Thursday, February 16, 2017

WhatsApp as a Platform for Instruction

Every country has states of emergency when schools get closed.  There are snowdays, and floods and all sorts of mishaps - short term and long - that bring learning to a screeching halt. In Israel, especially where I live - we also have security situations that keep kids out of school.

Just for such purposes, the Israeli MoE has run a special pilot for the past two years, training teachers and students how to be able to stay on the same page of their coursework, if they wish to, in times of emergency. Last year it was via online instruction. This year it was through learning how to teach using WhatsApp: the app that 99% of Israelis use to stay in touch.

The first stage for me, as a teacher, was experiencing a lesson run solely through a WhatsApp group. As usual, I was sufficiently inspired by the experience with Aviv Tzemach, to invest a ton of time in learning different techniques,and try it for myself.

Stage two was working with another talented and inspiring mentor from the Center for Educational Technology, Gilad. I "cooked" my idea for hours, and had two online simulations together with him and another "WhatsApp-teacher-in-training".  Through him I learned different techniques of a WhatsApp lesson: making eye-catching signs, using bold letters, replying to a specific message, preparing prerecorded messages, as well as sharing a location in WhatsApp became an integral part of today's arsenal of tools.

Stage three was to open a WhatsApp group. I have a "broadcast group" with my students, in which I send them messages but their responses come only to me. But for the purposes of this drill, I needed a regular WhatsApp group. 
The final stage -"showtime"- happened this evening at 6 p.m.

I was skeptical - even pessimistic - regarding turnout. I have a small class (19 kids) and Thursday evening is NOT a good time for something like this. I even tried to up the stakes and entice participation by getting permission from my vice principal to excuse them from one of my two lessons with them today, as compensation, but was denied that. Surprisingly, the bribery worked and 14 out of my 19 students participated, earning for themselves 5 extra points for their final report cards (aside from 2 who lost a point each for misbehaving). Students behave badly in class, as well, but on WhatsApp there was no need to raise a voice or pause to wait for quiet. The great majority of the entire lesson was in utter silence. The disciplining was either done in a comment in the group, or, for a more severe issue, I sent a reprimanding message to the student privately.

The students seemed to enjoy it (judging from the sample of emoji's I got from them when I asked for their emoji-feedback:

The topic I chose was Israel Advocacy. As an Israeli who lives on the border with the Gaza Strip, and has become very involved, herself, in advocating for Israel (even though I do not always agree with our policies) I feel very strongly about the need to give our youth the basic tools needed for periods of heightened tension and danger, to tell the world about what it is like to live here. It is an authentic use of English as a tool for an authentic need for communication. Teaching is best done when we are teaching something about which we are passionate. Hopefully, we will never need to use language, or the WhatsApp as a tool of communication for situations such as these, but hopefully, if we DO, my pupils will be a little more ready for it after tonight's lesson. 

Digitally yours,


You can view the entire lesson here. Warning: it is uncensored.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

And the winners are...... EVERYONE!!!!!

As teachers, we are always looking for a way to make our lessons interesting enough to motivate our students to engage in what we want them to learn. Gamification has been around for over 100 years, but it was only at the beginning of the 21st century that it started becoming a legitimate player in the educational scene. (Unless you want to count Mary Poppins,  

“Gamified” is what Google did to their tool “Google Translate”, by developing a Google Translate Community, in order to improve its translation reliability from Google Gobbledygook into outcomes that are closer to accurate language. It started in other places in the world in 2014, but NO place in the world has done ANYTHING like what we have done with this tool, as a way to engage language students and improve the tool’s translation abilities for authentic users of Hebrew/Arabic-English!

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Al Ahalan JHS
Google Translate needs help because the translations between English and Hebrew, and English and Arabic just aren't good enough. The reason for that is the lack of a critical mass of online webpages which Google needs, to enable its mechanism of “machine learning”  in order to develop accurate translations. In comparison to more common languages, such as English, or Spanish, there is a much smaller quantity of webpages and digital online content in both Hebrew and Arabic. Although Arabic is spoken far more widely than Hebrew, much of the Arabic speaking population is not online. Another barrier to quality translation for Arabic, which I just discovered after meeting our group of winners, is that the Arabic used on the web is mostly literary Arabic, and the great need  for translation, is for spoken Arabic.

Last spring, I sent out a call to ALL teachers of languages in Israel - but mostly to teachers of English, Hebrew, Arabic and Russian, to join us in our efforts to make a difference in the abilities of Google Translate, by having their classes participate in a competition. The first place prize: a fun visit to Google Israel!

51 classes from around the country registered in that pilot competition. The overwhelming majority were English classes where the students' mother tongue was either Hebrew or Arabic. The timing was VERY problematic. It was May - the season for many missed lessons (Holocaust Remembrance Day, Independence Day, English Matriculation....) and only 8 of those classes made it to the finish line.  I ran a website dedicated to the competition, which was the hub of it all. It included the submission forms for registering, for keeping track of the class' achievements, anecdotes and teaching ideas that participating teachers shared, as well as a weekly Leader Board to keep participants informed and to spice up the motivation!  The students from the pilot contributed a whopping 1 million translations/ verifications!

In light of the overwhelming number of contributions that were gleaned from that pilot, Google built a dashboard to make running the competition easier and more accurate, and this year, when I sent out the invitation to our 3 month-long competition, 235 classes registered!  I built a new site which included a wealth of lesson plans that teachers could use, developed by people at Google, in addition to some of my own ideas. The site also housed the leaderboard which was updated weekly. We also added tips, incentives and prizes along the way, to keep the momentum going!

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Salvatorian Sisters' School, Nazareth

Yohana Jabotinsky
In the end, 152 classes participated actively, resulting in 3 million contributions for Hebrew-English and Arabic English! That means that altogether, the students of Israel have made 4 MILLION contributions that have improved Google Translate’s capabilities!!!! (That is more than had been collected altogether, over the course of two years by the community, before we and our students arrived on the scene!)  Our dedicated participating teachers and their classes have authentically caused a change in the way others in our world can translate our languages!

In light of these awe-inspiring achievements, Google is preparing surprises that will be rolled out in the coming months. They are not at liberty to go into any detail, for now, but they CAN tell us that it is thanks to the quantity and quality of the contributions from our competitions! (When we told them that the contributions were made by high school and even junior high school students they were flabbergasted!)

Nitzanim School

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Nitzanim School

There were also a few bumps in the road. Some of the words supplied to translate were inappropriate for students. We asked that they be shared with us via screenshots, and we took care of each and every one the best we could. Another complaint was that teachers are not able to follow the accumulated progression of their students as it was happening.

Finally, we received a couple of complaints from teachers of classes who felt that they had worked very hard and were dissatisfied with the results. Unfortunately, some of the students (and teachers) got so carried away, with tunnel vision focussed solely on the end prize (a fun morning in Google) that they forgot to stop along the way to enjoy - and be enriched by- the benefits of the journey, itself. (The benefits of enriching their vocabularies, assessing translations critically, working together as a team, enjoying the adrenaline of the weekly leaderboards, doing something as part of their learning that would truly benefit others, among other things.)

Thankfully, those instances were few. The overwhelming majority of the feedback we got was positive. Here are some excerpts:

Thank you so much for the amazing opportunity and this special challenge! We feel proud to be a part of this global community”

“The experience of participating in the competition was very positive and enriched my teaching. Any time that a student finished a task early or had a bit of time at the end of the lesson, they could be productive by going into the site and translating!”

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“...the experience was wonderful and students expressed a great interest in it, and to my surprise even my weaker pupils felt that they were able to contribute meaningfully”.

“This was a unique learning experience for my students; one which enriched their vocabularies.”

And now, all that is left to do is to send out the runner-up prizes from Google, the Google Cardboards for each of the kids in the classes that earned them by contributing over 400,000 translations or for rising to the challenge of the ones who most significantly improved their contributions by during the final two weeks of the competition! We also will be sending surprises to the 15 top teams on the leaderboard, after those who took the main prizes! To see who those schools were, check out the competition site! We on the Google Translation Community Competition team have our work cut out for us.

Oh, yeah….and we have to plan the NEXT competition!!! We have already starting getting requests!
Want to join in the fun, too? Send an email to!

Digitally yours,


Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Using WhatsApp for Teaching

As a part of a country-wide activity to prepare for emergency situations, (צו 8 חינוכי) teachers around the country are learning how to teach a lesson via WhatsApp. I was really sceptical at first, but am totally enjoying the process of "cooking up" my lesson (which will take place next week) together with Gilad - a creative, inspiring mentor from CET (Matach).

With my head in "WhatsApp Mode" today, I started to teach my class the HOTS of Inferring, using a worksheet I have used a gazillion times before.

When it suddenly dawned on me that these are not the emojis that my students are used to any more. And that the short and sweet sound bytes in which they communicate via the different social networks - prolific with emojis - require more inferring than ever before!

Luckily I had my laptop with me, and I cracked it open to WhatsApp Web (which - if you do NOT know what it is, you MUST check it out! It's a life saver for whoever works a lot on the computer).  I then sent the following message to my students:

I gave them the option of either doing the activity teaching the HOTS of Inferring, via the worksheet they already had OR via WhatsApp!  Here are a sample of the responses I got in our WhatsApp Broadcast Group*

Some of them needed a bit more explanation, and some of them chose to do the activity on the worksheet, in the end, but they were ALL engaged!

I promise to write a blog next week about how my REAL WhatsApp lesson goes, but in the meantime, I have a feeling that WhatsApp is going to start being more than just reminding my students what to bring to the lesson, or if they have to do to their classroom or the computer room from now on! Like they say in the field: catch them where they are!

Digitally yours,



* A WhatsApp Broadcast Group is different from a regular WhatsApp Group. Most teachers I  know use regular WhatsApp Groups with their classes. In a Broadcast Group, the Admin can send a message to everyone in the group, and when the participants reply, the reply goes back ONLY to the Admin (moi) rather than it being a place for interactions and discussions. This year I decided to use a Broadcast Group with my class this, and that was where we did today's activity. For next week's lesson, I will be opening a regular WhatsApp Group for them, so that it can be a lesson where interaction between the students is actually encouraged. Stay tuned for THAT blog post! (I can't wait!!!! ;-)

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Google Cardboard: Six Easy Steps to Getting Started

Being a teacher can be a tough job. There's the creative part, where you get to make up activities and plan lessons that you think will be absorbing and fun and drive your point home. Then you have the soul slaying-parts of teaching such as marking tests, writing report cards and, yes, sometimes dealing with other people who are not as excited about what you are trying to do with them as you are and would rather Whatsapp on their phone/talk to their friends/flirt with the kid in the next seat- let's call them "students" - for lack of another word. 

But then there are those days when everything just flows: You get that convenient parking spot (thanks to the suspicious object that was in the parking lot and forced the other teachers who would have gotten the space before you to move to an alternate parking lot, but was found to be an innocent sleeping bag forgotten by some poor kid the night before, just in time for you to pull in.)

Or when your class of challenging learners who have all the learning disabilities and frustrations in the book, get into working on their Googleslides presentation that is going to help them sail through their oral exams.

And if, on the same day you manage to get all your ducks in a row (different tasks gleaned from previous years and updated, incorporated into your Google Classroom), AND you get the computer room, AND not ONE of the students are absent, AND they are all KNOW you are on a roll!

But then the cherry on the cake was when I came home and was doing some OTHER mind-numbing work that is part of my other job (wrestling with a computer system to send out testing assignments to teachers all over the country from my region) and decided to take a break. That's when I picked up my Google Cardboard, and started playing. 

TIme out: One of the other things I do as part of my passion for teaching, is all of these cooperations with Google Israel, and in the framework of that, I have been running this Google Translate Community Competition (already written up in a blog post from last year). In the framework of this year's competition, we were able to hand out Google Cardboard as one of the prizes for each of the students in the top classes. So I told Google: "If I want to be able to get teachers excited about Google Cardboard, I need to get my hands dirty." So I was given one, by one of my well-loved colleagues from Google who shall remain unnamed (so they all think I am talking about them ;-), but had not really had time to play with it. 

Until yesterday. 

Actually I started playing a week ago - and saw that when I opened it, I would NOT break it (providing I actually followed the simple picture instructions before mangling it) and that it was a really effective - and CHEAP (it only costs a few bucks) way to use Virtual Reality (VR) for teaching! And I sort of noticed that there is the option to actually MAKE my OWN 360 degree movie, and then SHARE IT... but didn't have the time to check it out at the time. 

Fast forward to yesterday:

So you know how the first YouTube movie ever was just a mundane 18 seconds of this guy standing in a zoo in front of the elephants and talking? So I made my own ground breaking first 360 degree cardboard movie tour of my (messy) work room!  And if you click on the link and view it in Cardboard, you SHOULD be able to hear me showing you around! ( should be too embarrassed to show you the state of my work room, but I am too psyched up about this for my brain-filter to click in - I'm sure I'll regret sharing it here someday - because what you put on the web, stays there FOREVER.)

The possibilities of using this in the classroom - both for just viewing as well as for having your students use it to speak in English and to produce 360 degree clips for others to view - is MINDBLOWING! (See? Who says I'm difficult to please? ;-) )

Here's all you need:

1) A Googlecardboard (There's a bunch of ways you can buy online, for example here  or here on EBay - or get your class to participate in the next Google Translate Community Competition, and win them :-) but in any case, they are not expensive.)

2) Download the app to your phone from your Google Play Store or iTunes. (It's free.)

3) Install it on your phone. 

4) Follow these instructions (see you don't even have to figure out the drawings on the box for yourself, like I did). 

5) And start playing!

6) Once you have got the idea (within about 5 seconds) you are ready to make your own movie.

I plan to convince my school to buy a class set of them - I'll let you know when we've started! 

Have YOU tried using Google Cardboard for your EFL teaching? If you have, please share your experiences AND activities! I am gathering them to share with everyone on a new portal for digital activities for the MoE and would be happy to showcase them there (giving credit, of course!)

Digitally yours,


September 2017

I got my Cardboards. Here's what we did (thanks to Lee Reshef and Irit Merchav!!!)