By Dara Steinberg, Executive Director
The world of virtual education is still very new for the Jewish community, but it has proven its potential elsewhere in the broader education world to create impactful, creative learning environments. Virtual tools can enable an excellent educator to get into more classrooms with great efficiency – which has some tremendous implications for the many Jewish communities in the US and around the world. By expanding access to great teachers, to unique teachers, organizations can add needed variety to their classes’ curricula, it opens non-traditional methods of Torah learning to audiences that might not otherwise have access, and allows a talented small organization to scale its impact.
In the case of Bible Raps, their growing expertise in virtual education has made them a leader in thinking about “product delivery” in Jewish education, all the while honing their singular offerings, which give students an opportunity to learn a skill while learning Torah, making students more likely to enjoy and retain knowledge.
For nearly ten years, Bible Raps evaluations have shown that their students retain the knowledge they’ve learned through the mnemonic of hip-hop, return to watch their own and others’ videos, and in some cases extend and apply that learning to their lives. For example, a group of students who learned about Gimilut Hasidim took their learning and wrote a rap of appreciation for their previous Hebrew school teachers. You can see that video here. A further extension of this is when their current teacher responded back to them in rap on their Genius page, linked here. However, a consistent challenge for Bible Raps has been its dependence on a single educator and a small group of colleagues to deliver the programs. Despite being able to make a quite strong case for using hip hop as a medium to help bring Jewish teaching to students in ways that feel relevant and authentic to them, the realities of working with a small team has meant episodic rather than ongoing engagement with students, and a significant geographic constraint.
Matt Bar, founder and primary educator of Bible Raps, decided to experiment with an online platform called Genius, where students could annotate and upload their own raps. The hope was that teachers would be able to use the platform to extend the benefit of the Bible Raps workshops and that it would also give Matt and other specialists ongoing opportunities to interact with the students.
It was a reasonable hypothesis and piloting it this past year helped Bible Raps determine how to get into more classrooms and provide programmatic excellence for schools with diverse geographies. But the current model evolved through this pilot.
Experiments over the last year turned up some of the challenges and opportunities working virtually. Some classes had computers but no wifi. Others had wifi but no computers. Most teachers were not digital natives and many were uncomfortable with the technology. However, the madrichim, workshop leaders, were often comfortable in the digital space and it was an opportunity to expand their role.
Ultimately Bible Raps developed a model where Matt might visit the class once or twice and then work virtually with students on an ongoing basis, but would primarily work exclusively in a virtual setting. The students he worked with were usually a subgroup of kids, many of whom fit the model of being disinterested in the main class, and opted in to the workshop (or their teachers opted in for them). This allows educators to focus on the subset of the class who were engaged; and means the unengaged are now being reached educationally through Bible Raps.
This model was tested in 5 schools. Based on initial successes, in 2016-2017 school year, Bible Raps plans to expand to 10-12 schools and to also train a first cadre of educators so that there are more instructors available to run workshops. While Bible Raps continues to apply developmental evaluation to their core product, it is gratifying to see the organization be able to turn its attention to the challenge of improving delivery, of scaling its reach without diluting its work.
The virtual model keeps the integrity of the Bible Raps pedagogy. It opens up non-traditional methods of Torah learning by providing entry points for students who find this particular hip-hop approach magnetically attractive. And like the traditional rap workshop, the virtual model also provides the opportunity to learn a skill while also learning Torah – integrating music production, video creation, rap – they are more likely to enjoy and retain the knowledge they acquire, which empowers them not only to interpret text, but to elaborate on how that text relates to their own lives, how it makes them feel, how they apply these teachings to their own lives.
From a Foundation point of view, we are gratified to see the return on our investment – as a foundation with generous, but limited resources, we are constantly asking ourselves how best to deploy these in the service of our vision and mission. Here, our involvement provided support for Bible Raps to refine and test a unique pedagogy, and helped them develop a proof of concept model for expanding virtual education in Jewish space, significantly scaling the reach and impact of exceptional educators previously bound by geography and other issues of access – something which we hope will be a valuable learning for the field at large.