You might hear this question referred to as “the most-asked, least-answered question in America” – and the more so, for our youngest learners before they are verbally fluent! When we ask the “What did you do…” question, we are (often painstakingly, and rarely successfully) prying information out of young children.
I wanted to start our year together by offering two tips for how to crack open the mystery of what goes on inside our classrooms with your children, keeping us away from the “I-ask, you-tell (or rather, don’t-tell)” paradigm that we easily slip into. I’ll offer two tips: use our Daily Reflections, and play with your child.
Daily Reflections are emailed by your teachers every day. Use them! Look at them with your child at a special time; make this part of your routine. In an ideal world, you could print them, so your child could hold them, crinkle them, draw on them, and collect them. In the real world, you might suffice with glancing over them quickly on an iPhone with your child while they eat a snack on the stroll home. These Daily Reflections will cover many aspects of your child’s classroom life throughout the year. Comment (don't ask!) to your child about the pictures and words – “I notice some children played blocks today”; “It looks like the class baked challah”; “It sounds like some of the students and teachers talked about trains.” And then – wait. Don’t ask. Don’t keep talking. (This part is hard for us New Yorkers!) The words will come from your young one. And if they don’t – keep waiting. They might come two hours later, or the next morning. When they do, take back out the Reflection, and your child can point to what they’re talking about. Children are not always ready for our questions or prompts, but they often circle back to them later. After talking about the Reflection, email your teachers – do you have questions about what your child said, or about what you see? Are you wondering how you can support the learning in the Reflection at home? Your teachers are here to help make this bridge between home and school! And of course – make sure to thank your teachers.
Play with your child, and **listen** to them. Children don’t “talk it out” like you or I might; they don’t sit down with a glass of Merlot and open up. Play is their social lubricator. Joe Frost writes,
“The child’s playing out is equivalent to the adult’s talking out… The young child’s play is a means of expression; skillful adults can learn from observing play, and can express children’s feelings back to them in ways that aid understanding.” (from his book on the history of children and children’s play, or borrow my copy from the office if you'd like)
Keep a few simple play materials (fancy, new, bright, noise-making is not necessary here) somewhere central in the house. It is helpful if these materials are plain and open-ended; in my apartment, we use old wooden chess pieces (pretending they are people) along with some odds and ends – small wooden bowls, empty spice jars, a mirror, a collection of buttons and tiles. With a young child, who perhaps has not been exposed to this type of pretend play before, model for them: “This is me, this is you, this is our stroller ride to school. Oh look! Here is school, and here are the toys at school…” And let them take over. Participate, but don’t lead. And remember – this is not “ask-and-tell”. Play with them. Stay in character. If you are curious about something in their class, see if you can work it into play: “And then we all sit down for snack” (and move the pretend people over to a pretend snack table). See what happens, and listen. They’re playing, but they’re not “just playing.” They’re telling you about their day!
As an aside – the problem with “themed toys” here (movie/show characters, or even dolls that are clearly boy or girls; kitchen sets that have food that looks like real food) is that the children loses the agency to project themselves and their daily experiences into their play. They are not in class with Superman, American Girl Doll, and Elmo; they’re in class with real people and a truly “blank” toy allows them to share with you more of that. Same for non-people toys; a simple, wood bowl means your child can tell you about the snack they ate, or what their friend ate, or what they baked – they are not limited to the visuals of the play food from the kitchen set. (To get started with some of this, head to Housing Works on Columbus between 74th and 75th and peruse the shelves on the back right – a treasure trove, and only a few dollars!)
As you try either or both of these, shoot me an email and let me know how it goes. Where are you successful, where are you struggling? What other tips do you have for talking and playing about school with your child? Let’s stay in touch.
Lastly, please see below for my remarks at Parent Orientation this past Tuesday. We could not be more excited to be building school together with you all this year!
So…nursery school. Here we are. But what is it?
A group of authors that our teachers read this week inquire into the nature of nursery school. I find their words instructive for our purposes here tonight, and I’d like to use one of their notions to frame our year together. They write,
“Early childhood institutions are socially constructed. They have no inherent features, no essential qualities, no necessary purposes. What they are for, the question of their role and purpose, is not self-evident. They are what we, ‘as a community of human agents’, make them.”
As a community of human agents. That’s us – that’s you.
School is not a product of biological evolution, like opposable thumbs or walking on two feet – it is a cultural invention. It is something we have created for ourselves; something that we dreamed up and have since deemed necessary. School, in this sense, is a manifestation of an ongoing cultural project, occurring over decades and centuries and across countries and continents. You are all part of that project – as students earlier in life and as parents now.
The culturally-invented nature of school shows me that we are all engaged in the process of creating school rather then inheriting school. Like it or not, believe it or not – school is not a static, staid object but rather a living, breathing, dynamic concept.
For a quick mental exercise to illustrate my point, and I’m generalizing about decades here, think about your high school experience – the collapse of the Soviet Union, Clinton-Lewinsky, Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men – ok fine for me it was more Britney and N*Sync – and then think about what your grandparents’ high school experience likely was, perhaps in the 1930s – the Great Depression, the New Deal, in between World Wars. Then think about what their grandparents’ schooling was like in their teen years – perhaps in the 1870s – American Reconstruction, industrial revolution, building railroads.
And again, think about the nursery school experience for the same generations – you, your grandparents, their grandparents. This time, keep in mind that nursery school was quite literally invented about a century and a half ago. Before that, it simply did not exist – the first kindergarten class in America opened in 1856. I don’t think they were talking about “kindergarten readiness” then. Early childhood, and early childhood institutions, bore almost no resemblance to your children and the classrooms they will enter tomorrow.
Examining history shows us just how varied schooling can be, how open it is to the influence of the people who inhabit it.
This is both liberating and burdensome. We are liberated from the constraints of what school should be, and burdened with the responsibility of taking action to make school what we want it to be.
Therefore, my job, as I see it, is not to give you a school for you to deposit your children into; my job is to provide support for our “community of human agents” – children, teachers, parents and caregivers – who together create a school and a community as the year unfolds. What we are about to embark on – beginning tomorrow and carrying us forward throughout the course of the year – is not pre-ordained. It is not scripted.
Rather, we are here to create something together, a school that is the result of human relationships, the product of action we take together. The daily act of creation – of creating our school community – is the result of authentic, engaged relationships between all of its members. With each action you take in the confines of our community this year, you create that community.
And so, when you walk into your classrooms shortly, they do not yet make up a school. They are empty, awaiting the necessary ingredients to become a school – people and relationships. As you walk into your room – as you inhabit it for the first time as a group of parents – look around at each other, at the walls, at the very air you breathe. What school do you want to create together this year?
What I have heard from you, over the past ten years and each summer as I sit down with our incoming families, is that you want a school that is full of love and warmth, a school committed to social responsibility and social justice, a school that teaches children not only skills and content but also empathy and collaboration. A school that is also a community.
My point here tonight is that these values and ideas – their presence in this school – are not a given. It takes us – you – a community of human agents – to bring them to life. And so, tonight is an invitation to all of us to enact those values for our children. An invitation for us to live the values we want our children’s school to embody.
When you are here at the JCC, when you are in the Common Space on the 2nd floor, when you are in your child’s classroom, when you are out on the sidewalk on Amsterdam: hold the door for the person behind you; say hi to a caregiver you’ve never met before; say thank you to your teachers; take part in a Tikkun Olam project through the Parents Association; get down on the floor and play with your child and her friends – and go out of your way to make sure the child sitting in the corner by himself is included.
Make our school the kind, loving place you want it to be.
Being a part of your nursery school community is truly a privilege that I treasure. As the year winds down, being a part of your community fills me with awe, gratitude, and joy. Awe for the capacity of your children to impress and surprise us with their strengths and creativity; gratitude for the teachers, parents, caregivers, and support staff who commit themselves to building our community; and joy for the giggles, shrieks, belly-laughs, and smiles we have had with your children in our classrooms and Common Space since September. Above all else, my awe, gratitude, and joy is for the love, hope, and friendships that your children have experienced this year.
Nursery school is a place where children learn to make relationships. You might hear many (many!) other reasons children attend preschool – increased independence, kindergarten readiness, 21st century skills, etc – but none are as important as learning to build relationships. Sharing, taking turns, asking questions, being part of a conversation. Feeling loved and giving love, trusting (and challenging) new grown-ups, learning where boundaries are. Connecting to different people in the community, empathizing with new perspectives, feeling responsible for the welfare of others. Knowing that your actions matter to others.
My first Note of the year was about relationships, relationships which at our school revolve around the capacity to Love and Hope. I framed this for you at Parent Orientation on September 12:
I want to boil down the year to come into two crucial tenets: Love and Hope. These are not platitudes for us in the nursery school community; they are the backbone of what we work so hard to build. By Love I mean the development of meaningful, trusting relationships built off of the capacity to see the godliness in the other, the recognition that each individual is a holy and special person, to be treated with care and respect. And by Hope I mean the nurturing of the belief that the world can, and will, be a better place, due to our active, communal efforts towards social justice and social responsibility. You will hear your teachers refers to this throughout the year as Tikkun Olam, Hebrew for “repairing the world.”
It is my hope that you have found those elements very present in our school community this year, and that your child has taken these qualities as part of him/herself. Being present with other people, and filling that presence with positivity, is really what it all comes down to for us. Your child’s capacity to build positive relationships, using the skills listed above, is why they were here in school all year, and it is what they will take with them as they move on to the summer and perhaps a new school next year.
Your children are not leaving anything behind. They are, in fact, taking it all with them. They are taking Love and Hope with them as they embark on a new chapter of their journey. I can’t wait to see where they place their Love and Hope, and the beautiful things they will create with them, in the months and years to come.
Post-script: For a focus on end-of-year transitions, see my concluding Note from last year
Returning families: I would like to invite you into my office for a half hour conversation at some point this summer to get your feedback on how this year was for you and any questions about next year. I find these conversations to be immensely helpful in my ongoing goal to strengthen our school community and ensure that your child and family’s needs and thoughts are considered and appreciated.
“See? My feet touch the ground now!”
A PreK student of ours called me over this week, proud to point out that her feet now rest comfortably on the ground when seated in a chair. It got me thinking.
This event that we’re going through, the conclusion of a year and the dissolution of a community which has profoundly impacted our children and ourselves, is tricky to navigate. The end of the year impacts both adults and children simultaneously; this leaves us, as parents and teachers, in the uncomfortable position of having an exogenous perspective on our child’s end-of-year transitions.
We experience our own very personal emotions around these transitions; yet we are ethnographers studying a foreign culture when it comes to truly understanding the child’s experience of her own transition. We can study it, we can track it, we can observe it; yet ultimately, what we are left with is our observation and interpretation of someone else’s experience. As close as we are with our child or student, as intimate as the relationship is, the adult perspective of the child’s experience is ultimately an etic one. I immediately and instinctively placed the child’s statement that “My feet touch the ground now!” into a path of growth, graduation, and readiness-for-kindergarten. But is that the same narrative she would have placed it within?
I believe it is problematic when we, as adults, overlay our perspective of the experience onto the child. We see ourselves in our children; we project our perspectives and emotions onto them. There is something natural, parental, and inescapable about this emotional projection. And yet, we compromise the child’s identity, voice, and agency when we presume that she experiences life events the same way we do. Within our own emotional turbulence, I believe we must find the capacity to seek out and understand how the child sees her own transition. Children are powerful authors of their own life script. I find that children, and adults, benefit when we listen to their story instead of read them our own. Where would the PreK student have placed her statement of “My feet touch the ground now!” in her own life story? What part of her autobiography would it occupy?
Pernille Hviid, a child development researcher at the University of Denmark, is part of a growing field which seeks to recognize and restore the child’s voice and perspective on her own development. She conducted a series of interviews with young children on this topic – “the child’s experience of her own life” – and found that the child’s perspective on school transitions is radically different than adults’.
As adults, we generally tend to believe that growth, maturation, and development grow steadily and teleologically forward. If we were to plot this on a graph, with Time on the X axis and Growth on the Y axis, the adult perspective would typically see a steady climb from the bottom left to the upper right. Some of our graphs might show linear growth, some exponential, and some step-like plateaus; but we generally assume that life moves in a forward, and upward, direction. We see that our child goes from the bassinette to the crib to the toddler bed to the big kid bed; from infancy to nursery to kindergarten; from sitting to crawling to walking. Upward, and onward!
Yet, when Hviid asked children to illustrate, describe, and map their life in a variety of forms, she found something quite different. Hviid found that children feel big at the end of the year and then small all over again at the beginning of the year. The child’s graph of her own life more often looks like a zig-zag up-down pattern, a series of peaks and valleys: a sharp rise from the beginning of the school year to the end, and then a plummeting cliff bringing them back down. The plots on the X axis march on with time while the Y axis plots are like chutes and ladders, up and down and back again.
Hviid interviewed “Michael” about his transition from nursery to kindergarten, several years after the fact. Michael said, “You are big and small, big and small. Last year in nursery, you are big, right? Then you get very small in kindergarten. Then you are big the last year in kindergarten. And then you are really small in school. So, you are big and small, big and small, big and small.” Hviid continues, “The data twisted central and traditional understandings of human development. To the researcher’s surprise, no child talked about development as a process where they felt bigger and bigger. They described a process where they got bigger and smaller and bigger and smaller.”
And so, our PreK student whose feet now touch the ground finds herself at the top of the peak, yet ready to slide down and begin again. Her feet have in fact long been on the ground – from tummy time to sitting upright to cruising and finally to walking, which must feel very “big” for a toddler. Yet entering nursery school three years ago, she found herself “small” again as she sat in chairs that despite their stature were outsized for her. Finally, at the end of her three years in nursery school, her feet are back where they were as a toddler: on the ground. She is big; she has grown into this place. And yet she is also ready to begin again: her chair next year in kindergarten will no doubt be taller than her nursery chair and she will again be in the youngest grade in the school. She will once again find herself small, waiting to catch up to the big people and furniture of elementary school. And in the distant future, dare I say, right after a very big high school graduation, she will find herself a small freshman in a big college campus. Big and small, big and small.
What does all of this mean?
It means that a child very likely understands the transition out of school in a very different way than her parent does. It means that the child’s view is not wrong, humorous, deficient, or immature; rather, it is distinct, important, and illuminative. It means that we would be wise to sit and listen, in earnest, to our child’s thoughts about her own life experiences, including this transition. And we know that sitting and listening to a young child means patience, often silent patience, until the child deems it appropriate to share or express her thoughts. We might not hear her voice on this transition until later in the summer, or even years from now. The child speaks her mind when she is ready, not when we are.
It means that our children will always return to us as small, just when we thought they were so big. Helping a child learn to share shovels in the sandbox transitions into helping her navigate the social mores of elementary school recess; packing her lunch for day camp becomes packing her luggage for overnight camp; pushing her stroller to nursery school becomes driving her to college. The seasons, they go round and round. Just as assuredly as your shoulder will always be there for her to cry on, so too will she always need you in those moments of being small in a big world.
It means that growing big and leaving nursery school really means another chance to become small again.
With love and appreciation,
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.
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 email@example.com 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 firstname.lastname@example.org and 646-505-4383.
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 email@example.com 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 firstname.lastname@example.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.