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.