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Long Distance Lessons

Faigy Schonfeld

With virtual classrooms, multiple time zones, and classes of students who only meet in person once a year, it’s a school like no other. The Shluchim Online School harnesses technology so that children of Chabad shluchim can stay home — even if home is a remote backwater lacking basic Jewish infrastructure — and still obtain a rich Torah education

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

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AROUND THE VIRTUAL TABLE They rarely see their fellow classmates, but students of the Shluchim Online School manage to develop strong friendships. At a virtual bar mitzvah meal, technology allows friends to take their seats around the table, and every Motzaei Shabbos, father-and-son pairs can join up in cyberspace for Avos U’Banim learning sessions (Photos: Shmuel Amit)

It’s nine a.m. and Morah Sara Guez walks into the classroom. Sixteen students are waiting attentively for her to begin. But her room is empty. That’s because one student is in Venice. Another is in Sweden. Another sits in her dininin Lithuania. But the distance doesn’t deter Morah Sara. She smiles at the girls, wishes them a good morning, and instructs them to take out their siddurim. With their laptops on, their mikes positioned just right, the girls wait for her signal, and the davening begins. 

The hundreds of students at Nigri International Chabad Shluchim Online School may never know what it’s like to sit with your classmates in a single room. But their education is on par with that of any typical frum child – and despite their unique schooling system, they’ve managed to form firm friendships with their fellow classmates around the globe. “It’s a regular school. Really,” says Devora Leah Notik, associate director of Shluchim Online School “Just about everything that goes on in a typical school takes place here as well.” 

AN AVERAGE DAY at the Shluchim Online School begins at 8:45, with teachers and students logging into the the online classroom, hosted by Blackboard Collaborate, and tuning in with webcams and headsets. 

The school counts four separate divisions — American East Coast, American West Coast, European, and Hebrew-speaking — and they operate side-by-side as independent schools. Rabbi Yaacov Ringo and Rabbi Mendy Sofer serve as principals for the boys’ divisions and Mrs. Malkie Gurkow and Mrs. Chavie Kastel in the girls’ departments. With full, separate classes — and in some cases, double classes — for boys and girls ranging from kindergarten through eighth grade, the long-distance teachers need to be very focused to connect with each student. That’s why classes are capped at 16 kids each, and why a second teacher joins the room for kriah, or other skill-based subjects. 

“Like in all frum schools across the world, our students learn Chumash, halachah, yahadus, and certainly, Gemara and Mishnayos for the boys,” Devora Leah says. “Our uniquely integrated curriculum of limudei kodesh and chassidus combined with hands-on experiences guides each student toward fulfilling his or her individual potential.” Girls and younger boys daven together with their classes, while the older boys are encouraged to join the davening at their local shul or minyan, if one exists where they live. 

An interactive white board in each class enables teachers to write and display worksheets as they teach, while students are equipped with technological tools that allow them to interact with the information. “It’s a phenomenal educational experience, actually,” says Devora Leah, “where kids can manipulate and work with the material. This kind of dynamic forces teachers to be extremely visual and interactive, which is also great for children who need extra support.” 

The teacher will often ask a question and have the student post an answer on the board. Sometimes the board will be used to display mitzvah notes, which mothers can send to the morah or post themselves. There’s also the Dashboard, a virtual interface that allows teachers to upload sheets for printing before class starts. 

“The virtual classroom has many cool features. It’s essentially a classroom,” Devora Leah points out. “Students can raise their hands, talk, chat the teacher, chat a friend, upload something for the teacher to see.” These student options — the mike, chatting, etc. — are controlled by the teacher, who can turn them off when necessary. 

The Blackboard system also includes “Breakout Rooms,” for when students need to be separated into smaller groups. It’s like individual classrooms within a classroom. The students will only see the others in their group, but the teacher can move from room to room, supervising. Breakout Rooms are also used for test taking, with children taking both systemized tests and standard, printed versions. 

The system also allows teachers to perform a quick assessment. They can ask students to fill in a check if, say, their siddur is out, or, if they think we’re allowed to eat corn on Pesach. 

Classes end at 2:20 for the younger girls and 3:30 for the others (the eighth graders have additional classes and finish at 4:45 pm.), but classmates can communicate with each other and socialize during recess breaks. Many eat lunch with their siblings, after which brothers and sisters will return to class — which is often a single room, with desks lined up, laptops on the table, and noise-canceling headphones for each child. 

“And you know what happens after lunch,” Devora Leah explains. “Our principals access our virtual hallways, where they can peek into every classroom and make sure that our students have logged back into the room and the learning continues.” 

Sometimes, a kid or teacher will come to class late because their computer decided to update just then. In such cases, students must call the office (the Shluchim Office in Crown Heights or regional offices in Eretz Yisrael) to obtain a late note, and the office will contact the teacher.

THE NIGRI INTERNATIONAL SHLUCHIM ONLINE SCHOOL is the 10-year-old brainchild of the Shluchim Office, an organization established in 1987 by Rabbi Gedalya and Bassie Shemtov at the request of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, to meet the needs of the approximately 4,500 shluchim around the globe ; helping them in their personal lives and providing them with the tools they need to succeed in their outreach missions. With many shluchim families in remote locations with no Jewish infrastructure, Shluchim Online School was founded in 2006 to fill the void by providing a comprehensive, high-level chinuch for their children, regardless of where they live. (Excerpted from Mishpacha’s Behind the Scenes, Pesach Mega-Issue 5777)

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