In classrooms and living rooms across the country, adults concerned with getting children to read tend to see digital technology as either poison (screens have taken over!) or panacea (if only we had more laptops!). In “Tap, Click, Read,” Lisa Guernsey, a journalist and director of the Early Education Initiative and the Learning Technologies Project at New America, and Michael H. Levine, a child development and policy expert and founding director of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop, propose a nuanced middle ground. Drawing on a wealth of research, Guernsey and Levine chart a promising path towards a new, fuller definition of 21st century literacy. The authors spoke with us about their discoveries and suggestions for reimagining literacy, Jewish and otherwise.
Covenant Foundation: What inspired you to write this book?
Michael Levine: We’re both deeply concerned with educational opportunity in America. How do we sleep at night knowing that more than two thirds of America’s fourth graders aren’t reading well? What we’ve been doing as a nation clearly is not working. We wanted to get a nuanced, more practical and more balanced view of how digital technologies might be part of the solution, and not just part of what people think of as the problem.
Lisa Guernsey: Raising two kids in the digital age, I’ve been perplexed but also fascinated by how digital media is changing the way children learn and the way families learn together. That, combined with new science on how important the very early years are in children’s lives. Learning to read does not start in kindergarten or first grade, but with the very first conversations that are happening when children are babies. Put those two big trends together and you have a fascinating, but also a really challenging, combination of factors.
CFN: What does it mean for an educator to adopt a “tap, click, read” mindset?
LG: We want educators to feel they can tap into resources — everything from public libraries to public media that are often not in their immediate line of sight of networks, or research. The tap piece is also playing into the idea that there’s a lot of tapping on tablets that’s happening at home and in classrooms. To click, for children, is to actively engage with something. Children want to participate, to click and see what’s behind something. We should recognize that as a moment of engagement, and not try to ignore it or consider it just a distraction.
ML: Reading is still very, very important for gaining the life skills that matter most in a digital and global age. But we want to signal that reading and literacy are evolving — just as reading and literacy evolved from the innovation of the story around the fire to the printing press.
CFN: What does 21st century literacy look like, and what does “Readialand” have to do with it?
LG: Twenty-first century literacy means more than just reading words on a print page. It has to include both the act of participating in communication and creating ideas, stories, messages that emanate out there. That means really helping today’s students become more than just consumers. It means helping them to become creators, too. Readialand is this notion that children are growing up in an ecosystem with all sort of forces around them that mold and help to shape how they think about the world. We should be trying to help children’s ecosystems evolve so there are lots of different opportunities for literacy learning, both digital and paper, new ways and old, so that they really have almost a 360 degree surround sound of literacy opportunities.
CFN: How can screens, and digital learning generally, enhance Jewish literacy and Jewish identity?
ML: There are so many interesting examples of innovation in the Jewish education space. Take for example G-dcast, which is a super interesting way of engaging young people in stories about the Torah and ways in which they can learn about life’s lessons without having to delve deeply into how the sages might interpret the parsha. They can take a point of view themselves because the lesson feels more vibrant and interactive. Digital technologies can help children actively participate in and digest important moments in Jewish history or events in Jewish culture. There is much that Jewish educators can do by introducing other relevant resources that teach about the Holocaust or common values – for example, Facing History and Ourselves. Teachers can use an array of digital tools, including videos and podcasts, to make things compelling.
CFN: What suggestions do you have for Hebrew teachers, who often struggle mightily with promoting literacy?
ML: Oh my gosh, I had such a challenge myself. I went to Hebrew school for many years and became a Bar Mitzvah, but I never learned to speak Hebrew. If technologies were used more productively I absolutely would have learned Hebrew much better than I did. If, for example, we were using technologies like YouTube and Instagram that would allow me to see where my cousins in Israel grew up, and which might have given me an appreciation for the pioneer path that my relatives took leaving Brooklyn in 1924, I would have been so much more engaged and motivated to master the language.
CFN: As a parent, I regularly field requests for iPhones, iPads, Xboxes and Kindle Fires. In fending off the onslaught of screens, am I actually depriving my children of essential tools for 21st century literacy?
ML: Get off the guilt trip! There is no one road to Rome here. Most parents who are reading this article are probably pretty much on top of what the right balance is. That said, I will comment that those families that have decided that their 3, 4, and 5-year-olds should have very limited or no access to digital technologies are right to have limits in place, but might want to think about a “no screen time” rule a little bit further. These devices are part of the currency of modern life.
CFN: What is the age at which a child should be given an iPhone?
LG: I really think it has to do a lot with family culture and family need. As the mother of an 11-year-old who now has an iPhone, it became a matter of giving kids a little bit more freedom, a little bit more of their own things over time, so they can feel some agency and ability to use and connect with these different devices. By middle school I’m finding — and this is definitely anecdotal — there are many kids who are using their devices for their reading and their homework definitely, but even more so to understand their culture, kind of a “kid culture,” and to talk to each other about that culture. I wanted my kids to have the opportunity to participate in those conversations.
“There are people out there who are educating their hearts as we speak. They’re getting on with the work, they’re loving their kids, they’re loving their students, they’re loving their communities. We must retrain our vision toward those people—we must develop eyes to see and ears to hear where that love is already happening—that is worth our energy and our care and our time, to tend that love, to show that love ourselves.”
—Krista Tippett, Founder and CEO, The On Being Project
“There are just two outcomes that really matter: First, that students feel Judaism is the fertile ground in which they get nurtured to grow, and second, that they find Judaism joyful.” Rabbi Joy Levitt, Executive Director, JCC Manhattan
"Civil discourse requires us to listen generously and to act as though—and to really believe—we could be open to persuasion. We each may think: 'I did not cause this situation, I am not to blame.' Yet we each have the capacity to help society turn the corner, if we honestly ask what went wrong and what we can do about it."
- Martha Minow, the 300th Anniversary University Professor at Harvard University and Joseph William Singer, Bussey Professor of Law, Harvard University
The Wow Metric of Success: Jewish Life in Bloom on the Farm: Spring has arrived, and the Jewish community is busy planting with purpose. In Vaughan, Ontario, the yellow coltsfoot and purple-blue scilla are just starting to flower at the Kavanah Garden, a half acre community garden that’s part of Shoresh, the Canadian-based Jewish environmental organization that includes the Kavanah Garden and Bela Farm. Last Sunday, on “Yom Manual Labor” volunteers gathered to turn the soil, plant seeds, paint outdoor tables and participate in construction projects with the Shoresh team, preparing the garden for growing season.
“Our Jewish community is only as strong as its ability to include all members in the fabric of Jewish life. Doing so helps each of us recognize the unique strengths we all bring to the Jewish community, and that community cannot possibly be complete until we actively and intentionally welcome each other.”
-Meredith Englander Polsky, 2017 Covenant Award Recipient, Director of Institutes and Training, Matan, and Developmental Support Coordinator, Temple Beth Ami Nursery School
“From all of my teachers, I have grown wise.” Psalms 119:99. Framing Jewish Education, a project of The Jewish Lens and supported by The Covenant Foundation, was created to engage teachers, students, and families in conversation about the value of Jewish education and to illustrate the power of great teaching and learning via a curriculum based on visual literacy and text.
“For me, study is a divine and daily imperative; I study a page of Talmud daily so that I am not only teaching. My teaching is constantly being fed by my learning.” —Erica Brown Associate Professor, George Washington School of Education and Human Development. Director, Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership, 2009 Covenant Award Recipient
The Covenant Classroom means something different to every educator but common goals are to motivate, engage and be inclusive of all learners. In this volume, we’ve collected an array of Teachings on Inspiration and Motivation in all areas of Education.
#ThankATeacher It has been twenty-five years since The Covenant Foundation first opened its doors, and we continue to be humbled by extraordinary Jewish educators from across North America and across the spectrum of Jewish life who have devoted their careers and considerable talents to the field of Jewish education. Now, in celebration of a quarter-century-old tradition of honoring Jewish education and educators, and to kick off a year of public engagement around great teaching, we’re proud to share The Covenant Foundation voices app with you: a new digital way to give and share your gratitude.
“What would it look like if we bet on Jewish early childhood education for the long-term, as our tradition instructs? The task might seem large, but the reward, we know, is great (Pirkei Avot 2:15).”
“Countless leaders have been inspired by the story of the Jewish people leaving bondage in Egypt – those whose names we know, like Martin Luther King, Jr. and those whose names we never will know, whose every-day acts of kindness and resistance fuel social change. This story, our story, has become a cornerstone of modern social justice work.”
—Abby Levine, Director of The Jewish Social Justice Roundtable
This is how I see a “Covenant Classroom”: a place where challenging topics are passionately discussed; a place where complex ancient texts are grappled with; a place in which self- esteem grows, and motivation to learn increases exponentially because of it. An environment in which each Jewish soul is given the confidence to continue the eternal search for meaning.”
—Dr. Sandra Ostrowicz Lilienthal, Curriculum Developer and Instructor at The Rose and Jack Orloff Central Agency for Jewish Education of Broward County and 2015 Covenant Award Recipient
“When powerful, new approaches to learning are introduced through digital tools, meaningful disruptions occur along the way… When this happens, new approaches which previously seemed inaccessible, are suddenly within reach.”
—Barry Joseph, Associate Director for Digital Learning, Youth Initiatives, American Museum of Natural History
“The future of Jewish teen engagement can in fact be found in 3D printers, and in text-people, and in service, and outdoor education, and in anything that brings teens into contact with authentic learning experiences and passionate, caring, knowledgeable educators.”
—Charlie Schwartz, Senior Jewish Educator, Director, BIMA & Genesis, Brandeis High School Programs
Portal seems like a particularly apt metaphor for entry points into Jewish life and learning because ultimately we want those experiences to be deeply experiential and transformative. We also want them to be accessible. A portal has no toll; passage is free. At the same time, a portal is particularistic, not a generic entrance. It conveys a sense of magic, ritual, and power. Similarly, we want to convey that Jewish life is rich, layered, and meaningful beyond what is immediately apparent. We want the encounter with Jewish life to take you on a journey that is profound and surprising. And, given that each of us may enter through the same portal but have a completely different experience of what is on the other "side," the possibilities are endless.
— Judith Rosenbaum, Executive Director, The Jewish Women’s Archive
"We need a new kind of creativity in the classroom that’s going to reach Jewish kids… If a teacher is imaginative, he or she is going to connect to students’ hearts and souls.”
—Dr. Arnold Eisen, Chancellor, Jewish Theological Seminary, Board Member, The Covenant Foundation.
"There are four types of students... The sponge absorbs everything. The funnel brings in on one side lets it out the other. The strainer lets out the wine and retains the lees. The sieve lets out the flour dust and retains the fine flour." —Pirkei Avot 5:15
"There’s a misconception that a venture must depend on large grants from big donors. It makes more sense and it’s more sustainable to test out an idea, and see whether it has the opportunity to make an impact on people’s lives."
— Ariel Beery, founder, PresenTense
I think [creating new Jewish texts] is a really good description of what we’re trying to do. These days we’re increasingly creating products that are intended to be shared on the web. We’ve felt and continue to feel that this medium, and virtual communication as a whole, is being under-tapped for its possibilities for making art.
— Reflections from Sam Ball on the New Jewish Filmmaker Project