Bar Mitzvah Presentation: Jews in Education

“Powering up in the Real World: The Social and Educational Benefits of Video Games”

Hello, and thank you all for coming. My name is Milo, and I’m here to tell you how video games help prepare kids for the future. I know; you’re probably thinking, “Here’s another teenager trying to convince his parents to let him play more video games,” and even though that is part of what I’m doing, once you hear me out, you’ll see where I’m coming from.

At this time, you might be thinking, “Okay, I will hear you out, but: how is video gaming an appropriate bar mitsve topic—even for a bar mitsve as unconventional as what we do here at Sholem?” On this point, too, I hope you will hear me out. (look at audience)

In order to talk about how video games help prepare kids for the future, I am going to look at them through the lens of education; and in order to do that, we must look at both the history of education, and its inextricable link to the Jewish experience.

You see, we Sholem bar and bat mitsve students have spent the year studying and exploring topics related to our collective Jewish identities. We start by exploring our own individual identities. Let me tell you a little about mine:

First of all, I have a twin brother, named Emmett, who became a bar mitsve in Sholem last year. Emmett and I attended the UCLA Lab School from kindergarten until 4th grade.  It was a very good school.  Not only were the teachers great, they really paid a lot of attention to what was going on between the kids, ensuring that there was friendly social interaction.

Then, I moved to our local public school.  I hated it there.  All the kids were mean to me. All through the year, they were teasing me, making jokes about me and other things like that. At recess, I’d play kick ball.  I would always be the one that nobody wanted to pick.  And one time, when I got to be team captain, each kid I picked said, “I don’t want to play.” Even when I explained to the teacher or the staff who are supposed to look out for students, they didn’t do anything. Then, one day toward the end of the year, my parents told me about Bridges Academy. It was the exact opposite of the school I was in! Everyone was really friendly and understanding. I knew that it was the school for me.

Bridges Academy is a school that specializes in “educating the exceptional.” They teach kids who, at most other schools, would be considered weird or maybe even stupid because they don’t fit in. Bridges focuses on “twice exceptionality”, or “2E” for short.

2E refers to students who have both intellectual gifts as well as challenges. These students often don’t fit into gifted classes, but they don’t fit into classes for students with learning disabilities either. Last year, in my humanities class at Bridges, I remember there was a poster, a quote from one of the most famous 2E people of all-time, Albert Einstein:  “If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life thinking it’s stupid.” At Bridges, they teach based on students’ individual strengths, not based on any “standard” of how “normal” kids learn.

Many of the people who have made important contributions to society were twice exceptional. Some of these individuals include:

  • As mentioned before, Albert Einstein, who came up with the Theory of Relativity,
  • Alan Turing, who cracked the Nazis’ “Enigma” code, and in doing so created the first computer.
  • Thomas Edison, a renowned inventor;
  • Temple Grandin, an autism and animal rights activist.
  • Bill Gates (Creator of Microsoft)

But here’s the thing: these people were so gifted they were able to be successful in spite of an educational system that did not know how to teach them. Imagine how many others in the past might have had successful lives and careers had the system worked better in their favor.

Thankfully, places like Bridges exist for 2E students, but the sad truth is that a place like Bridges isn’t accessible to everyone who needs it. I am privileged in that way, and am lucky that I live in a time when 2E education exists at all. In the not-too-distant past, I would have had additional educational hardships, and that has nothing to do with 2E, and everything to do with being Jewish—back when education was a privilege, not a right.

Back in the “Old Country,” by which I mean Russia, most Jews were confined to the Pale of Settlement. They lived in extreme poverty, and had few (if any) rights. Secular schools had quotas, such as “only 10% of students can be Jewish.” Classes were 6 days a week, including Saturday. This was a problem for Jews because Saturday was their Sabbath. If Jews wanted a secular education they would have to break from their religious tradition. Because of this, rabbis and religious Jews considered the pursuit of secular knowledge to be a sin.

The earliest form of education for Jews was reading the Torah, and that was for males only. The problem with getting this kind of religious education is that you’re missing rather important subjects like math, science, and history. In other words, if all you study is the Torah, all you know is the Torah. You might be literate, but you’re not educated. You learned to read and recite the ancient Hebrew texts, but not how to speak the Hebrew language. In the Pale of Settlement, where my ancestors come from, they spoke Yiddish, a secular language.

The largest influx of Jewish immigrants to America took place between the 1880s  and the 1910s. Mostly it was young people who came, because it was a tough journey, and they had to be prepared to work. When they got to New York, many of them worked in sweatshops in the garment industry, which was made possible by the recent invention of the sewing machine.

In the sweatshops, poor Jews and other immigrants had to work under very bad conditions.  Their bosses set the hours and the pay.  Often, people in the sweatshops had to work 12-14 hours a day, seven days a week.  They had few breaks, poor ventilation, low pay and unsafe conditions.  Eventually, the workers in the sweatshops gathered together and formed unions to demand higher wages and safer conditions, so they could support themselves and their families. They demanded a shorter workday, so they could go to school at night. With an education, the workers were able to rise through the ranks and get better jobs.  This is how the American Dream worked: study, work hard, and you will improve your living condition, for you and for your family.

Hershl Hartman, who innovated the secular bar mitsve, and is the vegvayser and Education Director of our Sholem community, is a world-renowned Yiddish scholar and expert on secular Jewishness. Hershl spoke with me about Jews and education.

According to Hershl, it was young people, like me who fought for secular education.  Why? Because most young people want to be educated to prepare for the future. By the early 20th century, many young Jews wanted a secular education. Religious education, for many of these people, was only about the past.

Hershl’s parents worked in sweatshops.  They also went to night school, while they worked.  Hershl went to public schools and even got a free college education at City College in New York City.  Many working class Jews attended City College because it was free. Hershl didn’t actually finish College, because he dropped out to become the first American born Yiddish journalist, which was a pretty amazing achievement.

Although in America, Jews could work their way up to get better jobs, they could often only work for other Jews—because there was lots of anti-semitism, that prevented Jews from enjoying the kind of mainstream acceptance we take for granted today.  For instance, if you were a Jewish lawyer, you could only work for Jewish clients and if you were a Jewish doctor, you could only see Jewish patients—not because it was the law, but simply because others in the American mainstream actively kept Jews away.

Today, in the United States, Jews are more accepted, and we have much more access to education. One thing is for certain: secular Jews have always been a progressive voice for education. In fact, it’s impossible to describe the evolution of education without looking at it through a lens of progressive values. But what are progressive values? As Rebekka (who is leading us in songs today) often says in our klezmer rehearsals at Sholem: “Practice makes better,” Progressives, like Rebekka, value…well…progress. Progressive values are about striving to improve our communities, our social systems, and our democracy. That’s the Workmen’s Circle motto: a shenerer, beserer velt: “a better, more beautiful world.”

These progressive values encouraged the evolution of education from purely religious literacy into secular subjects like science and math. And, thankfully, education continues to evolve. This was how, in the late 20th century, secular education evolved to better suit the needs of students with varying intellectual gifts and/or challenges.

Yes, even 2E education is still evolving.

As I mentioned earlier, Bridges Academy teaches to the strengths of its students. It also places social/emotional learning and each child’s individual goals at the center of the program. Also, we kids at Bridges use computers to do most of our work. We get our assignments through our computers, we do our work on our computers, and we email it to our teachers. We are digital natives. The more experience and knowledge we have with computers now, the more prepared we will be to create our high-tech future: a shenerer, beserer velt, for everyone.

I interviewed Carl Sabatino, the Head of Bridges Academy. He shared his ideas about computers in schools, and how gaming can be beneficial. “No kid,” he told me, “should be on their computer every minute of the day and no one should be on their computer to avoid contact with other human beings.” Carl goes on, “But if you are on your computer playing games with other people, that actually helps social skills develop.”

When we are not doing school-work on our computers, we kids at Bridges often play video games and watch youtube videos. My friends and I like to laugh together, compete against one another, and play cooperatively.  Gaming plays a very important role for my friends and me, especially in terms of conversation.  Some of you may think that teenagers don’t really communicate verbally.  You probably think that the only sounds we make are primitive grunts.  And while that is sometimes true, I can tell you that it’s not always the case.  Video games give us something fun to talk about.  As Carl Sabatino says, video games “help people to become friends, and bond, so it becomes a very positive thing, if it’s controlled and limited.“

The authors of the book “The Civic Potential of Video Games” agree, noting that gaming can result in positive social interaction. Video games are a whole topic for conversations, both during and outside of play. Gaming is multi-cultural, multi-racial and multi-class in terms of its participants.  The anonymity of multi-player servers does not discriminate against any group of people.  My Jewish ancestors would be relieved.

Video games present us with endless possibilities within virtual worlds.  Anything you can imagine can be done with a computer. Stepping into others’ shoes and experiencing things from other perspectives allows gamers to have empathy for other people and experience how they are feeling. This also allows kids to be creative and figure out how to solve problems and get around obstacles.

Take the game Minecraft, for instance:

“Around the world, Minecraft is being used to educate children on everything from science to city planning to speaking a new language,” said Joel Levin, co-founder and education director at the company TeacherGaming.  “Minecraft extends kids’ spatial reasoning skills, construction skills and understanding of planning,” said Eric Klopfer, a professor and the director of MIT’s Scheller Teacher Education Program. “In many ways,” he says, “it’s like a digital version of Lego.”

Some experimental and progressive middle school programs have even been using gaming as a tool for teaching students.  In the middle school program at New Roads, one of LA’s most progressive private schools, the Playmaker curriculum mixes learning with fun activities, especially video games.  Gaming encourages players to think outside the box.

Brock Dubbels, a researcher in psychology at the University of Minnesota says: “When used in the correct way, (video games) can actually increase subject-matter knowledge as well as help students to build higher-order thinking skills.”

A good game would make you want to keep playing, sometimes even more than winning. When I really like a game, if I beat it, I’ll usually start it over or make a new file, so I can keep playing.

Get this: studies have shown that when we are given extrinsic rewards, like prizes or bonuses, for completing tasks that we enjoy, we feel “less motivated and less rewarded”. When we are only focusing on completing harder and harder tasks in order to get better rewards, our minds get stuck on the reward. The most important goal for game designers in the future is to create games that not only reward us for completing difficult tasks, but also reward us intrinsically; in other words, just playing the game is a reward in itself.

If we extend this idea of designing for enjoyment to the real world, maybe we could make boring and challenging tasks more intrinsically rewarding. The real world is often based on the idea that when you do things that you don’t necessarily like, you’re rewarded with something that you do like. For instance, getting to watch a favorite TV show after finishing your homework, or getting dessert after eating all your vegetables. But what if the world wasn’t like that? What if everything we did was a reward in itself? Maybe instead of using games to make new realities, we could use reality to make games.

In conclusion, this past year has been quite a journey.

My original idea for my bar mitsve topic was to use this as an opportunity to convince everyone (especially my parents) to approve of letting kids play more video games. But, as I began working on it, I decided it was more important to find out the ways video games can help everybody—and not just me.

Then, there came the problem of how I make a topic about video games appropriate to a Sholem bar mitsve, and how I could link this to my Jewish identity. This was what led me to look at video games as a tool for education, and how this could be explored as the next step in the ongoing evolution of education. I started exploring and learning about the history of Jewish education.

I learned that even hundreds of years ago, the goals of secular education were the same as they are today: to prepare students for the future. I learned that education isn’t only about math and science and reading and writing, but it’s also about social learning.   Furthermore, education is a political tool, in which people that have access will have a better chance at a good future than people who don’t.  Getting equal access to education is a fight that goes on even today.

What I hope you take home with you is mainly the fact that even though video games are thought of as anti-social, and as a way of tuning out, it’s actually quite the opposite. For me, along with most other gamers, video games are a way of tuning in, and connecting with friends.

Finally, I want to thank my mentor Ross Helford.  He has helped me so much throughout this process. Whenever I had trouble with something or when I didn’t know what to write, he would always help me through it.

I’d also like to thank my parents, who were quite literally there for me, day and night. My brother Emmett’s bar mitsve inspired me and showed me the way.  Thank you, Emmett, for being not only a great brother, but also a great friend.

I’d also like to thank Hershl Hartman for being a wise guy—I mean, being a wise man, and for letting me interview him free of charge.

Lastly, I’d like to thank my teachers from Bridges as well as Sholem.  You have all helped me become the person I am now and continue to show me the way forward.

Thank you.





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