iPads work consistently, you’re going to use Guided Access to lock the iPad into that app. (We went one step further and locked the parts of the screen that allow users to select filters, switch to the back-side camera and delete photos.)
  3. We also purchased some inexpensive, rugged cases for the iPads and used 3M Velcro Hangers to hang the iPads on the wall.
  4. The next piece of magic is Photo Stream. I created a special email address, used it to create a new iCloud account and then tied all four iPads to that account. This way, all the photos taken automatically flow into a single Photo Stream. I can then sift through the photos to find the good ones on my desktop and manually move them into a new photo stream for publication.
  5. Finally, I connected an AppleTV to our wall-mounted television and set its screen saver to display the photo stream of good photos. This gives me a live-updating, animated slideshow of student photos as they are taken.

I was able to set the entire thing up in an afternoon and, other than the cases and velcro, it didn’t cost a thing. We go live with it tomorrow. If you give it a try, please let me know!