A Note From Noah

I’m looking forward to seeing many of you at our upcoming Peer Learning Cycle (PLC) evening, February 13th, 6-7pm.

Please RSVP here so we can plan accordingly.

I wrote about some elements of our PLC recently, exploring the intersection between pedagogy and democracy, through the lens of the “Activist New York” exhibit now at MCNY. I’ve also shared, in an earlier Note, the central question guiding our teachers’ PLC work this year: “We value democracy in our communities. How do classroom investigations empower children to become democratic citizens?”

What really excites me about our PLC is that it situates teachers as developers of ideas, beyond the traditional role of “teaching”. Many of our ideals around this are inspired by the notion that a school can be a “center of inquiry”. In this model, outlined by Robert Schaefer, schools should be organized so that the teaching staff is “characterized by a pervasive search for meaning” and “new knowledge.” To achieve that, our PLC can be recognized as “the deliberate creation of new intellectual outlets for teachers” in which teachers can connect their in-class experiences, their relationships with children, with their own intellectual curiosity and begin to develop novel approaches to bring back into their classrooms. In short, the PLC model allows for us to “investigate matters not yet understood.”

At our monthly Coffee Chat this morning, we dove into a discussion about the tension between our parent-desire to retain authority over our children and also, concurrently, encourage them to develop the strength and tools necessary to self-advocate and advocate for others (ie, to resist adult authority). We explored the opposing forces of control and resistance, of authority and dissent. We discussed how children’s resistance manifests vastly differently based on context and relationship – home vs. school, grandparents vs. parents, peers vs. siblings, etc. We also touched on how the power and authority of a parent is often couched in protective love as well as the understanding that children benefit from the stability provided by rules and structure.

I would love for you to join us in expanding – and critiquing – this conversation on February 13th. The evening is designed as a conversation and explicitly not a “presentation” – we do not have any answers, only questions and curiosities. The teachers will be sharing with you what their conversation on this topic has looked like so far this year, and will then be asking for your participation in that conversation.

We are hoping to chart new territory and need your involvement! As Schaefer concludes, “How can children fully know the dynamism of learning if the adults around them stand still?”

Shabbat shalom,

A Note From Noah

As Martin Luther King, Jr, Day approaches, I’d like to share with you a bit more about our “Peer Learning Cycle” and how our teachers will be spending this Tuesday, with school closed for our annual Professional Development Day. In sync with our national attitude around MLK Day, our Tuesday will be spent exploring notions of protest, activism, and dissent – and how this applies to your young one.

As was highlighted in a November Note, this year our entire teaching staff is using our Peer Learning Cycle (PLC) to explore the intersection between democracy and pedagogy (2/13 6pm is our PLC evening at school, I hope this is already on your calendars!). We will be using our time on Tuesday to visit the “Activist New York” exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York, which “presents the passions and conflicts that underlie the city’s history of agitation.” Our goal for the day is to consider how democratic activism is embodied by our students in your classrooms – how we can consider our students’ collective “agitation” as their expression of democratic dissent.

A recent Washington Post article (thank you Rabbi Joy for sending to me!) explained how we can consider democracy and pedagogy co-existing:

"Joel Westheimer, a professor at the University of Ottawa who has written extensively on civics education, observes that the term “good citizenship” is typically employed to mean nothing more than “listening to authority figures, dressing neatly, being nice to neighbors, and helping out at a soup kitchen.” What it should mean — what ought to define a democratic society’s approach to education — has more to do with asking difficult questions, organizing for collective action, insisting that people be able to participate in making decisions about matters that affect them, and confronting the systemic roots of problems. Westheimer proposes a thought experiment: You have been magically transported to a classroom somewhere in the world without knowing where you are. Can you tell from the teaching whether you are in a democratic or totalitarian nation? If not, schooling in that country doesn’t really prepare students for democracy."

Westheimer outlines how the experiences within classrooms need not be learning modules "about" democracy to be practiced by free citizens in the future, but instead ought to be authentic expressions of democracy.

This thread is picked up in the early childhood sphere by a small cohort of authors who seek to “reconceptualize” what early childhood education can be, as opposed to non-critically affirming that schools are about the passive accumulation of content knowledge. Recognizing the political power of children to resist those in control, these authors advocate for a re-envisioning of school as a place of democratic practices, through which children can actively express “a means of resisting power and its will to govern, and the forms of oppression and injustice that arise from the unrestrained exercise of power”. The “democratic participation” of children in this reconceptualized school setting necessarily re-frames children’s resistance away from being “problematic” and instead reconstructs children’s dissent as “an important criterion of citizenship”. In this view, autocratic control of early childhood classrooms – by teachers – stifles the capacity for young children to act in politically resistant ways.

Within this framework, children are always-and-already acting in politically subversive ways: "They [children] take action in situations where things are going wrong from their perspective; they choose between different practices going on in the nursery to avoid subordination and to gain power; they take sides between different groupings for ethical reasons; and they follow and challenge the nursery rules as it seems beneficial". These are political actions by political beings, though we often do not recognize our youngest citizen’s behavior as such – we too often only understand our young learners through a developmental, not a political, prism.

These notions and more will be considered by our teaching staff this Tuesday and through the remaining months of the year. Additionally, we will be using two local, JCC-resources to extend the conversation:

“What is Democracy?”, a film by Astra Taylor, was shown this month at the JCC along with a Q+A with the director. The film (90 second trailer) explores the historical roots, and modern contradictions within, democratic practices.

“Protest: 70 Years of American Resistance”: The current exhibit in the JCC’s Laurie M. Tisch gallery, in our building’s lobby, explores the idea that “America itself was born out of protest” while considering that “protest has defined and reshaped the landscape of American rights and justice.”

I invite you to join your child’s teachers in this exploration by visiting the Activist New York Exhibit (it doesn’t hurt that the museum also has a Corduroy exhibit right next to it!) as well as the video and gallery mentioned above.

If we consider our children’s dissent as an exercise of their democratic reaction to authority and control, how does that re-position us as teachers and parents? What responsibilities do we have, given our assumed control over a population who simultaneously both needs us and rebels against us? How can we reconcile our control over our students with their exercising of dissent, a requisite tool of a democratic society?

Shabbat shalom,

A Note From Noah

(Below my Note is an introduction to our new atelierista/art studio teacher)

There is a cliff ahead!

This was Julie Lythcott-Haims’ warning Tuesday night as she spoke to a packed room at the JCC. Julie was sharing advice from her 2015 NY Times best seller, How To Raise An Adult, which leaned on perspective gained after a decade as Dean of Freshman at Stanford University. Julie’s work revolves around “how a parent can rob a child from developing agency by over-parenting.” Her message about the cliff is that we – parents of young children – are often ignorant (or just not-yet-there) of the dis-correlation between our over-parenting (helicopter, tiger, lawnmower, etc – cultural phenomena, not necessarily implicating any particular individual) and the need for children to build self-sufficiency into their repertoire before they approach the “cliff” of college and launch into adulthood.

As Dean of Freshman, Julie described seeing an acceleration in the “encroachment of parents into the lives” of children and college students. She found herself contemplating, as she watched well-resuméd 19 year olds trot into her office to talk about their course selection or summer internship: “Is any of this really your passion or are you just exceptional at doing what your told?” Julie boiled down her advice to parents in her role as dean to three points, eerily similar (minus the last one) to my advice to you all during Parent Orientation in September: Trust your kid. Trust your kid’s school. Now leave. Her point to college parents, she told us on Tuesday, was that by sticking around – by being over-present in their child’s life – the message inadvertently sent is, “Hey kid, you’re not really capable of succeeding without me.”

What happens when children receive that message? “All of this encroachment into their lives leads to higher anxiety and undercuts their sense of self. We are interrupting the development of self-efficacy.” Julie told us that the pattern she has seen develop is that parents “mortgage their children’s childhood for a chance at college admissions.”

In my dissertation at Teachers College (I am defending in March, wish me luck!) I touch on some of the same points, looking at how adults “extend control into children’s lives”, labeling this “adult imperialism” due to the intrusion into the sovereignty of another individual. By examining the life of a two year old as she begins nursery school, in the dissertation I offer four “stances” that a parent can take with their child which might mitigate the “over-parenting trap” that Julie describes and prepare our children for the “cliff” ahead. In brief, these four “stances” are:

Symmetry: Seek out moments of symmetry, rather than power, with your child. Where, when, and how do you not need to be in control? Where, when, and how can you look at them as equals, instead of less-than?

Shedding: Shed your developmental assumptions about what a child of a particular age can, or should, do. Instead, look across (in a symmetrical relationship) at the child, asking: What can you do? What do you like to do? How can I support you in doing that? The answer we find might be very different than where developmental assumptions would guide us.

Listening: Listening to a child gives them the opposite message than encroachment offers. When we genuinely listen to our child, the message we give is, “Hey kid, you’re pretty awesome and the world needs your ideas. You belong here as a contributing member of society.” The best way to do this – to listen – is quite literally to stop talking. As parents we tend to ask a question and upon not immediately hearing answer, ask it again six times with slight tweaks; likewise, we can be anxious around the quiet pause in conversation and so fill it with our voice. Listening to a child requires a non-talking-adult, at least for portions of the conversation. Leave room on the stage for your child; make sure they hold the microphone too.

Ceding: Ceding is the most important and also the hardest. Cede territory in your child’s life back to them. Where, when, and how are you present in their life in areas they do not need you? I will throw out a few potential examples to make the point: putting their jacket on; flushing the toilet; clearing their plate; cleaning their spill; choosing their sport or musical instrument or afterschool class. My point is not that all of us should cede all of these areas all at once – but instead that too often we forget to “give back” areas of children’s lives once we are no longer needed. Our presence becomes vestigial and anachronistic – it makes sense only because it’s the only way we allow ourselves to see our child, not because they actually still need us.

Ceding territory of our child’s life back to them means giving them the time, space, and repetition to, incrementally, take control of their own life. It prepares them for the cliff ahead, when – like it or not – they launch. Julie’s point on Tuesday was that it is impossible to extend control into our children’s lives from birth to 18 and then simply tell them, “Oh, by the way? You’re on your own now.”

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this – What areas of your child’s life are you extending control into but want to get out of? Conversely, what areas of your child’s life are you encroaching into but do not feel they are ready for you to recede from? And, in those areas, what is your exit strategy for when your child is ready for increased autonomy?

Shabbat shalom,

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,

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,