There are some people who remember when being in school meant rote memorization from dusty textbooks and maybe one half-working computer for everyone to share. Those days are long gone. Now schools are bringing technology and innovative educational programming to students — as is clear from two recent ventures at Pardes Jewish Day School.

The first, an essay contest based on photographs, brought out the writer in Pardes eighth-grader Gabby Grossman.  She’d never been to Israel, but after she attended the Arizona Jewish Historical Society’s photography exhibit called “Israel at 70: The Diverse Faces of Israel,” she felt as if she better understood the country. This understanding allowed her to be one of six Pardes students to win the “What Israel means to me” essay contest.

Grossman was one of more than 100 Pardes sixth- to eighth-graders who attended photographer (and Jewish News contributor) Joel Zolondek’s exhibit at the AZJHS’ Cutler-Plotkin Jewish Heritage Center on Sept. 14. Zolondek worked with Pardes’ assistant head of school and director of Jewish life, Mitch Flatow, to create an essay contest for students. 

“Joel’s goal in putting the exhibit together is to show people how diverse life is in Israel,” Flatow said. “I wanted our kids to know that Israel is not just something they learn about and then don’t associate with.” 

Zolondek, a former Pardes board member, wanted to bridge the gap for those students who haven’t been to Israel. While many of the students wrote an essay, poetry also was accepted. 

“Originally, I thought I was going to select one winner from each grade group,” Zolondek said. “But there were so many really good pieces that touched me that I decided to do two winners for each grade.”

Grossman focused her essay on a picture of a black bird and a white dove sitting together on the Kotel. 

“When I saw that picture, it was like the two birds were different diverse groups coming together on the Western Wall,” Grossman said. “I felt as if Israel is everyone’s home and anyone can

live there.”

All the students who attended the exhibit voted on the different photos. Those with the most votes were donated to the school and will be displayed there.

“They will see Israel every time they’re in their sanctuary,” Zolondek said. 

Another innovative venture for Pardes students came courtesy of the zSpace tour bus, which came to the school on Oct. 31. The California-based tech firm focuses on utilizing virtual and augmented reality as an educational tool. It has a mobile classroom that allows students to utilize tabletop devices and other technologies for a variety of quick lesson plans. 

Head of Pardes Jewish Day School Peter Gordon was excited to bring the bus to school, as it is consistent with Pardes’ focus on being “interactive, intuitive, collaborative and transformational.” 

Each grade was able to spend 20 minutes in the bus and were provided with glasses and several different software applications that allowed them to explore and manipulate objects in a virtual-reality setting. 

“Augmented reality is where you can get inside and interact with the 3-D picture,” Gordon said. “If you look at the human heart, and you have the augmented reality software, you are literally able to look inside the human body or bring a dinosaur to life.” 

Gordon, a former math teacher, described a scene that sounded like it out was out of science fiction film: Wearing VR glasses and wielding a stylus, he was able to look at the inside of a virtual beating heart. The heart looked as though it was suspended in the air in front of him as he went through each chamber and manipulated the heart to beat faster. 

Now, Gordon is looking to bring zSpace’s technology into Pardes’ classrooms as a more integrated component of lesson plans. While the obvious applications are for math and science, there also are lessons for  history and humanities courses. 

“This is something that is a no-brainer for us,” Gordon said. “This is a game changer for our school because it provides our students something that no other school is providing.” JN

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