Jacob Burns in the New York Times

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Even though it was 45 minutes away from where I grew up, I still think of the Jacob Burns Film Center as my hometown cinematheque.  It made me happy to read about their growth and success in the NY Times this morning.  I don’t know their secret, but they’re doing something right.

Film Lab Gives ABC’s a New D: Digital Literacy

Students in a program at the Jacob Burns Film Center making a documentary over the summer.

By TIM ARANGO

Published: December 4, 2008

In late September, a bit of Hollywood plopped down in Pleasantville, N.Y., red carpet and flashbulbs included.

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Alan Zale for The New York Times

The center’s Media Arts Lab in Pleasantville, N.Y., which opens on Friday, will serve as an audiovisual department for schools.

Alighting from vans and school buses, 7-, 8- and 9-year-old children strutted into the lobby of a quaint storefront theater, as parents and teachers snapped pictures.

The event was to showcase the animated films the children had produced during a summer program, one part of an expanding education operation that emanates from the nonprofit Jacob Burns Film Center in Westchester County, and now includes nearly 85 percent of the county’s school districts.

The goal is no less than redefining education in the digital age, a tough task at a time when anything considered an extra is very likely to come under budget scrutiny. Nevertheless, on Friday, the film center will open its new Media Arts Lab, a $15 million, 27,000-square-foot plant crammed with digital studios just down the road from the main theater. It is like a giant audiovisual department for the nearby schools.

And it is starting to reach into other sorts of institutions.

The Westchester County jail, in nearby Valhalla, is a temporary home to men who probably have more pressing issues than learning how to produce videos for YouTube. The same goes for those living in a nearby homeless shelter.

But instructors regularly visit the jail and the shelter to teach a curriculum of “digital literacy.”

The idea is this: In an increasingly visual world, and one in which anyone with a laptop, Web connection and camera can be a producer of media, children (and the occasional prisoner) need to understand how what they see and watch is created as much as plain old reading, writing and arithmetic.

“This is very much about economics, it’s about competitiveness in this country,” said Stephen Apkon, who founded the center in 2000. When the center opened, Mr. Apkon said that “there was a sense of gee, this is a nice extra.”

He added: “But Johnny needs to learn to read and write. That was the challenge. The challenge now is to deal with the demand for it.”

So what started as a charming idea to refurbish a theater and turn it in to a community cinema house, has morphed into a big educational program whose tentacles have reached as far away as Caracas, Venezuela, where the center’s staff has trained teachers to run their own programs.

It also has some big Hollywood names involved, like Ron Howard and George Lucas. (Janet Maslin, a critic for The New York Times, is the president of the board of directors.)

“Without knowing how to approach it, I’ve been interested in the idea of creative outreach programs to kids,” said Mr. Howard, a board member of the film center whose latest film, “Frost/Nixon,” opens on Friday. “I’m more excited about the problem-solving skills and exercising young people’s creativity. Creativity doesn’t just exist in a handful of geniuses — it’s a muscle everyone can exercise.”

Mr. Apkon, 47, a former investment banker with a pedigree in that world (Harvard Business School, Goldman Sachs), said he was drawn to digital literacy from watching his children.

“I saw a real disconnect between the classroom and the world they were growing up in,” he said.

He also drew on his own education, remembering the AV cart that would arrive in his classroom and the video his teacher would play.

“The discussion was never how that work was crafted to manipulate,” he said. “I don’t mean that in a pejorative way, but in how to tell a story.”

The center, which has an annual budget of $5 million, charges a fee to wealthy public school districts and private schools, but its programs are free in poorer schools. Mr. Apkon said that 55 percent of the students who participate do so at no charge. The filmmaking and animation programs incorporate math and science, and teachers say the students’ writing invariably improves.

“We have to communicate not just with words, but visually,” said Tara Gorman, a fourth-grade teacher at Casimir Pulaski School in Yonkers, which participates in the film center programs free.

In today’s media environment, she said, “Kids are really dictating what they see.”

Andrew Keen, a social critic and author of “Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet Is Killing Our Culture and Assaulting Our Economy,” offers a cautionary note on such efforts. Digital literacy, he said, should be defined as teaching children to be skeptical about sources of information online.

“If digital literacy means just putting your movies on the Internet, we’re in danger of creating an illiterate society,” Mr. Keen said. “That’s just self-expression using digital tools.”

Robb Moss, who teaches filmmaking at Harvard University and has consulted with the Jacob Burns Center, said that without the skills to view media critically, “you are less of a good citizen, and less able to defend yourself against the powers of advertising and political persuasion.”

Mr. Apkon said the center’s aim is not to create tomorrow’s Hollywood filmmakers, even if some of the children who were on the red carpet in September harbor such ambitions.

“We are not a vocational program,” Mr. Apkon said. “We are not geared to the kid who wants to become the next Steven Spielberg. Regardless of profession, these are skills you need to learn.”

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