Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Finding Dragons in the Clouds

I remember, as a kid, lying on my back on the side of hill looking at the sky, finding a dragon, George Washington and a tree floating amidst the white, billowing clouds.  I'm going to bet that most of us have had similar experiences, finding disparate symbols in the mist that resides in the sky.  Clouds are made up of water vapor, much of which has previously fallen near or to earth and then evaporates. They are self-renewing. But I think they stand for something else:  The infinite reaches of nature.  For me a cloud summons Heschel's idea of radical amazement.  So attending ISTE 2011 I find myself being amazed and amazed again.  Not at the works of nature or God, (unless we believe that the Deity's Hand is in everything) but at the efforts of Woman and Man.  It's not so much that I am blown away by the latest animation software or iteration of optical touch screens. I am. It's that we are not done yet.  We are still Primitives.  Next year at ISTE there will be new technology.  New applications.  What is innovative today will be passé next summer. But that really doesn't matter.  What's important for me, at least, is what these works of humanity represent.  It's the symbolism that I'm writing about.

I have a confession to make.  In the middle of the day today I escaped the world of apps and androids.  I needed fresh air.  I also had a pilgrimage to make.  You see, I’ve never seen the Liberty Bell in real life.  It’s always been a part of every American’s life.  For my family and me, all being immigrants from the “old country”, it took on special significance, as my parents had chosen the freedom of America that The Bell represented.  So I figured that I’d take a couple of hours to visit this symbol of liberty for which my parents risked their (and my) lives to reach.

Symbols are something conceived by humans to represent something greater.  Our Jewish tradition is full of them: the Chanukiah, challah, the mezuzah, and tallit to name a few.   The Liberty Bell is an example of one of the icons of American secular religion.  I was surprised by my reaction as I stood before this flawed chunk of metal.  I was truly in Awe.

As I gazed upon the cracked and silent bell, I realized that it’s message of liberty (an idea that was associated to the bell 100 years after its casting to protest the abomination of slavery) transcended its physicality. The Bell represents something greater than itself.  It is a symbol that bridges the past with the future.

What does this have to do with Google, Second Life, and wireless document cameras?  These amazing constructs that astound us at their power are but transient symbols and signposts pointing to tomorrow. One of the sessions I attended focused on virtual games and simulations. The instructor (Dr. Greg Jones) pointed out that there is no definitive research that shows that using gaming and sims in the classroom results in higher student achievement. They are short lived. Tomorrow there will be something new. Dr. John Medina, the keynote speaker on Sunday also said that it is still to early to judge the long-term impact of digital technology on the brain. The ISTE conference and the drive to integrate education technology in our classrooms is not The Answer.  It is a symbol for a direction that we are choosing to travel.  It is representing a new way to interact with our environment, what we have learned, and what we will learn.

In the Jewish world, we are also travelling this evolutionary path.  We are used to it. We started out with Oral Law.  Then we wrote it down.  Then we interpreted it…again and again. That’s what the Responsa and commentary are all about.  We’re still doing it.  Storahtelling.  Media Midrash. Bible Raps. G-dcast.comJewish Education Network. YU 2.0. There’s more.  Things I don’t know about and things we haven’t yet thought of.  And before all that I am…Amazed.

Clouds represent the infiniteness of nature, and if you will, the Holy as It interacts with the physical world.  The cloud that we are creating represents human potential.  Just like the Liberty Bell.  The cloud we are crafting does not reside in the sky.  Lo BaShamayim Hee.  It resides in us, in our hearts. Clouds flit across the sky, ever-changing.  The electronic cloud we are creating also doesn’t stand still. We shape its form and direction.  We must remember that we are in the midst of an ever-changing process that defines intellectual and technological development.  This also applies to how Jewish learning accommodates and adapts to contemporary reality. If we want a definition of Jewish survival, I think that’s it: We never stand still. We change our shape and form, but we won’t dissipate into nothing.  We adapt and renew, taking on new forms. Just like clouds.

Before I forget, here's a picture of the Liberty Bell.  Can you find the crack?

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