A Note From Noah

A career as an early childhood educator, it turns out, is kind of like a mashup of Billy Madison and Groundhog Day – I’m back in Miss Lippy’s class, every day. Immersing myself in the world of childhood has taught me a few things; I’d like to share three of them here in my last Note to our community.

Thank you for reading my Notes and engaging in the dialogue I hope they’ve sparked with your friends and family. More importantly, thank you each for the trust, love, and warmth that you have shown me and your child’s classroom teachers. Your belief in the work we do together allows us to be the community we want to be. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for granting me this opportunity to be your school director.

Here is what I’ve learned in nursery school, the second time around:

The whole world changes every few years.

From my vantage point in nursery school, it doesn’t take 25 years for a new generation to inherit the country and paint our collective future. Every three years, the entire population of our youngest citizens – our nursery school students – turns over. Every three years, a new generation arrives in our school and show us a fresh vision of imagined possibilities, of novel futures.

The pace of change, when viewed through this prism, is not the slow, plodding molasses of adult-bureaucracy and bicameral legislation. Children change the world with fervor and rapidity, never slowing down to consider who they’ve offended in the changing of the guard.

In the months leading up to the 2016 Democratic Party presidential primaries, a mother in our school shared with me a remarkable line from her five year old daughter. They were talking about the candidates, Hillary in particular, when her daughter told her, “Well, she can’t be President – she’s not brown.” The norm-shattering second half of that statement reminded me that during the primaries eight years prior, my grandfather sheepishly admitted to me that even as a lifelong Democrat, he couldn’t bring himself to vote for a black presidential candidate. After 43 white presidents, it took just one black POTUS and nursery students accepted dark skin as the presidential-norm. And as radical as her statement was, here’s the thing – children say stuff like this all the time.

Earlier this week, my neighbor shared with me that her daughter had met someone new at the playground: a transgender peer. Catching up at the end of the day, her daughter told her about meeting this new friend: “Henry is a girl with a penis.” And then she moved on, continuing to recount her day. The child’s simple, clear description – of a subject which appears massively complex to many adults – was in my mind the following morning as I read about a statue being unveiled to honor two transgender women and the role they played in the Stonewall uprising. In honor of 50 years since the uprising, the statue is the first in the city, and “one of the world’s first,” to depict transgender individuals. Marsha Johnson, born in 1945 and featured in the statue, “was about 5 when she began to wear dresses, but other children’s retaliation pressured her to stop.” It took 50 years from Stonewall to include transgender representation in New York City’s statues; it took one meeting at the playground for these two four-year-olds to recognize each other.

The present now / will later be past / The order is / Rapidly fading – these lyrics are a prophecy which our youngest citizens annually fulfill. The breathtaking pace with which children change the world has me eager and excited to see what lies ahead: How will nursery school students define the world three years from now? What possibilities will they present us with?

“Belonging” is the unshakable premise, and omnipotent promise, of community.

I mentioned at Parent Orientation this year that my journey at the JCC started with the then-Associate Director offering me a hug on the sidewalk outside the entrance to the building on my first day of work. The hug told me, “Welcome. You belong here.” I’ve done my best to pay this forward over the years, and in doing so, have learned about the remarkably powerful qualities that “belonging” has on each of us.

Teaching one year in a 3s classroom, my team and I had a young boy who was quite rambunctious. He would knock down his friends’ block structures, run around the classroom, and angrily refute teacher-instructions. After several weeks of trying various pedagogical strategies (“classroom management”), we came up with a different approach: For the first 90 minutes of each day, we would not use any negative words with him (“no,” “don’t,” “can’t,” etc). He wouldn’t hear any statements that excluded him or highlighted his difficult behavior. Instead, we replaced those phrases with hugs, cuddles, and smiles. We would show him, plain and simple, that he belonged, here, with us. Well, it worked. After a few weeks of this (you might call it a “strategy of belonging”), he transformed. He settled into the classroom environment, made friends, and flourished. His parents wrote me at the end of that year:

When we started the school year, we had so many worries about our son. We had received feedback from other programs that he was overly active and did not always behave. But we couldn’t put our finger on the problem. During the year, you really gained his trust and affection. As a result, you were better able to understand his issues. It has been so amazing to see him grow over the year. I can tell he is so proud of all that he achieved. You have truly made a difference.

The “difference” was the simple switch from telling him what he couldn’t do, to showing him that regardless of his behavior, he belonged here. Once he knew he belonged it made all the difference.

In recent years, after transitioning from the classroom to the office, I’ve noticed the same power of “belonging” at work with our parents. Late one June, I received an email from a parent who had just wrapped up her final year with us. It had been a difficult year for her and her family, full of emotion, change, and transition. She was writing to let me know “how much the JCC has meant to me and my family” during this tumultuous period:

You were all magic and love and I cannot thank you enough. I cannot tell you the relief we felt being able to drop [our son] at the JCC and know the love and support he had every day. Please know how grateful I am for an amazing school that really, above all the money and influence it has, cares deeply above and beyond about the children and parents in its community.

I’ve spent the past eleven years investigating what children and families need, and how nursery school can provide that. What I’ve learned is that nothing matters more than belonging. Rabbi Hillel tells us in Pirkei Avot, “Do not separate yourself from the community.” The role of the nursery school, then, is to accomplish the inverse: To make sure no one is separated from the community.

Children need more quiet patience and empty space then we ever give them.

We now know, thanks to the proliferation of research into child development over the past half-century, that children come fully equipped with the requisite mechanisms to propel them forward in growth and development. Young humans have been designed, over millennia of evolution, to ask questions and go about determining answers – this is their natural stance in life, it is what they do. Children are scientists (read this book!).

Given this, we are left with the uncomfortable recognition that our students and children flat-out don’t need the incessant questioning of parents and teachers (“What color is this?” “What shape is that?” “How many blocks am I holding?”) or stream of new toys (“Look at this!” “Do it this way!” “Isn’t this exciting?”) to push them forward in their learning-journey. They are already questioning, critiquing, and reflecting – in short, growing and learning. Their brains are designed to do this.

In any given day – in any given hour! – our children feel the weight of adult-expectations imposed on them dozens if not hundreds of times. They are expected, somehow, to want to submit to instructions and comply with rules (that themselves change with each adult and space they are moved to) with docility. And once they are behaving properly and paying attention to the grownup in the room, we consider it as our golden opportunity to teach them a lesson (“Make sure you say sorry.” “Now you try it, like this.” “You see?”).

I now see our adult-words with young children as akin to gas in a fuel tank: you have a finite supply before you hit empty, and, what’s more, we don’t always need to be driving – sometimes we should just pull to the side of the road, roll down the window, and enjoy the view. Use your words sparingly around children so that they last – if you talk too much, they simply stop listening. If you’ve asked the question twice, asking it a third time does not make a child more likely to respond. You’ve just wasted your gas. This is what teachers mean when we use the word “intentional” – using our words intentionally, in specific moments and with specific purpose, knowing that a garden-hose approach just doesn’t work, spraying words everywhere.

When you simply stop talking around children, it’s as if you’ve given them a megaphone. A simple nod and “hmm” is often all the encouragement a child needs to continue her query, extend her story, or elaborate her design. Having learned this by watching our students, I now enter our classrooms with a commitment to being as quiet as I can and taking up as little space as I can. I watch, I nod, I smile. I sit on my hands. And something remarkable happens – our students show me what they’re working on, what they’ve been learning, where their curiosities are. I watch as they overcome hurdles, deal with frustration, and incrementally conquer challenges. Try accomplishing that with a three year old by poking and prodding – you know where it gets you (“Let’s try it like this!” “What are you guys working on?” “Here, let me show you.”).

Children need us to recede, to bite our tongue, to twiddle our thumbs, and to give them empty space in which to work. This is deeply countercultural, as we are awash in the neoliberal trance of “more is better.” For our children – assuming the already-busy schedules we all keep in Manhattan – less is better. Less noise, less distractions, less stimulation. And yes, I am writing this as a school director: our children need less “teaching,” not more. Fewer adults telling them what to do, fewer moments in the day when they are exposed to adult inquiries and interventions. More quiet patience and empty space in which to ponder, tinker, and think – to roll down the window and gaze at the view.

Shabbat shalom,
Noah

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As we head into summer, check out last year’s Note on playgrounds throughout Manhattan.

A Note From Noah

I had the fortunate opportunity to hear NASA astronaut Barbara Morgan speak earlier this week. Morgan was the first teacher in space, and spoke about how when she first arrived at the NASA training facilities, astronauts would approach her to share words of gratitude for the teaching profession. They shared memories with her about the teachers that inspired them. Behind every good astronaut is a great teacher (more likely, dozens of them). The experience inspired Morgan to share that, "teaching is the most important profession in the world - and beyond!"

As teachers, we are drawn to our profession because of the good we can do in the world. We believe that teaching works – that if you pour love and trust into students, classrooms, and communities, beautiful things happen. People flourish, and imagined possibilities become reality. Students become astronauts and take off for the moon.

We, as educators, are motivated to thrive professionally because of our own unwavering internal faith in the goodness of our craft. Our desire to succeed in our jobs is predicated on that belief.

Which brings me to my point. I love hearing from our parents some variation of, “If there’s ever anything I can do to help out, let me know!” You – our parent community – are ever-generous with your time and contributions. As the year begins to wind down, here is my answer, here is what we need from each of you: words of gratitude, expressions of thanks.

I have my box of thank you cards in my office, collected during my years here as a classroom teacher. I am sharing three of them in this Note, to highlight for you how impactful these cards have been for me. The cards pictured here are all from 2008-2011, from my first years at the JCC - and they are still what keeps me motivated. All of us teachers have this collection, stashed away somewhere. Your words of thanks are the fuel that keeps us going, the warmth we return to whenever our energy is lagging, or our commitment is shaken. They remind us that teaching is not only something we believe in but something that actually changes lives.

Over the years, I have watched as the frequency with which parents write down – pen on paper – a note of gratitude for teachers has decreased. To be clear, I have no doubt that the gratitude felt by our parents is just as high as ever, but the same cultural forces that have brought us social media, instant gratification, and digital literacy have moved us away from the deliberate, patient nature of writing someone a thank you card. And so, I beseech you: take up this practice! Make it an annual habit to sit down and write cards to your children’s teachers. If you’ve ever wondered about a low-investment, high-impact strategy to strengthen your child’s school, you now have it. Know that these cards are well received, deeply cherished, and forever-motivating.

One day your child will fly to the moon - or beyond. Don't wait to thank the teachers who have mattered to them - thank them now. It truly means the world to us to be reminded of the impact we have as teachers in your children's lives. Thank you for taking the time to write a card to your child's teacher in the coming days.

Shabbat shalom,
Noah



A Note From Noah

“Wait, I have another idea!”

A small group of children from Room 4 were in my office this week, investigating how to store their bowling alley (yes, they have been building a bowling alley!) over the summer months.

They came to me with their problem (“We don’t want it to get ruined!”) and, true to our pedagogical approach, rather than provide them with an answer, their teacher and I prodded them with a series of questions:

How do you store things at home to keep them out of reach of your younger siblings? Where in the JCC do we already store things? How have you been storing it in the classroom so far? What will happen if your store it in the office?

We danced around these questions, listening to their answers rather than providing our own. And then, again true to our training as Reggio-inspired educators, there was a lull in the conversation. A quiet moment.

It is in those quiet moments that learning and growth occur. It is in those quiet moments that our brains are working, churning through the conversation, and ideating novel solutions to the problem in front of us. It is in those quiet moments that we have our new ideas.

And so one of the students broke the silence with that most delicious phrase for educators to hear: “I have another idea.” This phrase, and the immense cognitive work that it takes to arrive at, are precisely what will drive this student through a life of learning, through their entire trajectory as a student. This notion of coming up with new ideas to solve problems is exactly what our students need: in nursery school, K-12, college, graduate school, and eventually (!) the workplace. We never stop needing new ideas; they never become less valuable.

The trick is, while you can “teach” discrete content – seasons, state capitals, how to spell your name – you can’t “teach” how to come up with new ideas. This is where our Reggio-inspired approach comes in. A Reggio approach emphasizes two crucial ingredients which led the Room 4 students to keep coming up with new ideas: metacognitive skill development and intrinsic motivation.

“Eager to Learn: Education Our Preschoolers,” a three-year study commissioned by the Department of Education, written by 17 experts serving as the Committee on Early Childhood Pedagogy, and published by the National Research Council finds that:

Metacognitive skill development allows children to solve problems more effectively. Curricula that encourage children to reflect, predict, question, and hypothesize (examples: How many will there be after two numbers are added? What happens next in this story? Will it sink or float?) set them on course for effective, engaged learning.

Solving problems by looking at them, turning them around, and reflecting on multiple solutions: these metacognitive skills are exactly what our Reggio-inspired approach emphasizes for our students. You’ll note that this is written explicitly into our school’s Philosophy statement. It states that our school “strives to create inspired and cooperative learners…who can work collaboratively to solve problems with fortitude and tenacity.” I love that “tenacity” is included in there. This is what pushed the students in Room 4 to keep going, to keep ideating, to keep THINKING as they approached their problem. This is why you will hear your children’s teachers use, over and over again, phrases such as:

Why do you think that? What do you mean by that question? How do you know that? How else can you try it?

The other ingredient, intrinsic motivation, is what many of you heard me refer to on your admissions tour as our “secret weapon” when it comes to learning. The National Mental Health and Education Center puts it in black-and-white terms: “Children learn more” when intrinsically motivated:

A highly motivated child will stay involved for a long period of time, whereas an unmotivated child will give up very easily when not instantly successful. Children learn persistence when they are successful at a challenging task.

The students in Room 4 stuck with their problem because it wasn’t concocted for them by the teachers; they were not talking about an abstraction. They were talking about their bowling alley. They needed an answer because they needed an answer, not because their teachers had prepared an activity for them which they had to complete. It was theirs because the whole project arose from a stray student comment in October about a bowling trip from the previous weekend with his family; it was theirs because they had conquered each and every problem that arose over the past several months as they visited a bowling alley and then built their own.

So when we combine metacognitive skill development and intrinsic motivation, we get tenacious problem solvers who are able to not only learn discrete content-based information but apply that information as they go about solving problems. We get children who come up with ideas. We get students who are set up for a life filled with learning at every stage.

Shabbat shalom,
Noah

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See here for the latest from Tovah Klein, on “saying goodbye and celebrating school endings.” I always find her insights crisp, clear, and productive in our relationships with young children.

A Note From Noah

What a Field Day! Thank you to the many parents, caregivers, grandparents, and extended family who joined us for a memorable morning in Riverside Park. Most importantly, we used the occasion to donate our Penny Harvest to PS 96. Our $722.56 will be used towards their enrichment programs such as art and music classes. Thank you all for participating in our second annual Penny Harvest – start collecting change now for next year!

With Field Day behind us and End of Year Parties approaching soon (you should have dates and times from your teachers), we are excited to welcome in our two new incoming Parents Association co-chairs for the 2019-2020 school year, Blaire Cahn and Barbara Piermont. Blaire and Barbara will be picking up the reigns from Kate Kirschner and Donna Sheynfeld, who are handing over a strong, robust PA for the upcoming school year. I am excited to share a short note from each co-chair with you:

From Barbara:

When we first moved to the UWS over 10 years ago, the JCC quickly became a big part of our lives and we knew that we would one day send our children to its nursery school. In our first year at the school, we were overwhelmed by how welcomed we felt and loved the sense of community it created for our family. I am thrilled to be working with Blaire this year to continue the wonderful efforts of the Parents Association and ensure that other new families feel the same way mine did.

From Blaire:

The JCC nursery school is a special place—one that has cultivated a warm and nurturing environment that celebrates the uniqueness in each child and fosters self-confidence and a love of learning. For my family, it is more than a center of learning, it is a community of friends, a support network, and a place where values and traditions are shared. I look forward to working with Barbara and other JCC parents to make the 2019-2020 school year a memorable and rewarding experience.

Please join me in welcoming Barbara and Blaire to their new posts as you see them around. As always, our PA relies on volunteers – Barbara and Blaire will need your help in the year to come! Be on the lookout in coming months for ways to engage in PA events for the upcoming year.

And finally, we are excited for Special Visitors Day this coming Monday and Tuesday. These are always special days to celebrate and enjoy the warmth of our extended community.

Shabbat shalom,
Noah

A Note From Noah

Our Parents Association has hosted an annual series of PA meetings focused on social justice, stretching back four years. Most recently, last month’s meeting focused on “Checking your implicit bias at the door.” The presenters walked us through how micro-aggressions and implicit bias operate, and how we can critically self-reflect as we pursue justice in our daily lives. Last year’s April PA meeting looked at building an anti-racist community by “resisting the shush factor.” In prior years, the content of the meetings has included building a socially-justice-oriented children’s library and developing an activist stance as a family.

These PA meetings have also inspired an ongoing conversation among our teaching staff, who have explored the topics of anti-racism, diversity, and social justice in several different formats in recent years. This year, the conversation has led our teaching staff towards revitalizing our school library to reflect our efforts towards an anti-racist school environment. Alex Reynolds (Classroom 1), Lizzy Tepper (Classroom 4), and Alyssa Blackman (Classroom 8) have led a larger group of teachers through a process to diversify our school library.

Alex, Lizzy, and Alyssa, along with several other teachers volunteering their time, began last month to inventory our library to see what types of families, cultures, and abilities are represented on our shelves. As anticipated, we found that our library overwhelming depicts humanity as white, neurotypical, cisgender, and heterosexual. So, the group has begun to cull our shelves of books which share only this normative vision of society; this will allow us to step into Phase II of this project, which will be to re-populate our library with books which represent a broader, inclusive understanding of society.

Alex, Lizzy, and Alyssa share this about their project:

Several members of our nursery school staff have been working to overhaul our school library. This project is part of a larger school initiative in which our staff has come together to critically reflect on diversity and anti-bias education. Within these conversations, our staff noted that one step we could take to increase diversity and representation was through the books in our library.

Throughout this process, our staff members have worked to go through each and every book in the library, documenting books that particularly highlight themes of diversity or include a wide representation of people. Many books have been removed from our shelves in order to be donated. These include books in which we have several copies, books that target an older age-range, and books that have outdated themes. Our goal was to make room for books that will increase representation of different peoples, themes, and experiences, and we have been successful in this goal. We have pulled our resources and have many suggested titles with which we are hoping to repopulate the shelves. We are very much looking forward to this next step in the process!

I am so proud to work in a community in which teachers and parents are together grappling with how to address our social responsibility at a local level. At its best, a school community must live its values daily. I know that the current library project will bring us closer to the ideals we aspire towards.

Lastly, please make sure to donate any remaining change to our Penny Harvest! This of course is also part of our ongoing social efforts. The proceeds of this year’s Harvest will be donated to PS 96 to help purchase needed school supplies throughout the year; our Parents Association also sent dozens of backpacks and other school supplies via our drive this fall. The Harvest will culminate at Field Day, Friday, May 7 – so donate any change before then!

Shabbat shalom,
Noah

Please see today’s Note from Ilana Ruskay-Kidd, former nursery director here, on Yom HaShoah for a poignant perspective on our proximity to ongoing hate and anti-Semitism.