With the new school year just around the corner, many students at Jewish schools have a special reason to be excited about returning to the classroom: They’ll soon get to reconnect with the overseas friends they’ve made through The Jewish Agency’s Global School Twinning Network – a project fostering long-distance collaborative learning between classes at over 700 schools on six continents.
“Do you hear us?” the teacher asks in Hebrew into the video camera in her elementary classroom in Florida.
“Yes!” comes the enthusiastic response from the classroom in northern Israel on the other end of the video call.
“Hi, guys!” the students from Florida answer, waving at their Israeli counterparts, who then launch into a song in English that they have learned for today’s lesson.
This was the beginning of one of the many collaborative lessons held between students at Jewish schools in Israel and around the world last school year. Now, as students in many countries prepare to start the new year, participants in The Jewish Agency’s Global School Twinning Network have a special reason to be excited for the start of classes: their chance to reconnect with their overseas friends.
This program, which won the Jerusalem Unity Prize last year, brings together Israeli students with their Jewish counterparts from around the world for collaborative learning activities. Students learn from each other through mutually beneficial educational experiences, both in person and remotely. And while Israeli students gain a new awareness of Jewish life in the Diaspora, Jewish children around the world learn from their Israeli peers what it’s like to live in the Jewish state.
The Jewish Agency started pairing schools more than 20 years ago as part of it’s Partnership2Gether Peoplehood Platform. In 2011, the Global School Twinning Network was established starting with 180 schools. In the past 6 years, the network has grown to include more than 700 schools on six continents. Participating schools include Israeli public schools (both religious and secular) and both Jewish day schools and afternoon Hebrew schools in other countries – including classes ranging from kindergarten all the way through high school.
Bridging the Gaps
At the heart of the Global School Twinning Network is the idea that when students learn from each other, their interaction can deepen a lesson’s impact. That’s why, when distances and time differences pose logistical hurdles, participating classes use innovative solutions to overcome them.
“The magic ingredient that makes a school twinning program work and helps us reach our goals is the mifgash, or interaction, between our twinned classes,” says Arkady Hasidovich, Head of School Twinning Development at The Jewish Agency. “When we say ‘mifgash,’ we mean it in a broader sense. It can be a face-to-face mifgash during a delegation, or a Skype video conference, but it can also be an exchange of products, or interacting via online tools.”
These online tools provide structure to the twinned classes’ collaborative learning activities, while also allowing classes in different time zones to cooperate on learning activities. And the most important of these web-based solutions, Arkady explains, is "an online Virtual Classroom for twinned schools – a technological environment, developed by the Network operated and supported by the Israeli Ministry of Education, that facilitates meaningful and secure synchronous and asynchronous communication between the twinned schools.”
“Our Virtual Classroom works like a library of ready-made asynchronous joint activities, to which the teachers can add their own activities for the benefit of the entire network. The twinned teachers decide together on the sequence of joint student activities, and students enter the system asynchronously,” he adds. “For instance, the Israeli students could upload their input on Sunday, and the students in a community abroad could do the same later in the week, while responding to their Israeli peers and reflecting on the results. Each in the comfort of their time zone and with enough time to use Google Translate or consult a teacher.”
Friendship, Jewish Studies, Science, and More
While the Global School Twinning Network was built on the idea of creating connections between students, Amihai Bannett, the program’s coordinator at The Jewish Agency, explains that the collaborative activities are about more than fostering friendships. He states that the network’s curriculum is designed to emphasize the twin ideas of Jewish peoplehood and Jewish culture.
“We want the student to feel and express their belongingness to the Jewish people, as a meaningful component of their identity,” he says. “We [also] want the student to understand and appreciate the uniqueness of Jewish life [in their own community], and to understand, respect, and appreciate the uniqueness of the Jewish life of their counterparts in the partnership.”
And how does The Jewish Agency envision the School Twinning Network shaping the perspectives of students living in the Diaspora regarding Israel?
The goal, he says, is for these kids to become “connected with and committed to Israel, as the land of the Jewish people and as the Jewish state.”
But, as Arkady explains, the program’s focus on Jewish identity and Jewish culture doesn’t mean that all its lessons focus on Jewish or Israeli studies.
“If your school does robotics, physics, space exploration, or any other scientific PBL [problem-based learning] program, we can make it a twin program with an Israeli school. Our network’s STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] Twinning program offers partner schools on both sides twinning relations based on scientific and technological topics,” he states. “The program enables students to experience teamwork in an international and multicultural framework that constitutes one of the fundamental skills in the STEM labor market. STEM Twinning generates a contemporary connection to Israel as the 'Start-Up Nation,’ while seamlessly integrating Jewish peoplehood and [a more general] connection to Israel.”
An Impactful Educational Experience
“Most educators understand that experiential education is the most effective and long-lasting educational method,” says Dr. Bruce Powell, Head of School at de Toledo High School in West Hills, California, one of the schools participating in the School Twinning Network. “Learning about Israel by sitting in a classroom studying maps, and Hebrew language, and Israeli culture, is a mere shadow of what can be accomplished by on-the-ground contact with the actual geography of those maps, or speaking to Israelis in Hebrew about basketball and about life, and by inhaling the rhythm and culture on the streets of the third Jewish commonwealth we call the State of Israel.”
But to gauge the network’s real impact, there’s no better indicator than the students who have participated in it.
Mitchell, a student at Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy in Beverly Hills, California, had the chance to travel to Israel as part of his school’s partnership with Zeitlin High School in Tel Aviv – an experience that he said had a powerful impact on him.
“I’ve only been to Israel once before this, and I was very young. Now I feel very connected to Israel, and going to the Kotel and being all around Israel has connected me even more,” he said during his visit.
Jaclyn, a fellow student from Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy, said she had also been impacted by their school’s trip to Israel as part of this partnership.
“On this trip, I learned new things about Israel that I hadn’t known before, and I connected all of the things that I had learned in my past 12 years at Jewish school and really put them into play here in Israel,” she stated.
But perhaps it was Liel, a young participant from northern Israel, who best captured the curiosity and sense of friendship that the network had created for her and her peers.
“We’ve been writing back and forth with them for two years already,” she said, referring to her class’ counterparts in Florida. “And every time, it’s as exciting as if it were new.”