Web 2.0: The Promise of our Children, and the Obligation of Philanthropy

by Joni Blinderman

Media multi-tasking defines the world our children inhabit, and educators, philanthropists and communal leaders have the responsibility to guide and encourage integration of the most powerful digital tools with learning.

When they gather at the Jewish Futures Conference on Monday to explore dynamic visions of Jewish education, an emerging model will be within view. Just miles away at the New Orleans Jewish Day School, technological innovation and philanthropic vision are transforming an institution shut down after the devastating rage of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

When I entered the field of philanthropy nearly 15 years ago, I found extraordinary role models who practiced the art of strategic grant making in and out of the Jewish world.

They inspired with intellectual rigor, depth of content knowledge and expertise in field building. They partnered with academics, policymakers and practitioners, stimulating projects that moved a field forward, often boldly, and released innovation and action. And they respected grantees’ own instincts and expertise, knowing that social progress requires those in the field to operate unfettered.

Two principles animated me then and continue to do so now. The first: risk-taking must be encouraged; if everything funded is successful, then opportunities are being missed. The second: test and invest new ideas in local communities.

These are as necessary now as ever, especially as Jewish education – our community’s lifeblood – struggles with affording and deploying the tools of digital media and technology.

Connie Yowell, Director of Education Grantmaking at the MacArthur Foundation, recently laid out the stakes when she wrote: “In today’s highly interdependent, technology-based global economy, America’s students are not faring well. The Internet and digital media offer the promise of an extraordinary new model for America’s education system.

“Research has shown that young people who are participating in these new learning activities demonstrate greater civic engagement. They are more self directed, more adept at critical thinking and problem solving, and, perhaps most important, they are much more proficient at collaborating – a skill that will be essential in the 21st century society and work.”

Our own students, whether they are attending day schools or congregational schools, must be given these same opportunities to develop the essential skills they need to become engaged and successful 21st century citizens and lifelong learners committed to Jewish life.

Can insight into teens’ behavior drive our grant making today? Can we develop new models of innovation that may be risky, but that will engage the next generation of Jews in a rigorous and relevant way? I believe so, if we adhere to the tried and true principle of embedding grant-making experimentation in local communities.

Back to New Orleans. Like other foundations and federations assisting the Jewish community there after Hurricane Katrina, The Covenant Foundation responded by creating a partnership with the New Orleans Jewish Day School.

This is a school where important ideas matter, where students’ growth and development are central and their world outside of school is valued. It became clear that a new model could emerge from the crisis there.

What would it take to break open the old “chalk and talk” paradigm to re-imagine learning? We consulted with experts and diverse groups including Global Kids Online Leadership Program, the MacArthur Foundation, Facing History and Ourselves and Sesame Workshop to understand how a whole school could adopt a radically different approach to learning.

Through professional development, teachers and administrators are now equipped to facilitate students’ creative expression, learning and experimentation, while empowering them to become reflective learners and collaborators.

Students are taking responsibility for mastering subject matter. They are motivated and are proud of their progress and achievements. Parents and teachers are integrally involved.

This seven-month-old collaboration between The Covenant Foundation, Global Kids, and the New Orleans Jewish Day School has excited all of us, including parents, board members, teachers, administrators and professionals from other local Jewish communal organizations.

Digital media and technology can support an educational framework that encourages children to experiment with their learning in a variety of ways at school and at home.

We are just at the beginning of these philanthropic and local community partnerships. It is based on The Covenant Foundation’s intention to continue to take new chances. Everyone involved in the enterprise believes it will grow organically and spread to other communities, and that we will learn from the inevitable mistakes that may come.

The lesson? We must embrace grant-making practices and approaches incorporating risk, experimentation, collaboration, and an acute awareness of societal trends that are transforming the landscape.

And we hope that our children will feel what Abraham Joshua Heschel must have dreamed when he wrote: “Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement … get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.”

Joni Blinderman is Associate Director of The Covenant Foundation.

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