A Note From Noah

“There is all the difference in the world between having something to say and having to say something.”
So wrote John Dewey, Founding Father of progressive education, in 1915. 102 years later, his statement still guides our approach to literacy development in the early years.
I’ve used this space over the past three weeks to touch on cornerstones of our school’s educational theory: using curiosity as a pedagogical resource; seeing children as competent; developing emergent curriculum (past Notes are archived here if you're falling behind!). This week and next week, I’ll be moving into how, with those pillars established, our teachers work on early academic development in the classroom. This week will cover Language and Literacy; next week I will focus on Mathematics and Numeracy. Both Notes will include three areas:

-Overview of how our educational theory leads to academic development
-List of specific areas of learning for each age in the school
-Tips for following through on this at home

Literacy learning revolves around having something to say, in contrast to being told by a teacher that it is time to say something. This is a core element running throughout progressive education. Children do not learn to read and write in order to later employ these skills in meaningful situations; they first need to experience meaningful situations that call for reading and writing. And while in those situations, they need to be seen as competent and capable of contributing to literacy efforts.
John Holt wrote that to teach literacy, “start with something worth doing.” For my three year old students, years back in Classroom 8, “something worth doing” was declaring to their classmates which Peanuts character each playmate was. Dramatic play came to a grinding halt one day as several children, wrapped in fabric and accessories, took out notecards and scribbled down Snoopy, Linus, Lucy, Peppermint Patty, and of course Charlie Brown. They fixed the make-shift nametags to their costumes using clothespins, and were off playing again. No more confusion over who was who. This activity is repeated in every classroom, every year. Writing menus, traffic signs, instructions, tickets, prescriptions – all of these activities “worth doing” occur during play time and are intentionally embedded and emphasized in our emergent curriculum.
Lev Vygotsky continues this line of thought, as he writes, “reading and writing must be something the child needs.” Our three year old classrooms use name cards on tables to denote places for snack and lunch time. This moves recognizing your name from a theoretical activity (which we prize as adults but children do not yet understand why) into an activity grounded in reality - name-recognition is needed to take part in classroom routines. Likewise, when children of any age ask their teachers to help make sure nobody knocks down their block structure, our teachers ask the children to use writing materials (stored on a shelf in the block area, not all the way over in the writing area) to jot down a “Do Not Touch” sign. Literacy in this environment is a valued tool in the moment, not an abstraction to learn now and use later.
Language and Literacy learning occur as part of a long journey; nothing is learned in isolation. Each skill builds on previous skills, which means there is no clear answer to the oft-asked, “When will you teach my child to [write his name] or [learn to read]?” We babble before we talk; we scribble before we write.  The journey into fully literate students can be captured as follows:
Thought + Speech = Language
Language + Symbolic representation = Literacy
Our babbles and scribbles are protolinguistic elements, the first signs that thought is turning into speech and language is turning into literacy. Scribbling on paper with intent and meaning – is writing. Pretending to read a book to a baby doll – is reading. Both of these activities provide the child with the foundational understanding that marks have meaning, that symbols are connected to linguistic interactions.  Stop by my office and take a look at the frame above my computer, with thirteen samples of my students’ writing that trace the growth from scribbling to writing. All of the papers were “written” with meaning and intent.
This trajectory is carefully attended to in our classrooms. Several years ago our teaching staff wrote an in-house document, “The Developmental Framework for Young Children”, that outlines opportunities for learning at each age. Please note that the word “opportunities” is used intentionally here instead of “milestones.” Each student reacts to these opportunities in a unique fashion and each student learns these skills at his or her own pace.  The list below is excerpted from the “Language and Literacy” section for each age group; this is only a small sampling of a longer list of literacy skills at each age group found in the Framework. Following the list, I will outline some tips for using this information at home.
2s turning 3

Use language to express needs and communicate verbally with others

Begin to engage in symbolic play (use a block to function as a pretend telephone) with and without accompanying words

Sing and repeat simple songs or rhymes and finger-play

Develop a listening stance (sitting calmly to hear a story, stopping movement to listen to a teacher or friend)

Participate in group meetings for short periods of time

Explore books and know how to care for books

Use writing tools to make marks on paper

3s turning 4

Describe personal actions (“I am painting”)

Use language to resolve problems

Begin to use appropriate syntax, increase vocabulary and speak in full sentences

Begin to use “question words” such as who, what and when

Recite a familiar story from memory while pointing to the book (using the book as a prompt while acting as a “reader”)

Master directionality when holding a book and turning pages

Use pictures in books for information and to make predictions (“This book will be about a dog because there is a dog on the cover”)

Recognize own name in print and begin to recognize names of classmates

Understand the use of print for communication and begin to express an interest in functional print (print that they see around them in their environment)

Tell “what is missing” when one out of three objects is removed

Begin to use “pretend writing” to express ideas and thoughts

Begin to write some upper case letters (especially the letters in their name)

4s turning 5

Express opinions, share knowledge of immediate environment and world at large, and develop a narrative voice when working one-on-one with an adult, in small groups and during a class discussion or meeting

Differentiate between a question and a comment

Participate in extended dramatic play both individually and as a member of a group, using props such as hollow blocks, puppets, costumes or just imagination

Dictate invented stories or non-fiction narratives

Tell jokes and understand jokes told by others

Provide definition of words

Use more complex sentence structures

Identify and express opposites

Complete analogies (an apple is red and a banana is __________)

Interest in longer stories and/or chapter books and ability to follow more complex plot

Develop left-right and top-bottom progression of print in English when looking at books

Begin to develop phonetic awareness (letters are associated with specific sounds)

Attempt to sound out words by emphasizing beginning and/or ending sounds

Strive to communicate ideas through writing and drawing

Use of invented spelling when writing

Copy letters and words to create signs, labels, journal entries and other forms of documentation

Deeper understanding of functional print; recognize connection between a picture and text, both when reading and writing and drawing

How can you support this learning at home? You probably already are, just by exposing your child to a rich verbal and print environment.  Here are some ways you can heighten your child’s literacy learning at home:

Leave a small cup or container in your child’s play area with a few crayons and a notebook, note cards, or loose paper. Help them incorporate writing – and making marks – into their play. For younger children, you’ll be doing the writing for them – which is fine – you are modeling literate behavior; for older children, encourage them to start by just writing the first letter to represent the whole word and work your way towards inventive spelling (sounding out words, no need to get accurate spelling just yet). In our living room, this means we leave a few small notepads and a handful of crayons out next to Jonah’s play “muffin shop.” When he called it a “bad guy shop” in play, we paused briefly as I wrote “BAD GUY SHOP” and taped it to the kitchenette; when he takes orders from his “eager” customers for coffee or bagels, he makes squiggly lines in the notebook.

Emphasize “functional literacy” throughout daily life. This refers to signs, directions, lists, maps, etc. While waiting for the train, talk about the 1, 2, and 3, and get excited as the train arrives and you see which one it is. In the grocery store, bring a paper list (hand written!) and have your child help you cross of items as you collect them. 

Use techniques while reading books that promote “metalinguistic awareness.” This is the idea that books do not simply “contain” stories but instead include many components that together create a story. A few ways to do this:

While reading to your child, begin with reading and labelling the title, author’s name, and illustrator’s name (“The title of this book is…The author of this book is…the illustrator’s name is…”). Talk with your child about the idea that the author decided what words to put down and the illustrator decided what images to include. Stories don’t just exist; they are created through the choices of literate individuals. During the story, ask, “I wonder why the author/illustrator decided to use that word/include that picture?” You’re not only asking about the story, you’re asking about the literate people who made the story. 

Follow the text with your finger as you read (like a bouncing ball on TV captions). This promotes directionality – left-to-right and top-to-bottom. You know your eyes are moving in those directions, but your child has no idea unless you show them. After doing this for months (years!), you can start to ask your child, “Can you help me by finding the first word on this page? Where should I start reading?” For younger children, this begins by asking them to help you turn the page, learning left-to-right.

Point out highlighted print and tell your child that it lets you know how to read it. An example in “Elmer” is the “BOOOO!”, written in large, bold, graphic letters. It stands out from the plain font the rest of the story is written in, and alerts you as a reader that you should read this suddenly and loudly. This shows the active relationship between the literate reader and the text. 

Importantly, create a positive, intimate environment for reading with your child. Tell your child how much you love reading with them. Snuggle and cuddle while reading a book. Laugh. Hug. Kiss. Pedagogical strategies aside, children find success when they are in a warm, safe, loving space.

If you’re still with me, I’d love to hear your thoughts, feedback, and questions on how this looks at school or at home.

Shabbat shalom,

A Note From Noah

Our curricula emerge from the children’s voices, ideas, and passions. You heard me say this on your Admissions Tour, and many of you heard your classroom teachers expand on this idea last night at Parent Night. “Emergent curriculum” can be an amorphous topic to explain and explore, so I want to offer some materials to support what our teachers spoke about last night. Hopefully this Note will align with questions you may have left last night with – and we should all be asking questions! None of our work in the school is simple or linear; it is all designed to beget questions and inquiries. There are two links at the end for further reading on the topic as well.

A few years ago, I facilitated a panel of parents with children at different Reggio schools in Manhattan, for an audience of Reggio educators. The goal was for us as educators to hear from you as parents what your experience was like in Reggio schools. In that panel, one of our parent participants offered what I still find to be the most succinct and telling description of a Reggio-inspired “emergent curriculum.” He used the metaphor of a roaring river: children are the water, teachers are the banks of the river, and the curriculum is the flowing of the river.

The children provide the motivation, the essence, the vitality; the teachers provide direction and coherence. You will hear your teachers refer to this in Daily Reflections as the “co-construction” of curricular topics in the classroom. We do not simply “follow” the children, nor do we “tell them” where to go. We gauge where their interests and passions are through careful observation of play and interpretation of their voices and actions. Those observations and interpretations lead to planning for future class sessions – What materials will support this work? What questions should we be asking our children? What groupings of students are productive in this topic? What areas of the classroom should we be spending more time in?

Our answers to these questions are informed by our observations of the children at play, and through this cyclical process (observe-reflect-plan-execute…repeat) curriculum emerges – the river coheres.

We are now engaged in the muddy, messy process of bringing disparate elements of each class community into one harmonious curriculum (picture a river flooding the banks while engineers work desperately to lay sandbags, to stay in the metaphor). This takes time, involves false starts, wrong turns, and unresolved explorations. But eventually, as the year progresses, we see that one spark – one moment of wonder – leads to a strong, flowing river.

Metaphors aside, why do we do this? Why not just prepare a curriculum guide and teach the children?

Three reasons. Values, social learning, and intrinsic motivation.

First, when we only strive to match best practices and hit standard benchmarks in education, we often lose sight of our values. We are so focused on the discrete components we are teaching and the milestones we want our children to hit that we prioritize them over our values. Employing an emergent curriculum ensures that throughout their learning experiences with us, your children are steeped in a values-oriented environment. By listening to children, and co-constructing a curriculum with them, we are able to hold tight to our Jewish values such as wonder, responsibility, individuality, and community (these values were in your Admissions Tour folder way back, live on our website here, and are currently on a bulletin board in the Common Space as well). We are able to include our own values in our children’s learning environment rather than focus only on academic learning goals.

Second, we believe that social learning is the primary goal of a child’s nursery years. The ability to negotiate, manage frustration, develop a theory of mind (the idea that your thoughts are different than mine), compromise, cooperate, and build relationships – all of these are paramount in an emergent curriculum.  If those skills and abilities are not tended to now, we know that children do not have the foundation needed for later academic learning. “Kindergarten readiness” is not only numbers and letters; it is the ability to get along in a social classroom on your own.

Third, children bring themselves deeply and meaningfully to projects that spring from within – that matter to themselves and their peers. Children are intrinsically motivated (something I touched on in a recent Note) when their environment reflects their ideas and experiences. We know – as parents and educators – that simply demanding a child preform a task usually ends in frustration (on both sides!). Yet when we curate an environment in which children co-construct their learning, we see children eager to play and learn, eager to explore and teach (I wrote about the connection between emergent curriculum and intrinsic motivation in a Note last year).

While social learning remains our priority at all ages in the nursery school, we know that intrinsic motivation allows our teachers to embed academic learning as well throughout their play. Emergent curricula such as hospitals, trains, restaurants, and buildings bring with them rich opportunities for early academics – in ways that are appealing and meaningful to children. Writing (and scribbling) menus, x-rays, tickets, blueprints; counting pretend money, silverware, seats on the train car: in a Reggio-inspired classroom, these become not only modules for early academics but also meaningful components of larger collaborative projects. We are not writing tickets because we need to learn our ABCs; we are writing them because we are playing train. We are not placing silverware at each seat because we need to learn patterning; we are placing them because we are playing restaurant. By giving authentic relevancy to these learning moments, by placing them with a curriculum which has emerged from the child’s voice, we see children who instead of resisting these academic tasks are eager to accomplish them (I often refer to this as “activity before skill”, a topic I covered in an older Note).

As you might imagine, there is a lot to say and think about emergent curriculum! Please join me in this conversation throughout the year. I would love to hear feedback and questions from your Parent Night and this Note, as well as other thoughts inspired by reading your Daily Reflections.

For a deep dive into the philosophy and praxis of Reggio-inspired emergent curriculum, take a look at this NAEYC article (National Association for the Education of Young Children); read here for a much shorter and lighter overview of how learning takes place in a Reggio-inspired classroom.

Shabbat shalom,



A Note From Noah

What can children do? What are children capable of?

And the corollary –

What can children not do? What are they not capable of?

We’ve been led to believe that we “know” the answer to these questions.

We know what is “typical” for 3 year olds, for 4 year olds. Early childhood education is beholden to “developmentally appropriate practices”, a phrase which has gripped the field tightly since the 1980s when it was first introduced. These “developmentally appropriate practices” are established as “we first think about what children are like within a general age range [such as…] the number of puzzle pieces 4-year-olds typically find doable” (Kostelnik, p 20). For the most part, we see that this generally works – 3s teachers and PreK teachers each know which type of puzzles to put out that will allow their (different-aged) children to feel competent yet challenged. This knowledge lets us provide increasingly challenging environments as children grow; it gives us an “appropriate” roadmap for children to follow.

Yet, if we dig deeper, there is a problem here. Critical researchers within early childhood push against the notion that something can be deemed “appropriate” for wide swaths of generalized children. In this view, the “imposition of a standardized model” leads to “a standard childhood” (Burman, p 55). At a cultural level, when we expect 4 year old to behave, or preform, in a particular manner, they tend to do just that. Exploring how this happens (how cultural expectations translate into individual development) psychologist Michael Cole writes that “culture is exteriorized mind; mind is interiorized culture” (Cole, p 292) – children (individuals) become what we (culture) expect them to become.

Our expectations of “what children can do” leads us to develop a cultural environment which not only predicts their development but restricts their development. Further fleshing this out, our understanding of “what children can do” has led us to create a culture in which children are “isolated from the rest of the world and regulated through a controlled exposure” (Canella, p 30).  Perhaps unintentionally (or even perhaps intentionally!) as we have created “norms” for childhood (and we created these quite recently – the field of “child development” is barely a century old), we have “drawn every more distinctly…the boundaries between childhood and adulthood” (Mayall, p 3).

The isolation of children into places of “childhood” leaves us restricting the “culture” which is internalized in the child. It leaves children with a narrow, limited cultural landscape. Rebutting this notion, comedian Mitch Hedberg said, “Any book is a children’s book…if the kid can read!” (Yes, I did just quote Mitch Hedberg). When children encounter a wide range of cultural expectations, their developmental follows suit. Give children books – not just children’s books.

And so, bringing this back to the local level – you will see children in our classrooms doing tasks that we might not assume to be the work of children. Our school is not a place where we say, “Children can’t do that” but instead “Let’s see what they CAN do!” This is a place where young children pour their own water, set up their own lunch, clean up their own messes, zip up their own jackets, negotiate their own problems, and create their own solutions.

When we see children as competent, we do not remove hurdles from children’s lives but rather engage them in confronting them. Following Cole’s formulation (“culture is exteriorized mind; mind is interiorized culture”), what results is a cultural landscape in the school that recognizes the child’s capacities and promotes them. As the year unfolds, we increasingly hear children remark, “I can do that” or “Let me try”; we see children reflect back the culture they encounter at school. The child’s competency begs us to remove the “controlled exposure” that Canella writes about and instead give the child the fullness of the world – including the parts that we don’t think they are yet capable of.

I invite you to explore what tasks and activities the “controlled exposure” we create in childhood keeps your child from doing, and give some of them a try. Real scissors, real screwdrivers. Using money, swiping a metrocard. Setting the table, clearing their place. Carrying their backpack to school, thanking their teachers on the way out. Sweeping up a mess, making their own bed.

So, What can children do? What are children capable of?

Perhaps instead we should be asking,

What do we let children do? What do we allow children to become capable of? 


A Note From Noah

When your children first entered school, one month ago, the bulletin boards were blank, the paint cups were not-yet-spilled. The crayons were still pointy. 
Now, students’ work adorns the walls; paint marks the borders of our easels and the walls just beyond, and crayons are not only dulled at the tip but many broken in half, submissive to the young artist so eager to express herself she doesn’t realize how strong her fingers have become as she jams the crayon against the paper.

Our classrooms are intentionally curated by our teachers in a manner that responds to what we see as each child’s innate curiosity – a desire so strong in young children that it leads them to explore, express, explain, and expand. Curiosity is our chief pedagogical resource; the spark that generates questions, curricula, and learning. It is our national treasure, to be held close and steadfastly guarded over.

Curiosity is what leads our children to turn a beautifully prepared palate of paint into a muddy messy brown – the insatiable desire to find out what happens as I add another, and another, and yet another color to the ever-shifting blend emerging in front of me on the easel. Curiosity is what leads to loud crashes in the block corner – Can I get just one more block on top of that wobbly tower? And how about another? Curiosity is what leads our students in room 7 to be exploring sunflowers and room 6 to be exploring babies and pregnancy. The need to know – intellectually, viscerally, emotionally, socially – is what makes it all happen. It is the engine behind the beautiful messiness that is created in each of our classrooms.

You have seen this curiosity in your children since birth and have supported it at home along the way, perhaps intentionally and perhaps unintentionally. We turn our babies towards noises and light, and delight as their eyes catch sight of the phenomenon. We ooh and ahh as they first reach out and grasp an object, unendingly exploring it orally. We prepare new landscapes of exploration as we alter their toys as they grow, providing virgin terrain for exploration. We feed their hunger.

Alison Gopnik, a developmental psychologist, sees curiosity as akin to hunger in that she labels it “an evolutionarily determined drive” – she points to our evolution as specifically creating modern-day humans who are compelled – at a biological level – to seek to explain the world we live in. Nature compels us to explore and explain, so that we can respond and adapt to a range of experiences while generating understanding and order, thus improving the quality of life for our progeny. Curiosity is an “arousing experience, one that seems to compel us to some sort of resolution and action…finding an explanation for something is accompanied by a satisfaction that goes beyond the merely cognitive.”

The smile on the infant’s face when they reach the rattle. The pride in a nursery student when they do get that extra block on the tower. The utter delight in the creation of a brown puddle on the paint easel. These are those “arousing experiences” that “go beyond the merely cognitive” (but also have plenty of cognitive benefits). Our curiosity drives us to explore; our exploration leads us to fulfillment.

Edward Deci, a longtime leading researcher in motivation, pushes this argument further along and posits that this feeling of arousal, beyond the cognitive, in our moments of curious exploration are what leads to the incredibly strong power of intrinsic motivation. In decades of lab tests, Deci conclusively states that intrinsic motivation – which relies on the arousing capacity of curiosity – is a far more apt tool for learning and performance than extrinsic motivation, such as rewards, imposed deadlines, evaluations, and surveillance. Deci covers life arena such as school, work, and family, and finds the same results everywhere. Curiosity doesn’t just feel good; it is a productive tool for improving your results in any long-term, goal-oriented activity – such as the two-decade project of school that your children have just begun.

You will hear about “being curious” from your classroom teachers throughout the year, and you will see its effects daily in your child’s classroom. You may have heard me state on your admissions tour that “our teachers are question-askers, not question-answerers.” Every question we ask, every new intellectual or tangible terrain we create – adds fuel to the fire, another log on your child’s burning curiosity. Curiosity is what will build our emergent curriculum, and is why each classroom will be studying not a prescribed topic (say, dinosaurs in November and community in December) but rather an area of interest that bubbles up from the buzzing, blooming questions children ask.

Over the course of the year, your teachers will share this process with you, via Daily Reflections and Parent Nights, explaining how we see your children’s curiosity as driving their learning and what we do as teachers to support this marvelous process.  I invite you to join us in this process, noting and supporting your child’s curiosity at home. Ask your teachers what your child is curious about at school. Share with your children what YOU are curious about. Give them ample time to explore a new object before you show them how its used. Join them in the joyfulness of curiosity, in discovering something for the first time. 

Shabbat shalom,

A Note From Noah

I know there is strength
In the differences between us.
I know there is comfort
Where we overlap.

Those words are lingering in my mind and I can’t shake them. Shira and I made our annual pilgrimage last night, attending Ani Difranco’s concert on Bleeker Street (I know, I’m as shocked as you that I was south of 14th, let alone 72nd).  I’ve been listening to Ani for twenty years and she never fails to grip me. Ani sang Overlap, with the refrain above, to close the show, and it pierced the audience. It pierced me.

Your children are…bizarre, impressive, quirky, surprising, beautiful.

As the school year has gotten underway, and the identity of each class community has begun to take shape, I marvel at the way your children’s differences brings strength to our community. And I marvel at the comfort in the overlap between all of us.

As I have learned over my years in this job, at times plodding and painstaking, the relationship between school and family is a tricky one. Your role as parent is to serve as an advocate for your child – making sure that his or her wants and needs (and yours) are tended to. My role as head of school is to serve as an advocate for your child’s inclusion in a variegated, messy community. Those two positions are not always mutually compatible.

And so when Ani sang the lines above, aside from the obvious political tone they take on today (though it is a relationship song, not a political song), my mind was brought back to you, to us, to the school community we are building together, brick by brick.

This community is successful when we embrace our student’s differences as strengths. Our children are loud and quiet; boisterous and docile. Our children are quick and cautious; witty and pensive. Our children are right-brain and left-brain; scientists and artists.  Our children are mature and delayed; precocious and hindered. I could go on. You get the point. The different points of light in each classroom – the different ways in which each student sparkles – is where we find our strength.

And yet, there is deep comfort where we overlap. We want community, education, and Jewish values. Most of all, we want each other – to feel connected, to feel part of something, to embed our children’s lives with context and meaning.  The overlap is what brings us together; and being together is what illuminates the differences.

My hope for our school community this year is that we can use the comfort of our overlap to access the strength of our differences.  See each student in your child’s class for those differences. Embrace the ways in which your child’s classmates surprise you – witty or pensive, mature or delayed. This is the fabric of our community.

Chag sameach,
Have a happy Sukkot holiday,