Cultivating a Generation of 21st Century Learners 

Mr. Rogers once famously said, “I went into television because I hated it so, and I thought there’s some way of using this fabulous instrument to nurture those who would watch and listen.” 

A man known for his insight and creativity, Mr. Rogers faced head-on a force he did not completely understand or trust, in service of teaching the youngest among us.  

And it worked.   

This anecdote is the perfect way to describe Josh Rifkin and Stephanie Leen of the ELS department, and their endeavor to incorporate technology into their classrooms. When the pandemic struck and lockdown ensued, classrooms were quickly moved online and educators had to navigate new ways of delivering comprehensive and engaging lessons through screens. Once it was safe to move back to in-person schooling, many were inclined to run (as fast as possible) away from using technology as part of their teaching practice. In the ELS department, however, Stephanie and Josh had other ideas.  

And so was hatched a relationship between early childhood learning and technology at the JCC. In a recent interview, Stephanie and Josh shed some light on what inspired them, and what continues to motivate them, to use technology as a third teacher.

What inspired you to incorporate technology into the classroom? 

This whole project was born out of the discomfort, or dissonance, we all felt during Covid. It came from a sense of loss. The ELS is guided by a Reggio-inspired teaching model, which itself emerged as a result of the Second World War. So, it’s fitting that the discomfort of the pandemic led us to explore new classroom elements. 

Initially, the classroom as a whole was lost to us – migrating to Zoom classrooms forced us to lean on technology for learning and connection in a way that had never before been necessary. Once we were back in the classroom, we were navigating how to generate wonder and curiosity for our students in a strictly clinical setting. There were so many restrictions around what we could touch and bring into the classroom – we even had to close the ELS garden because we weren’t sure if the virus could be transmitted over surfaces like dirt or leaves.  

But out of this dissonance sprouted new thinking and novel ideas about how technology could propel us forward in our teaching efforts, while keeping children and staff safe. Once we were able to transition our classrooms back toward an environment resembling that of pre-covid, we realized the value technology brought – and we wanted to continue incorporating it.  

While many felt driven to reject, even run from, technology in teaching settings, personal life, and work, we did the exact opposite and instead embraced it. We found inspiration in Mr. Rogers – a man who hated television, yet devoted his life to it. For Rogers, the danger of television was obvious. But he also saw its potential to nurture the spirit and to teach the very young. 

When did you know you were on to something special? 

It began once we were back in the classroom, but before parents were allowed to join us. One of our students was having a birthday, and as a surprise for this young boy, we FaceTimed his parents into the classroom (appearing as larger-than-life projections). They joined us in singing Happy Birthday, then read their son’s favorite book for the whole class – the same book they read to him the night he was born. For the parents to have a window into the classroom, and for the students to have a peek into Jack’s world at home, was a truly magical connection. We were all left in awe. This day very much acts as the springboard that launched us in our technological journey. 

What are some ways you use technology to enhance students’ learning experience? 

It is part of our philosophy that the learning environment acts as a third teacher – and so we treat technology as a learning enhancer, or another teacher with its own area of expertise. We use technology for storytelling, for setting a scene using visuals or music and therefore enriching each student’s experience in that story.  

One class visited a grandparent virtually in Ohio, who took the class on a tractor ride through their garden and later sent dirt, pots, and tools for the children to use while they read a story about life cycles. Other Zoom calls ranged from dancing with children at Temple Emanual’s preschool, to singing songs with children in Uganda. Teachers are able to deepen each experience by offering back images from prior explorations for the children to interact with.   

One of our priorities is to teach children to be stewards of the Earth, and technology has been greatly beneficial in this endeavor. For example, after many interactive plant explorations in our garden, we can project a time-lapse of seeds growing on a classroom wall, and give children materials to create their own root systems alongside the imagery. This allows children to visualize what happens beneath their feet, and relate to it in a really tangible way. We’re helping them create a relationship with time and nature, and teaching them about growth at the same time. Technology offers a unique opportunity to help children understand more fully the world around them, and their space in it.  

Why do you believe it’s important to have technology in the classroom? 

If we’ve learned anything in the past few years, it’s that technology isn’t going anywhere. It’s only getting more complex and refined. How do we nurture 21st century learners if we don’t welcome, even invite, such a prominent aspect of the modern world?  

We wanted to learn how to harness technology and frame it for our students as not just a form of entertainment, but a haven for learning. It is our responsibility, as educators, to continue being learners ourselves, and also guide our students and their families through their education and toward healthy relationships.  

What are some unexpected benefits? 

We have found that technology has really opened windows in our school – literally, and figuratively. First, it’s opened a window to other schools, as well as friends and family who are not with us in Colorado. We’ve cultivated relationships with a Jewish school in Uganda, and by way of video calling and recordings, our students have learned from and taught students half way across the world.  

We also made some renovations in our own building, opening up windows between certain classrooms so as to feel a connection with other students right next door. This change was in part inspired by how we felt global windows were opening because of technology.  

When technology is utilized to create connection, we’re able to make the screen “disappear.” It’s truly amazing to see.  

This could be seen as a controversial endeavor – there are those who see technology for young people as inherently bad. How do you address these concerns?  

When one hears “technology,” they automatically think “screen time.” We want to broaden that perspective. Is it collaborative? Is it bringing people closer together? Does it inspire creativity? If so, then it’s technology we might want to consider using.  

Educators need to recognize that it’s not all made of the same stuff. Some of its broccoli, and some of it is junk food. What families need from educators are informed guides to lead them through these digital lands. In a 2016 policy recommendation, the American Academy of Pediatrics outlines “safe” uses of technology, and suggests that interactive technology use (such as Facetime or Zoom) may not necessarily count as harmful “screen time”, because it’s interactive and collaborative. And if children are exposed to technology with an adult as a guide, it may be more beneficial than other forms of tech use – such as video streaming or game playing.  

Our approach is to use technology in all the ways it is beneficial (building connection, deepening learning, encouraging interaction) and avoiding all the ways in which it might be hindersome (non-interactive, passive screen time). We want to stress, by no means is technology our default. We choose how and when it is used in the classroom based on our expertise as educators, and in consultation with parents. To cultivate a generation of 21st century learners, we ourselves need to be 21st century learners; rather than rejecting, we need to learn how to be guides. What tech is worthwhile, and what is junk? 

What have YOU learned?  

We are firm believers that to be an authentic teacher, we need to be passionate learners as well. We’ve learned so much from our students already. To be honest, the biggest lesson is that technology isn’t going anywhere – it’s here to stay. And, if used mindfully and with intention, it can be so much more than just a screen.  

One thing we already knew, but want to spotlight, is the dedication and collaborative spirit of our fellow early childhood educators. They are eager to open their classrooms and support the innovative ways of extending ongoing explorations with the children. We also want to express our gratitude to our visionary administration and leadership team who always look for new ways to support progressive learning, and are never afraid to support a good idea even when it falls from outside the box. 

Much like Mr. Rogers, Josh and Stephanie have wisdom, expertise, and humility to guide them through uncharted territory. Having emerged from the pandemic with new insights and renewed passion for their craft, Stephanie and Josh are leading the way in showing our youngest how to become leaders, stewards of the Earth, and life-long learners – with the help of modern technology.