Using technology for community

Using technology for community

The Florins donate smartboards to the early childhood center at B’nai Jeshurun

Andrea Kessler is lead teacher in B’nai Jeshurun’s full-day kindergarten, among other responsibilities.
Andrea Kessler is lead teacher in B’nai Jeshurun’s full-day kindergarten, among other responsibilities.

To watch Thelma Florin interact with the children at the Rabbi Barry H. Greene Early Childhood Center at Temple B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills is, simply put, priceless.

Ms. Florin asks thoughtful questions of the wide-eyed youngsters, who range in age from 3 to 6, and they return the favor with their own. What they didn’t realize is that Ms. Florin and her husband, Richard, longtime residents of West Orange and TBJ members, have given them some truly spectacular gifts.

First there was the Florin Field, a lush, grassy, fenced field where they can play soccer and other games. Then there was the fanciful Florin Splash Pad, which rivals any water park, complete with lifeguard. Now the Florins have brought the children of TBJ up to date in the world of technology. There are now 13 state-of-the-art smartboards distributed between six preschool classrooms, five pre-classrooms, and two kindergartens; the last one is used as needed.

The idea of smartboards first came to Ms. Florin, a retired former elementary school teacher, when she was visiting some of the schools in the area where she used to teach. “I felt the teachers were missing something,” she said. “The kids weren’t as engaged as they could be.” That got her thinking about technology. While she’s not a tech geek herself, she noticed that the topic of advancing technology was everywhere. From newspaper articles to politics, it all seemed to come back to technology. By introducing children to smartboards early in their education, Mrs. Florin felt that the children would be able to join the conversation about technology with their families.

“This is technology in elementary form,” Mrs. Florin said, as she observed Andrea Kessler’s class solve math problems using the smartboard. “Look how engaged and excited these kids are! This is our future.”

The smartboards, which have touchscreens, are connected to the teacher’s laptop. They also operate independently; they play videos and are loaded with writing, math, and science curricula. TBJ students interact with the smartboards as they collaborate with each other, answer questions, develop their ability to write, and play exciting educational games.

The Florins first approached Michele Feingold, TBJ’s director of early childhood education, and Ms. Kessler, the assistant director of both the early childhood center and Camp TBJ and the longtime lead teacher in TBJ’s full-day kindergarten, with the idea of adding technology to the center. The school’s leaders researched the options and decided to go with smartboards for one key factor — community.

“We chose smartboards because we wanted them to be interactive and collaborative,” Ms. Feingold said. “Individual screens were not considered as an option for this age group. Smartboards encourage community and collaboration amongst the kids rather than have their faces in screens.”

From left, Andrea Kessler, Michele Feinberg, Thelma Florin, and Rena Abrams stand near a smartboard.

Cori Frede, a professional educational consultant in technology and STEM, trained the school’s teachers.

“Smartboards can take the kids out of a scripted education and really encourage new ideas and ways to teach,” Ms. Kessler said. “It’s a big responsibility to have tech like this in the classroom, and we take it seriously. It has definitely enhanced everything we do. But we always take a multisensory approach to the lessons. That means that everything we do on the smartboard will also translate to hands-on activities.”

For example, the children count rubber duckies on their classroom carpet as they solve visual equations on the smartboard. The children excitedly do a drumroll in their laps as the teacher reveals answers to problems they have solved communally. Cheering, clapping, and high fives follow.

“The use of smartboards in our classrooms promotes increased engagement, active student participation, collaboration, and interactive learning,” Ms. Feingold said. “Smartboards turn passive learning into active participation where children are fully immersed in the learning process. They truly enhance learning experiences for our students and educators.”

The Florins understood the importance of technological literacy and using technology as a tool for students, even very young ones. “The smartboards are a great enhancement to STEAM and STEM programs,” Ms. Kessler said. “Kids can code in kindergarten now! Their brains are so adept at this young age. It’s really wonderful to watch and teach.”

Ms. Florin, Ms. Feingold, and Ms. Kessler also have taught special ed, which has given them an important insight into education. Rena Abrams, TBJ’s director of strategic advancement, is proud of the teachers. “Because of their special education background, teachers are really able to differentiate their curriculum,” she said. “It’s a strength-based approach while always working on emerging skills.” Smartboards are amazing tools to engage all children, she added.

This gift from the Florins has allowed the TBJ teachers to enhance their classes and prepare students for life in the modern world while also using them for imaginative play and creativity.

The smartboards also have found many niches at TBJ outside the early childhood classrooms. The religious school uses them for its Hebrew curriculum, called Hebrew in Harmony; there’s an integrated app on the smartboard for it. In the Judaics classes, the boards are used for research and short videos. TBJ also incorporates them into meetings and programs that need presentation slides, finding that they offer an easy method for sharing videos with small groups. The boards also have been used for closed captioning on the High Holy Days.

Thelma and Richard Florin have five grandchildren, who rangie in age from 24 to 28. According to Ms. Florin, they would love to be great-grandparents. “I don’t think that’s going to happen, but that’s okay, because I say I have 300 great-grandchildren,” she said, referring to all the students at TBJ.

Ms. Florin will turn 90 years old between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur this year. She and her husband have also created the Florin Fund for Child and Family Programming. While the couple has given so much to the children at TBJ, seeing the kids enjoy it all is a gift to them, Ms. Florin said.

“We are living in a day and age in which it is difficult for any of us to keep up,” TBJ’s Rabbi Matthew Gewirtz said. “We never want our children to lose what is most important to us and their families, which is, of course, relationship.

“There is no innovation that can make up for human connection. At the same time, we want our children to be able to take the values we inculcate and be able to utilize them as digital natives. Thelma and Richie Florin, our dear members, in their continuing and unbelievable generosity, have made both possible. They are ensuring that our students can navigate our world by being plugged in, in ways that will help them with digital flexibility, while never losing the understanding that our ultimate goal is to use technology for the betterment of humanity, our faith and our world.

“Thelma and Richie are role models of the highest order.”

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