ARTICLEEscaping the “Zoom Box” with M2’s Value Sparks

When the COVID-19 pandemic first began to shut down schools in March last year, Jewish educator Heather Wolfson found herself scrambling to set up online learning for her students—12th graders in the supplementary Community Jewish High program based in San Diego. Typically, Wolfson’s classroom includes lots of discussion, interactive activities, and leadership development, but the pandemic derailed all of those plans, forcing her to quickly adapt and find alternative ways to engage her students in the virtual space.

“I was trying to find any way in which to build an engaging, dynamic experience for them over a screen,” Wolfson explained. That’s when she received an email from M²: The Institute for Experiential Jewish Education about a brand new resource called Value Sparks.

Founded four and a half years ago by Shuki Taylor to professionalize the field of experiential Jewish education, M² disseminates research, shares expertise through consulting, trains educators in the multi-disciplinary work that comprises experiential education, and develops curriculum and other educational resources for the field.

Similar to Wolfson, during the first week of the pandemic shutdown, M²’s Senior Program Director Mollie Andron found herself trying to figure out how to make an organization virtual that had never been virtual before. She was also thinking about what kinds of resources and experiences M2 could provide for its network of educators and their learners. Like so many others, she was also already experiencing “Zoom fatigue” and grappling with how to live out Jewish values in a dramatically changed world. Andron starting asking herself questions like, “how can we be hospitable when we can’t invite people into our homes?” And, “how can we be in community when we can’t physically be with other people?”

From Andron’s reflection on the tensions of trying to live out these values in the COVID era, Value Sparks was born.

“It's exhausting to only learn through one medium,” Andron said. “I wanted to see how we could create educational experiences that were multi-disciplinary, that combined art, music, and Jewish texts, and offered a variety of ways of interacting with a value.”

After coming across the versatile software Adobe Spark, Andron and her colleagues Kiva Rabinsky and Hayley Sklar created the first Value Spark—“The Great Indoors”—in which Andron guides listeners through a 15-minute interactive tour of their homes. As Andron says in the recording, you go on “an adventure of discovery to connect and reconnect with the story of your home…to discover the forgotten nooks, local hotspots, and quirky crannies of your living space.” The Great Indoors includes three distinct exercises and a number of prompts to act on, including making a mezuzah and reflecting on what comprises “chametz” since the Spark was released in the days leading up to Passover.

M² emailed out this first Value Spark as a gift to alumni, and in just one week, The Great Indoors was accessed over 3,000 times. The M² team knew it was onto something. Educators were struggling to keep their heads afloat as the pandemic and its impact deepened, and they didn’t necessarily have the time to create entirely new teaching materials as they switched to online learning.

So, Andron and colleagues proceeded to design and release an additional 13 Value Sparks—all available for free download on the M² website. Each Spark is grounded in Jewish text and also contains a story that introduces the main idea about the value under consideration. Each link throughout the Spark takes the learner deeper into the complexity around the value. There are guiding questions and at least three ways to engage with the value. The Spark delves into the tension inherent in the value in the present moment and what’s getting in the way of that value being put into practice.

Of course, many of the Sparks were inspired by life during the pandemic (Humor—Is it okay to laugh given the circumstances?; Community—We’re participating in the 7:00pm clap every night, but what are the boundaries of community?), but as 2020 progressed, the Sparks responded to other current events, such as the Black Lives Matter protests, which is linked to both the Integrity and Courage Sparks. Additional Sparks were connected to Jewish holidays. What all the Value Sparks have in common, though, is that they are simultaneously timely and timeless, Rabinsky explained.

For Wolfson, who also previously served as M2’s Chief Operating Officer, the Value Sparks have given her a foundation that has enabled her to continue to provide a robust learning experience for her Community Jewish High students over Zoom.

Before the November election, Wolfson used the Independence Spark as a tool to help her students open up conversation about what we are dependent on, what we can be independent of, the right to vote, where responsibility comes into play, and what is Jewish about independence. After her 11th and 12th graders studied the Talmudic text in the Spark that centers around obligation, Wolfson invited them to do a fill-in-the-blank activity about their obligations to friends, family, and teachers.

“The power that came from it was unreal,” Wolfson shared. “With virtual learning, the students have experienced a shift in what they’re now responsible for in their education. Teachers can only do so much,” she added. “And students have had to bring more agency to their learning.”

Most recently, Wolfson needed a resource to provide a foundation for her students to have a conversation with guest speaker Abby Stein, the first openly transgender woman who was raised in a Hasidic community. After reading Stein’s memoir, Wolfson turned to the Value Spark on Preservation. The Spark begins with a Rabbinic teaching suggesting that the Jews were redeemed from slavery because of three things—giving their children Hebrew names, wearing traditional clothes, and speaking their native language. The text set the stage for the class to explore the tension within the value of preservation, and consider questions like, what do we preserve? What do we leave behind? What do we adjust and keep?

“We talked about what this means, then we looked introspectively at ourselves—our name, our appearance, our speech,” Wolfson said. “Some students didn’t know where they got their name from, so I gave them three options: write the history of your name, ask someone about the history of your name, or research your name online. Some were able to engage their parents in a quick conversation.”

When Wolfson’s students recently met Stein, they had a deeper context for the conversation and what they learned.

In addition to engaging students with thought provoking material and prompts, Wolfson also noted the aesthetic quality of the sparks and how visually they “speak to the senses.” With the pandemic limiting everyone to existing in rigid virtual boxes, and primarily only using the senses of sight and hearing all day on Zoom, M2 intentionally prioritized visual elements in the design.

“Aesthetics are a really important part of teaching and learning,” Sklar said. “The different methodologies that one explores through Value Sparks—art, music, text, poetry, video—engages not just one’s mind, but also one’s heart.”

By Yonah Kirschner, for The Covenant Foundation

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