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Integrating culture and history with robots

Integrating culture and history with robots
(Image credit: Helen Schwartz)

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My school, the New England Jewish Academy, is a dual-curriculum school. I teach general studies to students in 1st and 2nd grade for half of the school day, and my students spend the other half of their days with a Hebrew teacher and a Judaics teacher. That means I get about half the time to teach the same content that teachers who work with students all day get.

One of the ways I make the most of my instructional time is by integrating different content areas into the same lessons, sometimes in surprising ways. This year, for example, I have been working with my students’ Judaics teacher, Shifra Silver, to combine STEM learning with lessons about Jewish holidays.

A robot ritual

This year our principal, Rabbi Zev Silver, introduced me to a screen-free educational robot called KIBO. As we looked through resources and lessons for using it, we came across the Limudei Code-Esh (LCE) project from a partnership with Tufts University and the David Lear Sulman Fund. LCE is a STEAM program that integrates coding and computational thinking through six Jewish holidays: Sukkot, Chanukkah, Tu B’shevat, Purim, Pesach, and Yom Ha’atzmaut. It was created as a collaboration between Tufts Professor Marina Bers, the co-creator of KIBO, and Jewish educators from orthodox, conservative, and reform day schools and supplemental schools,

We began with the unit for Sukkot, which includes a ritual where participants gather a palm frond, a myrtle leaf, and a willow branch. They bind them together to form a bundle called a lulav, and then shake them together with a citron in each of the cardinal directions, as well as up toward the sky and down toward the ground, all the while walking around a table reciting a prayer. The ritual is a reminder of the time that the Jewish people spent wandering in the desert, and a celebration of how they found what they needed to survive and thanked God for it.

Since we were more interested in ensuring the students understood the ritual than gathering materials, my students’ Judaics teacher Shifra Silver put together lulavs for the students with green toothpicks, little frilly pieces that looked a bit like leaves, and yellow push pins for the citron that would hold the whole thing together. We started by having students program their robots to perform the shaking part of the ritual, but expanded the focus on having them teach their robots to “walk” around a small table called a bimah that we set up on the floor. 

We provided craft materials to the students, as well as art platforms for them to attach to the KIBO kit to carry the lulav on. We didn’t tell them how to use all the materials, as it’s not a lesson in following directions, but in engaging with the design process. We wanted them to figure out how to make it all work together on their own.

Multiple design paths

And they did figure it out, in varied and unique ways. The students also loved the creativity and creation of the activity, which is always a bonus when students are learning.

Sometimes, they found that their first attempts at programming KIBO to perform the ritual didn’t work. Some of them would tell me, “It’s broken.” Shifra and I would then explain, “No, let’s go back and see if we can tell what went wrong and try again. This is science and engineering. This is the design process.”

Sometimes it took a little nudging, and social distancing because of COVID made it a bit challenging, but we encouraged them to go back and talk with their classmates about how their designs were failing and to try to think of tweaks they could make to get them to work properly. There were challenges such as the fact that KIBO doesn’t make an exact right turn each time. As a student named Yoni said, “It was hard when KIBO went in a diagonal. I want to find out how I programmed it like that. I liked watching it shake the lulav around the Bimah.” There were also helpful discoveries along the way, such as using repeat loops to perform repeated actions rather than reusing the wooden programming blocks. 

The next robotics activity I worked on with the students was more time and instruction using repeat loops to make sure they understood them and what they could do with them. When they tried it, some worked and some didn’t. One student just decided he didn’t want to repeat what I asked him to and instead wanted to see how far forward he could move KIBO out into the room. But that’s learning, too. It’s hands-on, and just as there’s more than one way to design a platform for shaking a lulav, there’s more than one way to learn with a robot.

 

Helen Schwartz teaches 1st and 2nd grade at the New England Jewish Academy, where she recently used KIBO to help her students celebrate Hannukah. She can be reached at hschwartz@neja.org.

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