A Note From Noah

One of our parents told me last week that her five year old son woke up at 5:30am and immediately said, “Mom, we have to get to school, so we can play Hideout!” His PreK class has been engaged in a “hideout” curriculum for months.

This enthusiasm for learning is why we do what we do. And in fact, much of our approach is guided by a book of the same title (Why we do what we do, by Edward Deci). Deci writes that three crucial ingredients – autonomy, competence, and interpersonal connectedness – open up vast potentials for learning when combined. Deci spent decades doing laboratory studies with human participants and boiled his findings down into those three ingredients, which he hypothesizes apply equally to children and adults, and schools and adult workplaces.  (Deci and his research partner Ryan pioneered the research in self-determination theory and intrinsic motivation.)

Autonomy in this conversation is knowing that you can make decisions for yourself and that your work/projects/learning stems from those decisions. Competency means you are presented with environments, materials, and tasks which you can be successful in and with. The work is not too hard nor is it too easy – you feel challenged yet successful when working on the project. Interpersonal connectedness means that you are building meaningful relationships while you are doing the work/task/learning. This last ingredient is re-interpreted by Daniel Pink (in Drive) as “purpose” – the notion that your contribution to the project is not isolated or discrete but rather becomes part of something bigger, something meaningful. (Pink also re-interprets competency as “mastery”.)

Autonomy, competency, and social purpose are deeply embedded within the curricula that emerge in our classrooms each year. In the Reggio approach, you might hear your teachers describe an “emergent curriculum” which is “co-constructed” by the children and teachers together. As many of you heard on your admissions tour way-back-when, my fondest memory of this as a classroom teacher here was after I spent the day at The American Museum of Natural History with my three year old students, only to realize later that what really mattered to them from the field trip was the hot dog stand on Central Park West as we walked out of the museum. We spent the next four months creating a hot dog stand in our classroom – and through that project, gave our students a heightened sense of autonomy, competence, and social purpose. We build off of children’s intrinsic motivation – their internal desire to be a part of something – because children learn better when they want to be learning.  I watched as a group of boys learned to write, after spending the first half of the year avoiding the art and literacy areas of the room. They so desperately wanted to a part of the work that they were compelled to spend time creating signs and menus. Their work started as scribbles but ended as letter-like shapes, setting them up for success in PreK the following year.

All of this is why my heart warmed when I heard about our five year old who so desperately wanted to get to work in his classroom that he woke up at 5:30am and begged his mother to get going.

He woke up early that morning because he is a part of something – and being a part of something drives his learning. The “something” he is a part of has been driven completely by him and his peer’s interests throughout the year. His class has been talking about witches, traps, and hideouts all year, and the back half of their class has now been transformed by cardboard boxes, yarn, and tape into an elaborate hideout to protect the children, chock full of traps to (one day!) catch the evil witch. Along the way, the students have been learning how to make a plan and execute it, how to negotiate with peers while working on a project, how to navigate setbacks while working towards a goal, as well as more academic subjects like math and literacy as they create patterned designs, clocks, and signs for the hideout.

One of the joys of teaching in a progressive nursery school is never knowing how the curriculum will play out each year. Our teachers keep their ears to the ground, diligently paying attention to the children’s behavior, play, and speech patterns as they build curriculum around subjects that matter to their students. For a quick sampling, here is what our older students (3s and PreK) are involved in right now:

Puppets, story-telling, and good/bad babies (Room 2), theatre, fashion, script-writing, and stage production (Room 3), witches, traps, and hideouts (Room 4), voting, elections, and campaign (Room 5), dinosaurs, archeology, and using evidence to prove something happened in the past (Room 6), New York City buildings, architecture, and blueprints (Room 7 AM), springtime, animals, and cats (Room 7 PM).

While the subject matter in each of these curricular units is distinct, the underlying ingredients of autonomy, competence, and social purpose are all the same. In each of these curricula, children are engaged in work that is meaningful to them, that challenges them while showing off their competency, and connects them with their peers. When that happens, as Deci highlights, the child’s learning takes off to new heights. Through these curricula, our students are engaged in deep, authentic learning – most importantly, learning that they want to be a part of.

And so I leave you to ponder as parents – how can you support these three ingredients at home? How can you create an environment for your child where he or she feels autonomous, competent, and socially-connected? Both books linked above provide invaluable insights into how we might approach each of these areas, at school, home, and work. They are fun, surprisingly quick reads and make for good conversation fodder. You are welcome to borrow them off my shelf if you are interested. I would love to hear what you think about this topic.

Shabbat shalom,


Paternity leave: As a reminder, today is my last day in the office as I start paternity leave Monday, May 8. I will be back for the final four days of the school year, and then will be in part-time over the summer months. During my leave, please direct any questions you might have brought to my attention to Shari Taishoff, our superb associate director, at staishoff@jccmanhattan.org and 646-505-5737. You are also welcome to go to Dava Schub for anything related to the JCC in general during my leave. Dava is JCC Manhattan’s Chief Programming Officer and my direct supervisor; Dava can be reached at dschub@jccmanhattan.org and 646-505-4383.

A Note From Noah

Dear parents,

This Note includes three topics that I wanted to highlight for you. The first is my upcoming paternity leave, and the second two are “can’t-miss” school events in the coming weeks.

Beginning Monday May 8th, I will be taking a twelve-week paternity leave with my baby boy Solomon. I will be back at work for the final four days of the school year, to say goodbye and be here for the conclusion of our year together. I will then be in part-time over the summer months.  During my leave, Shari will assume many of the responsibilities of Director and will be your go-to person for anything you might have come to me for, including any exmissions conversations. As always, please reach out to Tara for any admissions or enrollment matters. I am proud to work in a family-friendly organization that supports fathers taking leave for child care.

Please see below for an overview of two important upcoming events, both of which I am deeply passionate about. These two events – Peer Learning Cycle on May 4 and Our Immigrant Stories on May 21 – showcase two of the many ways in which we are more than a school; we are a community.  By enrolling your child in our nursery school you have become a part of something much deeper and broader than the four walls of your child’s classroom. Our Immigrant Stories is a chance to explore the roots of our community; the Peer Learning Cycle is a chance to explore where our teachers will be bringing our school in the years to come. I would love to see you at both events.

Peer Learning Cycle – Thursday, May 4, 5:15pm-7:15pm, 2nd floor classrooms

A teacher does a lot of things. A good teacher is not only a “teacher” but is also a friend, counselor, judge, psychologist, mayor, artist, author…the list goes on. We hold our teachers to a high set of expectations and broad responsibilities – and at the JCC they always seem to exceed even the highest of bars! Yet, the title “teacher” sometimes obscures those responsibilities that are not strictly “teaching.” One role which our teachers have devoted themselves to is “researcher”, a muscle they flex through our Peer Learning Cycle (PLC). The PLC is designed to offer small, self-selected groups of teachers the opportunity to research a particular school-related topic throughout the course of the year, yielding fresh understanding on an element of our school. In a paradox of nomenclature, our teachers are learners.

On Thursday May 4th our teachers will be sharing their research journey with you. It would mean so much to me – and them – to have you there with us that evening. We believe that curiosity – that essential ingredient in all moments of authentic learning – is cultural and contagious. Join us for an evening of exploring our teachers’ curiosities, and share with your children that you, too, want to learn from, and with, their teachers. This evening is inspired by a statement by Dr. Robert Schaefer, a former dean of Teachers College, Columbia University, who wrote about teachers and parents: “How can children fully know the dynamism of learning if the adults around them stand still?” The PLC encourages our teachers to not “stand still” but rather eagerly pursue the exploration of ideas. We invite you to join us on May 4th in a community evening where we can all enjoy “the dynamism of learning.”

During the evening, you will have the opportunity to attend two half-hour presentations from different PLC groups. The full description of each group is available here, as well as which teachers are doing which group, if you want to attend based on teacher instead of content). Please RSVP to Linda at lsierra@jccmanhattan.org and indicate which two groups you would like to attend.

The schedule for the evening will be as follows:

5:15-5:45pm - Arrive, check in, schmooze over snacks and wine in Common Space
5:45pm - Transition into classrooms
6:00-6:30pm - First presentation
6:30-6:45pm – Transition
6:45pm-7:15pm – Second presentation

Our Immigrant Stories – Sunday, May 21, 4:30-6:00pm, L2 Auditorium.

Come celebrate the diverse global roots of our nursery school community! After spending months interviewing many of our PreK parents and children, this program will share audio and visual aspects of Our Immigrant Stories. Interwoven throughout the evening will be a perspective on Jewish history and values on the topic. This is our first time hosting this event and we look forward to this becoming an annual staple and part of the fabric of our community. Please see the event flyer here.

RSVP by Sunday, May 14 to Linda at lsierra@jccmanhattan.org. Please include name and number of adults attending the event. We will also be offering childcare during the event for children currently enrolled in nursery school (no infants or alum, sorry!). If you will be using this service, please also include the name and number of children for childcare in your RSVP to Linda.

Shabbat shalom,

A Note From Noah

After school today, two of our teachers are flying to Reggio Emilia, Italy, to participate in a week long international conference hosted by the staff of the Reggio infant-toddler centers. These are the schools and teachers which gave rise to the Reggio-inspired approach, which you have witnessed unfolding in your child’s classroom throughout their time at our school. This is an annual conference, and this year the largest number of educators ever are attending (460!). We are proud to be sending Alex Reynolds, co-head teacher in classroom 1 (2s), and Aida Mehmeti, co-head teacher in classroom 6 (PreK).

The Reggio-inspired approach is one in which the child-as-citizen’s voice is listened to deeply, and the school community is sculpted around what we hear the children saying and thinking. Carla Rinaldi (a progenitor of the approach) has referred to this as “the pedagogy of listening” – the more we listen to children, they more they teach us and themselves. The Reggio approach is one of deeply ingrained democratic values, where communities are constructed through meaningful relationships of all involved parties. Teachers, children, and parents come together to create the world they want.  Rinaldi refers to this as the capability of a classroom to create culture rather than simply transmit culture from one generation to the next. Learning, from this perspective, is about generation and not consumption.

These values and educative ideals have influenced our school in many ways over the past decade. Sari Lipschitz, our school’s atelierista, models her work after the atelieristas in Italy (Sari attended the conference in Reggio last year, along with Sarah Loeser in room 5). Our Journey Binders and Daily Reflections are inspired by practices in Reggio; our emphasis on process over product in the classroom comes from Reggio educators as well. Our teachers have also presented at Reggio conferences in NYC.

Throughout next week, our community will be able to follow Aida and Alex’s time in Reggio Emilia through the Common Space bulletin board, which we will update daily with pictures and information about what they are up to. We will also be scheduling a time to Skype with them through a TV in the Common Space at drop off one morning.

Our journey as a Reggio-inspired school is a dynamic one, always shifting in response to our curiosities as teachers and researchers.  We are excited to see how this trip inspires Alex and Aida and what new ideas and approaches they bring back from their travels.

Shabbat shalom,

Life's a journey not a destination, right?

Yet as New Yorkers, we often lose site of the journey and are so pre-occupied with the destination. We are upset when the train is late, when the cab takes a less-then-ideal route, and when that person in front of us just isn’t walking fast enough! We enroll our child in the right nursery school so they will get into the right kindergarten so they will get into the right college. The destination seems to be, often and unwittingly, obscuring the journey.

As early child educators, we are privy to the world’s best reminders to enjoy the journey and let the destination arrive when it may – your children! Watching one of our infant younger-siblings in the Common Space today I was reminded of the young child’s ability to find such joy and exuberance in the small moments. He was gleefully army-crawling across our recently-buffed tile floor, scotching along at a rapid pace. He and his caregiver had arrived early for the big siblings pick up. Rather than wait idly by, the infant made life beautiful. And suddenly a small crowd of us – caregivers, teachers, and parents –were watching joyfully as he wriggled his way around the floor.

Earlier this week, the New York Times had a brief and humorous, yet insightful, article in the Travel section highlighting the author’s realization that her three year old son actually enjoys the waiting time (and incessant delays) at airports (read the article!). This was our infant on the Common Space floor – he wasn’t early for picking up his big sister, he was perfectly on-time for enthusiastic crawling. Earlier this week, picking up Jonah from daycare, we entered the 96th street train station and I audibly groaned as I saw the ticker read five minutes until our train would arrive. Jonah asked me why I groaned - and I felt so silly explaining that I was upset we had to wait a whole five minutes. I mean, who is the three year old here?! Impervious to the adult-perceived deleterious effects of waiting a few minutes, Jonah smiled and looked around the train station. He was soon bubbling over with questions and observations about just about everything he saw. Lesson learned, dad – waiting for the train is just a good opportunity to learn about the world.

This has come up recently in my course this semester at Teachers College (I am working towards and EdD there). 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 our 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. Just like the three year old in the airport, 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 gosh darn 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.

Shabbat shalom,

A Note From Noah

On Monday, February, 7th, two swastikas were carved into the door of the Fourth Universalist Church (DNA.info article). The church sits right around the corner from us, on Central Park West at 76th street. Rabbi Joy Levitt, our executive director at JCC Manhattan, reached out to Reverend Vogel, the senior minister at the church, who invited us to join at the Interfaith Solidarity Vigil the church will be hosting this Friday, March 10, 5:30-6:30pm (details here; speakers include, among others, former nursery parent Rabbi Marc Margolius and Borough President Gale Brewer). We are sharing information about the vigil with members of our JCC community, as we believe it is important to stand with our neighbors in solidarity against the rise in anti-Semitic and hate crimes our city is witnessing.

Last week, we hosted Nancy Kaplan from the Anti-Defamation League for a parent chat in my office. Nancy and Jean Schreiber facilitated a conversation with several of our parents about how to promote an anti-bias attitude in our children and communities, and how to respond when our children are exposed to acts of anti-Semitism, racism, and bigotry. Many parents who could not attend the talk requested notes from the morning; sharing the above invitation for the March 10 vigil seems the right opportunity to offer these notes.

Nancy encouraged us to ask our children (and ourselves), “What can you do, in your space, every day, to be the type of role model that you want to be?” We spoke about how each of us has the power in “our space” to promote acts of kindness, to strive to create the world you want, and to show your children that their words and actions matter. Nancy urged us to tell our children that, “even as a young child, you do have power. Be powerful in your circle.” I found this line so meaningful, and particularly resonant in the context of a Reggio-inspired school.  Our children flex their power in a democratic society every day in our classrooms, as they discuss and debate the details of classroom life: Who gets to be the line-leader? Why do you get to use the paints and I don’t? How do we share playdo? These questions, and how our children navigate them, really do matter. These questions are where meaningful education takes place.

We spoke with Nancy about showing children their power rather than our despair; about “keeping adult thoughts at the adult level” yet impressing upon children that when they see something wrong, they should stand up and say it.  Our children might be troubled, scared, or confused if we choose to share the depth of anguish that swastikas on a church door bring us; instead, they benefit from seeing us, their role models, standing proudly together and saying “no” to such hateful acts. Nancy drilled in on the nuanced yet significant difference between these two reactions.

Lastly, Nancy shared three important ideas for parents interested in raising strong, resilient Jewish children in spite of anti-Semitic actions: (1) Instill a sense of Jewish pride; (2) Show them that being Jewish in your life is a really important thing; (3) Teach them that we stand up for people who are marginalized.  

For each of these points, I keep going back to the upcoming holiday of Purim and the story of Esther. In my Purim Note last year, I wrote that “Our JCC is a place where religion is used as a vehicle with which to access values, and through Purim we have accessed the power of our children. They can scare away the boogeyman, shaking their groggers at Haman; they can stand up for themselves as Vashti and Esther did; they can take action for their community in times of need, as Esther and Mordechai did.  Purim reminds us to not shy away from evil or hide from a challenge but to step forward bravely, to find the Esther in our hearts that cares deeply about the well-being of our neighbors.”

Those ideas will always be at the heart of a Jewish community.

There are many ways of doing this – of standing up proudly, of being the role model you want your children to see. This year we saw Sandra Brudnick, Amy Kessler, and Ilona Coleman each deliver a heartfelt d’var Torah at PA meetings; we saw our students band together for bake sales and drives to benefit those who have less than they do; and this Friday we are looking forward to our first ever nursery-alumni Shabbat dinner, where 70 people will be attending and affirming that in life-after-nursery-school, their connection to Jewish community remains strong and matters deeply.

Whether you are attending the alumni dinner with an older sibling, or attending the vigil (they happen to be at the same time), or standing up in any of a variety of ways, I encourage you to keep Nancy’s words in mind:

Find power in your space, and show your children the power they have in their space.