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Education Corner: Gaming – An experiment in Jewish textual learning

Gaming – An experiment in Jewish textual learning

by Rabbi Reuven Margrett

Rabbi Reuven Margrett (Cohort 6) is in his 5th year as a Judaic Studies teacher and tefilah coordinator at the Frankel Jewish Academy in Detroit. Previously, he taught for two years at Immanuel College in Herfordshire, UK.

In the educational world there has been a lot of interest in the roles that games and gamification are having on education, as well as their potential benefits. The Frankel Jewish Academy, where I teach, was fortunate to receive a grant to explore how gaming could help enhance the teaching of Rabbinic texts.

This past summer, we worked with Michigan State University to develop and produce the world's first Rabbinics game, focused on enhancing the study of the opening unit of the Rabbinics I course at our school. This course surveys the six different orders of the Mishnah, examining small excerpts from each. The first text studied in depth is the opening of the Mishnah, Masechet Brachot, concerning when to say the evening Shema.

We created the first episode of our game - Sparks of Eternity: Breakthrough. It tells the story of Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakkai's escape from the radical zealots within a besieged Jerusalem (see Gittin 54a-b). The student plays Rabban Yochanan's assistant, helping him to locate Abba Sikra, head of the zealots, and to smuggle Rabban Yochanan out, thus preserving parts of the first mishnah in Brachot regarding reciting the Shema .

Benefits of using gaming in learning include:
Students will be more motivated to learn, as they need to complete challenges to get further in the game.
The game allows for self-paced learning. Students can repeat dialogues with characters if needed. Characters ask the player if they would like the ideas explained in an alternative way.
The player is involved in exploratory learning by having the opportunity to virtually move around the city of Jerusalem, interacting with rabbis and ordinary folk.
The game becomes a springboard for enriched classroom discussion: Why did you choose to be on the side of the zealots and fight or the rabbis and make peace? Evaluate Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai's conversation with Vespasian -
what would you have done differently?
It allows Jewish history to come alive through role-play and interaction with Jewish figures, adding reality and depth to the learning experience. For example, Rabbi Eliezer is no longer just a name on a page but a “real” person who was alive at the time of the destruction of the 2nd temple and steeped in Jewish learning.

This reworked unit involves learning both through the game and in a classroom. The various elements of and dialogues in the game become a springboard for further learning of the text itself, the ideas it contains and larger themes and values. The game allows for many such connections. The learning becomes more generally relevant, based in Jewish text and tradition, but able to bridge between the ancient and the modern worlds in a compelling way. The aim is not only for students to experience playing a story-based game but to actually see themselves in the continuum of the unfolding Jewish story.

At the beginning of the year, the game was piloted and received a lot of positive feedback from students. The textual learning was definitely enhanced, especially in terms of placing text in historical context. The next phase of game development involves integrating more text and gaming elements into the product. After refining our first game, I hope to able to share it with Pardes alumni.