HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

JEDLAB: Bringing Network-Learning to Your Classroom

by Ken Gordon and Yechiel Hoffman Issue: Rising Ed Trends

Created just this year, JEDLAB has “gone viral” as the forum for dynamic and creative new thinking in Jewish education. Its creators here envision applying JEDLAB principles in the classroom.

JEDLAB started at the 2013 North American Jewish Day School Conference, in Washington, DC. It was 5 am, and we were both awake, tweeting furiously. We decided to go offline. Sitting in the hotel lobby we asked: How could we bring networked learning to the field of Jewish education? How could we integrate the relationships and conversations thriving within social media—such as #jedchat and #jed21 on Twitter, and elsewhere on Facebook, Google Groups and Nings—into the offline spaces, like NAJDSC and our organizations and schools?

About a month later, we read The Sorcerers and Their Apprentices, Frank Moss’s great book about the MIT Media Lab. The volume suggested a way—100 ways—to rethink the paradigm of Jewish education. Soon the most inventive and adventurous Jewish educators in our personal learning network read Sorcerers and loved it. They talked about it on Twitter. They orchestrated an off-hours webinar. They formed a Facebook group. It came to be known as JEDLAB. This diverse and open network was designed to serve all settings and stakeholders of Jewish education. Its founders and facilitators aimed to foster connections, conversations and collaborations that would result in greater inquiry, experimentation and transformation for the Jewish education we need for the next quarter century, and not just the next five years.

JEDLAB is now one of the few places in Jewish educational life where people can voice their own authentic opinions, without fear and with real support. On JEDLAB, teachers, administrators, parents, academics, development professionals, board members, even students speak not as representatives of this or that school or institution but as individuals trying to articulate their own visions and to improve themselves and their communities. It is a welcoming place where people say “bruchim haba’im” to newcomers, and where dissent and machloket (intellectual dispute) is always (well, almost always) conducted with real respect. Our online conversational threads, which can reach almost 50 a week, can run to 20, 30, even 100 comments. Why? Because JEDLAB encourages self-expression and honest dialogue, an extremely rare situation in the contemporary Jewish ed scene.

JEDLAB is a network, a community, a Jewish-ed minyan, a society. It’s a debating society, an incubator, a 24/6 professional development party. It’s people throwing spaghetti against the wall. Joyful chaos. A family. JEDLAB is what its members think it is, and this can change at any moment. It’s also an online forum. But, unlike most online forums, JEDLAB—which, right now, most consistently manifests itself as a Facebook group—is unsatisfied with merely being a highly engaged online community.

Question is: Can this approach be transposed into Jewish classrooms? We believe that a teacher who treats her students with respect and attention has the ability to create such a community, ready to engage the world as a network of relationships. This model emboldens students to challenge the assumptions that dictate small ideas, and take the risks that reward big ideas.

The Elements of JEDLAB

To understand how to bring JEDLAB to your class, you need to have some sense of our values and vocabulary. JEDLAB seeks to elevate the various conversations in our communities of practice and professional learning networks. We want such conversations to result in real change in our educational ecosystems. Our aim: to instill in the Jewish education world the ideas exemplified by the MIT Media Lab, and illustrated in Sorcerers. We’re very much interested in using technology, specifically social media, as a means to harness our ideas and bring together, for collaborative purposes, the salient members of our networks. JEDLAB’s ethos, all relevant to any classroom, includes the following:

Creative freedom: The ability to think creatively and freely about issues and problems in the world and to come up with innovative solutions because we’re not bound by preconceived notions.

Anti-disciplinary work: Experts across disciplines gathering in same space, working outside their comfort zones and not being bound by defined roles. Anyone can have a vision and should have her opinion considered.

Hard fun: “Taking the hands-on approach to learning and building that comes naturally to curious children at play” (Seymour Papert). This is the “demo or die” ethic of the Media Lab.

Serendipity by design: We know “the chance to drink from the fire hose of imaginative ideas and inventions” (Frank Moss) leads to opportunities for serendipity. Freedom, openness and cross-disciplinary teams and collaborations create or design the happenstance to occur much more frequently.

A focus on demonstration and iteration: All ideas should face iterative prototyping—that is, a system in which one demonstrates a prototype, receives feedback, incorporates feedback, and then demonstrates the improved prototype. It’s less about manufacturing success, and more so they can fail fast and fail forward. Failure is just a weigh station on the way to success.

Emphasizing both the sharing and inquiry of earlier networks, JEDLAB heightens the opportunities for design thinking, collaboration and experimentation. We hope to broaden and deepen the impact of a flattened network on the field as a whole.

The JEDLAB Model in the Current Educational Setting

Students will respond positively to a JEDLAB-style learning environment. As digital natives, they are familiar with network learning in online platforms. By consciously adopting the JEDLAB model, you can provide them with a framework for a mature and nuanced approach to online engagement that will transform ordinary learning into a holistically awesome experience.

The JEDLAB ethos has already been manifested in a number of different real-world activities that capture the essence of network learning in classrooms. Some might be useful, or at least inspirational, models for your classroom situation.

1. Tikvah Wiener, the founder of the groundbreaking RealSchool initiative at the Frisch School, created with her students a Twitter English final. The kids chose to do a final on Twitter because they wanted something dynamic and interactive, something they could all contribute to. One student shared that she said she understood why they were engaging in their social media experiment: “We’re creating our final together,” she said, as a means of culminating a year of project-based learning and making-as-learning.

2. JETS, a distance Jewish learning company in Israel, twins Israeli classrooms and North American classrooms using wikis to support the network learning. “The kids are divided into groups, with an equal number of kids from each country in each group,” says JETS’ Laurie Sendler Rappeport. “Then they work on projects simultaneously and follow each other’s work as all participants post their results on their wikis. At the end of each assignment they can also review the progress of their peers’ groups.”

3. For a 12th grade course on Jewish thought at the Milken Community High School in Los Angeles, Yechiel used self-contained online platforms to create a community of 60 students from three separate class sections. Students used the space to share ideas with a broader network about their coursework and class conversations. This also opened up new streams of sharing and thinking based on their own self-directed learning. Students exhibited their work and shared outside learning opportunities, such as concerts, lectures and movie releases, and engaged in deep and meaningful dialogue about the critical issues facing their lives.

JEDLAB’s Dramatis Personae

One of the reasons JEDLAB has succeeded: the co-founders understand that a strong network needs people who can regularly fulfill specific functions. The network cannot and will not succeed if one person tries to oversee the entire network by herself. It takes a team, a talented and dedicated team, to make it work, by creating a space for the network’s members to self-regulate and foster ownership, through the example set by JEDLAB’s facilitators.

So assemble a team out of your students. Figure out which kids are good at what—some will be great at creating content, others at sparking dialogue—and encourage them to perform them regularly and with seriousness. Consider the following network roles (three of many potential roles), and the people in your class who might have the skills to assume them:

The guardian maintains a constant watch over the network and reflects upon the network’s needs.

The connector organizes various system elements (communications, training, support, resources, etc.) to support the network’s members.

The conversationalist works to promote healthy, open, and respectful interaction and inquiry among group participants.

Create a JEDLAB in Your School

You may want to use social media as a way for your class to communicate with you and each other. Don’t. Instead, seek first to build strong relationships with your students, to build a community of respect and learning, and then make sure that these values extend to your student’s social interactions. JEDLAB has been successful in doing this, and you might apply some of our lessons to your in-class community.

1. Get your students to tell their stories. In JEDLAB, we created a group-edited Facebook document in which members take the time to share their Jewish journeys. We then take these narratives, excerpt them, pair them with images found online, and created a Pinterest pinboard. Do the same for your class. When your kids can see and hear who they are (and don’t forget to add your own story), they can feel confident enough to learn together. You could have kids experiment with video, artistic, poetry or even musical autobiography. The point: get them to tell and share their stories.

2. Don’t just post articles. Post articles and then ask questions. If you’re going to throw content into your class’s social media stream, make sure you contextualize it and get your students to think about it. And don’t just let people get away with lazy answers in the comments section. Your whole class has an investment in keeping the conversation lively. Encourage everyone to take an active role in prodding the conversation, in the comments section, to the most thoughtful place possible.

3. Be a model—and get your students to do the same. In JEDLAB we model behavior very carefully. We try to avoid bragging, promoting ourselves, avoid making fun of other people. Before we post, we aim to ask ourselves, “How will this post or comment help the group?” This reflexiveness and intentionality seems a valuable skill to teach students, one they can employ in many places at various points in their lives.

4. Make matches. As intellectual leader of your class, you’re in a unique position to help bring together the heterogeneous learners in your charge. You know which kids have a secret passion for a certain band, or a kind of poetry, or a particular sports team or video game or whatever. You know who the libertarians are and the quiet animal activists. You know which ones believe that Gastby is a fool—and which ones think he’s a hero—or that Gershom Scholem is the greatest writer of the 20th century (or vastly overrated). Bring these folks together in conversation and classroom projects. Using social media, you can make it happen in a semi-public way.

Treat your class as a community that expects excellence from every member, that demands students take responsibility for the learning and bring their critical and passionate selves to the adventure of education, and you’re already creating a JEDLAB experience. The idea is that you learn together, on- and offline, and that you as a teacher are chiefly the senior learning partner, someone who can steer your self-directed students, when necessary.

This method needs an educator who understands the role of teacher as a facilitator and host of a network space. The educator is not the center of the learning experience but the catalyst for each student’s encounter with the other and their shared knowledge. Such a person creates a culture in which students feel as free to dream as they are to express doubt, and as willing to fail as they are to succeed.

Yechiel Hoffman, co-founder of JEDLAB, serves as the director of youth learning and engagement for Temple Beth Am, and researches network-learning as a doctoral candidate at Northeastern University. yechielhoffman1@gmail.com

Ken Gordon, co-founder of JEDLAB, also co-founded QuickMuse, and is the senior social media and content strategist for PEJE. ken@peje.org

Why should #JEDLAB matter to you (in 140 characters or less)?

JEDLAB is driven by inquiry, passion, and the spirit of community.

Leadership roles are available to anyone who wants to share.

JEDLAB happens on Facebook, in a hallway, on the phone, via Google+ Hangout, at a conference, over coffee, and/or a walk in the park.

The individuals in JEDLAB embrace a belief in representative democracy, open debate, and authentic self-expression.

With Herzl, it recognizes the importance of the dream AND the will. It’s the realization that we help must help each other will our dreams.


Network Weaver Handbook by June Holley


Learning by Doing by Richard DuFour, Rebecca DuFour, Robert Eaker and Thomas Many

The Networked Teacher by Kira J. Baker-Doyle

“How Communities of Practice Can Benefit Jewish Day Schools” by Judith Zorfass

Building Smart Communities through Network Weaving“ by Valdis Krebs and June Holley

“Using Network Mapping Simulations to Develop Network Strategies to Lessen Transmission of Infection” by June Holley








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