Wednesday, October 27, 2010

A CoP Comes To Life

I was sitting in my living room at 9:30 pm Sunday night, staring at my computer screen, hoping and praying. And one by one, they appeared--Rose from Chicago, Elyssa from Denver, Beth from New Jersey, Adam and Casey from Toronto, Ralph from Chicago and me—in Manhattan. And Avi joined us for twenty minutes from his home in Washington, DC to update us on the status of the Tikvah Ramah Bike Ride in Israel.

For weeks, I had been preparing for this day. Our Ramah Special Needs Program Directors Community of Practice (“CoP”), designed to connect directors from eight Ramah programs in four time zones in the US and Canada, has been meeting regularly since April, 2010. In our Google Group and in our conference calls, we have been offering each other support and sharing information relevant to directors of overnight camping programs, vocational training programs, and family camp programs—from staff training to buddy programs; social skills groups, Yahadut curriculums, use of technology with a special needs population, fund raising, and Israel trips—even such sensitive issues as sexuality and marriage.

But Sunday was different. After sending out Meeting Wizard to find a date to bring all of us together, then trying out Megameeting with three smaller groups, speaking with Megameeting tech support (“how do we reduce feedback and squelching?” “can a member who will be on the road call in by phone?”), sending out step by step instructions and reassuring notes to our somewhat technophobic group, and…praying--the moment arrived!

One by one, the nervous faces turned to smiling faces. Within minutes, we were hearing about a May, 2011 bike ride in Israel to raise scholarship money to support our programs. We were learning about the successful Buddy Program in Ramah Wisconsin. We were sharing ideas about the successful “Shabbos Is Calling” Program in New England—and discussing ways to use video conferencing to connect campers in the winter months—in Canada, California, Wisconsin, and New England. The group was excited when they learned that we can apply for a foundation grant for this exciting project—aimed at connecting a population which often feels isolated. We discussed staff hiring, and the role of the division head within our programs. And, best of all, our ninety minute meeting ended with plans for our next video conference, and with a discussion of when and where we might meet over the summer for an in person meeting. The group was excited to meet at one of the camps—to see an actual program in action!

I am proud of my colleagues who are the best proof that online technology works! A group of busy camp directors who live in four time zones, have other employment in the winter, and are a bit nervous with new technology, are excited to meet and share on a regular basis.

Perhaps we should invite Tzvi Daum to join us in a future MegaMeeting. Daum, in a recent blogpost writes:

I don't want to sound pessimistic or be the naysayer who says it can't be done, but until I see a successful open source Jewish educational project I remain unconvinced about the viability of using open source to solve Jewish educational needs. I know for example, the Jim Joseph Foundation made a grant to 14 fellows to build online communities of practice, I am curious where that will lead to after two years of training.

We can tell Daum how helpful our CoP has been, and we can let him know what we have accomplished after just one year of Jim Joseph Foundation Fellowship training. I hope he will share my excitement when I tell him my plans for our CoP going forward—connecting counselors and staff from Ramah camps. And a CoP for all staff members of Jewish special needs camps—Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Community—you name it. And if he has time, I can share updates about the status of my 13 amazing Jim Joseph colleagues—all hard at work on their CoPs—and changing the landscape in the area of education and online technology. Visit us, Tzvi!


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Hi!

    First of all Howard, I thank you for finding my comments worthy of discussion. It is amazing how only thanks to technology can we actually find each other and engage in this dialogue! I never for a moment doubted the ability of technology to connect people; I primarily questioned our ability to use it to create open source content for Jewish education and the like.

    Second, I would like to commend you and your colleagues for using technology to further the wonderful cause and organization you are associated with, i.e. the Ramah Special Needs Program. Great stuff!! I am happy to learn your CoP is going well and group members are learning from each other and building a sense of community.

    What I do want to clarify is that I think you and I are talking about somewhat different things. Perhaps it was somewhat unfair of me to lump CoP/JJF with open source.

    My main point was that getting collaboration between individual Jewish educators to the point that an "end product" of some sort can be produced will be challenging at best. I gave numerous examples of software that was produced under the open source model and I referred to content such Wikipedia. Developing content of such a nature under an open source model requires a larger concentrated group effort.

    The technology your group is using is great for the purposes you have set out to accomplish, however as far as I can tell, your group is relatively small (and I did acknowledge that small projects are doable), you had an inherent connection from the start (camp directors) and as such did not need to “find each other”. To the best of my knowledge you are also not "producing" any sort of end product or content. You are all learning from each other’s experiences by engaging in dialogue and building personal friendships and connections which is great, but there is a difference between organizing an online meeting for eight people once every few weeks and trying to get a considerably larger group of people to work together to produce some sort of usable content under an open source model, particularly one where people are expected to contribute to the project on a regular basis.

    As a matter of fact, I would suggest that the mode of technology your groups used, i.e. webmeetings was challenging enough trying to get eight people together to agree to a certain time for a synchronous online discussion, now imagine trying that with a much larger audience! Having engaged in such activities myself, I know that inevitably people have conflicting schedules and can't make the meeting or must leave early/arrive late etc. You can even ask if an asynchronous message board discussion would have been better allowing everyone to be heard. Again, I'm not knocking it, just pointing out there are limitations to webmeetings and it is most likely not the right tool for a larger group.

    Thus, what I take away from your post is that online connections are possible under certain circumstances and those connections can be used to build a personal learning network which helps to increase one’s knowledge and make personal connections, however I do think there is a big difference between that and doing some big time collaboration, particularly where an end product is desired.

    Thank you again for sharing your thoughts and experiences and for discussing this subject. I look forward to hearing about much continued success in your CoP project. Also, if you care to disagree with me about something, I would be more than happy to hear about it. That is how we all learn from each other!


    Tzvi Daum

  3. Internet tools are just that - they are tools. They make it easier to accomplish things that are harder to do without them. As I see it, that is what Mr. Blas is doing - getting camp directors who might usually meet one a year at a conference to share information and plan together.

    What I don't understand is what Mr. Daum is trying to do. Unlike programmers, who always work on projects in a collaborative manner, Jewish educators (from my experience) never work together on creating curricula - even in the same school. To expect internet tools to encourage them to do so online appears to me rather unlikely.

  4. I,too, am a Jim Joseph Fellow and have been working to start Communities of Practice for the Jewish educational organizations where I work. Our goal is not to “create” new materials using this model but to improve our practice which will, in turn, impact on the Jewish identity of our children and the families that we work with every day.
    Yesterday, in the BabagaNewz CoP for Family Educators, a group of family educators who did not know each other sat together and heard a storyteller, Cherie Karo Schwartz from Denver, tell us a story and talk about the power of storytelling when working with young families. The discussion that followed was rich and full of ideas for future programs and planning.
    Next month, under the auspices of the TaL AM Hebrew and Heritage Curriculum, teachers at each TaL AM grade level ( Grades 1-5) will gather to discuss their practice in this first part of the year. The conversation which will start at those first meetings will continue online and allow for relationships to develop which can provide peer support to teachers who are isolated in their communities without anyone to shadow or learn from in the classroom next door. In addition, master teachers who have developed incredible materials to best use the curriculum will be able to reflect on their own practice as they prepare to present and share from their work with others.
    The reflection and thought which is involved in each of these organizations as we are in the process of building the communities is in itself a valuable experience for all involved. I am very proud to be a part of this project and to champion its importance and promise for the field of Jewish education.

  5. "Unlike programmers, who always work on projects in a collaborative manner, Jewish educators (from my experience) never work together on creating curricula - even in the same school."


    True, bad sad. Two minds are usually better than one. Why shouldn't teachers collaborate? The whole idea is that the internet does offer the opportunity to collaborate. As students grow older, they will most likely need to learn the skills of collaboration to succeed in the workplace. If we are interested in preparing our students for the future, we should be teaching collaborating skills and teachers should be the first ones to practice it.

    To Lisa,

    That is great and wonderful. I am truly excited to hear about it. Again, I still think there is a difference between having engaging discussions and actually creating something. Both are important and for what you are doing that is great. I am referring to the next level of collaboration. One that requires more than just discussion, one that requires teamwork to work and create an end "open source" product.