The Game is Afoot! Gamifying Mishna in Fifth Grade

October, 2018

Rabbi Moshe Rosenberg teaches Judaic Studies at the SAR Academy in Riverdale, NY, where he also serves as a JudeoTech Integrator. He is the Rabbi of Congregation Etz Chaim of Kew Gardens Hills and the author of The Unofficial Hogwarts Haggadah and Morality for Muggles: Ethics in the Bible and the World of Harry Potter

With the same words that irresistibly drew Watson after Holmes on yet another adventure through the streets of London or the English countryside, I dream of drawing my students into the world of Torah Shebe’al Peh - to explore the meanderings of machloket, contend with the criminals of kitvei ha-kodesh, and, quite literally, collect the treasures of Torah.

By turning Mishna into a game, I hope to flatten the ramp that intimidates new learners, and introduce fifth graders to the playfulness of Torah by integrating what they have learned and loved with a new subject they will love to learn.

I used to think I knew what gamification was. Isn’t that where you call assignments missions and give out points and badges? Well, not exactly. As we say in Jewish bibliographic terms, ikkar haser min ha-sefer - the most important part is missing. That part is the back story. As I learned from sessions at the mammoth ISTE (International Society for Technology in Education) Conference this past summer, and from reading Michael Matera’s masterful Explore Like a Pirate (Dave Burgess Consulting, Inc., 2015), the trick is to create an alternative reality for your students, one in which they want to live as attempt those missions and find their treasures, all the while learning your curriculum. That alternate reality should be fun, but it should also map as many educational aspects as possible to its features.

But is it really necessary?
For me the answer is yes.

I’ve taught beginning Mishna for almost ten years and have never found a method that satisfies me. Mishna suffers from several curricular handicaps: It is the new limmud on the block; It’s legal, rather than narrative; And it usually loses in the battle for classroom minutes. To understate the matter, Mishna is rarely the favorite subject of my fifth graders. I saw an uptick in interest when I added videos and some augmented reality, but never the constant excitement I’d hoped for. This year I intend for that to change. And you’re going to help me.

I’m writing this journal to elicit feedback for my new project and commit myself too publicly to give up. I hope to share my plans and gimmicks, successes and failures, great moments and course corrections. To my knowledge this type of gamification has never been tried before in elementary Jewish Education, perhaps for good reason…

I’ll close by listing some decisions I had to make before embarking on this journey.

  • What should the back story be?
  • What platform can I use to display and distribute the story and activities to my students?
  • How can I construct a leaderboard that will keep track of the points, coins, objects, etc, while being very visible to the students?
  • How can I cram as much of the curriculum as possible into the new framework?

I will only answer the first question. I decided to strand my students in time and space and challenge them to “learn their way back” to their own era and school. Hard to visualize? Have a look at the introductory two-minute video. Comments are extremely welcome!

Updated: Oct. 15, 2018