A Note From Noah

In the aftermath of the tragedy in Pittsburgh six weeks ago, I received emails from many early childhood organizations with advice and resources for teachers and parents. They cohered around the central notion of protecting children from the burden of tragedy. They offered two categories of advice: how to talk to children (simple messages, don’t answer more than they’re asking, etc), and how to shield children (attend to your own grief in non-child spaces, turn off the news when they’re around, assure them you are here to protect them, etc). Protecting children from the burden of tragedy is certainly a goal I wholeheartedly agree with.

But yet, I was left uncomfortable with the passive role all this advice leaves for the child: something fragile to be guarded, something brittle that needs a hero. At the JCC, this does not describe the students we know. I wasn’t sure what to do with the dissonance between the advice I was reading and the power and agency that I know children bring with them in the world. And anyways, there were more important things to consider – our collective adult-grief and outrage in the aftermath of the shooting.

With some time to reflect, I’d like to offer a more assertive role for our youngest citizens that reflects their agency as our nation, and our city, deal with rising anti-Semitism. Our children need to be showing up at Jewish events and celebrations. We need to re-dedicate ourselves to showing children the public joy and pride of being Jewish and doing Jewish things.

Yes, we can and should continue to shield our children from the burden of grief. And, concurrently, the advice in dealing with tragedy must include the idea that in the face of those who would deny our Judaism – those modern day King Antiochus-es – we must show our children, and include them in our actions, that we respond like the Maccabees. Rising anti-Semitism is not only something that we should be shielding our children from but also something we can all – our children included – push back against simply by showing up.

When two large swastikas were spray painted on a professor’s office last week at Teachers College, Columbia University, the college responded by having it’s President light the menorah in a large public space. I attended the lighting (I am earning my doctorate at TC) and was overwhelmed at the supportive crowd. Over 200 people filled the room, including many of my professors. I emailed one afterwards saying it was nice to see her there, and she responded by telling me that while she was not Jewish, her husband’s parents were both Holocaust survivors and she felt the need to be there. I replied to tell her that while her in-laws were on the ground in Europe, my Zaydie was flying overhead, conducting bombing raids as part of the US Air Force. Her in-laws and my Zaydie, all those decades ago; and here we both were, again seeing swastikas, in 2018.

The following night, I lingered in the JCC lobby to see something truly amazing: the live performance of Fiddler on The Roof…in Yiddish. I remember my mother collecting words and phrases on napkins from her parents in their elder years. Given that my generation knows of Yiddish as something from the Old Country, as something lost amidst the massive global Jewish migration in the 20th century, I never would have imagined the scene in the lobby. Every chair was packed, the overflow crowd was standing room only. Grandparents were singing along. Nursery school students and alumni sat on their parents’ laps. For me, this was a shocking expression of Jewish continuity, strength, and pride. Here was a room full of Maccabees, holding on tightly to our Jewish pride and heritage. Refusing to let go.

Today, I received an email from Emunah Garfield, associate teacher in room 3, reviewing a talk she heard last night about Chanukah. She wrote to me what she learned:

While the Greek conception of fire was as a basic element, an unalterable, essential part of the world, the Jewish idea is that Adam found flintstones on the first Saturday night and rubbed them together to create fire. She [the speaker] elaborated that in havdalah [the ceremony to mark the end of Shabbat], the blessing isn't borei ha'eish (creator of fire), but borei me'orei ha'eish (creator of the SOURCE of fire). Her bottom line was that when you think about fire in the Torah, it's a provocation to humanity to take action.

With Emunah’s email, I realized what all the advice-emails were missing in how to interact with young children in the aftermath of Pittsburgh, in the face of anti-Semitism. It is not only to protect them from grief. It is also to kindle them together, to make fire, to take action. To celebrate and show our children the strength of our community.

Shabbat shalom and happy Chanukah,
Noah

A Note From Noah

“We value democracy in our communities. How do investigations empower children to become democratic citizens?”

This question was crafted by our teaching staff last spring, to be used this year as the guiding focus of our “Peer Learning Cycle” (PLC) (see what we mean by “investigations” here). PLC is a year-long professional development strand, in which teachers research this central question in their classrooms and then bring data together to explore with fellow teachers. We are not after a specific or final “answer” but in the inquiry itself.

You can read more about our current PLC on the Common Space bulletin board between classrooms 2 and 3 (a condensed version of the board is viewable here), along with relevant Daily Reflections highlighting how the work has been going. The board includes a section for YOU to add your own comments, so please do! And, make sure to attend our school-wide PLC evening on February 13, 6pm.

Democracy is at the heart of what makes our country a special and powerful place, and also our school (outlined here). Three years ago I was fortunate to hear Deborah Meier speak to a crowded room of ISAAGNY school heads (Deb is, among other things, a MacArthur “genius” recipient and a mammoth presence in the field of education). Deb beseeched us to practice democracy in our schools, to do democracy with our students. She reminded us that “we go to war for democracy,” and yet our country far-too-often forgets that schools are not only places of learning but also the fundamental engine which nurtures democratic citizens.

Deb urged us to create schools in which “everybody involved feels more powerful and not less powerful.” This, of course, resonates deeply with our Reggio-inspired approach, which is why this year our teachers designed the above question – to explore how our classrooms can incubate democracy.

Please visit the bulletin board in our Common Space to leave your own thoughts and stay abreast of our school conversation on this topic.

Happy Thanksgiving,
Noah

A Note From Noah

It’s a good time of year to address academics - having now passed Parent Night, with Parent-Teacher Conferences coming up shortly, and our oldest students in the midst of their independent school visits or public G&T registration. Academics – the discrete skills that your children learn along the way in our classrooms while they are playing, negotiating, and building community. While my Notes this year have focused mostly on our Reggio-inspired approach and the correlated notion of the child’s voice, make no mistake – our classrooms are deeply academic places.

Several years ago, our teaching staff wrote an internal document titled, “Developmental Framework for Young Children.” This document is our guiding light for your child’s academic growth in our play-based classrooms. It ensures that while we are busy building airports out of magnatiles (Room 5), determining if Guinea pigs have tongues (Room 7), or how to run a toy drive (Room 4), teachers are presenting appropriate academic modules to children, embedded within those play-based curricula. Students in Room 1 scribble on paper as they play trains, learning that marks on paper have symbolic meaning. Students in Room 2 compare story books to each other, learning to be literary critics. Students in Room 6 build a word wall around “habitats” as they research their class pet, Ella the bunny. These are all direct manifestations of the “Developmental Framework.”

If you are curious as to how academics play out in our Reggio-inspired classrooms, I am providing links below to previous Notes which have detailed different content areas in specifics ways:

Math

Literacy

Language

Executive function

Intrinsic motivation

Lastly, I am compelled to make explicit – we believe we can do both. We can play, and learn; we can run a Reggio-inspired classroom, and give children strong academics. I outlined how this works in a March, 2017 Note:

At Teachers College, we have been speaking about the stellar research focusing on the positive impact that high quality early education makes over the course of a child’s life, and how despite the clear improvements this has made to public policy regarding early education and care, it has also left some of us (parents and educators alike) with a narrow-minded focus on using nursery years to “prep” children for later experiences. The discussion in class recently has turned towards re-inserting an emphasis on the here-and-now for our young learners – they are not in school only so they can be successful later (the destination), but because they deserve – they have the right – to slow down, enjoy themselves, along the way (the journey).

As educators, we are at times put on the defensive and asked to explain our choices – Why do you still use playdo in PreK? Why does my child play mommy/baby every day? Shouldn’t my son be doing something other than blocks all day long? Often, we answer these questions from a child-development-perspective: Playdo helps your child develop stronger graphomotor muscles, allowing them to obtain more fluent penmanship in elementary school; family play gives your child a safe space to establish social relationships, allowing them to feel confident during recess and in the cafeteria in the years to come; block play is setting your child up to have a strong foundation in STEM concepts such as gravity and symmetry, and STEM jobs will be exploding when your child graduates college!

All of those answer are true. And yet, they leave out what we deeply believe here – children’s lives should be full of whimsy, spontaneity, and – yes – moments of boredom that they must strive to fill with their own ideas. Our attention to your children while at school is not only on getting them to arrive at their destination, but on making sure they soak up every moment of the journey as it passes by. We play in water and sand tables because of the developmental benefits, of which there are many – but also importantly, because of how fun it is! Play time is the most important part of our daily schedule here not only because children learn through play, but because children deserve protected spaces to simply enjoy themselves.

I hope that this review of academics in our classrooms is helpful in understanding how it all takes place here. I encourage you to ask questions at your child’s Parent-Teacher Conference, to further push me on this topic, and to always be open to the possibilities present in a Reggio-inspired classroom.

Shabbat shalom,
Noah


A Noah From Noah

Citizens are expected to speak up, to make their voice heard. This tenet runs deep in our school’s activist pedagogy (Note from two weeks ago). It has been beautiful watching the loud voices of our youngest citizens in class this week.

It all starts from knowing that your voice has power.

In Room 1, with our youngest citizens, the teachers noticed the children have been playing with various building materials quite intensely. To support this interest, the teachers added several rich provocations to the class environment. As they wrote in their Daily Reflection, the intent is to show that,

“In following the children’s interested in building, we communicate that we value their thoughts and ideas. It adds to the sense of power and agency that each child has in our community: their ideas and interests matter.”

In Room 6, the children told the teachers that they wanted to be able to save their block structures during the day – which they couldn’t because the block area doubled as the meeting area. The children clamored about this during meeting time, and the teachers listened. Shown in their Daily Reflection, the whole class re-arranged the room to be more conducive to saving block structures for longer periods of time.

This is not cute, sweet, or trivial. These are real citizens, speaking their truth, exercising their power as constituents. The lessons our students learn in Room 1 – when they see their play-schemes extended by their teachers – bleed into their activist stance as they grow and demand change around them in Room 6. Our youngest citizens learn it is a right, not a privilege, to have a say in how their community works. This is the right and responsibility of an active citizen – and our students are certainly active in their expression of this!

In Room 2, a child approached a teacher with a complaint – a classmate had knocked down his block structure. Rather than intervene as the authority figure, the teacher recommended the child speak directly with his classmate. The child-child dialogue is captured in the Daily Reflection:

“I didn’t like it when you knocked down the blocks…when we make it again, can you not knock it down again?”

“Yes. I got one [block] we needed.”

“I have an idea! We can build a castle.”

“I know! We can put it on top (they begin building together)”

Connecting citizens with each other to productively work out their conflicts is a core contribution that schools can make to a democratic society.

In a Reggio-inspired school, committed to building a robust democracy with an emboldened citizenry, social problems are not handled by teacher-as-magistrate. They are dealt with person-to-person, through established relationships of trust. The fact that you knocked down my block tower doesn’t push us apart; it pulls us closer, as we now have a problem we must solve together. I am responsible for you, and you are responsible for me. Our teachers lay the groundwork for this type of interaction through the examples from Rooms 1 and 6 above, by showing children the power of their own ideas.

This was felt in Rooms 4, 5, and 6 this week, as two children from each class walked together to donate dozens of apples from their recent apple picking trip to Christ and St. Stephen’s Church brown bag program – the apples were used to help feed 80 people that day. And yet, the student-citizens were not content with this isolated contribution. They ruminated on poverty, hunger, and economic inequality after they returned, with the child-child dialogue captured in Room 4’s Daily Reflection:

“How come we have a lot of food and they don’t? They could’ve bought food.”

“I don’t think they have money to buy food.”

“I have a great idea. We could make a stand of food. We can just give them food for no money. They won’t need money for the food.”

“We could say, ‘No money! You can get your food right away!’”

They concluded the conversation by deciding that they wanted to make a food stand in front of the JCC to give food away to those in need.

This activist stance, and the related belief in the agency and power of an involved citizen, is not coincidental. It grows from those early days in Room 1 and Room 8, from those moments when our student-citizens learn what it means to be empowered, to have adults who listen, to be in an environment in which their ideas can flow forth freely and be met with respect and trust instead of humor or derision. It is because we take children seriously here that they say such serious things.

My greatest hope for all of our child-citizens is that they retain this capacity – to speak out and to speak up – throughout their lives and the many roles they will play as citizens.

With these thoughts in mind, I was thrilled to pick up a new book this week, Troublemakers: Lessons in Freedom From Young Children at School, by Carla Shalaby (the author is speaking on November 8 at Bank St). She writes that school in a democracy must be about teaching freedom and not only discrete facts. Further, she finds deeply problematic the overt power dynamic felt in traditional schools between teachers and children: how can children learn what it means to be free if their teachers wield near-complete control over them?

Ruminating on the Daily Reflections above, I am proud to be part of a school in which teachers and children enjoy relationships of trust in which they each see the other as co-citizens.

Shalaby writes about students in a classroom setting:

“A free person retains her power, her right to self-determination, her opportunity to flourish, her ability to love and to be loved, and her capacity for hope. A free person recognizes when she or others are being treated as less than fully human. And a free person embraces both her right and her duty to struggle against such treatment and to organize with others to do the same as a solidary community.”

I trace a direct line from Room 1, with teachers expressing their respect of children’s play through their material choices, to Room 4, with the child-citizens expressing their determination to provide more food and money for those in need. Our work as a school is to ensure that our child-citizens exercise their voices, power, and agency as essential tools in the building of community.

Shabbat shalom,

Noah

A Note From Noah

Having gone over some of our Reggio-lingo last week, here I’m diving a bit deeper into why we are a Reggio-inspired school, and what it means for us. If last week’s look at lingo was seeing each tree, this week I’m zooming out to look at the whole forest. (It’s a big forest so stick with me!)

Reggio is an activist pedagogy – it is non-neutral and embodies a stance of advocacy towards participation, democracy, and civic responsibility. A Reggio-inspired approach is not about the passive accumulation of knowledge and skills in discrete individuals (“schooling”) – it is rather about the active pursuit of a more just world through egalitarian relationships.

This notion is deeply embedded in the history and origin story of the Reggio approach. Loris Malaguzzi, founder of the movement, was born in Italy in 1920 and lived there through WWII. As others have said about the founding story of Reggio:

It started in a little town called Villa Cella in the northern region of Italy known as Reggio Romana. In the political and economic chaos that followed the fall of Fascism and the German retreat from Italy, the villagers, including children and parents, had collected stone, sand, and timber to build a school. Loris Malaguzzi rode his bicycle to the town to have a look and was so impressed by what he saw that he stayed.

The first school was financed by selling a German tank, nine horses, and two military trucks. That first school still exists in the countryside 20 minutes from the city of Reggio Emilia, which in 1963 assumed funding for the preschools.

At our Parent Association meeting last night, we heard from Eve Landau, the Director of the Joseph Stern Center for Social Responsibility at JCC Manhattan. Eve was part of the small dedicated core who created the JCC two decades ago, and reflected to us last night that she remembers sitting on the 2nd floor on September 12, 2001. Our school opened that week. Eve and her small team of JCC-mates spent the day building the furniture for our nursery school, some of it still in use. Eve commented last night that her squad, despite the horrific events of the previous day, had a collective sense on September 12 that through building the furniture for the school’s inaugural class, they were imbuing our brand new building with a sense of hope. With a stance of optimism for our suddenly fractured world. With an activism that demanded hands-on participation.

So too were the schools of Reggio borne out of their historical context:

The people of Reggio Emilia…set about rebuilding their lives and reconstructing their society, with a strong desire for change and a new and just world free from oppression, injustice and inequality. This hope for change brought about cooperative movements to provide services and redress inequalities in society.

Our school is a place where all voices count – where it doesn’t matter what your idea is, it matters that you have an idea – and more, that you stand up and share your idea. It matters that you participate. This is not a partisan activism, it is a participatory activism. It is a place for dialogue, for individuals – young citizens – to be encouraged to speak up, speak out, and speak at issues that matter to them. Carlina Rinaldi, former director of the Reggio municipal schools and long-time prolific propagator of the Reggio approach, writes:

Pedagogy like school is not neutral. It takes sides, it participates in deep and vital ways in the definition of this project whose central theme is not mankind, but his [her] relationship the world, his [her] being in the world. Pedagogy implies choices, and choosing does not mean deciding what is right compared to what is wrong. Choosing means having the courage of our doubts, of our uncertainties, it means participating in something for which we take responsibility.

The schools of Reggio Emilia, which were born of a true process of popular participation, are a declaration of participation by families, who constitute part of the schools’ identity. Over the years it has become clear that participation is essential to processes of learning and identity in children and adults. Participation, then, is a common journey which makes it possible to construct the sense of belonging to a community.

Walking into Classroom 2 yesterday, I watched as Carla, a co-head teacher in Room 2, was reading a book aloud to her students at circle time. Sitting on her left, a young boy started clamoring to Carla excitedly about something in the book. Keeping in mind the activist stance inherent in our pedagogy – with a goal of seeking participation to “construct the sense of belonging to a community” – Carla paused her reading, listened intently, pursed her lips, and then turn to the class, “So, his theory is…” and then paraphrased what she had heard the child say. Importantly, she then turned back to the boy and said, “Why don’t you tell your classmates again, I don’t think they heard you. It’s important that they hear your ideas.”

Given the historical context of Reggio, as outlined above, one can see why our teachers don’t tell our students, “Honey please be quiet, it’s not your turn, I’m reading.” Quiet is dangerous. It is how community and democracy crumble. We want loud participation, we want robust dialogue. I am uneasy when our students – like any cohort of citizens – is too quiet, too humble. This is why we embrace Reggio pedagogy, inspired by its historical context and correlated activist stance towards participation, democracy, and community.

Watching Carla and her class, my mind went to the New York Times article from the day before on our country’s well-documented abysmal rate of participation in midterm elections. Our pedagogical priority is not to finish our read aloud, complete the lesson, or ensure knowledge transmission. Activist pedagogy is more intent on making sure your child grows up in an educational environment in which they are comfortable and confident flexing their voice as a citizen, at every stage of life.

That your child hears adults tell them, “It’s important that they hear your ideas.”

Shabbat shalom,

Noah