by Adrian A. Durlester
We’re back with another school year of apps/software/online resource tips. Last year I recommended SnagIt from Techsmith as one of the best screen capture tools around (it still is and just keeps getting better) and Zondle.com as one of the most useful gamification/multiple choice question sites around.
In that article I neglected to mention that the use of multiple choice questions has its share of detractors, but that the folks at Zondle have put a lot of thought into the structure of their algorithms to address the shortcomings. In addition, Zondle has had problems monetizing, and recently announced they will be moving to an all-paid model. The outcry was large, and in return Zondle promised to try and create a truly inexpensive model. I’m crossing my fingers, because Zondle was really integral to some of my teaching and tutoring last year.
Last year I also mentioned I had starting using ClassDojo. This too, is a service that has drawn its share of criticisms. The critique that it is still a system that utilizes some negative reinforcement just like the old in-class behavior color charts it modernizes is accurate to some extent. So is the critique that it is focused on extrinsic behavior, and seeking the reward of adult approval. Of course, this is a debate that continues to rage in the educational community. Few debate the value of intrinsic reward systems, but some still believe there is a place for extrinsically motivated discipline systems and meaningful consequences, and that a balance is needed between the approaches. Devotees of Class Dojo say it’s all about how you utilize the software. Many teachers only utilize Class Dojo’s affirmative aspects. I use it in almost complete privacy simply as a tool for me to track student behaviors. Class Dojo has a very large, active user community that can be helpful in adapting Class Dojo to the particulars of your class, your school, your preferences, etc. Concerns have also been raised about Class Dojo and FERPA (Federal Educational Rights & Privacy Act.) including an article in the NY Times in November 2014. Class Dojo responded to these concerns soon after.
Apropos to the Zondle monetizing situation, is my topic for this column. It was an interesting coincidence that this very topic was raised on JedLab just the other day and then commented on by none other than my TAPBB colleague-in-crime Peter Eckstein. He commented on a post of a NYTimes article about “Teachers Pay Teachers” (TPT) entitled “A Sharing Economy Where Teachers Win.” My wise and thoughtful friend Peter Eckstein asked:
“Isn’t this idea antithetical to the JEDLAB ethos? I have no problem with earning a living, but…this bothers me…it’s another step towards commoditizing everything. Call me a commie, but….”
Jedlabber Beth Hamon responded
“I understand your hesitation; but the fact is that I know too many teachers who struggle to keep a roof over their heads, and if the Jewish community won’t do anything to change that paradigm, then we have to adapt. The entire Sharing Economy came about as a collective reaction and adaptation to the New Economy where it really is becoming every man for himself…Yeah, it feels slightly “impure” to have to commodify everything we do; but the hard fact is that either we do something or we starve. The lack of respect and pay shown to teachers (religious AND secular) is a big part of why teacher recruitment is at an all-time low these days. So I’m for it.”
What is TpT? well, in their own words:
Teachers Pay Teachers (or TpT, as we call it) is a community of millions of educators who come together to share their work, their insights, and their inspiration with one another. We are the first and largest open marketplace where teachers share, sell, and buy original educational resources. That means immediate access to a world of expertise and more time to focus on students and teaching.
They have 3.4 million active members, and 1.7 million resources available. You can find lesson plans and individual units, interactive notebooks, games, cards, activities, decorations and more. I’m a relatively frequent visitor to TeacherPayTeachers.com (as well as SmartboardExchange, where content for use on SmartBoards is shared and sold.) Admittedly, I’m using it more for my music classes than for Judaics or Hebrew, though I think if more Jewish educators used it for Judaic subjects I think we’d seem a huge increase in available materials. I have found some useful Judaics and Hebrew material on both TpT and Smart Exchange and the content is slowly increasing as more Jewish educators discover the resources.
Some wondered about the ethics/laziness of simply using someone else’s lesson plan (even when paying for it). We all know, because we have all borrowed from others, that any lesson plan, unit, or idea we borrow from another is going to require modification to fit our particular circumstances. TpT is, for me, a tool. It is a tool that helps me mix other idea in with my own. It can save me time in preparation and allow me to dedicate that time to more things that will make me a better teacher for my students. It can inspire me with new ideas, and assist me when my own inspiration fails me. It connects me to the real world of everyday educators, and reminds me I am not alone. Yes, some teachers, over-worked and harried, are looking for a quick fix. I refuse to be judgmental about that, thought I think quick fixes are only useful a limited number of times, and any good teacher knows to not be dependent on them.
Quality is another concern that was raised. My personal experience on TpT and similar services is that the cream rises to the top. Yes, there is plenty of less than stellar material. User feedback is essential in determining relative quality, and user feedback is essential to the value of a service like TpT— so if you use it and don’t review or rate materials you use (or even just peruse) then don’t complain about quality. The system works when everyone participates. (This is true for almost all crowd-sourcing resources, peer-produced resources like WikiPedia and all wikis. If you think liking, following, rating, reviewing, etc. content on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, Vine, YouTube, even commercial sites like Amazon, Buy.com, et al, and even the apps stores for iPhone , Android, windows, etc. isn’t part of your obligation as a user of these services, if you are only a “taker” or a “lurker” then you are missing the whole point, and not part of the mechanism that makes these things work the way they do. Oh, and BT, vote in elections. [OK, I’ll get off my soapbox now.]
This doesn’t mean you have to be a contributor or seller on TpT (but you ought to be a rater and reviewer.) On the other hand, we all have work of which we are proud and which is suitable to offer to others, either for free or a reasonable cost. Altruism, too, is alive and well on TPT. Not every seller is a mercenary—some way underprice their materials purposefully, and not every freebie is simply another sales technique. Yes, lots of sellers’ free products are largely advertisements or enticements to buy their materials, however there is still lots of really usable free or extremely low cost material. “What you pay for is what you get” is not always the best rule to follow. Read ratings and reviews (though yes, like Amazon, Pinterest, Etsy, Craig’sList, etc.there are plenty of ways to game the system to make your rating look better. (Speaking of Pinterest, there is a new JedLab Resources Pinterest board where people are being encouraged to share materials.
Yes, TpT is a big company now. Nevertheless, the site manages to maintain the same sort of feel as it had in its early days as a homespun project. TPT takes their percentage, but lots of hard-working teachers are seeing some reward for their hard work from other teachers who are willing to spend a little so they can devote more of their time to being better teachers. Not every teacher is the best at creating posters, bulletin boards, games, worksheets. Together we can supplement each others’ strengths and weaknesses. I hope the allure of becoming a teachepreneur does not draw away more fine teachers from the profession of teaching, I’m a democratic socialist, so I’m not crazy about the folks getting rich from TpT, or about the commoditization of education, but I’m more than willing to pay for the work and inspiration of another if it helps me be a better teacher.
I’m not entirely sure how the good folks at Torah Aura and the other publishers of Jewish educational materials feel about this encroachment upon their territory. For decades they’ve been publishing the sort of one-off lessons and units that make up a large percentage of what’s found on TpT. I think there is room in Jewish education for the publishers and a free-market of educators. Some have tried before, and will yet try again, to create exclusively Jewishly-focused resource collections online, and these will be useful, no doubt. However, I think I prefer to use broader resource collections. The exchange of ideas across disciplines is an invaluable thing. At a site not exclusively Jewish, I might find ideas and inspiration from other perspectives. I am not the least bit ashamed to acknowledge that I have utilized and adapted Christian resources for use in teaching Judaics and Hebrew. OTOH, as someone active in the Jewish music world, I’ve often found myself lamenting why people would want to turn to musical resources outside the community when we have such rich resources within. Sure, I suppose I’d rather support another Jewish educator or musician than a non-Jewish one. I also have to recognize and admit that such particularism is probably way out of step with how most young Jews view the world these days. The problems of an in-breeding mindset can become apparent in other areas besides genetics. Diversity and abundance feel like a better mindset-for me. You choose what works for you.
Peter is right, we do need to continue to see open and free sharing among the folks at JedLab – among all Jewish educators. At the same time, there is room for resources like TpT. We face the same dilemma the rabbis faced when trying to decide about issues of intellectual property. We have “without incentive, no one will publish more Torah commentaries” vs “the more Torah, the more Torah.” Sensibly, we have learned to embrace a balance of both (though our current copyright law needs a lot of tweaking given technological developments and the undue influence of major middle-men like record companies and publishers.)
A quick note about Smart Exchange. Creating Smartboard presentations and Smart Notebooks can be a time-consuming task. Like TPT, Smart Exchange has lots of free user-contributed content (and some commercially/entrepreneurially-produced content for sale) so you if use or have access to a SmartBoard and don’t use Smart Exchange, what are you waiting for? Do we need a Jewish Smart Exchange or do we just need more Jewish educators sharing on Smart Exchange? I vote for the latter.
What new apps, online resources, software, etc. have you discovered? I’d love to hear from you and maybe share your discoveries in a future column. You can reach me at email@example.com I also blog and tweet as @migdalorguy, @yoeitzdrian and @havanashira. On Google+ I’m +AdrianDurlester. You can find me on Facebook, LinkedIn, or my website www.durlester.com
That’s all for this edition of Tech-i-ya. I look forward to bringing you more useful websites, tools, apps, and technology ideas.
Adrian A. Durlester
Adrian A. Durlester is the Music Teacher at Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Hartford, a technology geek, digital naturalized citizen, and the resident gadfly on JedLab.