Synagogue, Church Partner to Create Augmented Reality Tour of Baltimore

Terris King II
Terris King II (Courtesy of Temple X Schools)

Beth Tfiloh Congregation and Liberty Grace Church of God are partnering with a new organization called Temple X Schools to create an augmented reality walking tour of the Ashburton/Forest Park neighborhoods for young children and their families. The project’s goal is to give young children the chance to explore this historic neighborhood in person while being guided by a software application on their phones that provides pertinent information upon physically reaching specified locations.

The project focuses on Beth Tfiloh and Liberty Grace Church of God’s historic connections to the neighborhoods. Susan Holzman, director of professional development and strategic initiatives at Beth Tfiloh, views Temple X’s app as a way to teach children of both communities about that shared history while coming closer together through the creation of the app.

“In the 1950s and ‘60s, Beth Tfiloh was located in that part of Baltimore,” Holzman said, “and the relationships between the African American Christians and white Jews was a harmonious and strong relationship and really stood out as a model for how different races and different religions could coexist peacefully.”

The app is expected to track a user’s physical movement on the tour, Holzman said. Upon reaching a set destination, such as the former location of the Beth Tfiloh synagogue, the app would then display pictures and videos and give an audio description of the place’s historical significance. The audio will be narrated by both an African American Christian child and a white Jewish child.

“We … decided that it would be easier for young children to relate to stories that were being told by other children, instead of by adults,” Holzman said.

The project was initiated by Temple X, an early-childhood school model focused on educating parents and children, which wanted to leverage virtual and augmented reality technology into outdoor learning activities for children. Terris King II, head of school at Temple X, originally pitched the idea of a walking tour to his father, the Rev. Terris A. King, pastor of Liberty Grace Church of God, and to Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg of Beth Tfiloh in December of 2019. When the schools began shuttering, the need for alternative educational tools became palpable, and the project took on new urgency.

“A lot of children now, as you know, are stuck indoors during the pandemic,” said King, “and so our goal right now is to get children out of their homes. So we’re leveraging geolocated apps to do storytelling. They’re really focused on kids getting outdoors and engaging and learning, no matter where they are.”

Holzman stated that other participants include Towson University, who will do the majority of the coding involved in developing the app, and the Baltimore police, who are expected to provide increased security along the route of the tour. The group Project Wave is also involved and will help to provide internet connectivity needed for the app. The app is being targeted for the use of children between the ages of 4 and 7, Holzman said, adding that they were hoping to have the first tours up and running toward the end of July or early August.

Holzman views the walking tour as being particularly important in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, as traditional education has been largely upended in favor of online learning.

“We know that during the pandemic shutdown that children [between 4 and 7] really struggle to learn virtually,” Holzman said. “So, targeting this project to that age group gives them a chance to learn in a way that is more effective for them.” She said that the walking tour would provide children shut inside their homes by the pandemic with much-needed exercise.

The project has been working with rising third, fourth, and fifth graders from both Liberty Grace Church of God and Beth Tfiloh for their help in creating the app, Holzman said. The students have been assisting by providing project leaders with insight into the kinds of issues and questions children are most interested in. Some of the questions the students asked focused on what sports children in the ‘50s and ‘60s played, whether they had televisions, and if they had both white friends and black friends.

The project has also been noting the type of language and phrases the students are using, so that the audio portion of the tour can be written in a way that today’s children are more likely to respond to, Holzman said. Lastly, the students are also helping to choose which locations will be official parts of the tour.

The project is hoping the history-focused tour will serve as a prototype for additional tours in the future, Holzman said, envisioning tours focused on mathematics and literacy. “And then, assuming that it works well,” she said, “create other tours for kids here in Baltimore, as well as sharing this as a template with other communities, not just in the United States, but around the world.”

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