Rowling toys with breaking of the Potter spell

The Boston Globe published my letter today:

RE “To J.K., please leave Harry alone” (Good Life, July 30): The fantasy stories that shaped my childhood took place not in Hogwarts but a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. Still, I feel Eryn Carlson’s pain as she worries that the new Harry Potter stories will weaken the canon. May she be spared the disappoinment that my generation experienced when the “Star Wars” prequels were released. Let’s hope J.K. Rowling learned from George Lucas’s mistakes and “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” is no Jar Jar Binks.

Jared Matas




Pokemon Go

My family and I just spent two weeks living on a Vermont college campus, where I was teaching a course. Coincidentally we moved into our dorms the day thatIMG_8450 Pokemon Go was released, which was particular fortuitous for my 8 year old son, an avid video game player. The time he and I spent together playing the game (and by playing I mean many, many hours biking around campus) has given me an interesting window into the experience, through the eyes of both a parent and an educator.

The two most remarkable aspects of the game are how active and how social we’ve become since playing it. As you’ve probably heard by now, the premise of the game is that on top of our ‘real world’ there is another layer which involves a number of wild creatures waiting to be caught. This virtual world takes places on a map that is laid on top of the real map, so that players navigate it by moving in physical space – reaching the monster around the corner involves actually walking down the steet, not pressing buttons on a screen. Players can hatch virtual eggs into rare monsters by placing them in an ‘incubator’ where the readiness unit of measure is not time but distance. Eggs come in 2 km, 5 km or 10 km increments, so that players are rewarded not for how long they play, but for how far they travel while playing. The ‘GO’ in the title is no joke. My son now wakes me up at 6:00 AM every morning, insisting we have to cycle 5 km before breakfast.

The social aspect of this game is fascinating. When a monster appears in a given location, it’s not first come first served – that monster exists on any individual’s screen when they approach the location. So instead of racing to be the first person to claim the monster, players share tips freely and congregate in areas to play together. Playing with my son, we met a number of players of different ages with whom he became more and more comfortable interacting. He asks questions, shares tips, and shows off his monsters. Over a course of a week, we met Tristan, a wily 12 year old, hanging out one evening on his own in front of the university library, with multiple phones, rapidly pressing buttons, and very happy to share theories of game play with my son for over 30 minutes (until my phone battery finally died). On the steps of the town library, we met Woo – maybe 10, braces, killing time before heading to camp. Woo showed us how to connect to the wifi sneaking out of the library and then he and my son crossed the street to try to take over a PokeGym together. We also spent a lot of time hanging out with college students as well as ‘townies’ who figured out the campus was a good spot for finding Pokemon.

IMG_8442With the rapid spread in popularity of Pokemon Go, there has been an inevitable backlash about the apparent threat to society and the general well being of the planet that this game poses. I would like to suggest another way to understand the phenomenom. I think most of the sensational stories in the press, about Pokemon players becoming so involved in their game play that they walk off cliffs, cause traffic accidents, or generally engage in risky or unsafe behavior, are actually not the fault of the game. Yes, it’s true this game can be so absorbing that players tune out what is going on in real life around them, or that they suspend their otherwise rational judgement about what consists safe behavior. But rather than blame the game, I think this is a tremendous opportunity to start a conversation with young gamers about using good judgement and recognizing limits, both real and virtual, while using a phone, etc. Since playing the game, my son starts a conversation with anyone he sees who is totally absorbed with their phone, under the assumption that they are a fellow Pokemon Go player. He is right probably 50% of the time. However, and this is quite surprising to him, there are some people who walk into traffic while staring at their phone, yet they are NOT PLAYING POKEMON. What could that adult possibly be so interested in that causes him to behave in this way, if they aren’t chasing a rare Charmander? This is one of the mysteries of growing up, but sooner or later my digital native son is going to have a phone of his own, and I hope he will maintain proper judgement about when and how to use it in public. Playing Pokemon Go together has given us an opening to have a conversation about how people get very absorbed in their phones and how that can be dangerous to themselves or others. If without a phone he wasn’t going to wander alone at night to an abandoned parking lot, there is no reason to think he should do it while playing with his phone.

As an educator, I’ve been very curious about what impact Pokemon Go might have on classrooms in the fall (assuming it has not been replaced by another fad by then). I think a more interesting question than how can we use Pokemon Go in the classroom is how can we use Pokemon Go players in the classroom. What can we do in the classroom that builds on all the skills they have been developing while playing? Here are a few broad themes I’ve been thinking about:

  • Mentorship. Players start on ‘Level 1’ and gradually power up as they complete tasks and collect points. When my son meets a player at a higher level, he asks for tips on how to play more efficiently or how to find rare monsters. Now that he has obtained a certain status and knows a number of tricks, he is happy to pass on his wisdom to others he meets that are behind him. Knowledge is collective, to be shared.IMG_8465
  • Orienteering. The game encourages players to learn how to read a map and to pay attention to place and location. While playing Pokemon, we saw: a massive rainbow, multiple gorgeous pink sunsets, countless bunnies, a huge monster truck, and in addition to the Pokemon players we also met (and pet) many dogs.  
  • Executive function skills. How does playing this game help a player develop their executive function skills? A player needs to remember and orga
    nize a significant amount of information: the monsters, the map, and also to use that information to make decisions about allocating resources both real (time and distance are both factors that can help or hinder the player) and virtual (how to earn candy, fairydust, and XP).

Have you played yet?  Have you caught ’em all?


Kylo Ren – Letter from the Principal


< Warning: This contains spoilers from THE FORCE AWAKENS. But if you haven’t seen it yet, you are probably not interested in this piece anyways. >

Dear Mr Solo and General Skywalker,

We are writing this letter to suggest that you consider an alternative educational option for your son Benjamin Solo. As we discussed in previous correspondence, the academic demands of The Jedi Community Day School do not align with the strengths and challenges of your unique child.

While we encourage imaginative play, Ben has to be reminded on numerous occasions to leave the masks and capes in the dress up area when playtime is over. As his teachers told him, he has a beautiful face and shouldn’t feel he needs to hide it, even when he is scowling.  

We’ve noticed that Ben’s behavior seems to get more challenging whenever Ben’s father is out of town. We know your work requires frequent travel, but you should be aware of the toil this takes on your son. He seemed pretty disappointed that the toys you promised him were dumped when your ship was raided. One teacher overheard him mutter that “carbonite would be too light a punishment for such a betrayal.”

The school psychologist is concerned about anger management issues and she is working with him on keeping things in perspective. For example, how to express disappointment when another child ‘escapes prison’ in Capture the Flag without overturning the sandbox and alienating his teammates. Many kids play with him out of fear of what he will to do them if they decline. Ross Greene’s book The Explosive Child may shed some light on the situation.

Something we are very curious about is Ben’s reaction to the new student in our class. For some reason he seems very confused about her, suggesting he might possibly have met her before or even be related to her. “Are you my sister? my cousin?” It was very hard for Ben when she demonstrated a remarkable ability to learn quickly. While she had no previous experience reading, on the day she joined our class she picked up a book and became fluent in a matter of minutes. “It’s like the letters are just telling me messages,” she said, much to Ben’s chagrin. “It’s no fair!” he wailed. “I’ve spent years developing my skills. Why are her powers equal to mine on her very first day?”

Many of his classmates are still scared following his unusual outburst on grandparents day.

Ben has demonstrated much creativity in free play, both in building and imaginative play, although he continues to have difficulty negotiating social situations with his peers. He was determined to rebuild the blocks in the exactly the same structure as was destroyed two previous times. “We’ve already played this one,” the other kids said. “Twice!” But Ben insisted that time time it was bigger and stronger and none of the other rebel kids would figure out how to destroy it. He seemed genuinely surprised that after two hours of play it was time to take apart his creation and put away the blocks.

As we mentioned above, we recommend finding an alternate educational setting that would be better able to support Ben’s unique abilities. A smaller class with a smaller teacher-student ratio would help Ben to his full potential. We believe he will only learn properly under the guidance of a mentor-type teacher who can lead him towards positive choices. This is especially important in light of the frequent absence of his own father.

We are aware of the tension that having such a challenging child can make on your home life. This must be very hard on you and Han and any other children. By the way, are there other children? You didn’t fill in that part on the school registration form. Ben said something about maybe having a sister, but then said he wasn’t allowed to tell or someone named JJ would get very angry at him. We know your family has some complicated history but we encourage being open and honest with children, even at a young age, about their family. It can be very traumatic for an individual to find out as an adult that their family members are not who they believed them to be.

Please be aware that the school’s therapist is also available for couples counselling. There is no shame in working on your marriage before it is too late.

Please be in touch if you have any further questions and May The Force Be With You.

Yours Truly,
The Jedi Community Day School

“Welcome to the Cognitosphere!”

No, that’s not the Pink Floyd LP you just discovered at the bottom of your uncle’s dusty LP collection, but rather the conceptual framework that education change-maker Grant Lichtman uses to describe the world of interconnected information in which all of us, and especially our students, live. Lichtman energized the 2015 North American Jewish Day School Conference with his systems approach to understanding what we do, coupled with a liberal dose of classic progressive educational philosophy à la John Dewey. In a dynamic keynote address he shared his observations of numerous schools, some of which are transforming pedagogy to empower their students to learn and participate meaningfully in the Cognitosphere, while others fear innovation and plod along with teacher-centered, conventional schooling, alienating their students along the way.

In addition to the many interesting one-on-one conversations I had while chatting informally with school leaders from across the country, I learned a lot at the conference sessions I attended. Three quick highlights:

Vivian, who literally wrote the book on instructional rounds in teaching, pointed out that “Teaching is the only profession that still operates in isolation,” and suggested that rounds are a way for teachers to develop relationships with each other built around student learning. This is in contrast to the ‘culture of nice’ where teachers are superficially polite but don’t trust each other enough to give meaningful feedback. Marc complimented her sharing of the goals and vision of teaching rounds with a systems thinking exercise. Defining the problem as “we don’t seem to be able to consistently and continually improve teaching quality at the rate we want to,” session participants identified assumptions and beliefs behind different interpretations of what was happening and then dug deeply to uncover new ways to understand the problem. My group focused on school hiring processes, and how the articulation of a school’s vision of teaching excellence at every stage of hiring can impact teacher development over time.

The Science Leadership Academy, a public high school in downtown Philadelphia, was founded a decade ago by Chris Lehmann in partnership with The Franklin Institute. Despite the name, the school’s inquiry-driven approach is much broader than science content knowledge. Students take four core core courses in their freshman year: engineering, art, drama, and technology. These courses teach the students the foundational skills they need to participate fully in their project-based learning and contribute meaningfully to their community and the world. Touring the school was fascinating. Most significantly, I was struck by the pedagogical consistency throughout the school. It is clear that the school is driven by a powerful vision, and much thoughtful work has gone into aligning the implementation of the school mission. Hallways are plastered with documents explaining the five core values – inquiry, research, collaboration, presentation and reflection, and every student I spoke to reflected these values when they explained not just what they were learning, but why they were doing so.

This session was one of the featured ‘Uncommon Conversation’ sessions taking place throughout the conference, but this conversation on challenging the dominant paradigms in day school education was particularly unique because it inspired honest exploration of taboo topics in Jewish day schools – such as our field-wide failures to really teach American Jews to speak Hebrew or to accommodate all learners who want a day school education. The significance of this conversation was made clear by the standing-room only crowd that piled into the conference room, even after Cannon’s warning that anyone stuck on defending the status quo was not welcome. More significant than any particular topic discussed, the real impact of this session was the networking that occurred and the conversations that will continue amongst passionate educators.

One final note – I am deeply appreciative that I was able to participate in this conference thanks to sponsorship from the DeLeT Alumni Network. Experiencing this conference alongside fellow DeLeT alum, DeLeT faculty and the many FoD’s (friends of DeLeT) created a space for teacher-leaders at this conference. I think we have much to contribute to the national conversation in our field, even if ‘teacher’ was not option to click when registering for this conference.


Opening Doors to Learning for my Students

This piece was originally posted on YUEducate, the Yeshiva University Institute for University-School Partnership blog.
diverse learners


Dr. Jared Matas, Educational Technology Teacher Leader at JCDS, Boston’s Jewish Community Day School, shares how technology can be used to help students connect to the material and engage in lessons.

As a classroom teacher, I try to use every tool at my disposal in order to best meet the needs of all my students. One such tool is digital technology. Although the lure of the shiny screens can be deceptive, and student motivation to use technology does not by itself necessarily contribute to student learning, there are a number of ways that technology can indeed open doors to learning for students.


In a recent class, my 7th grade social science students had a boisterous discussion on the loyalties of various characters from the American Revolution, debating where they lay on a spectrum between Patriot Revolutionary and supporter of the British Crown. Then one of those wonderful moments occurred when a student who rarely speaks in class shared a thought and all the other students suddenly hushed up to listen. “I know that soldier is not really a big supporter of King George,” she said. “When I was talking with him last night, he told me that he is just a soldier because his family needed the money.” An interesting anecdote that enriched the classroom conversation, yet how could a student in 2015 have a conversation with a British soldier from 1770? This was a virtual conversation took place in the role playing video game For Crown or Colony.  

By interacting with the characters in the video game, students don’t just learn content material – they are able to go deeper and make personal connections with the people, events and ideas depicted in the game. Students who have difficulty remembering details or staying engaged in conventional learning activities become deeply involved in the game and as a result come to class discussions with more to contribute.


Digital technology allows students to create engaging multi-media content to demonstrate their understanding, and can easily be shared with an authentic audience. Students take their role seriously when they know they are creating material that has a broader audience than just their teacher. For example, by using GoogleVoice and the iPad app BookCreator,  I helped first grade students create e-books of the story of Yosef, with illustrations and recordings of each student narrating the story in Hebrew. Students loved calling in to the ‘Humash Hotline’ to record the weekly passage – they would come in to school and ask their teacher if she had heard the new recordings yet. The enthusiasm in the room on the final class when they finally shared their finished work was only surpassed by the responses we received from parents and grandparents who downloaded the e-books.


Technology can also be tremendously helpful for students that have challenges keeping track of their paperwork. For all assignments, I give students a paper printout in class and then also share virtual copies using Google Drive. This means that students always have access to the course readings, on any device with Internet access. As my students work on a major paper, they use the textbook to find appropriate material to add to their notes and they can also search through the materials online. This is especially helpful for students who lose the paperwork faster than I can photocopy it. Students work on their assignments at home and in school, and seamlessly continue their work, because, as one student put it “no matter what computer I am using I can always access my paper.” This is also very helpful for me because I can keep track of student progress by accessing their rough drafts.

While these are just a few examples of how technology can help make learning more accessible to all students, it is important to keep in mind that just because most students are motivated to use technology does not mean that all technology contributes to student learning. Digital technology can offer many distractions to students. Our job as educators is to make careful and deliberate decisions about how to use technology appropriately in the classroom, and then carefully teach students how to use the technology effectively and appropriately.

Please visit Jared’s blog at

If you have a story you would like to share, please email Melanie Eisen